The soldiers were on a bearing directly South toward the Foijen and ran beside the river. This made it easy for Ned to keep on their tail and ensure his water container was full. He kept hydrated and the aches in his legs eased. In between food and water stops, the boy ran while keeping an eye on the soldiers’ spoor, always on the look out for danger signs. The Malaxians were cunning warriors, so Ned was wary of an ambush. If they caught him out, he would be dead.
As Ned ran along a stoney patch, he noticed scuff-marks to indicate the soldiers had been this way. He looked up at the sun, well past its midday point. He had been running since first thing and now slowed to a walk. At a point where the water was close by, he stopped and sat on a large rock. Deadwood drifted past in the water. The boy knelt down and gulped the water, swallowing hard. His boots had been on for weeks so he decided to tend to his feet. Undoing the boots, he dangled his bare feet into the cold, fresh water. He cleaned his feet and rubbed dock leaves on the sores. But they were not bleeding, just bruised. He remained barefoot for a long moment and then put the boots back on. It was the mental lift he needed. He stood and looked at the forest on his side of the river. Sunbeams streamed an orange glow through the trees. He peered upstream and then downstream. The air was filled with the rush of water and birdsong. In another time, different circumstances, this would be a nice place to be.
He thought for a moment. Things could be a lot worse. He was not being hunted anymore. That alone was a huge mental lift. He was well fed and fit. And, despite the frenetic recent weeks, he was injury-free. Here he was, just a raggedy kid from the Foijen, but elite enemy soldiers could not catch him. He was a survivor. Standing in the wildlands, Ned dared to hope everything would be alright.