Sprinting across the dew soaked grass Elizabeth Marianne Rowley Ainsworth clutched the heavy folds of her dress in her tired fingers, searching for the energy to continue her flight across the moonlit landscape. Finding little comfort in the crisp autumn air, her exposed fingers felt like ice as they held her weighted dress above the mud stained ground and her slipper-clad feet attempted to find purchase on the uneven terrain.
She felt as though she had been running for days, despite knowing that little more than two hours had passed since her desperate journey began. Her chest burned with a cold fire that paralyzed her lungs and made it difficult to concentrate on the dark horizon that spread before her, but with incredible effort she pushed each breath from her lungs with a harsh determination.
A solid line of thick foliage brought the field she traversed to an abrupt end and with that protection in sight, Elizabeth felt the pain in her lungs lessen, as though the imminent safety of the forest would grant her some sort of invisibility that would make further travel unnecessary.
She knew there would be several people following her unconcealed and sloppy trail across the countryside, but once within the dark folds of the trees, Elizabeth found it possible to quiet the panting objections of her lungs with several deep breaths. Feeling a precious amount of relief as her breathing calmed, the pain and coldness of her hands demanded her sudden and full attention. She would be unable to continue if the scant feeling in her extremities disappeared completely. Pausing to lean against a gnarled oak tree, she bent down and pushed aside the top layers of her dress, exposing the heavy folds of her petticoats. With frozen and aching fingers, she tore at the lacey hem, the thin innermost layers giving way under the force of her shaking yet ruthless hand.
After wrapping the strips of petticoat around the backs of her hands to serve as makeshift gloves, Elizabeth uttered a soft and very unladylike curse at her failure to sufficiently prepare for the night air. If only she had been granted a few minutes time, she would have been able to bring with her some small items of comfort such as gloves and an additional wrap.
The English autumn was being devoured by the shadow of winter with a rapid alacrity that had turned the month of November into icy weeks of gloom. But despite her knowledge of the extreme weather conditions under which she now traveled, Elizabeth had not been given even a second to prepare. Extra time was a luxury that she had not been granted many times in her life but it had not until now ever posed a danger.
From the cradle and onward to her adulthood, Elizabeth’s life had been one of schedules packed front to back with appointments, discussions, arrangements and lessons. Her life had been one long, planned calendar of events for much of her childhood and into her adult years, but with this daring journey, Elizabeth’s life was to be halted in its tracks and pushed into a direction that was as foreign as it was frightening. She had no idea what to expect at the conclusion of her journey, but with the resolve of a woman pushed to the brink, she knew she had no other option but to flee.
Her plan was hasty and filled with the possibility of failure. And if she were to prevail Elizabeth would accomplish something that would seem to be, from the observation of all who knew her, something completely at odds with her usually serene and accommodating persona.
As incredible as it seemed to even her, within a matter of days, Elizabeth Rowley Ainsworth intended to leave England forever, bound for the Americas on the first ship upon which she could book passage. Leaving behind her life completely and traveling thousands of miles across the ocean was the only way to save her life.
By the miracle of her birth, Elizabeth had been the only child of a pair of doting parents who had been in their late forties before Elizabeth had reached her tenth year. It was from a combination of fear and love that her parents had so structured and ruled her life with exhaustive schedules and extensive plans. In her saner moments, she had found the humility to feel grateful toward her parents for their devotion, but their swift and baffling deaths had thrown her life into turmoil.
No longer restrained by the tenacity of her parents’ control, one would have expected Elizabeth’s life to become filled with relative calm, given her family’s very comfortable financial holdings. But with the monetary control of the Ainsworth fortune now held in the tight grip of her uncle’s iron fist, Elizabeth had been made a virtual prisoner at Ainsworth Place, forced to accept a life and a future that her parents never would have forced upon her.
And with the noose of marriage to the aging and abusive earl of Bagley looming tightly on the horizon, Elizabeth’s only option had been one born out of extreme fear for her very life. Auberon Noakes, earl of Bagley, had buried three wives, each of them under circumstances that would have made any mother think thrice before giving her daughter away to the wealthy peer. But Elizabeth’s uncle, Rodger Ainsworth, had no thoughts of his niece’s safety on his mind. His only love was in controlling the Ainsworth fortune and in forcing Elizabeth into a marriage with Bagley, his control over the family’s wealth would be sacrosanct.
Elizabeth’s journey across the dark countryside was by no means a choice; it was indeed the only way she felt she could save her life. No one would ever accuse Bagley of murdering his wives and there was literally nothing Elizabeth could do to stop the marriage from taking place, short of removing herself entirely from the island of Britain. And with the small stack of money she’d managed to squirrel away over the past decade from the allowance her parents had afforded her, she possessed enough money to buy passage to America and begin her life in anonymity across the Atlantic. She didn’t have a specific American port in mind. It simply had to be on the other side of the ocean.
Knowing that she would be easily recognized and possibly detained at the tavern located in the small town located a few miles south of Ainsworth Place as her family had often used the location as a stop during travels to London, Elizabeth had decided instead to run northward toward the tiny village of Exsley, which boasted a single tavern, one small stable, and a handful of tiny houses that lined a single muddy road.
Traveling north had the added benefit of bringing Elizabeth further away from the earl of Bagley’s residence, which was also south of Ainsworth. It was Elizabeth’s hope that she could find a seat on a mail coach bound for the north where she could navigate to one of the northern ports of England and buy passage to America.
Clenching her fists as if to draw warmth from the pain of her fingernails digging into her palms Elizabeth began treading the root strewn ground of the forest. She again raised the skirts of her dress with her (slightly warmer) hands to avoid tripping on the plethora of clothing. One would assume that such heavy garments would allow the wearer more warmth than her clothing was currently affording her, but the damp garments did nothing more than push a chill into her bones.
Struggling to reach the other side of the beginning of a dense thicket, Elizabeth realized that her progress would soon come to a complete halt if the vegetation continued to thicken as it did. Wary of retracing her steps and backtracking south, Elizabeth attempted to push aside the unyielding growth but her meager strength, weakened already by the bitter cold, did nothing to improve the path.
Accepting defeat only after she attempted a second and third time to push into the stubborn wall, she turned around and began trudging back in the direction of the large field she had traversed only minutes before. Her unfamiliarity with the area north of Ainsworth Place was proving to be a great impediment and Elizabeth wished she knew more specifics about the land, beyond the few studies she had undertaken courtesy of the large maps located in the Ainsworth library. Her parents had given her a valuable education about foreign shores and histories and languages, but in their sequestering method of protection, Elizabeth was far too ignorant of the immediate world around her.
She was an expert at keeping her direction true, so Elizabeth had no doubt that she would be able to come round the forest and keep her heading correct, but the time it would take to bypass the wooded area would add up to several hours.
As she stood at the edge of the woods, staring out into the dark and overgrown field, Elizabeth felt her chest tighten at the sight of the moon fading behind a thick bank of clouds that had slowly made their way across the horizon. The moon had done well in illuminating Elizabeth’s escape during the past hour, but without its light, it would be utterly impossible to see the road and keep her direction.
As desperate as her circumstances had been when she fled Ainsworth Place, Elizabeth couldn’t help but feel as though her fortunes had made a turn down an even darker path. Was it not enough that her parents had passed on within hours of one another and that her future was tied to that of an abusive man who would certainly and eventually take her life were she to marry him? If only she had been able to steal away with one of the horses from the stable, this difficulty regarding her rate of travel wouldn’t exist. But the entire accompaniment of stable hands was under her uncle’s control and she would never have been able to escape unnoticed.
The mind that had served her so well in the past, allowing her to solve a great number of problems and difficulties that had arisen in her life was working none of its magic. Elizabeth could feel her mental faculties shutting down with her continued exposure to the night air. Who knows how long she would last if she was unable to find some sort of shelter. Feeling one of her makeshift gloves begin to loosen, Elizabeth shook her head in frustration.
Who was she to think that she could have accomplished such a thing as running all the way across the Atlantic to some foreign shore?
Her acute fear seemed unable to keep her mind sharp and as she trudged along the forest line, and making no progress north or south, she could feel each step becoming more of an ordeal. Where before her body was the recipient of the winter’s biting cold, her mind was now becoming more and more nebulous with each step. She knew her survival depended on reaching the town beyond the forest before her, but Elizabeth was unable to concentrate on her task for more than the span of four or five steps before she had to physically shake her head to find her mental wits again.
Feeling as though the forest would never end, Elizabeth was quickly and surely reaching her breaking point and as she yanked on the lacey mess of a glove that covered her hand, the gnawing in her chest continuing to roar with fear.
A scant hour ago, she had thought she just might succeed in her risky plan, but as a fierce wind began to blow with the intense force of the storm and clouds that hovered behind it, she suddenly realized she was going to die. She would not reach the tavern, she would not reach the mail coach, and she would not reach any port.
Perhaps it was better to perish in the deep cold of the night, away from the pawing hands of the malevolent earl of Bagley, untouched by the iron fist of her uncle, and free of the prison of a mansion she once considered her welcoming home.
Coming to a slow stop at the base of an ancient oak tree, Elizabeth felt her weak muscles collapse as she fell hard on her knees to the ground. Her plunge was lessened in its violence only because of the thick skirts she had so recently cursed. Sinking into a pile of damp clothing and soggy grass, she leaned back against the hard wood of the oak’s trunk. There was no comfort to be had against the rigid tree, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
All she wanted was to sleep and leave this nightmare behind for the warm covers of her bed and the sounds of her mother’s soft voice whispering a lullaby in her lilting Welsh tongue. If she was able to retain just some of her concentration, perhaps she could fall to sleep to the imaginary sounds of her mother’s song. Slowing her breath in an attempt to hear the windy silence around her, Elizabeth imagined she could feel the warmth of the fire burning brightly in her bedchamber, the glow of the room surrounding her in its soft light.
And then the music started, her mother’s song floating across the night to fill her mind with a quiet ease. She was beginning to forget the pain of the cold in her hands and the chill of her lungs as she took in the frozen air in shallow breaths. She would fall into sleep soon. The calm sleep of a life unencumbered with such difficulty.
At the moment she felt infinitely ready to succumb to that peaceful sleep, Elizabeth’s tenuous connection to her dream was ripped from her conscious as she felt the rough pull of a pair of strong arms pulling her to her feet.
Through muted ears she heard the deep baritone of a pair of male voices, but despite her panic, she could not force her body respond to fight. Her lungs felt as though she was trying to breathe underwater and her eyelids refused to reply to her need to open them. Though she put all of her mental effort into it, she couldn’t concentrate on what the voices were saying and felt herself floating away from her spot at the base of the oak, held in a pair of unyielding arms that wrapped around her back and held her legs close to her chest.
Somehow Elizabeth knew her attempt at escape was over and she found herself giving into the acceptance of what would be her failure. Incapable of keeping the fragile hold on her conscious, she felt herself fading into a deep, dreamless sleep surrounded by the strong aid of someone she prayed would take her away from the danger of those who wished to harm her at Ainsworth Place.
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