The girl's feet, bare and bloody, splashed noisily through the trickling stream, and she nearly slipped and fell on some of the icy wet rocks. The forest blurred as she picked up speed, whipping past her as she nimbly sped through the wood, ducking, dodging, jumping her way past every obstacle. Gnarled roots jutted up at random, trying in vain to trip her, but years spent playing in the woods near her home had left her quick and lean. Dressed in naught but her shift, bewildered, she was at a disadvantage, but made up for it through a powerful motivation. The hounds' baying came softly behind her, louder and closer than it had been a moment before. Heart thudding in her chest, she focused on keeping her pace up, breathing rapidly.
Last night she had been cleaning up at the inn, a modest little thing just off the main road that ran north through the Hornwood. The owner was an elderly matron that had taken the girl in when she had wandered in from the road, half starved and bruised, an orphan of war or raiders or some other tragedy. The girl hardly remembered that, she'd been so young. All her customers for this night had been well past waking, snoring loudly in the common room or upstairs in their own paid lodgings. She had just gotten the bar well washed and scoured, and had been carrying the bucket out back to dump when something heavy had come down hard on the top of her skull, and the world had gone black.
She'd woken to a dim morning light, stripped near naked and in an unfamiliar wood. It had taken a few moments to understand her predicament, and through the haze the booming barks of three thickly muscled hunting hounds had pierced her foggy mind like a knife. Her surroundings came into sharp focus with the sound, and she blinked up at half a dozen lordly-looking types sneering down at her from horseback. The hounds were straining crazily at the ends of creaking leads, barely contained by their burly male attendants. Their foaming jaws snapped towards her as she felt a hot tickle run down the front of her face. Tentatively, she reached a hand up to wipe at it, fingers coming away bloody. Must've been from earlier, she thought absently, wiping more away to clear her vision. The dog's eyes seemed to glow with malevolence, their efforts redoubled with the scent of her blood.
One of the lords cleared his throat loudly with mock theatrics, and the girl peered up at him, eyes squinting in the early morning sunlight. "Hello." He greeted her jovially, a wolfish grin splitting his face, grey eyes glinting. He was smaller than most of the others, but dressed in fine black riding leather, astride a blood bay courser, black-socked and lean. Thick black curls framed a young, handsome face, but there was something about his eyes, his smile, that made her afraid. "Listen..." he said, leaning forward in the saddle conspiratorially, "We're going to give you a bit of a head start. It's only fair." His face was pleasant and reasonable, but the gleam in his eyes was predatory. When the girl didn't move, he frowned a little, "Well, don't just stand there. Time's wasting. Run." he urged, smile widening again. He reared his horse to break her out of the stupor her confusion had locked her in, it's black legs flailing menacingly inches from her face. "RUN!" he bellowed, laughing wildly as she sprang up like a rabbit, stumbling away into the forest.
The situation became pretty clear to her as she ran. She was the quarry for some sick lord's hunt. She had, of course, heard the whisperings about the cruel, flint-eyed lords of the Dreadfort to the north. A stab of fear shot through her belly as she remembered the look in the eyes of the man who spoke, and she felt certain that he was of these sadistic lords. Not that it mattered much anyway- to someone as lowly as her, he could've been the lord of a tiny hold, or even a landowning farmer. He had horse, and leather, and dogs, and she had nothing but her bloody feet and rapidly deteriorating shift. Panting heavily, she surveyed the area, starting to recognize things as she oriented herself with the rising sun. She had come up this far in her boldest rangings, and an idea began to take root in her mind. Spurred on by the baying dogs, she stumbled forward beside the trickling creek as it steadily widened, still so shallow it could easily be walked across.
The ground became rougher and rockier as she continued, and the creek had grown to a respectable size. She had been following it upstream, and finally came just where she wanted to be. A tiny waterfall stood in a small clearing, pooling the creek's water into a shallow rocky basin. The girl stared up at it, mind already picking out a quick climbing path up one side. The waterfall was naught more than a bit of water flowing over the rocky shelf, so she could still hear the hounds clearly behind her. Picking a meandering path back and forth across the water had bought her a little time, but they would soon be on her. She stamped around the edges of the pool quickly, leaving bloody footprints on the rocks, before sitting and quickly scrubbing at her feet, washing away most of the blood that had caked there, although more welled up to replace what she had dislodged. She plastered some broad leaves on her feet, giving a moment for the blood to stick to them, heart pounding as the hounds' barking grew louder.
Soon she was scrambling up one side of the falls, grabbing at roots and jutting rocks for hand and footholds. Her body ached, but she hardly noticed it for all the adrenaline coursing through her veins. Once atop, she shook out her long auburn hair, feeling around near her scalp to where she had woven in a tiny stiletto. The inn's matron had given it to her on her twelfth name day. "Thigh sheathes are useless," her mistress had told her as she helped to weave the tiny bit of steel into the girl's hair, "First place a man looks." She'd had just enough time to bite the stiletto between her teeth and heft a large rock when the first dog skidded to a halt at the base of the falls, nose to the ground with rapt concentration. The second quickly followed, but not the third. Thank the gods, the girl thought, the third must've gotten lost. Knowing she wouldn't have much time before it caught up with it's fellows, she raised the rock and widened her stance, staring down intently at the snuffling dogs. As one passed directly beneath her, she sprang, letting loose a strangled cry of rage as she landed heavily on top of the hound, rock smashing down directly on the beast's head. She heard a satisfying crunch and the dog went limp beneath her, it's thick body breaking most of her fall. Shaken, she stumbled off the inert body of the first dog, clumsily transferring the shank from her mouth to her hand. She looked up just in time to see the other hound rushing forward, teeth bared in a vicious snarl. Noticing the thick leather collar, she reached out an arm at the same time as the dog leapt for her throat, turning her body out of the way and hooking a hand underneath the collar. Rough claws scratched her arms and chest, but she brought the stiletto up with the other hand and drove it deep into the hound's neck, digging and twisting to ensure she'd gotten a killing blow. The dog howled and screamed, and she fell with it, driven down by it's immense weight. Blood soaked her, and the dog still snapped weakly at her face. She locked her arms and used all her strength to keep it from biting her as the dog's life ebbed away with it's blood, out the wound and into the pool. Panting, she withdrew the stiletto, rising wearily up from the dead hound, swaying, just as the third came into the clearing.
Glinting black eyes regarded her cooly. She felt bruised all over, but took a stance as the dog stared at the bodies of it's pack mates. It seemed to regard her with new respect as she stood before it, splattered and soaked all over with hound blood. Head low, it's eyes never left her face as it padded in a slow circle around her, coming closer. Her sharp eyes detected the moment it tensed, muscles bunching, readying itself to strike. She grasped the bloody stiletto as it leapt in, white jaws flashing so fast she hardly saw them. Teeth like a thousand daggers bit deeply into her forearm where she blocked the dog, it's jaws like iron as they clamped down hard and with an air of finality. She pulled the dog about, screaming as her own struggles tore flesh and muscle, and she thought that surely her bones would bear grooves from this dog's teeth forevermore. With a triumphant scream, she drove the stiletto up, through the hound's black stone eye, up into it's brain. The thing gave a shudder, and went limp, sinking to the ground, it's other eye gone dull and lifeless. She fell with it again, it's jaws still clamped tightly on her arm, not releasing even in death. Tears streamed down her face as she worked to pry it's still-warm jaws open, clamping a hand over the bloody ruin of her forearm as blood pooled and dripped from the deep gashes there. She stood, bloody, wet, covered in mud, just as a horse galloped into the clearing where the dogs had come from.
The lordling reared up his red stallion, surveying the scene before him with hard eyes. A furious scowl darkened his face as his cold gaze flicked from the bodies of his hounds to the bloody girl, swaying there in the pool of dark water, hand clamped on a nasty-looking bite. The stiletto glittered on the stones where she'd dropped it, bright red blood stark in the morning light. She could hardly stand, dizzy from blood loss, hardly seeming to see anything before her. The lord's hand twitched and clenched into a fist, so tempted was he to finish the job and avenge his fallen hounds. She watched dully as he scowled down at her, until a considering look crossed his face that turned into a rakish grin, wide and radiant, although his eyes held the same furious malevolence they had a moment before. His jaw worked, clenching even as he grinned, and he turned his horse back round just as she began to fall. The world went dim, distant, and finally black. She heard his words to the other horsemen as if from a great distance.
It was a long while before she woke again. She lay on hard stone cobble, and it was very dark. Her ruined shift had been replaced with a shapeless long tunic of dark roughspun, scratchy and unflattering. She noticed with some embarassment that she had no undergarments of any sort, and the tunic was not so long that her modesty would be saved if she bent the wrong way. She felt heavy all over, and her probing fingers felt with dull surprise that her bite had been tended and dressed by someone while she slept. As she moved, something cold and heavy clinked at her throat. With quiet horror, she felt around her neck at the iron collar that had been welded there. She felt for a catch, an opening, but her fingers felt only smooth metal all the way around, a small O-ring jingling at the front of it. Her eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness, and she peered around at the rough stone walls. Three stone walls, and in front of her was a tall metal gate, iron bars reaching up floor to ceiling. She stepped forward timidly, hands grasping the cold metal and giving it a rough shake. The noise reverberated in the cramped stone structure, and the world erupted in a baying of hounds. The girl huddled down, clamping hands over her ears as her heart thudded with terror at the noise, mind still raw with the memory of being chased. "Shut up in there!" came a man's thick cry from somewhere down the corridor, beyond the bars, from whence she could see dim firelight filtering down to her cage. The dogs quieted immediately, and she took care not to set them barking again, not wanting the man to come out and see her awake. Her situation was pretty clear to her now. As payment for killing the lord's hounds, they'd taken her as a replacement. She turned, blurry eyed, sinking down onto the bit of straw piled in one corner, and wept.