His heart pounded away in his chest as his feet thumped against the leaf-covered ground. The forest was silent except for the nighttime sounds of the creatures who lived here. Silent except for his panting breath and pounding feet and the crunching leaves beneath him. He couldn’t say how he’d gotten away, but he knew better than to question the turn in his luck.
He slowed down, listening for signs of continued pursuit and needing to catch his breath. He found a large tree that had fallen on its side and now created a protected hollow large enough for him to crawl into and seek salvation from the biting wind. The rise of the ground blocked the back of his sanctuary, leaving one entrance to his hiding place. He settled into the nest of autumn leaves that had made their way inside. The leaves were damp and smelled of mildew, but he knew better than to forgo this shelter for a dryer seat.
Straining his ears for sounds of his pursuers, he gulped down mouthfuls of air, trying his best to be silent, but that is a task much easier to say than do. His shoulders throbbed from the guards restraints, and his cracked and swollen lips stung when he ran his tongue between them. Once his breathing had calmed he could hear in the distance the neighing of the guards’ steeds.
One twig and then another announced another presence. The soft crunch of leaves sounded as if something approached his hollow. His heart missed a beat and he bit down on his tongue.
How could the guards be here when the beasts were so far away? He inched himself further into the hollow, making himself as small as his long limbs would allow. The noise grew closer; until it stopped. His eyes strained in the darkness, searching for the creature his ears told him was so near. A root dug into his back, wanting him to move, but he dared not knowing neither if the creature were friend or foe. The shadows danced on the ground before him, encouraged by the wind playing in the trees, and hiding anything else that might be there. The wind stopped. All was silent.
"Claus!" came a hoarse whisper, cutting through the still air. A delicate face appeared in front of him, followed by a body to match.
"Shit, Verica,” Claus stopped himself from shouting at the last moment. “I thought you were one of the bloody guards." He chastised her. His heart hammered away against his ribcage from the shock.
"I'm sorry," she squeezed into the hollow beside him, not that there was any room to spare for her, intent on regaining some air in her lungs as well. "I think we should be okay now; they were following after Daniel."
"Dammit. Were they able to come after us so quickly?" He slammed his fist against his knee. This wasn't good. Daniel was more skilled than either of them. If he got caught they didn't have a chance of escaping no matter how far away they got from the castle.
"I don't know," Verica whispered, anger heating her words. “I don’t understand how they knew we were here in the first place. I told you Daniel’s plan had seemed too simple. He couldn’t even give us a real map. He’d only sketched out the one route for us.”
"Is this really the time to discuss this again? We’ve worked jobs with less information before and with no problems. How were we to know it wasn’t going to work before we started?" Claus scowled at her, matching her flare of anger. She had argued with him over this since he had agreed to take the job. "We need to keep moving. The dogs may catch our scent if we stay still too long." He pushed himself out of their hiding spot, breaking the argument they had no time to continue. He jerked her to her feet after him.
"I wish we could hole up until morning. You know I can’t do anything useful in the dark. It took most of my concentration just to find you this time." She shivered in the light breeze that had picked up again. Using her skills always took the heat out of her until she could rest.
"We'll be safer in the long run the further away we are when morning comes. They won't go too far away from the castle until daybreak. We can do this, Verica," he encouraged, not believing a word himself. They had been in tight situations before, thieving for hire for a living is bound to bring up a few such times, but this adventure was the tightest they had been in. He set his sights on the path ahead of them, refusing to look back for fear the prying eyes of the guards would find them even if they had run far away.
They set off at a brisk pace, praying to their gods of night and forests that they could remain inconspicuous in the nighttime forest among the fragile twigs and crumbling leaves of autumn. The shifting shadows hampered their progress, hiding hazards in their path that were eager to reach out and snag a shirt or grab at an ankle. The ground became wilder with shrubs and fallen branches the further they went from the castle. Each of them tripped more than once, and soon both Claus and Verica had more scrapes and bruises to add to what had been provided by the guards inside the castle.
They squeezed between a large pair of bushes and the forest ended. A large circular field stretched before them, illuminated by stars and a crescent moon. They inched forward, eyes darting around the area, searching for enemies. They could see nothing more than a sea of tall rocks among the autumn grass in the half-light of the moon. They moved out into the field, risking the openness rather than continue blundering through the dark woods where they might kill themselves as easily as be found by the pursuing guards.
Then the ground beneath Claus stopped. He tipped forward, unable to backtrack and fell into the ground. He cried out in surprise and jolted against the cold dirt at the bottom of the hole. He flung out a hand to stop himself from hitting his head, only to realize he’d made a mistake as pain flared in his wrist and ran up his arm. He rolled onto his side and pulled his throbbing wrist to his chest. Cradling his arm, he sat up to see how far he had fallen. Verica’s delicate face peeked at him over the edge of the hole a few feet above him. He stood and found himself in a rectangular hole as deep as he was tall in the middle of this field.
"Claus? Are you okay?" Verica asked, her eyes darting to his arm cradled against his chest. Claus straightened, and his head rose a few inches out of the hole.
"I'm fine, Ver. I'll need your help getting out of here, though. I hurt my wrist." He reached out with his uninjured hand to grasp the hand she offered him. The walls of the hole were slick and offered few places for footholds. Verica had to do most of the heavy lifting until Claus could get his torso above the ground, but with her help, Claus managed to climb from the too perfect and too deep hole.
“I’m always glad to remember you’re stronger than you look.” Claus said, kneeling on the ground before her.
"C-Claus," Verica stammered, ignoring his praise, "what's that?"
Claus wiped the dirt from his face and turned to let his gaze follow her arm, which pointed past him to a small stone near the other end of the hole. Even in the pale light of the moon he could see the stone held his name.
"It's for the hole, Ver." Claus's mouth went dry at the sight of the stone so perfectly placed at the opposite end of the hole. They were still far too close to the castle.
"But why does it have your name on it?" She inched closer to him.
"Because even thieves deserve a grave, Verica."
He watched the stone a moment longer, his good hand shaking to match his injured one. Knowing you were going to die was easier to accept without seeing where they planned to toss your flesh after your soul escaped. He grabbed Verica's hand, pulling his gaze away from the sight, and pulled her behind him as he picked his way around the other head...