Leif had no idea where he was or how long he had been running. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop.
He and Asbel had been separated several blocks ago when an Empire mage casts a fire spell that accidentally caused an older house to collapse. He hadn’t seen Finn or Nanna since they fled the Duke of Tahra’s mansion. A group of Empire soldiers had been waiting for them by the exit of their escape route and tried to grab Nanna. Finn stopped to fight them off, telling the boys to run, and Leif hadn’t stopped since.
After losing Asbel and the mage who had been chasing them, he had been darting from alley to alley, trying to avoid being out in the open as much as possible. The rows of houses were narrow enough he could touch both sides without fully extending his arms so at least there was little chance of any soldier who did see him following him through here. Still, he didn’t slow down, desperate to get out of the city. The houses around him were becoming shabbier, a sign, Leif hoped, he was close to the edge of Tahra. Once he was there, he could find a place to hide and wait for everyone else. If he made it out, they would make it out as well. He couldn’t think otherwise.
Just as he was approaching the end of the alley, he heard voices. Skidding to a halt, he frantically looked around for something to hide behind. Seeing nothing, he backed into the shadows and pressed himself against the wall facing away from the direction the voices were coming from. Holding his breath, he prayed for whoever was out there to not look down the alley as they passed.
“Do you think we’ll actually catch the brat this time?” a man asked. It didn’t take much to guess the man was an Empire soldier and by brat he meant Leif. His heart was racing so fast he couldn’t count the beats as each footstep brought the men hunting for him closer.
“Probably not. He’s a slippery one. But at least we finally had an excuse to take Tahra so can’t say the kid doesn’t have his uses,” his companion answered.
The first soldier huffed. “Do you really think the people of Tahra will take the execution of their duke well? From what I’ve heard, he and his family are well liked.”
“It doesn’t matter how well liked you are if you’re caught harboring a known fugitive. And even if we don’t catch him, we have the testimony of two guards and a maid that the prince was here. That’s more than enough to sign his death sentence,” the second replied nonchalantly. The pair continued their conversation but were too far away for Leif to make out what they were saying. Not that he could have paid attention to anything else they said after that last remark.
Even after the soldiers were far enough away for Leif to continue on, he found himself unable to. Instead, he slid down the wall, coming to rest with his knees against his chest, head bowed. He was shaking, whether with fear, anger, or something else, he didn’t know. The soldiers’ words repeated mercilessly in his head. The Duke of Tahra was going to die. Linoan’s father, a kind man who told terrible jokes and bought flowers for Nanna, who instead of getting mad, laughed when Asbel accidentally set a curtain on fire, who showed off for Leif the swordplay techniques he learned in Isaach. This man was going to be executed. Just because he helped Leif.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened either. The King of Alster had also been executed after the Empire learned he had taken in Leif, as had Asbel’s father, a simple priest whose people turned on him for harboring the prince. When Leif asked Finn if this was his fault, Finn had denied it. But Leif had a hard time believing him back then. Now, it seemed undeniable.
Everywhere he went, whoever helped him ended up facing the wrath of the Empire, a trail of corpses and ruined lives left behind so he could escape unscathed. Asbel was an orphan, Linoan would be too, if she wasn’t killed along with her father. He had no idea what had happened to Miranda, the Princess of Alster. Even Finn had fought and bled more times than Leif likely knew just to keep him alive. Leif couldn’t think of a single person who had offered him aid and not paid the price for it.
That ended now.
Clenching his fists, he tried to will his shaking to stop. As he did, he made himself a promise. He would never again let someone else die for his sake. No one else would ever give their life in exchange for his. Even Finn, the unwaveringly loyal retainer he had inherited from his father. Finn had always been there for him for as long as Leif could remember. His first memory was of Finn carrying him away from a burning Castle Leonster. In a way, he was more of a father to Leif than the man whose face and voice he had long forgotten, if he had ever known them at all. He would not watch Finn throw his life away for something as pointless as him, an unworthy prince with no Major Holy Blood.
With this resolution in mind, Leif finally managed to stand. The shaking hadn’t gone away but he could ignore it as he ran. So he took off, running toward the edge of Tahra. But when he arrived, he didn’t stop, running straight into the trees lining the road. Away from the burning city, the darkness of night hid what lay ahead of him, each step a risk Leif didn’t consider. Leif had no idea where he was going or how long he would keep running. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop.