“Look,” Jace points ahead, “trees!” Then he takes off running for said trees with his pack bouncing on his back.
You jog to keep up but, since you’re carrying most of the gear, he keeps his lead on you.
“Jace,” you call, “slow down. You’ve got longer legs than I.”
He turns, still running, and trips over his own feet.
You cringe as he tumbles and his pack slides over his head to tangle awkwardly around his shoulders.
At first you think he’s crying but when you come even with him, you find his convulsions are silent laughter.
“I cart wheeled!” He announces in his slightly slurred speech.
“That you did. It was glorious,” you respond while untangling him. You consider that maybe you should view life more like he does. A ten year old’s enthusiasm in an adult’s body. Life is never dull for Jace. He’s aware enough to live on his own, but as his neighbor, you still check in on him every day. In essence, you’ve become his best friend.
You don’t begrudge helping him cook his meals or clean his house when, without fail, he brings a smile to your face.
You race him to the trees and teach him how to set up the tent by the river that runs just inside the tree line.
His grin about splits his face. It’s been there since you agreed to take him camping the day before.
You gladly agreed when he asked. The area where you live is relatively safe, unlike the larger cities to the west of you, and Jace loves the surrounding forests.
As you settle in for the night, his grin is the last thing you see before falling asleep.
Twigs crack close by and you bolt upright, fully awake.
“Hear that, Jace?”
There’s no response.
Jace isn’t beside you. The door’s on your side so you’d wake if he got up, but the flap is still tied closed. A breeze brushes your skin anyway. In the dark, you crawl over Jace’s empty spot to find the far wall of the tent sliced and now flapping free.
“Hey, hey no—“
You recognize the slightly slurred speech.
You shove through the open wall of the tent in time to catch a disturbance on the north side of the camp. Following, you stumble on to the edge of the river and see a small boat with two silhouettes rowing away. A shock of light hair, definitely Jace’s, shines on the side of the boat in the moonlight.
Slavers, you realize with a sick sensation. They’ve been plaguing the coast but you thought this was far enough inland to be safe. Apparently not. They must have used the river to sneak inland.
And now they’ve got Jace. Why didn’t they take you too?
You’ve no idea but now you’ve got to save Jace.
Head to the coast to find their ship?
You can still see the boat meandering away down the river. Your gut clenches with the thought that, if you lose sight of that small vessel, you may never see Jace again.
The river meets the ocean in a wide cove surrounded by cliffs. It’s not useful as a dock, so usually no ships use the cove. However, if you lose sight of the small rowboat, there’s a chance the slaver’s ship will leave the cove before you reach it since they’re traveling by water. Then you’ll have no chance of finding Jace.
You can’t chance that.
You take off down the riverbank but it’s not long before you run into vegetation creeping into the water. It blocks your way as surely as if the slavers had set up a gate.
Heading inland a bit, you try to work your way past the area only to find the trees grow thicker. By now the rowboat’s got to be well beyond your sight but you try to go back in order to check the river for it.
When you do finally make it, sure enough, the river’s empty of any boat. Tears prick at your eyes. Jace’s thrilled smile plays through your mind. Camping should’ve been a fun, safe activity for him but now he’ll never want to go to the woods again. That’s if you can find him and bring him back.
You have to find him. There’s just not another option in your head.
With renewed determination, you head back to the camp, realizing now that in your initial rush, you left your lantern and hatchet behind.
Items in hand, you make your way back to the impassable spot in the river and move inland again, swinging the hatchet through the brush to make a trail wide enough for you to pass through. Branches still scrape at your face, arms, and legs though, and it’s not long before small trails of blood trace your skin.
Dawn brightens the treetops by the time you’re able to follow the riverbank again. Sweat drips from your nose and off your hand as you swing the hatchet but thankfully there are a few small rivers meeting up with the main water that help cool you down when you have to cross them.
Exhaustion clouds your eyes as you scan the river for any signs of the rowboat. You’re close to the cove and can hear the ocean. Rushing ahead, you pan your gaze across the cove and your heart sinks.
No rowboat, no ship, no Jace.
Your knees hit the sand but then you hear a scuffing sound and what started out as a sob of disappointment turns into you ducking into the brush behind you. The sound comes again from inland, toward the cliffs along the cove where the trees grow thick.
Then you see it. Men on top of the cliffs. And there, in the middle of them stumbling along, you make out Jace’s blond head.
The only thing that makes sense would be if the men never had a ship but headed up one of the smaller rivers that you crossed on your way to the cove. Who knows all the details, the why or how or what are they doing, but you’ve got Jace in sight again.
Climb the cliffs?
Head back up the river to go around the cliffs?
Jace-Climb the Cliffs
Jace is in your sights again and the thought of losing sight of him just about makes you sick. Heading back up the river to go around would be the safer way to go, less likely to be seen, but by the time you reach the top of the cliffs, the men and Jace may be gone. That’s not acceptable.
You head into the thick forest at the base of the cliffs, moving as fast as you can so Jace is out of your sight for only a few moments. The sun’s already warming the air and sweat glistens your skin within seconds.
Beneath the foliage, you realize how small you are in comparison to the towering trunks and mossy hides of the trees. They vibrate with life and dozens of shades of green that mix together to form the scope of tree, brush, moss and flower.
Insects buzz in your ears.
Then, you’re at the base of the cliffs. You’d hoped to still be able to see the men above but rocks fill your vision. Faint sound carries to you, voices. They’re still up there.
You rub your palms against your pants to dry them and reach for your first hold.
Even on the rock, away from the foliage, the humidity in the air slickens your skin. The rock turns slick as ice in your grip and your right foot slides off the tiny nub you were standing on.
In a desperate grab, you push off with your left foot just before it slides off too and reach upward for the small ridge above your head.
Your fingers hit the ridge and sink into the slight bowl rain carved out there. Your fall stops with a sudden jerk and you swing on your right arm. Relief almost makes you dizzy as your grip remains firm and you’re able to pull yourself into the rock where you find two solid spots for your feet.
Your arm throbs from taking your weight so suddenly. You swap hands and let it hang free for a second to rest. Sweat drips from your nose and your breath rasps in and out of your throat but over the harsh sound you still pick out the faint mutter of voices.
You listen but it doesn’t sound like your fall alerted them to your presence. Shaking your hand one last time to make sure you’ve got full feeling in your fingers, you look up and make your goal the crack that’s three feet above you. You make it there and you can sink your body into the crack far enough to rest.
More sweat drips from your face. You scrub your hands one at a time on your pants to dry them and keep moving.
Finally, you reach the crack in the rock and slide into it sideways, using your hips to wedge yourself in place. With both hands free, you shake them to relieve the tension in your forearms. They’re tight enough now that you can barely close your fingers.
As you take a moment to recover, the voices above drift to you. After a moment of listening, you realize you understand what they’re saying.
“…pay or you get nothing,” one deep male voice insists.
“That’s not what we agreed,” another responds. This second one seems angry, more so than the first, which surprises you as it sounds like the first is the slaver and the second the buyer.
“You never mentioned he’d be an idiot the whole way. We get paid for our trouble!”
“You get nothing but my silence. Now give me my boy.” Such command. You shiver despite the heat.
“Hey.” It takes you a moment to realize this last word isn’t part of the conversation. It’s quiet, like someone whispering. You look up to find Jace looking down at you from the top of the cliff. He grins as he lays there on his stomach. “Hey,” he says again.
“Shhhh,” you lay a finger to your lips and he grins even wider. It’s a game you’ve played with him many times. Hide and Seek. He loves it but giggles while hiding. You always lay your finger across your lips to remind him he’s got to keep the giggles silent.
He copies your move, letting you know he understands.
“It’s my dad,” he whispers, almost too quiet for you to make out the words.
“See, he’s an idiot!” Shouts the deep voice above. “Hanging over the cliff like he’s going to tumble off. I’ve known life long slaves with more sense.”
“His brain’s none of your business. Now go. I won’t say a word about your business in the area.”
There’s grumbling and then the men break out into an all out shouting match in which you can’t make out what each is saying.
Did Jace’s dad hire the slavers to kidnap his son? It certainly sounds like it. Everyone knows in the village that Jace’s mother keeps a close eye out for his dad because the man’s rather unscrupulous.
Have Jace Sneak Away?
Wait until Jace is alone with his dad?
Jace-Wait until Jace is alone with his dad
The argument above echoes over the cliff without any indication of slackening. You meet Jace’s gaze and give him the ‘shhh’ sign again while you consider your options. He giggles and slaps a hand over his mouth.
To the left there’s a tree line that meets the sloping edge of the cliff but it’s a good distance away. Jace would have to be either nonchalant about getting there or sneaky like a spy. He’s neither so you decide to wait until only Jace’s father is left.
You wedge yourself a bit tighter into the crack to wait out the argument. Eventually, Jace get’s bored of staring at you and he disappears. You hope he doesn’t say anything.
The arguing stops and you hear heavy footsteps leaving. Perhaps the slavers have gone but you wait a little longer until you hear Jace’s father call to him before you move to finish climbing the cliff.
By the time you haul yourself over the edge, you catch the sight of Jace and his father following a path into the tree line on the left. Although you’re huffing for breath and covered in sweat, you push to your feet and take off after them.
They’re much taller than you, though, and their strides take them down the path at a rate that has you almost running to keep them in sight.
Then you brake to a rapid stop. It’s the offshoot of the river that the slavers must have used to get Jace to the cliff. On it sits a sleek boat with several more men sitting inside. They give Jace a hand as he climbs aboard and deferentially step back to allow his dad to climb in on his own.
“To the compound,” his dad says and the men start rowing.
Your stomach rolls like you want to throw up. There are too many men for you to get Jace back on your own.
You walk down to the very edge of the river and watch them rowing away. Something catches your eye, another boat. A tiny rowboat left on the riverbank farther up.
You might not be able to save Jace by yourself, but you might be able to follow them to see where they take him.
You climb aboard the tiny vessel and put your back into rowing. It’s tough work to keep the sleeker boat in sight but, determined, you keep going until the sun’s gone and it’s the lights of the ‘compound’ that tell you you’ve made it to their destination.
The compound’s a house a top a hill with a wall surrounding it. On the wall walk sentries.
Definitely too much for you to save Jace alone. You watch them take Jace inside the gates and then slip away to head home.
A part of you always regrets not getting Jace back alone but the logical side of you admits you wouldn’t have succeeded. As it is, the village spends several months figuring out weaknesses in the compound before they’re able to sneak inside and steal Jace back.
Turns out, Jace’s dad wanted to pass along the family business of drug running. Since Jace was his only son, his dad spent hours with him trying to instill the details of the business even though Jace, who loved simple things, wasn’t interested and didn’t really understand the gravity.
What’s harder on you is it takes Jace another year to trust you again. Something about letting him go to spend time with his dad just didn’t sit right with him. You consider explaining to him that it wasn’t your idea but, in the end, it’s just easier to let him relearn to trust you.