A young man darted through the forest, stealing glances behind him as he ran. He wore a stained and patched white shirt and pants with tattered and frayed hems. His feet were bare, and every so often, he winced and paused to pull a burr or a thorn out of his bare feet. His hazel eyes scouted the ground before and behind him, and his raven curls fell thick and long in his face.
He paused again, balancing on his right foot to inspect the sole of his left when he heard the sound of pursuit. He moved, quickly and quietly to a nearby tree and swarmed up into the branches, hiding among the changing leaves. He moved to another branch, crouching on its surface, his body tense and his wide eyes searching for any sign of his pursuers. The brush rustled, a bush shook, and two young men emerged, one fighting with the thorns of the holly bush they went through as it snagged on his cloak. Tired and breathless, the pair stopped to catch their breath.
Finally, the older spoke. "This is ridiculous, Wes! Blaine has a night's head start!"
Wes replied with a glare. "So we don't even try to find him? David, with all the thorns on the ground, he can't have gone far without shoes. Not only that, he never learned survival like this, and winter is coming on fast. Without us, he'll die."
Slowly, cautiously, Blaine descended a few branches, getting a closer look, assuring himself that they were alone. Satisfied, he dropped to the ground, landing, catlike, on the balls of his feet in front of them. "What's wrong with you two?" He demanded. "If you're caught with me…. The punishment for helping a runaway slave is severe."
"And the penalty for not helping a friend?" Wes retorted, laying a gentle hand on Blaine's shoulder. "We couldn't abandon you, Blaine."
"And your craftmasters?" Blaine asked softly.
"I didn't really want to be a blacksmith anyway." David shrugged.
"What about your fathers? They won't be happy that you ran off with the likes of me."
"Blaine, we're both of age. We don't belong to anyone besides ourselves. Unlike you."
"I don't belong to anyone besides myself either." Blaine replied.
"Tell that to your master."
"If I don't keep moving, that's exactly what I'll end up doing, shortly before my death." Blaine retorted. "Go home, both of you. I have to go alone."
"With what provisions? Do you have any food? Clothing?" David asked, staring him down.
Blaine gritted his teeth. "I never could break your stubbornness."
"Nor should you try." Wes replied. He and David set off at a steady trot, following Blaine. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, though Blaine checked the urge to start a mad headlong sprint.
"Has my escape been made public yet?" Blaine asked as they moved.
"Well…" Wes chewed his lip.
"The Committee was informed this morning." David said.
Blaine's blood ran cold. "I'm going to die." The Committee was a special task force used to organize and regulate the sale, purchase, and status of slaves. They were tasked with the location and recapture of escaped slaves. It was a ruthless, unforgiving group, and to Blaine's knowledge, they had never failed to capture a runaway.
Slaves who attempted to escape were executed publicly. They and anyone who assisted them were flogged severely. The slaves were then locked in iron cages until the end of the week, when they were hanged. Those who assisted them were sold into slavery themselves, usually to the master of the escaped slave.
"We all will if we keep up this pace. We need horses."
"Where do you propose we find them?" Blaine demanded.
"There's a cabin, not half a days' walk from here. I've seen it before when I was out riding. There are stables there where we can get horses." David said quietly.
"How will we do that? I'm already a runaway. I won't resort to being a thief as well." Blaine warned.
"We'll take what we need and leave money. It will be an inconvenience insofar as whoever lives there will have to make a trip to the market, but we'll leave enough to replace whatever we take."
"It's not preferable, but it's necessary." Wes said, not looking too happy about the idea.
"You'll have to leave that all to us, though." David said, looking meaningfully at the scar on Blaine's hand. He rubbed it absently. All slaves had their masters' personal mark branded onto the back of their left hands. Blaine had worn the scar for as long as he could remember. It would forever be a part of him, he knew.
"It would be better." He agreed reluctantly. "If the owner is around, it could be problematic for me to be seen."
Silence fell between them as the pace began to wear on weary bones. Blaine was impressed that Wes and David had caught up with him.
He had escaped the previous night out of desperation. For the last few weeks, his master's daughter had made a habit of approaching him in the same way he had approached many of the more handsome slaves. Each time, he had politely refused her advances, pleading ignorance and inexperience and fear of her father's wrath if they were to be caught. She had approached him again yesterday afternoon, and, as always, he had refused her. She had slapped him, ordered him flogged, and left, her dignity hurt.
As he lay in his barracks, Lady Quinn's maid approached him to save him. Apparently Lady Quinn was carrying, and was spreading the rumor that the babe was his. Blaine had not waited until her father found out. If he was shown mercy, he would be made a eunuch. If not, he would dance the Devil's Jig at the gallows. Neither option appealed to him as much as even a chance at freedom. So he ran.
He had moved carefully through the city and more freely once he got into the forest. It was midnight at least when he managed to escape, and he ran in the river to hide his scent from any hounds that were used in pursuit. With winter coming, the water had been frigid, and he had stopped several times along the way to give him numb feet a few minutes' respite. Twice, he had slipped, falling headlong into the water and soaking his clothes through. Shortly after dawn, cold and exhaustion took him and he curled up and slept for a time.
Now it was midmorning and he didn't think that he would be able to continue this pace for much longer. Truth be told, he was bone weary, and the brush underfoot stabbed him continually. At midday, he could go no further, and felt his legs go out from under him.
"Blaine!" Wes and David were at his side immediately, but he waved them off.
"I'll be fine. I just need a moment's rest." He pulled his meager shirt, now damp with sweat, off his chest and began tearing it into strips. These, he tied around his feet, covering the sensitive skin and slowing the blood flow from half a dozen cuts.
'It looks like rain." Wes observed. "That will help hide the trail, though I can't say I'm excited about traveling in it."
"No, I can't say that I am either." Blaine agreed, looking skyward. "But I'll take whatever help comes to me." He winced as he tried to stand on legs that wouldn't hold his weight.
"Blaine, eat something." David murmured, digging through his pack and handing Blaine some dried beef. Ravenous, Blaine tore into it, eating the piece David had given him and checking the urge to demand more.
"Thank you." Blaine allowed himself a few more moments and a mouthful of water before getting carefully to his feet. His legs held. "We should press on."
Wes and David got to their feet without complaint and they set off again, keeping pace with Blaine for a while. Slowly, they began to fall behind, and Blaine cut his pace to make it easier on them. He sighed. He had known the two of them all his life. He smiled, remembering how he had met Wes.
He clutched the message to his chest, gazing skyward. Master had told him to be back by nightfall, and the sun was setting. He broke into a run, darting into the street. A surprised, angry neigh caught his attention, and a horse reared over him. He dodged the thundering hooves, tripping over his bare feet and landing in the dirt road. He stared at the rearing horse and the man astride it. The man was obviously a "Mangy beast! What were you thinking? My horse almost threw me."
"But I thought that good riders don't fall off no rearing horse." Blaine protested. That was what his master had told him.
The man stared at him, then raised his riding crop. "Why, you insolent little-!"
Blaine knelt in the street, flinching away from the blow. He could hear the crop whistling towards him, and buried his nose into the ground, awaiting a blow that never came. He looked up to see a noble boy, maybe a year older than him, standing over his prone form. "Move, Lad!"
"He's just a child." The boy replied. "And his master will have him beat anyway for being late doing what he was bade to do."
"And he'll get more for scaring my horse and then insulting me."
"He's a slave. He doesn't know that he insulted you. I'm sure he heard his master say it and is just repeating it. Would you punish a child for the ignorance of whoever he heard it from?" The boy asked, holding his ground.
"You ask me to have him insult me and then let him get away with it?" The man asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Is he really a person? I would think that having him say something ignorant is like being bitten by mosquitoes. It's unpleasant, but unavoidable. You don't whip the mosquitoes. Why whip him?" The boy asked calmly.
The man chuckled. "A worthy analogy, though I wonder why you would argue for a slave."
"My Papa taught me that the Lord lets those into Heaven that show mercy to those beneath them."
"Your father taught you well."
The boy grinned. "Thank you, Sir. I'll tell him that you said so."
"As for you, slave…"
Blaine whimpered and pressed his forehead to the ground. "Forgive me, Lord. I'll not do it again."
"See that you don't. Next time, I won't be so kind."
"Yes, Lord. Thank you for your mercy. I don't deserve it."
"No." The man agreed. "You don't."
Blaine stayed where he was, forehead pressed against the ground until the sound of hoofbeats faded, then looked up to see the boy's hand in front of his face. "Aw, ignore that stuffed up old man. He's not worth it."
"If you say so, Lord." Blaine said carefully, not daring to move.
"My father is 'Lord.'" The boy informed him. "I'm Wes."
"Wes." Blaine repeated, nodding his head in a bow.
"Come on. You're getting all dirty on the ground." He grabbed Blaine's arm and helped him to his feet. "You speak really well for someone so young."
Blaine flushed. "I'm older than I look. I'm just short."
"You're lucky you're quick, though. If you hadn't moved so fast, a big horse like that woulda crushed you." Wes said cheerfully. "Why'd you run out into the road anyway, Dummy?"
"I was in a hurry. My master wanted me home by dark." Blaine said, looking skyward again. He groaned when he saw stars. "Master isn't gonna be happy about this."
"I'm meeting my friend David in the square, so we'll come with you. No master is gonna be mad if their slave is held up by a noble." Wes set off at a steady trot, and Blaine hurried to keep up on shorter legs. "So what's your name, anyway?"
"Blaine, huh?" Wes flagged down his friend when they reached the square. The new boy hurried over. "David, this is my friend Blaine. Blaine, meet David."
Blaine bowed low like he'd been taught. "Hello, Lord."
David scoffed. "My name is David."
"David." Blaine repeated, smiling. "Hello, David."
"We gotta go with Blaine to his master 'cause he got held up and he won't get in trouble if we go with him." Wes explained, draping an arm around Blaine's shoulders proudly.
"Lead the way, Blaine."
"What are you smiling about?" Wes asked, staring at him.
"I was thinking about when we met." Blaine replied, laughing. "Do you remember?"
"When I saved your hide from two beatings in one night? Yes, I remember." Wes laughed. "I remember that you were a runt and almost got yourself killed, and I remember you telling that stuffed up old vulture that he wouldn't have almost fallen if he knew how to sit a horse properly too."
Blaine laughed. "He really did sit that poor mare badly."
"Not as badly as you did when you first started." David pointed out with a grin.
"Okay, Blaine. This is the saddle."
"I know all the parts, Wes. I've watched you two do it for years." Blaine said, rolling his eyes. He had just turned thirteen, and was barely big enough to sit a pony, so his education in riding a horse had been put off until he was big enough. Since he had become friends with Wes and David, he had learned to speak properly, to read and write, and all the other lessons they had learned in school. They were his informal teachers, whenever they could get together when Blaine had time. Once he turned ten, he had gotten more time, because fewer older slaves were watching out for him and his master would give him days off.
"Oh yeah? Fine. Let's see you put all the tack on." Wes said, staring him down. Blaine grinned. Wes had forgotten all the times he had saddled their horses for him when people were watching, following their whispered instructions. Quickly and efficiently, he prepared the pony, petting its soft nose when he was done.
"Climb up." David said, grinning. Wes could be a little bit pompous sometimes, now that he was fourteen and they were thirteen. It pleased him to see Blaine knock Wes down a notch.
Blaine stared at him. "Just like that?"
"Just like that." Wes said, climbing onto his own horse as David mounted up as well. Blaine took a deep breath to steady himself and slid a foot in the stirrup, pulling himself onto the pony's back. Wes and David started correcting him.
"Sit deep in the saddle, but sit the horse lightly. No, hold the reigns like this. Keep your heels down, Blaine." Once his posture was correct, they started off. Blaine fell three times at a trot, eight times at a canter, on every single jump they tried, and only once during a gallop, but only because he had road burn all down his side and refused to try again that day.
Blaine chuckled. "I'd forgotten how bad I was." He admitted.
"But you ride well now." Wes draped an arm across his shoulders, then pulled it away quickly when Blaine hissed in pain. "Sorry. I keep forgetting your back."
"It's fine. I'm-"
"There!" David pointed to the cottage that could be seen between the trees.
"Finally!" Blaine started towards the cabin.
"Fool!" Wes and David grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Why would he be killed?" A voice asked. The three of them spun around. Wes and David both stepped in front of Blaine, guarding and hiding him.
A boy stood there, with blue eyes and chestnut hair, standing with an easy grace and watching them with suspicion. "Who are you?" Wes demanded.
"I should think I'd be the one to ask that question." The boy replied, raising an eyebrow. "After all, I live here, and you don't."
Wes opened his mouth to reply in kind, and Blaine hit his shoulder. "Where are your manners?" He squeezed between them and smiled. "Hi. My name is Blaine. This is Wes and David." He offered his hand with his most charming grin.
The boy looked him over carefully, from the messy crown of his head, down his bare chest, and all the way to his cloth-covered feet. After a moment he reached out and took Blaine's hand. "My name is Kurt."