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.