Runaway Girl – the first chapter

Here is the first chapter of Runaway Girl, the prologue. If you like what you read then click on the purchase links at the end (if you click on the Amazon link you will be able to read more in the preview on there).

Runaway Girl

Prologue

She was supposed to be dead.

Pain jolted through her body with every lurch of the cart. She fought the urge to cry out, knowing that any noise she made would attract attention. She had to stay silent or they would realise she was still alive.

The girl next to her lay motionless. She reached out and touched the girl’s arm; her skin was cool. The musty sacking cloth thrown over them offered no protection from the cold night, but it hid her movement.

Where were they being taken?

She could hear the murmur of men’s voices above the creak of the cart and the thud of a horse’s feet in the mud. Her ears continued to ring with the laughter, the shouting and the screams. She could still smell the sour stench of wine on breath, stale sweat on flesh. The memories churned her stomach, making her want to vomit. Her throat was sore from where her neck had been squeezed and she felt sharp pains in her head and shoulder.

Had she fallen or been beaten? She couldn’t remember.

Was the other girl really dead? It felt cruel to pinch her arm, but she did it to make sure.
There was no response.

Her fingers travelled up to the girl’s neck to feel for a pulse. Again, there was nothing; all she could feel was a chain of rosary beads, which had done little to protect the girl wearing them.
Rage bubbled in her stomach. She wanted to stop the cart, grab the men’s knives and slit their throats. They had murdered this girl without a thought, and now they were going to dispose of her body to cover up their dirty deed.

It was possible the men realised she was still alive, but they threw her into the river anyway, hoping she would drown if there was any doubt.

The cold water felt like a dagger of ice striking her chest. She immediately sank and opened her mouth in panic, taking in a gulp of foul water. Kicking and flailing, she managed to come up for air. Out of her mouth came a gasping noise she was unable to control.

Moonlight danced on the surface of the oily black water. Although it looked beautiful, the river stank like a latrine and there was a revolting taste on her tongue that made her gag. She splashed to keep afloat but again felt herself sinking, her dress dragging her down. She kicked as hard and fast as her legs would allow, flapping her arms and managing to keep her face clear. The cold was freezing her limbs, and with each stroke it was becoming harder to move. A dark, rectangular object came into view. Was it a boat? Or the riverbank?

Her left hand brushed against a slimy wall. Her instinct was to recoil, but she realised that she might be able to cling on to whatever it was. She reached out again and discovered something else there in the slime; something that was also slippery but felt like metal. She gripped on to it and took a deep breath before her face sank under again. It took all her strength to wrench her head back up. She choked as putrid water sloshed up her nose and pooled at the back of her throat. Under she went again and the fight to survive started to leave her.

She couldn’t give in; she had found something to hold on to. Surely she could drag her way out of the river.

She managed to steal another breath of air at the surface and pulled herself closer to the piece of metal she was grasping. It felt like an iron ring, and attached to it was a greasy chain. With renewed hope, she grabbed the chain with both hands and pulled herself along it. The wall lowered down into the water, and with one desperate fling of her arm she managed to grasp the top of it. She felt timber and dug her fingers in as she reached for it with her other hand. She was clinging to the edge of a wooden jetty.
She had found a way to get out of the water.

Her body was heavy, tired and shuddering with the cold. She felt her nails break as she dug them into the timber of the jetty. She pushed her right foot against the slimy section under the water and managed to raise herself up slightly. The water absorbed in her dress weighed her down, but she pulled herself up and out of the river with a strength that could only come with the desperation of fleeing death.
She slowly clambered up the wooden steps. The cold had permeated every part of her body and she shivered violently as she curled up on the jetty, panting and retching.

‘She’s made it to shore!’ came a shout.

She looked up and saw the shadowy silhouette of the horse and cart further along the bank. In the moonlight, she could see two figures running towards her.
She wasn’t safe yet.

Her limbs moaned and ached as she uncurled herself and shakily got to her feet. Her wet dress clung to her legs and her body shook so much with the cold that it felt impossible to move. But the men were gaining on her and she had to get away.

She had lost her slippers, but her feet were so numb she barely felt the stony ground as she ran. To her right was the river and to her left were several tall, dark warehouses. She looked desperately for a light or any sign of someone who could help her, but the darkness was deepening and she could see the moon was about to be covered by cloud.

The footsteps behind her grew closer.

‘Just cut her throat this time and be done with it!’

Between the dark warehouses she spotted an even darker gap and ran towards it just as the cloud blocked the moonlight. Plunged into darkness, she knocked into a wall before finding the gap she was looking for: a narrow, stinking alleyway.

She heard the men run past.

‘It’s blacker than the devil’s bum hole!’

‘Where is she?’

She staggered further back into the passageway, her heart pounding in her ears and her body shaking so violently it was difficult to remain on her feet.

***

Snow fell thickly the following evening. The waterman looked up at the darkening grey sky and decided to make this the final crossing of the day.

His passenger was a well-dressed young man with a cloak pulled across his nose and mouth to keep the stench of the river out. It was a smell the waterman no longer noticed, having lived and breathed the river for more years than he could remember.

One of the oars struck something soft in the water. The waterman grunted and pushed it away. Anything broken, rotten or unwanted was dumped into the Thames, and each day the tide heaved itself in and out of London, depositing the river’s grim contents onto its mud and gravel banks. Whatever the waterman had pushed away would come to rest somewhere for the rats to find.

‘Wait!’

Surprised by the outburst, the waterman saw his passenger pointing at something in the water. Peering over the edge of his boat, he saw a piece of muddied cloth floating near the surface.

More rubbish.

But then he saw the hand.

‘There’s someone in there!’ shrieked the passenger.

The waterman remained calm. This wasn’t the first time he had pulled a body out of the river. Carefully, he steered the boat towards the floating bundle, and as he drew nearer he could see strands of long, red hair floating like seaweed, then a leg and a foot, still with its slipper on.
A woman. Perhaps even a girl.

He handed his oar to the passenger. ‘Keep it steady while I pull ’er out.’

The little wooden boat started to rock as he stood up.

‘But I don’t know how!’ panicked the young man.

‘Paddle, steady-like, with the oar to keep ’er still,’ snapped the waterman. ‘The eddies will drag us away, else. And move yerself over to that side of the boat; far as yer can to stop it tipping when I leans over.’
The passenger did as he was told. He sat on the edge of the boat and paddled frantically as the waterman reached into the river and grabbed hold of a leg. The girl floated towards him, and he caught a glimpse of her serene, white face. He leant in further and hooked his sinewy arm under her waist before hauling her out of the river. The limpness of her body and the water absorbed in her dress made her heavier than he had expected.

The boat rocked as the girl’s body slid onto its floor in a pool of muddy water. Large flakes of snow were beginning to settle on her.

‘She’s young,’ muttered the waterman. Younger than my own daughters, he thought to himself.

She had not been in the water long enough for her flesh to soften and swell. Her dress was cream-coloured and well-tailored, and she wore a set of expensive looking rosary beads around her neck.

‘Is she dead?’ asked the young man, his voice wobbling.

The waterman glared at him and grabbed the oar back. ‘We’ll ’ave to raise the hue and cry when we gets to the other side,’ he said. ‘By the look o’ that bruising on ’er neck, I’d say she’s been murdered.’

‘Do I have to be part of it?’ asked the passenger. ‘I have an appointment.’

‘Of course yer have to be part of it!’ growled the waterman, ‘You saw ’er first. You’ll ’ang if you neglect yer duty. The coroner ’as to be told and we’ll need ter find the man what did this.’
The waterman rowed on in silence, the snow whirling around the boat as if it were the only vessel on the river. He watched the young man’s face as he leant in closer to look at the girl, his curled lip softening. Tenderly, he moved her hair from her face and made sure her eyes were firmly closed. Then he removed his cloak and laid it over her body, the stench of the river long forgotten.

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