The small girl tried to salvage what she had left of her torn dress; the old shoes that adorned her feet slipping in the mud and falling into the wheel tracks as she tried to run straight down the road. She dodged the few horses and one carriage that happened to be out at this late hour, breathing heavily and not daring to look behind her. She could hear the barking of dogs somewhere in the background as she made a split second decision to turn into the forest, fearing the men chasing her more than the horrible stories about the woods at night.
It didn’t take long for the moonlight to fade, for her feet to catch the unseen brambles around her, for what was left of her once beautiful dress to be torn from her body by unseen branches. Alone, exposed, unsafe, she found the nearest tree and started climbing, praying to every god she wasn’t supposed to know about for her safety.
Below her, torches passed, light thrown softly up into the branches, falling over her exposed skin. She almost laughed in that moment, the softness of the light being so inviting and comforting, yet she knew for a fact that the people casting said light were anything but.
It didn’t take long for a branch to snap somewhere in the woods, and the men below her to snarl at the new noise, on the hunt for their own special prey. They shout at each other, rushing off towards the noise that was made. She watched, holding her breath for fear of them finding her up that tree, her underthings and bare skin exposed for the world to see, her once long and beautiful hair cut short and matted with blood and mud. She saw one of the men carrying the once green dress that she had loved so much. Tears began to leak from her eyes.
She cried there, high up in that tree. Long after the shouts of the men faded and the light was gone from their torches. Long after the night air made her shiver from the cold and the noise of the forest returned. Long after the night swallowed her whole and the first rays of dawn peaked over the horizon, tears slipped from her. She mourned the life she was no longer entitled to, high up in that tree.
She thought back, during that time, to what had lead her to this moment. The sleepless nights and the mead that her father seemed to care about more than anything else. The nights when her mother said no and her father turned to the only other woman in the house for those “feminine comforts” that he ached for so much.
Despite those things, her father arranged for her to be married, at the ripe old age of 16, to a man twice her age with only one thing in mind. When this man got her home and got her clothes off, the race began. He recoiled in disgust and shock when he saw the disfiguring birthmark that covered the entirety of her left hip, curling around to her back and slipping down to the back of her left thigh.
His thundering shouts of displeasure had awoken the neighbors. When he ran out to gather a group of men to rid the world of her, she slipped the dress she loved so much over her head, not bothering with the complicated lacings. She took off, running quickly through the night, startling the few people that were gracing the streets during this late hour, most of them too drunk to even remember the half-undressed girl flying past them.
At one point, her husband had caught up to her, a fistful of her hair making tears fall down her face like twin rivers, the self satisfied smirk gracing his face making the tears just fall harder. She knew that she was cursed, that birthmark marked her the property of the old Gods, the ones that were vicious and unable to be trusted, asking for pain and suffering instead of the love that the new god they had found promised. She wished then, desperately, that this was the old times, when she would have been revered for the God that claimed her, not killed for it.
She knew in her heart that this meant this was the end. She would die here, on her knees in the middle of the street, surrounded by men who hated her and almost undressed. She would die there, by the hand of her husband, no traces of love left for someone, no- something, like her.
She had done the one thing she thought she never would: escape. She took a knife from the belt of a man who had gotten to close to her, close enough she could almost feel his bulging gut against her petite body, and she cut her hair from her husband’s fist. She was rough, and some of her hair was just plain ripped from her skull, but she took off running just as soon as she was half free, leaving her beautiful hair clenched in the fist of the man who wanted her dead.
That had lead her here, stuck up a tree, tears flowing freely down her cheeks, hair all but gone, all traces of dignity gone with the men who had tried to kill her.
Slowly, as dusk was falling, she came down from the tree she had taken refuge in. She relieved herself in the bushes, before making her way back to the town that had almost killed her. Sneaking around, she stole into the unlocked back of a bakery, snatching some of the day old bread and shoveling it in faster than she ever had before. It had been almost two days since she had last eaten anything.
She was in the middle of gulping down water as fast as she was able to swallow it when the door opened. An old woman stopped in her tracks, staring at the young girl, eyes wide in shock. The girl was ready to bolt at any second, afraid the woman would scream and alert the town of her presence.
“Are you the girl? The one with the mark?” The old woman took a step inside, whispering the words like they were the most precious of secrets as she closed the door quickly behind herself. Immediately, the girl was struck by how ancient the woman was, her face like old parchment, her eyes set back in her head. She was short and stout, a heavyset and strong woman despite her clearly advanced age.
The woman shook her head, “No, don’t answer that. I don’t need to know who you are, just that you can be helped.”
The girl put the water bucket down slowly, as not to make a mess. “How-” She shook her head, trying to run her fingers through her ruined hair before stopping, slowly wiping the bloody grime from her fingers as she spoke. “How are you going to help me? There’s nowhere for me to go, everywhere I go they’ll try to kill me until one succeeds.” The fear in her words made the woman so sad she almost gave everything away just then.
“There are places for someone like you to go. They will teach you how to become an asset that can’t be killed, for penalty of death. My daughter, she is at one now, she teaches at one.” The old woman seemed proud of her daughter, proud of the secret the two were sharing, in the backroom of that bakery.
“I can get you there, undetected. You can get an education, become a finished girl, marry well. You can help this country, while still worshiping the great and merciful Gods who have laid claim to you.” The woman spoke rushedly, as if she wouldn’t be able to get the words out if she had to wait any longer to say them.
The girl raises an eyebrow, sceptical at best. “Why would you help me?” The girl’s words were so much harsher than she intended them, but the woman knew exactly what she meant.
Immediately, she felt bad as the old woman’s eyes filled with tears. “Because,” She started, doing her best to hike up the mountains of skirts she had around her, “I’m just like you.” She gestured to her now exposed upper thigh, and the girl before her gasped in shock. The woman’s birthmark was lighter than hers, like someone had spilled coffee on parchment and then tried to dry it up.
“If you can guarantee that I’ll be safe, that I’ll be able to get out for good and become someone, just like you say, then I’ll go with you.” The girl’s voice was hard, but turned soft so suddenly the old woman almost recoiled from shock. “Please! I just don’t want to run anymore.”
Under the cover of night, the two women slipped from the town on borrowed horses. They rode hard, coming up on the coast just as the first light of morning was peaking through the trees. As the two rode into town, the old woman barked a few orders to her young companion.
“Sit straight in your saddle. Play along. Do exactly as I say. And keep that head covered!” She hissed, a bright smile gracing her face as people began to bustle around the town.
Two armed men came up to the pair, pointing crossbows at them as another spoke.
“Halt! What business do you have here in Eastmouth?” The third man spoke with authority, like he was the only person whose word mattered.
“My granddaughter and I seek passage to Little Rock.” The old woman spoke with such authority that the man faltered.
“And who might you be to require access to that place?” He spit the word out like it was some vile creature that had taken up residence in his mouth.
“You may call me Cora. You may call my granddaughter Victoria. They are expecting us before noon.” Cora let the words hang in the air for a second before continuing. “Are you going to keep them waiting on us?”
It took them almost an hour to get the boat ready for Cora and Victoria to make passage to Little Rock. Victoria was in the dark about everything, but she kept the hood of her riding cloak up over her ruined hair, heeding Cora’s many warnings.
When the two are finally seated in the boat, Victoria notices how only one lonely old man is the one rowing them to their destination. Looking out to sea, with the rolling waves crashing into the land beneath the dock, Victoria really doesn’t understand how one man is going to get them all the way to wherever it is that they’re going.
The trio sets off, Cora and the old man talking under their breath to each other, the wind carrying their conversation off before Victoria is able to hear anything that is said. She’s too caught up in watching how the boat is being swallowed up by a thick cloud of fog to be paying attention to what Cora is saying anyway.
Quite suddenly, it seems, there is a hulking land mass right in front of the boat. The man brings the boat to a stop under a ladder that’s swaying in the wind, nodding to both of the girls.
“Up we go dear. This is as far as Mr. Morrison is going to take us.” Cora holds the end of the ladder, motioning for Victoria to begin her climb. Mindful of her skirts, Victoria sets off, Cora waiting a bit before doing the same.
It takes almost too long for the pair to get to the top, but when they do, they are not greeted with a large home or lots of people, but instead a shack.
Unlocking the door, Cora lights a lantern and hangs it in the window.
“Make yourself at home Victoria. We might be here for a while before they come to get us.”
The two settle in for the wait ahead, not knowing what was to come.
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