Blindly, she pushed her way forward. The pain to her bare feet, made by sharp rocks and fallen branches went unnoticed. Limbs scratched at her face and arms, snagged at her hair and clothes, yet she stumbled forward.
What if she was only going around in circles? What if he caught her again?
She couldn’t bear that. She’d rather a hungry, wild animal found her first. Would rather the cold set upon her and silently steal her pathetic life from her like a thief in the night. Any death would be welcomed if it meant never having to go back.
After stumbling and hitting the ground hard, she forced herself back to her feet.
She had no idea if the sound of his cursing and goading, the sound of horse hooves bearing down on her, was real or just her fear getting the best of her, but she did know she could never stop. She had to keep running.
Except she was so tired. It already felt as if she’d been running forever.
Her legs were heavy. Thin arms had long ago stopped trying to keep the snow and the stinging tree limbs from hitting her face.
Her eyes had already been swollen shut, so the swirling storm around her didn’t hinder her.
Pure fear was guiding her. The memories of the last time he found her pushing her on, memory of his rage just last eve, pushing her on.
If he found her this time, he just might kill her. He’d been in a rage for days because his brothel had broken their agreement. Then this attack from someone he thought he’d scared into submission. All that anger needed an outlet, and she was his favorite outlet.
Once he slaughtered the small army who thought to defeat the devil, then he would come for her.
And he would find her. He always did.
The next time she fell, she knew that was it. She knew she wouldn’t have the strength to rise again.
She was so cold her teeth chattered, but she didn’t bother to wrap herself more tightly in her coat. It had all come down to a race now. Who would claim her first? Death or the devil? She prayed with everything inside of her for the first. Slowly, she removed the coat she’d stolen. Now she only wore a thin, dirty night gown. Laying back, she awaited her fate.
“Mary, my love, you can rest now. I’ll take care of you.”
Too weak to summon up fear, she gazed up at the voice.
She smiled. Death must be closer than she thought because suddenly she felt no pain, she no longer felt the cold.
Warm light touched upon her cheek, and she was glad to see that it came from a figure she recognized. “Leslie, have you come to take me to heaven? I’ve been waiting for you.”
“No, Mary love, it’s not your time. Don’t fear, I’ll take you somewhere you can be safe. Rest, my love.”
“I want to go home. I want to be with you. I don’t belong with anyone else anymore.”
“You belong with him. Close your eyes, my love. Rest and be well. I’ll keep you warm and safe as long as I can.”
For the first time in over a year she felt warm and safe, so she slept deeply and allowed old memories of loved ones to hold her tight.
“Robert, something’s wrong.” He looked up and saw one of his men racing back. Three had left only moments ago to go hunting and one returning at such a breakneck speed could only mean one thing. Something had gone wrong.
“Tell Rosamond to prepare for one or more. Send Mitchell to help her and ready Horse and Cecil to ride.”
“Do you think_____.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Prepare.”
Robert deWarwick went down to meet his men. At this distance it looked like Steven returning. That meant that Lucian and Garry were unaccountable. Either of them could be hurt. Dead. Maybe the curse had finally caught up with them.
Garry had a new wife that would have to be told. Lucian, like many of his men had no one. Maybe it was true, what everyone whispered in the dark of the night. Lucian was a bastard deWarwick. His cousin, so destined to die before his time just as all deWarwicks did.
He was waiting in the courtyard. He wouldn’t have to ask, Steven would know what everyone feared.
Steven shook his head while trying to draw in a quick breath. “No.... my lord. A woman. We found a woman.”
At the sound of several gasps, he looked around at his people. They were quickly filling up the courtyard.
Robert turned back to Steven with a frown. “Is she dead?”
“We don’t think so, my Lord. Lucian is bringing her in. He sent me to prepare you.” A large grin appeared on his tired face. “She has come. She has finally come.”
More of his people gasped behind them and looked to him for answers. He noticed a smile of relief here and there, a few of the younger people had hope in their eyes.
Most though, were like him. They’d given up hope a long time ago.
“It’s probably nothing. Just another who’s come to die within our cursed walls.”
“But a woman, my lord. Maybe_____.”
“He’s right, Ruth. Steven, you say you don’t know if she is dead or alive? I’d bet cold and dead.”
“Smedley, stop being an old crouch. You always think the worst. It’s been years since we’ve had visitors. Or even saw someone else. And now a lady shows up at our doors? Just as we’ve prayed for?”
“Ain’t none said she was a lady.”
“Does it matter? She has come, and she has brought our salvation.”
Robert held up his hand and everyone quieted. “We will know soon enough. Everyone back to what you were doing. Horse, you and Cecil ride out to meet them.”
Turning, he marched back up to the battlements. He stayed up here for hours some days, staring out across the valleys. Waiting.... waiting for salvation.
“What do you think?”
“I wish I knew what to think. What do you think?”
Alfred was only a few years older and his good friend. They’d been friends since they were just boys.
“I think we’ve been waiting for this day all our lives. I believe today you will meet the woman who’ll help you break the curse that’s been haunting us for far too long.”
Robert looked straight ahead. All he’s ever wanted was to save his people. To at least be able to offer them some hope.
How many countless times has he stood in this spot, staring at these same hills that blocked them from the rest of the world? How many times had his brother stood before he died? His father? The answer had never come to them. In all these years he’d be the first to stand here with this shred of hope that the day had finally arrived.
“Have a room prepared. Hot water and a meal. Let’s give her the best we have to offer.”
They both knew their best wouldn’t be near good enough. The food wouldn’t be fit for a beggar. There wouldn’t be enough to fill her belly. The rooms of the keep were drafty and one’s bones were never warm enough.
Just two days ago they buried one of their old ones because he died of sickness in his chest.
Without realizing it, he gripped the stone wall in a death grip. They were always burying someone.
His greatest fear was that he’d have to watch his people dying until none was left.
So, few of them were left as it was. They were hungry and cold. Shut off from everyone, and they all looked to him to save them. He was the only one who could.
He turned his face into the cold air that blew in at him. One wouldn’t call him a handsome man. None of the deWarwicks were. That was part of the curse. They were as dark as their black hearts.
His hair was black as night. His eyes near as dark and his skin tanned even though the blessed sun never seemed to shine here. His frown was dark and ugly, his stare intense.
There was a scar running right down the middle of his left cheek. Not a large scar just a mark branding him a deWarwick.
When the riders came into view, he quickly searched for what he dared not believe in.
Another rider. Lucian seemed to hold a woman in his arms. A snow-white gown flapped in the wind.
Could it be her? Dear God above, let it be her.
He rushed back the way he’d come only moments ago.
When he noticed all his people waiting in the courtyard, he let them be. They had as much to lose as him. Everyone waited without breath, from the youngest child to the oldest woman and man.
As the group that enter the grounds moved closer, his people moved back and cleared a path to him.
He watched his man closely, waiting for some sign.
“She’s alive, my lord. Breathing evenly yet hasn’t arisen once.”
Only then did he allow himself to glance at the small bundle being offered to him.
She was little more than a child. Small and thin. She was pale; her face nearly as white as her gown. Her cheeks hallow. The circles under her eyes, dark and pronounced.
He took her into his arms and held her tight. His despair was overwhelming. “She’ll die within the night.” He whirled away. “Everyone back to work or our bellies will go completely empty this day.” He barked out loud, hating to see his despair mirrored in the eyes of everyone.
He moved rapidly into the keep and towards the room that the servants had prepared.
Most of the rooms in the keep were not even usable. The whole left wing was about to crumble in on itself.
Robert went passed his own room and into the next. What he hoped was gently, he laid the girl upon the large bed. Rosamond was there ready to pull back the covers.
For a moment they all just stared down at the sleeping figure.
She was very thin, maybe even thinner than any who lived here. Her hair was brown, and all gathered up in a braid. Her skin was pale and shined like porcelain. She looked so fragile. Too fragile, as if she’d break at just a touch.
“Yes, my lord?”
He didn’t have to look to know Alfred would be nearby. “Where did you find her?”
“Just beyond the woods. She was laying against a tree as if she’d been left there. She was in a small clearing. As if someone wanted us to find her.”
“No belongings? In a clean, white gown? No clothes? No coat?”
“Of course, my lord. I wouldn’t_____.”
He stopped Lucian’s stumble of words. “The gown is thin. How did she not freeze to death?”
“Perhaps she was having a secret tryst in the woods with a young man and fell asleep.” Alfred suggested lazily.
He couldn’t help but frown. Everyone stepped back except for Alfred, who moved closer. “But why would he leave her alone?”
A thought came to him, one didn’t like. “Someone will be looking for her and with our luck they will not be happy we have her. Ready the men for battle. Get the gates closed. Bring all the women and children into the keep.”
Lucian left right away but Alfred lingered. “It’s been over twenty years since we_____.”
“Yes, it has.” His voice was like steel. “And if you remember, we lost over half our men in that battle. Only bad luck comes knocking at our doors and if she’s....” He looked back down at the small girl. “.... not our downfall then our downfall could very well be coming next.”
The girl servant hovered near the door, now too afraid to come any closer. “Rosemond, I want someone with her at all times.”
“Yes, my lord.”