First Debt Page 2

Every footfall I tensed, waiting for death—wondering if that last step would trigger a net or an arrow to my heart.

Stop running.

Just…stop, Nila.

My breathless inner voice was tired and hungry and completely worn out. My muscles cramped. My mind seized with too many questions.

At least it was summer, and I didn’t have to combat the cold on top of everything else. My skin glistened with sweat from exercising so hard.

But I hated the defeat in my soul—the rapidly spilling courage and hope.

This wasn’t about the chase. We all knew who would win. It was about defiance. The word that I never knew or put into practice until last night, but now I lived and breathed it. I would be the most defiant thorn, stabbing holes in Jethro’s carefully made plans.

I would never be able to win. The only way I had a chance at surviving long enough to reap vengeance on the men who ruined my ancestors was to fight his ice with fire.

I had to burn.

I had to blaze.

I had to cinder his beliefs and control to the ground. And smear his soul with the ashes of his sins.

A loud howl came on the breeze.

My knees locked, slamming me to a standstill.

No. Please, no.

My heart squeezed. I should’ve guessed. He wouldn’t run after me like a typical chase. Why would he waste his energy hunting in the wrong direction?

He was smarter than that. Colder than that. He’d use the tools he had to make sure this little inconvenience was over and dealt with. Of course, he would use the very animals who’d become my friends last night.

Teaching me not one but two lessons in quick succession. One, the animals currently tracking me, currently hunting me, were not my friends, no matter how warm and cosy they’d been last night. And two, everything here, no matter human or animal, would not hesitate to kill me.

The thought depressed then infected me with strength I’d only just become acquainted with. There was no hope at making Jethro feel. The only hope I had was to fight ruthlessness with ruthlessness.

I had to contest him on every step and ignite that spark buried deep within.

Another howl and a bark.

Energy shot through my body, hot and bullet-fierce.

I took off again, sprinting down a small hill, holding onto branches as a rush of vertigo threatened to spill me into nettles and brambles.

The collar on my throat was heavy, but at least it had warmed. The diamonds no longer felt alien but a part of me. The courage of my ancestors. The spirit-strength of women I’d never met, living in a piece of jewellery throbbing with their guidance and energy.

The hatred and repulsion I felt toward the collar disappeared. Yes, the Hawks had given it to me, sentencing me to death with an action I couldn’t think about, but they’d given me a piece of my family. A piece of history I could use to my advantage.

Another bark, followed by a loud whistle.

You can’t outrun him.

I scowled at my pessimism.

But you can hide.

I shook my head, fighting tears as a twig dug into the sole of my foot.

I wouldn’t be able to hide. He came with foxhounds. Their noses were legendary.

Up high. Get up high.

I skidded to a stop. My neck craned as I peered up the length of a knobby-looking tree. The branches were symmetrically placed, the leaves not exactly thick but its trunk strong enough to take me from earth to sky.

I’d never climbed anything in my life. I could fall to my death. I could cripple myself when I suffered a vertigo wave. I’d never been stupid enough to try.

You’ve never had to run for survival either.

Shoving useless fears away, I moved toward the tree with out-stretched hands. It didn’t matter I’d never climbed one. It didn’t matter I’d avoided all gym games and apparatuses, because I only ended up getting hurt.

I would climb the damn thing and conquer it.

I have no choice.

Either stay on the ground and sit quietly for him to arrive, run blindly through woodland, or climb.

I’ll climb.

My toes gripped the base of the tree as I reached for the first branch. I put my weight on it.

It snapped.

Shit!

Another bark—loud and clear, just over the ridge.

I moved.

Scrabbling at the tree, I hugged the rough bark and hurled myself up, reaching like a crazed, climb-retarded monkey for a branch just out of grabbing distance. I didn’t think I’d make it. I closed my eyes in preparation for a painful fall, but by some miracle, my fingers latched around the bough, clinging harder than ever before.

Go. Go!

I gave myself over to a skill I’d never used but hoped remained dormant in some part of my human evolution. I placed my foot against the bark, pulling upward with my hands. I reached for the next.

And the next.

And the next.

My breath came hard and ragged, my heart an overworking drum.

I used the tree as my own personal stepladder to freedom, climbing higher and higher until I daren’t look down in case I blacked out and tumbled from heaven to hell.

A large thundering came, overshadowing the yips and excited barks of dogs. The leaves around me shuddered as footfalls of a bigger beast came closer.

Had Jethro come with others? Would Daniel be with him? Or even his father?

My skin rippled with hatred. I meant what I’d said. I would find a way to kill them all before this was over. I wouldn’t let them spill any more Weaver blood. It was the Hawks’ turn.

I’ll make them pay.

Turning slowly, cursing my shaking legs and suddenly nervous hands, I faced the forest floor from which I’d climbed. I was at least two and half stories up.

I closed my eyes, swallowing hard.

Don’t fall. Don’t even think about falling.

Faintness existed on my outer vision, teasing me with the awfulness of what could happen. I dug my fingernails into the bark, lowering myself slowly onto the branch. The minute I was sitting, with the roughness of the tree biting into my unprotected behind, I wrapped an arm around the trunk and sat wedged against the wood.

I looked around for weapons, but there were none. No pine cones. No easily snappable branches to stab him with. All I had was the element of disappearing. A naked girl vanishing into the green haze of the forest.

My heart lodged in my throat as the first dog appeared. I didn’t recognise him from the night spent in the kennels. He whirled around and around, sniffing the spot where I’d stood.

Another dog appeared, then another and another, pouring from the woods like ants, growling in delight at the strength of my trail.

Distress gripped my stomach.

Go away, damn you.

Then, he arrived.

Sitting proudly astride a black horse, so big it looked like a beast from the underworld, he cantered into being. His polished boots soaked up the dappling sunlight; a whip with a diamond wedged on the handle glinted menacingly.

He looked in his element.

A gentleman out hunting with his faithful steed and gallant party of dogs. His silvering hair sparkled like tinsel in the sun. His ageless face the epitome of ferocity and winning.

In his late twenties, Jethro wore command like one would wear cologne. His strong jaw, pursed lips, and sculptured brow shouted power—true power. And there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Sitting with his back ramrod straight and hands fisted in the horse’s reins, he was…majestic. It didn’t matter if I hated him or wanted him. That fact would always be true.

Excitement blazed in his eyes as he scanned the undergrowth, a smile teasing his lips.

How long had this farce been going on? An hour? Maybe two? Had he kept his word and given me the full forty-five minutes? Somehow, I doubted it.

“Find her, goddammit,” he snapped, losing his smile and glaring at the dogs.

The canines wove around his horse’s legs, sniffing, darting into bushes only to come back to try all over again.

Jethro spun in his saddle, planting a hand on the rump of his horse, glowering into the dense foliage. “Have you stopped running, Ms. Weaver, or have you somehow managed to trick my companions?” His voice caused the leaves to shiver, almost as if they wished to hide me further.

I held my breath, hoping to God he didn’t look up.

A foxhound with a large black ear barked and took off down the path I would’ve continued on if I hadn’t decided to prolong my freedom by hiding.

Jethro shook his head. “No. She’s around here. Find her.”

The dog licked its muzzle, baying in the direction its wriggling body wanted to go. The rest of the dogs, either brainwashed by their leader or picking up on the scent of rabbit, all joined in the urge to leave.

My heart galloped. Please, let him go.

I might have a chance after all.

The horse pranced—hyped up on the dogs’ energy, wanting to chase after them.

Jethro stayed steadfast, his hand expertly holding the reins so tight the poor beast had no choice but to tread on the spot. His long legs wrapped hard around the animal, sticking glinting silver spurs into its sides. “Wait,” he growled.

The horse huffed, tossing its head, fighting the tight possession of its mouth. It cantered in place, puffing hard through velvet nostrils.

The dogs disobeyed.

Their patience was done and with a loud howl, they took off in a cloud of tan, white, and black.

“Christ’s sake,” Jethro muttered. “Fine.” Digging his heels hard, the horse broke into a gallop, disappearing in a whirl of black through the undergrowth.

Shakes. They attacked me hard and fast the second he’d disappeared.

Hope attacked me second.

Unbelievable hope hijacked my limbs turning me into shivering jelly until I was sure the entire tree vibrated. Did I actually stand a chance at making it to freedom? Could I make it to the boundary and escape their clutches?

I could save all of us—my father, brother, future daughters.

“Life is complicated, Threads. You don’t know the half of it.” My father’s voice popped into my head. Anger filled me. Dreadful, terrible anger toward the man who was supposed to keep me safe. If he knew this would happen, why hadn’t he protected me? I’d always trusted him. Always followed his rule explicitly. To see him as human who made a mistake—many mistakes—hurt.

A lot.

A wave of sickness had me clutching the tree; I swallowed back the misfortune of having vertigo along with the emotional upheaval of what I’d lived through.

The foreignness of dried saliva on my body made my skin crawl. The memory of shattering beneath Jethro’s tongue totally blasphemous.

The sun glinted through the canopy—highlighting trails of where men had licked me.

My stomach threatened to evict the emptiness inside. I was hungry, dehydrated, and cracked out on adrenaline. But beneath it all, my soul ached with growing pains. My claws were forming, my tail twitching with annoyance.

It didn’t escape my knowledge that, as a kitten, I’d stayed on the ground. But now I was in a tree—did that make me a panther? A feline predator that hunted from above, unseen?

I liked that idea.

Forcing myself to concentrate on the trees surrounding me, I strained my ears to hear.

Only insects and birds. No Jethro.

How far was it to the boundary? What direction should I go?

Time seemed to slow, braiding with the fluffy white clouds above as if there were no cares in the world.

It was hypnotic.

The lack of sustenance in my stomach made me tired; I needed a rest.

Just a little one.

The screech of a crow snapped me awake.

Shit!

How could I have faded out like that?

How long had passed? It could’ve been hours or just minutes.

I have no idea.

My heart rabbited, energy heating my limbs. Move. Run again.

Jethro was far away. I couldn’t hear him or the howls of hounds.

Looking at the ground, my lungs crawled into my mouth. Down there, I didn’t feel safe…up here, I did.

Move!

I couldn’t move.

I would probably cling to my sanctuary until I died of hunger and became fossilized. To be found like a mosquito wrapped in amber a thousand years from now.

The thought made me smile.

Would they be able to bring me back to life like in Jurassic Park, outliving the Hawks by thousands of years to finally have the last laugh?

A twig snapped below, wrenching my attention back to the forest floor.

Oh, shit.

Squirrel stood below, looking directly into my eyes. His bristle tail wagged back and forth, his tongue lolling happily. He yipped, scrabbling at the tree.

Tears.

I couldn’t hold them back.

The one dog that’d granted such comfort last night was the one to ruin my future today.

How could you?

I wanted to scream at him for destroying me.

Jethro stepped silently from the shadows like a glacial ghost. His horse was hidden, along with the pack of dogs. In his hand, he held the whip and a saddlebag.

He touched the end of the whip to his temple in a salute. “Well played, Ms. Weaver. I didn’t think you’d have the coordination to climb. I must admit, foolhardy of me not to think of all avenues.” A smile crept across his lips. “I suppose desperation will make one do things they might not ordinarily be able to achieve.”

Stepping forward, he nudged Squirrel out of the way. “What I would like to know is how did you manage to stay up there? Did you not have another one of your annoying fainting incidents?”

The oxygen in my lungs turned into spikes and spurs, digging painfully into my sides. I held tighter to the tree, wondering if I could kill him from up here.

When I didn’t respond, he smirked. “You look positively wild up there. My own little forest creature, caught in my web.”

My arms lashed tighter around the trunk.

Jethro shifted, his movements quiet even with the leaf matter littering the earth. The happiness from his victory dissolved. “Come down. It’s over. I’ve won.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Or do me a favour and fall out. That vertigo has to be useful for something.” Spreading his arms, he muttered, “Go on, I’ll catch you.”

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