Dry twigs snap beneath his feet as he forces his way between the gnarled limbs of ancient trees. Dead leaves are rotting on the forest floor. He can smell them. Long slender tendrils of fungus emerge from the layer of humus, stretching up into the narrow beams of early morning light.
The muscles in his legs quiver from the long journey, but he won’t slow down, not for a night. Not for a second. His life depends on it now, and the hounds won’t be far behind. He can hear them barking in the distance. Pushing on, he forces his body to keep moving up the slope of the mountain, even as his breath grows ragged from exhaustion.
This is his only chance.
If he’s captured now, then by first light tomorrow, he would forever mourn his freedom from a prison cell.
The fire had been crackling in the stone fireplace of his cabin. Sweet, warm flames which smelled of the pine cones he had thrown in bathed the walls with orange light. The first frost was coming, he could feel it.
Outside, all was still, yet there was pressure in the air. A silent anticipation. Even the owls had retreated for the night, and the mice they preyed on remained in hiding. He sank down into his chair by the fire and closed his eyes, hoping to slip off to sleep before the cold truly arrived.
He thought he was dreaming when he heard the rhythmic beat of horses’ hooves on packed earth. They grew louder, accompanied by the clang of a harness and the screech of carriage wheels being pulled along much too fast for the middle of the night.
The hooves came to a halt.
He heard muffled voices, followed by a rapid succession of knocks on the door.
He leapt to his feet as a voice shouted ‘Open the door, now. You’re under arrest for suspicion of murder.’
The voice boomed with fury. Thinking that perhaps it was all a case of mistaken identity, he opened the door and looked the sheriff in the face.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘There’s been a robbery in town. And a murder. Your pistol has been found at the scene of the crime. You’re under arrest. You’re to accompany us to the station house immediately.’
‘It must be a mistake,’ he pleaded.
‘There’s no mistake,’ the sheriff barked.
They proceeded to cuff his hands painfully behind his back, and led him outside to the carriage. The horses appeared to steam in the freezing night air. His feet slipped on the hard frost which had begun to coat the grass in front of his cabin, but the men pulled him up roughly, and forced him into the back of the carriage, locking the door securely behind him.
The rocks around the river are treacherously sharp and encased in ice. He picks his way through them, urged on by the constant barking of the hounds as they draw ever nearer. Based on the direction of the sound, they’ll be downstream from him, barely a mile away.
The river is still running, though it runs thick with the slush of snow from higher up the mountain. If he treads the river for a time, the hounds might lose his scent. But then the cold might kill him.
He decides to take the risk.
Pulling his boots off, he wades into the iron coloured water. It cuts through his skin like a knife. The icy touch takes his breath away and he feels the muscles in his legs seize up. He forces himself to take a step. And then another. And another.
He moves faster, picking his way around jagged rocks and submerged branches. He stubs his toe on something sharp, but he can’t feel anything through the layer of numbness creeping up his legs. The water is stained the colour of rust for a moment, and then the current washes it away.
Pushing on until he reaches a deep bend which hides him from view, he leaves the water and climbs the bank on the other side of the river. By now his feet look blue, and one toe has a deep gash. If he’s not careful, it will swell with infection soon. His teeth chatter as he pulls his boots back on and plunges into the wild depths of the forest.
It’s hard to see in this half-light. Night is coming, and the leaden sky and deceptively calm afternoon means the first heavy snowfall would arrive soon.
On the morning after his arrest, they marched him down to the courthouse in chains, and while they refused to hear his pleas of innocence, he remained convinced that the entire situation was a case of mistaken identity.
‘You stand accused of robbery, and murder,’ cried the bailiff. ‘Can you prove where you were on the night before last?’
He remembered every second of that night, for he’d spent it with the wife of his best friend. But he knew he couldn’t present this as an alibi without implicating himself in a scandal. Likely as not, his best friend would shoot him dead at the earliest opportunity.
‘I was home alone,’ he cried out. ‘I was stacking wood for the winter all day, and went to sleep early that night.’
The bailiff gestured to the sheriff, who stepped forward and laid a pistol onto the bench. ‘Is this not your pistol?’
He was ready to defend himself. Ready to vehemently declare that it was not his pistol at all, and that his was at home in his cabin, under the bed as it always was. But when he laid his eyes on it, he knew that it was his. The smooth worn wood and engraving on the barrel was undeniably that of his gun, and everyone in town knew it.
He was now certain that someone had framed him for the crime.
And without an alibi, he was as good as guilty.
He creeps silently over the pine needles, jumping at every shadow lurking in the dead of the night. The first flakes of snow are starting to fall. First it makes his tracks more visible, and then it carefully erases them as the snow keeps falling.
His breath steams out into the air ahead of him.
He can hear each breath wheeze and it reminds him of a whistling kettle.
The border can’t be much further if he keeps moving north, through the forest and over the mountain. He can’t hear the dogs any longer. They must have stopped for the night, which means he can gain some distance between them.
Right before nightfall, they had gotten dangerously close. Shots had been fired. Branches were shot to splinters around him and a bullet had grazed his coat, but somehow he had managed to lose them once more by weaving through the trees erratically.
As he picks his way through the darkness, her image flashes before him. Her touch had been soft and warm, even through the prison bars, beckoning him into her loving arms.
With the pistol identified as his, and no alibi to fall back on, he was sentenced to ten long years behind bars, yet he dared not come clean as to where he was and who he was with that fateful night. He clenched his teeth as tears of frustration gathered in his eyes when the sentence was handed down.
At first, she came to see him in secret, clutching his hand through the bars of his jail cell. ‘I swear I’ll be in your arms again someday,’ she whispered. ‘I love you, and I’ll count each day until we’re together again.’
‘As will I,’ he replied.
But over time, she stopped coming. It was too risky. She might get caught and her husband would find them out. Instead she sent him letters, which he read over and over. Long, beautiful letters full of tenderness.
He couldn’t write back, but each time he swore that he’d return to her someday.
And then one night, he had a chance to claim his freedom.
There were no guards on duty, and the warden, who had become complacent around him over the months, had come in to bring him his meal of bread and water. Before the poor old man had time to blink, he grabbed the man’s head in both hands and slammed it into the stone wall. There was a sickening crunch, and then the warden fell to the ground with a thump.
Just like that, he had taken a life.
But there was no time to feel for the man; he grabbed the ring of keys from his belt and fled for his life, and his freedom.
As dawn tinges the horizon, he climbs the crest of the mountain and looks down at hill after hill of lush green land, ending in a strip of deep blue sea.
He’s made it.
The pursuit was far behind and after another full night of travel, he was now safely out of their reach. ‘I swear I’ll come back someday,’ he whispered to the wind, hoping it would somehow travel back to her, and that she would get his message. ‘I’ll be back in your loving arms, someday. Someday.’
He begins his descent down the mountain.
Ten years of absence should be enough for the town to forget him and move on, and then he’ll return. But until then…he remembers that old song. How does it go? Oh yes.
‘Over the hills and far away,’ he sings quietly to himself, over and over, as he wanders on into the wild green hills.
~ By Ekaterina
This story was inspired by and based on this wonderful cover by Patty Gurdy.
Hit the link below to listen: