They walked along the canal for a while longer, baking in the summer sun, before Maggie sighed. “I really can’t stay, though,” she said.
Colleen, carrying Maggie’s suitcase like it weighed nothing at all, didn’t break her stride, didn’t even seem to care. She’d known Maggie less than an hour, but already had the air about her of a life-long friend—and a stubborn one. “If it’s the smell you’re worried about, I promise it gets—”
“No, it’s just that I need to—”
“Oh!” said Colleen, and let go of the suitcase so she could wave with both arms, and flag down the young man heading their way down the path. He was drenched in sweat from working hard in the heat, his hair a mess, and Colleen clearly had a hard time not staring at him.
He saw her waving and moved to intercept, stopping just shy of them with a curious smile on his face. “Colleen?” he asked. “Everything alright?”
“Aye, just fine,” smiled Colleen. “I’d like to introduce you to my new best friend—who is definitely not leaving anytime soon—Maggie. Maggie, this is Liam Kelly.”
Liam turned his attention to Maggie, and his expression changed like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. He blinked as if stuck in a trance, smiling curiously at the sight of Maggie. She felt suddenly seen, and turned her head away, smiling bashfully.
Colleen saw it happen, and her grin got even sharper. “Liam here is the best reason to stay in Bytown forever. Next to the timber slide, of course.”
Liam laughed, and then despite herself, Maggie laughed too. She was still shy, and Liam was still entranced, but the distance between them had closed somewhat. And not just physically.
“What’s the timber slide?” asked Maggie.
“Oh, it’s nothing special,” Liam said. “Boring, even.”
“Oh!” gasped Colleen. “Traitor!” She took Maggie by the arm. “Come on, Maggie. I’ll find you a better reason to stay. This reason’s defective.”
Liam paced them, his curious smile hard to resist. “So…you’re not staying?” he asked.
“No,” said Maggie, pretending to ignore him. “I’m only passing through.”
“On the way to where?” he asked, keeping himself in view.
“Out west,” said Maggie and—
—Liam fell sideways, blinking back confusion as his leg soaked the snow with red. Maggie grabbed at his arm, pulling hard to get him upright again. It was no easy task.
“Murderer!” shouted a woman at the fence, as the soot-covered soldiers climbed over and started a careful approach. It wasn’t their business to make arrests—but it wasn’t their business to fight fires, either. Tonight was a night for shattered rules.
“Come on, Liam,” Maggie said, trying to snap him out of his daze. “We have to go.”
“He’s dead,” Liam said, voice a distant whisper, as he stared across at Adam’s lifeless body. “I…I killed—”
“Liam!” she snapped. “Please!”
Nearby, Roland was groaning, his arms waving in the air as his body struggled to make sense of the world. The blow to his head had been savage and unexpected, but evidently not enough to kill. He was lying in a patch of bloodied snow, making a groaning sound like a wounded animal. It made Maggie shiver—wounded animals were dangerous beasts.
Liam grabbed her arm tight, squeezed until she focused on him. He looked at her, confused and afraid, but suddenly certain. “Leave me,” he said. “I’ll slow you down, Maggie. You need to leave me, and—”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said, and finally got a good enough hold of his arm that she could hoist him up, at least a little. “We’re going together.”
“Going where, though?” asked Liam, shielding his eyes from the sun. “What’s west?”
“Besides trees and boredom,” added Colleen, with a grin.
“A town called Cloyne,” said Maggie, feeling very on the spot, being interrogated by them both.
“Hmm,” said Liam. “Don’t know it. Is it nice? Nicer than here?”
Maggie shrugged. “Never been,” she said.
“So why go?”
“Exactly!” Colleen agreed, emphatically.
Maggie thought a moment before answering. “It’s a place to be.”
“No, Bytown is a place to be,” said Liam, and took Maggie’s suitcase up like it weighed even less than it did. “A newborn village, a hub of activity, a beacon of civilization in the wilderness!”
“And a big ‘ol latrine running through the middle of it,” said Colleen, pointing to the canal.
“Speaking of traitors,” Liam said to Colleen with a grin. But then he turned his attention back to Maggie, and she, him. “Give Bytown a chance, Miss Maggie. It’ll grow on you, I promise. Besides, you’ve friends here.”
“Do I?” Maggie laughed.
“Aye,” said Liam. “There’s me, for starters. And Colleen too, if you’re desperate.”
“Oi!” said Colleen, playfully smacking Liam’s arm. He backed away, back towards Corkstown, making a show of taking Maggie’s belongings hostage.
“I’ve got your things, Miss Maggie! You’re stuck with us now!” Liam laughed, and—
—stumbled forward in the snow, so unsteady Maggie was terrified he might fall and hurt himself even worse than before. She couldn’t tell if it was blood loss or shock, but either way, he was nowhere near functional on his own.
“You there! Stop!” shouted one of the soldiers, as his comrade moved around from behind, cutting off any escape route. They were still a long ways out, but at the rate she and Liam were going, there was no way they could outrun anyone, let alone two well-trained soldiers.
“Leave me, Maggie,” Liam moaned. “Leave me and go and—”
“If you don’t stop your whining, I just might,” she said, and yanked him toward the house. The door was still open, but of no use to her at all. If they went in there, they’d never get free again. She might be able to barricade the door, but the longer they stayed put, the more soldiers would arrive, and the worse their situation would be. They had to run. The way south, though, where Émile had gone, was too vast and too snowy to tackle in their condition, without—
A horse snorted, off in the stables. The one she’d been preparing to ride, before all hell had broken loose.
“Come on,” she said, and directed him that way. “Hurry.”
“Ma’am, stop right there!” shouted one of the soldiers. “Don’t—”
But she and Liam disappeared into the stable. The soldiers cursed to themselves, taking up a more cautious approach for fear that she or Liam might now be armed. They motioned to each other to set out their strategy.
Maggie leaned Liam against the wall and untied the horse from its post. It seemed anxious at her presence, so she patted its side, praying she could would calm it. It didn’t seem to be working.
“Have you ever ridden a horse before?” Liam asked.
“No,” said Maggie. “You?”
“Never. And Maggie…even if we do…” He righted himself, held onto the horse with both hands as his resolve bubbled back to the surface. “Even if we run, where—”
“—are you staying?” asked Liam, walking backwards to keep his eyes locked on Maggie.
“Staying?” she asked. “I—”
“With me,” said Colleen. “She’s staying with me.” She gave Maggie a wink. “She tried to say no, but that was before.”
“Before what?” asked Liam.
“Before she heard about the timber slide. Changed everything, it did.”
Maggie shook her head, smile not abating. “I appreciate the offer, I do. But I should really just try to get a—”
“A hotel room? In Bytown?” Colleen laughed. “That’s asking for trouble. Now my place is a good deal cheaper—in the realm of free—but with twice the gossip.”
She tipped her head at the sound of children crying in the distance. “Uh oh, the Murphy brats are gettin’ restless. I’m so glad I volunteered to mind them, the little beasts.” She sighed dramatically. “I’d best get there ‘fore they eat their mother.” She gave Liam a wink. “Can you help Maggie find her way there, after?”
“After what?” Maggie asked.
Colleen just grinned, and—
—the soldiers took up positions on either side of the stable door. The one nodded to the other, who peered inside, trying to—
The horse burst out, past them, barrelling east through the snowy field and the forest beyond. Maggie held tight to its mane with one hand, and used the other to keep Liam’s arms wrapped around her waist to keep him from falling off. He was barely upright, and there was no saddle to brace them at all, but for a brief moment she felt like things might actually work…
Until she saw the fence.
The horse was galloping at full speed, not even slowing down as it approached the obstacle, and in a flash, Maggie realized why: it was going to jump it. It was so spooked, it was going to try to jump it.
She tucked her heels in, leaning forward and pulling Liam even tighter for the half-breath it took for the horse to make its final decision and bound upward—
The push-off almost sent them flying, followed by the oddest sensation of being weightless…Maggie saw the fence passing by, underneath, and was amazed at how well the horse had managed such an incredible feat. Her fear and anxiety melted away in that heartbeat and a half, before the ground came rushing back toward them.
The horse landed badly. Its right leg hit an icy patch, while the left one buried itself too deep in a snowbank, and suddenly the whole world twisted around on them. Maggie and Liam were thrown clear, crashing into the snow as the horse crashed down, flailing about as it tried to recover.
Maggie had the wind knocked out of her. She coughed, raggedly, and tried to roll herself to her front, unsure if she was hurt or just stunned. The horse finally got itself to its feet again, and raced away without them, into the forest and beyond.
Maggie watched it go, wishing she could’ve stopped it, but not knowing how.
And then she saw the trail of blood in the snow, and followed it, dazed, over to—
Liam switched the suitcase to his other hand, watching Maggie stroll through the tall grass off the beaten path. Neither of them was in a rush to get where they were going. Like they were both trying to draw out the journey as long as they could, without admitting it to anyone, even themselves.
“Your accent,” he said, after a time. “It’s so peculiar. Are you—”
“Out east,” she said, and he nodded as if that clarified anything at all.
“And you’ve family in Cloyne? Relatives? A betrothed?”
She smiled weakly. “No. None of that. This is a fresh start for me, in so many ways…” She paused, her mind rolling through the words they’d spoken, the glances they’d taken, and the path they were on. She looked back, north toward Lowertown, and frowned.
“Is everything alright?” asked Liam.
“I…” said Maggie, lost in another place entirely. “I can’t do this. This isn’t…”
“Isn’t what?” asked Liam, kindly.
Maggie took a sharp breath, and came back to her senses. “I appreciate the kindness you and Colleen have shown me,” she said. “I do, truly. But I don’t think I should burden you with my troubles. I’d best get back on track.”
Liam stopped walking, watching her frown. “To Cloyne?”
She nodded, faintly. Like she wasn’t sure. Like she was doing something against her will, but still doing it, dutifully.
Liam looked back toward Lowertown, and then off toward Corkstown, and then, after a moment of quiet reflection, offered: “Miss Maggie, don’t—”
“—leave me,” Maggie cried, turning Liam over to see his eyes rolled back in his head, jaw slack. His leg was bleeding even more now, his body so limp it was a struggle just to prop him up enough to hold him.
The soldiers were shouting, running through the field much slower than the horse, but with an easier purpose in mind: catching their prey.
Maggie ran a trembling hand down Liam’s cheek, tears in her eyes. “Please, Liam. Please don’t—”
“—go just yet,” said Liam, then moved to cut off Maggie’s next argument by saying: “There’s no transport that’ll leave so late in the day, so you’re stuck here one night, at least.”
“So grant us that one night to convince you,” he said. “One night to see what Bytown has to offer, and if you still want to leave in the morning, I’ll find you a carriage myself.”
She looked at him, the confident twist of his smile, the way his eyes had locked on hers and refused to let go…and she sighed. “It won’t change my mind,” she said, and—
—Liam’s eyes settled on Maggie. His breath was weak, but present.
“Maggie…” he whispered, voice so faint it almost wasn’t there.
“I’m here,” she said, trying not to see how close the soldiers were getting, trying not to count down the seconds she had left before it all ended for good. “I’m still here.”
“You there! Stop!” shouted a soldier, and she winced and steeled herself because—
“Mrs Kelly, get in!” came a sharp command from behind, and she saw a horse and sleigh come to a jerking stop behind them. Ada had the door open, and was reaching out for her hand. It took a Maggie a moment to understand what was happening—
“Mon Dieu…” gasped Béatrice, and leapt out of the sleigh, racing to Maggie’s side and grabbing hold of Liam’s arm. “Un, deux, trois…” she said, and they hoisted him up together, started dragging him toward the sleigh.
“Émile…” Béatrice said, voice full of fear. “What happened to Émile?”