“Everybody dies.” Knees sinking in the dirt, Harlan waited for Bastard to strike, left foot jiggling in time to his racing heart. Today was Bastard’s expiration date. Harlan just wished the guy would hurry it up.
“I’ll cut out your tongue first.” Bastard’s buzzard-like fingers clawed at his side.
No doubt looking for the knife bulging in his pocket. Harlan hoped the fool looked down. He just needed a heartbeat.
“Save some for us, boss.” Directly in front of him, the two thug-uglies stooped to strip the valuables off Dennis’s corpse.
“Nice to know you care.” Keeping his eyes locked with Bastard’s, Harlan waited. His stomach fluttered as if he’d swallowed a dying bird. Come on. Look for your pathetic knife. You know you want to.
As if hearing the thought, Bastard’s attention cut to his pant leg.
Harlan flexed his forearms. A spring clicked. Movement whispered over the leather straps wrapping his skin half a second before warm metal filled his palms.
Bastard leaned to the right, catching his tongue between his teeth, and his hand disappeared in the deep pant pocket.
Harlan wrapped his fingers around the hilt of the knife in his left hand. With an upward thrust, he drove the blade into the soft tissue under Bastard’s chin and through his palate. Blood frothed from the man’s mouth then life blinked out of his eyes.
The enemies at ten and four o’clock paused.
Oblivious, the twin thug-uglies engaged in a tug-of-war over a gold bracelet.
The enemy at four o’clock blinked. Red flooding his lean features, he bared his yellow teeth and started forward.
Nice of them to prioritize his targets. Warm liquid trickled over Harlan’s fingers. Releasing the impaled head, he flipped the other knife, pinching the blade between his thumb and forefinger. He flicked his wrist. The knife landed with a watery splat in his left eye.
Shock slid over his target’s face. His enemy fell to his knees before planting his face in the ground and lay still.
His target at ten o’clock shook his head and lurched forward.
Well, hell. He was all out of knives to greet the scumbag. Guess an arrow would have to do. In one smooth motion, Harlan dropped and somersaulted backward. When he came up, the dead man running was five feet away. Harlan pulled the trigger as soon at the crossbow’s stock touched his shoulder.
The arrowhead pierced the man’s throat, stopping halfway out the back. He gurgled and raked his neck. The black fletching on the end of the shaft quivered before he pitched forward. Upon impact, the arrow snapped in two with a loud crack.
The noise caught the thug-uglies’ attention. Their beady eyes scanned the camp before targeting him.
Harlan leapt to his feet. They were too close for him to reload twice and shoot them. Besides, they might be too stupid to fall when they were hit. “Can’t stop and play boys, gotta run.”
Turning on his heel, he plunged into the shrubs. Branches tugged at him. Please don’t follow. Please don’t follow.
The thud of footfalls ended his prayers.
Obviously the thug-uglies had a death wish. Zig-zagging around scraggly bushes, he plucked an arrow from the quiver under the crossbow’s curved limb. Dropped it. Shit. He reached for another.
A sapling’s trunk snapped behind him.
Great, the assholes didn’t need to run around the plants like ordinary folks; they could plow right through them. His fingers shook when he loaded the arrow into the flight groove. It slid home on the third try.
Branches crackled to his left and right.
Sweat beaded Harlan’s upper lip. Well wasn’t that just the cherry on his day. They were trying to outflank him. Guess a few brain cells had survived a crushing death by their rolls of muscle. Now for the hard part—arming the crossbow.
Doubling over, he ducked under a low pine bough. In the darkness, he slammed his back against the trunk. Stepping on the metal cocking stirrup, he grabbed the string and pulled it into the latch. Setting his finger on the trigger, he cupped the foregrip.
Now he just needed a target.
His breath echoed in the shell of his ears. Where were the thug-uglies? They had to be close. Fractured moonlight lit the carpet of brown pine needles. But the nearby woods stood still. For such big guys, they moved quietly. Too quietly for his skin. Why couldn’t they crash about like drunks soaked in potato ale?
A pop sounded to his left.
Harlan smiled. The sight of his weapon tracked his eyes’ motion. All but one shadow writhed when a gust of wind shook the trees. He aimed for the circle at the top then paused and checked his supply of arrow.
No spares. Today just wasn’t his day. Killing one would not get him out of this fix. The spare would just hunt him down and rip him limb from limb. He needed one muscle-head incapacitated enough so his twin would stay with him.
Harlan didn’t want to end his night dead.
Lowering the barrel, he aimed for the widest part of the shadow. Another twig snapped to his right. He froze, processing the sound. His heart picked up tempo. His current target was closer and still—a golden opportunity. Be a shame to waste it.
His finger tightened on the trigger. But a chest shot wouldn’t stop the thug-uglie from chasing him.
The arrow hummed through the darkness before finding a home in his victim’s meaty thigh.
A howl reverberated through the woods. Moments later, the darkness creeping across the ground swallowed him.
“Quinn?” Shouted the thug-ugly on his right.
Quinn? What kind of name was that for a man who could probably crush a human skull between his hands? Lowering the crossbow to his side, Harlan flattened against the pine’s trunk. Bark scratched his jacket and pattered against the ground.
“Here,” called the shadows on the left.
“You get him?”
Hell no! Harlan was alive and well. A situation he planned to maintain for the foreseeable future. His eyes strained in the darkness. Where was the other one?
“He got me.”
Harlan held his breath. Quinn crept ten feet away from him. Light sparked off the oversized curved blade in his hand. Figured the meat puppet would have a big knife. He probably needed it to compensate for something infinitely smaller—his smarts.
“Can’t walk,” the injured thug groaned.
Craning his neck to keep the other man in sight, Harlan eased around the trunk. He’d backtrack to the observation camp, retrieve his favorite throwing knives then rejoin his men. The meat puppets wouldn’t expect that.
A cloud scuttled in front of the moon, tossing a black veil over the forest. No way could he move now. He’d most likely fall and break his neck.
Grunting and cursing followed the brothers’ reunion.
“We gonna go after him?”
Harlan rolled his eyes. Good luck with that. They’d never catch him again.
“Nah.” Quinn didn’t bother hushing his movements as his brother hefted him to his feet. “We gotta report to the big boss. He ain’t gonna be none too happy about the thief gittin’ away.”
Harlan stiffened. He wasn’t a damned thief. What these bastards gave wasn’t theirs in the first place. Silver bars of moonlight skimmed across the forest. Harlan watched the thug-uglies walk/hop in the opposite direction of the observation camp. He loved it when the enemy cooperated with his plan.
“This is all Thurman’s fault. He shouldn’t have tried to kill the fucker.”
Yeah, he should have offered me ale and bread. That would have been a nice change from the ‘I’m gonna kill you’ routine. Harlan turned away then stopped.
“Now that we knows what he looks like, we’ll get him when he comes to town.”
His grip tightened on the crossbow. When they put it that way maybe he’d be better off taking them out now. He mentally smacked himself. Of course, he’d be better off. But he was out of arrows.
They would live. For now.
Harlan ghosted over the spongey ground. Vermin scrambled in the underbrush. Overhead the moon neared the Western horizon. Retrieving his throwing knives had taken longer than he expected. Gold weighted his pockets. The Thug-Uglies hadn’t been too thorough in their search of Dennis’s body and they hadn’t touched their compatriots at all. Their loss was his gain. Well, not his precisely, more like Dennis’s widow’s. If she was still alive.
His thighs ached as he climbed the last ridge, and his lungs heaved from running. Once he gathered his men, he would track the ‘Viders in the soft ground near the river. He and his men could still free the tributes, hand Dennis’s widow the gold, then shuttle everybody north. Easy.
Topping the rise, he slowed to a walk. The smell of charred meat hit him first. His stomach shot acid into his mouth. No! Not his men.
They knew the rules.
They wouldn’t be cooking food or having a fire. Not when the enemy was so close.
He sprinted down the slope. Branches slapped him, leaving cuts and welts on his hide. They had to be alright. Gulping oxygen, he burst into the clearing and tripped. His knees dug into a squishy belly right as his hands splashed into a pile of cold entrails. The impact rattled his teeth. He swallowed the throw-up in his mouth and glanced back.
Johnson. Not even old enough to shave. Liberated on Harlan’s raid two years back.
Shaking off the globs sticking to his fingers, he rose to his feet and skulked deeper into the camp.
A severed arm lay next to a bloody lean-to. The scar tissue over the missing pinky finger seemed almost obscene. Hernandez. A wily ol’ coot missing most of his teeth and now divided into six pieces. Liberated four years ago.
Staked over a smoldering fire a body smoked. New boots shone from the untouched feet. Garcia. His mouth opened in a silent scream. Wife, three kids stolen by the ‘Viders three years ago.
Harlan closed the dead man’s eyes before walking on.
Cooke lay beyond Garcia wearing a blood bib from a sliced throat. Flesh boiled off his hands, stewing in a greasy pot of water.
Metal girded Harlan’s chest. He picked a path through his men’s belongings, searching for the last one. Maybe Frost had escaped. He’d been at Harlan’s side for ten years now, searching for his own stolen family. Frost was cunning, smart. If anyone could survive this ambush, he could.
Please. Please. Please. Beyond a second lean-to, Harlan caught a flash of pale skin. His stomach dropped.
Frost swung from a pine branch. Naked. Gutted. Genitals mutilated. Wire cut deep into his neck, nearly severing his head.
Fists clenched. Muscles shaking, Harlan dropped to his knees. His jaw dropped and he screamed his rage silently at the night. God. The universe. Hot liquid streaked his cheeks. His nose dripped, tainted his mouth with the taste of death.
Later, when a rat darted out to sniff a corpse, he rose to his feet. Scanning their scattered supplies, he spied the shovel, staggered over and picked it up.
“Git!” He swung at the rat. Missed but the vermin retreated to the tree line to watch with red eyes.
“You’re not getting them.” Planting the spade’s tip into the ground, he stomped on the side and shoved the metal deep. “And I’m not giving up.”
He pitched the dark earth to the side and continued digging. Shovelful by shovelful,he repeated his vows.
He would find his friends’ stolen family members.
He would free his sister from the ‘Viders.
Marking off the shallow grave, he added a new pledge. He would find the bastards responsible for this slaughter.
And he would kill anyone who stood in his way.