Alexandra knew they were caught the moment she heard the horses. Both girls broke into a run anyway, as if their weak legs could possibly outrun trained animals that were born to sprint. Her shins and bare feet bled freely, sliced by thorny branches and battered by the forest floor’s hidden rocks. An icy breeze cut through the trees, the branches swaying violently. Alexandra could barely feel it, running as hard as her burning legs would go. She cursed her bulky frame, trying desperately to keep up with Isabella, who bolted like a spooked mouse.
Her lungs on fire, Alexandra watched Isabella’s wide brown eyes dart from side to side as if trying to spot their mounted pursuers through the trees. These woods were thick and it was the middle of the night. The horses would have trouble. They had to. But why did they sound like they were getting closer? Thunderous hooves, the sound bearing upon them like an ominous wave. It came from every direction.
Behind them? Beside them? Ahead of them?
Isabella skidded to a halt as the foliage in front of them exploded into bits of torn leaves and twigs. Alexandra was not as quick. She continued to stumble forward, before losing her balance as she tried desperately to stop. Her lower back hit the ground with a sharp thud. When she looked up, she barely recognized the horrifying show for what it was; a rearing, terrified horse bursting through the thick brush. It could have been a bear for all she could discern in this darkness — angry and terrible, making a god-awful sound. Alexandra froze, but Isabella didn’t even pause. She slipped away, jumping into a bush as if she were diving into water. Alexandra had barely enough time to realize where she had gone when the other two guardsmen had arrived behind her, their horses just as mad as the first.
It was the forest.
It was a true testament to their riders’ cruelty and single-mindedness that they managed to force the creatures past the tree line, let alone this deep into the forest. It seemed the potential wrath of Heaven or Hell was simply no match against the determination of a man with a job to do and coin to earn.
Alexandra didn’t think to go after Isabella. Instead she circled the small clearing, frantically darting to and fro in order to avoid being trampled. Finally, a guard jumped down and grabbed her by the waist.
“Ow! She bit me!”
He raised a large hand to backhand her, but another hired man dropped down from his panicked horse and grabbed his wrist. The shadows of the forest masked their faces.
“Don’t! We’ll be risking our necks for nothing if we bring her back with bruises!”
Alexandra watched as they glared at each other, wanting to spit at them. If she could, she would have screamed. She opened her mouth in vain, but her throat remained barren of sound. They ignored her.
“She’s already scratched up. Just look at her!” He struggled to get a firm grasp on her, Alexandra kicking and scratching.
He was easily the largest of the group, black cloak barely covering his broad shoulders. If she had been more tame, he would have had no trouble carrying her with a single massive arm. The second guard, this one with leather gloves protecting his hands, grabbed her and twisted her arms behind her back. He bent her over, forcing her to stare at the ground.
“Get some rope.”
The two tied her wrists and forearms together, both sets of hands rough and unyielding, as the third rider did his best to keep the horses from bolting. The tiny man somehow managed to keep two of them in place, despite their kicking and ungodly noise. The second guard, the one who had saved her from being slapped and smelled like old leather and smoke, seemed to have taken responsibility for her. He lifted her up onto his saddle, face down, before sliding in behind her.
“What about the other one?” the first guard asked, not sounding the least bit happy about letting Isabella escape.
“Forget it!” her newest captor spat. “It’s a miracle we got even this one! Let’s get the hell out of here before It mistakes us for the new fucking offering! No money is worth our blood!”
The other guard didn’t argue. He mounted, the remaining guard pulling himself up to sit behind him. Despite the added weight on both horses, the beasts eagerly obeyed, fleeing towards the exit as fast as their weary bodies let them. Alexandra twisted and squirmed, her freedom snatched away forever.
Before they left the clearing, she managed to look back. Her gaze locked onto a pair of bright eyes peering through the brush, glimmering in the moonlight. The image was seared into her mind’s eye. Even as they broke free of the forest, galloping across a field towards the massive convent, Alexandra could still see them as if they were right in front of her.
Whatever awaited her in the morning, she would have to face it without her precious Isabella.
In that instant, Alexandra wished the horses had trampled her.
She didn’t want to die alone.
The sky above the courtyard was a mix of soft pink and a blue so pale it appeared almost white. On the horizon, the sun made its way up, bleeding a bluish purple. The chill air brought in the crisp smell of wet grass and the distant crow of a rooster from a neighboring farm. The entire congregation had been summoned. Even the servants, who stood in the back stifling yawns and straightening their crooked aprons. In front of them stood Alexandra’s sisters, the ones old enough to stand and be still. The littlest ones were most likely still in their cribs back at the nursery. They stood quietly in two neat rows of six, still in their sleeping gowns and bare feet. All of them looked the same: brown eyes, peach skin, swollen lips, and short brown hair that stood up in odd angles at the back. Their sizes differed slightly due to age, but overall each one was simply a replica of the rest.
The priests brought Alexandra to kneel in the space between the girls and a long table covered with a pristine white tablecloth. Never did she feel more divergent from her sisters than in that moment. She had always been different. True, she had the same eyes, skin and hair. It was everything else that was wrong. She was larger and heavier, appearing much older than the child she still was. Her face and torso had been plump for as long as she could remember. All her life, she had been forced to listen to the hushed whispers of the priests…
“What if the Offering is rejected when her time comes? She is clearly flawed. She could doom us all. We should have purged her and made another the moment she was born.”
“No. That would have been an even greater blasphemy. Despite how thinly, the sacred blood still runs in her veins. She is still a Martyr. The Offering will be Delivered.”
The Offering consisted of three rituals: The Declaration, The Vigil and The Deliverance. This was her Declaration. It had been hastily put together a year earlier than originally planned. It usually took months of preparation. Hers had been put together in the time it took for them to bring her back from the forest. They hadn’t even allowed her to wash or change. She bowed her head, staring at her hands as they gripped her soiled gown. The wet grass was soothing against her sore legs and she closed her eyes, trying to lose herself in the gentle morning breeze.
She could hear them place the sacred artifacts on the table behind her. Once finished, they would move to either ends of the table and stand silently, watching the congregation with solemn faces, as they did every year. But this time, she could feel their collective anger and fear as if it were a humid mist that filled the air.
From an outside perspective, Alexandra could understand. Why would she and Isabella do this to them? Do this to their country? They had put them all at risk. Selfish. So Selfish. It wasn’t like the life provided for them was hard. They were treated like royalty. Why would they try to toss away their blessed duty? Their very reason for existing?
It was hard to explain. Even harder when you didn’t have a voice.
The Magistrate stood directly behind her back. Alexandra could clearly picture him, dressed in his rich, velvet ceremonial robes. He would have already donned the white mask, representing the loss of the Martyr’s true identity. Despite the piece of costume, his voice rang clear across the courtyard. It was loud and steady, without a single hint of anxiety over last night’s events.
“With this new dawn, we see a new light. One bright and shining. A new savior has been declared.”
He didn’t even bother to change the words. They were acting like nothing had changed. Alexandra raised her head an inch to see her sisters’ faces. Surely they would be confused and wonder what had happened to Isabella. After all, they had already witnessed Isabella’s Declaration the morning before this one. Now she was gone, and Alexandra was the one kneeling before them.
The youngest ones seemed more curious than anything. For them, this was all still new. The older ones, those who had watched sister after sister be Delivered, had started to realize how short their lives truly were. They simply stared ahead, weariness on their identical faces.
Alexandra wished she could read their minds. She wanted to know. Did they care? Did they hate this as much as she did? Were they at least afraid?
The Magistrate lowered a heavy helm onto her head, obscuring most of her vision. Next came the heavy fur lined cloak, draped upon her shoulders. It weighed her down and she almost considered letting it pull her face first into the ground, like a wilted flower weighed down by the rain.
“The Martyr has been reborn to grant us salvation once more. We are eternally grateful, for we do not deserve such mercy!”
This was her cue to stand. With great effort, she managed and, as she rose, the others fell to their knees like clockwork. Even the servants bowed, pressing their foreheads to their knees. Keeping her head as still as possible, she glanced towards the entrance of the courtyard. The guard who had captured her and kept the other from slapping her was leaning against the frame. It was usually forbidden for the guards, usually hired men from the neighboring cities, to witness any of the sacred rituals. They were outsiders. It wasn’t allowed.
But an Offering wasn’t allowed to run away either.
The Vigil took place in the Lady Chapel, a dusk to dawn prayer to The Martyr herself. The larger than life statue stood directly under the chapel’s crystal apse, bathing in moonlight. Alexandra used to think Isabella took closest to the statue out of all of them, save for the massive size, of course. While Alexandra was flawed, defective and abhorrent, Isabella was flawless, perfect and beautiful. The blood had enveloped Isabella in its sweet embrace, while it had utterly shunned Alexandra, leaving her cold in the dark, dumb and slow.
It was hours into her Vigil and Alexandra’s thoughts turned dark.
The Martyr no longer looked down at her with a peaceful, radiant smile. Her face seemed twisted in the shadows, her eyes wicked, her lips smirking. Alexandra’s knees ached against the wooden floor. With her cracked lips, she wanted to curse them both, not caring that she had no voice to curse them with, or what an unforgivable sin it would be to curse the only reason for her existence.
She wanted to curse them, but most of all…
“Alexa, wake up. …Alexa, my beloved. I don’t want to go. …Let’s run. Please? Let’s go.”
…she wanted to curse herself.
The guard had stayed at the chapel door the entire night. It gave Alexandra a small measure of satisfaction.
Let them suffer together.
At Deliverance, the Offering was only granted four items. Her armor, comprised of light chain mail with plated gauntlets and greaves. Her short sword and shield, both made out of the cheapest, thinnest steel the priests could find sold in bulk. And one personal item. It was rumored that ages ago, when all of this had first started, the swords had been plated with gold and the shield adorned with jewels. They didn’t make for useful tools, but that was never their intention. Not even back then. It was all just symbolism.
Alexandra wondered if it really had been the Martyr’s intent to offer herself selflessly to the Beast. If so, why had she been armed? Had she fought back? Had she been scared? If she were here today, would she look at this whole ceremony and weep?
Alexandra believed she would.
The last item was the only one that really mattered. It was the only time she and her sisters were allowed to be different. They spent months or years deciding on the perfect item. Since they weren’t allowed much in terms of personal possessions, this item was usually something simple. A smooth stone. A flower picked from the gardens. A necklace made of string and paper.
Hers was hidden from view, something she carried on her always. A piece of braided twine wrapped around her right wrist. Isabella had one just like it, but on her left. Alexandra had made hers and Isabella had made this one, a wordless vow of eternal loyalty.
For a brief moment, Alexandra debated going with naked wrists. It would be hidden under her gauntlets anyway. She wondered if Isabella had even made it out of the forest alive.
The bracelet remained.
They placed her on a white horse and the same guard, her only companion in all of this, took the reins. Outside in the daylight, she was finally able to see him clearly. He was not young, but not quite old, face dirty with stubble and eyes gray with weariness. He wore worn leather and appeared more like a drifter than a guard. He met her unwavering gaze until he couldn’t anymore, glancing away. He pulled the horse from the stables on foot. She wondered what was going on in that head of his.
They stopped a couple of paces from the edge of the forest. It stood ahead of them, like a hungry thing, eager to devour her. That night it had been a beacon of hope, of freedom. At present, it was her tomb. As her guard approached to help her dismount, Alexandra idly considered stabbing him in the heart and taking off with the horse. Of course, they had never been taught how to ride, so perhaps running away on foot would be better. But to where?
Had any of her past sisters thought to fight back? Someone had to have tried.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the guard murmured as if able to read her mind. “They’re watching.”
Alexandra glanced over her shoulder. Every priest was present, watching and praying. The Magistrate kept his masked eyes on her at all times. Beside him was a guard with a bow and a quiver full of arrows. They were taking no chances.
Some Offerings were given titles for their displays of great courage and virtue at Deliverance. Magdalena the Peaceful. Virginia the Wise. Mary the Faithful, and so on. Each one took their destiny with solemn grace. Of all The Offerings, past and future, Alexandra had to be the worst. She didn’t even go at her appointed time. An absolute disgrace.
The moment the guard set her down from the horse, she shoved him away and darted towards the forest like a rabid dog. Alexandra would have screamed if she could, loud and ugly. She jumped about, ignoring the armor’s oppressive weight, and banged her sword against her shield again and again, the sound echoing across the field. She then swung the blade around her head, swatting away branches and smashing her shield against the tree trunks, making as much noise as possible.
She hoped that future sisters would not remember her as Alexandra the Disgrace or Alexandra the Silent. She prayed they were watching from the windows and that they would give her another name; Alexandra the Wild.
Alexandra the Free.