The darkness was slashed with small lights. Molly could see nothing through the tiny slits and the rough cloth scraped at her skin. She wanted desperately to claw it away, but her hands were pulled tight behind her back with thick rope.
The fetid smell of damp moss and crushed undergrowth crawled into her nose. In the distance she could hear another two people walking on, one of them steady and the other one like her, moving with slow disjointed thuds which were often followed with a gasp or a cry. It was Edgar, in the same situation, dragged down into the mud with her. Once the painful sound of his steps had disappeared she heard a simple, gruff “Move.”
Her feet thumped against the damp earth as she misjudged each and every step, the earth rising quicker before her than she anticipated. Occasionally she would stumble over a stone or a bare root. Whenever this happened her hands would frantically and involuntarily try to pull her wrists apart in order to stabilise herself, only to be pulled roughly back by the brutish man who walked behind her. His breath was warm and steady, creeping onto the back of her neck, leaving her unnerved and fearful. Occasionally he would press his large hand into one of her shoulders, indicating that she should turn left or right. If she moved too slowly he would push her, causing her to fall onto the damp earth. He would then forcefully pull her back up. Her arm was in danger of being dislocated.
Molly’s arms were chilled and her bare feet numb, the shoes she usually wore had been quickly discarded as the heels had snapped. She was still wearing the same slender red dress, though it was now tainted with tears and cold sweat. She occasionally felt flecks of frosty mud splatter over her legs and her ankles had been scraped raw by the large boots of her escort as he kicked his feet too close to her.
Stumbling again, she fell forward only to be pulled back and set upright once more. Her nerves were frayed and her thoughts fractured. A crushing weight pressed against her back, heavy and unstoppable, pushing her forward, down into the shallow mud. She heard the silence of a gasp cut short; her own attempt to scream muffled by a mouthful of itchy cloth. She felt her body submerging into the thin layer of mud, a body lying beside her, clinging close to her back with an arm draped across her thigh.
She lay still, waiting, the mud seeping into her dress. Waiting, with the chill air flowing across her desecrated body. Waiting, for the guard to pull her up once more. But she could not hear him, nor feel his warm breath or sturdy boots. Longer she waited, unsure of what to do. Not daring to move in case there was someone watching her.
Eventually she gave in, the tension threatening to tear through her chest. She moved, shifting away from the weight that pushed against her, sliding free of the arm with no resistance. She sat up in the mud and tried to stand, but fell back, unable to support herself, jarring her spine. She felt around on the ground behind her, gulping in cloying air, but unable to completely fill her lungs as it filtered through the cloth. Searching for something, a root or a rock with which to rub the ropes and sever the strands that bound her arms. She moved backwards, shuffling along the ground by pushing with her feet, until her hands grasped a large rock, wet and sticky from mud and rain. Her upper arms ached chronically as she pulled them up and down, scraping against the rock and grating her skin when she slipped. Soon she began to feel the rope fraying, loosening. The tiny strands giving up their unified effort, one by one, until eventually she could pull her hands free.
She immediately pulled of off the clawing sack that hugged her head. Breathing in the damp air and letting the cold surge down her throat, inflating her lungs and finally feeling the euphoric presence of unrestricted air.
Carefully she stood, pressing her free hands deep into the sodden earth. Her eyes blinking in the blinding light of an overcast sky and dark green woodlands. Looking around she could see her own footsteps, as well as those of the two guards and of Edgar. She could see all the way back down the slope and nestled amongst the tall, willowy trees, lay the prison where she had been held. She stared dumbly at the grey walls, mentally unable to accept the circumstance.
Eventually she looked down, curious as to what had been her saving grace. The rock she had used to free herself sat embedded in the ground. It was not covered in sticky mud as she had thought. Blood seeped across its grey surface, chilled by the breeze and thickening as it hardened.
The guard lay slumped, his foot twisted in a small depression on the ground, his head cracked on the rock and his eyes staring lifelessly across the dirt path. Her hands were stained with his blood.
She shook with fear and relief. She could escape. Save herself. Disappear into the forest. She could easily make it to another town, pretend to be a beggar and throw herself on the mercy of a stranger. Without Edgar.
Molly looked up the path, towards the hellish fate that chance had freed her from. A wall of wooden stakes encircled the crest of the hill, with the rich, golden sun hovering just above the far side. The gate stood open with two figures walking through it. She could feel the oppressive silence from her temporary island of safety.
She felt pain and sorrow for Edgar. His battered and torn suit browned by dirt and darkened by blood still seemed proud and bold to her. His hidden face she knew would be carrying a smile. He would be strong for her, despite the impossible weight of fear he must be carrying inside.
The trees hovered close to her, eager to hold her and comfort her. To wrap her gently within their branches and afford her the safety she so desired. She knew this comfort was what she wanted, to feel safe and secure, to be nurtured. She longed for it, the feeling in her heart stronger than anything he had felt before. It wanted to break free and envelope her in its hopeful warmth.
Molly stepped forward, beginning on her chosen path. She supported herself on a tree, feeling the rough bark on its solitary trunk. Her feet scraped on the earth, punctured by tiny stones and sharp twigs, yet her legs stopped aching and her body warmed as she began to feel happier, safer in her own mind. Walking away from the fear.
Her soaked dress clung to her warmth just as she clung tightly to quiet thoughts of safety. Unwilling to let them go, dragging them with her. She walked with a pale serenity, her head held high, not from pride, but happiness, like the tiny upturn that her lips now sported. She watched the sun as it slid out from behind the blanket of cloud, dying with the day but still a sign of peaceful comfort.
Entering the gate and stepping into the circle of bare earth she stood waiting to be noticed. Several men in uniform were frantically arguing in hushed tones. Edgar stood erect on a wooden platform, unaware of his surroundings, arms pulled behind him and a sack over his head, pulled tight by the noose around his neck.
The guards saw her and rushed over, shouting and swearing as they pushed her to the platform, filling the air with vehemence. They quickly slung a second noose over Molly’s head, hastily tightening it far more than necessary so that she could barely breathe. Edgar remained still seemingly unaware of all that had happened.
The sun began to dip behind Molly, allowing the darkness to encroach on the platform. She slid her free hand across to Edgar, placing it within his warm palms. He gave a squeeze of recognition and caressed her hand with his thumb, gently teasing the skin, soft and soothing. Amid the hasty preparations and shouted commands amongst the guards she could feel Edgar was at peace, and so was she. The shadows crawled up her body, tasting her dress and reaching up to encircle her neck. Edgar clutched her hand.