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To the Ends of the Earth: A Stripped Standalone by Skye Warren (1)

Chapter One

I imagine my prince a hundred times a day. When I wake up on the dirt floor with the other girls, sunlight streaming through the painted-over window. When I clean and cook and perform my chores. Most of all I imagine him when it’s time for afternoon prayers. That’s when Leader Allen makes me confess my sins, whether I’ve done them or not.

Sarah Elizabeth, did you have impure thoughts?

That’s when he punishes me.

My prince will have blond hair, even paler than mine. He’ll have blue eyes that shine with goodness, with love. I want him to be almost pretty, his mouth in a bow and his eyelashes long. He’ll be strong enough to slay my dragon, but he would never hurt me.

I’m sweeping the floor in Leader Allen’s bedroom when I notice a cloud of dust through the window. That means someone is driving down the long lane separating Harmony Hills from the rest of the world. Maybe it’s a delivery even though it’s not Monday. Or maybe it’s someone coming to visit Leader Allen. Even though he didn’t have me prepare a special meal.

I drop my broom and cross the room to watch one, two, three huge black cars coming down the lane. Blood pumps through my veins. It’s not a white steed, but it’s close enough. My hands clench the windowsill hard enough for the old wood to creak.

Maybe God is finally answering my prayers.

My prince is here.

I don’t feel the uneven floor on my bare feet as I fly down the stairs. Any other day I’d be worried about Leader Allen hearing me, worried about the punishment he’d give me for my lack of grace. Not today. It seems impossible, but I know it’s true. He’s here. I’m just minutes away from seeing his face for the first time.

A dark shadow looms on the other side of the door, tall and broad through the muted stained glass window. Every time Leader Allen preached about faith, this is what I believed in.

I reach for the knob, almost afraid to turn it. Afraid to find out I’m wrong.

And then what will I believe in?

My hand moves without my knowledge, opening the door, letting light in. Except the man standing on the doorstep isn’t my blond or blue eyed prince. He has dark hair and deep green eyes. And even though he looks strong enough to slay a dragon, to slay twenty dragons for sport, he doesn’t look kind.

His hard gaze rakes over me, knowing and cruel.

The hope must still be burning in my eyes, leftover embers, because he gives a curt shake of his head, barely discernable, that steals my breath. No, he’s not my prince.

A man this hard isn’t anyone’s prince.

Behind him I recognize the blonde curls of Sister Candace. Another man stands beside her, implacable and severe in a dark gray suit. Both men look terrifying, but Candace doesn’t seem scared. She seems…proud. Strong. The way she holds her head high. I resented her for running away, for leaving me to serve in her place, but seeing her now, I can’t resent her. If this is what she’s like in the outside world, if this is how protected she is, she’s better off gone.

The first man is solid and as thick as a tree trunk. From beneath the sleeves of his suit, tattoos snake over his skin. I imagine it circling him all the way around, vines that feed from him. In one hand he holds a black briefcase.

He shifts and I can see the leather beneath his jacket—a holster. For a gun. I know about guns even though I shouldn’t.

I made myself learn, because I knew that my prince might never come.

One dark eyebrow lifts. Let me in, he says without words. You don’t want to find out what happens if you try to stop me.

I don’t want to stop him. If he’s here to hurt Leader Allen, if he’s here to help him—I won’t stand in his way. But I’d almost rather he hurt me. Something physical to match the spiritual ache that’s ripping me apart inside. I’m old enough to know that princes aren’t real, that no one is coming for me. It was something I needed to believe. I still need to believe it, but in the face of this man’s cold regard, I can’t find any faith.

“This way,” I whisper.

Footsteps follow behind me, none of them saying a word. I’m not really a person to them. I’m like the dirt road they drove on to get here. Something to use.

When we get to Leader Allen’s study, I hover outside.

Only one time did I enter without knocking. Sister Jane collapsed in the kitchen, the heat sweltering with the ovens, her face cherry red. I ran straight into his study, stood in front of his desk, frantic as I told him what happened.

He got the bag of rice from one of his drawers and spread it on the floor. I knelt there for twenty minutes in punishment while he prayed for my soul. Sister Jane had to wait until we were through.

Both men go inside. They don’t even knock.

Candace follows them, and the words stick in my throat. The warnings. The rice. I don’t want it to happen to her. But I doubt it will happen, not with those two men. They might punish her themselves, but they won’t let Leader Allen touch her.

I pretend to close the door, but I keep it open a crack. He’d make me kneel for an hour if he found me spying, but this feels too important. The man with the green eyes might not be my prince, but he might be my escape.

“I suppose you know who I am,” one man says in a businesslike tone. “If Rosalie Toussaint’s lawyer knew where to find her daughter, then you do too. And you know who she works for.”

Leader Allen may know who they are, but I don’t. The only thing I recognize is the name Rosalie Toussaint. That’s Candace’s mother. She had been in personal service to Leader Allen, which meant she attended his private prayer sessions. That’s why everyone assumed Candace would follow suit, until she ran away.

And I was the one chosen to substitute.

True believers have to give all their worldly goods to the community. The fact that Rosalie Toussaint had a lawyer means she might have held something back.

Leader Allen’s gravelly voice rings out. “I always knew you had the devil in you, girl.”

He’s talking to Candace. She’s the one who tempts men to sin. She probably tempted the man in the dark gray suit to sin. That’s why he came here on her behalf. Maybe there are benefits to sin. Protection.

The men drop their voices, and even with the crack in the door I can’t make out their words. All I can hear is the menace between them, the threats in the air.

One of the men says, “Maybe you don’t care about your own life, but I’m sure you care about your flock.”

If I needed any assurance that these men aren’t here to save me, this is it. We’re not people to protect. Not women to sin with, like Candace. We’re collateral.

Leader Allen laughs. “Take them then. Kill them. Fuck them.”

I gasp, stepping back from the door. These men are here to hurt us.

And Leader Allen doesn’t care.

Even while I hoped and wished for a prince, I knew he wasn’t real. So I listened very carefully whenever the men discussed guns. I watched behind the wheat shed while they taught the boys to shoot.

And when no one was looking I hid a rifle away.

It only takes me a second to retrieve it from under the floorboard in the pantry. Then I’m back in front of the office, nudging the door open with the butt of the gun. It takes both my arms to hold it up, but my aim is steady. Right behind the desk.

I pull back the hammer.

Candace whirls to face me, her pretty blue eyes widening. “You don’t want to do this,” she says. “He’s not your enemy.”

Who does she mean, Leader Allen? Or the man with dark green eyes? Either way she’s wrong. They’re all my enemies. My prince isn’t coming. I need to do this myself.

“I have to. This is my only chance. Move out of the way.”

I step sideways so I can hit Leader Allen without hurting anyone else. I take my aim—

“Sarah Elizabeth. Don’t.” Candace pushes the rifle toward the wall. Why does she want to protect him? Doesn’t she know what he did to me?

My gaze meets hers, and I see the worry. She knows. And she’s trying to—what? Protect me? To keep me from becoming a murderer? In a flash of morbid humor I realize that she might be my prince, after all. Kind and good. Blonde and beautiful.

“That’s right, girl,” Leader Allen says to Candace. “You wouldn’t kill your father, would you?”

Her father? She looks as shocked as me. As sickened.

Leader Allen groomed her to take her mother’s place—and all the while he knew he was her father? I’m not sure how it’s possible, because Rosalie Toussaint already had a little girl when she came to live in Harmony Hills. Anything could have happened before that. And it doesn’t really matter, because whether or not he’s her father—he deserves to die. For hurting her.

For hurting me.

I raise the rifle, almost toppling over at its weight. Then someone touches me—the man with green eyes. He puts his hand on my shoulder, turning me around. And every time I’ve ever been held down on the prayer mat, every time I’ve ever knelt on dry rice comes back to me. My finger closes on the trigger in dark reflex.

A loud bang rings through the air, along with the metallic tang of blood. Blood spreads over white fabric. Green eyes flash with pain, with shock. With vicious intent. What have I done? Distantly I hear three more gunshots. Not mine.

I look over to see the man in the silver suit holding a gun, expression grim and savagely satisfied. Leader Allen’s bleeding body slumps to the ground.

He’s dead.

The person who touched me. Who forced me. He’ll never pray with me again. Never pray with anyone. And I know that despite every single one of his sermons that he isn’t going to heaven. He doesn’t deserve to.

The man with the green eyes turns to me. “Let’s go, little bird.”

My eyes widen. “What?”

“I’m not leaving you here,” he snarls, looking as fierce as any demon. Because I shot him.

I hid that rifle under the floorboard six months ago, dreaming of the day when I’d use it. And never daring to think about the blood that would follow. It spills across his chest, bright and crimson. I hadn’t meant to hurt him, but he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t care. What will he do to me? Leader Allen was a man of God, and his punishment had been harsh. And this man, this man of tattoos and guns—his will be worse. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.

He reaches for my wrist. A twist, and the rifle falls to the floor.

I only have a second to react before he hauls me into his arms. He’s taking me. I don’t know how he manages to pull me when he’s been shot, but we’re leaving the house at a rapid pace. No no no. I only got free from Leader Allen two seconds ago. I won’t be held captive by yet another man with dark intentions. I’m punching him, yelling at him. Anything. Everything.

The sunlight blinds me, the world a blur of light spots and green eyes.

A shot rings out. Are they shooting someone else?

Dirt sprays against my leg, and I realize that someone is shooting at us. The men of Harmony Hills must have realized that their leader is dead. They’re fighting back.

The man shoves me into one of the large black cars and climbs in after me.

I scramble back, trying to get out. If he closes that door, I’m trapped.

With a cruel wrench, he twists me into the seat. The door closes as loud as a gunshot. Tires squeal as they fight the dirt for purchase. The car moves forward fast enough to lock me into the seat.

“No,” I’m shouting, crying. “Let me go.”

What will he do to me? How will he punish me? I hated the prayer sessions, the dry rice beneath my knees, but at least I knew what to expect. This is my home.

“They’ll kill you,” he growls. “Don’t you get that? You were in the room with us. You held a fucking gun on him. Doesn’t matter if your bullet ended up inside me or him. They’ll come for you. And no one here will protect you.”

He may as well have shot me, instead of the other way around. There’s a hole where all my fight had been, my struggle, spilling scarlet. “How do you know that?”

“Because if there was, you wouldn’t have been in that house.”

And I leave Harmony Hills, not on the back of a white horse, holding my prince.

I leave with the devil himself.

 

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