“Run? Run where?”
“To the back of the cave. There’s a way out. Quickly!” Her bare feet carried her swiftly over the rocks. Eli stumbled behind.
“Wait! Why are we running?”
“The Prince,” she called. “There’s no way he’ll let me get away this easily. Since you were seen with me, he’ll call you an accomplice and have you killed. For your own sake, boy, run!”
And they ran. They ducked through long winding tunnels that echoed with the cries of bats and fouler creatures. They reached a tiny chink in the cave wall and squirmed through, tumbling out into the night.
“Where are we?” Eli gasped.
“The other side of the mountain,” the girl panted, her hands on her scabbed knees. “At least, I hope we are. Come on.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the mountainside, deeper and deeper into the valley below.
The sun rose in a rush of crimson. In the heat of the journey, Eli had forgotten it was winter. Now that they were advancing at a quick march instead of a sprint, he became aware of how cold it was. So did the girl. She shivered in her rags, her skin goosebumped and pale, but she did not hug herself to get warm, nor did she allow her teeth to chatter. She only marched forward relentlessly, dragging Eli behind her.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked after a long space of silence. “Stop a moment, and I’ll give you my coat.”
“Not important,” she said, shaking her mane of tangled brown hair, not even turning to look at him. “I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to get away from him. I can’t stop to get warm.”
“Where are you from?”
“I am from the country next to yours. We are garment makers and weavers. Your Prince came to our land in search of a bride, and he found me pretty.” Here she turned enough where Eli could see her profile. She was watching the sun to get her bearings, but her face had hardened into an unreadable mask. “He stole me away.”
“Most girls would envy your position,” Eli said tentatively.
She stopped, breathing hard, her hand over the gash in her side. She looked at the sun awhile, panting, before she looked Eli in the eye again.
“I did not want him. Perhaps had he spoken to me, asked me questions—or even asked my name—I might have considered giving myself willingly. But he did not. Love is not love when taken by force.”
She swallowed hard and turned away, plunging down the mountain to the valley below.