One Step Ahead

A small story I did for another site based on the prompt 'Bounty'.

Kris drew his night-black cloak tighter around his chainmail, the winter’s icy air cutting him like the finest steel. The air fogged before his face as he walked the road to the nearest city, his feet crunching softly on the snow. His leather boots were soaked through; his muscles ached from the cold. He relished the thought of a warm fire and a soft bed. ‘Soon,’ he hoped.

He walked for another hour, ignoring the deep pains in his cold muscles. He pushed on and noticed the sun was beginning to dip behind the distant mountains, turning the sky from a clear blue to orange and red with only the faintest trace of blue and purple. He admired its beauty as he walked.. “Time to rest,” Kris said, his hoarse voice joining the sounds of nature as they prepared for rest. Birds chirped in their trees, wolves unseen howled to their pack and the wind rustled through the trees. In all of his life he had never found anything more beautiful than nature’s sounds. He loved it.

He veered to the right suddenly, entering a forest of ash and oak trees. The remains of the autumn lay scattered on the floor like children’s toys – leaves brown, red and orange. He continued to walk, feeling relaxed as he listened to the sounds of wildlife. He searched to catch a glimpse of something, anything, but was sorely disappointed in that regard.

By the time Kris found a place he felt would suit him for sleeping, the sun was merely a strip of colour in a dominating black sky, dotted only with pale stars. He felt a small amount of sadness that the moon was covered by the clouds entirely. He always liked the moon on cool nights like this.

Kris sat down at the base of one of the forest’s many ash trees and rested his back against it, the throne of the forest. He smiled as he stretched his limbs as he sat. It felt good to rest.

He began to hum a nameless tune, a slow and soft tune that was, perhaps, used in a ballad of mourning a long time ago. He couldn’t remember where he got it.

He rested like this, simply humming, for perhaps fifteen minutes. Then he realized how cold he truly was. He stood up and searched around for fallen branches of trees and amassed them by the place he decided to sleep. When he had a sizeable pile he set them ablaze using a pair of small dark grey stones from the forest floor, half hidden under the fallen leaves.

Kris knelt by the orange fire feeling warmth enter every single one of his limbs. With the feeling of warmth inside him, he rummaged inside a backpack he carried and pulled out a quarter of a loaf of bread. “It sure is a good thing I will be reaching the city soon,” he muttered as he tore a chunk of it off and began to chew. When he finished, he pulled a thick, white woollen blanket from his backpack and wrapped it around himself.
He needed to rest. He felt his eyes grow heavy as he slipped into slumber. The last thing he remembered seeing was the clouds finally moving to show the white moon.

He wasn’t sure when he suddenly awoke but the moon had disappeared once more behind the clouds. He looked around, rubbing his eyes. His hand reached for his longsword which he left lying beside him. He held his breath for a minute. The fire had burned out and the temperature had dropped.

A man walked out of the forest and into the makeshift camp, like a spirit walking the earth. He stopped when he saw Kris. “I’m sorry,” he said softly, “I did not mean to intrude.”

“Don’t apologize,” Kris said, relaxing somewhat. “I presume you need a place to rest?” The man nodded, “You’re welcome to rest here.”

“Thank you,” the man smiled before settling down by the tree facing Kris. “My name is Meinke,” he declared by way of introduction. Kris didn’t respond. “Yourself?”

“Kris,” he replied simply.

“Thank you, Kris,” Meinke said softly. Kris waved it off as he tried to settle down again.

Meinke kept attempting to make small talk throughout the night. Eventually, perhaps three quarters of an hour after he had arrived Kris told him sternly that he wanted to rest as he had to travel tomorrow. The talk ceased after that.

Eventually, morning came and the sun rose. As Kris eased open his eyes his senses were assaulted by the scent of roasting rabbit. Meinke was crouched by the fire which he relit. It took a moment before Meinke noticed Kris was awake. When he did he smiled at him. “I caught breakfast.”
Kris couldn’t help but smile at the man. It wasn’t too common he met nice travellers. “Thank you,” Kris said.

They both broke their fast on rabbit and bread, washing it down with water. When he finished Kris packed up his gear.

“Leaving so soon?” Meinke asked.

“I have to move on before the bounty-“ Kris began before stopping dead, cursing his blunder.

“Bounty?” Meinke asked curiously, “Before the bounty what?”

“Nothing,” Kris said hurriedly as he packed up.

Meinke was quiet. Kris knew his eyes were fixated on his back.

“Oh Gods,” Meinke said suddenly, “I thought I knew you!”

“Don’t say a word, Meinke,” Kris said coldly.

“Oh Gods, you’re the murderer they’ve been chasing...”

“I did not murder them!” Kris yelled suddenly as he drew his blade and pointed the tip at Meinke’s throat.

“Gods be good you fool,” Kris cursed, “Be silent. I do not want to slit your throat.”

“And I don’t want to slit yours,” a fresh voice said cruelly as Kris felt a blade tip on his neck. “You’re worth more alive. Drop the sword.”

Kris didn’t move and closed his eyes.‘I think... Today is a good day to die.’

“I said drop it, murderer!” the voice said.

“I am no murderer,” Kris said coldly as he stepped forward sharply and turned.

One swordsman with a shortblade made for stabbing. This shouldn’t be difficult.

“A fight then?” the bounty hunter grinned, “If you want to die then, I’ll be happily to oblige.”

Kris ran in and sliced the man swiftly, driving him back as he struggled to dodge. The man failed to take into account the gnarled roots at his feet and he fell over. Scrambling to stand Kris kicked the man in the jaw. Placing a foot on the man’s back he pushed the blade into his neck. “You talk too much.”

Kris left quickly after that having cleaned his blade on the earth and grabbed his possessions.

He did not want this.

He did not want to kill that man in the bar, it was an accident.

He did not want to kill the bounty hunter, he was going to sell him.

And he did not want to kill Meinke but he started screaming.

He felt the tears running down his cheeks as, once again, he fled from his crimes and tried to remain ahead of those who wanted his head to decorate the capital’s walls and Kris was rather attached to his head.

He knew he could not run forever but he clung to the hope that he could. At the very least he could give him a few weeks, maybe a month. He’d die soon, however. No one escaped justice.

Or so they claimed. Perhaps he’d be the first.

He didn’t know.

He didn’t care.

He just walked as he cried.

The End

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