“What in the Goddess’s name did you do that for?” Aaron yelled. There was a surging anger in his voice, but he couldn’t cover up the quivering. Quivering caused by the punch Arianna had just dealt him. In the face. A smack right in the middle of his left cheek.
“We’re doing this my way,” Arianna growled back.
The men around them backed off. They knew better than to intervene. Not when the two of them faced up, and especially not when it resulted in traded blows. But there was no trade today. Arianna had got the first hit in. Aaron’s cheek was already swelling a dark purple colour. Her knuckle had caught some lip and that too was bleeding. Aaron had been too shocked to retaliate, and now he’d put a safe distance between them and was tending to his wound.
“What makes you so qualified to lead us?” Aaron argued.
“We don’t have time to go through all the reasons why I’m more qualified to lead than you,” she spat.
They faced off again; their eyes locked on each other, willing the other to back down. Arianna was right that they didn’t have time for this. The Duke that they had been hunting would arrive in the designated attack spot any second. And if they continued this, they’d miss their opportunity to take him and his party down.
Failure was not an option; they needed the treasures he was travelling with, otherwise they and the people they hunted for would go hungry. In order to do that, they’d need the element of surprise, which Arianna had been arguing for.
Arianna’s fist was stinging from the punch she had dealt him only moments ago. She flexed the knuckles inwards and outwards to test that they were still working; working enough to hold a sword. Mild discomfort but nothing debilitating. Good, she thought.
“I’m leading the attack, and I say we surprise them from the East. Anyone else want to argue with me?”
She looked round at her fellow hunters. In their eyes, she could see the bloodlust that had been brewing. Brewing since they’d left their camp and travelled for a week through the Bovarian forest and into the path they knew the Duke and his men were taking. Back to the Capital presumably. They were now gagging for this attack, and the delay was only making them anxious. Despite this, not a single one of them challenged her. They knew better. Eventually Aaron shrugged and it was decided.
“Let’s go then,” she shouted.
The men responded by readying their weapons and lining up behind her.
Arianna adjusted her face mask, took a deep breath in and launched herself at the oncoming golden carriage.
Her veins throbbed with adrenalin as she successfully slashed another huge man down, this time taking out his leg so that he crashed to the ground like a falling tree. The contact shook the earth beneath her feet but she steadied herself.
When no more men rushed at her, she lowered her bloodied sword.
She surveyed the carnage.
All of the men in the party they had targeted had been subdued. The fighting was drawing to a close. One of her crew smashed a fist into the nose of a guard who was stupid enough to think he could still save himself. He yelped, but his body slumped to the ground and it was clear that the fight in him was extinguished.
They were all beat. And there was nothing they could do about what was going to happen next.
Next was supposed to be the fun part. Where they collected their prize. Their aim on nearly every hunting trip was to intercept a travelling party, take out any obstacles of the armoured-man kind and then escape with their bounty. Bounty that included coins, jewels, more weapons and spices. As well as livestock if they were also travelling with the party.
Arianna much preferred the attack than the collecting. Material things never bothered her. Stars and not sparkling stones captured her attention and her breath caught when looking up, not down into her palms. But there were enough men bedazzled by jewels to make the collecting job pretty easy for them. And they needed the bounties to ensure the survival of their secret community.
Refugees. Outcasts. Shadows. That's how they were known. So well hidden that those outside the forest talked about their community in whispers, unsure of whether they were telling a story of fact or fiction.
She let the greed-driven men do most of the loading work, stuffing gold and silvers and whatever else they thought valuable into their woven sacks.
Aaron, the fellow hunter closest to her in age, though not ability she liked to remind him, looked satisfied with his haul. Three men lay lifeless around him. Clean wounds in the exposed spots of their armour. Precision had always been Aaron's strength. Protecting himself against surprise smacks to the cheek, now, that was an area of improvement for him.
Arianna smiled at the memory of the punch she had landed him. They regularly brawled, their competition with each other so intense that they'd delivered some lethal blows over their years spent training together. To the point where people left them to settle it without stepping in.
Well, Arianna had settled their argument this time. First attack, that's what she'd wanted. It's what all the hunters wanted; the prestige of being the first to engage in battle, charging down their victims, riding the high that came with the sound of metal on metal.
And good thing too. If they'd gone with Aaron's suggestion of taking the Duke from the south side then the angle would have been all wrong and the duke's carriage would have prattled by, out of their reach. They'd have gone home empty handed and faced a severe punishment for their failure.
Scouts told them that the Duke would be travelling up from the capital, towards one of the most northern outposts in the continent. So all they had to do was pick the best spot for a surprise attack and wait until his party stepped into that spot. A simple plan. One that they regularly used.
The Bovarian forest provided travellers with a considerable shortcut. If they were brave enough, or stupid enough, to take it. The Duke had been stupid and sacrificed his safety for saved time. Time he would now lose having to walk back to the nearest town, which was at least half a day’s ride on horseback, without the tradable objects he had been transporting.
Arianna grew restless for the comforts of their part of the forest. Out here in the more open spaces, she felt exposed to the elements and the other creatures that resided in the forest. Creatures that possessed magic, appearing like humans but with eating habits that included a taste for human blood and grinding up your bones for sprinkling over their stews. According to Aaron.
Stories, they were just stories, but she didn't want to have to prove that either way.
On the far side of the space she spotted a mare. Its beige coat glistened in the light that was trickling through the leafy roof above them. Their eyes met, two pairs of clashing swords, and Arianna decided she was not willing to leave the horse behind. Such a well bred horse was worth more than all the gold the men could scoop into their sacks. The steel-eyed horse would be her prize.
The mare bristled with distrust underneath her. Good, Arianna thought. Trust no-one in this world. That's what marked people out as clever, strong. Only the weak and stupid trusted. She'd learnt that at a very young age and regularly taught it to every person she encountered whilst on a job. Typically at the tip of a knife.
Though she was obviously not the mares favourite person, on account of her crew attacking the mare’s master, Arianna could tell by the fact that it did not buck but carried her, that her previous owner had inspired little loyalty.
Well, that was about to change. Arianna recognised a kindred spirit in this horse and decided she would claim her as her own. Whilst she wasn't very good at showing humans kindness, it was easy for her to show that part of her nature to animals. They often showed it to you willingly, without the threat of using it against you one day. So Arianna felt safer around them. Therefore she respected them more than she would ever respect people.
"We're done here" she called out to the men. "Let's move out."
They grunted their agreement.
To The Ship they went.
The Ship was their name for the secret community, hidden in the depths of the harsh and unchartered Bovarian forest. The way back to the Ship was not straightforward. In fact, there were one hundred different routes you could take. Provided you knew the routes of course. The rule for those in on the secret was to never use the same route twice in a row. That way, no one watching you could source the location of the Tiger Brother's hidden community.
Why was it called the Ship?
Well, for all intents and purposes it was a ship. Not in structure; it was located in the cold heart of the Bovarian forest, with no sea for hundreds of miles. But the way the Tiger brothers liked to run the place was similar to how a ship was run. With men that flew up the tallest trees to scout the rest of the forest and women swabbing the decks so to speak, in order to keep the camp clean. They might be refugees, out of sight of society, but it didn't mean they had to live like rodents, the Tiger Lord would say.
Rumour had it, and it was only rumour since they never ever told anyone of their past, that they were once in the Diemise navy. If it were true it would have explained why they ran their community much like a ship. Diemia was a settlement spread across a huge bank of land pressing up against the ocean, which meant that most of the men there were born in the sea and died in the sea, so they said. Therefore it made sense for them to have a large navy, with the expansive possibilities of the sea so close to them.
Arianna had never been to the ocean, but she'd heard it described by travelling merchants who possessed and had shown her actual shells. She'd purchased one shell with a coin she’d swiped out of Aaron's pocket after another successful hunting job. Usually she had no time for those slimy merchants. But the shell was dazzling on the inside and shimmered with more colours than Arianna thought existed. It was the length of her little finger and she eventually pierced it, to thread a string through, turning it into a necklace. Which she now wore around her neck and under her tunic at all times.
She was not a superstitious person. She didn’t bow down to kiss the earth in thanks to the goddess before an attack the way many of her men did. Nor did she head straight to the temple when they returned from a hunt to make an offering to the Goddess for the safe journey back.
For some reason though, the shell gave her comfort. She knew it was stupid, drawing comfort from a lifeless shell - whose life was probably ripped from it - but she wore it all the same.