I run as fast as I can, the leaves underneath my feet crunching with every step. The church and convent I’m fleeing are surrounded by miles of woods, lush and full of life on this late summer morning. Digging into the soil that’s still moist from recent rain, and tucking my head down to my chest, I run as if the whole world is haunting my every step.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Keep up your pace.
I’ve never run this much, not since I left the scraped knees of childhood behind. It’s harder than I remembered. My lungs squeeze painfully. Tears sting my eyes.
I made a hasty decision a few minutes ago. I decided to flee. And there is no turning back, not when I’m running from Father Derrik.
I’m nothing to him, an orphan at best. Yet, Father Derrik arranged a marriage for me. Not only that, he planned to make me a princess. I ruined all his carefully laid plans in less than a minute, with a little help from my sister.
I might be young, but I’m not so foolish as to think that Father Derrik will forgive such a slight.
And so I keep running, a redheaded girl in a wedding dress. Sprinting barefoot through the woods, my shoes kicked off somewhere behind me, I recite my personal litany.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Don’t look back.
I make it around the dark gray stone corner of the church, unsure if anyone even noticed me leave or not. The shadow of the church falls over me as I run, raising goosebumps on my skin and chilling me to the bone. Hopefully, everyone outside was sucked into the noise of my sister Amabel’s distraction. The intention of the distraction was to give me time to run.
Run away from the church.
Run away from the cruel man I’m meant to marry.
Run away from my entire life as I know it.
I can only hope that the distraction worked. But that’s not often real life, is it?
Breathe in. Breathe out. Run as though your life depended on it.
I sprint along the length of the building, the only goal I have in mind is a little footpath cut into the woods. I know that the path twists and turns, winding its way through the woods, but eventually, it opens up onto a highway. From the highway, I can try to get a ride toward civilization.
Branches reach out to grab me, snapping past my face as I run. Roots threaten to snake up from underground and trip me up. I wince as I struggle to breathe, to plan what lies ahead.
I can’t think of what I’ll do next, though… The future is a question mark, a big open space with nothing in it. And that scares me.
But not as much as marrying Prince Henrik does. Or staying at the convent but refusing to marry him… I would have Father Derrik and Sister Marguerite to deal with. After all, it was Father Derrik’s will that I should marry Prince Henrik. When I think of how angry they would be at me for defying them, for going against the Church…
A shiver of terror slides down my spine. I don’t have time for hysterics now, only self-preservation. Huffing a little with the effort of running flat-out in a wedding dress, I can only pray that I’m not caught. I throw a glance over my shoulder but see no one following me.
Is it possible that my ill-conceived plan just might work?
I dart into the woods, my long red hair streaming behind me. The woods seem to distort sound, make it so that I can only hear the rustle of leaves underfoot and my own labored breathing. I hear a man shout my name, somewhere far away.
I panic a little, even though I know that I should have been expecting that.
They know I’m gone or missing at least. Gathering my skirts, I look down as I run, trying to avoid a misstep as I flee. The dark ground slopes upward, gradually at first and then more and more dramatically. The soil is mossy; it comes loose under my feet and pulls up when I use my hands to try to brace myself. I curse the fact that while I’m struggling uphill, anyone following me has time to catch up to see me.
That same man’s voice calls again, less distant this time. Less of an echo, more of a bellow.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re closing in on the road now.
Surging forward, I suck in desperate breaths, my heart beating loudly in my ears. My limbs pump up and down, chafing a little against my wedding dress, but I don’t have time for anguish. As I run, I wrack my brain, trying to place the voice that called out my name.
It’s not Prince Henrik.
It’s not Father Derrik.
Who else would even be coming after me? Father Derrik usually has young boys following him around, doing his scut work, but this voice sounds too old for that. I hear it again, calling my name.
Rue? Rue! Stop, Rue! Come back…
It frightens me half to death. The last few steps are a slog, the path rising beneath my feet. The moss falls away, a tiny blessing. I scramble on all fours now, surely looking like a scurrying, desperate beast in my bridal gown. My hair snags on a tree branch, but I just keep moving.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re almost to freedom.
The ground comes to a sudden peak, the path broadening as it leads down to the road below. Glancing back, I see an unfamiliar figure rushing toward me. Dressed for the wedding a dark suit, he is sweating heavily, looking determined. For some reason his yellow-green eyes stand out for a moment, flashing beneath his dark brows.
He’s got his gaze fixed on me, his lips fixed in a smile. I recognize him as one of the men I saw outside the church a few minutes ago.
I know instinctually that I can’t let him catch me. He is good looking, but in the way that devils often are, slick and depraved. That man does not have good intentions, not with that expression of euphoria during this chase.
Sucking a breath, I rush headlong down the path. The highway is in plain view now, the trees clearing to showcase the thin cement road. Beyond that, the earth drops away, leaving nothing but a rickety looking bit of guardrail between life and certain death.
The man must be closing in because I can hear his footsteps now as he scrabbles up the last few steps. I have gravity on my side for a few moments, making great leaps downward. But soon enough, he has gravity too, and a much longer stride than I do.
As he follows right on my tail, only a few feet away, I see a black sedan pull up just ahead on the highway. It’s too late to stop myself from bursting out of the woods, so I just keep up my momentum, veering right where the road slopes down dramatically. The man behind me grabs my arm with a grunt and we both stumble, falling forward. I cry out as we tumble down between the highway and the woods, on a patch of gravel. As I fall, the gravel sinks into my sensitive knees and palms, stinging.
I make a pained sound, right before he lands on top of me, flattening me. I expect him to apologize, to jump off of me, but he doesn’t. Instead, he grabs my bloodied hands and yanks them behind my back. The black sedan rolls up beside us, and I’m wrenched to my feet.
I can’t see the man as he frog-marches me toward the car, but I realize how much larger he is than I am. A shiver runs through my whole body as I realize what’s happening.
I’ve been captured. My wedding dress rustles against my legs, as useless to me as it ever was.
“No!” I protest, just now regaining my voice.
“Silence,” he commands. His voice is deep and smooth as silk, born to give orders.
The lid to the car’s trunk opens with a thunk. The shorter man I saw with the tall man who is holding me opens the driver’s side door, sliding out of the car.
Who are they? F’s men? P’s?
I look at them, desperate to gauge anything about them at all. They don’t look like the men that normally work for Father Derrik, but… maybe they are Prince Henrick’s men.
God, I don’t know if I hope that they are or aren’t. Realistically, what is the best case scenario at this point?
That’s just it, there isn’t one.
I use up the last of my energy fighting the stranger’s hold on my wrists, but he doesn’t even blink at my efforts. Instead, he laughs the sound deeper and more melodic than I expected. It’s out of place in this situation, that laugh.
“She struggles like a little bird in a trap,” he calls casually to the other man. His accent is thick, maybe Middle Eastern. He leans too close to me, his dark hair askew. “Perhaps I will call you Robin, eh? Or maybe you are more of a Raven at heart?”
My mouth twists. He chuckles and marches me forward.
I am frantic, sweat trickling under my dress, staining it permanently. What will they do now? Put me in the car’s backseat and drive me back?
But no, when we pass by the backseat and come around to the trunk, I can see that their plan is not so simple. I glimpse a streak of my sister’s flaxen hair in the trunk and then make out her plain grey dress. My brain tries to piece everything together.
Why is Ama here?
Why isn’t she moving?
Something is really, terribly wrong here. My senses are screaming for me to move, to fight, to struggle, at least. My eyes jump up, trying to make contact with either of the men who are trying to kidnap me.
No. No, this is not how my story ends.
The hold on my wrists tightens again. My thoughts come all in a rush.
I’m scared. God help me. Is this my repayment, for running away from the Church? Have I made God so angry?
I cannot be put in the trunk, of that I am sure.
Fight. For the love of all that is holy, fight with every ounce of strength you have left.
“What—” I start, resisting the hold the man has on my wrists.
The other man has something in his hand as he approaches me. I see something metal glint in the sunlight as his hand arcs toward me. A syringe?
Oh, dear lord, he has a syringe.
Then there is a stinging pain in the side of my neck. I make eye contact with the shorter man, who grunts as he pulls his fist away from my neck.
I cry out, but already everything is blurring, slowing down. I slump to the side, my eyes fluttering closed.