[media-credit name=”Image courtesy Kristen Ludahl” align=”aligncenter” width=”580″][/media-credit]

Running. Always running. I dodge tree after tree. The dark, almost oily, black feeling of being followed weighs heavily on me. I shiver as the feeling trickles down my neck, drawing closer and closer with each passing second. Then it is gone. I slow to a walk, to listen to my surroundings. All I can hear is the soft hum of the cicadas and the sound of my lungs trying to draw air. I finally stop, bending at the waist and placing my hands on my knees as I attempt to regulate my breathing.

I’ve been running for years. Or at least it feels like it. It is not easy keeping track of time when you have more important things to think about. Trying to figure out who exactly is trying to catch me is my main focus.

About a turn ago, I had just finished my trek through the woods surrounding the little home my father had shed sweat and tears over to build as a wedding gift for my mother. I had just sold the last of my father’s prized sheep at the market in the village. Each was worth over 20 gold pieces each. After selling the last one to a kind old man, I had rushed back, my purse hitting my leg with each long stride.

About five months before, my father and I were moving our sheep to the lower pasture. My father said later that I had a gift, a `sixth sense` as he called it. I was walking after a young lamb who decided to leave and run to the stream that ran across the field. As I approached the stream, I began to feel uneasy, as though someone or something was watching my every move. I stopped and looked around. I saw a large shape a little into the woods behind my father. I gasped as the sun hit it. It was a moose. And father was going straight toward it. I broke into a run, yelling at my dad to stop. The sheep, startled by my voice, darted off, following the rock wall down to the pasture.

It is still well after dusk before I see the meadow through the trees. I had just caught sight of our barn when what my father calls, `my sixth sense` kicked into high gear. I rushed behind a large cedar tree, the braid slid off my shoulder; a swinging pendulum.

I see five dark figures carrying torches ablaze with a green-tinted fire, walking out from the far side of the barn. I watch as they fan out, one to each corner of the hut, their shadows passing the carvings that border the rough texture of the walls. As they raise their torches, I can see the tuffs of straw that stick out at the corners.

These five men in their robes lay their torches down among the thatch, where it almost instantly catches fire due to the long dry spell that has befallen us.

Soon the blaze is bright enough to show even more detail. All of the figures are large men in long black cloaks and heavy leather boots. They step back and quickly converge into a small circle. I hear laughter. A scream pierces the quiet black night and I turn my head to look back at the house. My mother.

“HEY!” Someone says. I tear my eyes away from the flames that are engulfing my family hut. One of the men, the short one whose nose sticks out of the cloak when he is in profile, has his bony finger held out to me. The wind carries his voice over.

“The daughter wasn’t in there” he says, “We can’t leave any witnesses.”

Before I hear another word, I turn and run, and have been running ever since.

And now, no one will help me. An unaccompanied young woman is a bad omen and one of those hooded men will surely tell someone.

My once-beautiful dark green dress now lays in tatters around my starved body. The long, gracious sleeves are gone, and the hem is ripped and covered in mud.

I can’t stop. No matter where I run or how well I hide, that oily black feeling wraps me up and takes me away with it, leaving my stomach knotted in fear.

But for now, my surroundings and feelings are quiet. I straighten back up and begin to walk through the trees. Before long, I stumble across a hole, just big enough for a small child to fit in. Just big enough for me. Gathering an arm-load of down branches, I cover the hole with the small pieces of bark, sticks and rotting foliage, being sure to leave enough space to get in. After throwing in the bag of stolen goods, I crawl in and settle down on the hard compact ground to think of all that has happened.

Why would my family be targeted? Why would someone want us dead? Then my thought turned to my parents. Are they happy where they are? Are they trying to help me? Every once in a while, something will tell me to turn a way I wouldn’t normally go. It saves me from another encounter with the men who wear black robes. Maybe my parents are here, watching over me as I fight everyday for survival. I fall asleep as the sun comes up, with the images of my loving parents dancing in my brain.

Story by Alli Timmons