The dogs are behind me. I can hear them baying in the trees, barking and howling as the scent of my blood drives them wild. They’re close now, too close, and I curse myself for a fool for coming out in broad daylight.
I know better.
The well is abandoned, covered in flowering vine and rotting with mold. I slip under the cover and scramble down, my fingernails digging into the soft rock, the crumbling sides. Stupid of me. I shouldn’t have come back here, not so directly. It makes it dangerous, dangerous for later, dangerous for the others. But I couldn’t run anymore, not on my bad leg.
The smell of damp and mold rises around me, and I touch the root winding out of the wall and drop. I land on my bad leg, solidly, and the scream in my throat isn’t all pain. I hate this place. I hate it, but I have to come back. It’s the only refuge we have.
Ivy has spilled down through the cracked stones, and it covers the door at the bottom. I push it aside, tucking it behind a root like a curtain as I unlatch the door and slip inside. The dogs have reached the well overhead, and their masters are screaming at them for stopping here. No runaway in his right mind would climb down a well, and they can’t see me, even when they throw the cover off and shine their lanterns down. The ivy falls over the door again, and I lean against it. Listening. Listening to them curse and swear, listening to their anger at losing me. It’s been a long time since I was face to face with any of them, but I remember their faces. Every single one of them. They’re branded into my nightmares for the rest of time, until I die.
I leave when the dogs are quiet. The tunnels beneath this forest are old, halls that were buried by time and by the trees, stone passages with ceilings of tree roots. No one else knows about them. Only us. The Runaways. The children who were supposed to be slaves. The forest protects us now, the forest, and these old ruins. They’re our saviors, our protectors, and much as I hate the damp and the dark and the tomblike air of these tunnels, they are my home.
The younglings are waiting for me when I come in. We stay in an old hall, our blankets spread on the same floor that courtiers, royalty, used to walk. Only their ghosts wander here now, and they don’t mind us.
Yeshi is the first to come running. She’s only four. I rescued her from a mine where they were using her to dig in places a full grown man couldn’t have reached. And wouldn’t have dared go. Her hair is white now, white and smudged with the dirt and the grim of the tunnels, the mold that grows on our walls, but she can smile again. So can the others. They chatter and laugh when I come in, as if they live in paradise, as if these dank, ugly tunnels were the gates of heaven itself.
But no one is beating on them. No hates them, no one whips them. No one curses them. So maybe, in some ways, it is heaven.