She was on her knees, head bowed in prayer when the door to her chambers opened and she felt the second presence beside her. Opening her eyes she faced the Silent Sister and wordlessly stood, smoothing the skirt of her black dress as she followed the Sister down the halls.
The great stone halls of Sanctuary had been her home all of her life. Or, at least, for as long as she could remember. The cold walls and even colder residents were the only souls she had known in this world. Sanctuary was a religious institution, one of the most devout in the Seven and known for its harsh, winter-bound climate and bare-bones conditions.
Here, in the cold stones, she knew art and music as words only in her books of devotion, never having experienced them for herself. Love, devotion and marriage were also foreign words to her, none of her tutors bothering to explain the words to her. She had met only one man in her life, the Headmaster, and she did not know her family. She knew fear and she knew obedience, but she knew little else...
She was a girl without a home. A woman grown, nearly ten and eight years old, and she knew only that which they deigned to tell her. Read only that which they allowed her to.
She followed the Sister through the barren hallways, ignoring the chill that danced across her cheeks and neck. Ignoring things had become the most important part of her life. Ignoring the cold. Ignoring the hunger in her stomach. Ignoring the heavy words unspoken by those around her. Ignoring the aching burn in the back of her mind that yearned for him.
She squeezed her eyes shut, doing her best to school her thoughts as she walked down the hall. One. Two. One. Two. She counted the echo of her boot heels on the stone floor as she walked. Forget him. Forget the man who comes to you in the night. Forget the unfamiliar words he speaks. One. Two. One. Two.
She turned the corner and stepped into the dusty office, doing her best to keep her eyes on the floor in front of her as she stood before the Headmaster’s desk.
“Do you know why you’re here, Girl?” the cold voice of the Headmaster asked her. That voice, over the years, had become the cold sound of fear, of punishment and cruelty. Through her life she had done her best to appease this voice, only to meet with its wrath at every turn. She had never truly seen the voice’s owner, having only glimpsed him through the corner of her vision when she snuck a look from her downcast eyes.
“To serve and glorify the Seven, Headmaster” she repeated dutifully.
“Always proper” he moved closer, the swish of his robes sending fear through her. “I meant in my office today, not at this Sanctuary. Do you know why you are here?” he asked.
“No, Headmaster” she replied, watching a ball of dust dance across the worn stones at his feet.
“Can you name the Riders, girl?” he prompted.
“Pestilence. War. Famine and Death, Headmaster” she replied, a shiver of fear racing over her spine at the last horseman’s name.
“And the Seven?”
“Father. Mother. Maiden. Crone. Warrior. Smith. Stranger” she repeated back to him.
“You have been taught well” he clicked his teeth. “What do you know about the Balance?”
She frowned, not understanding his question, “Headmaster, I do not understand” she replied.
“The Balance, Girl” he sighed. “The thin line that we all walk between this world and the world of the Gods.”
“I know nothing, Headmaster,” she replied.
“Come” he beckoned her to the left of his desk and she followed his voice to the mahogany side table. “Look at me, girl.”
She paused, then raised her gaze to look upon him for the first time. He was her height, perhaps slightly shorter, with greying dark hair, dark eyes and well trimmed facial hair. She had not expected him to be so young, his voice was much older, calmer, than a man of middle age. He wore robes of all black, a vibrant red epaulet over each shoulder and a bird pin at the base of his throat.
She almost cowered away from him, away from the color that he wore, knowing the warnings that had come with that color. She thought of her hair, the long curls covered and stifled by her black head covering, a covering kept in place lest she face severe punishment.
“You look afraid” he stated. “Why?”
“The color, Headmaster” she swallowed a ball of fear, averting her gaze.
“Red, girl” he corrected her. “The color is red. His color.”
“The Stranger’s color” she whispered.
“Correct” he nodded. “Look at me” he commanded and she obeyed, as she had her entire life. “You do not have to fear it” he assured her but it did nothing to calm the chaos in her heart. She watched as he removed the lid from a box on the side table, the rich lustre of red fabric filling the insides.
She stepped back, shaking her head, “No---”
“Girl” he chided, his voice suddenly cold and filled with anger.
She wanted to run, hide and stay far away from this man and that fabric, but her feet seemed glued to the floor. Turning she saw the two Silent Sisters and the large Guardian at the door, blocking her exit.
No she nearly sobbed.
She could have, perhaps, eluded the Sisters, but the Guardian would never let her pass. His impossibly large form nearly filled the doorway, his black armor and cloak giving him a sinister appearance. He had always been there, for as long as she could remember, the large angry Guardian, speaking in hushed tones and begging her to obey.
“Please” she pleaded.
“Look” the Headmaster spoke as he pulled the fabric--no, the dress from the box, the material flowing like blood over the edge of the table to the stone floor. The color was angry, the fabric ethereal as is moved.
“Headmaster” she pleaded.
“Tomorrow” he lay the dress over his arm, running his fingers over the fabric. “Tomorrow you will wear this---”
“No” she sobbed, her emotions spilling over until she could no longer resist the panic. “No!”
“Tomorrow, you will wear this” he repeated, his eyes filled with fury. “You will wear your hair free, and you will obey.”
“Please” she looked to the door, weighing her options as he moved closer, the angry fabric nearly touching her simple black dress.
“Girl” he glared. “Tomorrow you will be ten and eight, and tomorrow they will come for you. A man will take you as his bride and you will obey him. You will choose him.”
“Bride” she stumbled back, bumping into the candelabra behind her. The candles fell, as if in slow motion, flames dying as they clattered to the floor. She watched the wax pool and cool at her feet, wishing they would have ignited her dress and taken her from this world.
“He will come” the Headmaster repeated. “And tomorrow, you will be a bride. Your husband will take you, ravage you and plant his seed inside of you, Girl.”
She could hardly breathe as the room spun around her. She clutched her stomach as she turned away, stumbling only to find herself in the arms of the Guardian. She looked up into his scarred, angry visage, silently praying for help.
She wanted to scream, she wanted to run. But she could not breathe. She could not see. She could not...she choked on a scream as the world around her went black.
“You are afraid. Why?” his deep voice asked her and she turned, as if fighting through the weight of exhaustion to face him. His face, once cold, had become her only solace in this world.
“The Stranger is coming for me” she sobbed, reaching out to cling to his black coat. “I am so afraid.”
“My darling” he soothed her, wrapping his arms around her to hold her close. “You should not be afraid. You’re safe, I promise you are safe.”
“He is The Stranger” she cried out. “The tutors, the Headmaster, they said he burns everything in his path, that his touch turns flesh to rot and that he rapes….” she shook her head. “I am so afraid. Please!”
She had begun to see this man, his tall, imposing form, many moons ago. At first, she had been afraid of his large form and sharp blue eyes, but soon she realized that he would never hurt her, that he was her safety. Her solace.
He wore all black, from coat to the polished boots on his feet, the only hint of color a golden pin over his heart, bearing a symbol she could not make out. His hair, perhaps once a deep black, was receding, liberally threaded with rich silver, a compliment to his sharp features. He was much older than her, she could easily see as much, but the beat of his heart against her palm matched her own pulse, her own heart. Ba-bum, ba-bum, his heart beat with hers.
“Ssh, my darling, do not be afraid” he smoothed her hair, for in her dreams her hair was unbound, free to her waist in thick ringlets. In her dreams, the color red could not hurt her, but she still lived in fear of The Stranger. “He would never hurt you.”
“Help me, please, I beg you” she sobbed, looking to where her skin had turned white as it clutched his lapels. She noticed there, on her left hand was a pearl ring---no, it as not a pearl but a swirling, living mixture of silver and gold, set in a filigree bezel. A wedded ring ...
She stumbled away from the dark man, eyes locked on her finger, “No” she sobbed, trying desperately to remove the ring but it would not budge. “No!” she looked to the man who looked stricken in his own right. “Help me! Please!”
She was crying silently as she stood, naked, in the corner of her room. The Sisters had come at dawn, waking her and forcing her into a hot, scented bath where they scrubbed every intimate inch of her.
They had cleaned her, oiled her, trimmed the hair at the apex of her thighs and exchanged dark glances with each other in silent communication. She had tried to ignore them, but the fear roiling in her stomach was enough to make her physically ill and soon she was rushing to her chamber pot, surrendering only the water she had before bed as she coughed into the porcelain.
They had left her as she cleaned her mouth, but soon the Elder Sister returned. She wore white gloves and held the deep, angry red fabric in her hands, as if she were afraid to directly touch it.
She watched the offending fabric as the Elder Sister lay it across her bed. Molten blood, sin...death, she looked away from it and focused on the wall.
A hand grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to look back and she saw another sister held a corset, fiddling with the laces.
“No” she protested. “No--” the door opened and the Guardian appeared, his massive frame unpausing at her nudity, but moved to hold her in place as the sister wrapped her in the corset and cinched it tight. “I hate you” she gasped as the air was forced from her body by the tightening of her laces.
The Guardian’s grey eyes were filled with sadness as he spoke, “I know.”
She was afforded no other undergarments but the corset, her body bare as the Elder Sister lifted the blood red gown with gloved hands.
“No” she screamed, trying to move away from the Guardian but he held her firm. “No….no no” she whimpered as the gown was lowered over her head, the cool material ghosting over her nearly naked body as they tugged and pushed it into place.
She kept her eyes tightly closed as they brushed and styled her hair, knowing that when she opened them she would see nothing but The Stranger’s color. Her heart was racing, so quickly that she feared she might faint, and her hands and knees shook in terror.
Even with her eyes closed, she could tell that the gown showed more flesh than she had ever shown before. Though the sleeves were long, her neck, shoulders and decolletage were on display in the low cut fabric. She felt exposed, sinful and dirty.
“Girl” the Guardian spoke firmly. “It’s time--”
“No” she whispered.
“Save yourself the pain, Girl, choose The Stranger, trust me---”
“No” her eyes snapped open and she shoved the Guardian with all of her might. She caught him off guard, his body stumbling back and she seized her chance, running from the room and down the stone hall.
“Girl!” she heard his angry roar behind her but it only spurred her pace. "Choose The Stranger!"
She ran, winding and twisting her way through the maze of Sanctuary until she reached the gates. The thick, moss-covered wrought iron was locked, the padlock in place as she tried to pull it free.
“No” she shook her head as she stumbled back, turning quickly and, picking up her skirts, she ran down the worn path to the forgotten temple of the Seven. The world around her was foggy, cast in grey as if Death itself had come to the earth, and she supposed in a way, it had.
She ran until she reached the ancient stone temple and she collapsed, sobbing as she prayed to the Gods, to the Maiden, the Father, the Mother, the Crone, the Warrior, the Smith; all of them to save her from The Stranger.