Will was off-peiste.

It was autumn. The thick-leaved trees in the lower valleys had begun to shrivel and turn warm reds and yellows; whereas the pines and conifers in the mountains became gilded with frozen dew every morning. It was Will's favourite time of year: the forests were alive with animals gathering food for the winter, it was neither too hot nor too cold, and there were plentiful supplies of apples to be stolen from the orchard beyond Bottom Bridge.

He had been trekking for three days, following game trails through the low forests of Rushwater Valley, where he was hoping to find a handsome buck or pheasant to take home to feed his family. It had been a dark year for livestock - a devastating plague had swept through the Farthing, condemning every other cow and pig to slaughter before their time. The butcher had become overladen with surplus meat and had not the room nor the wherewithal to preserve it in his salt for the winter - it had all gone bad.

But the deer and poultry that roamed free in the broadleaved forests were fat and healthy, and many men had left Bottom Bridge to hunt them. Few had the strength to pull a great bow, but Will had been practising over the summer with his cousin on tottering hay bale targets in the fields of his farm - he could now pull his father's bow nearly to its full extent whilst maintaining a fair degree of accuracy.

And then, he caught a glimpse of two or three deer, camouflaged almost perfectly between the dusky leaves. Will had only spotted the antlers of a buck around the corner of a tree - they were a handsome pair, but the buck was limping. This would be his target.

Making sure the wind was in his face so the deer would not smell him and bolt, Will kept forward silently, pulling out the strung bow and nocking it carefully. His hawk-like eyes scanned the floor for twigs that might snap as he moved up to a bush to get a clear sight on the deer.

And then he noticed someone on the opposite end of the clearing doing exactly the same.

Will ducked just in time as the hunter opposite him loosed his own arrow with a soft twang - it stripped through the air and landed with a hollow thud in the tree behind the bush. The deer had heard the noise, and bolted away, so close to Will's hiding place he could hear their frantic breathing.

Will emerged from the cover of the bush, strangely tall for a sixteen-year-old.

"What did you do that for?" he cursed, looking towards the other end of the clearing. "I've been stalking them for a day and a half, and that was a fool's shot! Come out here and -"

A shrub quivered. A hooded head poked out. Then, a tall, slender figure extricated itself carefully from the darkness at the other end of the clearing, and came walking towards him, totally at his ease.

"Who are you?" Will demanded. "I haven't seen you round these parts."

The figure said nothing, but lowered his hood. Will caught a glimpse of a scrubby, unshaven face, mahogany locks and intense hazel eyes, before the man reached over his left shoulder and pulled a sword from its sheath.

"Oi! What do you think you're doing?" said Will apprehensively, backing away. The stranger had raised the sword threateningly.

Will turned and fled at full speed, jumping logs and crashing through beds of brambles. He could hear the laboured footfalls and breathing of the man behind him, but paid no heed - this man was clearly one of the "nutcases" he had heard his father talk about -

And then he tripped over a stray root and fell sprawling into a pile of fallen leaves. His pursuer was upon him in seconds, and before he knew it the sword was hovering above his throat.

"What are you doing in my forest?" demanded the haggard man above him.

Will was inclined to say "This ain't your forest" but held his tongue.

"I - I didn't know it was your forest, sir," said Will, attempting to hide his fear. "I's always wandered it, sir, since I was a child, and I's never seen you round -"

"Well, you're not likely to forget now, are you?" growled the man. He raised the sword and Will started.

His foot swung up to catch the man in the fork of his legs. Caught unawares, the man buckled in pain, the sword slackening in his grip. Will sat up and wrenched it from his grasp, scrambling to his feet.

Snarling angrily, the cloaked figure came running towards him, but Will raised the sword, which was surprisingly light, in front of him.

"Come any closer and I'll spear you," he said quietly, his voice shaking. "You's no right to come in here and start stabbing people for the hell of it."

And Will turned and ran again. This time the man did not follow him. When he was fifty yards away Will turned, hiding behind a great oak. He thought he saw an angry gleam of gold in the man's eyes before he raised his hood and melted into the gathering darkness once more.

The End

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