by Justin MacCormack
Gasping for air in heavy, ragged wheezes, he ran through the undergrowth. His arms, slender and as smooth as moonlight, tried desperately to push the branches away, but they would not give.
He pushed his way onwards, his chest heaving, struggling to draw in enough air, his mouth expelling thick plumes of steam. His bare feet pounded hard against the ground, each footstep causing the snow beneath him to crunch.
He tried to resist the urge to turn to look behind him, to see how close they were. But he knew that if he did, it would only slow him down. If he wasn’t looking where he was going, especially this deep in the thicket, he could trip. Fall. And that would be the end.
The branches broke sharply against his body as he charged his way through them. They were thick, he realised. They would only slow him down. The thorns ripped against his clothes, cutting deep gashes in the fabric, drawing forth his blood.
Small droplets of the red of his blood echoed a trail on the snow in his wake, and he ran onwards, deeper into the thicket. The thorns cut into his flesh, as he tried to push his way through the thicket, and he felt the pain sharp enough to bring tears to his eyes, were they not already drenched with panic. He clasped his hands around the branches, forcing them back so that he could push just a few inches onwards.
He could hear them now. They bayed behind him. Their voices guttural, rasping, howling. Maniac voices that sounded less like the cries of a pursuer and more like the ruptured squeals of the howling dead. The cries grew louder.
The leather of his shirt tore at his shoulder, ripping the material away and he felt the cold air against his shoulder. He barely gave the sharp frostbitten cry any attention. His feet, he realised, were bleeding; he must have cut them somewhere during the pursuit. That would leave a trail. They would find him.
He knew that he wouldn’t be able to escape.
Ducking his body down, trying to keep his already short frame as close to the ground as he could, he pushed onwards, his bare arms slicing their way through the branches. He scrambled against the bark of the trees, leaping and diving his way over each upturned root that he caught sight of through his blurred eyes. The snow in the air stung his face, leaving quicksilver beads in his mess of hair.
Their crying was getting louder.
His breath caught in his throat, and he realised that he couldn’t hear himself breathing anymore, the baying of his predators drowned it out. There was no path up ahead, no road to run on, no easy way home. The undergrowth roomed up around him as he ran, thick and brutal and cutting.
Agony filled him. Not simply in his body, he realised, but deeper. The ache of the thorns seemed to fill him, drive his entire being. That was when he realised that there was nowhere further to run.
That he was lost.
The bracken eased into a small clearing, and with a final push he stumbled from the undergrowth, his once-smooth skin painted with crimson and sweat and snow. He took one more step, his energy draining from him, his breaths escaping him with the same aching inevitability as his loss of hope. He took another step, then another, and finally collapsed.
Then they were upon him.
The howling filled his ears, cries of glory and victory and terror. He felt the ground tremble as they closed in, and then a pair of thickly muscled hands grabbed his bleeding shoulder.
With a cry, he was pulled upright, jerked roughly onto his knees. One of them, tall and as thick as a wall, stood to his left; another, equally large and his flesh etched with scars was on his right. Both grasped his shoulder, holding him in place. He didn’t have the strength left to resist, it lay ripped from him on the thorns of the undergrowth.
The third strode over, his body large and powerful, muscles tightly packed. He didn’t have the strength to look up at the third, but he knew who it was. The third one was the tallest, the most brutal, and the cruellest. The third’s skin was a murky blue, and dressed only in the tattered brown leather that made him realise that his own clothes were now cut to ruin. Their stitching was rough and course.
The third cupped his face in a hand the size of the man’s chest, and yanked his gaze upwards. He saw, upon the heads of the towering mammoth creatures surrounding him, slick red leather skullcaps, wet and tight to their skin. He realised that no, the creatures were not extremely tall, they were no greater in height than himself – they were simply broad, thick with muscle. Their flesh was etched with scars and tattoos of an unknown fashion, in hues of red and orange. They all wore pieces of jewellery, fashioned from thin strips of rope and leather, and he realised to his horror that the arm that clutched his face held a bracelet knit from the teeth of what could only be children.
His eyes were forced to meet those of his predator. Behind the third, two others strode into the clearing. He realised that it had been foolish to try to run from them.
“Pathetic” said the third. “Tried to run through the Hedge.”
A ripple of laughter passed between the five creatures. The third let go of his prays head, which dropped down weakly to hang between his shoulders. The third looked down at him with unrepentant disgust. “Bet it’s cut everything from you, hasn’t it?”
He tried to look up. Something about that made sense to him. Something about those words, it was almost as if it brought something to his memory.
That was when he realised that he couldn’t remember why he had run into the undergrowth in the first place.
The towering, blue-skinned creature smiled, the thick cords of his neck straining as if to restrain his bloodlust. “Poor bastard,” he growled, “I bet you can’t even remember your own name.”
A shock of panic rose inside him. He hadn’t noticed this, he hadn’t had the chance to stop and think. The creature was right. The realisation flooded through him; he couldn’t remember his name. He couldn’t remember who he was. He couldn’t remember what he had been doing. He didn’t know who these creatures were, or why he had been so desperate to get away from them that he had fled into the undergrowth.
His body began to shudder, his muscles heaving with powerful, resonating shivers. The only thing he was certain of was that he had left every memory, every moment of his life before this moment, on the barbs of those thorns.
The creature snorted, derisively. He reached his powerful hand up, and slipped the red leather cap from his head. It left a slick visceral mess in its wake. The creature turned to his companion, “Finish it.”
One of the creatures moved up beside him, and pulled a hefty silver blade from his scabbard. Shaking, trembling in the snow, he barely even noticed or cared as the creatures that surrounded him slit his throat. He looked down, his eyes starting to fade as he watched his blood trail down, splashing first onto the creature’s red leather cap, and then pool into the frost-etched snow. He crumpled to the ground, as the creatures took turns to slick their skullcaps in his thick blood, but all he could look at was the white of the snow.