In the dark of the night and the thick of the brambles the way was enduringly problematic. The ankles of the fugitive two were thoroughly incised with the repercussions of their chosen path; shallow abrasions and thin lacerations in exchange for their lives continued. But the continuation of their lives was never promised to them and now the enemy was scouring the coast. It was likely that they believed the child to have departed the camp more distantly in the past than was true but still their scouts scrutinized the vicinity.
Abbott slowed to a walk. A moment later the child became aware she was running alone and slowed to a walk also. "We must make ourselves inconspicuous, child. They are looking for us. I do not believe they know we are near, but someone betrayed the location of the camp and may have betrayed us again."
The child looked around herself nervously and then her face brightened with a smile. "I know this place. I know of somewhere we can hide."
"There is a small cave that I would play in while Bardolf--" the child's voice trailed off.
Abbott stepped close, put his arm around her, pulled her to his hip. "I am sorry. Bardolf was my friend." The child leaned her head into him. He felt her nod against him.
"Mine too," she said.
"About this cave?"
"I, I used to play there while Bardolf would fish. It is a well hidden place."
"Then we can afford no time to waste. Let us to go it."
And they did. The cave was a hole in the side of the hill overhung by weeds reluctant to let go of the summer and the roots of the brambles. In there the air was dank and stale and smelled profusely of fish. He pulled the hanging weeds and roots apart to let the child through and then crawled inside. Immediately the knees of his trousers were sodden. Grody place this, but it would do.
He placed the canvas sack against the wall at his right and leaned against the wall behind him. His legs laid out in front of him looked mangled, but he knew the wounds were less than terrible; once the blood was washed from them the scratches and scrapes would appear minute.
The child was crawling around, bumping into him here and there, her feet kicking against his legs on occassion.
He looked at the wall opposing him, trying for patience, and whispered to the child, "Be still. You must be still all night or longer."
The child stopped, half-way between a dog's stride and its next, and said nothing. She was frozen in suspended animation. He sighed.
"It is easier if you would sleep."
"Easier for you."
"Yes. Easier for me."
"Yes. For you."
The child let out her own sigh, crawled to the wall deepest into her cave, then leaned her back against it. Her feet were almost onto his own legs. How to spend a night in such a small, ugly place with a young child? He knew she had her own idea of how because she began lifting her leg, letting it drop, and then lifting the other and doing the same with it. After her legs beat a sink into the sand it began making a sloshing sound.
"Quiet, child. For our lives' sake, please be quiet."
"I like Bardolf better than you," she spoke aloud.
"You mustn't speak, child. If you can not at all hold the words in your mouth, then whisper."
"I like Bardolf better than you," she whispered.
"I do too, child."
A moment's silence.
"How will you protect me?"
"It should not be difficult once we have put a distance between ourselves and the camp. Not many know of your appearance."
"But some people do."
"Yes. Some do."
"So if someone recognizes me, how will you defend us?"
"I am an expert of Loh-Dhai."
"A warrior? Bardolf said you were not a warrior."
"I am not. I am an academic. Loh-Dhai is the study of human weakness and ways of exploiting it."
The child's eyes rolled up and she appeared to consider something. "Can you defeat the horsemen?"
"I do not know."
"Because they are on horses?"
"Because they are on horses."
There was a period of blessed silence. He wished dearly to be out of this hole. Because it is not a cave, it is a hole. Dark and dank and no good place to be for a night. Even to sleep in the brambles would be more comfortable, but far too risky. He can risk himself but never the child. He looked to her, her pale inquisitive face brewing with another inquiry. "What is it?"
"What if a wolf attacks us?"
"Well, I suppose I would fight it."
"But you study humans, not wolves. How will you know how?"
"All that is needed is enough of a wound to frighten it. Wolves will not risk their lives unnecessarily. If it thinks we can hurt it, it will go away."
"How can you be sure?"
"I am sure. It is true of most animals."
The child quieted. He laid his head against the sandy wall of the hole behind him and closed his eyes for a moment. There was much to contemplate but doing so in his usual way would certainly result in sleep.
He opened his eyes and saw the child staring at him, and he felt awkward by dint of it. She stared at him direct, unblinking it seemed. It induced unease in him until she began, stealthily to herself only, inching closer in the most obvious way. This now. he recognized this behavior. Oh, he must never known of her yearning for tender closeness! This child, so vastly important, was still only a child. So be it. He pretended not to notice, and by ten minutes' passing she was laying with her cheek on his side.
They lay like this--him against the wall and legs splayed out before him, her curled up next to and against his arm--for hours into the night, through the cold and the quiet and the terrible moments when the scouts passed so closely he could see their torchflame and hear their useless banter.
During that time he breathed so slowly he was sure he would suffocate, and hoped to all hope that she would not awake. He did not suffocate, she did not wake, and the scouts passed the hole without suspicion. After they had gone, he breathed deeply, tried to slow his heartbeart, relaxed, and then fell asleep.