Kari’s calves burned, her breath coming in short gasps as branches whipped by on either side of her face. Her feet crunched through the leaves as she sprinted along the path, every so often glancing behind her. Shit. She jerked to one side and allowed herself to slide down a small embankment on one side of the path, scattering leaf litter before rising and running again.

Just my luck. Cut a guy a bad deal, and he decides to pursue you to Hell and back again.

She could hear the sound of horses, the jingle of their harnesses and the pounding of their hooves along the path behind her. Kari wouldn’t be able to outrun her pursuers for long; she was tired and they weren’t. She’d have to think of another plan.

She dashed through the woods, jumping over fallen logs and ducking beneath vines. She could hear the sounds of shouting now; they were probably dismounting and leaving their horses. Not much time left. Her eyes darted toward the nearest tree and she jumped, grabbing a low hanging branch. Her muscles screamed as she pulled herself upward, panting as she reached for another branch in order to bring herself into the canopy. She wedged herself against the trunk of the tree, attempting to still her panicked breathing.

Footsteps approached. Kari closed her eyes, willing them to run past, to think that she had continued into the forest.

No such luck. The footsteps paused, and she heard the murmur of voices below her; three men, by the sound of them. Damnit.

“Saw her here just a moment ago. She can’t have gotten far.”

“Well find her! What do you think I’m paying you for?”

“With all respect, sir, that’s what we’re doing. Just give Robin a chance to take a look at the tracks.”

Of course they had a tracker with them. Why would she think they wouldn’t? Shit. Fuck. Damnit. Hiding was no longer an option. It’d take only minutes before they realized what she’d done.

She held her breath and carefully eased the dagger from her boot. The hilt fit comfortably in her hand as she glanced down through the red and yellow leaves. She could see the moving shapes of her pursuers; one of them crouched down and examined the footprints at the base of the trunk.

I’m probably going to regret this. Kari cleared her throat loudly, causing all three men to look up, “Why hello there! Fancy seeing you three all the way out here. Is there anything I can do to help?”

It was hard to see their features through the leaves, but she could tell from a glance that two of them were seasoned bounty hunters. Their faces were scarred and rough. One of them had a beard which covered only half his face, the other side taken up by rippled flesh, no doubt the result of a bad burn. The other man had a tattoo which wound around his neck and up to the corner of his eye. Burn Face and Tattoo Guy. It’s just getting better and better.

There was a moment of silence, and then the third man spoke. Unlike the other two, his face was unblemished, handsome even, “We’d be much obliged if you’d come down, Ms. Heart. There’s no need for this to become uglier than it already is.” His voice sounded polished, practiced; he was probably the employer.  Well at least he’s civil.

“I’d be happy to come down if I didn’t suspect that it would be bad for my health.  Why doesn’t one of your boys come up here? We can have a nice, one on one conversation that way.”

Someone snarled, probably Burn Face. He looked like a snarler, “Why the fuck are we messing around, sir? We have her cornered. Let me fire a few shots and it’ll all be over.”

Mr. Employer sounded faintly irritated when he answered, “Because we want her alive, Jay. It’s not every day that you have the Queen of Hearts cornered in a tree.”

Ah, wonderful. He’s a fan. Kari shifted her weight in the tree slightly, causing a few branches to rustle. If she was going to get out of this, she’d have to gather a little more information, “Listen to your master like a good dog. He might even give you a treat.”

Burn Face snarled again and she heard the sound of a gun being cocked. There were a few angry whispers in response and the blunt sound of flesh hitting flesh. She waited a moment longer before Mr. Employer spoke again, “We have you outnumbered, Ms. Heart. If you don’t come down, we’ll send Robin up after you. I assure you that he’s very good at what he does.”

He means Tattoo Guy. Kari peered through the branches with a frown. She probably could manage to take him down; after all, she currently had the advantage if they wanted her alive. But she didn’t want to chance getting injured.

Damnit. I was saving this for a special occasion.

“All right! I’m coming down. Just tell your dog not to fire on me, hrm? A bullet up my ass isn’t my idea of a good time.”

There was a loud curse from Scar Face followed by a chuckle from Mr. Employer. Tattoo Guy remained silent. Tough crowd. One out of three is still pretty good, though.

Kari moved, making the branches rustle again as she placed the knife between her teeth and slipped one hand into her jacket pocket. Her fingers closed over a cylinder.

“Come on now, Ms. Heart. You’re taking a little longer than we’d like.”

Impatient bastard. Kari reached into her coat again and withdrew a match, using her other hand to point the cylinder toward the ground. She struck the match against the tree trunk and then lit the fuse.

There were two loud bangs. One of them was from Kari’s explosive as it shot a bright ball of fire at the ground, followed by clouds of billowing spoke. The second was from Scar Face’s gun which nearly put a bullet through her head.

She didn’t have time to think about the near death experience. Kari grabbed her knife again and swung down from the tree into the smoke. She couldn’t see her opponents, but she could hear the coughing and angry shouts as they stumbled through the haze.

“Where’d she go?!”

“You should have let me kill her, Mr. King!”

“Robin, find her!”

Too late. She was already running, sprinting back the way she had come. Her arms pumped at her sides as she jumped over a fallen log and dashed up the embankment.

The horses were still there. They watched her with wild eyes, prancing away from her as she held up her hands, carefully approaching one of them as she murmured soothingly, “There, there. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”

The horse apparently didn’t believe her. It snorted once and whickered faintly, tossing its head. She didn’t have time for this. Kari darted forward, grabbing the reins as the horse jerked back, trying to get away.  She reached forward and patted its neck, “It’s okay. Just give me a ride out of here and I’ll let you go.”

Kari walked to the side of the creature and grabbed the pommel, swinging herself into the saddle. The horse sidestepped nervously, but she grasped the reins firmly.

The other horses would be a problem. They’d be able to pursue her easily with them. Kari shifted her weight slightly before reaching into her coat again, pulling out a pair of dice. I liked this set too. Pity. She cocked her arm back and threw a die at one of the other horses.

The effect was instantaneous. The horse snorted and reared, dancing forward. Now for a little encouragement.  She threw the second die at the second horse.

The horse whinnied and broke into a gallop with the other one in tow. Kari was barely able to restrain her own horse from following them down the road. Instead, she maneuvered her mount to face the opposite direction.

“Stop right there.”

Kari froze, glancing over her shoulder. It was Tattoo Guy, and he didn’t look very happy. His green eyes were red from the smoke. His tattoo, which appeared to be some sort of dragon now that she had a better look at it, was smudged with dirt. He was breathing heavily. Not surprising considering that leather he’s wearing. And he held what looked like a sword in one hand. I’ll give him points for effort, at least.

She flashed a grin at Tattoo Guy and waved with one hand, “Sorry I can’t stay to chat. Maybe another time…when you have a gun to provide more of an incentive.” She kicked her horse and leaned forward as the beast began to gallop down the road. Clods of dirt and dust flew behind her as she escaped.


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