THE TRAP CLOSED around his leg with a sickening crunch, and Gemmingdown Hathridge fell to the ground with a sharp cry of shock.
Then the pain set in. White-hot lances of pain flashed violently up and down his body, arching his back and forcing tears from his eyes. The teeth of the trap bit deep into his ankle, the leg of his britches already warm with his blood. His body was on fire, his breath coming in short, laboured gasps, his fingers taught in the leafmould below. The only thing that stopped him from crying out was the knowledge that they would hang him from the nearest tree if they caught him. The shouts from overhead left him in no doubt of that.
In all his sixteen years, Gem had never experienced such a paralysing mix of pain and fear as he did now. It froze his muscles and churned in his stomach, forcing bile up his throat. The shouts were getting closer. Another minute and they’d be on him.
He had to move.
Clenching his teeth, Gem slowly inched forwards, pain flashing through his leg with every movement he made. It was less than a foot to the dense undergrowth that would have to serve as a hiding place, but when he finally reached it, he was drenched in sweat, panting and shivering. All he could do was hope that the trail of blood he’d left behind was hidden from his pursuers by the dark of the night.
‘Anything?’ The voice was shockingly close by. It was gruff and decidedly unforgiving. If there was a reply, Gem didn’t hear it. He tried to hold his breath as the footsteps neared his makeshift hiding place, but it was coming in unnatural gasps. The undergrowth that had looked so dense just a moment before now felt horribly open and useless. It would take so very little for him to be found.
‘Nothing here,’ the man said. Gem could see him through the thin screen of undergrowth that separated them.
And then the man turned. And saw Gem’s hiding place.
‘Wait, I think I’ve got something…’
Gem tried to make himself as small as possible, but even that tiny movement sent another shiver of agony through his leg. If he hadn’t injured himself, he could have run. He would have got away. He would be safe at home now, in bed, waiting to be raised by the dawn chorus and feed the cows.
The man walked slowly towards Gem’s hiding place, drawing a long truncheon from his belt as he did so. Definitely a law officer.
Suddenly, there was an ear-splitting scream away to the left, and the man whipped round, truncheon at the ready.
‘Over here!’ came a shout. ‘We’ve got him now!’
‘Fell into one of his own traps, I shouldn’t wonder!’
The man glanced back round at Gem’s hiding place, before turning quickly and running away through the undergrowth towards the scream that had sounded so human but was almost certainly a just fox. They were stupid not to know that. Not that Gem was complaining.
He would’ve sighed with relief if he hadn’t been in so much pain. As it was, he managed a ragged gasp, and eased himself into a sitting position. From here he could see the mangled remains of his right leg. The britches were soaked with blood from the knee downwards, all the way to the cruel iron jaws that were clamped around his ankle. He felt sick just looking at it. Never before had he felt such a twisted affinity with the creatures he hunted. He suddenly wished that he hadn’t killed, hadn’t hunted. He remembered the sack of dead rabbits he had been carrying back home so proudly. It made him feel dirty.
At least now he had some time. Time to consider his options.
He was trapped. And not only that – it was a big trap. Easily big enough to catch a bear. So huge he wouldn’t be able to open it and free himself on his own: you needed all sorts of specialist tools. Which he didn’t have. Even if he wasn’t in such great pain – he was certain his leg was broken – there was no chance of his going anywhere, because traps were kept in place by long chains driven into the ground. No, he would have to remain where he was. And if he did that, sooner or later, they’d find him. And even if they didn’t find him and string him up, he’d starve to death within a few days anyhow.
Never had his future looked so bleak as it did now.