Run faster! Her mind screamed at her as she tore her way through the forest, branches digging into bared flesh. Behind her, she could hear the dogs baying their messages back and forth. No doubt relaying her location to their horsed masters.
It was only a few hundred more yards to the river, once there she would lose them. There was a boat waiting there for her. She hoped. Warren had provided that much for her at least. It would take her to a faraway village, and from there she would make it on her own to safety. All she had to do was escape the dogs.
The fact remained that it is nearly impossible to escape a trained tracking dog. Seeing as how these were the King's guards dogs, impossible began to look like great odds. She could jump into the water, but once she got out they would just pick up her scent. No trap would take care of all the dogs. Stopping to make a trap would also just take up time she could have used to run.
No. She had to make that boat. There was no other option. The one thing she had over the dogs was distance. Though she could hear them, they could not see her. If she managed to maintain her lead on them then they would begin to tire out.
The question was if she would tire out first. A few months ago the answer to that would have been a resounding no, but lately, her resilience had begun to wane. Now at night she was exhausted and slept like the dead. Yet even before the sunset, she would begin to feel the creeping fingers of tiredness in her bones. What began as a few minutes of rest here and there had evolved into a nap by the fireplace in her quarters once or twice a day.
She had been told this would happen. Being six months with child was a strain on any woman, and had she waited any longer, this escape would have been impossible.
Still, she had to run. Swollen ankles making each step a pain, and a bulging stomach making her balance nothing of what it once was. A boat was waiting for her after all, the last request from her love, now being laid to rest as she struggled through the forest to freedom. Had she the time to stop and listen perhaps there would be the faint toll of the church bells as the kingdom mourned him.
Instead what was on the wind was the barking of dogs, their paws and bodies tearing a path through the woods for her pursuers to follow. Speeding up she crested a hill, thorns digging into her skin where she held her skirt up to run.
There! There below her was the river. A small boat sat in the middle of it, a single lantern lit as the day waned into the dark. Freedom but a few yards away. More barking reached her ears, the dogs had gained on her. It was now or never. Fearing capture she tore down the hill, skirt, and underskirt bundled in her hand, the other trying to steady herself. Breaking a leg or even spraining an ankle would be nothing short of a death sentence now. Branches raked against her face, skin splitting where sharp branches met soft paleness.
Faster and much unsteadier than she would have liked, she crashed through the last of the brush onto the hard packed mud of the riverbank. A man waved at her from the boat. She could not make out his features, but she hoped he was the boat her love had sent for. Knowing that it was either to chance the boat or the dogs, she drew the small knife tucked into her belt. Surprisingly it only took a few small cuts for her top skirts to fall away. Now in nothing but a thin tunic and a pair of cotton pantaloons she waded into the freezing water of the river.
A few feet out the bottom dropped away from her feet and she became glad she had shorn her over skirts. Just in the few things she was wearing her weight continually tried to drag her to bottom. Had she gone into the water with everything on she would have drowned for sure.
On the shore, she heard the crashing of the dogs through the woods, and their barks clearer than ever. Faster she pushed herself through the water. It rippled before her with each stroke of her arm, and she prayed to the mighty mother that she be given this chance to reach the boat. Numbness began to take hold of her, reaching from her arms to ankles. The tiredness she had managed to keep at bay in the forest now began to set in.
No! She screamed against her slowly dimming mind. She was so close. The boat was coming her way, the man inside rowing his heart out to reach her. Panic making the heart race she frantically prayed to her gods. Please, she begged silently, let me live. Let me bring this child into the world. I swear to never hurt another soul. Never again will I touch a poison unless it is to help others. Please, please.
The ripples around her began to grow into waves, each more forceful than the last. Numb eyelids forced themselves to look up as the boat neared her. A young man with a shock of red hair was leaning over the side of the boat, reaching for her.
"Come on lass, I can't pull you in the boat by myself." He was saying, a smile on his face that did not match his eyes.
With more effort than it should have taken she grabbed onto his thick arm and drew herself closer to the wood side of the boat. The large man hauled her in, her legs kicking gracelessly at the air as she wiggled onto the bottom of the boat.
"Father bless me, he never told me you were in pig!" A wary eye was cast her way as the boatman dug into a chest sat at the bow of the boat. "You will catch your death!" A worn and scratchy blanket was tossed her way. It smelled mightly of old beer and sweat, but to her cold bones, even the finest of down blankets would not be so wanted. She wrapped herself in it, tightening it to her as she began to shiver.
"Hold on ma'am." The boat shifted as the large man sat down on the opposite end of the craft and took up his oars. Numbly she nodded, falling back slightly as the boat moved forward. Her eyes drifted toward the now distant shore. She had swum quite far, no wonder she was so tired. A red and white pile sat on the shore, the remains of her once beautiful skirts. How she hated to leave them there. They were a gift from Warren when he found out she was with child. Oh, how he had laughed and kissed her. They were the last thing she had from him. Now with them on the shore, torn and soon to be trampled beneath the feet of a dozen howling mutts she had nothing of his. Not except the now wildly kicking pup in her belly. All of the excitement must have woken her. One hand absently rested on the swelling crest under her tunic. Tugging the blanket tighter to her, she turned from the shore.
A set of dogs crested the final hill, noses moving as they searched for their quarry. Had they looked out onto the river they would have seen the boat. Now a small dark shape on the ever darkening water.