Meg tore a strip from her shift and bound it against her bleeding arm. It would likely scar, but that was the least of her worries. The bog had seemed like the safest place to run, in case they had hounds to track her. There was no telling when her gaoler would find his captive gone, but it was past supper now and getting dark. The tiny sliver of moon was too feeble to light the deep shadows under the trees.
She had to get home, back to her village and her father and brothers, but she couldn’t chance being seen in the open. She’d been snatched from the village unawares, but her guard was never coming down again. Her wound would serve as a reminder there.
Meg took a step forward and winced in disgust at the squishy splash. More cold mud in her shoes. She edged over to a nearby willow and huddled at its base, shivering. Her shawl was in tatters, but she tucked it around her as best she could.
What could she do? She had to move to stay warm, but she dared not venture further. One misstep and she could vanish into the bog. No one would even find her bones.
Hoofbeats and the sight of a rider carrying a lantern caused Meg to shrink against the trunk of her willow. She put her head down and prayed she looked like a lump at the base.
Another horseman came from behind. Meg’s prayers gained urgency when the horse stopped thirty paces from her hiding place.
“Have you seen her?”
Meg had never heard that voice before.
“Not a sign. Her trail ran into a stream and I lost it there.”
That was the voice of her gaoler. Meg shivered so hard she thought surely they must see.
“Find her. We don’t want to start over, and I paid you well for her.”
“Yes, lord,” the gaoler said. “But she could be anywhere by now.”
“Has she grown wings? She’s here somewhere.”
Meg bit down on a cry as pale flickering lights appeared. Will o’ the wisps! All she could do was stay by her tree and hope they passed her by.
But the lord laughed. “You want me to follow? I think not.” He flung something at them and the nearest ones winked out. “Don’t like holy water, do you? There’s more where that came from, so stay back.”
“My lord, might I beg some of that?” Meg had never heard the gaoler sound so humble.
“Ha! Just ignore them. They’re naught but phantoms to lure the unwary.” The lord spun his horse and rode off.
The gaoler spat, “Bastard,” and inched his horse along, using his lantern to light the way.
Meg tried not to breathe. The man passed within ten paces, but walking in the bog had done this much─there were no footprints for him to follow. He passed by and continued searching on the far side of the willow.
His lantern had passed out of sight when a shimmer appeared before her. A pale figure, made of nothing but wisps of flame, beckoned.
Meg shook her head and sobbed out a Pater Noster. She broke off willow twigs and made a crude cross. “Stay back. You will not have me either.” Her whispered defiance sounded pathetic even to her.
The figure shook its head. It resolved itself into the shape of a girl and pointed at the way the man had gone.
Meg blinked. “Did he hunt you, too, then?”
The figure nodded.
Meg met the apparition’s gaze. “I can guess how it went. I am sorry. But I’ll not join you in death, not if I can help it.”
The girl shook her head and pointed again down the path.
“I’m not following him─he’ll take me back. And if I go the other way, the lord will find me.”
The girl pointed into the bog.
“You’ll lead me to my death!” Meg clutched her arms and shivered. Her voice had risen to more than a whisper.
The girl shook her head again. More wisps resolved into a mounted figure returning and finding someone crouched by a tree. Then the girl beckoned again.
Meg took a deep breath and plunged into the cold, muddy water. She squished and squelched her way after the bobbing flame which led deeper into the bog. More lights joined them, surrounding her in a ghastly ring of light. Surely the gaoler would see?
And a splash to her left confirmed it, and Meg looked up to see the figure of the gaoler rushing toward her. Meg rushed blindly into the dark, desperate to escape. The group of lights moved off to the right, and the gaoler followed.
Meg inched forward, step by cautious step. A sudden drop-off had her floundering, but she made it back to her muddy footing. She was shivering so hard her teeth were chattering. The cold hurt. All she had to do was stop, and soon she would feel nothing at all. Meg gritted her teeth and took another step as the light appeared again.
It led her off to the left. Meg tried to go another way, but always the light bobbed in front of her, leading her deeper into the bog. This time, it led her to a ring of willows, and Meg sank to the ground. The lights came and bobbed around her. She used the time to rest. If she had to lead the gaoler further into the bog, so be it. At least this way he would claim no others.
She was so weary. Just a few moments of rest…
Her head snapped up at the sound of footsteps behind her. She rushed off into the shadows underneath her trees, biting down on her cry of pain as her shoe caught a tree root. She grabbed the rough bark and staggered on.
Whippy wands pulled at her face. She had to get out of there. The moon was directly overhead─she had no idea which way was out. And if she stopped, the lights would find her again, and then the gaoler would, too.
She was still stumbling blind when the lights showed again. “Can you not let me be?” she cried in despair. “I’ve done you no harm.”
And then the gaoler’s lantern shone on her face.
Meg darted to the left again, fear giving false strength to her weary feet. Within several paces, she was wet up to the knees again, and a single wisp appeared. She followed it close, hoping to block its light from her pursuer.
But he kept coming after her, with never more than a bare moment of rest. She’d fallen again when she noticed a pale rim of light in the east. Dawn! For all that it increased her danger, Meg welcomed it. She forced her stiff body to stand.
A wisp appeared, and Meg jumped back. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, but the wisp moved to block her path. Then she heard the sound of hoofbeats behind her, followed by swearing.
“Get away from me,” the gaoler yelled. “You can’t hurt me. You’re already dead.” There was a pause and then, “No, get back. Stay away!” His voice rose in a horrible scream, and Meg cowered on the ground, clutching her shawl as if it could protect her from hearing his gurgling cries.
The wisp appeared again, but this time it bobbed and came back, as if asking her to follow. Meg took step after cautious step after the dancing light, ready to bolt behind a tree, but no sounds came except the sobbing of the gaoler ahead.
She stopped when he came into view, crouched by his lantern. He was crawling, and she took a step back in alarm.
“Who’s there?” he shouted as he swung a stick wildly. He put his face up and Meg gasped. There was nothing but a bloody ruin where his eyes had been.