Bright and early the next day, all the hunters were gathered outside the castle gates waiting for their king’s blessing to be bestowed on them before they left.
“I’ll win for sure!” Garry gloated.
“Not if I can help it!” Barry argued.
“Yeah right! The princess will be mine!” Ash yelled.
“Enough.” James the tenth best told them, “He’s here.”
The king came out to them with his daughter behind him respectfully.
“I wish all of you luck on your hunt.” He said, “If you feel as though you won’t be able to over throw him, please do not after him. I’d prefer to have eleven failures rather than eleven dead.”
“We’ll take care sir.” Drew told him, “Our fights will not be with each other this time, but with him.”
We all turned to leave, when a sweet voice called.
“Before you leave.” Princess Dawn walked up to me and handed me a silk handkerchief, “A token.”
“I accept with great honour.” I said and placed it in my breast pocket.
“Please do take care, all of you.” She said.
“You shouldn’t worry, Mi’lady.” I told her and bowed before we all left.
“You seem kinda cozy with the princess.” Harley the eighth told me.
“The King raised me and my older brother as his own.” I told him, “I grew up with her.”
“That’s why you became a bounty hunter then?” James teased, “To pay him back.”
I chuckled, “Not even close.”
“Then why don’t you explain Mr. I’ll-stay-mysteriuse-to-piss-them-off!” Barry yelled.
I smirked at him, “It was a promise I made a long time ago.” I said, “I promised a friend that when they made a name for themself going against the king, I would go after them and we would battle.”
“You must have one hell of a friend huh?” Ash asked.
I smirked again, “Yeah.”
“Have you killed him yet?” Garry asked as we left the town.
I shook my head, “I have no idea where they are, what they’re doing, or what name they go by now. But I know I’ll know them when I see them.”
“Them?” Drew asked, “More than one?”
“One friend left the town, and my others took off after. They didn’t like the king at the time either. I know they’re together though.”
“Wish ya’ luck findin’ them!” Barry said and he was gone.
“He’s always in a rush.” Gary sighed.
We headed up the mountain at our own pace. I had this eating feeling I would see my old friends again as I pressed on. It was something in my bones.
“Let me know when they get close.” I told Alec, “Then I’ll pull the dame trick.”
He sighed, “You really are ruthless.” He pointed out.
“You could a stayed with Paul you know.” I told him.
“Yeah but that would mean putting up with that king.” He said.
I nodded, “Martin, when one of them hunters come in here looking for me, you put that junk I brought back in their drinks.”
“What is it anyway?” He asked.
“Delusion powder.” I answered bluntly, “It’s the equivalent to eating them blue mushrooms in the forest.”
He cringed as he’d done that before.
“What do you want me to do?” Zuren asked.
I smirked evilly, “You point them in this direction saying I’ve been spotted around here a lot. You know I come in for a drink every night, flirt with them ladies. All that junk!”
I smiled and nodded as I got up off the bar stool.
“I’m headin’ out to the forest to train for a while.” I sai and grabbed my daggers, “I’ll be back about midnight.”
“What about the hunters?” Zuren asked.
I looked back at them over my shoulder, “At the least, it will take two full days of walking straight through to get here. They aren’t stupid, they’ll stop and camp for the night.”
“Why would they camp?” Misty, a young lady who was a new addition to the tavern asked.
“The wild animals outside.” I answered her, everyone who worked in Martin’s tavern knew exactly who I was, “If you’re caught walking around the mountain late at nigh, tired, confused, and you don’t know your surroundings, you might as well be dead.”
“Oh, I see.” She said scared now.
“Everyone’ll be safe here.” I assured her, “You just don’t get in my way.”
She, as well as the rest of the building, nodded.
“Be back about midnight!” I called as I left.
–Back to the Hunters–
“We should stop.” Paul said to the others.
“Why getting scared?” James asked.
“I want you to realize the animals that dwell in these mountains.” I hisses, “Most of them will eat you before you’re dead.”
Most stopped and shivered, others rolled their eyes and kept on.
Ash, Drew, Garry, Harley, and James stayed.
“You sure know your stuff huh?” Ash asked as we gathered some fire wood.
“I grew up in these woods.” I told him as we headed back to camp, “It was in these mountains that the king found us.”
“You and you’re brother?” He asked.
“And my four friends.” I said almost a whisper.
“So four of them, which one’s the one you’re gonna hunt?” Drew asked when we got back.
“You won’t believe me even if I told you everything.” I said.
The rest of the night was entirely silent. The way I liked it.
I stared up at the moon, the cold air blowing my hair around and my cloak open.
I walked down a small path, I knew quite well. It was where he found us.
“Can’t catch me! Can’t catch me!” I giggled as I ran. Alec, Zuren, Martin, Reggie, and Paul chasing after me. “Slow down! Damn it!” They called. I giggled and ran backwards to look at them. I turned back around only to run into something. I landed on my butt, and looked up to see a knight staring down at me. I backed away slightly. “What are children like yourselves doing out in this forest?” He asked gruffly. “What’s a night like you doing out of the city?” I countered, “I thought the King needed all the protection he could get?” “There’s been a change in government.” He told me staring at me coolly. “We’re so sorry about this, sir.” Reggie said pulling me up and backing us away, “This will never happen again.” “See to it.” He snarled. “Clawdon!” A sweet, high pitched, feminine, child’s voice called. Just behind him came running a small girl, with dark blue hair, blue eyes, and had on the prettiest dress I’d ever seen. I felt out of place in worn out trousers, and an oversized shirt. “Flowers!” She giggled. It was much different from mine. It was sweet, mine was rough. “They are lovely, Princess, why don’t we take them back to your father?” “I like that idea.” She said. But then she suddenly looked behind the night at us. She scampered forward and inspected me closely. I growled when she picked up a piece of my hair. “I want you to be my friend!” She said and smiled, “What if I don’t wanna be?” I asked her. “How about you come back to camp with me, and meet my daddy, and then you can decide.” She said. “I’m not leaving them.” I said meekly referring to the boys behind me. She smiled even larger, “They can come too! And then we can be one big happy family!” She cheered. “Will I have to wear a dress?” I asked as she took my hand lead us all on. “I could have daddy talk to my dresser about it! I’m sure we’ll find something to your taste!” “Wait.” I said and let go of her hand, “We don’t even know you’re name. And you don’t know ours.” She smiled, “I’m Dawn.””I’m Reggie, and this is my little brother Paul.” He said. “I’m Alec.” “Call me Martain.” All eyes were on me now, “Jowey.” I said quietly, “I’m Jowey.” She smiled again and lead us to her father. That was the start of everything.
I sighed as I kept up a good pace back to the tavern. That was when life seemed to take turns for the worst.
All of us were running around in the castle garden playing tag. Dawn and I were running together, she slipped and fell down towards the rose bushes at the bottom of the hill. I pushed her back so she landed on the soft grass we were previously standing on. She landed with a muffled thump, and I went tumbling down the hill, hitting every rock along the way. I knew I blacked out for a second or two, the next thing I remembered was I was blinking away darkness staring up at Reggie and Martain, while Dawn was screaming, and Alec and Zuren were trying to calm her down. Paul was running to get help. I didn’t remember there being any pain. I felt something drip down my neck slowly. I tried to speak but nothing came out. Before I knew it everything went black, only to come back in bright light another minute. “You’re very lucky, Jowey.” The doctor told me as I blinked. “What happened?” I saw Dawn crying on a chair at the foot of my bed. “You took that fall for me!” She cried, “I should have-” “Shut up and stop crying.” I told her, the room went quiet, “I shouldn’t be ordering you around, but I needed to take that fall! Dawn, you are the princess, you are fragile, you are too important to scratch! I’m the opposite. If anything happens it’s gonna happen to me. Understand?” She wiped away her tears before looking back at me, “O-okay.”
I pushed the door to the tavern open and stepped inside. Only one who was there was Martain.
“You should be asleep.” I told him and sat and the bar.
“Coming from someone younger?” He asked.
“We don’t know that.” I told him as he poured some stew into a bowl for me, “Thank you.”
He smiled back and continued to clean mugs.
It was true though. We knew when we met that Reggie was seven, Paul, Alec, Martain, and Zuren where all two. No one knew about me. We all had the same ‘father’. In truth he was a mountain priest who took us in after being thrown out of his temple. He found Reggie and Paul wandering around when Paul was a babby. He rescued Zuren from his father on a ‘camping’ trip(more like killing trip). Martain was a reject of his own temple. I on the other hand was abandoned on the forest floor when I was a baby.
There was no indication of who my parents were, how old I was, where I came from. All I had was a large black piece of cloth wrapped around me, and a note that read, ‘to whomever finds her, please take care of her’. The cloth became my cloak after many years. It was about the time Reggie was twelve, and the boys were seven, that we met Dawn. It was a few months earlier that our father died.
I wolfed down the rest of the stew and washed my bowl.
“You know you never have to do that, Jowey.” Martain told me.
“I know.” I said not looking at him.
“You do enough getting all the gold, and protecting this place.” He said.
“I know.” I told him.
“Jowey.” He sighed getting irritated.
“It’s a bowl Martain.” I told him, “Don’t make me think I’m useless with things like this.”
“I’m sorry.” He said, “It’s just you do so much, and we always let you down in the end.”
“Non of that was your fault.” I told him and dried my bowl, “What happened then, happened. Let’s leave that in the past.”
“Kinda hard, huh?” He said.
I shrugged, “It’s not on your face.” I smiled. He had to grin back.
“Good night Martain.” I told him, “Don’t stay up too late.”
“Sweet dreams, Red Shadow.” He told me.
–With the Hunters–
At dawn we broke camp and kept up the mountain. Memories came washing over me in many waves.
“Why won’t you believe us?” I asked Jowey and Dawn as we walked. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Jowey told me. “I believe them.” Dawn said. “They’re gonna let you down, mi’lady.” Jowey told her. “How?” She asked. “I’ve done more protecting of them, then they have of me over the years.” The princess giggled. “I think they could take care of us if we really needed it.” “Yeah if it’s against giant teddy bears!” they both laughed. “I’ll show you.” I challenged. “be my guest.” Jowey countered as we got in each others faces like we normally would. So we went around the kingdom looking for something to protect them from, but it was a lot harder when you were looking. Dawn and Jowey in a small field just below us picking flowers. We were sitting on the road wondering just what to do. They came back with flower chains for all of us. And we decided to head back to the castle. On the way a speeding cart came down the path, everyone jumping out of its way. Something shot into it. I remembered being pushed, and Jowey screaming. When I looked back, the cart was on fire, but still going. Jowey was on the ground, hand to face clutching the cheek. I noticed some liquid on the ground, and a lot on her dress.
It wasn’t until later that we realized that liquid had been acid, and she saw it coming long before we ever did. She took that so we wouldn’t have too.
Jowey had had scars on her neck when we found her as a baby, we don’t know what from. But I do know even with the scars and that mark on her cheek was prettier than the princess.
The acid burned through a lot of her skin, the doctor said there’d be a permanent indication of where the acid ht her for the rest of her life. I knew she didn’t mind, but hurt the rest of us to know she did that unselfishly.
“How much longer do you figure?” Garry asked, “You do know these mountains well, don’t you Paul?”
I nodded, “The top of the mountain where he’s been spotted is another three days at our pace.”
“That’ll take way too long!” Ash yelled.
“If you want to get there sooner, be my guest and go at your pace for as long as you like. But if you want to get there alive, I’d suggest you stay with me.”
“And why should we trust you?” James asked.
“If I’m not mistaken, in the next hour or so we’ll be coming across the others.” I told them.
“W-what do you mean?” Harley asked.
“They’ll be dead.” I said calmly as if I were talking about the weather, “The animals that dwell in these forests are that of your childhood nightmares, but much more real. They’ll tear you apart, and if not. There’s all those who are wanted up here as well. And when they’re wanted and together, they gang up.”
“So you’re telling us, we’re dead without you.” Drew said.
“Potentially.” I said and kept on.
–At The Tavern–
“Jowey! Jowey! Jowey!!” Alec yelled bursting through the front doors and running to where the rooms were. He pounded on her door a couple times before throwing it open and going red.
“What?” I asked as I finished tying the bandages around my torso. I wasn’t hurt, but they help keep me warm with no movement restriction. They went from just above my nipple to below my belly button.
“O-one of the hunters has come a lot closer than we anticipated this soon.” he said looking any and everywhere but at me.
“I see.” I said and slipped on my black sleeveless shirt, “Is it him?”
“No.” He said looking at me this time, “He’s a blond and he’s in a hurry.”
I furrowed my brows as I picked up my daggers and put them in my belt.
“I thought the king only let them go yesterday.” I thought out loud and grabbed my cloak, “He must be Barry.”
“Barry?” Alec asked.
I nodded, “One of the ten greatest hunters in the land. He’s always in a hurry for his next kill and bounty.” I told him as we headed down stairs, “He’ll be the easiest to take down.”
“Are you sure?” He asked.
I nodded and went over to Zuren.
“One’s come, direct him here.” I told him.
“This early?” He asked.
I nodded, “I’d like a kill now anyway.” I said and sat down at the bar, “Go, Zuren.” I told him getting impatient.
I heard him get up and leave. He wasn’t in a hurry, but he knew better.
–With the Hunters–
We soon came across blood stained rocks, fresh as last night by the looks of it.
“The tavern’d be just beyond here.” I said, Ash went ahead but I held him back, “You’ll go that way if you have death wish.”
I only pointed in between the ridges he was going to go through. They were steep ridges, sheer straight down. No sun shown in that valley because of the cliffs on either side. In between them the valley was littered with skeletons, blood, and loot. Fresh blood and corpses lay there. It was those of the remainder of the eleven of us.
“We go around.” I said and headed off, they followed.
“How do you know all this?” Garry asked.
“I grew up in these mountains before the king took me in.” I told him, “I do most of my hunting here. It’s where most of the bandits and such come for salvation. The tavern on the other side welcome’s them with open arms. It’s their haven.”
“And how do you know all this if you’ve spent most of your life in the kingdom?” Drew pestered.
“I thought all this was common knowledge.” I told him, “Those ridges we just pasted were slaughter valley.”
“Where the seventh king was killed.” Harley said.
I nodded, “It’s been known for having an easy way of allying bandits to kill and share their loot. All of this under the supervision of the tavern.”
“Then why haven’t they shut it down yet?” Ash asked.
“These mountains border on three lands.” Garry told him.
I nodded, “While this is a bandit’s land, there are rules.” I told them.
“There’s rules over here?” Harley asked.
“Yes believe it or not.” I told him, “You never abuse the woman in that tavern, fifty percent of the loot goes to the tavern for supplies, no fighting in the tavern, and if the law comes you work together. After a certain point of time that Tavern becomes a home for all of them. And they’d do anything to protect it.”
“Oh thank goodness!” I heard someone cry as they ran towards me. He was about my age and he looked out of breath, “I didn’t think the king would send anyone here to help.” He said out of breath.
“He sent me specially.” I boasted, “What can I help you with dear citizen?”
“It’s the red Shadow.” He said, “He’s in the Tavern I work at. He’s starting fights, he abusing our women, and he killed a couple of our staff. The owner sent me to get help.”
“Lead the way, and I’ll deal with him!” I told him.
That princess is as good as mine.
The guy lead me to a really, really, really, large wooden . . . . mansion.
“Wow, this is huge.” I said out loud.
“A lot of people come by traveling.” He told me, “We made it big so there’d be a lot of room for not only the guests, but workers as well.”
I nodded and barged through the doors as everyone was laughing.
“Alright, which one of you is the Red Shadow!?” I demanded.
It got quiet, and then a mug empty of ale slammed down on the bar ahead of me. A long ways away.
“Hate to break it to you.” I woman at the bar told me, “But he only comes at night.”
I sauntered over to her, “And how would you know that?” I asked sliding onto the stool next to her.
“I work here, I’m his favorite.” She said.
She had black hair and green eyes.
“Would you mind keeping me company until he comes back?” I asked suggestively, “It appears the Red Shadow has good taste.”
“I don’t even know you’re name.” She said shyly.
“I’m Barry.” He said, “And you are?” I asked as a mug was set down in front of me.
“Whoever you want me to be.” She whispered.
“Finish your drink and we’ll get outta here.” She said.
I grinned and downed it.
“Thank you kind sir.” I said and put some coins on the counter.
She pulled me out giggling. I started to feel good.
I didn’t know where she was taking me, but I just followed along, it was like my body was moving on its own.
She let go of my hand, and turned around so her back was too me.
“This it.” She said.
“What’ss this?” I asked her.
“Where you meet the Red Shadow.” She said.
“You meet him here a lot?” I asked and hiccupped.
She shook her head and turned around fully. I noticed something about her. One eye was green, the other was grey, she had tattoos on her neck, and a burn mark on her right cheek. She had something in sheaths in her belt.
“I’m,” She said slowly, “The Red Shadow.”
“We’re making a lot better time then I first thought.” I said out loud.
“How much longer would you think then?” Ash asked.
“We should get there just before sun down if we keep it up.” I said.
I sighed and quickened my pace.
I stabbed him another two times and he finally collapsed. Cleaning off my daggers and sheathing them again, I dragged his body to the pit that Myself and a few of the tavern residents dug out. We’d burn all that was in here day after tomorrow. We did this every month.
Before I tossed him in I dug in his pockets. He had a good sword, and a lot of money on him, his medallion, and his belt buckle would bring a few good pieces. I went over him one more time and found nothing of value. I pushed him off into the pit, he landed with a thump.
I grinned to myself as I went back to the tavern. I pushed the doors open and tossed the find on the nearest table.
“Hide it.” I told them, “Others will be coming by night, they’ll know. And one of them will be him.”