Raindrops clung to my lashes like frozen tears. They seeped into the seams of my leather armour, turning my skin clammy and cold. My cracked boots struggled to grip the sodden ground, but my steps were sure.
They had to be. I wouldn’t survive otherwise.
I slipped between two close-growing redbuds, devoid of leaves. Their spindly fingers pulled at my hair. I pulled back, heedless of the strands I left behind.
I was close to home, almost across the border. I had a responsibility to make it. My people were relying on me to.
My stomach sank as I broke free of the trees and sprinted the final feet to the stream. The body of water was swollen, nourished by heavy rains. Crossing would be impossible.
I gave my head a little shake. I couldn’t risk getting carried downstream: the sun might be hidden behind clouds, but I knew I barely had an hour to reach the border. If I set foot in those waters, I’d never make it home in time. I had to travel north instead. There was a rocky outcrop I would jump from. I could avoid swimming altogether.
Turning from the stream, I began running again. I had delayed long enough and my pursuers wouldn’t be far now. The cost of getting caught was more than my people could afford.
I stumbled as the first shout sounded behind me. Out here, I was exposed. Vulnerable. I veered right, ducking into the forest once more. The effort was futile. The footsteps grew louder, more numerous.
I ran harder. If we were forced from our lands this season, we would die. Things had become worse outside this small slice of world. Giving our portion to the beasts pursuing me would kill us. But that was the agreement we’d made. If I lost, we would leave. We would die. The barbarians would flourish, benefitting from lands we’d sown and tilled, lands we’d nourished with sweat and sorrow.
I gasped as fingers brushed my shoulder.
So close. Too close. I pumped my arms and forced my legs to move faster. I could not falter now. But wait – there was the outcrop. I only had to jump. The air seemed to thicken as I barrelled towards the edge. They knew I was close. Just one jump and a few steps to carry me over the border. Then my people would be safe another five years.
Before the stone could drop away from beneath me, I leapt.
Blood drained from my face as I went airborne. I was so high. So far from the earth. Gravity kicked in as I cleared the worst of the stream and I began to fall. I held my breathe as the ground approached. I didn’t release it as my feet hit the earth, nor when I rolled over my shoulder to absorb my momentum.
No, I only released it as pain shot up my left leg, blinding in its intensity. Spots swam in my vision. What had I done?
I swallowed, tentatively touching the rapidly swelling spot. My throat tightened at the pain it spawned.
There was a shout behind me and I released the damaged limb. I didn’t have time to wallow. I dug my fingers into the damp earth and began dragging myself towards the borderline, tears splashing down my cheeks.
Just a few metres more. The thud of feet behind me urged me on. Just a few metres more.
— Tahlia with an H
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