Robinson ran through the forest, feet churning the sodden earth, mouth expelling drafts of hot air that shrouded his face and wet his eyes with tears. The fog that had loomed most of the afternoon finally descended, blanketing the gaunt trees in a gloom from which most living things had fled.
There were few sounds. The sharp intake of breath. The flapping of his cloak. The crushing of leaves underfoot. He tried to shut them out. The one thing he couldn’t dismiss was the thrum of blood pulsing in his ears—a rhythmic crooning that had become as familiar as an old friend.
Thirty meters up range, the tall mute kept pace, bobbing effortlessly between the pines, head snapping fluidly to mark his target and keep it in range. The longbow was strapped across his back, but there was no question how quickly he could retrieve it, or how one steady-fingered pluck could make the instrument sing its song of death.
It was the shorter mute who had gone missing. One minute she was behind him, and the next she was gone. A stranger in Robinson’s position might have dismissed her because of her size or sex. But he knew better. He had seen the mute pair hunt. Brother and sister, working in tandem. Together, they made killing an art.
Down by the river, a shadow flit between the trees. It could have been a trick of light, but Robinson knew better. The girl had gotten around him. He didn’t know how. What she lacked in speed, she made up for in grit. He could almost see her face—ghostly pale, those small, unblinking eyes filled with a determination that had never tasted defeat.
Only then had their strategy become clear. Hem in their target and push south until the tributary cut east. With nowhere else to turn, he would be forced to go where hammer and anvil would meet. Robinson shook his head in admiration. Their plan wasn’t exceptional, but it showed patience. And in the wilderness of men, patience was a blade with teeth.
At the top of the next ridge, Robinson paused briefly to get his bearings. Before him, the terrain stretched out, rising and falling like the chest of a slumbering giant, an autumn weald split by a muddy snake of river, whose white-capped scales flickered gold with the final few moments of stolen sunlight. With the moon obscured behind the veil of fog, night would soon devour everything. Then he would be at an even bigger disadvantage. The time for waiting was done.
Robinson surged forward, taking care to mark his path as he sped down the hill, his boots crunching over the pine needles and leaves that overwhelmed the forest floor. As he weaved through the briar and bramble, he felt a familiar wash come over his brain and a sound like the far-off buzzing of bees. He pushed the sensation back. Now was not the time. Ducking under low-hanging boughs, bent and broken by a recent ice storm, he resumed his fevered pace, which always skirted to the edge of recklessness but stopped just short of crossing over.
With each step, Robinson felt the heft of his weapons striking against his burning thighs. That sensation had become an unexpected ally, and he wondered if he would ever again live in a world where their cadence didn’t provide a measure of security and, if he was being honest, a tickle of excitement. His fingers itched to wrap around their hardened handles. But not yet.
As Robinson’s sight dimmed, his other senses heightened. The rustle of leaves in front of him. The heavy musk of fear in the forest. And there, in the distance, the trickle of water from the brook he’d seen when he passed this way two days earlier. He now knew where the encounter would happen. The only question was whether he could get there in time.
Robinson never heard the arrow loose and only saw it when it sank into the tree at knee height in front of him. He knew, at this range, he was in little danger of being hit. The girl simply wanted to remind him she was there. He imagined her smiling. But if she thought her show might make him panic or stop him in his tracks, she was dead wrong. He picked up speed instead, leaning over to make his body a smaller target. He worried that if his quarry ventured too far ahead, he might lose all sight of her. Then the game was sure to be over.
Almost immediately, the clouds above darkened, and blackness rolled across the trees like a heavy curtain. The sun was gone. Robinson needed to put an end to this now, but the odds were still against him. One mistake—one misstep—could easily cost him his life.
This thought was never clearer in Robinson’s mind than when he traversed the next rise only to find himself sailing down a steep downslope that led to the brook. When he landed, the leaves gave way under his boots, forcing him to pitch forward slightly. He held his balance until his next foot found an old log and the bark slogged off like the skin of a boiled fowl. He tucked his shoulder and rolled three times before he slid to a halt at the bottom of the hill, his axes already in his hands.
The forest had gone silent, and Robinson had lost his target. He breathed steadily in through his nose and out through his mouth, careful to keep the sound to the minimum.
Robinson remained there, on one knee, his eyes narrowed for any sign of movement in the darkness. The time seemed interminable, though it was likely no more than a few seconds. And then a blur, perhaps a hundred meters in front of him, where a copse of bushes lined the brook. His head swung left and then right. Neither of the mutes could be seen, but he knew they were close.
Robinson felt his heart pounding to get out, and that rush of heat rolled over his head once more. Again, he pushed it back. He scanned the vale floor, knowing his adversaries wanted blood just as badly as he did. And then, in front of him, came the subtlest movement of a branch. It might have been a draft of wind, but instinct told him otherwise.
Robinson pushed out of his crouch and was running at full speed almost immediately. At the same instant, he saw the tall one break cover from the rocks above him, his hand moving fluidly back and grabbing his bow. Before it completed its arc around his torso, an arrow had already been nocked and was drawn taut.
A splash of water drew Robinson’s eyes to his right, where the girl appeared out of the shadows, her mouth open, her eyes set, her hand reaching for an arrow. It was two warriors against one. Bows and arrows against axes. And yet, defeat never entered his mind.
Twenty paces away, Robinson saw the shadow in a furrow and knew it was now or never. He pulled his left axe back and threw it with all his might. The girl loosed her arrow almost at the same time, but it sailed wide and caromed off some rocks. Her brother drew up to his full length, taking a fraction of a second longer to release the cord, to ensure his aim was true.
An anguished cry tore through the hills as blood sprayed across the trees. The sound of flesh tumbling to earth echoed through the forest. The moment descended into silence, with only the running of the brook left to compete with the heavy exhalations of the dying.
Footsteps padded forward slowly, with no more concern for stealth. It was hard to see where the wounded lay, but the smell of blood led a path to it. Two shadows gathered over the prey, their forms faint and growing fainter with each passing moment. One of the forms knelt down, drew out a knife, and pushed the branches of a bush out of the way.
The arrow shaft shook undulated before finally going still. The squatter pushed the flesh back to reveal the arrow had hit the body center mass but had missed the heart, its intended target. It was clear why. A scratch on the ironwood handle of the axe had deflected the arrow’s blow. It had come a fraction of a second too late.
The tall mute stood and looked at his sister, sullen and bemused. And then both of their eyes turned toward Robinson as he reached down and pulled his axe from the boar’s chest, speaking only one word: