Eric heard the sharpened tones of raised voices before he saw the men. The woods on either side rose up and framed the dirt-track road, so his eyes were instantly drawn to the group at the top of the slight incline he was walking up.
Five burly men surrounded two others. They outweighed the smaller party in both height and bulk. Each one sported a straggly beard and dirty, stained clothing, as well as a sword or spear.
Weapons designed for short distance encounter and close combat. Every aspect of them suggested bandits.
The other party, by comparison, consisted of a tall, lean young man, and white-haired elderly man supporting himself on a cane. Both were well dressed, and the Huntsman mused that he could probably buy himself a year’s worth of mead for the price of that cane. Nobles.
His suspicions were confirmed when he came close enough to hear the younger man speak.
“He has borne you no harm. Why, then, do you deign not to let him pass?”
The tallest of the five, with dark black hair, spoke up.
“Nay, ‘e has not harmed us outwardly, but our pride at crossing paths with such a finely dressed gentleman in these rags has been wounded. Per’aps ‘e would care to offer us some compensation?”
“What you are engaging in here is illegal. This is just a glorified looting.”
The young man glared at them intently. His hair was a unique shade between auburn and brown and fell into loose curls around his head. This, complimented by light blue eyes, meant that he was quite striking to look at. Even without the glaring. He seemed familiar from somewhere.
“With the highest respect, my lord, we had already engaged this man before you arrived. The fates’ design for you to walk this path resulted in your involvement.”
“My involvement may just be your undoing.” The younger man countered, his hand nearing the hilt of his dagger.
Eric could see that his desire to step in and help a stranger, though noble, was going to lead to a right where he was outnumbered five to one.
He could still turn back and avoid being a part of this, but for some reason he scuffed a few stones with his boot extra loudly as he walked, making all seven heads look along to him.
He carried on walking at a steady pace, making eye contact with the black-haired one, who was clearly in charge, to show he didn’t fear them.
The bandit turned to face the Huntsman; his eyes narrowed, stance confrontational.
“If you have any sense, you will continue on your way and put what you saw here out of your mind.”
The Huntsman was now directly in front of the other man. He slowed to a standstill, levelling his gaze into steel-grey eyes.
“I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do.” He replied coldly. “If you had any sense you would not have tried to do so.”
Eric’s hand was hovering over one of the hatchets tucked into his belt. His opponent’s own hand was at the hilt of his sword. The tension surrounding them was palpable.
The Huntsman had not always been so ready to defend others. But recently that had changed. There was just something about this young man. Eric knew not whether it was kindness, loyalty, or something else, but he was not about to let him die.
The bandit seemed to consider the Huntsman for a moment, taking in his height and muscular physique, before mustering: “Interesting choice of weapon. You would make a powerful ally, if you happened to conclude that you preferred gold over death.”
The offer was clear-cut. Eric made a small growl at the back of his throat. They were trying to buy his co-operation. Before the Huntsman could share his distaste at their lack of decency, the blue-eyed man beat him to it.
“You are unwise enough to try and best a man far your senior, and now you try to dishonour an honest man. Is your depravity boundless?”
Eric admired his bravado, but he had seen enough tavern brawls to know what was coming next.
The leader, with an infuriated snarl drew his sword and swung before the younger man, armed only with his dagger, had time to draw it.
There was a screeching clash of metal on metal as Eric stepped in front of the slighter man to protect him, his hatchet meeting his opponent’s sword. The Huntsman’s decision to defend the other man wasn’t an entirely conscious one; his body had reacted with his brain half a step behind. Now there was no option left but to fight.
The young man seemed to be thinking this too, as with a quiet word to the fellow with the cane about staying further back, he drew his weapon. They shared a brief understanding through a glance before charging towards the enemy, who met them wholeheartedly.
Eric was swinging and parrying, hatchets spinning, and he had taken down two of the five before he spared a glance towards his companion in the fight. Despite having a much smaller weapon than his two adversaries, there was a seasoned skill about his fighting style, and a look in his eye that suggested a desire for justice.
This moment off-guard, however, was Eric’s undoing. The leader sprang at the Huntsman and pinned him to the ground sending one of his hatchets spiralling away through the rough dead leaves lining the ground. They wrestled vehemently, each giving the other wounds from trying to gain the upper hand.
The Huntsman was on top of his foe, grabbing for his weapon to end their conflict, when a shout from across the dirt track that had become their fighting arena diverted his attention. The auburn-haired man seemed to be in trouble.
The bandit, as seemed to be his devious nature, took the moment to knock Eric down with a swift hit to the temple from the butt of his sword. Momentarily dazed, the Huntsman could do nothing as the other man pinned him down again. He raised his sword with one hand, the other wrapped around Eric’s neck, and then all Eric knew was darkness.
Coming to his senses was like wandering through a wood enshrouded with mist. His hearing seemed dull and he could only feel a vague sensation of the ground beneath him. Attempting to open his eyes was also difficult. Someone was moving around next to him.
Suddenly he remembered what had taken place.
Eric’s eyes snapped open and he shot upright, instinctively grabbing the hatchet closest to him and swinging it round so it was flush to the neck of the man kneeling beside him.
It was not the enemy he had been expecting.
The lean, auburn-haired man stared back at him, hands frozen above the wound he was tending to and pale blue eyes staring straight at the Huntsman.