The morning came cold and clammy, and, for Tommy, it came at the breaking of dawn’s light.
The golden sun fractured through the canopy like a golden blade that pierced the leaves of his temporary shelter, pricking behind closed eyelids with enough strength to rouse him from his exhaustion.
He blinked wearily at the morning sun, cursing the few hours that he had managed to actually rest; the night having seen him a captive; perched precariously on the knife’s edge between fitful sleep and uncomfortable dreams that he was never sure were simply conjured, or something remembered.
Still, he was thankful for the dawn.
It wouldn’t be for another few minutes until it was strong enough to burn the undead that plagued the wilderlands, but the dawn was warning enough that, even with the tantalising prize of the young child precariously pressed between the spilt trunk of the oak some few feet above them, the few remaining zombies that had chased him through the night had enough thought in their rotten minds to begin ambling their way through the trees in seek of deeper shadows to save them from daylight.
Truthfully, they were no real threat, but Tommy didn’t want to have to sacrifice an entire forest for the sake of a few hungry stragglers.
They were mindless ghosts; remnants of old wars long since fought and forgotten and scarring the land with the remaining husks of soldiers that scoured the broken world left behind.
Some said they were fallen soldiers haunted by their bloodlust, unable to rest. Some said they were cursed; that they were deserters of the forgotten wars and the Blood God had punished their dishonour with eternal suffering.
Tommy would simply say that they were annoying; not so much a danger to anyone well equipped with a sword and armour, but more so an irritant that disturbed the peaceful night; their existence not being good for much more than distracting the guards on city walls or a means to an end for those that needed something to kill in return for coin.
Or, if one was desperate enough, a supply that filled the unrelenting hunger.
The thought turns his stomach.
He hasn’t been that desperate in a long while.
Tommy allowed himself a moment before he had truly woken; still sat with his back pressed against the rough bark, taking what solace he was able before the day began. He listens to the birds that had woken before him, sitting above in the branches, or further in the canopy with a morning song to call in the dawn.
He takes note that they hadn’t been the ones to disturb him; that he must’ve been far more exhausted than he had realised if the morning chorus had begun unnoticed, but with another glance to the forest floor where the remaining stragglers of the horde lumber to hide from the coming daylight, he doesn’t berate himself too harshly.
There will be time enough for that later.
With the growing light, Tommy can make out the disturbed undergrowth where the masses have moved onwards; his eyes and waking mind adjusting to what small light the dawn gives him. At least, what little light that hasn’t been stolen by the thick canopy of leaves that hangs overhead.
It takes little encouragement from his head to begin moving; shifting from the awkward position he had crammed himself into, from protection of stray arrows and to ensure, should he fall asleep, he wouldn’t fall out the tree and into the waiting arms of the horde below. He had stashed his bag on a branch beside him to free up room and provide move cover; reaching now to untangle the leather strap he’d wound around a tangle of branches; scowling at the arrow that had pierced the aging leather.
It’s harder to wrestle his bag when his body feels sore with the pains of having slept awkwardly, but Tommy ignores the minor aching and the way his back twinges. His bones ache for a multitude of reasons—all of them being his own fault—but none are debilitating enough to stop him from slinging his bag over his back, bow following suit, and lowering himself down from his temporary roost.
There are more arrows imbedded in the soft bark of younger branches, or caught between the leaves; their flint-tips old and chipped, their flight-feathers moulded from the years of being suspended in a skeletons quiver, but they are better than nothing and would serve to stretch Tommy’s own dwindling supplies, so he gathers all of those within arm’s reach; slipping them into the notch in his bag, cut specifically to hold projectiles while not hampering the gear’s ability to keep out the rain.
He can purge them with fire later; to rid them of spores and any lingering remains of the undead when he has a moment to stop and take stock, but not yet.
There are more on the floor surrounding his tree, but the temptation to gather them is drowned out by a warning in the back of his head and the way the wind races through the trees, whispering with the leaves and tugging at Tommy’s hair to pull him onwards.
The boy pauses for a moment in the lower branches to scour the nearby forest to make sure the coast is clear. He can’t see any lingering undead, nor skeletons lying in wait to hinder his final escape, but Tommy isn’t about to stick around to find out otherwise, so disregarding the remaining arrows, he drops from the tree and follows the way the wind blows at a dead sprint.
In most battles, Tommy favours speed over stealth, and with the stamina to match he can take himself far from the horde before he will even begin to grow tired; and does so, running far enough that by the time he does begin to feel a cramp pinching the base of his calves, the sun is high enough that nothing can chase after him without facing death by daylight.
(Perhaps a creeper, maybe, but the monsters are slow to walk and easily distracted if Tommy can break line of sight for long enough to slip away).
When Tommy does finally stop, it is beside a river; the water cold and malevolent in the way it carves the green landscape in half.
He cringes at the sight of it even though he had been following the call of its song through the wildlands for a while now; hating how it seems to laugh at him and that fact that he’s going to have to follow the damned thing until he is able to find some way of crossing it.
Tommy had thought that he was far enough away from any stronghold or city to risk being seen by someone that might recognise his face from the posters, but even a village with a road over the river holds the threat of people that might recognise him, no matter how close he is to the wilderlands’ borders, but the thought of nearing any settlement pricks like sharp thorns.
Sometimes Tommy hated that his heritage made things so much harder. He was already running just because of the fire in his veins. Why did a river of all things have to stand in his way?
As if to soothe, the wind ruffles his hair and trails her fingers across his cheek before following the river upstream, whispering, inviting Tommy to follow. And he will, but after he gives himself a moment to rest, to catch his breath and gain his bearings before he follows the riverbank in search of a safe way to cross.
For now, he unslings his bag, his bow and cloak, sinking down into the comfort of the long grass to take stock of what he was able to salvage from his camp before the horde had got too close.
It had been a rushed affair; the mobs having moved closer than Tommy had realised, yet he had been able to snatch what necessities he could; having grabbed his bow and very few arrows, a half-empty water bottle, the last of his cured meat and the dregs of what dwindling medicinal supplies he had been able to stuff into his bag before caught under the feet of the zombies that chased him.
If forest fires weren’t his calling card, Tommy would’ve set the ground ablaze and not looked back. But he’s already burnt half the world outrunning his past and a handful of monsters weren’t going to be the reason he lit the pyres that drew the hunters in.
He was stronger than that.
He had to be.
Tommy decides that his first priority is food.
The cured meat isn’t any good for more than a day, and even now it’s starting to go bad. There’s no point waiting for mould to creep in, so he devours it there and then, chewing on the dried meat to try and soften it, but it still feels like he’s chewing on a leather shoe rather than anything with nutritional value.
With his decision made and the wind beckoning, Tommy spends the next few minutes scouring the riverbank for signs of could-be prey; chasing his own shadow as it drifted over the winding grass that grows long and teasing; threatening to trip him even though he had long since shaken the tiredness from his bones.
It is hard to watch his feet and watch for prey at the same time, but years of experience soon take over and Tommy falls into a familiar rhythm as he always has, until he is a shadow himself, gliding ghost-like and silent across the uneven earth, pushing aside bracken and bush to find more definitive marks than just the soft impression of something recently loping through the undergrowth.
He was rewarded with fresh heart-hooved tracks clear in the deep mud: a herd of deer having passed through. There are many prints, too many crossing and interlinking and overstepping one another’s prints, but with years of learning behind him, Tommy can easily differ between the old tracks and a pair of new prints that had approached the water’s edge, drank their fill before trailing onwards.
It is this trail he follows.
If he can snare himself a sizeable kill, he won’t have to worry about scrounging up food for the next few days, and instead focus on restocking other supplies and maybe, just maybe, seeking out a place that he can take shelter in for more than one night, to give himself a full day of reast rather than fleeting moments.
In his chase, Tommy comes across other tracks; hoof prints trailing through turned earth, clawed trenches having dug at the ground and the boy pauses a moment.
Deep indents of the boar’s tracks and the carnage of furrows showed a sour temperament, but with the whistling of birds and the odd chirrup of nearby rodents, he knew this creature to be long gone by now. Boar weren’t Tommy’s favoured prey—hard to kill, harder to prepare with too much wasted meat that will draw in the undead and other predators—and yet his curiosity awarding him with a bushel of potatoes that had been growing in the shade of a nearby tree; having been overlooked by the boar that had previously been through here.
They’re a little on the small side, but even the smallest is more than what Tommy was expecting and it urged him deeper into the woods, tangential to rabbit trails. He is further cheered with a copse of berry bushes and three apples hanging low on a branch: good pickings that ripen his mood.
If he wanted to, he could halt himself there; return to the river and follow it upstream. But the forest has a considerable lack of monsters prowling and Tommy is wont to take advantage. He presses on, following the prints that weave back and forth across his path, clear in the rain-damp earth; leading lead him to the edge of a clearing; oak and birch breaking away to a field of grass and wild flowers.
Tommy’s first instinct sees him scouring the green ocean for the familiar signs of wheat or barley, or any signs that the field is more than it first appears; the lull of its peace hiding the threat of a nearby farming settlement that had sown the ground with crops in wait for harvest.
There are no such crops.
But there are the deer he’s been hunting.
Within the embrace of the trees, and far enough from the open he needn’t disguise his movements, Tommy takes a knee to shed his pack. He takes the arrows—a half dozen and one more for good luck—double checking the tautness of his bowstring, a hand on up Tubbo’s kerchief in habitual movement to obscure his face.
A dark thought of blood and fire and burning and his mask flashes like lightning in his mind, but the dawning light is a guardian to nightmares and Tommy shakes off the claws of the memory-turned-nightmare before it can dig into flesh, forcing himself to remain focused on his task.
He tugs Tubbo’s kerchief back down and takes a steady breath to be certain; directing a sharp thought to idle hands; packing away what gear he had drawn out before burying it in the deep of a thicket, committing it to memory as not to have to leave any sign that would direct him back to his supplies. The only things Tommy keeps on his person is his hunting bow, the knife that never leaves his boot and the half-dozen-plus-one arrows.
The bow sits steady in his hands, two arrows resting between his bow fingers, taking out an unnecessary movement from notching another, should Tommy’s first arrow not meet it’s intended target.
He moves as a shadow does, gliding across the ground, leaving no sign of his passing other than that of a branch swinging back into place, or a tall clump of grass springing slowly back up from where his foot had crushed it momentarily.
Tommy ghosts along the edge of the clearing, feeling a tingle of anticipation creep up to his neck, following a half-step faster than before. Still silent, still slow, but now moving with intent and a focus that wouldn’t allow for any other thought to invade his mind. Hunger urges him, tightens his grip on the neck of the bow as Tommy skips forward in pursuit of his chosen prey: a young deer closer than the rest, her head tilted down to graze, mindless of the eyes upon her.
Pressing low into the earth, he paused on the boundary of the meadow. Between an oak sapling and its father, he knelt, body following the contours of the chestnut’s oak, knowing that the muted earthen tones of his cloak will help disguise him. His hair is a different matter and that is why he leans into the branches of the sapling, peeking out from amongst its leaves to scan the open field.
The pale grass glowed almost golden under the sun’s rise. Tommy would call it beautiful, if his mind were not already sunk beneath the quiet of hunting; his thoughts sharp and direct, but clouded with a sense of calm as he looked out upon the open wild.
And the deer that does not know she is being hunted.
Tommy’s arrow remains on its bow string, and will remain as such until she is further from the safety of the tree line. If he needs another shot, he wants to give himself every chance to take it without wasting the time on restringing an arrow.
Watching her take few steps more, the boy finds himself moving closer, knees still pressed to the earth, his body slow and snake-like as it slips from a crouch into a half-kneel, lifting up on one foot.
The deer does not notice his movement. She is far from him, but not far enough that keeps her safe.
Tommy can feel the familiar numb of uncertainty on his tongue, a worry paining his lips where he chews at the consideration that he hasn’t even tested the strength of his bow for a few days—that maybe he needed to tighten it, maybe loose an arrow to check it won’t snap on the draw—but the opportunity has passed him and Tommy has nothing beyond blind faith and a prayer to Prime that his arrow hits its mark.
Silently, he takes a breath. With the exhale, he lets himself rise ever so slightly, feeling the tension pool within his chest and flurry upwards, into his shoulders, his back, into his arms and into the bow string.
He draws it wide, lining arrow tip with its target and just above to negate the distance as he steadies himself, shifting one foot to further balance his weight—
Something snags around Tommy’s ankle and yanks.
He’s pulled off balance, the rope a part of a snare previous hidden pulley-system and Tommy is hoisted off the ground with an unceremonious yelp; arrows spilling from his make-shift quiver; cloak falling in front of his face and past; the collar tugging painfully around his neck.
There’s a bell going off; metal striking metal in alarm to whatever human set the trap and Tommy’s heart races out of beat to the discordant death chime; fear sweeping in like a thunderstorm as he yells his terror and hatred and dread.
He claws at his leg to help try and right himself in some way; fingers snagging into his trousers to help as he stares at the contraption; the way it holds him uncaring upside down; the rope itself as thick as two fingers and wrapped twice around his ankle before disappearing into the canopy above; reappearing on the far side of the tree where it is anchored into a peg in the ground and adorned with a bronze weathered bell that bleats like a lamb for it’s mother.
In the chaos Tommy had dropped his bow; his arrows having emptied from their make-shift quiver and now littering the floor. Their flint-tips may not having been sharp, but they were better than fingernails and Tommy glares angrily at the mess beneath him only for a moment.
His other option would be his knife, the one he always keeps in his boot, except he can feel the way the rope is pressing it against his ankle bone and Tommy bites out a string of insults—unclasping the cloak from where it was beginning to choke him—trying, and failing, to shift the wet, sodden, dew-drenched rope; each attempt more futile than the last as his fear threatens to drown him.
He doesn’t let himself give up though, his stubbornness a strength as much as a weakness and he works to haul himself closer to the knot that makes the loop that ensnares his leg. With his weight dragging it down and holding it tight, the knot is as unmoveable as the rope itself; no more willing to bend to blunted nails than the other strands no matter how desperately he claws at it.
It reminds him of the chains; of the cold iron that rubbed his skin raw until it blistered and bled; the scars burned into his skin like morbid tattoos that circle his wrists and ankles; a testament to his strength of will that had seen him escape from the jaws of death once already and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t escape again.
Beneath the sound of his terror and the bleating bell, Tommy hears a distant voice rise in cheer.
And that is when he truly starts to panic.
And panic means that he can’t control his fire.
Where there should’ve been flames there are only sparks; the crackling light in his palms popping and hissing, but the rope doesn’t catch. Tommy knows he has to be careful; that if his flame was to grow too strong for him to be able to control then the entire forest will burn and he’ll be found again, but he knows just as certain he’ll be found right now if he doesn’t escape this trap.
The rope isn’t too thick; only two fingers across at most and not as strong as the metal chains that had shackled him; Tommy’s desperation burning in him like his fire as the sparks hiss and crack and smoke with the ferocity of a cornered animal.
“Fucking—let—me—go!” he snarls, wrapping both hands around the length of the rope, painfully aware of the laughter ringing through the trees; the sounds of feet crashing through bracken; bitter laughter like that of him and Tommy—he doesn’t understand why the rope isn’t burning, why the frayed strands aren’t catching—it’s just a length of rope used for hunting, its not important enough to be enchanted; no stupid farmer would waste his coin enchanting rope to make it fireproof when it’s only use is to be part of a snare and nothing more.
The voices are getting louder and Tommy is running out of time. In a split-second decision he isn’t fully conscious of making, he grabs hold of his ankle instead of the rope and lets his palms spark with panicked fear; his shoes far less resilient than the supposed-enchanted rope and he can feel the heat surging from his hands through the thin-leather of the leather wrappings that clothe his feet.
There’s a trail of smoke where something just barely catches alight and Tommy doesn’t celebrate with a cry of victory just yet—not when he’s not free, not when he’s still suspended up in the air, dangling by his foot, trying to burn through his shoe so that he can gain favour towards escape or is able to free his knife in preparation to fight—
“Oh my god Techno, your snare caught a child!”
Tommy turned his head, searching for whoever had spoken; hands no longer sparking, his boot no longer smoking. Deeper in the trees he catches the shape of two people in his peripheral. It’s hard to see them from this angle, hard to make sense of what he’s seeing when he’s half-upside down and swaying precariously, fingers now digging into the hole in his boot to try and—yes!
He manages to get a grip on his knife and, ignoring the way it’s pressed into his skin by the hug of the rope, he drags it out, silent despite the way it cuts into his flesh.
It doesn’t matter. His heritage may detest the touch of water, but it gives him the edge of healing fast and as soon as he gets a chance to set his blood aflame, the cut won’t even scar.
Right now, however, Tommy is just grateful to be armed with more than just his fire, and he holds his knife out in front of him, blade angled down—up?—to make it all the more obvious that he’s armed.
He can’t see his trappers all that well but he can hear them; two voices snapping back and forth to one another— “how the hell was I supposed to know?” interrupted by; “just wait until Dad hears about this,” and “you wouldn’t dare,” —one deep and throaty like a vicious snarl, the second light and touched with a playful tone that sits out of place in this moment and Tommy feels panic clawing at his throat from just how close they sound and he can’t, he can’t be caught by humans again, he won’t go back!
Tommy leans up with all the might he can muster and slashes his knife at the unburnable rope.
One of his trappers must notice because they yell at him—the voice deep and sounding like rocks crashing down a mountain; like thunder and the stampeding of hooves—but Tommy ignores him in favour of slashing the rope again.
The second voice tries to soothe as if Tommy was nothing more than a frightened animal; staying well out of reach when Tommy makes a blind swing for him. He can just about make out a shape out the corner of his eye but he’s focused on distance and escape; slashing desperately once more, making no more progress than the first time.
There’s blood on the blade; his own from where he’d carved a line in his foot; that same blood dripping on the handle, making the leather handle slippery and when Tommy slashes for a third time, he loses his grip, the knife slipping from his hand and tumbling down to land amongst spilled arrows and his dropped bow; all his weapons scattered beneath him, all out of reach.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck—
“Just give me a second and I’ll get you down, you damned runt,” the first voice says; Tommy turning his head to the figure stood next to the tree; to where the bell rings in echo to the boy’s panic and the dowel remains firmly in the ground. Tommy can just about make out that there’s a foot resting on it.
“Wait, Techno, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the second tells him, voice cautious, but the other—Techno—isn’t listening and Tommy watches as the foot draws back and kicks the peg— “Techno, I said wait—” and Tommy can see what’s going to happen before it does; barely having the time to cradle his head in his hands before the boot connects with the dowel; the tremor running up the rope again and the ground releases it’s grip on the peg.
Tommy goes crashing to the floor; head smashing the earth; the force of the fall knocking the wind out of him, so when a sheer, sharp pain stabs into the meat of his shoulder, he can’t even gather enough air to scream.
The noise gets caught in his throat, his lungs seizing like there’s a mountain sat on his chest and Tommy doesn’t have the mind to even try not to panic as his body gets a kickstart.
Choking on the drawn breath.
Screaming on the release.