Moss muffled the sound of running boot steps. Two young men dodged through the forest, fleeing for their lives. Branches snagged their skin, grasped their hair and tore at their clothing. Leaves slapped their faces. In the distance, hunting hounds brayed.
“They’re getting closer.” Circan ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch.
“Then we’ve got to get farther,” Jonmarc replied.
A full run was impossible in the underbrush, but the two young men needed to put as much distance as possible between themselves and those who hunted them. That meant maintaining a steady jog despite brambles, uneven footing, and tree limbs that dipped low enough in places to smack the unwary traveler in the head.
“I thought we would have put the dogs off our scent when we waded down that stream,” Circan said.
“We might have—if we’d had more time to put between us and them,” Jonmarc’s voice was strained, laboring for breath. “They probably figured out we weren’t going north. West would strand us at the river with no way to cross. East gets us nowhere. So we had to be going South.” Their pursuers had likely forded the stream and set the dogs to sniff the riverbanks until they picked up the scent once again.
A few days ago, Jonmarc Vahanian and Circan had been mercenary soldiers under the command of Eastmark’s General Alcion, brother to King Radomar. When the small town of Chauvrenne, ravaged by floods and blight, had been unable to pay its tax, Alcion had ordered Jonmarc’s squadron to slaughter the villagers. Jonmarc and his men had sealed their fates when they warned the villagers to flee, and went on the run themselves, hoping to reach neighboring Dhasson and cross the Nu River to safety.
“How much farther?” Circan sounded as exhausted as Jonmarc felt. They had been moving almost constantly, snatching only a few candlemarks’s sleep over the course of three days, and Jonmarc knew they were nearing their limit. Their pursuers could hand off the task to the garrison at the next town, and a fresh crop of hunters would join the chase, while the quarry grew harried and dangerously weary.
“No idea,” Jonmarc admitted. “Not too much farther, if Sahila knew what he was talking about.”
They had spent most of the last three days in the forest, resorting to roads only when there was no other choice. The food they brought with them would not last much longer, assuming they could elude capture. Despite the disguises Sahila had improvised for them, darkening their skin to fit in better among the Eastmark residents, hiding their features with a potion that raised welts and scabs, it would be foolish to risk exposure by traveling the highway for longer than necessary. The few times they ventured onto roads, Jonmarc hoped it would muddy their scent, make the dogs lose them amid the smells of horse dung and ox urine. Still, the forest had seemed the safer choice, at least before Alcion’s pursuers had narrowed their lead.
Jonmarc’s boot slipped on a wet patch of moss and he went down hard, muttering a curse. He got back up, smudged the footprint in the mud as best he could, and tried to find drier footing where he might leave fewer tracks.
By Jonmarc’s dead reckoning, with the aid of his compass, they should be near the border between Eastmark and Dhasson. In theory, once they crossed into the neighboring kingdom, Alcion’s soldiers had no authority to continue their search. In reality, out here far from guards or villages, no one would be the wiser if the Eastmark soldiers kept up their hunt. And if by chance Alcion’s men encountered Dhassonian guards, Jonmarc suspected that those guards would turn a blind eye as the Eastmark soldiers apprehended their ‘criminals’.
I wonder if the others have made it this far. Surely Alcion didn’t send the whole army after us. Jonmarc’s twelve men split into teams of two, each team heading out on different paths. There were thousands of soldiers back at the Caldon army camp, but Jonmarc could not imagine that the general would deploy to them all to capture a dozen deserters.
Then again, we’ve struck a blow at his authority, and his pride, Jonmarc thought. For Alcion, defiance is a capital offense.
But it wasn’t Alcion alone who was to blame, either for the harsh punishment for Chauvrenne or the increasingly heavy-handed rule the general administered. Jonmarc held Alcion’s top advisor responsible, a vayash moru mage named Foor Arontala, a dangerous man whom Jonmarc had crossed long ago and for which he paid dearly.
Their plan had been to travel through the forest as long as possible until they were at the banks of the Nu River, and then to follow the river to the nearest crossing. The Nu was swift and wide in most places, meaning bridges were few and ferries were dangerous. Trying to swim across the mighty river was folly. Many had attempted such a feat; few had survived. Jonmarc was disinclined to tempt fate further, since it seemed luck had already turned on him.
The hounds barked again, closer now, though in the forest sounds could be deceiving. The land here was rocky, with large outcroppings of boulders and sudden drop-offs they had missed so far largely by accident. Overhead, thunder rumbled, and Jonmarc prayed for a hard rain that would wash away their footprints and sluice the dirt clean of their scent, but he doubted that such a reprieve would come.
From Circan’s frightened expression, Jonmarc knew his companion had figured the dogs had gotten closer, too. With more of a head start, they might have lost the hounds, but now, Jonmarc feared it was only a matter of time.
With luck, they’ll shoot us in the back, a quick death. But he suspected that even in this, fortune was not on his side. Arontala would use Alcion to take his vengeance for Jonmarc’s long-ago disobedience, and the price would be steep. As if the bargain had not already cost Jonmarc everyone he loved.
Up ahead, the forest cleared. If Jonmarc had figured correctly, based on the compass and what he recalled of a map, the river should be very close. Whether or not they stood a chance of crossing it remained to be seen, but a slim chance in the water was better than no chance at all where they were.
“I see them!” A man’s voice rang out behind them, and both Jonmarc and Circan ducked and dodged, zig-zagging through the trees to present a more difficult target. Jonmarc heard the twang of bowstrings. Arrows thudded into the trees around them, embedding deep into the trunks and shredding leaves with their sharp tips.
“Faster!” Jonmarc hissed, though he knew Circan was running full out. The edge of the forest was not far now, and Jonmarc made a silent prayer to the Dark Lady to deliver them from their pursuers.
More arrows hit the dirt just behind their heels, slicing through the shoulder of Jonmarc’s cloak. He and Circan were so close to where the trees opened up and the Nu River presented a last chance for deliverance.