You walk through the forest, trying not to wince as your breath begins to softly materialize, clinging to the low-hanging branches dropping here and there along the path. You are grateful for the warmth coat you wear, warm and soft, a shimmering grey that makes you feel like you fit into the scene in an almost ethereal fashion. The only light that spills through the trees is the eerily bright white of the full moon. You shake your hair back from your face and take a deep, shuddering breath as the cold hits you again. It’s expected that the wind bites and nips on an early October evening, but that doesn’t explain the way it seems to sink into your very bones, intensifying with every step you take.
You are terrified of being found.
You know there is little chance you won’t be.
You consider again the events of the evening. Leaving the hall, running, terrified down the cobbled streets, the way your steps rung out, seeming to bounce off every building. The shouts and laughter of the following group, the bundle you clung to– your clutch your arms around yourself at the memory, chafe along your arms absently, pick up your pace a little.
If they don’t find you by dawn you are free to go.
That’s what you’ve always been told.
But the path ahead will be lonely. You will be exiled. You will forget everyone you ever knew. It’s the forgetting part you feel most of all. You wonder what else might be changed by the process– you know the loss of memory has driven stronger people than the likes of you into insanity.
The moon is still high in the sky; you have many hours to go.
You wonder at the fact that it has been quiet for quite some time now.
You wonder why that makes you more uneasy.
With a lurch, you lose your footing, almost stumble to the ground, your hair flies forward, foreign in its tickling along your face, you over-step in your hastiness, your over-wrought nerves mistaking your own body as attacker, and fall to the ground with a muted thump.
You choke back bitter laughter after one hollow snicker. You feel like you’ve walked forever. You consider staying here, burrowing yourself in the spaces between the roots of a dying tree, you fancy it symbolic.
But something makes you push yourself up off the ground, stagger forward.
It has been quiet for too long. It would be just like you to get caught up in something now, through inaction.
You wonder when you became such a bitter person.
You begin to move through the forest rapidly, covering more and more ground, wincing at the noise of your movements in contrast to the silence all around you. You remember stories you were told long ago, when you were very tiny, about a time when animals used to live in the trees, even trees as close as these ones are to civilization. You wonder when they all left, where they went. You are about to become one.
You have instinctively avoided clearings, but the loss of landmarks that has afforded you has left you completely without any idea of how far away you are from the people, or from the fence. You have lost sense of direction, sense of time, and feel like you might just lose your sense of self. If you make it to the fence before you’re caught, they will alter your appearance, maybe even your mind if it contains too much sensitive information. That is the price you pay for entering the free lands you’ve been told sternly all your life. They will take your identity from you, you will have nothing but the clothes on your back, and you will be left amongst the insane, the unwell, and the deviants to fend for yourself. They don’t care for you there, you’re just another one of the useless. You’ve often wondered if that isn’t so different from what you are here.
You remember the story you were told about a man who was allowed to re-enter civilization after his time there, in the beyond. That he only got back through begging, and that he was never allowed to tell anyone who he was or that he’d been to the other side. Since his departure had been in pursuit of knowledge, they’d chained him to a desk in the library and charged him with writing out texts for the rest of his life, his tongue cut out to ensure his silence.
But that had been over a hundred years ago, you’d been assured. No one had dared to purposefully get sent to the gates since then. Not until you. You watched the hunts all your life, the ones where someone was punished, but you’d never seen any one volunteer, most would take death instead.
You never were very fast and you’re beginning to grow tired and numb, your footsteps faltering a little, your mind screaming with the knowledge that to slow down now would be fatal, but you never wanted to run, not really. You liked your comfortable life before this. You aren’t being a hero. You aren’t challenging the system in some meaningful way. You’re just a scared human who made a deal with the devil to see if you could free yourself from your sins.
The moon is clear and cold above, staring you down like your final judge, and you wonder if you’re imagining voices in your desperation. You see a break in the trees up ahead, and you hesitate again, contemplating. It’s then you hear a soft footstep. Panicked, you bolt straight for the opening in the trees, the sudden loss of shadow and shelter felt acutely as you clear the wide ground. You hit the trees on the other side before you hear a click and a loud, male sigh.
“Thirty nine minutes.” A cold voice declares. “They’re getting faster, better call it in.” Something cold is poking you in the ribs. You look around desperately, whipping your head about, but you can’t see the source of the cold.
“Take this one to the gate. Boss said full procedure. It’s too dangerous to kill. Might provoke outrage.”
“You hear that little bird?” A voice says softly, near your right ear. You flinch and you feel the cold thing press harder against your body. “You’re too important to kill. Pity. The next part is hell.” You can taste mint and winter and your own desperation, and suddenly you’re moving, but not of your own volition, dragged by something you still can’t see swiftly through the trees, moving much faster than you were under your own power. You wish you could at least see your attacker, your mind conjuring all kinds of images as to what could be this strong, this swift, but talk to you in a language you understand. You’ve never seen the guards before but you know the stories, everyone does. A different kind of chill, heavy and metallic in its nature settles in your gut. You should feel scared but you’re relieved that it doesn’t matter now, that nothing does, that no matter what the decision has been made and it’s out of your hands. You begin to cry, then to laugh in earnest, ignoring the jabs it gets you in response.
You have to close your eyes in response to the rushing of the scenery all around you, so when you arrive at the fence it takes you by surprise, your eyes jerking open when gloved hands seize your face roughly and turn it upright. You are looking into the eyes of a frowning woman. She turns your head roughly, up, down, left, right, unmoved by your wince of pain. Whatever was stabbing into your side has been removed you notice belatedly, but you are pinned by the gaze of the woman as surely as if you were staring instead down the barrel of a gun.
“You’ll do.” she tells you, stepping back and handing her gloves to a waiting attendant. You note the difference between this side and the other as you’re lifted to your feet again, led through the gates. On the civilized side everyone stands, cheers and jeers, watches you go, on this side there is no one at all to watch you fall except for the silent guards.
The gates close behind you with a heavy clang, and it’s the last thing you hear with your own ears. You look desperately up at the moon, crying silently by freely now, wanting it to be the last thing you see with your own eyes, holding your gaze steadily as you feel the painful pinch at your neck. You are grateful when everything goes black as the ground rushes up to meet you, the silent jury falling away.