The end of the cobblestone street froze Liam in place. It had been four years since he had ventured from the city, and now the forest beyond appeared scary, dreadful. Animals that could eat him and bugs that would pester him non-stop lived out there. He didn’t know them like he knew those that would eat him alive and pester him here in the city. These were not animals in the sense folks thought of them, but beings of intelligent races that acted like animals.
Living in the centre of large buildings and streets of stone meant he never walked through mud, was scraped by thorns or slept on the ground. He knew Wandsworth, what to expect from the people who lived here and where to steal food. Leaving it meant he’d cast aside his safety nets and survive by other means. It might mean his death by morning.
He clenched his fists in his pockets, hiding his hands from those who passed, either entering the city or leaving it. They wore suitable clothes, carried packs and many had horses. He had none of that. His worn boots might not survive a week trekking through the woods. His trousers were thin, given the warm weather, and his button shirt had only short sleeves. His only defence was a dagger strapped to his thigh. The few coins in his pocket would buy a little food to aid him in his journey, yet he had nothing to carry that food in.
Glancing back from where he came, he thought about the few items in his quarters that might help him, but he couldn’t return for them, not if he wanted to escape the men who controlled him. He had to walk, get as far away from Wandsworth as he could before they discovered him missing. Yet… He gazed into the forest, fear consuming him. Maskil was so far away, he’d never make it without someone to help him.
He grasped his necklace and pressed the small dark-blue stone into his palm. Isla had made it and gave it to him for his tenth birthday celebration. He’d taken it off only once since, to replace the leather strap. Sometimes when the ache in his heart overwhelmed him, he held the stone to his cheek, imagining her beside him. He had done this less often the longer he stayed in Wandsworth, but he did it now, wishing to find her, hoping she’d forgive him for breaking the pledge he’d made.
A sharp pain in his heart generated doubt. She’d never forgive him, yet… He had to ask. If he didn’t ask for forgiveness, he might as well lay in the gutter and drink himself into oblivion; the pain would not cut deeper.
The searing sensation on his right shoulder blade overshadowed the pain in his heart. That curse, delivered only a week ago, had driven him mad. If not for Isla’s hand holding onto him, he’d have surrendered completely, but he had managed to expel some of the poyson to ease the pain and maintain control of his actions. The other branded men hadn’t been as lucky and had succumbed to the whims of The Mavericks.
He pressed the stone to his cheek, closed his eyes and imagined her face: young, innocent, beautiful. The Isla he knew could never love a man like him. He was as dishonourable as the worst criminal that roamed the streets, and she was as honourable as her das. Still, he ached to see her even if it was only to be turned away. A tear slipped down his cheek. He was wasting time. The Mavericks would start searching his familiar hangouts; it might be days before they discovered he had escaped. That would give him a head start.
Tucking the necklace beneath his shirt, he took the first step, his boot striking dirt and stirring up dust. His journey began, and there was no turning back.