The Wolf of Winterthorne © Tracy Goodwin 2016
1851 Northamptonshire, England
Her lungs burned as she raced farther into the darkness, the stench of decaying leaves and brush assailing her nostrils until she thought she might retch.
Help me …
The words wedged in her throat, which was raw from a mixture of sheer panic and dehydration.
Had she screamed?
Why couldn’t she remember?
Her mind was muddled in a murky abyss, helped none by the ominous clouds sheathing the moon, casting foreboding shadows across her path. Recollections she couldn’t decipher haunted her in the form of shapes she couldn’t comprehend and occurrences she couldn’t quite piece together.
Swallowing hard, she attempted to speak but, again, no words formed.
Panic rose as the ringing in her ears heightened to a shrill crescendo. She struggled to breathe, her corset constricting her airflow, reducing her panting to swift, shallow breaths.
Why couldn’t she breathe?
Why couldn’t she remember?
What did she recall?
Being hunted. Yes, men who wished her harm were chasing her. That was her reality. As was the fact that her predators must be close.
What if they overheard her trudging through the woods? What if they, too, could hear her ragged lungs as they strained to inhale, though with little success?
The possibilities sent her senses reeling.
Clutching a low-lying branch, she wrapped her fingers around its rough, spindly bark. Leaning against it, she allowed herself one moment to gather her wits.
Swooning in the forest wouldn’t save her life.
No, it would hasten her demise.
Breathe. She silently instructed herself. Breathe then run.
Run for your life.
She shoved herself away from the branch and sprinted as fast as she could before stumbling on a protruding root. Pain radiated from her hand as she clumsily righted herself against a large tree trunk. Her palm was wet and sticky, the thick, rugged bark having slashed her skin.
Grinding her teeth, she grabbed her skirts then propelled herself farther into obscurity.
Do not trip.
It was her silent command as she veered across the uneven terrain, hard from the early freeze. Ruts and indentations challenged her at every step as did the thick roots, sturdy and unrelenting, that stretched across the landscape.
Like the men who sought to kill her.
She could not evade them. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how careful she was. The roots, like those men who chased her, continued to hound her, continued to creep towards her, surrounding her at every turn.
Again she tripped, this time landing on her knees with a loud grunt she could no longer suppress.
Dear God, it is cold.
She wore no cloak. Just a simple muslin gown and skirts. No boots, just slippers. Her toes, which once ached, were now numb.
The frigid temperature seeped into her body, into every limb and muscle. Nature appeared to want her dead as much as those in pursuit.
Choking back a sob, a puff of air swirled like vapor from her mouth into the icy shadows. The bitter cold and damp night enveloped her. The more she knelt on the ground, the more the frost assailed her body, causing her to sway as she tried desperately to stand.
Every joint stiffened, as if frozen in place.
Her teeth had begun to chatter as she crawled to the silhouette of what appeared to be a tree trunk. Or perchance a log? The closer she got, the smaller it appeared. White spots blurred her vision as realization set in.
She was close to losing consciousness.
God, please help me, she prayed in silence.
Don’t let them catch me.
They will kill me.
Managing to stand on shaky legs, she staggered forward. A sharp limb clawed at her face and a wet, sticky substance began a slow decent down her cheek.
It trickled into her mouth, the thick, metallic taste causing her to gag.
Another root grabbed hold of her foot, causing her ankle to give way as she collapsed against the frozen dirt, entwined branches and bark. This time, no grunt escaped her lips. Instead she lay still, mouth agape.
Help me …
In addition to a searing pain in her ribcage, her ankle now throbbed as she leaned against her arms until they gave way under her weight. She flopped on her side, the waves of pain crushing against her ribcage, her ankle, her cheek, her every limb.
The thought of lying on the frigid ground beneath her, remaining in this very spot, became overwhelmingly tempting.
Stay still and die – before they find me.
Yes, perhaps she would freeze to death. Perhaps she would simply fall asleep and the pain would cease.
But what if she was discovered before the cold spindly fingers of death clung to her? Her heart pumped faster, harder, at the thought of the pain they would inflict. Those faceless men, whose blunt, menacing voices she would recognize until the moment she inhaled her last breath.
What had they said? That they wanted her dead … that they would kill her. Yes, they sounded excited at the prospect. That she remembered, along with their many questions.
She shivered. Those men demanded answers to so many questions. About a man she did not know, whose name she could not recall. She possessed no answers and that made them more eager to kill her.
Clutching her side, she managed to rise and stumble farther into the black abyss of night. Tripping again, her feet becoming more and more entangled as she bumped into tree trunks, unable to keep her bearings.
What direction did she come from?
Where was she heading?
She squinted in an attempt to clear her vision. Her eyes darted, unable to discern her path.
A dog barked in the distance, the sound causing her to jump and head in the opposite direction. Though she was now limping, she continued to wobble forward.
Don’t look back.
Never look back.
Wiping her cheek, her blood flowed freely onto her palm. It was a welcome distraction from the pain as she found a clearing up ahead. Though cast in an intimidating gloom, it appeared to be a straight path.
Her pace quickened as she hurried forward, one step at a time. Gritting her teeth, she gained momentum by reminding herself of the imminent danger.
They are coming for me.
They will kill me.
Dashing past one tree, then weaving past another, she was almost to the clearing when she ran straight into a solid mass.
Strong, firm, he clutched her shoulders as her pulse pommeled against her temples.
They caught me!
They will kill me.
She struggled to free herself. Though the man had a firm grip, it wasn’t the least bit excruciating. Her predators would wish her pain. They would be rough, violent – they would have already blindfolded her as they did once before.
Was this man one of them?
Searching the stranger’s face, she noted the hard, angular jaw and cheekbones, deep-set onyx eyes and a deadened slash of skin spanning his cheekbone. Even cast in a dark silhouette, the scar was discernable.
The stranger clutched her shoulders, studying her with a mixture of concern and …
Could it be recognition?
“Bella?” he whispered.
The voice was unfamiliar – it belonged to no one she had heard tonight, but that didn’t mean that he was not one of her abductors.
Perhaps he had remained silent …
Or perhaps he was her only hope of safety. Perhaps this man was the difference between life and death.
Again, she tried to form the words. Though her mouth remained dry as ash, she refused to relent. After another failed attempt, her voice ignited at last from the cinders. Hoarse and no louder than a whisper, her words were audible nonetheless.
“Help me,” she managed before her knees buckled.
Collapsing in the stranger’s arms, her eyes blurred as she heard him mutter, “Bloody hell.” His was a low baritone, smooth, even in his present predicament.
Drifting in and out of lucidity, she could feel the man lift her in one fluid motion, her head now resting against his chest. Though her eyes refused to open, no matter how hard she attempted the once simple task, she knew that he wore a greatcoat because its buttons pressed against her uninjured cheek. She was certain they left impressions in her flesh.
Struggling to open her eyes, her head bobbed to the rhythm of his quick strides. It wasn’t until her head swung backwards that she managed to peer through narrow slits.
It was dark, the sky thick with murky clouds. There were too many clouds tonight. Too much darkness.
She wished there were stars.
She liked the constellations.
She missed the comfort they provided.
The man whistled and the patter of paws approached from behind. The dog was panting, though the man who carried her proceeded to wherever he was headed with no labored breathing. In fact, it was as if she were nothing more than a flimsy piece of fabric in his hands.
This man was physically fit. At least she knew something about him. He was also calm under duress. Now she had unlocked a second clue to her savior’s personality.
Though he showed no signs of physical exertion, his timbre was strong, composed. “Adolphus, fetch someone from the house. Run, boy. Bark and get their attention. Go!” His instructions were issued in a quick staccato.
This man was familiar with issuing commands.
Something in the recesses of her mind suggested she must keep track of these clues and wished she had paper and ink. Though it was an urgent thought, it soon became overpowered by her racing heart and the searing pain slicing through her temple.
Dear God, her head hurt.
Ensconced in a bleak reality, her eyes drifted shut again. What if her attackers were following her? She opened her mouth to warn her companion but coughed, choking on her blood.
“Steady,” he assured her, holding her closer against his chest. “We’re almost home.”
Again, she managed to open her eyes, though only slightly. Squinting to right her blurry vision, she managed to discern the menacing outline of a massive estate.
The closer they approached, the more sinister it appeared. Eyes watched from the rafters. Whose? She struggled to adjust her vision.
Yes, wolves were perched on the pediments, carved in the stone of the parapets. Their eyes glowed white, even in the dead of night. Their gaze bore into her soul, following her.
Could this truly be her safe haven?
The profile of a raven perched atop a spindly tree limb grabbed her attention. It cawed, its warning quite clear.
The sleek bird with its foreboding message added to the commanding illusion of the house. Large, made with dark stone, illuminated in a ghostly hue cast by ominous clouds.
Where am I?
What is this imposing place?
She was reminded of an Edgar Allan Poe poem – how could she remember the macabre works of a poet and nothing about herself? Still, remember she did.
This world she had entered was filled with the watchful stare of wolves, ravens, and a scarred man whose appearance was perhaps even more daunting than the structure in which he resided.
A fine mist began to fall from the overcast skies as her stomach churned, a knot of apprehension coiling in her abdomen. She feared that she had unwittingly stepped into more danger than before.
Drifting into unconsciousness, she managed a silent prayer.
Dear God, protect me…