Chapter 1 – Chase
Despite the woman’s small stature, two men were assigned to hold her down on her knees, bent over a decaying log. Her breathing was restricted both by the smell of rot that rose from the dead wood in the summer heat, and by its mass being pushed into her gut by the weight of the men. Her arms were numb from the pressure of their fingers against her skin.
She felt sweat trickle down her bare back where they had torn her shirt. She shivered despite the humidity and the warmth of the fire burning behind her. All she could see were the looming masses of the men surrounding her. Their laughter and jeers mingled together with the crackling of the fire to create a dizzying cacophony. The noise, the breathlessness, the fear – they all prevented her from focusing. She could see no opening. No way to escape.
She felt someone brush her long hair off of her back, the gentle tickle a strange contrast to what she knew was coming next. The pain of the burning brand being forced into her shoulder was overwhelming. She did everything she could to stop her mind from going into shock. She focused on every single one of her senses. On the smell of burning flesh mixed with plant decay and smoke. On the sound of her scream as it pierced the chatter of the men. On the lights exploding in front of her eyes. Even on the pain itself. Despite her effort, her vision quickly began to fade and her body to go limp.
She was going to die anyway, why not give into the mercy of unconsciousness?
A sharp crack brought her momentarily back to awareness. She felt the log split under her cheek.
No, she thought, fight. Always. Fight back.
She mustered every measure of focus and control spared by the pain and let out a low, hooting call. The man with the brand shoved it harder into her shoulder. The hoot turned into a shriek, but it had served its purpose. She heard the whinny of a horse. She felt the men loosen their grip as they saw her mare burst towards them. The woman pushed her body down hard, using the fear of the brand at her back to drive her forward. She fell to the ground as the log collapsed and, before her captors had a chance to realize what was happening, she tackled the legs of the one to her left. Pain still seared through her right shoulder and she nearly lost consciousness once again.
She pushed blindly on, relying on adrenaline and instinct to dodge the blurry shapes of the men surrounding her. Even injured she was fast. Perhaps faster than she was before. She spared not a moment to rational thought. She was unpredictable and wild.
She wasn’t sure when she had mounted her horse, but the steed’s bones jolted her as she clung tightly to its dark mane. The tatters of her shirt flew behind her and the air rushed past her raw skin. She was thrown forward onto the ground as an arrow struck the horse’s flank. She retched from the pain that seemed to spread through her entire body. Somehow, beyond all reason, she rose to her feet and ran into the thick woods surrounding her.
The sun was setting and she could see little more than shadows, but she met with no obstacles. She felt, rather than heard or saw, some small creature running beside her. Perhaps the animalistic part of her brain, long buried under human intelligence, let it guide her movements through the thick brush. She wondered afterward if she had somehow kept running even after losing consciousness.
All she knew was that she eventually awoke, hidden in the undergrowth like a frightened animal – dirty, shaking, in immense pain.
All she knew was that she was alive.