The Fugitive

The darkness enveloped the woodland, the heavy mist, drifting in great plumes. The scattered moonlight breaching only the weakest branches; spread an eerie silver light, over the thick clumps of bramble and the swaying branches of the great oak.

It’s moss covered trunk glistened as the new morning dew slowly settled. The lower branches creaked as a night owl gracefully settled on it. The owl’s razor sharp vision watching in silent fascination the leaf covered undergrowth. The branch groaned as a slightly smaller owl alighted; it had the same blood red eyes and speckled crescent as its companion but had a large patch of white feathers on the base of its neck, which glowed ominously against the darkness beyond. Although smaller the bird carried with it the confidence and presence of a plenipotentiary, the silent night air seemed to shimmer around it, like a religious leader upon ascension.

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Suddenly the ground underneath the tree rustled as a small rodent quivered in the chilly night air. Silently two pairs of observant eyes whipped around to the spot of the noise as their ears cocked to search for the disturbance, waiting for a repercussion of the noise. The great bird playfully flapped its wings, dislodging the faint ice crystals, which had begun to fall.

The moonlight glinted ominously off the small pool, half covered in rippling lily pads. The pure mountain water bubbled up from the depths overflowed down a shallow channel, carrying the natural debris downstream. The small pool sent shimmering light, reflected backwards and casted it’s weird presence on the surrounding trees and shrubbery. Once in a while a spiralling drop from an overhead leaf would disrupt the perfect harmony of the water, sending shockwaves out from its epicentre as the water lapped against the soggy woodland floor.

The fragile air was shattered by the solitary howl of a bloodhound, echoing though the frozen hulks of the ancient trees. Soon the chilling howl grew into a chorus of wailing gnashing dogs.

Beside the rippling pool, a faint rustle of leaves could be heard over the gushing water. A small clump of earth (formerly a hillock) shifted uneasily under the weight of a furry little mammal, which had unwittingly fallen asleep upon the warm, comfortable mound; which currently was slowly shivering in the chilly autumn wind. The skeletons of dead leaves from the overhead branches fell from the back of the body, slowly emerging from the dell it once occupied.

The owl’s attentive eyes watched the stranger with interest. Its vast cylindrical eyes gazing quietly, occasionally flickering as the reflected moonlight pierced their lenses. The man cursed quietly in no more than a whisper as he stretched the knots from his frozen muscles. His dreary dirt covered face and ashen looks conveyed the obvious exhaustion and looks of a desperate man. Mud covered his body from head to toe and leaves protruded from his rough hair. He turned slowly, cramp and the cold freezing his tense muscles, as the crisp moonlight glinted off his sharp desperate eyes. His head plunged into the ice-cold stream, washing the mud and to some extent his tiredness away. He raised himself from his crouched position, dripping and glanced around the glade, his weary mind forcing him slowly to calculate his subsequent move.

The biting wind scythed through his patchwork coat as he ran away from the cries of the pursing hounds; one arm clutched at his bosom, one waving wildly in front of him in a half hearted attempt to push aside any oncoming branches. His heart pounded as he ran, dragging his left leg along like an injured dog, tripping and stumbling over tree stumps and alterations in the terrain. Gasping in short sharp gulps, his warm breath rose in great plumes of shimmering misty haze in the gloomy, crepuscular air, as he burst through the last of the undergrowth and into the open bank of the river.

Reaching the turbulent river the man stood to ruminate on his existing position and hastily regain his loss of breath like an aged human being, wheezing as he supported himself on a nearby stump.

Once again the terrifying howls erupted from the woodland, the sound seemed closer as it echoed though the statues of wood. Reverberating in every hollow and dell, until it reached the woods furthest fringes and as if finally, satisfied, suddenly dispersed into the mist.

As he neared the edge of the lapping water line he felt the ground underfoot become soft and sticky. His boots left deep footprints in the sand as he cantered along, each filling up with the dark evil, water seconds after their creation. Suddenly, without warning, the sand gave way in an attempt to devour the hapless fugitive. Desperately waving his arms in a vain attempt to balance himself in the rapidly sinking sand. The tired man strained to pull his foot out of the soft, gurgling sand with little effect. Frantically reaching out his wrinkled fingers brushed against the root of a sturdy oak, two hundred years in the making. The tips of his fingers desperately fought for a grip as the ground dragged him downwards. Seizing all his meagre strength he launched himself towards the bank, minus a boot, which was hungrily swallowed up by the ravenous beast.

The owl, circling overhead looked down at the scene with intense fixation, its beady eyes tracking the events with pinpoint accuracy. It’s tawny feathers fluttered gently as it gracefully carved itself a passage through the damn mist, as the first shimmer of sunlight escaped over the horizon sliding through the horrid cloaking darkness. A single shriek echoed through the air and rippled across the sky. As if in reply the dogs renewed they’re barking, closer this time.

The fallen man glanced about himself as he viewed his misshapen figure in the rippling reflection of the river as it gurgled downstream. His head flicked around as he desperately sort a place of refuge in the inhospitable forest. His weary eyes fell upon the inviting mouth the cave, on the opposite bank. Shrouded in darkness and loosely covered in long trails of ivy, dangling from the overhand above the entrance.

In desperation and fatigue the man jumped into the icy depths of the fast flowing river. At once he was taken with the strong current downstream, as he battled against it. The biting cold nipped at his heals urging him onwards into the treacherous waters. By now the was up to the distressed man’s waist, as his feet frantically fought for footing amongst the jagged rocks as the swift current slowly pulled them from under him. All his last adrenaline pumped strength soon drained and he was left, swaying halfway to the bank, too tired to drag his weary feet any further, he dived for the bank and his fingers desperately scraped at the tiny stones which littered the bank.

His hands quivered in the chilly winter air as the cold drained the blood from the tip of his fingers, the frost biting and gnawing at his fingers. The bloodhounds bounded out from the bordering vegetation, their bloodstained fangs bared and their wild eyes eerily glowed a dark red in the twilight. The howls echoed through the deserted woodland as the dogs bounded through the small tributary, cutting a pathway through the gushing stream. The yearning dogs skirmished along the surface of the water not causing a single ripple to touch the surface. The fugitive fraughtly clambered up the slippery rocks, heading desperately towards the welcome opening in the unnerving line of trees bordering the bank. Upon a branch; belonging to a dismal looking shrub, its roots protruding from the pitiful layer of soil, perched a single tawny owl, its glittering eyes reflected and twisted the damp light of daybreak.

Breathlessly the exhausted figure stooped lowly, crawling into the recess at the far end of the cave, the first glint of sunlight peered over the tallest trees. The man gave an audible sigh of relief as the first shadows began to fall on the lichen-encrusted gravel outside the cave, littered with dead leaves.

A strong breeze blew the thin branches of the weeping willow over the gaping mouth of the cave as the hounds bounded tensely into the cave. Their silhouettes of shimmering silver mist, their shape and wholeness had began to disperse in the new morning light, their shape growing weaker and weaker ever minute as condensation rose from their nostrils after every subsequent breath in the raw dawn air.

His eyes grew wide with terror and his arms involuntary shielded himself from the barbaric animals, through the mans outstretched and quivering arms he saw the bounding forms of the dogs, flying through the air towards him, he could see the whites of their fiery eyes and the sweat on their glistening hides. Their muscles clearly defined along their flanks, saliva glistened, hanging from the ivory teeth of the snarling, gnashing jaws.

The mans trembling lips slowly formed a scream, but no sound came from the bone-dry throat, save the warm expulsion of breath. His eyes frozen wide open as his pulse quickened as blood coursed through his veins ever faster as the dogs neared, gliding through the misty air.

The rush of blood quickened further, thumping through his brain, the walls of the cave blackened, the darkness drawing in. the man crumpled on the floor of the cave as the wisps of fog circled over the limp lifeless body.