It was a good spot. Jain limped slowly, but still soft-footed around the perimeter one more time. A clearing with a couple of rocks fallen from the high outcropping behind, in whose shelter she could sleep, secure that no man alive could reach her from the top of that high cliff face. Old-growth trees marching away in every other direction over relatively flat ground – no high points to hide unpleasant surprises; plenty of brambles and dry, dropped branches underneath to alert her to the approach of bandits or Ramaluk’s men.
Jain rubbed at her hip as she headed gratefully towards the sheltering rocks. Not as young as I was. She managed a smile, remembering when Grist had said the same thing to her and she had gazed up at him, completely failing to understand. There was a time, he had said, when I could creep through the forest all day, hunt and dress a deer for dinner and still dance a jig before sleep. His eyes had been softer than she had ever seen then. Now, he had said, I just want to sit down. Jain’s vision blurred and she blinked hurriedly, her eyes unexpectedly wet. Sitting down sounded like a mighty fine idea right now. But first, her bow.
She unslung the long bow from her shoulder. She could handle a bigger one, of course, but in the forest, who needs it? She allowed herself a grin. Not too tired for a little pride, then? Not too old for that? Her hands had already begun the ritual of wiping down the yew wood, checking the string, counting arrows. She laid everything behind one of the rocks like a mother putting her babe to bed. Now she could lower herself down, sink her rear into the soft leaves that had gathered here, rest at last.
But old habits die hard. Jain unsheathed her knife and limped softly to the perimeter of the clearing where the saplings were. She tugged on a springy young yew and, with a prayer of apology to the bow it would never become, she pulled its tip down until it formed a low arch across an opening into the clearing, and used the top growth to tie it to the base of another sapling. Ignoring the pain in her hip and the lure of the sheltering rocks, she went around the clearing just as Grist had shown her so long ago, setting her trip-traps lest anyone come calling in the night.
The last trap set, Jain sighed heavily and limped back to the rocks. No fire tonight. Not here. She pulled a length of dried venison from her pouch and took a tentative bite. Sucking, chewing, softening up the old leather in her mouth, she tucked her pouch away and reached out one hand to the moss-covered rock that would be her chamber walls tonight. It felt cool and warm at the same time, rough with lichen here, velvety moss under her fingers there. Her hand guided her into the sheltered space between the two rocks and she leaned back into one of them, savoring the moment.
Right then, just as she started to lower herself, she heard it. Too heavy for a hare, too clumsy for a deer. Or for one of Ramuluk’s men. Bandits then. By all that’s…she sighed, and reached down for her bow. Can’t an old woman get a bit of rest?
“This is my spot for the night, boys,” she called from behind the rocks. “Move along now and there’ll be no need for unpleasantness.”
An unnatural silence followed as the forest held its breath. And now to see what they’re made of. Jain pressed the small of her back into the rocks to relieve the pain in her hip, and quietly hauled down on the yew bow, fitting the string with the ease of ages.
A low muttering from the northwest told her where and how many they were. She smiled grimly.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she called. Silence. “You’re thinking the three of you could easily take down a woman, and an old woman too, by the sounds of this voice.”
She waited just long enough for the mumbled sounds of assent, rebellion, argument before continuing.
“And you’d be wrong.”
She let that one sit there for a moment. With three of them, there’d be the brains of the outfit, who was starting to think over her words. Then there’d be the brute, straining at the leash to come in and take her on. And there’d be the sly one, hanging back to see which way he should jump at the last second. She couldn’t hear the words, but she heard the unmistakable high-low grunting of negotiation between The Brains and The Brute. She could almost hear the non-commital shrugs of The Sly One’s shoulders. It sounded like The Brute was winning.
“Boys! Boys!” She called out, her voice carrying easily across the clearing. “I just want to sit down and eat my supper in peace. There’s plenty of forest for us all. And I would know.” A pause before she let this one fly. “Because I’m Jain of the Forest. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
She had a real arrow notched by now. She had a clear line to where they were, huddling together like particularly stupid prey. She knew she had the range. And so, by the urgency in his voice, did The Brains of this little band of barrel scrapers. But The Brute was getting feisty. She’d give them one last chance.
“Now, it might be a service to the community if I loosed my arrows into all three of you right now. I reckon it certainly would be. But I’ve been walking all day, and shooting you means clearing up digging graves and such, to keep the wolves from coming and nibbling on your soft parts in the night. And I’ve had a long day, boys. I would much rather you walked on and left me to have a nice quiet sit here, in my clearing.”
She had barely stopped talking when The Brute began his blundering. She waited until he tripped one of traps. She watched as the yew sapling arced up, catching him in the face. She took aim as his head snapped back, exposing his pale throat between matted beard and dirty shirt. Swiftly, she lowered her bow and fired a neat arrow hard into the flesh of the big man’s thigh.
With one smooth movement, Jain reached her right hand over her shoulder, drew out another arrow and notched it into the string, stepping out fully from behind the rock as she did so. She kept her aim on the spot behind the squealing Brute, now writhing on the ground. She took a long steady breath.
“I’d appreciate you moving on now, boys. No need for any more trouble.”
She allowed the smile to go no further than the corners of her mouth as she heard the unmistakable sounds of rapid retreat. Then she let another arrow fly and listened, with some satisfaction, to the thud as it sank into a tree trunk and to the following silence as Brains and the Sly One froze.
“Oh, boys?” she called again, allowing the smile to curl her lip now. “I’d consider it a favor if you’d take your squealing friend here with you.”
She knew they wanted to run, but she’d heard stuck pigs make less noise than The Brute and there was no way she was having her rest spoiled by listening to that thing howling all night.
“You also might want to know I’d consider it a discourtesy if you leave him.”
The silence stretched, taut as her bowstring, as they thought this through. She could stand here all night if she had to, but the ache in her hip was making things less fun than they could be. She sighed. The Brains of this outfit was not over-qualified for his role.
“There are plenty folks would tell you: it’s better to have Jain of the Forest in your debt than to have matters stand the other way around.”
Slowly, creeping like snakes, she saw them come to the edge of the trees. First, The Brains, with his curly dark hair and white-rimmed eyes, and bobbing behind him, the lank yellow hair of The Sly One.
“How do we know you won’t shoot us when we come out to get him?”
Jain adjusted her aim. Nice big eye, that one has. Nice dark center marking the spot.
“Because I already said.”
It shouldn’t need saying twice. She frowned. Maybe her reputation was slipping. Or maybe not, she thought, as she watched The Brains slink forward, jerking his head at The Sly One once, twice, three times before he too, crept forward. Keeping his eyes on Jain’s, The Brains looped his arms under the bellowing Brute’s armpits and started to haul. The Sly One danced around them, pretending to help, whimpering a little and sending little darting glances at Jain. That one’d kill you in your sleep for a bite of half an apple, she thought.
The long twilight was giving way to night, but still Jain stood, unmoving, ignoring the protests of her muscles and that nagging hip, until long after the sounds of dragging, cursing and bellowing had died away.
At last she slung her bow over her shoulder and limped across the clearing to where the Brute had triggered her trap. She stooped and covered his blood with a heap of dried leaves. Wearily, she unsheathed her knife again, split another branch at the top of another yew sapling and reset her trap.
Slowly, slowly, she made her way back to the rocks. Stopping once more with her back to the smooth edge of the taller rock, Jain unslung her bow and listened. She heard a brown owl hooting to its mate, the scurrying of a terrified shrew; something large and nocturnal rooting, off to her right, and the wind rustling the dry leaves of a dead tree to her left. The night was alive with sounds, but none of them made by man.
Jain closed her eyes and listened once more. You’d have enjoyed that, Grist, she thought. You’d have laughed at the look on the big man’s face. And how surprised you’d have been that I let him crawl away.
Wrapping night’s dark blanket around her Jain gently, blissfully, lowered herself down onto the soft, welcoming leaves.