The first clue I had that my shadowy stalker had found me once again was when an arrow went through the side of my thigh. It hurt like hell but it was really just a deep gouge along the outside that didn't bite into too much flesh or nick anything important. That certainly woke me up and received my complete and undivided attention. To this day, I thank that sudden steep downdraft gust of wind on the hillside that probably prevented the arrow from going right into my back.
I had two choices and I really didn't have time to think about either of them since the next arrow with my name on it was probably less than six seconds away. I could keep climbing up this nearly shear hillside; I'd be slow and very, very vulnerable for about twenty seconds that I didn't have, or else I could just let go, drop and roll and hope like heck that I didn't hurt myself too badly on the way down. I almost thought too long and when I went for the second option, the drop and roll, the next arrow missed my head by about an inch. The landing and rolling part at the base of the hill went better than expected it too. I came down fast, but rolled face-first into the side of a large snow covered bush that stopped my movement entirely. I then immediately flopped flat on my face into the snow, just in time to miss a third arrow that went right through the center of the bush that had previously shielded me.
Old Venatari, the senior scout that had trained me years ago, had the perfect advice to give for just a situation such as this one.
"Lads, every time you go off into the wild by yourself, there are three things that can happen and two of them are bad. First, you can run into absolutely no one and find nothing - this is good, outstanding in fact. You get to return home all safe and sound and you haven't pissed anyone off in the process."
"Secondly, you could find someone before they find you. Maybe you get to kill them, maybe not; maybe they're faster and smarter than you, maybe not. Your life now depends on your luck and how smart you feel that particular day. Myself, I would just stay hidden and quietly pray that they haven't also found you, since things would then start to get interesting and it could turn into a coin flip to see who gets to go home, possibly alive and hopefully mostly in one piece."
"Lastly, if somebody luckier or smarter than you does find you first — that means you are now in BIG trouble and you have to pray that they make a mistake. IF they do, run — and run like hell, until the odds are at least even again and you are able to evaluate the situation calmly and hopefully in relative safety. Even then I'd advise you to keep running some more. There are brave scouts and then there are veteran scouts that have survived — there are no "brave veterans. Your job is to get information — not to go around killing people. Let the idiot boys with the sharp swords and bright shiny armor have that kind of fun."
"Old Venial" as we called him was a very smart scout until his dying day, when he broke his own rules and got "brave" - and it cost him. Today, I had not been particularly brave; sort of. I had just become lazy and decided that a five minute 'shortcut' up the side of a steep hill was better than a twenty minute trip going around it through the snow, fog and boulder strewn hillsides I had been circuiting all afternoon. A major mistake and nearly my last. Old Venial had a number of things to say about shortcuts also and a low opinion of any scout who ever thought it worth their while to take one.
I'd had an encounter with a group of enemy scouts a few days ago and couldn't quite shake the feeling that I hadn't lost them for good this time. It was getting close to evening (not that you really could tell with all of the gloom and fog) and I had thought to myself that I'd risk climbing the highest local rise to check and see if there was anything obviously behind me. My evasion route over the last few days had taken me far away from the main river valley up into the vast mostly uncharted range of foothills to the northwest that lead up eventually into the great mountains. I'd been in this area before, but I wasn't really 100% sure of where I was — the constant snow flurries and fog hadn't helped. Also the thought had crossed my mind about finding a safe camp spot where I could dare building a small fire. Trail rations were getting a bit old after over a week out in the wilderness.
It was a bone-head move and it cost me; fortunately not critically. It was now time to make with option three and do it quickly. Keeping low, zigzagging towards a thicker blanket of fog further down the next hillside, I ran like hell. Speed was my friend now, I was going to be leaving obvious tracks in the snow but that was unavoidable for now. If the bowman on my trail was part of the previous group that had hunted me, then I had been followed for the better part of a week in total, even when I was making a hard effort to conceal my trail. It worked apparently for a few days or at least long enough for me to become overconfident that I had 'lost them' and no longer had any shadows. Apparently not but I might now have at least one advantage on my side. Fatigue.
I had taken a short rest a few hours back and was used to running two or three days in a row pretty much non-stop. Self preservation is an excellent motivator. In order to catch up with me, my shadow must have had to have chased me nearly non-stop for at least the last three days. They would be tired, I sure was, and I was now going to make them even more tired before I even considered laying a trap or two. Despite being tired, the fear that I had evaded their trap might bring swiftness to their feet and make them more alert for a while and maybe they would be expecting me to try and soon turn the tables. Let them think that — myself, I would much rather put some distance between us first until I found an ideal ambush site of my own. I had made my mistake (and survived it); let's hope they would make theirs later on.
I ran as fast as my feet for carry me for at least an hour until the shadows in the fog told me that it would soon be getting dark. The wilderness is never safe, even during the day. Darkness would bring other far worse dangers and even I traveled at night with great speed only when under extremely great need. Running at blindly at night was guaranteed to make you run into things by surprise that wise scouts would even avoid in daylight. It was time to see if I could bring this contest to a conclusion, but under my terms.
I reduced my running speed as much as I dared and started to concentrate more on finding some suitable terrain from which I could either successfully hide or stage an ambush of my own. I gradually inclined more downhill where the pockets of fog tended to be thickest. At this point, there was probably less than fifty yards of good visibility at best and this was diminishing rapidly. I guessed there would soon be a small stream or brook just a bit further down the hillside and indeed, after running through a small clearing, I could hear running water on the other side of the tree line. I decided to gamble and set an ambush right here.
It was really still too soon to pull this sort of thing as my foe would still be likely to be extra watchful but I had a backup plan all thought out in my head and I decided that I really wanted to get a little more information about my pursuers first. I needed to know who/what was after me and if there was just one stalker or if this was some sort of hunting party. I was good, very good even by my modest judgment; perhaps even my kingdom, Acquila's, best scout. I certainly was one of the oldest veterans.
I was the best because I invariably obtained the information I was sent out to get without doing a whole lot of headhunting on the way there or back. In theory, I shouldn't have pissed my rival scout counterparts from Helden off enough for them to make me a specific target. I won't say things were 'live and let live' between us, but we usually had more important things to do than to hunt each other down, even if our trails crossed. Hopefully this was just a random encounter from someone else with way too much time on their hands who was also way off from the normal battlefield areas like I was. Where we were now, it was very hard to imagine anyone wanting to come here intentionally. This area was insanely dangerous and no one in their right mind would be out here in the first place. I was undoubtedly totally crazy for being out here myself.
I passed quickly through the clearing and circled back around the interior tree line edge until I was nearly back to where I had originally entered the clearing. I found an excellent snow covered pair of bushes that provided me near complete cover and I notched an arrow of my own. Securely hidden, I made myself as alert as possible and waited for my opponent to follow my original visible tracks into the clearing. There was fog ... lots of it, but I had just barely enough visibility for my ambush — and enough cover to skedaddle again if my plan went wrong. Which it probably would - it's a rare ambush that goes entirely as planned. If there were just one or two people tracking me, they would never leave this clearing; if there were more and this was some sort of raiding party then I would remain hidden until the passed and escape back the direction they came from with my tracks obscured amidst their old ones. I had a plan.
Now I just had to wait. I was good at that — it certainly beat the alternative of the normal shear, stark terror of our pointless war.
Perhaps, I need to stop my narrative and explain this just a little bit before we go on any further.