Racheal Katharine Elliott's novel, Once Upon Her Veins, publishes this month! She is self-publishing, but I had the honor of doing a handful of the edits and helping her along the publishing journey. Enjoy!
They didn’t stop until night had fully settled. Mzia dropped Anuva’s hand and leaned against the rough bark of a tall oak to catch her breath. A deep ravine to the left of the path sent the sound of the stream floating up to them. Neither spoke––there was nothing to say. Mzia set her jaw. It would be no good to distress Anuva any more than she already was. It would only worry her sister if she saw just how scared Mzia felt.
So Mzia adjusted her headscarf, took a deep breath, and continued up the mountain path, Anuva at her heels. They had only gone a few paces when a small animal went scurrying along behind them. She paused and Anuva ran into her from behind.
Mzia put a finger to her lips. Something wasn’t right. She was sure she heard . . .
A twig snapped.
Faster than she could think, Mzia grabbed Anuva’s arm and leapt into the ravine. The two of them scrambled down to where the ferns grew waist-high and pressed themselves to the cool, damp earth. Mzia didn’t need to tell Anuva to be silent as they waited.
An owl hooted and took flight. Then nothing. Mzia began to wonder if she had dirtied her dress for nothing when the distinct sound of not one, but two sets of footsteps.
The pounding in Mzia’s ears grew louder as two dark shapes appeared on the path where they had stood just minutes before.
“Shouldn’t we have seen her by now?” One of them said in a harsh whisper.
“This is the path the food seller said the healers take up the mountain.”
Had Kip unknowingly sold them out? Did he tell the passing travelers where the healer’s clinic was and where they might go looking for herbs themselves? This part of the path was used by many people before it split off into the secret way to the safe house.
The men moved on without another word. Mzia caught snatches of their dark uniforms between the leaves of the ferns. Soldiers. The nightmare she always told herself wouldn’t happen was happening.
Once she was sure they were far enough away to not be heard, she roused Anuva and took her hand once more. She brought them down to the shallow creek at the bottom of the ravine, as its banks were impossibly steep to walk along. Wet shoes would be regrettable, but she didn’t so much as pause before splashing into the middle of the rocky water, with Anuva right after her. The freezing water from the mountain snows seeped into her tight-laced shoes almost instantly. From past summers exploring the mountain, Mzia knew the gorge to be narrow and took sharp turns if she went back the way they had come–a good place to lose someone who might be following.
Her feet were numb when she rounded the first corner, but she stumbled on, soaking the back hem of her skirt as she nearly ran through the ankle-deep water. Anuva kept pace just behind. There would be no tracks for these men to follow if they doubled back.
Only when she was certain she had gained enough of a distance did Mzia wade to the edge of the creek and, being as careful as possible not to step on the muddy riverbank, pull herself out onto the side of the gorge. She turned and helped Anuva out, and they scrambled up a spot that was a little less steep than the others.
“Starbreather, protect us.” She prayed this plan was clever enough to confuse their pursuers. They climbed out of the steep banks and back up into the woods. The men looking for them would go much farther into the woods before deciding to turn around.
Mzia paused just long enough to get her bearings before turning and leading them west––away from the safe house. She would take no chances of going that way unless she was certain they were alone.
Reaching a grove of aspens, she stopped to catch her breath, bent over her knees. Anuva huffed with exhaustion and between the darkness, Mzia could see her sister’s distress. No sooner had she straightened up again than the dreaded footsteps sounded. Growing up in these woods taught her to know the signs when someone approached, especially someone who did not know the forest.
Panic gripped her as the reality of the situation set in––she wasn’t going to get away from them even with her advantage of knowing the landscape. The quaking breath she took next steadied her for what would be her most important task––to keep them away from Anuva.
Mzia regretted not preparing the girl for the possibility that she would have to go on alone. And now there was no time.
She took Anuva’s hand and they were off again at a run, summoning up the energy to move on from somewhere deep within. Down a steep incline and through underbrush, she put what she hoped was enough space between them when she entered an ancient grove of white spruce where they had picnicked last summer.
She paused at the base of one of the ancient trees that she and Anuva liked to climb. Taking both her sister’s hands she had only the breath for one word. “Climb.”
Anuva’s mouth wobbled even as she gave a sharp nod. She understood. Mzia slung the food bag she had gathered off her shoulder and onto Anuva’s. But Mzia kept her medical bag, she refused to give up all hope just yet. Anuva stifled a sob with one hand as Mzia crushed her into a hug.
It began to rain.
Mzia breathed in the lavender scent of her sister’s hair, forced herself to step back, and shoved Anuva towards the tree. “Stay up there until tomorrow at nightfall. I will meet you at the safe house.”
Mzia was never more proud than when Anuva, not even looking back, swung herself up onto the first branch, and then the next.
Mzia stayed only long enough to see her sister to a good height before she turned and ran. The wind began to pick up. A storm was coming. Perhaps that would hide both of them.
Rain pelted her face and lightning cracked the sky. Thankfully, all of these trees grew close, and she slipped between well-known trunks and underbrush. The tangled mess of branches must have obscured her enough because she still saw no sign of her pursuers. But every now and again, she heard them. And as much as it frightened her that they were following, that meant that they were not looking for Anuva. If the Starbreather truly guided her path, they would never know Anuva existed. The night was dark, the clouds blocking any moon or starlight that might have given her pursuers help. The ground became rather soggy, and she kept slipping in the underbrush.
The lightning had moved off, rounding the mountain to no doubt come again in the early hours before dawn. And these were her woods. She had grown up in these shadows. She chose paths that nobody taller than herself could follow.
But she could still hear them. The night birds and the trees themselves told her they were coming. Now that she had gotten them away from Anuva, she had to find a way to shake them off her trail so she could sneak back.
She slowed to a walk, pulling off one shoe and then another. She ducked behind a large oak tree, pressing her back to it, catching her breath. They were still coming. She forced herself to wait, to be patient. She calmed her breath to listen to the forest. When the forest told her they were close, she threw one of her shoes as far as she could. To her left. Her pursuers paused.
They were too far away to see and could only hear what she had done. So, she threw the second shoe. The men, three or four now it sounded like, headed in the direction her shoes had landed. They had no headlamps with them, so it might take them some time to discover her deception.
When they passed her hiding place, she took off as quietly as she could at a right angle up the mountain. Her adrenaline kept her on high alert when she entered another pine grove, her bare feet slipping on a bed of soggy pine needles. Distant thunder rumbled. She had to get away from there as fast as possible, find out if Yulia had somehow escaped, and get back to Anuva.
Mzia could neither see nor hear the men behind her. So, she turned and dashed for what she hoped was a direction her pursuers were not. Her feet pounded on the muddy ground and for a time, that became the only sound above the patter of the rain. She turned about and saw nothing. The forest was quiet. Unnaturally so. The hair on her neck pricked.
A green light blasted from above. Shielding her eyes, she looked up and found a skyship hovering just above the treeline. Ropes dangled down all around her and, before she could make up her mind which way to run, soldiers in blue uniforms slid down the ropes and surrounded her. They had strange looking guns, short and sleek. Flashlights on their helmets shone in her eyes and made it hard to see in contrast with the dark.
Breathing heavily, she threw up her hands in defeat. No part of this could be good.