As promised, I have written an extended version of my Friday Fictioneers story, Sanctuary. You voted, and this is the one that won. I’ll tell you now though, I know by the end you’ll be asking me for even more. I can’t help it, I just couldn’t wrap up Ava’s story in such a short time. However, I have put her in my vault. Perhaps I’ll finish her story someday…
The cathedral door burst open, interrupting the evening service. Parishioners, clergymen and alter boys all turned as one to look at the soaked, shivering bundle that had collapsed inside the entrance. A young woman weakly raised her head. “Sanctuary,” she rasped, before passing out on the floor.
Later, Ava awoke in a warm, dry bed, dressed in a simple white gown. Her jagged, hastily shorn hair had been brushed and dried as well, and there was a glass of water sitting on her bedside table. She drank from it greedily.
“Father Leopold!” a boy’s voice shouted. Ava tensed. “She’s awake!”
Clutching the bed sheets to her chest, Ava curled her legs up underneath her, ready to spring from the bed at a moment’s notice. There was the sound of hurried footsteps coming down the hall, and Ava looked around desperately for an escape. There was none. The room she was in was small, with only one door and a tiny window high near the ceiling, not big enough for her to slip through even if she could reach it.
“Lady Ava! My child, you’re awake!” A small plump man dressed in white priest’s robes bustled through the door, his face awash with relief. “We feared you might never awake.”
“How do you know my name?” Ava demanded, still curled up in a defensive position.
“My dear, I’ve been a priest to your parents’ parish for many years. I recognized you straight away, despite your hair being cut. Tell me dear, what happened to you?” Father Leopold asked, coming closer to her bedside.
Ava didn’t answer. “Have you told anyone about me?” she hissed.
“There’s no need to worry, my child…”
Ava cut him off. “Have you told anyone about me?”
Father Leopold sighed. “No.”
Just then a boy burst into the room, his breath coming in huge gasps. “Father! Father! Come quickly! It’s him, the Duke of Donaham, he’s here in the church!” Father Leopold’s eyes widened, but before he could say anything, the boy dashed back down the hall.
“You said no one knew I was here!” Ava had jumped up and was attempting to slip past the old man. “The Duke cannot find me here! I have risked too much to get away.”
“Stop, stop!” said Father Leopold, taking hold of Ava’s arms. She twisted violently, but was too weak to break free. “Calm down, child. No one is going to find you here. I do not know why the Duke has stopped here, but if you do not want to see him, I see no reason why you should.”
Ava paused in her struggling, the sincerity in Father Leopold’s voice impossible to ignore. She grew still, and he gently released her arms. “You don’t know, do you?” she said quietly.
“I’m afraid not, dear. What is it?”
“I am due to be married to the Duke by sunset tomorrow.”
Father Leopold stared at her uncomprehendingly for a few seconds before sputtering, “Marry the Duke?”
“Yes,” spat Ava, stepping away and wrapping her arms around herself.
“But isn’t that an excellent match for you, dear?” asked Father Leopold.
“Oh yes, an excellent match. My child would be third in line for the throne, I would be connected to the high circles of society, and would want for nothing – save for love and kindness.” A disgusted look crossed her face. “I cannot marry him.”
Father Leopold’s eyes traveled to the dark bruise that marred her left cheek. “Did he do that to you?”
Ava looked away. “Yes. When I told him I would not marry him.”
“Surely your parents objected after seeing such violence?”
Ava laughed bitterly. “Mother merely gave me come cream to cover it and told me that if I behaved as a proper wife should, I would not need to worry. She wouldn’t allow me to tell Father. My parents are more concerned with getting a connection to the castle than my well-being.”
Father Leopold’s face crumpled into one of pity. Ava turned away so she didn’t have to see it and shrugged away his comforting hand. “It is no matter,” she said haughtily. “I have run away, and no one is sending me back.”
“Of course not, but…” Whatever the priest had been about to say was abruptly cut off as the young boy again came crashing through the door.
“Father! You must come now!”
“Yes, yes, my boy, I’ll be right there.” He looked back at Ava with concern and she shook her head, but the boy tapped his foot impatiently until Father Leopold made move to follow him. Just as the priest was about to leave Ava reached out and grabbed his hand.
“He must not find me,” she whispered, then dropped his hand and returned to the bed. Father Leopold left without another word.
Ava waited for a few moments before slipping out of the room and down the hall after Father Leopold and the boy. The stone floor was ice cold under her bare feet, but she didn’t stop. Silently she padded after them, pausing each time they passed an open doorway or archway. She followed them out to the alter, then slipped into the pews to hide while Father Leopold and the boy continued down to where the Duke of Donaham was standing.
Her heart leapt to her throat when she saw him, his unforgiving mouth set into a firm frown and his cold eyes sweeping the church distastefully. “You there! Priest! I have reason to believe my future bride, the Lady Ava Dartford is hiding here. You will produce her at once.”
Ava bristled at his cold, demanding tone and prayed to whatever god was listening that Father Leopold wouldn’t give her away. Her heart skipped a beat when he finally spoke. “I was not informed that Lady Ava had arrived in my humble church, milord,” he said respectfully. “Though we would of course offer her sanctuary for any reason should she decide to stop here.”
“Insolent little man! I know she is here. Several of your parishioners confirmed it. Where is the girl who arrived here last night?”
Ava couldn’t see Father Leopold’s face winced at his mild tone. “I’m afraid I do not know, milord. We did take in a travel worn girl last night, but she was gone this morning. I don’t know where she has gone.”
The Duke swore loudly.
“Milord, this is a house of God!” Father Leopold said, shocked.
The Duke ignored him. “If I find out you have hidden her from me, the repercussions will be severe.” He gestured to his men. “Search the place top to bottom.”
Ava barely held in a gasp. “Now see here, milord!” cried Father Leopold. “With all due respect , Sir, you have no right to search this church and no right to arrest or take someone from a church. This building is a sanctuary, so says the law.”
The Duke sneered. “You insolent little…very well. I shall post my men at the doors, should my errant bride be found hiding among your cloisters.” With that he strode from the church, slamming the door loudly on the way out. In her hiding place in the pews, Ava slumped to the floor, tears threatening to spill from her eyes. Escape seemed impossible.
She jumped when a hand lightly touched her shoulder and looked up into the wrinkled face of Father Leopold. “Don’t worry, child. We will get you out of here somehow. All hope is not lost.”
“How can you say that?” Ava choked out. “You don’t know the Duke like I do. He knows I’m here, and he won’t rest until I am caught. And if his guards fail, he will start sending his spies and even the townsfolk to find me. The church will lose its patronage, the people will shun you, and he will not stop until you and all the holy men here are forced to leave.”
“Then we’ll just have to find another way of getting you out of here before it comes to that,” said Father Leopold.
Ava gaped at him. “Why would you help me?”
Father Leopold smiled. “Because it is the right thing to do, child. This church is a sanctuary. It is here for people like you, who need help and direction. We will not fail you.”
For the first time in days, Ava smiled.