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The quick retreat wasnât totally silent. She could hear the sounds of the others, moving quickly along parallel lines to her own painful effort. Wondering how long she could keep the burst of energy up, she noted the noises diminished as people worked their way outward like the spokes of a wheel. Four hundred paces and the air burned in her lungs. Sh e fought the tough terrain and avoided the thickening flora, the damn sled hanging up at each and every turn. Her arms burned with the desperate efforts to free the runners and the hound whined with pain.
Six hundred paces had her bent doubled over with a stitch in her side. She went to her knees when the ground sloped away into a small ravine, nearly causing her and Gehlert to tumble into its depths, the momentum of the heavy sled a terrible burden. It was the dog who saved them, digging his forefeet in and throwing his body weight back to settle on his haunches. She hugged him fiercely, his pants and thundering heartbeat mirroring her own.
Skirting the ravine took them well away from what she reckoned was a straight path outward from the original starting point. She scanned the treetops in a near futile effort to reorient herself. The filtered light told her the sun was at four oâclock, so she deviated slightly to her right and pushed on, wondering where the strength to do so had come from.
Having lost count of her pacing, she chanced another three hundred, using images of what would happen if they got caught to spur her on. Certain theyâd walked a half marathon, she chose a thick clump of gorse bushes, insanely wondering how theyâd come to flourish this deep in the woods. The hound stepped away from the harness the instant she freed him and staggered sideways to collapse on a bed of leaves and other organic debris. Doggedly working to separate the lower branches of the bushes and wincing at the spiny press of the remaining leaves despite the cover of her thin gloves, she managed to secret the sled, or at least muddle the outline of it. She bent thinner twigs to camouflage it further and made herself take the time to stand back and take as critical a look as she could. Satisfied, she found another clump of the same vegetation and crawled in backward, stopping only when her feet couldnât press any deeper. She then pressed a dog sized space open to her right.
âGehlert.â Even a whisper hurt her parched throat, but she was rewarded with a faint thump of his tail. âCome.â
The hound visibly considered her command, ears lowering and eyes drifting before he levered upward, limping to her. Heâd pulled more than his weight and was clearly on the brink of exhaustion. Even in the dappled light she could see where the harness had cut harshly into his hide, the thick guard hairs rubbed away. She wanted to cry. Blinking hard, she swallowed against the emotion.
âHere.â She patted the small space beside her and he obligingly wiggled in, somehow turning in place three times before he settled down. Draping an arm over him, she tugged a few branches into place over, poking herself in the cheek as she did so, then dropped her head onto the fertile earth.
After a time, her heart slowed and her breathing returned to normal, as did the houndâs, although he hitched from time to time with a little gasping noise. At last, she could focus on her surroundings and actually hear the forest sounds, the faint creak of living wood, the rustle of a small breeze among the remaining leaves, and the occasional call of a bird. The ground was reasonably warm, despite the approach of winter, and with Gehlert pressed close, she wasnât terribly uncomfortable. She only wished sheâd thought to bring one of the water bottles into her makeshift shelter, her body crying out for moisture after the forced march.
Time crept by and she became aware of how her pistol rested with solid intent against her belly, the barrel grinding into her hip. Seeing that her weapon was the only thing between her and whatever was out there hunting them, she cursed fluently under her breath and hitched up enough to worm a hand beneath her. With some judicious pulling and peeling back of the layers of clothing, she was able to free the butt and work the pistol out from under her, blessing her foresight to set the safety. She brought it up beside her head, one finger through the trigger, palm resting lightly against the pommel, before she flicked the safety off.
The hound stiffened beneath her lax arm and she strained her ears, suppressing a shudder. Perhaps it was one of the others, off course and passing by, still trudging those thousand paces, that had alerted him. Or an animal, picking its way through the trees. Alas, it was the base notes of a number of male voices she heard, far off, their words indistinct, distorted by the numerous trees and the uneven terrainâand the sudden escalation of her heartbeat. Stark terror froze her in place, chilling her blood, making her sex draw up in self-defense. Her belly clenched in on itself and goose flesh broke out all along her spine. Air rushed in and out of her nose as she tried hard not to pant, knowing how foreign the sound would be, how easily heard if someone cared to stop and listen. Her dog shivered in response to her angst and made a faint whine.
That whimper awakened her higher brain functions and she gained control. With a firm squeeze, she signaled Gehlert into silence. They huddled together and waited as she held her weapon at the ready.
Disjointed phrases drifted to her ears, accompanied by faint crashing sounds of something larger than a person.
ââ¦signs of at leastâ¦â
She was certain she felt a cold stare focused on their location, something malevolent and inhuman, and remained as still as possible, willing their hidden forms to blend into the surroundings. Nothing to see here. Just more trees and underbrush. She prayed there were no dogs, and cast her eyes down, refusing to risk even that chance of a flicker of awareness.
Minutes passed as she counted the seconds. Three hundred and sixty, then six hundred and sixty. Eleven minutes, give or take. The evil stare lingered in her imagination, or perhaps its owner was still out there, patient as a spider. The adrenalin leached out of her muscles, leaving her spent and far more fatigued than ever. She wouldnât move, wouldnât make it easier for whoever it was out there to find her, but felt as though she had nothing left to defend herself if he did. Her pistol seemed impossibly toy-like against the threat and her knife was still in her boot.
Peri Elizabeth Scott lives in Manitoba, Canada. After closing her private practice as a social worker and child play therapist, she joined her husband in running their season business where they pretend to work well together.
Writing for years, The Time is a departure from her usual romance genre, but it was a story that had to be told!
Peribeth also pens erotic romance under a different pen name and reads everything she can lay her hands on.