The man's booted feet, which usually treaded silent as cat paws, pounded against the fallow turf with a noise to rival the sound of the blood hammering away in his sensitive ears. When he glanced back, he could make out the shapes of the villagers by the orange-rose light of the fading sunset, which glanced here on a broken glass bottle and there on, yes, the tines of an actual pitchfork, bobbing and weaving across the field in pursuit of their quarry. The occasional arrow fwipped by on either side of the man, striking the damp ground harmlessly. Their angry shouts grew faint, muffled by the night air. Despite their best efforts, he was proving the swifter.
The situation made Evarel Starshade want to laugh even as he ran for his life. Honestly, farmers with pitchforks chasing a rogue through the night! It was something right out of the tales he told beside tavern fires in the evenings. He hadn't done anything wrong, anyway. The girl had been quite willing. It was the father who hadn't consented to the temporary arrangement. Unfortunately for Evarel, the father was also the owner of the inn he had been staying at and this was one of those ancient little communities that lived and breathed by the words of a few influential men like the innkeeper. This one had proved to be a very influential, very angry little man indeed.
Evarel worked his long legs as hard and fast as he could. A short distance more and he'd lose the lot of them in the woods bordering the field. What light filtered through the trees would be plenty for his eyes—but not, he knew, for theirs. He ceased to look back and focused only on the scraggy ground ahead: dart left, dart right, mind the shrub! weave and—
The surprised exclamation fought its way past his lips. He stumbled momentarily, but picked himself up again and dashed on into the trees despite the the sudden biting twinge in his right calf. Damn! Some lucky sod with a bow had actually managed to hit him! Certainly it was sheer accident, but it was bloody inconvenient just the same. If he bled, they could come back in the morning and easily track him down.
For the first time since the chase began, the bard began to worry. Once he had made good his own escape he had planned to sneak back and liberate his few possessions. Now...
Evarel had no time for further speculation. He stumbled a second time and hit the soft, leafy ground with a thud as his foot, the one attached to the injured leg, caught on something large laying across his path. There was a cry of alarm—no, two: his own and the something's. Before he could blink, he was pushed onto his back. Now the something was sitting on his stomach, holding an eating knife at his throat and staring at him with wide, uncertain eyes.
For a few moments, there was no sound more immediate than that of heavy, panicked breathing. Evarel held his open hands near his head and tried very hard to appear innocent and unalarming. His face, round and boyish but for a fine nose and straight brow, was distinguishable even in the filtered dusk. There was plenty of time for him to notice that his attacker was but a girl of fourteen, perhaps fifteen years. Her long hair partially shrouded her face, but Evarel could see her eyes, locked with his as though looking away would reverse their positions. He didn't even dare to speak.
Finally, the girl seemed to come to a decision and rolled off him, though she crouched at arm's length like a kit ready to spring away. The knife appeared all but forgotten in her right hand. Evarel heaved a sigh of relief.
"Well, thank goodness," he murmured. "You don't really mean to stick me with that, do you? I—!" He cried out as he tried to sit up and inadvertently shifted his wounded leg. The movement jarred the arrow, which was still lodged firmly in his calf muscle. He didn't like to think of how it must have twisted when the girl pushed him over. Feeling the wound now that some of his panic was draining away was bad enough. His breath hissed through his teeth. There was no chance of getting up again, let alone running any more. Damn and damn! He was a dead man!
And yet, perhaps not. He turned his eyes back to the girl in desperation, and in her expression he saw compassion overriding her fear.
"You're hurt," she said as she pushed errant hair back over her shoulder and leaned in for a closer look at the injury.
Hope sang in Evarel's heart. Light be praised, now he had a chance. But he would have to talk quickly. Already he could hear the sounds of the bowmen as they blundered along his trail in the dark. He propped himself up on one elbow, keeping his eyes on the girl.
"Yes... yes," he panted, his breath coming fast and shallow to spite him. "I, ah... I'm afraid I made... rather a bad impression with some of the nearby townspeople, my dear. Tail end of a horrid misunderstanding, you see." Well, it was something like that. "The vicious things... they want my blood! If they find me now, I'll be dragged away like a carcass for spitting. Listen!"
The girl tentatively extended the fingers of her left hand toward the arrow, but wasn't quite willing to touch it in the poor light. She drew her hand back and tilted her head to listen. After a pause she looked probingly at Evarel and spoke again.
"I think I can hear them. I didn't know there was a town near here," she added, puzzled. "What can I do?"
"Get rid of them," he pleaded. "Pretty young thing like you, they'll believe whatever you say." He gestured in the direction of his pursuit.
"All right." She jumped up, galvanized. "I'll come back soon and see about that arrow-wound, too," she said with more confidence, and pelted away through the trees.
Evarel noticed that she didn't make directly for the sounds of his pursuers, but rather chose an oblique angle that would allow her to appear as if she had come from the opposite way. She planned to misdirect them, then, he realized with a chuckle. How lucky he was to have come across someone so compassionate, clever, and impressionable! Why, he guessed from her last statement that the young thing fancied herself a healer, as well—and he believed she was. Something about her serious eyes and the determined set of her jaw at the last moment convinced him.
Any port in a storm, my boy, an inner voice commented.
Well, that, too. He wasn't at liberty to think ill of his fortune.
He eased himself back to a prone position with the injured leg drawn up and settled in to wait. He didn't like to think about the wound. He thought he could feel a trickle of warm, sticky blood seeping out around the arrow and crawling down his leg. Evarel could cope with the pain, but that image in his mind made him feel queasy. He shut his eyes and listened for any sound from the rabble or his new friend.
She was surprised by how easy it was to get the trackers' attention, once she found them, and point them in the wrong direction. Easy to seem distressed (she was) and easy to say the man was heading for the road. He might have been. How should she know? In any case, the two men seemed happy enough to abandon the tedious search through the wood.
In fact, she had nearly turned him in. After all, what did she know about him? He must have done something to get the townspeople angry enough to shoot him. She thought he must be some kind of thief except that he was dressed all wrong, he didn't seem to have anything but his clothes with him, and he spoke like a perfect old gentleman. The last in itself was strange, because his face was clear and youthful. He couldn't be more than a few years older than herself, could he? And then there was the fact of his hearing. Though she hadn't lied when she said she thought she heard the approach of the trackers, she couldn't have sworn to it, and she knew her hearing was very good. He, on the other hand, seemed quite certain of them. It was all very strange. In the end, it was the arrow that made up her mind. She had given her word that she would come back, and however scared she had been at first, just as she couldn't use the knife to hurt him, she couldn't ignore his pain. He needed her.
She arrived back at her camp and was pleased to to see that the man was still there—not that he could have gotten much further on that leg. He picked up his head and smiled at her before letting it drop back to its earthen pillow. If she hadn't known it, she wouldn't have guessed that he was hurting at all.
That was just as well. There wasn't much point in trying to do anything about his leg until daylight, and she told him so.
"I'll break the shaft, and that should give you some ease, but I don't want to take the point out until I can see what I'm doing," she said. "Firelight wouldn't be enough."
"That's fine, dear girl, just fine," said Evarel. "I wouldn't—er—" he winced as the arrow snapped in the girl's hands— "wouldn't want to bring those jackals down on us now, eh? Not when you so neatly dispatched them." He grinned reassuringly at her, and an answering smile started at the left corner of her mouth. "What's your name, girl?" he asked through a laugh. "Might as well know each other's names if we're going to be stuck together awhile." He would need her help even after she mended his leg. She didn't need to know that just yet, though.
"Jennifer Robinson," she replied, beginning to feel at ease with this strange, merry fellow. "And you, sir?"
He chuckled again. "Aye, I'm older than I look, but I'm no sir. They call me Evarel, and I would bow if I could, for I feel that I shall be very much at your service when this is over. I believe it goes without saying that I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Jennifer Robinson!"
She had to agree that he was very lucky to have... well, stumbled across her, of all people, though she said nothing to that effect. In fact she was silent as she inched her way across the small campsite to her rumpled bedroll. She straightened it out and disengaged the blanket so that she could give it to Evarel. It was the least she could do for him at the moment, and she could cover up with her cloak. He thanked her eloquently. Her reply was a small smile as she settled to a seat on the bedroll, her knees drawn up for comfort and warmth. She didn't know what else to do, but the man certainly felt that all was well, for to Jenni's amazement, he shut his eyes and promptly fell asleep.