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They were still chasing her. Josephine felt them just as she felt the horse's heartbeat echoing through galloping hooves. Her lungs clutched at every breath, sucking at the rushing wind; fear lodged in her throat.
She stole a glance behind her. A vision of dark men on angry horses flashed in the moonlight. They were gaining on her. Clutching the reins in her trembling hands, she pressed her knees against the sides of the horse, urging it onward. She had never liked horses, but tonight she blessed her father for teaching her to ride.
Father. Tears welled up in her eyes. She could see him standing over mother's fallen body. He raised his sword, challenging the murderers, and his eyes urged her to run. She obeyed, dashing to the stables and saddling the mare, leaving him there to die.
Josephine leaned down low like he taught her, and the ground flew by beneath her. At the corner of her vision, she spotted a black stain in the darkness of the night, but when she looked directly at it, the shadow disappeared. She might have thought it a trick of the moon's light if not for the way her heart trembled. Clenching her teeth, she bit into her lip and blood filled her mouth with the taste of her fear.
Was it one of them left on the road to guard against escape? It was no matter. She was past him now. Steam rose from the horse's breath, and lather dripped from its lips. It could not travel much further. She spurred the horse onward, praying it would outlast the assassins.
Why? It was a question that burned in her soul. Her father was a simple merchant. Her sisters were younger than her, and she used to play hide and seek withthem in the hills behind their house. Her mother would sometimes bake a pie and put it in the window to cool, a soothing scent that welcomed them home from their play. Why would anyone want them dead? Why would the murderers turn their blades on innocent children?
The riders were gaining on her, and in the pounding of the hooves, she could hear her sister's scream. The scream awoke her to murder, and she could smell death approaching in the stench of blood and urine. Again, she saw her father raising his sword in challenge, buying time for his daughter to escape. And this time, she heard the scream of his death as she rode from the estate.
She must escape these men. Father had given his life for her, and she would not fail him. She scanned the hills looking for something, anything that would give her hope. Just past where the road bent around a large hill, she spotted a twinkle of light. She thought it might be a star hanging low on the horizon, but it burned orange, not white. Torchlight! It revitalized muscles drained from fear, and she urged the mare onward. The riders were close now. Turning her head, she could make out the faces that glared back at her.
The horse galloped around the bend in the road, and she saw the old monastery. Josephine gasped. Even under the sparse light of the moon, the signs of ruin overshadowed the building. Had it not been for the lit torches perched on either side of the entrance, she would have thought the monastery closed, long since abandoned. Her horse burst toward the monastery with renewed strength.
Thankfully, the iron gate was open. The horse flew through the gate and down the path. The men were very close now. She only had a few precious seconds. She jumped from her horse, her ankle twisting when she hit the ground, but she ignored the pain in a wild dash up the stairs.
"Help!" she screamed, her voice barely audible over her fists pounding against the wooden doors. "Please help me!"
The riders were through the gate now. The horses slowed as they approached, thephine slammed both fists against the door with all her might. Tears streamed down her face, and her body quaked with fear. The last of her strength ebbed from her body. "Please..."
The doors opened, and she fell to the feet of a man. She looked up into a face cloaked in shadows and could make out nothing save two eyes that glowed red in the torchlight. A chill ran through her. She trembled in pure terror, and then the darkness took her.