I just bailed my player out of a dangerous situation with plausible but still apparently contrived GM intervention. How do I follow that up with an action or situation that will preserve the sense of realism and motivate my player in finding better solutions to problems in the future?
I am running a 1-on-1 game in a fantasy setting with my player. There are no rules: the outcome of any situation is determined by my understanding of the world-setting and my assessment of whether or not my player has made a realistic and justified decision. It works pretty well for the most part. My player's character, named F, is a crossbow-wielding rogue/ranger.
The story began when his hometown was sacked by a band of mutant raiders; many of his kinsfolk are killed and enslaved. While following the raiders in an attempt to rescue his people, F met a witch, named M, who decided to make F her magically contracted thrall because she wanted to steal an item from the raiders' leader without risking her own life. (F agreed to the deal with the promise that once M gets the item, she will be strong enough to rescue to rest of F's kinsfolk.)
F and M decided on a plan, where M distracted the raiders at their campsite while F sneaked in to steal the item. He successfully stole the item and rescued a slave girl from the camp, named L. However, when trying to get back to M, F is telepathically told that M is injured while distracting the raiders, and had fled to a remote location.
F follows the telepathic signal in search of M, but ran into a encounter I prepared along the way (this is where the important part starts):
4 raiders decided to desert the rest of the raiding party after F and M's attack and are going away from the camp with a cart of slaves and supplies in tow.
My player decided to engage the raiders, telling L--the rescued slave girl--to hide in a bush with the stolen item while he went ahead and attacked. He killed 1 attack and disabled another, but the 2 remaining enemies found his location and rushed over to attack him with melee weapons.
F decided to run while the 2 enemies chased him. For a moment, it seemed like we had a stalemate--F would run and the enemies would chase, and no one could accomplish anything. (Indeed, I mentioned that F was "exhausted after a long day of hard battle", so he was likely to die if this went on longer.) So I decided to pull a punch:
I said that a group of raiders who are still loyal to the main raiding party came out of the camp. They were looking for F because F had stolen the item, but the deserters (the 2 dudes chasing him) were afraid to be caught as deserters, so they ran the other way.
At this point, my player said out of character that he "saw me helping him out", and it seemed like a problem to me to just let the problem resolve with my intervention. As a result, I decided that the deserters--after running about 30 meters away from F and finally getting caught by the search party, will rat F out, saying that they "saw the thief (F) hiding over there", and the search party sent a flying creature in F's direction to look for him. This is where the session ended.
I'm not sure if my solution after being called out for helping the player is the right one. My idea was that my intervention should only transform the problem, not resolve it, but I'm not sure if the specific situation really changed that much--F was running away from 2 dudes at his heels to now having to deal with 15 dudes, only difference being a 30 meter head start if he chose to run.
I thought about letting the player off the hook after "punishing" him, such as having the slave girl he rescued die as a result of his failure, but my player was savvy enough to point out that possibility himself, and it felt videogamey and lame to me because how facile and convenient that seemed.
I want my player to feel like his decisions and plans have real, and sometime disproportionately grave consequences, and that he should rely on me to offer him a solution to his problems (even at the cost of conveniently appropriate punishments). So, what can I do? What specific changes in this specific situation can I implement to restore the sense of stakes and to offer meaningful decision to the player? Is my goal even plausibly achievable?