Running

With their homes in flames, and soldiers cutting a bloody swathe through their land, two best friend have only one option; to run. It soon becomes a race to get to the king before those black armies. As they run, they start to battle with other forces..this time emotional.

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1. One

Silver-edged by the moon, clouds scudded through the night skies, casting the landscape below into an erratic blend of light and shadow. The waters of the river swirled and flowed and a bitter wind chilled through the forest.                                                                       

Down by the water’s edge a small figure squatted. Her hair hung lankly over her face as she crouched by the swollen river banks. Her hands went from water to face, water to body in a series of repetitions. As she moved, her face was lit in an ethereal light which highlighted the cuts leaking blood.

Water dripped off her hair and soaked her shredded clothes but she felt nothing, only burning. She was contaminated, unclean and her skin carried a disease that nothing would ever rid her of.                                                                                                   

Behind her, she could hear the desperate screams of a dying village. She turned, acute agony contorting her features. As much as she wanted to help those she loved, she knew she couldn’t. They had told her to run. Out of love she had obeyed.

She still had the image of snarling lips and wild, blood – thirsty eyes staring down on her, stamped on her memory in black ink. She could still smell that rancid breath on her face; a nightmare figure that had become all too real. These memories and that….disease inside her…still needed to be flushed away.                                                                                

Her movements became even more desperate and she splashed about, nearly losing her balance on the slimy mud. Her thick, fast breaths masked the cracking of twigs and leaves coming from behind her. Oblivious, she kept scrubbing her skin until a hand clamped down on her shoulder. She emitted an inhuman screech and struggled upright, hindered by the damp skirts of her dress.                                                                                       

“Shh Haywise, it’s me.”                                                                                                    

Her body uncoiled and she slumped into the arms of her friend, crushing him in her relief. He gently pushed her away and held her at arm’s length. She saw his face was streaked with dirt, and blood glistened darkly against his pale skin. She reached out but his hand clamped on hers before she could touch it.                                                                                    

“It's just a cut from where I was hit. Leave it. But you...are you unhurt?” There was a pause. How could she bring herself to say what had really happened?  Finding no words, she hung her head. Jehan's fingers gently raised her chin.                                                   

“I need to know. Haywise?”                                                                                 

When she raised her eyes, he saw they were brimming with tears. One trickled down her grime-streaked face. Her nod was small, almost unseen. Her voice was hoarse and cracked from screaming.                                                             

'He...he...I'm not clean.'                                                                                         

Jehan's shoulders slumped as he realised what her words conveyed. Haywise's shoulders started to shake again and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to him. Through the fabric of the clothes, he felt her heart beat frantically within her chest. Her small body issued a smouldering heat.                                                                                           

The silent spell was broken by crashes and harsh guttural voices coming from the forest. Jehan acted quickly. He grabbed Haywise's hands and dragged her towards the river. Bringing her head close to his mouth, he whispered into her ear.                            

“We have to swim, keep your head down and hold in your breath. Flow with the current and not against it. You've got that?”                                                                                           

She nodded, mewling.                                                                  

“One...two...three!”                                                                                               

“There!”  The splash had alerted one of the soldiers and he stumbled a zig-zag line towards the river. His two comrades came spilling out towards him.                                                                                          

Beneath the frothing surface of the stream, Haywise and Jehan floated along with the river, feeling it push them southwards. Haywise's lungs were burning.. Desperately, she tried to keep going but she was suffocating.  She broke surface to take another deep gasp.

A long object whistled past, dangerously close and landed soundlessly on top of the water.  As she gasped in the crisp night air, the shouts from the riverbank grew louder and more bloodthirsty. Jehan's head broke through the film of water next to her, a look of sheer panic on his face.

“Swim!” he screamed.

Luck guided them safely through the storm of arrows. Haywise closed her eyes, praying that the soldier’s aim would be poor, that the current would push them along faster than the men could keep up.  There was little else she could do.

The men, angry that their quarry were getting away, pursued them for a while along the riverbank, firing blindly at the water. The current proved too strong for them to follow and gradually, the men grew tired and dropped back. 

 

 

Downstream, Haywise and Jehan drew themselves up onto mud-slicked banks and lay panting with exhaustion.

“Thank you,” breathed Haywise, “for saving my life.”

“Too late to save your dignity though,” he muttered angrily. 

Her hand reached out to him and then she saw the dark stain on her soaking sleeve, feeling white hot pain at the same time.  “Damn,” she hissed. Jehan rolled over and sat up, startled at her use of language.

“You've been hit.”

“It's nothing,” but even as she spoke, Jehan was rolling up her sleeve. 

       She winced as the harsh fabric scraped over the raw wound. Gradually, Jehan teased the cloth free. It was hard to tell the extent of damage; the moon gave little light, but he could see there was a significant amount of blood.  Fluff from her woollen gown had become stuck in the wound. Acting quickly, he tore off a piece of his tunic and went to the water’s edge. He let the cloth soak in the water then wrung it out until it was damp. He came back over to Haywise and slowly, hesitantly, placed the cloth against the wound. The impact sent a shiver of pain through her but she gritted her teeth and bore it. Softly, he patted her skin and as the skin became cleaner, he saw that the wound was not as bad as he first feared. It was just the infection he would have to watch out for now.

He realised that he had been holding his breath but he let it out now the danger had passed. The knot in his stomach untangled itself a little. She was safe.

 Haywise had been watching his face intently while he worked on her arm. When she looked at him, she somehow pushed the events of the night to the back of her mind. They were all too clearly there, a gnawing presence, but the edge of fear had been taken off. Jehan would know what to do. He would help them both.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had to bind you wounds,” he said, his voice too loud in the shroud of night. There was a forced joviality to his words which made Haywise wince. He was trying though.    

“That was before we were forced to grow up,” she forced out a light voice. Before they had reached sixteen, they were given all the joys of childhood: running around bare foot, terrorising the village animals and climbing up trees. The last time Jehan had patched up a wound had been when the branch she had been resting on snapped and crashed to the ground. The deep wound had healed cleanly and in a matter of days. She had trusted him then and she would trust him now.

“Is that better?”  he asked his voice little more than a whisper. Jehan looked her directly into her eyes. In the darkness, they glinted and Haywise could feel the intensity of his stare bridging the gap between them. She nodded as she realised the pain was gone, replaced with a slow throbbing.

Slowly, she lay down on her side and curled into a foetal position. The stars were coming out, resembling tiny jewels on a black velvet cloth. The fierce wind had died down, leaving a faint breeze which chilled all it whispered across. 

Jehan moved closer until his body was next to hers. There was no gap between them, sealing in the warmth.  His arm draped around her for protection and warmth. She snuggled into it gratefully. Turning, she wrapped her uninjured arm around his waist and put her cheek in the hollow under his neck. She heard the steady beating of his heart and felt the pulse in his neck. His breath, which was hot and sweet, blew into her hair.

“Who did you lose?” For a moment, she thought she had said the wrong thing. She felt him swallow and under her hand, his heart took on a wilder beat. Then he spoke, and she could hear the rawness in his voice.

“Everyone. Father was cut down as he tried to stop them from entering the house. Mother tried to shield the girls…” She felt a tear land on her scalp. Her arm gently squeezed his body. “They kept on coming. I killed the man who killed them and then ran…I wish I’d stayed to fight.”

“You would have been killed too. You survived to do something about it. We may not know what to do right now, but we’ll figure it out.”

Jehan didn’t answer but she knew he had heard her. His hand snaked around her back and held her.

They both listened to the sounds of the night; the water in the river hissed and sucked at the bank, occasionally an owl would hoot mournfully. From somewhere in the darkness, a fox uttered its distinctive holler.  Exhausted by the day’s events and the nocturnal lullaby, the two friends closed their eyes and welcomed the blissful escape from a grim reality.

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