It was too late to hide. She could hear them coming: horns and shouts in the distance, the hard drumming of iron-clad hoofs tearing into the damp morning earth. A robin, perched on a piece of driftwood, interrupted its song and fluttered off towards the castle orchards. Fog rose from the lake, fresh and white, as it reached the shore. It wafted over the shiny gravel to the first tufts of grass and reed, where dew had turned spider webs into intricate gossamer jewelry.
Moira stood at the water’s edge and looked down at the waves lapping at her naked feet. Her hands trembled, but she turned them outward in an open, embracing gesture. Then she closed her eyes, pushed the approaching hoof-beats out of her mind and breathed the pre-dawn air deep into her lungs. Damp and crisp, it had left infinitesimal drops of water in her messy red hair and she could imagine herself soaking it up, drawing it inside of her—air, water, mist and the lake itself—as though she could store freedom, like others stored food or drink or knowledge.
She did not move, not a muscle, as the horses drew closer. Sounds were jarring in this early hour, invaders from the daylight world, too substantial for the ephemeral sense of morning silence. Moira listened to it shatter around her, like glass, like a thin sheet of ice over the lake. A shiver ran up her spine, pulsed uncomfortably in the back of her head.
The shouting ceased when the horses came to steep halt behind her; their hoofs flung flecks of dirt through the air. They formed a vague crescent shape, arranging themselves in formation.
Moira lifted her hand to her cheek to wipe the mud away. One last time, she looked out over the lake. At this end, far away from the harbor and the fishing boats, it was eerily still—a silence that possessed power and gravity, which had worked its pull on her for as long as she could remember.
Only when the last horse stilled, did she turn around. She focused on the captain of the guard as he swung himself off the saddle. Gravel crunched under his boots.
“Milady,” he uttered, and bowed as low as his stiff, aging back allowed. He took in the sight of her white nightgown, its hem stained with dirt and dew, her dirty pink toes peeking out from under the ruined fabric. There was a totemic presence about her that morning, a streak of mud on her face and the mist in her back, curling around her like a caress from a different world.
“I don’t remember inviting you to my morning walk, Sir Clifton.” Moira was calm, unsurprised, as she gestured the man to stand up straight.
She wrapped her white arms around her chest in an effort to establish a hint of decorum. The autumn chill cut through the air, now that it was laced with voices, the smell of horses, the sight of men in coats; even her feet finally felt cold. A night alone in the tame wilderness outside the castle had grounded her, but the crawling feeling under her skin, the desire to run reclaimed her body with every passing moment, every glance, every sound.
“Milady was not in her chambers when my Lord Rochmond noticed her absence,” the captain explained, his voice involuntarily rougher to fight the onset of embarrassment. She was hardly dressed for company, much less to be standing surrounded by six rough-and-tumble men of his guard.
“And he sent you to slap me in irons?” she asked, the corner of her mouth twitching slightly.
The captain could not hold her gaze. It would have been shockingly impertinent, especially in her state of undress. But more so, she had the dark innocence of a hurt child that shone through any bitter and condescending superiority she might throw between the strong man and her feeble woman’s body. It was disconcerting and in the rising mist, between bird-song and the murmuring waves, she held an eerie quality that wasn’t quite as noticeable when hair was braided and coiled, when she was dressed in heavy, embroidered fabrics, walking the warren of passages and hallways of her father’s castle.
If a woman was to talk back, the captain pictured haggling fishermen’s wives and shrieking old hags. The collected and quiet irony of the girl in front of him touched him like a cold hand in the back of his neck, with her witch’s hair and piercingly calm eyes that contrasted so strangely with her shaking hands. She tried to hide it, but Frederick Clifton had seen it many times. He was no stranger to her ways.
“His lordship was worried for milady’s safety,” he finally said. Stiffly, he tore open the fastenings of his coat, slipped it off and held it out to her. When she took it, it was more for the sake of his discomfort than her own and she swung it over her shoulder with a carefully trained careless gesture. It hung down over her knees; the grotesque image made her look even more like a child; a wrong child, somehow, before the backdrop of a lake littered with bones.
It was a game to her, he thought, a game in which she held no stake but that might leave him whipped or expelled from his Lord’s service. A child still, precious and indulged, proof of a theory long held by men: that a woman needed to be married young, for her own sake as much as anyone else’s.
“Lenner, ready your horse for Lady Rochmond.”
The youngest member of the guard led his brown stallion into the semicircle and unfastened his saddle. The men were pointedly not staring at the girl, who looked so little like their lady with the muddy green algae that squished out between her toes in the morning’s first light, the deep trench between their classes blurred uncomfortably. The horse, picking up on the tension, perked up its ears, trying to move until a second member of the guard closed a strong hand around its reins.
Sir Clifton cleared his throat, and the young woman looked up again. She didn’t fight them, nor did she deign them with another comment until the sidesaddle they had carried along was in place.
She uttered a careless “Thank you,” to the boy who offered her his interlocked palms as a mounting block. He would have to walk home along the lake shore and up the serpentine path of Bramble Hill.
She hoisted herself up onto the horse, leaving a dark smudge of mud on the boy’s hands and didn’t look at him again. Her eyes might have betrayed how much she longed to trade places with him, but she had been found. Walking back in peace was no longer an option, and it all felt too familiar, like a play staged too many times by the same troupe of actors, to relish being told what to do by an aging soldier when she resisted. She had endured enough humiliation for one morning.
Clicking her tongue, she fastened her hold on the reins, turned the horse and then rode ahead of the men back toward the castle. The hoofs were still much too noisy in the misty morning air and she could feel her chest aching again already.