THE HEAVY rain had lightened, which was a small mercy.
The moonlight was thin and sickly, barely breaking through the clouds. The trees shone a dull gray in the darkness. There was hardly a sound except for the rustle of leaves in the wind and the cries of some small creatures out in the darkness.
A soldier broke cover from beneath the undergrowth. He stumbled and slithered down a muddy slope toward the track. Grass and dirt tore beneath his boots, and he caught himself against the trunk of a tree to keep from falling, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
In the distance, he was sure he could hear the howl of the dogs, the hunting party. He gulped down a breath before running onward.
He was armed, it was true, but what was one shot against a legion of men? He could turn it on himself, but he had escaped death once. He had no wish to face it again.
The track was rough, little used, but it was easier than breaching the undergrowth again. He had to get as far ahead as he could. They wouldn’t continue the hunt much longer, not with the chill of the night setting in, but they might follow just long enough.
So he ran.
His legs shook with each step, but terror drove him onward. If he stopped, even to catch his breath, he didn’t think he would be able to start again. If he stopped, he would die. If he rested, he would die. If he did anything but run, he would die.
Something howled in the night, and his heart slammed against his ribs.
It might have been a dog, but it could have been a wolf.
The wind was picking up, whirling around him, icy rain lashing his face, and he could feel tears on his cheeks. Running and weeping. No honor. No dignity. All he knew was that he wanted to live.
The track he was on was broadening, and that meant it was coming closer to civilization, to people.
He hesitated only a moment before plunging off the path and back into the forest, branches whipping at his face and limbs. He caught his foot on a root and fell, rolling heavily down the slope. He crashed into a stream at the foot, breaking through a film of ice. The water was so cold it cut to the bone, and he couldn’t even draw breath to cry out.
Blindly, he tried to find purchase on the bank. He fell forward heavily onto the ground, a thin cry of pain escaping him as he crushed his left arm beneath him. Warmth spread from the limb. The wound was open again.
“Angele Dei,” he whispered desperately, “qui custos es mei, me tibi….”
A shout cut him off.
There were lights, flickering lanterns visible, like fireflies between the trees.
He pushed himself onto his knees, keening in pain, and grabbed at the low branches of a tree to pull himself upright. Splinters of bark cut into his skin, fresh blood warm on his hands. His legs were numb with cold and pain, but he ran.
The wind was icy, cutting into this throat and chest. The undergrowth was thicker, denser, and he pushed deeper into it—somewhere to hide, somewhere safe, somewhere unseen. Thorns tore at his face and hand, and he could taste blood in his mouth.
He was scrambling over a fallen tree trunk when it gave way beneath him. His ankle folded under him and he yelped, falling onto his knee. It was only when he fell that he saw the hollow beneath the fallen tree. A hiding place.
Breathing hard, he squirmed through the gap, the tree and ground tearing at him, at his clothing. It was a small space, tight and narrow, but enough to shield him. He pushed dirt up to block the opening, his nose and mouth full of the taste of moss and mud, and lay still and silent as the grave.