Abandoned Hope

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The spell's light was still fading behind Hamnet when he heard the first of the enemies' footfalls begin to close in. Their movements through the black forest were fast and violent, honed by long years of hard labor and war. This night had begun with slit throats and muffled screams, and unless Hamnet's old legs could somehow carry both himself and the infant in his arms out of their reach, their lives would end much the same.

Hamnet risked a glance over his shoulder, using magically enhanced eyes to catch sight of the dark figures running between trees. Though enchanted cloaks masked their features in shadow, Hamnet knew from their disciplined and precise formation exactly who they were. They didn't move with the forest like the queen's soldiers, didn't flow through its features like water around the bends of a river. Instead they plowed through it, bullishly trampling underbrush and snapping low branches off trees without regard for the preciousness of the natural world. Never breaking rank, never veering off course, they somehow knew exactly where to find their prey, as if they were not men but a pack of bloodhounds.

They were a small contingent of mechanicals, the last hand of resistance clinging to the smoldering ruins of a lost war. They wanted the child, though for what purpose Hamnet could only guess. Only one thing was certain; the small dagger hidden within the folds of his robes would provide little protection should they capture him.

And so he ran as fast as his feeble heart would allow, shaking arms desperately holding onto the precious, increasingly heavy, bundle in his arms. Hamnet's breath came in ragged gasps, the blood pumping in his ears almost loud enough to drown out the sounds of the roughly placed footfalls from the animals behind. He cut between trees and around underbrush, following an ancient path only the wildlife remembered and mechanicals ignored. Dew dampened his clothes and weighed him down, making already difficult movements a battle of willpower.

Inch by inch those behind closed the distance, two steps taken for each one of his own. Still, Hamnet pushed himself onward, using every drop of adrenaline his body could muster to will himself forward. But his efforts would prove fruitless. Before Hamnet knew what was happening a shadow burst through a grove of young pines to his right and knocked him to the ground.

Hamnet cursed under his breath as he fell, instinctively clutching the baby tightly to his chest in an effort to shield her frail body from the unforgiving ground. He managed to twist in the air and land painfully on his back, the wind forced from his lungs. As Hamnet coughed and groaned on the ground he could feel the child struggling within her blankets, could hear her muffled cries. Hamnet let out a painful sigh of relief, she was unharmed.

Still, he couldn't let them to claim her. Allowing the child to fall into their grasp would be to allow the only chance his people had to seal their leader away forever to slip through his fingers. Every other option had already been attempted, and every other option had failed. Hamnet looked into the black abyss of his enemy's hood, knowing the need to keep the child alive was the only reason he still drew breath.

Hamnet had to delay just long enough for help to arrive. As quickly as his tired limbs could manage, he slipped his dagger from its sheath and pressed its tip lightly against the blankets covering the screaming babe, halting his aggressor's quick approach. He stood mere steps away, unseen eyes taking stock of the situation. Hamnet could only pray the man fell for his bluff.

"Rise old man," the man ordered, his voice lacking any sign of trepidation. The man's companions appeared a moment later, surrounding Hamnet and cutting off any chance of escape. Hamnet heard the subtle intake of breath from a couple of them as they saw the dagger in his hand, yet they stood firm in their resolve, as if drawing confidence from their leader's calm stance.

"Go to hell," Hamnet spat, clutching the now screaming infant tighter. He would die before he allowed them to touch her.

A subtle movement brought the gleam of a dagger, long and threatening, into the moonlight. Their leader pointed its tip straight at Hamnet and took a step forward while his companions watched in silence. "We'll not ask again. Rise, hand the child over, and find blood spilled swiftly. Fight us, and find mercy absent our thoughts."

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