It was as if I was dreaming. I was so happy, I thought as I worked on making a dress for the wife of the head of the village. A strange satisfaction engulfed me as I sewed the cloth, making sure to move the needle with precision. I did not wish for the dress to be ruined. I did not want the lady of the village to be disappointed in me.
It had been a month since I’d been living here at the village of Pran and it filled my heart with the utmost bliss to say that my life had taken a turn for the better. No longer was I worried about pleasing a man; nor did I fear the wraith of anyone who was displeased by my actions. After such a long time, I was finally free.
However, the fear of Lord Bancroft finding me hovered over me like a dark cloud. There was no doubt in my mind that Lord Bancroft would be furious and searching for me. It had been a month, and so far I had not heard anything regarding him or Quopia, but I knew in my heart that I was not free of him. And it terrified me to know that he would find me very soon.
Though a month had passed with no news of Quopia, I couldn’t help but think about my friend Ethel and how she would be doing. I knew I left her in the most unfortunate of circumstances but that did not mean that I ever stopped thinking about her. She was like my sister and I wished she was with me. God knows what the Kings would be doing to her; Lord Eldon was particularly cruel and I just prayed that he was not punishing her.
I wiped a stray tear that dared to escape my eye and paused my work in order to calm myself. I hated myself for leaving Ethel behind but I could not do anything about it. I had no choice; if I hadn’t run then God knows what Lord Bancroft would’ve done to me. And so I did what I had to do.
“Forgive me, Ethel. For I did not mean to bring you any harm by leaving,” I whispered, wishing there was some way she could hear me and know just how sorry I was. Would she ever truly know the depths of my regret? I didn’t think so.
Taking a deep breath, I placed the unfinished dress on my work table before standing up and going to the kitchen to drink some water. Every time I thought about Ethel I ended up in tears, mainly because I could not forgive myself for leaving her in the hands of four cruel Kings. How could I have been so selfish? I left my sister behind to be punished and having been acquainted with Lord Bancroft’s wrath, it felt like I’d left her in the hands of death. I never knew I could be so selfish.
As I prepared to walk back to my work table so I could finish making the dress, there was a knock at the door. I frowned wondering who it could be. Even though I had been living alone in my little cottage and someone or the other often came by to give or ask for something, I still couldn’t help the jolt of terror I experienced as I thought it was Lord Bancroft who had come to take me away.
However, I had to hold on to hope and pray that he wouldn’t come and find me. I walked to the door and opened it to see Malin standing there, a broad smile on his face. It always made me wonder how he could be so happy. I mean, everybody in this small village was happy and content. It was as if they had never suffered any misfortune, and I prayed to God that they wouldn’t.
“Good day, Malin. How are you?” I asked with a forced smile. I did not wish for Malin to know that I had been crying just before he knocked on my door.
“Good day to you too, Hildred. And I am well this fine morning. What of you?” He said, his eyes glimmering with warmth and happiness the likes of which I’d never seen in Lord Bancroft’s.
“I am well, thank you. So, what brings you here?” I enquired. “And would you like to come in?”
“Yes, thank you.” Malin stepped inside and I closed the door, wondering what he wanted to talk to me about. “I must say I have come to you with an urgent matter.”
My heart became heavy as if somebody had filled it with stones. “How can I help with this urgent matter of yours? Should you not seek the help of the head of this village?”
“That is what I should do, but for the sake of our friendship I do not think going to Lord Quillon would be wise. It would be in your best interest to resolve this matter as soon as possible.” I noticed Malin was no longer smiling, but a shadow had settled in his eyes, obscuring the shimmer that was previously there. The absence of his smile gave birth to fear in my heart, wondering if it was Lord Bancroft he wished to talk about.
“Would you like to sit down? We can discuss this matter in comfort,” I offered. To be honest, I did not wish to discuss anything with him, because if I did then Lord Bancroft would come and take me away and God knows what he would do to me then.
“Of course, thank you. I would also like some water, if you do not mind,” he said before sitting down on one of the two chairs present in my sitting area.
“Yes, I will get you some.” I rushed in the direction of my small kitchen, grateful for the small reprieve. God, what he come here to discuss with me? Was it about Lord Bancroft? It had to be, what else was there?
With a cup filled with water, I walked back to Malin and gave it to him. “Thank you,” he said as he took the cup from me. “Sit down, so we can talk.”
I did not want to sit down but I knew I had to, otherwise Malin would know that something was wrong. So with a heavy heart that wanted to do nothing but run away from here, I forced myself to sit down.
“What is the matter?” I said, forcing my voice to be steady.
In response, Malin handed me a folded piece of papyrus, which I took with trembling fingers. I unfolded it to see my name inked in giant letters with a reward written beneath it. My heart sank as I realized that I now had a bounty on my head. Anyone who came forward with information in regards to me would get gold coins in whatever amount they wished. And underneath it all was the name of the man who I was certain wanted me dead. Lord Bancroft’s name was given at the end, which meant that he was the one who had put a bounty on my head.
“Would you like to tell me about this? You told me you have not been running from anyone but this bounty on your head very much contradicts your statement,” he said.
I couldn’t speak. I did not know what to say. Lying was not an option as the truth stared at me in the face in the form of papyrus. What could I say to him? Would he tell me to leave Pran? Where would I go? If Malin had found this, then it meant that everybody would be looking for me.
“Why did you not tell me the truth, Hildred?” He asked when he realized that I was not going to speak. “Your village did not burn down, did it? You have been on the run all this time; am I correct?”
Silence was the only answer I could give, because it was the only truth I had. Mayhap my time here at Pran had come to an end and I should leave as early as possible because Lord Bancroft would be coming for me and I did not wish for anyone else to interfere.
“Forgive me, but I had no choice. I was desperate and I was just looking for a roof over my head. I knew if I told you that I was on the run then you would not have helped me. I had been walking for three days when I came across your village…I just needed a place to live.
“I swear I mean no harm to you or anyone in this village. I just need a safe place to live. Forgive me for my dishonesty.” I took a deep breath of fortitude, getting ready to say what needed to be said. “I shall leave if you so wish. I shall find another place.”
“Leaving Pran will not aid you in any way, will it? You have nowhere to go,” Malin replied, taking me by surprise. I thought he would agree and at least offer me a safe passage of escape.
“That is something that you should not concern yourself with, for I am sure there are other towns and villages, someone is bound to give me sanctuary,” I said with little hope. I knew that there was nowhere I could go now for they all would be searching for me.
“You and I both know that is not a wise decision. People everywhere are now after you. This—“ he gestured at the papyrus in my hands “—just arrived and I came to you. Fortunately, there is no other message, otherwise it would be difficult to hide all of this from the people.”
“Why would you hide it? Lord Quillon needs to see this.” I told him. Even though I was grateful to Malin for coming to me before going to anyone else, I still questioned his decision.
“Hildred, you are my friend and I shall not betray you like this. I came to you because I know that you have a reason for being dishonest and I wish to help you,” he stated.
“Why? You do not know me. Mayhap it is not wise to put your trust in me, for I have already broken it once,” I said.
“You are my friend and I shall help you. I know you are a good person and I know you are on the run for a good reason. The Kingdom of Quopia is great and it seems as if it is a King you are running from,” he remarked, taking me by surprise.
“H—How did you know?” It was like he knew me and all that I’d been through.
“The King of Quopia is one of the cruelest and the most feared, so I can understand why you must be on the run,” he responded.
“It is not King Aboloft I am running from, Malin.” It touched my heart to know that he cared enough to help me instead of telling Lord Quillon that I was a liar and have me thrown out of the village. But he was a good man and did not deserve to be punished for that. So I had no choice but to keep him safe for Lord Bancroft shall not spare him if he found Malin.
“Then who? Quopia does not have any other King.” Malin frowned.
I sighed before forcing a smile on my face. “You do not need to know that.”
“The name Bancroft is written at the bottom; is that the man you are running from?” He queried. I had to leave this village because I did wish to involve anyone. Malin was a good man and he was happy here, and I would never ruin his life.
“That is of no concern. I shall leave as soon as possible. But until I do so, can you please not tell anyone about this?” I did not know how long I had until Lord Bancroft found me which meant I had to leave Pran right now or latest by tonight.
I stood up to leave only to be stopped by Malin. “No, Hildred, you must not. He will find you if you leave Pran.”
“If I do not leave and he comes here, believe me, Malin, he will destroy this entire village and I will not allow it to happen. You gave me a sanctuary even though I have just been running from the inevitable, however, I will not allow any harm to come to this village; which means I have to leave. Right now.”
Without waiting for his response, I dashed to my room and begun putting things in my bag. I had only spent a month in this village and now I had things which I could not leave behind. I had sewn a bag which I would now use to keep my belongings in, and thank God I had some more clothes now because when I came here I had nothing but my old cloak.
“The decision you are making is hasty and unwise. Do not run, Hildred, it will only get you killed,” Malin argued as I folded my dresses and placed them in my bag.
“If I stay then this whole village is going to die.” I was already the cause of Ethel being punished by the Kings, I could not take the burden of a hundred deaths on my shoulders. I would die of shame and guilt.
“Nobody has to know that you are here. If anyone comes looking for you I shall simply lie and tell them I have never seen you,” he countered.
I ran towards the door, eager to leave before anybody noticed. “Thank you so much for everything that you have done for me, Malin. But I have to leave. I cannot risk your life along with the lives of all the others, they are innocent.” I stopped and opened the door. “I will never forget you, dear friend. Thank you for everything.”
“Hildred wait—“ I did not listen to him. I pulled my hood over my head and ran out of Pran, eager to put as much as distance between the village and myself as I could before Lord Bancroft caught me.
Tears fell from my eyes but I continued to run, not knowing where I was going. I just knew I had to get away from the village, those people did not deserve to suffer because of me.
As I ran blindly, I was forced to come to an abrupt stop when I found myself standing in front of three, big horses. My eyes widened as a gasp escaped me when I saw who was mounting the horses. No, it couldn’t be. It was too soon. I was not prepared for him.
But prepared or not, he was here. In all his power and glory…