The first leaf fell at 7:51 p.m. of the Autumnal Equinox. The brittle, brown-paper scrap fell gracelessly from the dying branches of a gray maple tree, to finally be trapped in the tangle of twigs of an abandoned catbird nest. A cold wind tugged more leaves loose, a portend of the bitter winter to come.
Cyril wended his way through the woods, weaving in and out among the old growth trees. He was grateful for the slow fall, later in the season and dry leaves crunching under his feet would give away his position.
His band of bandits was waiting at their camp to report on their last raid. The old barn was just over the next rise. He grabbed the tree trucks to help pull himself up the hill. His plan was to take them unaware, show them they have become reckless in their concealment.
They were feared from Langsdale to Southwold. Ruthless brigands who preyed on wealthy nobles traveling the trade highways, taking gold and jewels, coins and silks. Shire reeves feared them and did nothing to track them or stop them. That Cyril paid them an ample rack-off from their plundered encouraged constables’ complicity.
The last few yards, Cyril crawled on his stomach through the underbrush until he was at the outer edge of the camp.
That is where Jacoby’s swallowtail broadhead found him, splitting his back between his shoulder blades, piercing his chest and pinning him to the ground. His blood was pooling around him by the time Jacoby and Rathe made their way to his hiding place.
Rathe put his foot against Cyril’s side and wrenched the arrow out of the wound, unconcerned over any damage the ripping caused to the man’s flesh. Once the barb was free, Rathe wiped it clean on his pant leg, then handed it back to Jacoby who kicked Cyril with the toe of his boot, flipping him over onto his back.
The two men knelt to inspect their quarry.
“I could hear you whoreson zed coming for a full league,” Jacoby hawked a gob of phlegm into Cyril’s face. “I would beat you too, but I would infect my hands.”
Rathe stood, cocking his head to look down on the length of Cyril’s still body. Walking heel to toe, he marked off Cyril’s height.
“He is a puny man, it will be an easy task to dig a hole to dump him,” Rathe said.
“Leave him to the carrion birds,” Jacoby said, kicking the lifeless body. “You are unfit for anywhere but hell. I will not waste my time with your burial.”
“Were it later in the season, we could leave his carcass to freeze,” Rathe said. “If we leave it to the animals, the stench will bring more than vultures and wild boars.”
“There will be no travelers this way tonight, the sun is setting so leave it for the morning,” Rathe said. “What maggot fodder remains, we’ll burn before we break camp.”
The two turned from the carnage.
“What do we tell the others?” Jacoby stood with his hands on his hips, looking down on their camp.
“Tell them he ran off, the milksop,” Rathe said.
The next morning, the band found Rathe and Jacoby at the crest of the hill. Their eviscerated bodies backed against the trees as if they simply fell asleep on sentry.
“Gads! What happened here?”
The men searched the area, looking for clues to the murders.
“Over here!” One of the men found another gory scene, but no body.
The brigands circled the spot, not knowing that is where their leader fell victim to Rathe and Jacoby.
“I found this,” said one of the bandits, holding a broken arrow bearing Jacoby’s fletch. “Rathe and Jacoby each had a half wedged into their gut.”
The band left Rathe and Jacoby, racing to camp to clear out of the cursed woods only to find their loot and horses gone. Within a fortnight, the entire gang was dead.
A year later, a hunched-back merchant drove his wagon through Langsdale toward Southwold at daybreak. He stopped at an abandoned bandit camp. Struggling to the top of the small hill to the south of the camp, the man shuffled through the carpet of dry leaves until he kicked up two piles of old, weather-bleached bones.
Looking down at the scattered skeletons, the merchant absently rubbed at his sunken chest were a brutal v-shaped scar, still an angry red, throbbed in the cold morning air.
Pushing the bones back under the leaves, the merchant began to chuckle. He reached into a coin purse hanging from his belt, pulling out two gold coins and flipped them high in the air.
“Consider this your cut of the booty, boys,” he said over his shoulder as he slowly made his way back down the hill, the coins barely making a sound when they landed. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”