We galloped through the trees so quickly they were a blur. My wet hair became like ice in the wind, my eyes watery. Jon showed no sign of slowing us down. I recognized some boulders, and I knew we were back on the path he had intended for us, but we still didn’t slow. The sun began to set in the horizon, and I feared what darkness would bring. The land became quite rocky, Angus’ hooves clanging against the stones underfoot. Jon pulled the reins back abruptly, turning him in a circle. I felt his sides heaving in exertion on my calves.
“Shh!” he hissed. He jumped down, pulling me hard so that I fell over his shoulder. He set me down and I stumbled back a few steps. He was rummaging around in the bags again, grabbing water and a few other things. I watched as he pulled Angus’ bridle, his great head coming in contact with Jon’s.
“Run fast, keep us safe.” He breathed. Then he let go and smacked his rear hard, and the horse fled in the direction we had been going. Jon stared after him for a moment, then turned to me. He grabbed my upper arm and dragged me towards a large pile of boulders. He pushed me forwards.
“In!” he whispered harshly, but all I could see in front of me were rocks.
“Jon!” I hissed back, but he shoved me and I fell onto my knees into an opening that was so well concealed I hadn’t seen it three feet in front of me. The darkness was blinding. I had always hated cramped spaces, even more so after my terrifying slide down the Mountain. My breath came in ragged gasps. I stuck my hands out, trying to feel anything, wondering what could be hiding in the darkness. I felt Jon’s hands on my waist, guiding me farther back and to the side. I heard him slide down the rough cave wall and sit. He pulled me down roughly so that I was in his lap. After him seeing me nude, I was highly uncomfortable being this close to him. I squirmed, trying to get off of him. I felt his lips at my ear.
“Don’t make any noise,” he whispered. My heart thumped as I froze. I understood that we were hiding now, hiding from those men. I nodded, relenting. He shifted, pulling me closer.
“If they find us, I can hold them off while you run. Follow the creek, it will lead ye to safety.”
“Alright,” I mumbled. I began to quiver as the adrenaline wore off, and the frigid rocks weren’t helping matters. The last rays of sunlight faded quickly from the opening of the cave, leaving us in utter darkness.
Animals began to call out to one another, some nearby and some far off. I wondered how far Angus would be able to go before he was caught. Reality dawned on me; it really was life or death out here. Up there, on the Mountain, we didn’t bother to think of such things. Only the occasional illness was cause for concern. Out here, any number of things could off you. Death was final and sure. I missed home, now more than ever. I missed my bed and my brother and sister. The dank, cold cave was surely to be my tomb.
I sniffled, wiping a hand across my runny nose. At least Jon couldn’t witness my weakness. I admired his strength and knowledge, but was also jealous of it.
He suddenly clapped his rough hand over my mouth. I jumped in fright, but felt him bend to whisper into my ear.
“They’re almost here.” His soft lips brushed my ear as he spoke. How did he know? My whole body trembled as the adrenaline surged again. It was difficult to breathe with his hand covering my mouth and part of my nose, making me even more anxious. I clutched his hand.
I then heard the unmistakable thundering of hooves on rocks, the boisterous yells from the burly men. Jon pushed my head down farther, so my right ear was resting above his heart. The thump was even—steady and unafraid. He tightened his hold, his arm constricting around my waist.
“It’s going to be alrigh’ Elise. I promised ye I’d keep ye safe.” I nodded even though I didn’t fully believe him at the moment. The men were just outside now, their pace slowing, the shouting getting nearer.
“What way now?” one yelled.
“Follow the tracks, ye idiot!”
“There are none!”
“That damn bastard!” I recognized this as the black bearded man’s voice.
“I swear once we find em’ weel rip ‘im apart right in fron’ of her!” a higher pitched voice called to the rest.
“Why? Ye think she cares wha’ ’appens to ’im? Nah, we keep ’em both around and make ’im watch his fiery woman break!” the men guffawed. My breathing came in ragged gasps now in between Jon’s fingers.
“Don’t listen,” Jon whispered. I tried to focus on the even beats of his heart, but it was drown out by the angry stomping of hooves and the raucous talking.
“Well, all sounds fun and dandy, but first we gotta find them ye bastards!” black beard growled. “Follow the creek, he’s smart and he’ll go into safe territory. If we don’t find em, take as many guests as ye want!” with the command, the horses plummeted onward and away from us. Jon stiffened. We waited in silence for half an hour before he relaxed.
“Jon?” I croaked, his hand gone from my mouth.
“Yes?” he whispered.
“Will you please explain this all to me?” I was frustrated at my lack of knowledge, and scared and cold and hungry.
He pulled my legs up, cradling me close to him. I was thankful for the warmth, as I was sure he was.
“Ehh, well I don’t really feel comfortable, ye see…” he trailed off. I was tired of his hesitant attitude.
“I don’t care anymore if you’re comfortable or not. I deserve to know.” I growled, finally angry enough to speak my mind. I crossed my arms in defiance. He sighed heavily.
“I’ve run into those men many times, killed a few of their friends. They are all exiled from Mount Tier, and their shaved heads mark them as murderers, rapists. They are evil.” He whispered into the dark. I had a hunch I knew what they intended to do with me, and it made my empty stomach churn at the thought. He sighed angrily now, obviously seeing images in his mind he’d rather forget.
“They wouldn’t just force ye to do things, they wouldn’t just take your innocence. They’d torture you. Like the twins they mentioned. Of course they raped them, but they do other vile things, turned them against each other, forced them to kill one another. For their entertainment.” he growled.
“Sorry,” he muttered, apparently embarrassed at his unusual candor.
“Why? I should be apologizing for getting us in this mess and-” before I could fully show my appreciation, though, his hand was back over my mouth, and I heard the unmistakable scream of a girl.