(Shadows and Fear)
County Wexford, Ireland—February 4, 1892
Could they hear her? If she moved deeper into the shadows, could she sneak away? If she loosened the grip on her lungs and took the deep breath she desperately needed, would they find her? The heady stench of copper filled the air of the great hall, the dank stone walls doing little to block the scent of death. The carpets beneath her slippered feet masked her first step. Back one, and then two. She ducked behind a heavy tapestry, one of the few left in the old castle.
Masked under a cloak of clouds and desperation, she escaped out the servants’ entrance, confident that the cook and single housemaid would not see her. Wet slush and rain combined to make her retreat difficult. She could not risk discovery by hailing someone and beseeching them for a ride. Her own two feet must carry her the miles to Brannon Cottage.
The noise of the carriage wheels competed with that of the storm, but she did not mistake the sound of the small rocks as they ground and rolled over one another. She hurried behind a nearby copse of blackthorn and waited. Lights from the carriage lanterns broke through the darkness as the conveyance approached. The man in the driver’s seat sang “She Is Far from the Land” faintly heard through the wind. After he passed, Anne set one foot in front of the other and paused. Her fear overpowered her desire for warmth. She could do this. It was only four miles.
One worn slipper almost fell from her foot when she stepped in a small slush of wet snow. Colder now, she pressed forward. One mile. Two miles. Three. She must reach him before they realized she was gone. Anne flailed and her body lurched to the ground. Her arm scraped over a sharp stone that sliced through her cloak. The faint clatter of bottles in her satchel managed to reach her ears over the harsh howl of the winds.
Anne rose to all fours and then stopped and knelt on the sodden road, choking back a trail of tears as they coursed down her already wet skin. She tucked soaked locks of her long hair beneath her wet bonnet. Drawing on pure need, Anne pushed up from the ground and continued down the dirt road. She did not know the Brannons well. They visited Ireland once or twice a year, and yet the only person on this earth she could hope to trust was currently on holiday and using the Brannons’ cottage. Ten years had passed since she’d last seen him.
The tidy two-story stone structure appeared as though from the fog. Soft, white flakes fell in time with her heavy breaths but lasted only the time it took for her to reach the front door.
With knuckles cold and weak, Anne managed to knock. The sound of fist against wood was pathetic even to her. She knocked louder and waited. She heard someone remove the door latch and a tall, familiar man opened the portal. “Anne, whatever are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry, Charles. You sent word you’d be here, and I know we were to meet tomorrow.”
A beautiful woman with soft red curls stepped into the front room, still clad in her robe. “I heard you open the door. Is everything all right?” The woman looked at Anne.
Charles motioned the woman forward. “This is my cousin, Anne Doyle. Anne, this is my wife, Rhona.”
Rhona reached out and welcomed her. “You’re shivering and cold. Come and sit by the fire.”
Anne wanted to cry all over again. Kindness had been a rare commodity in her life these past few years.
Charles helped her into a chair and covered her with a blanket. “What are you doing out alone on a night like this?”
Anne’s eyes welled with tears. “Something terrible has happened. I need your help.” Anne lifted her leather bag over her head and set it on the floor, revealing the long and bloody tear in her cloak.
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