The morning air was humid, and Samara’s brown hair stuck to her skin as she ran through the thick trees. Someone was after her, and even though she was a strong runner, they had kept pace on her flanks for a good half hour. Her breath was coming in ragged puffs, her muscles ached with resistance to her every move, but still she ran. If the men behind her were guards, she would be murdered or sold off to whatever man would take her; if the men were thieves, she would be found empty-handed, beaten, and disposed of. Keeping this in the forefront of her mind, she willed her feet and legs to push harder against the moist soil. Trees seemed to whip past her, and she was scraped numerous times by thorn bushes, and slapped in the face by low branches. Her body was filthy from a collected amount of mud over time and no clothes to protect her skin. Her dark eyes skimmed the trees around her. To a normal villager, everything might look the same, but not to Samara, she knew these woods. As she pushed forward she strained to listen to the footfalls around her. There were two, maybe three men not far from her heels. They were fast, but struggling in the dense forest.
Samara made a quick decision and cut sideways through the trees. Not far north there would be a wide stream, and if she were lucky she would be able to out-swim the armed men. She had built up enough strength this last year in the forest to make the distance, and it might be one scenario where her smaller size would come in handy. Already she had gained a better lead due to her quick thinking and her knowledge of her surroundings. The woods had been her home for just over a year now, ever since her father had died in her home village. Samara’s mother had been an older woman, left a widow in her husband’s house. It was a luxury given only to someone her age. Samara, however, knew what would happen if she stayed. She would be betrothed to a man twice her age, expected to mother children she didn’t want, and stand silently behind someone she wouldn’t ever love. This was the way for all women in the village. They wore long clothing to hide their bodies as not to tempt prying eyes; they never uttered a word in public, especially in the presence of a male, and they were expected to be perfectly content doing their husband’s bidding. Samara had watched her mother live this life. Samara herself had dressed in the long garbs young girls wore. She hadn’t been allowed to play sports outside with the boys, or walk in public without her father present. She had helped her mother prepare meals and clean, beat rugs and knit robes until the blisters on her hands bled. She had worked every day without the acknowledgement that she was working, without the salary of her own voice. So she left.
The first few weeks on her own, Samara thought she might die. She had prepared food for years, but with the help of wheat markets and dairy animals at her hands. She had also known how to clean a home, but she was left with no home to clean. Now she found herself with nothing more than her own body, which she had been taught was useless unless she were bearing children or scrubbing floors. It was a struggle to stay alive, but once she got the hang of it, she found herself capable of much more than she would have ever believed.
The stream was just two strides ahead and Samara wasted no time diving head first into the cool water. The temperature actually felt good against her sun-beat skin, but she couldn’t relish it for long as she heard a splash behind her. She hadn’t learned to swim until just months ago, but she found that she was quite good at it. Her legs kicked hard against the water and her arms propelled her forward as she kept her head up. Her body was tired, and it seemed like miles to reach the other side, but she had to keep going. She wouldn’t go back to the way things were. She liked going without those long robes that made her too hot during summer weather, finding her own food and shelter, and singing out in the open. She found that her voice was a beautiful thing, and she was not ready to lose it after only just making the gain.
Samara kicked her right foot hard against the water and felt something solid and firm underneath her, rocks. She stood and tried jogging through the stream now that it only came up to her bellybutton, but just as she was getting confident in her lead, her foot slipped and twisted. A sickening pain shot up Samara’s left leg and she was momentarily immobilized. She cried out in pain and turned to look at the distance her followers had gained. To her surprise only one man had jumped into the water after her, two more were standing anxiously on the other side, apparently unable to swim. The relief was short-lived however as she realized how quickly the man was gaining on her. She spun around, going flat and kicking with one foot. It was a short distance to the shore on the other side. The man would catch up to her by then, but she would fight him with everything she had left in her. She was not going back.
Samara reached the moist soil along the bank and pulled herself up with her sore arms. She pushed herself upright, covering herself in filth once again, and hobbled on her good leg. She knew she couldn’t run with a fractured ankle. Her only choice was to wait for her attacker. She spun around just in time to see the man climbing out of the water. He was dressed in the garb of her people, and armed with a hilted knife only carried by the guards. Samara was relieved to see the knife. She would fight him until he had no choice but to kill her. She would die here, free.
The man looked her over. He was tan, maybe ten years her senior, and with at least forty pounds leverage. This fight wouldn’t last long. Samara wiped her dark hair out of her eyes, smudging mud on her face. She knew how she looked to him, thin, naked, and savage. She also knew that he could see that she wasn’t surrendering. The man’s hands went up, and Samara immediately fisted her palms to strike him. To her surprise he reached for the knife and pulled it out. Samara stuck her chin out, head held high, and waited for the blow. She wanted to live, but she would rather die than be enslaved in the eyes of men. She watched the shining head of the knife come forward and looked her adversary in the eye. Astonishingly the man smirked and dropped his eyes to the knife. He turned it around so that the hilt was facing her exposed belly and dropped it in her hand.
He looked into her dark eyes and a familiar expression came across his face. “You are brave, like my own mother had been.”
Samara was stunned nearly speechless. It had been a long time since she’d spoken to someone, and never had it been a man who was not her father.
“Had been?” She managed to say in the language that now seemed so foreign to her.
He smiled half-heartedly, eyes saddened. “She was beaten to death when the guards came to recruit me as a child. She was never scared to die.” He paused. “She was a fighter, like you.”
There was a moment of silence and understanding between them and then Samara watched him swim back to his men. She watched as they scolded him and heard the man reply that she would never survive with a broken ankle anyway. Later, after much dispute, they disappeared back through the woods.
Samara was never going back, and so she walked forward.