(Author's note: Welcome to the inaugural episode of "Shadow Run", a serialized high fantasy story about... Well. You'll have to see. Short episodes update every Monday. Until we're done.)
Sunrise bled into the field of snow daisies, painting their petals scarlet, forcing the shadows to bow in submission. Normal, everyday morning shadows. With any luck, his pursuers would be more than two days behind him.
From his perch atop a jagged fencepost, Zie had an excellent view of the northern horizon where his way through the field was no more than a suggestion of passage by now. Not that it mattered how few plants he'd broken as he ran. The wind rose, biting and insistent, whipping his leather coat about his ankles in restless waves of deep blue. His favorite coat…
Lucky thing, that, since it's your only coat now.
Only boots, rather worse for wear. Only shirt. Only… He crouched atop the fencepost, squinting toward the south. How much farther now? What if he was entirely, stupidly wrong? And did it truly matter any longer? He was tired, so cursed exhausted.
The question really is, am I ready to die? Do I deserve to?
A spirit crow let out her laughing cry from three fence posts over and Zie took it as an answer. He was too much of a coward for the first answer to be yes, and too self-involved for the second. Craven panic and narcissism had gotten him this far, why stop now?
When he squinted, smoky haze was just visible in the distance—usually the sign of a sizeable human community. That would do for a few days if he was careful since his pursuers seemed confounded by human towns. A tiny spark of guilt twinged under his breastbone as he considered endangering an entire community, but he never stayed long enough for his hunters to overcome their wariness. The humans had been safe so far. Generally safe. Mostly safe.
He leaped down from the post and ran, his steps light and nearly silent, any sounds covered by the wind rustling through the fields. If he recalled his geography of the region correctly, there would be another river between him and the town.
His pursuers didn't like running water, either, which had been an unexpected blessing.
Yes, there. The shining ribbon of a river appeared as he crested the next hill. Ancient, meandering and wide, he nearly wept to see it. He raced down the slope with his coattails flying behind him, gathering the notion of weightlessness in his mind, the feeling of buoyancy like invisible wings. The toes of his boots just skimmed the current as he stepped out onto the water, never slowing his pace.
Hest had always laughed at him, telling him he didn't have to take it at a sprint. Fine for him, as he stood calmly in the middle of a waterway trying to convince Zie that he wouldn't sink if he slowed down. He never got the knack and running full out over wavelets and white water was more exhilarating, in any case, and Hest was dead--
No. Don't think about that now. Concentrate.
He nearly made it. The horrible images he'd been fighting to suppress caught up with him at the last few steps and he splashed into the shallows, soaking his boots and turning his left ankle on a stone. Cursing and hissing, he limped onto the bank and headed for a cart path up ahead.
"That's fine. It's fine."
He'd made it across and put another obstacle between him and the nightmares behind him. That was the important thing. Never mind that he couldn't run now even if he had to. The cart path became a gravel track which soon joined a smooth, graded road. He spotted the first cart ahead of him—a box wagon pulled by a single draft edlak plodding along with unending patience on half-moon hooves the size of Zie's head.
Now was the perfect time for caution. He pulled his hat lower to shade the non-human purple of his eyes and cover the tips of his ears. His gloves would have to stay on until he gauged the town's atmosphere and no one would see his feet. Come to think of it, he hoped his ankle wouldn't swell so much that he couldn't get the boot off that evening.
Another carter, with an open wagon of hay pulled by a team of placid gosstas, took pity on Zie and let him ride to the town's gate with the hay. Itchy, and the gosstas occasional honking made his ears ache, but better than trying to walk on an ankle that complained more bitterly with each step.
The town, apparently called Pellienport since it was built around the natural harbor where the Pellien River met the sea, bustled with more than human activity, to Zie's relief. No one like him, of course, but he wouldn't be such an oddity in a place where taurs and merfolk openly walked the streets.
A bit of discreet pickpocketing shored up his funds enough to afford food and lodging. Not his finest hour, perhaps, but not his worst, either. He only took from those who could obviously afford it and preferred to steal from people who were arrogant and unpleasant.
Keep telling yourself that makes it better. Go on.
Closer to the center of town, since staying at inns near the gate was always a bad idea, he found The Blue Goblet, a tidy establishment tucked between a hostelry and a potter's shop.
With the last of his energy, he negotiated with the landlady for a private room, dragged his bedraggled backside up the stairs, locked the door, dragged his boots off—the left was a struggle—and collapsed onto the bed for the first real sleep he'd had in weeks.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.