By Stephen Schamber
Emmie was not asleep. Not anymore, at least. She'd dozed fitfully, but she never completely fell asleep, and jerked back to wakefulness frequently. The little wood was strangely silent that night. Though she wouldn't drink the water in the brackish pond in the grove, many animals did. This area was usually full of the sounds of large and small nighttime creatures, making their way through the trees to the pond. She could recognize the voices of half the owls in the wood from hearing their calls so often, and a few times had even heard them making kills. Buried in her hole, the animals didn't notice her scent over that of the soil around her, or possibly they'd just grown accustomed to it.
Tonight there was nothing but an eerie silence. The animals could smell that humans were abroad in the woods, and they kept their distance. That had never happened in all the time she'd been coming here. If she weren't already terrified, that alone would scare her.
Listening intently for any sound, she occasionally caught the soft whisper of hushed voices somewhere in the grove. She couldn't hear enough to make out any of what they said, but it confirmed that the men who'd been chasing her hadn't given up yet. She clenched her dagger a little tighter every time she heard them. The strategy she'd used to easily foil thieving street urchins on numerous occasions had failed this time. Now all she had left was to hide and hope they didn't find her, or to fight if they did, and she didn't even know if she could do that.
Suddenly the night was less quiet; the silence was broken by rustling in the underbrush, coming from the direction of town, and then a dim light glowed. The men that had followed her were moving again. She shrank as deep into the hole as she could and positioned her right arm so she could thrust her dagger at the mouth of the hole.
It quickly became apparent that the men didn't know exactly where she was, so her hiding place had been effective. They'd been able to follow her much further than the street urchins could, but they still had to search for her. A little bit of hope flickered in her chest for the first time since she'd slid into the hole hours ago. It was probably only a matter of time until they found her, but night was already well along and she had a good hiding place. Perhaps they'd give up when morning came, as the risk of being caught increased.
She could hear the men calling back and forth to each other in hoarse whispers as they searched, still trying to be stealthy. She could hear at least three, one directly between her and town and one to either side. They searched rather clumsily through the grass, looking for any sign of her.
"Nothing over here," one whispered.
"Nor here," replied another.
"I think I...no, never mind, just some rags," the third apologized.
They were taking their time as they searched. They must have looked for over half an hour before one came close to where she hid. She could see his feet just outside the mouth of her hole. She lay perfectly still and held her breath, not daring to move a muscle or make a sound. If he moved on without finding her, it would be a long time before they checked this spot again.
"What have you got there, Ethan?" One of the others called softly.
"Just an old badger hole, Raoul," He replied. The one called Ethan started to walk away, but then he stopped. Emmie didn't know what had alerted him; she knew she hadn't made a sound. Perhaps it was some sense of being watched, or perhaps it occurred to him that a child could slip into a badger hole, but he knelt down to check inside. Suddenly she was staring into a pockmarked face with a bushy, tangled and unwashed beard.
The man grunted in surprise. "Hey, I found her," he hissed triumphantly to the other two. "She's not asleep. She must have spotted us following her," he chuckled.
"I guess we don't need to be quite as quiet then," said the one on the right. Where is she?"
"She’s right where I'm standing. She crawled into the badger hole."
She heard footsteps as the other two men began walking toward him, no longer worrying about where they put their feet.
"Smart," said Raoul from the left.
"Well, get her out," the one on the right ordered.
"Alright," Raoul assented.
He quickened his pace, running toward her hole, and at the same time she heard a low smacking noise that she didn't recognize. Ethan stooped further and reached into the hole to grab her. Her reaction was instinctive; her right hand snapped forward and jabbed the tip of the dagger he hadn't noticed into the palm of his hand. He emitted a pained yelp and scrambled backwards away from the hole. Emmie stared at the bloody blade of her dagger, then at the men outside her hole, fighting back a wave of fear.
"What happened?" the other asked as he skidded to a halt, slightly out of breath.
"She stabbed me," he whined, showing his bleeding hand. The other man examined the wound briefly, then shrugged.
"It's not that bad. You can get some payback for it in a little bit anyway." The first gave a dissatisfied grunt, but got back to his feet. Raoul now got to his knees to peer into the hole. He looked just as bad as the first one, but older with lighter hair, and the smell of his breath was awful. Emmie shrank back as he stuck his hand into the hole and jabbed the dagger at him too, but he pulled his hand back out of range.
He kept reaching into the hole, looking for a way past the knife, and she kept trying to stab him. Several times he wasn't quick enough, and winced as the dagger cut his fingers or knuckles, but Emmie's arm began to tire. Finally instead of pulling his hand out of the hole, he nimbly flicked it out of the way of the blade and grabbed her by the wrist before she could pull her own hand back. She squealed in pain as he twisted her arm, digging his fingers into her wrist. The dagger slipped out of her fingers, and he grabbed it with his other hand, throwing it to the side.
"There," he said to his partner. "No more knife. Now help me pull her out of there."