Last night, Topher had snuck into the Food Hall and stolen several fruits and vegetables for his journey. He knew they would not look for him until tomorrow, unless fortune was with him and the Brother who delivered his meal in the morning did not notice he was missing when he slid his tray in onto the floor. If Topher’s absence went undetected at first, then he would have a few more hours before they started looking for him.
He crouched in the bushes behind the outer Order building, a solid, stone representation of his chance to turn back.
Topher looked up at the stars and breathed in the cool, clean air. Sitting in the darkness alone, staring up at the starry sky, he realized he had never in his life been unaccompanied by a Brother, or even his parents before that. He was sixteen years old, and alone in his life for the first time. A smile of pure joy spread across his face and he dashed forward.
Heedless of any Brother who might witness his escape, Topher ran and ran, exhilaration speeding his sudden journey into the night. The moon lit his flight, and Topher ran for what he knew were miles, breathing in the cool night air, the wisps of the green meadow grasses brushing the tips of his fingers.
Finally, exhilaration turned to a heated, slowed jog, and soon, he stopped altogether. Though the evening was a chilled one, sweat dripped down his temple. He bent over, breathless. Still, however, he was amazed at the pure elation his new-found freedom brought him. His heart pounded in his chest.
Topher knew it was time to direct his path. He believed the Brothers would watch for him in the direction of Harper Hill, for while it was a day or so farther away, it was more populated and would offer more advantages for a runaway Brother as well as shelter and food.
That was why he was running west, toward the smaller villages and eventually north toward Roarden North. A city of that size could hide any Brother and offered nearly any employment opportunity, and surely by then, his hair would have grown out. He had decided to stay in Corstarorden, for he knew little of S’hendalow, and the Free Lands offered nothing. Tortoreen was treacherous for someone of little experience with dealings in the outside Land, Topher knew, so he decided to stay where he was.
He wondered if the Brothers would look for him back at his family’s farm. Topher had read that runaways occasionally returned to their families. But he wanted nothing to do with his family. A family who took their chances with a few coins for seed to sow in the earth over a son to love held no loyalty for him. And any Brothers who returned to the family who sold them as such were foolish. For if that family had sold them once to the Silent Order, then they would sell them again. All for coin.
No, Topher had planned the details of his escape very thoroughly. He knew how to live off the land, though he hated to attribute those skills to both his family and the Brothers. It was his cropped hair that marked him most as a runaway from the Order, so until it grew out, he would hide himself away, sleeping by day and running by night.
Near the end of the evening, he wandered into a small village. Barely a village at that, just a spit of a few huts and homes, with a well in the center, and a brick oven.
Once he was sure no one was about to observe him, he stole silently through the mud into the center of the village. He gulped thirstily at the well, then took stock of the small village. One home had a lantern burning in the window, which helped him step closer. He saw laundry hanging on a line and immediately slid a man’s roughspun woolen shirt off. He helped himself to a set of trousers at another home, though they would be enormous on him.
He glanced up at the moonlit sky, sending a prayer to The One God for forgiveness. Theft was an unholy act, of course, but he had to wonder if burning a man’s tongue from his mouth was not also an unholy act?
Topher took great pains to sneak about the village without noise. Just as he was lifting two eggs from beneath a sitting hen, however, two hound dogs started barking, baying at his presence.
His heart in his mouth, Topher immediately ran with his ill-gotten booty across the village toward the woods as fast as he could.
Behind him, he heard a man holler, “Shut up, ya fuckin’ dogs!”
“You shut up, Bertrand, they’re just dogs, now go back to sleep!” came a woman’s irritated voice.
Once Topher was out of the village and back behind the forest line, he collapsed against a tree. That was just pure luck. If those dogs had been loose, had run after him….
As soon as he recovered from his fright, Topher stripped out of his navy Final Oath robe and stepped into the roughspun trousers. Fortunately, there was a drawstring in them, which he pulled as tight as he could about his waist, but anyone who saw him would wonder at the sight of them. Next, he slipped the tunic over his head.
Topher hadn’t felt the feel of such roughspun clothing since he was a child. Though he felt the cold though them, that was unfortunate. He debated what do with his robe. At least it was warm. He couldn’t leave it behind for someone to find, nor could he burn it, for someone might find the ashes. He decided to keep it hidden in his rucksack and would use it to lay on, or if he had to, a cloak of sorts if the weather turned too cold.
He stared down at himself. The feeling of trousers rather than robes was odd after all these years. Then he scoffed and stuffed the robe in his rucksack with disgust. Topher headed deeper into the woods, planning to walk all day and all of the next night as well. Finally. He was free.