Chapter 5 - Flight (part II)

Harta screamed as the stick started to descend.

Suddenly the heavy billet flew from her step-mother's upraised hand. Toric forgot to moan as all three of them watched it sail away in a high arc to land with a dull thump on the far side of the yard. A small puff of dust rose where it fell.

"Why, you little --!

Clarissa was beside herself. She drew her arm back again, hand closing into a fist. Then she, too, was flying backward across the yard though not as high nor as far as the firewood had. She landed heavily on her backside and rolled end over end. Harta glimpsed the woman's white face in the tumble of skirts, her mouth a large 'O' of surprise.

Toric looked absolutely stunned. He had watched the firewood, then his mother, flying after it. Now his black eyes swung in Harta's direction. They were comically wide in his mottled face. She met his gaze with startled round eyes of her own. What had just happened?

"I'm going to get you!" Toric growled, low and menacing.

His amazed expression pulled down into a horrific frown as he staggered up into a shuffling run toward her.

"What did you do to my mother?!" he yelled hoarsely. "I'm going to get you for that!"

Harta knew he meant it. Toric liked to hurt things. More importantly, he knew as well as she did that something strange had just happened. And somehow, they both knew she had been responsible for it.

Lumbering, Toric was picking up speed. He was pudgy but his legs were long. In a moment he would be upon her. Once he got his meaty hands on her there would be little hope of escape. Wrenching herself out of shock, Harta turned and ran.

She darted into the forest, fast and fleet as the deer for which she was named. Though it was early spring with the trees winter-bare, she still could not see very far ahead. That was good for it meant that her pursuer could not see very far either. Also, he was city-born and Harta knew these woods far better than Toric did having lived on the tiny farm all her life.

It was her only hope. She could hear Toric crashing through the brush not far behind her. He was chubby and soft but rage was fuelling his strength. If he managed to catch her, she knew she would not get away again. She ran.

She leapt nimbly over a long dead, beetle-ridden log and went pounding down the slope of a dry gully. She easily avoided the rocks and snags that were hidden so treacherously beneath last year's dead leaves. Without slowing, she scooted up the other side, bent over and using her hands like some strange boreal ape-child. Her ragged grey dress and even more ragged brown shawl flapped behind her. Still going all out, she ducked, sliding beneath a tangled windfall only to roll out the other side where she paused in her break-neck flight. Hastily, she straightened her shawl and tugged the skirt of her dress down over her bare knees while considering her next move.

She looked back at the windfall. It had been caused by a huge white-needle pine falling to age some years ago. It had taken its more spindly neighbours with it and several smaller trees had been dragged down by the larger one. Exposed roots and a wild tangle of dead branches towered high above Harta's slight frame. She saw that even after years of exposure, there were still head-sized boulders trapped in the tree's massive root system.

She considered, but not for long. There was only one way under the great bole. An idea came to her.

Faintly she could hear the snapping of branches. Her much despised step-brother was hot on her trail, crashing through the forest like a bull in a china shop.

Quickly, Harta bent and lifted her worn skirt. She was not surprised to note that her fingers were trembling. With an effort, she schooled them to steadiness and tore a small strip from the hem of her white linen petticoat. Then, wading into the snarl of broken brush and last year's ferns, she hung the bright scrap of material on a sharp branch, low to the ground. She tried not to make it too obvious; Toric was city-born but he was not stupid.

Carefully, she backed out of the bracken that tried to snag her skirt for real. When she looked, she could still see the small scrap shining palely in the shadow of the stump's towering roots. It looked natural enough to her and perhaps it would look so to Toric as well. She hoped he would think that she had crawled in under the windfall to hide from him. If he stopped to investigate, it would take him some minutes to crawl in under the stump. He would want to make absolutely certain she wasn't deep under there hiding like a cornered badger. If he fell for her little ruse, it would buy her some time.

She could hear him now, sliding down the loose scree of the gully and panting like a torn bellows. Deftly, she stepped through the ferns surrounding the small clearing, careful not to bend or break their fragile, winter-blackened stems.

The crashing and snapping was alarmingly close now, just on the other side of the great windfall. She heard a breathless curse as her pursuer scrambled clumsily up the slope.

She reached a stretch of springy moss that wouldn't hold the imprint of her moccasined feet. Beyond the moss lay a twenty-pace stretch of loose shale. She took off running again. Silently. The moss absorbed the sound of her footfalls but she thought they might hear the pounding of her heart clear to King's Mey, the capital city fifty miles away in southern Tibel.

Once clear of the scree, Harta changed her direction slightly, heading north toward the Great Escarpment, which was a tall ridge of cliff that ran through this part of the forest and all the way down to the sea. Her father claimed that its rocky crags plunged into the great Eastern Ocean and kept right on going under the water to the Far Deeps.

Tibel, Harta's homeland, was a volcanic island. It was made up of steep rock faces and jagged mountains, especially inland. It even boasted a great, smoking volcano, called Frere Serat, on the very northern part of the island. Nobody went there, of course. Close to the great crater, the air was often full of hot ash and very poisonous to breathe. The area around the volcano was totally barren and legend said that fearsome monsters roamed there.

Harta had no wish to meet monsters but she had always been fascinated by tales of the Serat. One story told of a tribe long ago that had offered up human sacrifices to the volcano in an effort to appease it. Just thinking about that was enough to send a chill up her spine!

The Great Escarpment was almost as unique a landmark as the volcano. Rising bare and sheer from the forest floor, it was nearly fifty paces high in some places and well over a hundred in others. And it ran right across the island. Harta's father had told her that it was part of something called a 'Continental Shelf' and that the world was made up of gigantic stone plates that sometimes rubbed together and sometimes pulled apart, creating geographical rifts. He said that the world was actually round but was so big that most people, uneducated people, thought it was flat. Her father had been a school teacher in his youth down in King's Mey. Harta had often wondered what had made him leave the city to live almost totally isolated in this rough rural area.

Harta wasn't too sure about the world being round though. It looked pretty flat to her and she was inclined to believe the old sailors' stories; that if you sailed too far out on the Eastern Ocean, your ship would go right over the edge! Her father was a learned man, but sometimes he had strange ideas.

She ran straight for a place she knew where a huge tree stump clung to the face of the rocky crag. There were other trees and sparse vegetation clinging to the Escarpment in various places, but none as big as this old tree.

It looked like it might have once been a white-needle pine, one of those majestic giants of the forest, but was now long-dead. It had been snapped off somehow, leaving only about ten feet of its massive bole above a long, exposed root system.

While the tree had lived and grew, the roots had embedded themselves in the cracks and crannies of the rock. Some mishap of Nature, perhaps a bolt of lightning or perhaps one of the Great Winds that came from time to time out of the Eastern Ocean, had taken the crown of the tree. That had been long ago. Now, all that was left was the age-hardened base of a once mighty tree whose seedling had had the misfortune to settle on a nearly perpendicular piece of rock.

It had been unlucky for the tree but very lucky for Harta.

It was during her forest wanderings that Harta had accidentally discovered the odd stump. Curiosity piqued, she had examined it up close and been astonished to discover that it was attached to the rock face by a series of tough, wrist-thick rootlets which shot off into the cliff behind it. They formed a sort of natural ladder on the underside of the main taproot. Invisible from the front, you could only see them from the side.

She had been delighted with her discovery and had immediately climbed up to the tall base of the great bole. The view was breathtaking and she had climbed further.

The stump was so old that its bark was long gone leaving the slickly weathered, bare grey wood. Here and there were conveniently placed hand- and toe-holds right up to the jaggedly broken crown. Gaining the very top, she had been excited to find she could glimpse the distant sparkle of the great Eastern Ocean. Then she had looked down into the crown itself and made an even bigger discovery.

Hollowed out of the top of the tree was a deep bowl about four feet across and three feet deep. It was filled with dead leaves and other forest detritus. Being so high up, it reminded Harta of an eagle's aerie. She had immediately made it her 'fort' and had spent many a happy hour there hiding from Toric and playing make-believe.

Now, as she was running desperately for her life, she saw her fort refuge come into view. The bare stone of the Escarpment was dark grey, streaked with black and rising straight up from the forest floor. The old stump was only a slightly lighter shade against the dark stone.

It seemed like the whole world was painted in shades of grey today; grey clouds, grey silent woods. And Harta's small grey form running through it all.

Her lungs were burning. She reached the base of the stump and took a moment to lean her hot, sweaty forehead against the massive taproot. She tried to ignore a painful stitch in her side, forcing herself to take some deep, slow breaths. Maybe Toric had given up.

The stitch in her side subsided. A little calmer now she had reached her tree, she held her breath for a moment, listening carefully. The woods were mostly silent with only the quiet drip-drip of water somewhere nearby. There wasn't even any birdsong this early in the Spring.

Then she heard it. Off in the distance, a faint crashing of underbrush told her that the bull had not given up.

A sudden picture flashed in her brain; Toric spying her from afar through the forest's branches, a figure climbing on the rock face. She could not be caught like that!

With a panicked burst of adrenalin, she scrambled wildly up the stump's hidden ladder and scaled the smooth bole of the tree's trunk as quickly as any squirrel. Gaining the top, Harta hurled herself up and over the jagged crown to land with a soft thump inside the hidden bowl at the top. She lay panting and staring up at the dull, grey sky. The stitch had come back.

To Be Continued...


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