That Sanity of Ours

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THE FOREST IN the middle of the night was every bit as daunting to a kid as it was to any sheltered lady. However, having been exposed to the wild for the last few days, Violet didn’t think of it as scary any longer. In fact, watching the white snowflakes gently descend from the indigo night sky helped to ease the tension in her body. It seemingly had the power to wash all of her stress away.

“Are you awake?” Violet asked in a whisper when she heard something shuffle in the carriage.

She turned her head away from the window just in time to see Maddox stirring awake. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, yawning softly with his spare hand shielding his mouth from view.

“Where are we?” Maddox questioned, voice still groggy and sleep-tainted. Spinning his head left and right, he tried to look out of the windows in an attempt to find out where they were on the road but the cluelessness in his eyes told Violet that he had as much a clue as she did.

None.

“Should we ask the coachman?” Violet suggested. “It has been a while since sundown. Surely it is not wise to stay on the path if we aren’t anywhere near yet.”

In her head, vivid images of wolves baring their glistening sharp fangs as well as common thieves and robbers crawling about in the night sent chills down her spine. There were way too many dangers that dwelled in the wild after the sun fell from the heavens. While monsters lived in the day, it was the demons that prowled the night.

“We are ways from the capital. If we continue down the path, we will probably reach a town soon, though.” Knocking on the little window that separated the coachman and the passengers inside the carriage, Maddox waited for a second before pulling the window open. He spoke to the coachman, “How long more?”

“Just under an hour’s drive, sir,” the coachman answered. “We will be reaching Dallenhurst soon. I was instructed to drop the passengers off there.”

Dallenhurst was a small but insanely prosperous town that was just a few hour’s drive away from the capital. It was governed by Arthur Cecil’s father, Marquess Cecil. However, that did not mean that the town was filled with friendly hands and caring smiles. Quite the opposite, in fact. Marquess Cecil and his men were those that they had to avoid at all costs if they did not wish to get apprehended immediately.

Or at least, that was what Maddox had drilled into Violet’s head the closer they got to the town’s gates.

“No one else in the Cecil family can be trusted,” he warned. “One thing about the rich and mighty is that they are all connected to one another. Some in a friendly manner, while others bear animosity and concealed hatred. Either way, to land in the hands of the ruling nobility would immediately sentence our escape to naught. Understood?”

“Will there be a lot of them around?” Violet asked.

The wheels of the carriage went over a bump, causing the vehicle to rock back and forth before settling back into the constant swaying that had long found a beat and rhythm. Violet watched as Maddox shook his head, his shoulders rising up before dropping. The action was accompanied by a small frown, his eyebrows lifted for a second with the skin between them furrowing to form tiny wrinkles.

“Who knows?” Sighing, he leaned an arm on the backrest of the seat, propping one leg on the knee of another in an uncouth manner. “It has been years since I’ve last seen the streets of Dallenhurst with my own two eyes. There might be more rats roaming the streets now than before.”

Even though nothing was clarified, Violet knew for a fact that Maddox was not talking about the common pests that burdened many common households. The ‘rats’ he spoke of would surely be the nobility he seemed to have so much hatred for.

That made Violet wonder. If Maddox had such burning anger and prejudice against blue-blooded folk, why did he so readily offer help to Violet who, too, was from noble lineage? That was a question she dare not ask. Words weren’t her best friends, after all.

“We should find an inn once we get there,” he continued to speak after a second’s worth of silence. “We will rest here for the night and continue on our journey once dawn breaks. Staying in Dallenhurst for too long will only attract trouble.”

It was unfortunate, however, that not just would staying in Dallenhurst be troublesome. Entering the town alone proved a hassle enough.

When they approached the gates, they were greeted by the sight of swarms of guards manning their posts. Armored men raised their spears and swords, checking each cart and carriage with great detail before begrudgingly allowing them to pass only after each and every crevice had been examined with care. The gates to the city might be open but the walls that separated it from the world beyond told a different tale. Every stone and brick seemed to be stuck on with nothing but malice and hostility. Even the torches on the walls bore flames that burned bright and steady, unwavering in the stormy snow.

The sight of it was simply threateningly unnatural.

That’s Dallenhurst?” Violet questioned, her voice in a soft murmur as she gaped at the scene that loomed before her.

“That’s Dallenhurst,” confirmed Maddox. “And it seems like they have recently tightened border controls. They were never this strict with checking who goes in or out before the news of our escape.”

What Maddox had said seemed like an understatement but Violet did not argue a single word. Instead, what filled her thoughts were wild and dangerous imaginations, countless scenarios of them getting caught by the guards as they inevitably neared those gates.

“We can’t stay here!” Violet blurted out. “The second they pull those doors open, we are done for!”

She saw the image flash before her eyes. The sight of her bound and tied, dragged back into the secure gates of Steinfield Asylum. One of her parents might be there, her mother, perhaps, scowling down upon her when the cameras were turned away. Although she never knew proper love from her family, it wouldn’t stop them from coming over. It would just be a farce, a show for the paparazzi of the kingdom. The oh-so-touching reunion of a kidnapped daughter and a worried mother, all served up for the press.

As every second passed, the gates to Dallenhurst’s inner-city only neared. In no time, they had nothing but mere minutes before the guards would be by their sides. Violet sat still, her fingers clawings at the fabric of the seats beneath her as cold perspiration began to leak forth from her skin. She had already tasted the sweet, forbidden nectar that was the world beyond. How could she ever want to return to the murky waters she was trapped under before?

“Violet? Violet. Violet!”

It was only after Maddox had called her name three times had she finally snapped from her fever dream, her eyes still as wide as saucers as she stared blankly at her companion. Her lips were parted, dry and chapped as she took in a shaky breath.

At the sight of the state she was in, Maddox lowered his voice. He exhaled slowly to calm himself, expression softening as he nodded at the doors. Outside the window, the dark, looming forest was still in sight. They weren’t yet at the armed walls and blazing torches of Dallenhurst’s gates.

“We need to find a different way in,” Maddox said. He placed a hand on the handle of the door, prepared to push it open. “This is our stop.”

“Through the forest?” Violet asked.

Before her question was answered, she was already ushered out of her seat. She stood at the gaping doors, waiting just behind Maddox after he pulled it open. One hand on the frame, she watched quietly, with unspoken horror, as Maddox casually threw over a set of instructions at the coachman.

“Head straight into the city and tell them that you are tasked by Arthur Cecil to pick someone up. They shouldn’t question you too much if you drop the family’s name, albeit an estranged son.”

“Understood, Sir.”

With that said, Maddox leaped from the moving carriage. He tumbled through the grass, dirt clinging onto his clothes as he grunted in pain from the impact. It took Violet all she had in her to keep herself from crying out his name in surprise. From the carriage, she watched as Maddox picked himself up from the ground and started running to catch up with the moving vehicle without even stopping to dust himself off.

“Jump!” He instructed, “Jump. I’ll catch you.”

There was no time to stop and think about what-ifs and what-if-nots. In front of them, the gates of Dallenhurst were emerging further into view. Before long, they would be right in front of it with Violet served up on a silver platter. She didn’t have time to whimper and cower.

Mustering all her courage, she closed her eyes and jumped from the open doors, making sure to knock her hand against the door once she was out to try and slam it shut. Violet didn’t dare even dream that Maddox would keep to his word and catch her. She had survived on her own for far too long and even though he was her travel partner for the unforeseeable future, there was a part of her that was still filled with distrust. All she prayed for was to land in the least painful way possible, just enough for her to still walk on her own two feet.

However, there was no need for such pitiably lonesome thoughts. There was no pain from her landing, nothing but warmth and an envelope of safety. She opened her tightly shut eyes, blinking them unsurely until she saw a pair of arms wrapped snugly around her body. Although she was still on the forest floor, she wasn’t anywhere near the dirt. Maddox laid there, holding her tight against his body, using his own physique to shield her from the impact of the fall.

“You caught me,” Violet muttered under her breath in disbelief.

“Well,” Maddox grunted in pain. His arms around her loosened, just enough so that Violet could stand. Once she did, she reached out a hand for Maddox to take, pulling him back to his feet. “I did say that I would, didn’t I?”

It was such a simple sentence. However, even the glaring torches on Dallenhurst’s gates, nor the sun that lit the day, could compare to the dazzling warmth that was placed in her heart by Maddox’s words. It melted away all the chilliness of winter and it felt as though spring had come early.

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