In the morning, Big Nose attached the chain to his wrist and sneered. “Let’s see if you can keep up with me, scum.”
This was it. Do or die. Ned looked at the soldier and was not intimidated. He felt good. The boy was hardened by the constant exercise and his running was getting more fluid. He learned to switch his mind away from the pain and knew he had to concentrate on the ground to stay on his feet.
Big Nose broke into a run and Ned followed. The big man barged past other warriors and ran at the front of the pack. Ned scanned the land ahead. It was uphill, the river to the right and woodland to his left. On the far side of the water, thick forest covered the land. The boy’s legs hurt and he could hear his heartbeat thumping. Purposefully slowing his breathing down, he ran alongside Big Nose. Kroll ran just behind, satisfied with the effort the prisoner was putting in.
They came to the brow of a hill and Kroll decided they should keep going. Ned stayed at Big Nose’s side, but there was something wrong. The warrior was wheezing and began to fall back. Ned kept going and ran ahead until the chain was taut. The iron clamp tightened around his neck and, gritting his teeth, Ned pushed on. Big Nose swore and yanked the chain, pulling Ned heavily to the ground. With one hand on his hip, Big Nose breathed heavily and scowled. He Kicked the boy in the midriff. Ned doubled up in pain and lay in a crumpled heap. He tried to get onto one knee. Big Nose punched him down. Ned lay on the ground but would not cry. Big Nose stared at the boy with cold, hard eyes.
Kroll brought his detachment to a halt and walked over.
“You okay boy?” He turned to Big Nose and raised his eyebrows. “A fair chance I said.”
Big Nose grunted indignantly.
“I’m not having you cheat your way to a win. We have a bet and I’m looking forward to my gold. The chain comes off.”
“But he might try to escape.”
Kroll knelt down and unclamped the chain from around Ned’s neck. “If you keep up with us, you will be allowed to live. But, if you even try to escape, I will squeeze the last breath from you. Understand?”
“We will chain him up at night but, during the day, he runs unhindered. And that’s an order.” A murmur came from the warriors.