Flash Fiction: Runners (739 words)

The roadblock was the kind of efficient, lazy installation that Danneel had come to expect from these northern roads. There were three soldiers, each shrugged out of the piece of armor they hated most. Two of them had taken their helmets off and set them under their elbows. The other kept his pushed back on his head, but had peeled out of his pauldrons. They all sat, propped up on tree stumps or rocks, with their feet in the dirt road, as if that was enough to tell their commanders that they’d never left it. They sipped from water pouches, munched on nuts and rolls, and rumbled through their idle conversations. They had been there, exactly long enough to grow thoroughly bored with everything around them, and to accidentally memorize every forest sound and shadow. Any uneven crunch in the leaves turned their curious heads.

Danneel bit her lip, swallowing a sigh and any sound that might come with it. “Any ideas?” she asked the others.

Jerdan, leaning against her same branch, with his arms crossed over the lower half of his face, said nothing. Heydi had her little fingers laced through Danneel’s and she cocked her head to one side in that empty clockwork way she did when she wanted a thought, but her young head hadn’t put it together yet. Evander tapped his fingers against the tree trunk, once, twice, a third and fourth time, then stopped.

“I think I do,” he said.

Danneel tried not to laugh at him. “Evander doesn’t count,” she said. Because somehow, even though they’d only picked him up a week ago – and only because he’d been able to run through a city with Heydi on his back when her short legs couldn’t keep up, and because he had heavy arms that looked like he could punch an elephant in the tail and get its attention – he hadn’t understood yet that he wasn’t really one of them. Not one of the kids who had been running so hard that their feet found roads in their sleep.

Evander turned toward her, and his eyebrows dropped down, shortening his blue eyes. Heydi looked at him slowly, face blank and innocent. Jerdan ignored him entirely.

“Well, one…” Evander said quietly. Danneel ignored him too, hoping he wouldn’t bother continuing whatever idea he was about to offer.

“We could try the hill,” Jerdan murmured.

Danneel looked behind him at the steady rise in the ground. But the trees thinned there, and the only way through was a soft bet against the soldiers turning their heads. “Maybe,” she said.

“And two…” Evander mumbled.

Danneel must have lost whatever had come in between, and she wasn’t sure she cared for a two-step plan at this point. Simpler was usually better. “We could just walk on past,” Danneel said. “We don’t know they’re lookin’ for us.”

“No,” Jerdan said, and laughed a little. He turned his head, rested his chin on his upper arm to look at her. “But they might think dirty lookin’ kids crawling outta the bushes to jig past ’em looked strange.”

“So, we don’t leave the trees,” Danneel said.

“Three,” Evander said.

“They’ll hear us,” Jerdan said.

“So, we tell ’em we’re playin’ a game,” Danneel said. “Hide’n’Seek or somethin’.”

“Four,” Evander said.

Jerdan shook his head without lifting his chin, so it looked like he was only rolling his head from side to side between grumpy thoughts.

“Heydi tells ’em,” Danneel said. “She’s good at lyin’.”

Heydi smiled, but didn’t take her eyes off the road.

“Five,” Evander said.

“What’s the other option?” Danneel asked. “Make a run for it?”

“Or trick some bears into a distraction,” Jerdan said. He hesitated as soon as the words were out of his mouth, then glanced at Heydi. She’d been known to take them seriously before, and worse, to actually make absurd things like that work. Danneel tried not to believe that was hope on Jerdan’s face.

“Six,” Evander said.

Danneel glared at him sideways. “What are you doin’?”

Evander shut his mouth quickly, and looked down at Heydi. Tall as he was, Danneel got the impression that he would have crouched down behind her if he could have, hidden behind her ragged breeches. Heydi looked back at him, and he swallowed and forced out a breath.

Then Heydi looked to Danneel. “He counts,” she said.

Danneel blinked. Behind her, Jerdan stifled a laugh.

“Seven,” Evander said.

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