“Edward!” She screamed for him, kicking and trying to dig her heels into any soil she could find but the clap of thunder and crack of lightening drowned out her voice. “Edward!” This time, rain drops on the back of her throat muffled the sound. Again, her cry was lost in the storm.
She threw her arms, contorting her body against the pull of being dragged deeper into the field. She felt the tie of her cloak rip and the release of its weight slip from her, lost somewhere in the mix of wheat and mud. Grunts and snippets of cursing came from her captors as she struggled against them. Whoever was holding on was doing so with iron grips too strong for her to overcome.
Her breath shortened and her lungs fought for air. Fearing fainting, she cried out for Edward one last time but her scream was cut short by something pressed over her mouth and nose. She ripped her head to one side, out from under the wet cloth and gasped for one last breath.
“Now!” One of them said in a harsh whisper.
Instead of air, liquid streamed down her throat causing her to gag and cough. Still, she felt it flow down her throat and settle in her stomach. Listlessness began to overwhelm her. Soil was no longer being kicked up by her legs because she could no longer force them to move.
A break in the stalks afforded her one last attempt at the night sky as another streak of lightening hit, but it wasn’t enough time to focus on her captors. Dressed in all black, they blended with the all too quick return of darkness.
The rain stung her face and pricked her eyes, forcing them shut. Her body relaxed and her thoughts carried her to memories of Prince Ottelo and his straight nose, and strong jaw. The way his wavy brown hair fell to his shoulders. How his whole chest heaved when he laughed and the mischief in his eyes when he teased her. She thought then that she heard him call to her. Or was it Edward? She couldn’t focus with the rain pounding on her face and the intense desire to fade into a peaceful dream. In a last moment of clarity, she prayed to the Provider and fell into a forced sleep.
When she woke, ReAnne was on a cot of wood and cloth, the makeshift mattress made thick with wheat from the field. She faced a wall of wooden slabs, the cracks and creases filled in with mud. A small, steady stream of water trickled down the wall from the corner of the window above her, disappearing behind the cot. She waited, not moving, as she tried to make sense of where she was. She carefully lifted an ankle. Neither her arms nor legs were tied down, which meant her captors didn’t think she could get away. In spite of a blanket over her, one shoulder was cold, the fabric of her dress having been torn from being dragged through the field. She took in a steady breath. Something permeated the room, a smell she couldn’t quite place outside the ever present scent of rain and mud. Though she could hear the gentle cracking of wood in the fire, the rest of the room seemed quiet.
Just as she prepared to turn from the wall, a chair scraped. Her body flinched and she went back to being rigged. Faint words between two men grew in volume. She feigned sleeping in the hopes of deciphering their conversation.
“Maurlee, where’s that dinner you promised me?” A voice, deep and cracked, coughed after its inquiry.
Cabbage. That was the smell she hadn’t been able to make out earlier.
Something pounded on a table before a slightly higher pitched and gruff voice responded. “She said she’s workin’ on it.”
“Well, I ain’t got all day. I have a package to deliver.”
“I know, you dirty buggar. I drug her through that field, same as you.”
ReAnne absentmindedly rubbed her cold shoulder. Another chair scrape and then a footstep made her freeze. She closed her eyes tight, hoping not to hear more footsteps, begging them not to be in her direction.
“Don’t go thinkin’ you are bigger than you are, you hear? I was hired, not you and I’ll collect the money. Not you.”
“Is that what it is, then?”
“Yeah, that’s what it is.”
Both chairs scraped across the floor and something crashed to the ground. Not willing to turn just yet, ReAnne could only suppose quite the scuffle was taking place on the floor. She breathed a sigh of relief. Her brothers had often determined the outcome of their disagreements by who was pinned down first and gave no regard to anything or anyone else around them. It seemed to be a universal option for all men. Even while she visited the Staas Kingdom, Prince Ottelo and their chaperone had battled, dueled, and ended up wrestling on the floor of the arena in vain attempts to impress her. She was gone for half an hour one day before they realized she’d lost interest and left. Hopefully, these two were just as oblivious.
This was her chance. But just as she positioned herself, a voice broke through the sound of a chair toppling over.
“Hey! Now there! Here’s dinner, you mangy animals. If you are going to tussle about, then I beg of you to do it outside, you hear?” A young woman’s voice spoke with authority and frustration. “What if you woke up the lady?”
ReAnne went stiff at her mention. She felt six eyes fixated on her and prayed they couldn’t tell she’d been awake.
“She’s not no lady, yet. She’s just a girl.” The deeper voice spoke as if the mere fact of being born a girl was to be disdained. “Besides, if she woke up, maybe she could entertain us.” Both chuckled and a slap on a knee or a back was done. The intent of the voice left no room for question as to what he meant. A shudder went through ReAnne’s whole body but it was not because of her wet clothing.
“Ungar!” A head was smacked. “You deliver her like you said you would. Unharmed.”
A snort from the other man resulted in his own smack on the head and uproarious laughter ensued. Soon, bowls were set and slurps of soup were started. They ate in silence, a sharp contrast to the lively feasts ReAnne was used to in the dining hall.
Water from the corner of the window had ceased its trickle, a tell-tale sign the rain was letting up. Still, there seemed no end to their meal. A few more minutes of soup being ladled into mouths went by, and the room turned abnormally silent. She almost turned, willing to risk being seen, when a single set of light footsteps came her way. She should have scoped out an exit strategy while the men had been occupied pummeling each other. Now, it was too late.
The footsteps stopped at the side of the cot. ReAnne held her breath for as long as she could and let it out in a slow, undetectable stream.
“You’re awake then,” the woman named Maurlee whispered, “I saw you rub your shoulder earlier. You were smart to feign sleeping.”
Though she was relieved it was the woman, ReAnne did not respond, hoping she would believe she had been mistaken. Then, beyond the woman, she heard two huge thumps and chairs being knocked out from underneath their owners. She flinched involuntarily and grimaced at the stupidity of giving herself away.
“They’re finally down. We don’t have a lot of time.” She no longer whispered, but spoke in the same tone that had ceased the men’s scuffle before.
Maurlee nudged her arm. Slowly, unsure if she was giving herself up to friend or foe, ReAnne turned to find the owner of the voice that commanded grown men and whispered gently belonged to a girl not much older than herself. Her dark hair was pulled back tightly into a bun revealing fair skin and dark, but kind eyes. ReAnne noticed her pug nose was marred by an unsightly mole and her blue-grey house dress was horribly dirty and too large for her small frame. She groaned, remembering Edward’s chastisement over her observations of Princess Opia. Frustrated with her shallow heart and still unsure of Maurlee’s intentions, she sat up gingerly.
“They’ll only be out for two hours, at the most, and you need to find your brother.”
“How did you know-” ReAnne steadied herself on the side of the cot. Whatever they had given to her was not fully out of her system. She was dizzy and her head felt heavy on her shoulders.
“Hurry! We’ve got no time for chatter if you are going to get a lead on them.”
Her arms were sore, her backside would have notable bruises and her dress was heavy laden with mud, but it was the pounding presence in her head that made her stop from standing.
“Oh, no. I can’t….my head…”
Maurlee grabbed her by her shoulders and yanked her upright holding her up with one arm as she shoved a cloak at her. “Here. My name’s Maurlee. Them there,” she nodded to the pile of men, “are Ungar and Emil. You’re the Princess ReAnne, I know. You must be sensitive to potions if that one is still lingering in your system. I’m sorry for that, but you must go.”
“Potions? My…cloak?” Pressure in her head was steadily gaining, making it difficult to put thoughts together.
When Maurlee realized she wasn’t going to take the cloak, she fastened it around her neck. “I concocted the potion they forced you to drink earlier. And I’m sorry about that, but I had to. You understand, don’t you? I made it less than he told me to, if that helps. As for your cloak, I went out to gather herbs for supper. You must have drug it to the edge of the field with your feet. It doesn’t matter now, anyway.”
The cloak was warm from being close to the fire. “How?” ReAnne tried to ask how it was that there was no residual dampness from the rain or mud, but a sharp pain in her head made it difficult to think.
It was true, what Maurlee said. Her whole life she had been sensitive to any herbal remedies or concoctions, only needing a third of a dose compared to others her size. It was one of the gifts she had contemplated for her confirmation. She still had a year to decide, but it seemed a wiser choice with each pound of her head.
Maurlee grabbed her arm to help her but ReAnne recoiled at her touch. Ignoring her obvious pain, Maurlee shoved her towards the door. Still weak and unstable on her feet, ReAnne managed to make out two large figures topped with blonde hair lying next to each other, sprawled across the floor. Bowls of soup were knocked over and spilling onto the dirt floors. Mud, mixed with what ReAnne could only assume was cabbage and carrots. The fire was almost out, casting large shadows into corners. She wished Edward was here to tell her the shadows were safe.
“Where is…my brother?”
“I don’t know. They weren’t after him, at all. They just wanted you.”
“What…what did they…who wanted me?”
Maurlee gestured towards the mounds of flesh heaped on the floor. “I don’t know who hired them. A man dressed all in black wandered through the field a month or so ago. Ungar held his ax up to him, but he threw down a satchel of coins and that made Ungar put the ax down, right quick. Coins are hard to come by when you are farmer, milady, and Ungar had just gotten back from a poor market. The man came once more, late into the night, only a week ago. A hood covered even his face and he walked within shadows. He asked me to snuff the fire out a bit; it was too bright for his eyes, he said. He gave me quite a fright, as you can guess. I served him at this very table.”
“What did he…want?” The pounding was getting worse.
“He said he only wanted a cup of mead from me. I fetched it for him and he lifted his eyes to mine, from under his cloak. I never saw eyes such as his. Orange, like the lick of a flame. Scary they were, and I don’t scare easily. Anyway, they spoke in hushed whispers and I sat on the cot, right where you were. He unnerved me, constantly glancing in my direction, like he was studying me.”
“Did…you…hear…” ReAnne shook her head, not able to go on.
Maurlee grabbed a satchel from behind a stool that sat on the floor. “Here, I also found this out in the field.”
ReAnne eyed her curiously. It was her satchel from Whicker’s pack.
Maurlee shoved it at her. “I didn’t take anything. Though, I admit, I did look through it. There’s some stale bread and a note.” She put both her hands up in defense. “I didn’t read it.”
“What did…you…hear…” ReAnne took the satchel, but to show good faith in return for Maurlee helping her, she didn’t open it to inspect its contents.
“That he wanted you, milady. And that he was willing to pay handsomely for ya. I haven’t seen him since, but I watch for him all the time. You should, too.”
She opened the door and put one arm around ReAnne to usher her through it.
“Please, hurry. I’ve given you all the head start I can.”
“Will you…be ok?” ReAnne shot a look over her shoulder at the men crumpled on the floor.
“Oh, I’ll be fine.”
“If there…is anyway I could…repay you-“
“Well, for now…” Maurlee produced a small knife from under her apron. “I’m needin’ this.” She grabbed a small section of hair at ReAnne’s neck and sliced it through. ReAnne stepped back, alarmed. Maurlee held up the lock. “For a souvenir, ya see? When you are queen, I can say I met you once.”
ReAnne lifted her hand to the shorn spot, sure there would be blood, but when she removed her hand, it was clean.
“Someday, I may need to take you up on a bigger payment, but for now, this is what I want. Now, go.”
ReAnne’s still uncooperative body was shoved out the door and into the damp night. The heavy wooden door latch slammed into place. The rain had just recently subsided, but she stumbled through the night, in inches of mud, running into a wheelbarrow and a tree trunk used to cut wood until she found the edge of the field. Not knowing which direction to turn, she prayed she made the right choice.
Her heart raced, and everywhere she turned, she thought she heard something or someone at every side. Shadows closed in around her. She repeated the woman’s words in rhythm to the pounding of her head. She had to tell Edward what Maurlee had said; if only her head would stop pounding…she could orient herself. She tilted her head back to the heavens and gasped for air. No rain, but the clouds were still thick and no stars were to be seen. Still, she trudged through the mud and broken stalks, shouting his name as loud as her head would allow her.
“Edward. Please…are you there?”
He had to know before it was too late. A man who moved in shadow with orange eyes like fire could only mean one thing. If only her head would…stop…pounding.