Mathias tapped the last embers out of his pipe onto the stones under his feet. From his vantage point partway up the rocky cliff face he could see the campfires flickering out along the tree line below. The remains of those fires would be a clear sign of their passage in the morning light, but with dusk falling it had been hard enough to convince the people to spend the night in the forest; he had not had the heart to make them give up the last few hours of daylight for the ominous dark under the trees.
He knew they were frightened, but their fear frustrated him. For all of the dangers lurking in the shadows of those trees, the worse one was behind them, following somewhere along that same horizon where the last light bled from the sky. He couldn’t see anything yet along that glowing line, but he knew the hunters couldn’t be far behind them. It was time to move.
He took one last look behind them, slung his crossbow onto his back, and bounded down the steep slope. As he approached the encampment he could see Joss’s tall form moving among the huddles of people, offering a reassuring hand. The lad had already changed so much in the two days since they had fled the province with their bedraggled following. The young man walking towards him now bore hardly any resemblance to the quiet, anxious boy who had haunted Mathias’s footsteps the last few years as his squire. Who would have guessed it would be treason that finally changed the boy to a man.
Unexpected as it had been, the sudden responsibility of nearly a hundred slaves looking to him for safety and guidance had pulled some remarkable reserve of confidence from Joss; one that Mathias was grateful for now.
Not slaves anymore, he remembered. Freedmen. At least once they reached the border.
“Are they ready?” Mathias’s voice sounded harsh in his own ears, cutting roughly across the hushed voices in the camp.
“Nearly,” Joss replied. “We may be travelling slow, but at least we travel light.”
“We need to get at least a few hours into the forest before making camp for the night,” Mathias declared to the group. “We will go as long as you have the stamina, then continue at first light in the morning.”
“How sure are you that we should go that way?” a woman’s voice called out from the crowd. “These woods are wild; everyone before us has planned their journey around them. Why make us take the risk?”
The speaker was a wiry, black-haired woman, probably only a few years older than Joss, but she had an air of weariness that he did not. Her eyes were sunken into a too-thin face, and the lines of her mouth were strained. The years had been much harder on her. A little boy clung to her skirts, watching him with fearful eyes.
“Not one of those others made it to the border,” Mathias replied gruffly, looking away from the boy's solemn stare. “The path through the woods will save you nearly a day’s travel. Every hour we can put between you and the capitol is one less hour the hunters have to catch up with us.”
“We have only your word that none of the others made it,” she replied defiantly. “That is the tale your people have always wanted to tell, to keep us from making the attempt.”
“Believe what you want,” he answered with a scowl. He should have known they would never truly trust him, he had been the face of their fear for far too long. “If you are so sure you can take the long road around on your own.”
“I have not taken this path myself, but I have seen the maps many times,” Joss cut in with a conciliatory tone. “The path through the forest is far shorter, and it is not what the hunters expect. The other groups were alone; we will get you safely through the woods.”
She seemed somewhat appeased by this, and as Joss was speaking the last of the people joined them. As he turned towards the path, a familiar flicker of movement caught the corner of Mathias’s vision and his chest tightened suddenly, but when he looked, it was a little girl running to her mother. He shook his head and covered his eyes for a moment, pushing the phantom memory back, and when he looked up again he saw the little boy still watching him.
“You cover the rear,” he told Joss, and stepped forward into the shadows of the trees.
Mathias was grateful for the warmth of the night. They had been traveling for hours through the dark trees, Mathias in the lead. He had to work to pick out the path at times; travel through the forest was not very common even in the day. The path was overgrown in places and he was working by moonlight. Joss followed behind the last of the freedmen, making sure no one fell behind. He had been searching for somewhere to camp for a while now, but each place too small, or too exposed. Their pace had slowed considerably the last few minutes, and when he looked back Mathias could see most of the children being carried by mothers or older siblings. Behind him he could hear a woman singing softly to a whimpering child, and he found himself matching his footfalls to the gentle cadence. Suddenly, he realized the sounds of his steps had changed from the percussive tap of boots on dry ground to the quiet pad of damp earth. He thought quickly, trying to remember if they were anywhere near a stream crossing. A few steps later he felt the tell-tale slide of wet ground. He held up a hand to stop the group and squinted into the darkness at the path ahead. A fearful murmur ran through the freedmen and then they quieted abruptly, watching him. Mathias couldn’t see or hear anything. He was about to give the signal to keep moving when the water began to rise rapidly under his feet.
“Move up the slope!” he bellowed, “Don’t stop until you reach dry ground!”
Behind him people started scrambling up the slope into the trees, shouting in fear and confusion. He could hear Joss’s heavy footfalls running to him, all the while he looked frantically through the darkness for the creature he knew must be near.
A scream finally directed his attention to the right place; a panicked woman lunged desperately back down towards the path. A little girl was being drug into the mud, long fingers of vine and tree bark gripping her tightly around the waist. Mathias cursed and ran to them. The woman had caught the girl’s arms and was pulled to the ground with her. Mathias raised his sword and hacked ferociously at the monstrous arm. It retracted abruptly at the injury, and woman and child fled, sobbing, up the slope.
From the darkness the arm shot forward again, this time aiming for Mathias, but Joss was there, knocking it back with a thrust of his sword, sending splinters flying wetly into the air.
“We need fire,” he shouted to Joss and dug through his traveling pouch with one hand, searching for his flint and steel. He had barely grasped them when another arm struck out; this time he leapt away falling hard on his side, the steel nearly slipping from his hand into the mud at his feet.
“The oil lamps,” Joss shouted, pointing. On the path behind Mathias lay the people’s oil lamps, left behind in their haste, and unused since he had instructed them to travel in darkness. He thrust his sword one handed into the soft earth and grasped one. Joss charged ahead of him, hacking at the creature’s groping arms and clearing a path for him. He ran forward, till he could see the thing’s body, stretched along the forest floor, dripping with mud. With a shout he smashed the oil lamp over it, and moved to strike the flint and steel.
At that moment one of the thing’s arms flailed away from Joss’s blows and struck a nearby tree. At the cracking sound of the branches breaking, Mathias looked left and rolled desperately out of the way as the tree crashed right next to him, drenching him with foul water and mud. Scrambling back to his feet and away from the trunk, Mathias felt his chest tighten as his hands started shaking, dropping the flint and steel with a splash into the dark, muddy water. He heard Joss cry out nearby, but his vision was swimming and the cracking of the branches was echoing over and over in his mind. “Not again," he mumbled, trying desperately to steady his hands. A blaze of light ran past his vision and exploded into a bonfire nearly at his feet. The heat came up in a wave and the creature shrieked an inhuman, gurgling sound as it recoiled back into the depths. The sound of it shocked Mathias back into reality. He felt rough hands on his arm; one of the slave men was dragging him back from the flames . Joss grabbed his other arm and together the two men pulled him out of the mud and onto dry ground.
Mathias could hear his own breathing, loud and ragged; he felt like a drowning man struggling to resurface.
“Too slow,” he realized he was gasping, “too slow, didn’t make it, didn’t see…”
He forced himself to stop talking and closed his eyes to recover his sense of the present. When he opened them again he saw Joss watching him. The boy had a gash across his cheek that was bleeding freely down his neck, but he was ignoring it, a hand on Mathias’s shoulder and a look of pained concern on his face.
“What happened,” Mathias muttered.
“A couple of the men heard you yell for fire and lit torches and followed you,” he explained. “Everyone is alright, I think.”
“Except you,” Mathias said, heaving himself to his feet and gesturing at the boy’s face.
“Oh this is nothing,” Joss replied, wiping gingerly at the blood. “I was just a little too slow.”
He looked at Mathias again, concern wrinkling his young forehead.
“I’m alright too,” Mathias said gruffly. “Let’s check on the others.”
Joss paused for a moment, then nodded solemnly.
At the top of the slope the freedmen clustered together fearfully.
“Is anyone missing?” Mathias asked.
“No,” an older woman replied, “but the girl will need a stretcher.” She pointed to where the little girl who had nearly been dragged away by the beast was laying. Another woman was gently trying to clean the girl’s leg, which was bleeding from several wide gashes. The girl’s mother cradled her small head in her lap.
“We should make camp anyways,” Mathias said. “We will make a stretcher in the morning.”
The girl’s mother shook her head silently, tears coursing down her cheeks. The woman who had first answered him spoke for her.
“We don’t want to stay a moment longer in this forest. We trusted you despite what we had heard and despite what you are, but this is an evil place." She spat the words bitterly, but her words rang true in his heart. Why had he had brought them so far on this dangerous road if not in a selfish, impossible attempt to assuage his own guilt?
The people circled around them nodded in agreement and several muttered under their breath, giving him sidelong glances.
“If we wait till we are out of the forest we will have to make camp in the open and risk being found by the hunters,” he said. “If we camp here they will have miles to cover trying to guess where we come out.”
“For all we know you are leading us into their trap anyways.” The young black haired woman this time. “At least this way we would die on our feet, under the light of the sun.”
“Hush,” the older woman said with a staying motion. She turned back to Mathias. “We have decided to trust you and it is too late to go back on that now. But we will not spend the night here.”
“It will be hours still till we reach the end of the forest. Your people don’t have the stamina to make it tonight.”
“We will make it,” she said grimly. “We knew the journey wouldn’t be easy.”
He looked around and saw determination in their eyes.
“Alright,” he said resignedly. “Make a stretcher for the girl and we’ll move on.”
Hours later, Mathias stood on the edge of the forest, looking and listening for any sign of the hunters. When he was finally satisfied that they were alone, he motioned the rest of the group forward to begin making camp. He could feel the palpable sense of relief as they looked up at the stars that had been hidden from them so long. Joss followed the last of them out from under the trees and joined him.
“How long do you think we can rest?” he asked.
“The hunters will be unsure of where we came out, and with the river to the south and this cliff face on our north this place will be hard to access. But once they catch our trail they will move fast… We should be out of sight of the forest by the time the sun reaches noon or we will have no chance of reaching the border before they catch up.”
Joss nodded. “I will tell them no campfires, just to make do with what is in their packs.”
“Find some volunteers to take watch shifts. We should have at least three.”
Joss nodded and went to work.
Mathias woke his replacement just as the sun was breaking the horizon. The bleary-eyed man stumbled a little in the gray light as Mathias showed him where to go, but assured Mathias that he was alert enough.
Mathias stretched out on his own bedroll with a groan of relief and closed his eyes only to startle awake just a few minutes later to the sharp crack of branches. He sat up in alarm, his breath caught in his throat, but the camp was still and silent, the freedmen sleeping soundly all around him. He laid down and closed his eyes again, trying to dispel the nightmare, but even his good dreams these days were haunted by the sound of small footsteps, and he couldn’t bring himself to fall asleep again. Resignedly, he got up and strapped his crossbow onto his back.
He had almost completed his circle of the camp’s perimeter when he came upon Joss keeping watch. The young man waved and gestured for Mathias to join him.
“You haven’t been up this whole time?” Mathias asked.
“No, no,” he replied. “I took second watch. I thought it would be best if one of us decided when to wake them. I think only another hour or so and we will have to.”
Mathias grunted in agreement and sat down on a rock beside him. The young man was looking off into the west and Mathias followed his gaze.
Joss broke the silence after a few minutes.
“What does the border look like,” he asked. “You’ve never taken me on a hunt that brought us close enough to see it.”
“Very few ever got that far,” Mathias replied. “It is… difficult to describe.”
“I’ve never seen any kind of magic,” Joss said wonderingly. “Their queen must be powerful to extend her spell across the whole border. Do you know how it works?”
“I’m not sure anyone knows except Her,” Mathias said, shifting uncomfortably. “That royal line has kept our soldiers at bay for many centuries.”
“Can you see the border clearly? Or is it more subtle?”
“You can see it from quite far,” Mathias answered. “It is high enough that you could not shoot an arrow over it. It looks like…. Like looking through running water. You can see through it, and yet not at the same time.”
“I wonder how it knows who to let through,” Joss mused. “Do you think all of the people will make it?”
“Certainly not,” Mathias answered. “They say the spell can read what is in your heart and will only allow the innocent and the good to pass. I have never been fool enough to touch it myself, but I saw one of the hunters try. He fell like a dead man. We had to carry him all the way back to the city.”
“Do you think it will let me through?” Joss asked.
“Without a doubt,” Mathias said gruffly. “Why do you think I asked you to join me in this mad affair? Your father should never have sent you to apprentice with the Hunt, you didn’t have the heart for it. You always knew better.”
Joss was silent for a moment before responding, perhaps reflecting on the family he was leaving behind.
“I have never been more surprised in my life than when you came to me with your idea. But it makes sense the more I think on it. How could the world look the same to you after-”
He cut short looking sharply at Mathias.
Mathias shrugged his shoulders, as if trying to shift the invisible weight on his shoulders.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know,” Joss said. “Your son had climbed that tree a thousand times, how could you have known it would break? Last night in the woods- I never knew that you blamed yourself, that you thought you could have stopped it.”
Mathias sat in silence and Joss studied the ground at his feet. Finally Mathias said,
"An old swordmaster used to tell me that battle changes a man. I've never been in a real battle; shooting down innocent runaways doesn't count. But when Nico died everything looks different. It was like the puzzle pieces didn't fit anymore. So I suppose that is what he meant. That's why I asked you. You've always been a mismatched piece." He paused for a moment, embarrassed by his own candor before continuing, "You may have to cross that border without me, you know.”
Joss looked up in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“I spent years hunting down theses people,” Mathias said. “The witch queen’s magic looks at a man’s heart. In mine she will find more than enough guilt to condemn me.”
“I don’t understand the Queen's magic,” Joss said, “but surely today's work will do something to balance the scales on that account. Nearly a hundred people brought to freedom. There has never been anything like it.”
“You will be alright without me. That’s why I chose you to come with us,” Mathias said, standing. “Let’s get them up. We need to get moving.”
They traveled slowly but steadily for hours. The freedmen took turns carrying the girl on the stretcher, and that set the pace for the whole group. The day was beautiful and the bright sunshine lifted the spirits of the travelers, but as the hours wore on Mathias felt increasingly uneasy.
“We must be nearly there,” Joss said.
“Yes, it’s a clear day, so once we reach the top of that ridge we should be able to see it,” Mathias answered. The freedmen close enough to hear him passed the news through the group and they picked up their pace in excitement.
Mathias looked back over his shoulder for what must have been the hundredth time. His skin crawled underneath where he had torn the hunter’s patch from his jacket shoulder. “I’m going ahead to look from higher ground,” he told Joss and jogged past the group and up the ridge. From that vantage point he scanned the horizon at their backs. Still nothing. He turned to look ahead and saw the border. He had hoped it might look different to him now; clearer or more welcoming. But it looked as it always had, a shimmering wall cutting across the wide plains like a tear in fabric, the light warping through it so he couldn’t see what was on the other side. It extended up so high that he could not see it’s end even from his elevated position.
That was when he finally saw them. Miles in the distance, close along the edge of the border, a cloud of dust rising from the ground.
He called out a warning to Joss, who hurried to join him.
“They are on horseback; at that rate they will reach us before we cross,” Joss said in alarm, “we need to hurry.” He turned back to the people and began to rush them, calling to the stragglers in the back to move faster.
Mathias ordered two of the stronger men to take over the stretcher . He heard gasps of wonder as the group started to crest the hill and came in view of the border, but there was no time to stop and stare; he shouted to them to descend the steep hill towards their goal. When he reached the bottom of the slope he couldn’t see the hunters any longer, but he knew they must be closing the gap quickly.
From here it was a straight path across the grassy plain to safety. Those who could began to run, men and women picking up their children in an attempt to move faster. The stretcher still lagged behind, the girl’s mother anxiously following. Joss helped along some of the older people who were struggling after the long days of travel. The minutes stretched on into an hour, and still they ran.
Suddenly like thunder, the sound of horse’s hooves broke upon them. Freedmen cried out in alarm as the hunters came into view. Mathias cursed. Far ahead he saw the first few people disappear into the shimmering wall.
He stopped, steadied his crossbow, and began to fire. As the first bolt flew straight and sure he smiled for the first time in months. Every bolt that found its mark was another person crossing to freedom; another child who would grow up in peace. Despite the clamor surrounding him, there was a peace in his heart that he had never felt as a hunter.
Farther ahead Joss was firing as well. Two riders pulled up short behind their fallen companions and lowered their crossbows. Mathias leapt away and shouted a warning to Joss that was lost in the chaos and noise, but the boy was already moving. A crossbow bolt struck the ground where he had been standing, and another narrowly missed the stretcher passing behind him. One of the men carrying it cried out in fear, dropped his end and ran. The little girl screamed in pain and terror, but Joss was already there, helping the mother lift the child back onto the stretcher and taking up the abandoned post.
Mathias paused again and sent off another shot, but the other riders were closing in, swords glittering in the sunlight. The man who had dropped the stretcher reached the border, but Mathias saw him hit it like a wall and crumple to the ground.
He ran again and stopped short of the border to shoot another bolt. Nearly everyone had made it now, he just needed to buy enough time for Joss and the girl to cross. He downed another rider and spared a glance at them. They were almost there. Another shot, and his hand reached into an empty quiver. When he looked around they were disappearing behind him into safety.
This time when he looked back the fastest rider was nearly upon him. He dropped the crossbow and drew his sword, knowing he had no chance against a mounted foe. He felt strangely calm watching death bear down on him.
But the rider fell, a crossbow bolt stuck squarely in his chest. Mathias dodged away from the panicked horse in confusion, then he heard a familiar voice. Joss had come back for him.
“What are you doing,” the boy was shouting, “Cross the border!”
Another rider was nearly on them, and yet another had stopped and was loading his crossbow.
Mathias looked over at the man who still lay where he had fallen from trying to cross the magical barrier, but Joss was still tugging at him insistently. Mathias turned to the shimmering wall, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.
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