There was nothing left in him. Pain had a firm grip on his body, and now every step he made was white hot agony squeezing out the last of his energy. But he kept running. He had to. The wolfen wasn’t too far away.Once it found his trail again, the boy knew his life was over.
He had been lucky yesterday, bagging three rabbits and a couple of moles.His knapsack had hung heavy on his back, but he had much too proud of himself to really notice the weight.And much too sure of himself to realize that the game was leaking blood in tell-tale droplets along the forest floor.
It was by pure luck that he had heard the wolfen’s approach as the animal stalked him.He had stopped to relieve himself against a tree.Buttoning himself up, Case had swung around to resume his trek when the huge animal struck.It hit the knapsack instead of the boy, who had been its intended target.The impact had slammed the boy into a thatch of wild strawberries.
Terrified, he had screamed as he managed to scramble out of the arm straps while the wild animals tore at the fabric sack, shredding it as easily as paper as it sought the source of blood the boy had caught earlier.
Somehow he got out and away from the wolfen, and ran, pure terror pumping adrenalin through his system as he raced for the sanctuary of the compound. Or so he thought.The back of his vest was coated with blood, providing a clear beacon for the animal to follow at its leisure, now that the initial hunger pangs in its belly had been satisfied.
A tall maple provided a perch for the night, but the wolfen never let him forget it was camped nearby.Unable to sleep except in fits and starts, the boy sat in a fork near the top of the tree, trembling from the cold and fear.All night long the wolfen howled at the half moon as it waited for its next meal to come back down to the ground.
Sometime before dawn, the animal had left. But he knew it wasn't gone for good. Quickly, Case climbed down out of the tree and started running again.He hoped that this time his sense of direction hadn’t lied to him.
He used his head now, recalling little tricks he had overheard other soldiers and hunters discussing.Like peeing in a crop of bushes in a direction he wasn’t going so that the animal would spend valuable time searching the wrong trail.Then there was the stream bed, where he traversed in the water several hundred feet along the waterline before angling out on the opposite side. Unfortunately the wolfen had managed to catch wind of him with its sensitive nose, and for the last few minutes Case had heard it growling as it advanced on him.
There was no more fight left in him.He was hungry and in need of something to drink.His legs felt like pudding.It would be a miracle if he managed to hoist himself back up another tree, but then what would he do?The animal wouldn’t let him out of its sight this next time.It would stay until he either jumped out on his own, or fell out from exhaustion.
Each step was like dragging his feet through a soggy swamp.His lungs were on fire inside his chest, and his heart was hammering so hard the thunder of blood inside his ears was deafening.
Behind him the wolfen barked as it casually pursued him.It had become a simple game of letting the prey tire itself out before pouncing on it.Case knew the tactic as well as the animal did as he swatted aside a tier of tall ferns.There was no more stealth in his running.No use in trying to stay low or quiet.He was too far gone to take any more precautions.The wolfen had won, yet the boy was damned it he’d make it easy on the creature.
The toe of his boot caught a tree root sticking up through the soil.He lurched, then tumbled face-first into the loamy soil with a hard thud.Fingers scrabbled for the only weapon he had left, the thin knife laced at his hip.Dragging it out of its sheath, he managed to prop his elbows underneath him and slowly raised his head—
—to find a pair of boots bracing his shoulders.
Slowly he lifted his eyes, following the line of the leg in the stained gray pants.A curvy leg, his muddled mind managed to distinguish.Before he could find where the legs came together he caught the edge of a bow, its string pulled back so far that the edges were bent.Case blinked and opened his mouth to ask—
His mouth suddenly closed with a snap.
“Don’t...move,” a soft voice barely whispered where he could hear it.
His overused muscles trembled.As relief washed over him, the boy buried his nose back into the loam and waited.Behind him he could hear the oncoming rush of the wolfen as it realized it was nearing its prey.Nearing the end of the hunt.
“When I say to, scoot through between my legs and run like hell.Can you do that?”
It was a woman’s voice.Unable to stop shaking, Case still was able to nod to show he understood, although he doubted if he had any strength left in order to do as he was told.
He opened his eyes and barely turned his head in both directions to see her feet.There was enough room for him to go between them if he angled slightly.
There was a movement of brush behind him.He could both see and sense the woman’s tightening of her stance.
“Whatever happens, Case, don’t look back and don’t stop until you reach the compound.Understand me?”
The boy took a gulp of air.It was Atty.Atty had come for him.And now she was going to stop the wolfen from taking him.He gave another nod.
“Stay south.You’re about a mile away.Lieutenant Paxton isn’t far away.He’ll guide you safely back to the compound.”
He could tell she was tensing.Behind him he could hear the animal breathing heavily, whuffing in loud puffs.A low growl rumbled in its throat like soft thunder.
He leaped forward, sliding between her legs before scrambling to his feet and taking off.The last sounds he heard was the twang of a bowstring and a shrill scream—whether from the wolfen or from Atty, he couldn’t tell, but he wasn’t going to stop and go back to investigate.The Battle Lady had told him to not stop.He wasn’t going to make her sacrifice worthless by disobeying her order.
Where the extra burst of strength came from, he had no idea.All he knew was that he was on his last reserves when he plowed through the thick brush and suddenly burst into a small clearing.A hand grabbed him by his vest and hauled him underneath a thicket of brambles.
“At-...Atty...”Case gulped for air as the soldier glared down at him.
“Where is she?” the man demanded, but not harshly.
Paxton understood immediately.“You were being stalked by a wolfen?”At the boy’s frantic nod, he added, “Atty’s taking on the wolfen by herself?”
Paxton debated whether to go after Atty, or to take care of the boy first, when Case managed to stammer, “She said...you would take me...h-home.”
The man frowned.Although it was indirect, it was still a direct order from the Battle Lady.She needed her Second to make sure the child was safely returned to Alta Novis.But it didn’t make his final decision come easy.
“Come on.Can you walk?”Grabbing the boy by the scruff, Paxton lifted him to his feet and set out for the compound.But they had gone less than a dozen yards when Case collapsed in exhaustion.Wordlessly, Paxton lifted the boy into his arms and started running.The sooner he got the kid back home, the sooner he could go back into the woods to help Atty.
Forcing himself to keep a steady pace, Paxton soon broke out into the open.Alta Novis lay directly ahead of him.From this position he could see the practice fields to his left and the open gates to his right.A sharp pain in his side and shoulder reminded him of what he had endured from the Bloods after the Massacre at Bearinger, and let him know he was pushing himself to his own limits.If he wasn’t careful, he wouldn’t be of any use to Atty or the Battle Lord.
Lowering Case to his feet, Paxton helped him half-walk, half-stumble toward the compound. There was a shout from the guards walking the parapet.A minute later he could see several people running toward them.At that moment, the boy’s body went limp.The child’s legs would no longer hold him, and his feet would not take another step.Paxton reached for him as Case slumped to the ground, still conscious but totally drained.
“Oh, God!Case!Case!Talk to me!Are you all right?Oh, God!”
It was his mother, reaching him first while others ran toward them from the compound.Grabbing her son, she held him tightly against her as she rocked back and forth.Crying and saying his name over and over.
“I’m all right, Mom.Just tired,” he managed to muffle against her chest.The boy closed his eyes, knowing he was finally safe.Knowing it was okay to stop running.To stop being afraid.
Paxton backed away and bent over with his hands on his thighs as he dipped into an inner well, hoping for a few more bits of energy to go back in after Atty.A large hand grasped his shoulder, and he glanced up into the Battle Lord’s face.
“She’s still in there,” he managed.
Yulen turned to the child.“Case.Look at me.”It was an authoritative voice.One the boy knew well.The Battle Lord could see fear uncurling inside the young man as he lifted his face to see Yulen bending over him and his mother.“Case, did you see Atty?”
He nodded.“Uh-huh.Sh-she found me.She told me to run.”
Yulen glanced up at the place where they had emerged from the woods.“Where is she?”
Case shook his head.“A wolfen was chasing me.Almost got me, too.She was facing it down when she told me to run.”
A strange look came over the Battle Lord’s face.“Did you see her fire at it?” he asked in a tight voice.
“No, sir.I heard her firing.And I heard something scream.But that was all.She told me not to look back, so I didn’t.”
Danna hugged her son more tightly.“I was so worried about you.”
“I’m fine now, Mom.But Atty’s still back there.”The boy looked up at the big man looking worriedly at the tree line.“She said the compound was south, about a mile away.I ran all the way until the Lieutenant found me.”
“A mile?”Yulen glanced at Paxton for verification.
“Sir, I’m going back in to see if I can find her,” Paxton said.
The Battle Lord shook his head.His red-gold hair hung loose over his shoulders.A breeze blew it away from his face.
“No.Let’s give her a little while to make it back by herself.”
“But...sir...what if she’s injured and needs our help?”
The look Yulen shot the man was enough to make Paxton take a step back in surprise.“One hour, Warren.If she hasn’t returned in one hour, we’ll take a squad in after her.”He looked down where Danna continued to clutch her son.“I’m glad to know you made it back in one piece, son,” he said softly.“Next time, though, take a buddy with you, or wait until you’re a bit older.”
“I’m sixteen, sir,” Case snapped back peevishly.
A partial smile creased one corner of Yulen’s face. The side without the deep scar.“How well I remember my sixteenth year.But, trust me, Mr. Abalam.You’re not seasoned enough to go off hunting on your own so far from the compound, much less to the east.Heed my order.Take a buddy, or give it another couple of years.”
Making an abrupt about-face, Yulen headed back for the compound with the three soldiers following in his wake.Danna helped her son to his feet before they did the same.