Brita overlooked the forest road, listening for the approach of the noble’s carriage. She heard movement far behind her but ignored it – it was probably just the other girls getting into position. None of them were ever quiet enough and she grinned at the occasional scrapings and crackings they made as they settled in. The soft sunlight warmed her hood and the breeze tossed her curls around as she leaned against a tree, wondering who the target was this time. Some rich old man? Certainly he was old enough to have accumulated enemies, she thought. She drew an arrow from her quiver as she waited, noting the heads of several other girls on the lower side of the road.
The Huntresses were spreading half a dozen archers on each side. Though they were outlawed in every one of the nine Little Kingdoms, this was an “official” job, paid in cash up front. So long as the nobleman died and so long as the border wars continued, there would be more such jobs. In addition, the captain who visited their camp had promised them a free hand with the booty. Jenna, their leader, had liked that quite a bit.
The target approached behind the corner to her left. Though she could not yet see his carriage, Brita heard several pairs of horses – very heavy horses – trotting. She wondered if they would have to shoot the valuable beasts. Probably not, she decided, so long as the noble wasn’t well hidden in his carriage. She hoped he wasn’t. Everyone should be outdoors on a glorious morning like this, she thought, including the man she didn’t really want to kill.
Since Jenna’s ascension to leadership, the Huntresses had been transformed from a wandering band of lost women who lived off the land and petty holdups into an effective, if small, fighting unit – another band of brigands who haunted the wooded highways of the Little Kingdoms. Though most of the Huntresses pined for the quiet days before pillage became their primary focus, none of them stood up to Jenna. Brita was silently ashamed of the fact, but put it out of her mind as she watched the fluttering leaves of early autumn. They were as red as her hair. Mother always said they were nature’s way of honoring her.
She heard a shouted command from down the road. The horses pitched into a gallop. Had they been spotted? Impossible, she told herself. She could not see the carriage yet, but a nervous ball began to grow inside her. She held her bow at arm’s length so her falling sweat would not wet the string. Behind her, the forest quieted at the noisy approach.
Suddenly four horses burst into view. There was no carriage: these were dragoons, and the man shouting commands from the road was the self-professed captain who hired the Huntresses for this job. The movement behind her started again just as Jenna’s panicked voice signaled a retreat.
Brita quickly returned her arrow to its quiver and ducked into the forest. The hums of arrows and heavy bolts were followed by the screams of both men and women. The voices faded away behind her as she snuck through the brush.
She crept along the edge of a clearing, keeping well within the heavy cover. Her horse waited on the other side, but she dared not risk the open country. As Brita’s booted feet led her silently between the trees, a branch broke to her left. She froze, then crouched in the heavy brush. Then she heard another crack, a louder one, behind her. She was prepared to make a run when a large hand gripped her shoulder.
“That’s far enough, Miss,” a man said. He was dressed in brown and wore the soft boots of a woodsman or a trapper. His beard fell heavily over his chest and as he lowered his crossbow, Brita detected sorrow in his eyes.
“Just shoot her and be done with it,” ordered a second voice. This one came from a soldier who rose out of the tall grass of the clearing.
“I’d sooner shoot you,” the woodsman replied, pointing his crossbow at the armored man. “This one comes alive.” The soldier shrugged.
The men secured her hands behind her back and hauled out her to the road. Two of the four original riders waited atop their horses. Green-clad bodies lay in the dirt before them – bolts grew like feathered saplings from their backs – while several soldiers groaned on the side of the road. The angry shouts of more could be heard from the forest.
Brita turned to thank the woodsman for her life, but he had already melted back into the trees. She always knew it could come to this. The life of a Huntress was often short, and the lost women who joined them either snuck away late at night or died in battle. Brita could not remember any of them dying of old age.
She looked up at the man who arranged the ambush. His eyes boasted satisfaction with the results of his operation. He fingered his crossbow as he turned to the man at his side.
“We got at least four, sir, and there will be more once the others return. That ought to put an end to this green menace. Maybe we’ll even get their fat captain. If not today, we’ll get her soon enough; that one’s as greedy as she is ugly.” Despite her own bonds, Brita was relieved that Jenna might have escaped. Whatever Jenna’s faults – and Brita did not consider “ugly” to be among them – she was a leader. The Huntresses would need her if they were to recover from the rout this cavalry had inflicted on them.
The second man, a nobleman dressed in heavy armor and a plumed helmet, nodded thoughtfully as his companion’s boast concluded. Rubbing his oiled mustache, he looked up from the bodies, noticing Brita for the first time. His eyes went wide as he leapt from his horse.
“Your Highness,” he stammered, falling to one knee in the road and removing his helmet. “Whatever are you doing here?”