“Are you coming?” Zade shouted across the field with an encouraging smile on his face. His black hair tousled in the wind and fell against the skin of his forehead. He held out his hand to her expectantly. Annabelle giggled, a smile of her own reaching her lips. As she ran to Zade’s side and grabbed his hand, he smiled wider, and they ran off into the high grass together. He squeezed on her hand tightly as his other held fast to the longbow strapped on his back. They sprinted all the way into the forest, Zade never once letting his gaze stray from Annabelle’s face. Suddenly, he pulled her towards the stream, where the only noises to be heard were the trickling of the clear water over jutting rocks and the animals scampering and tramping along the leaf-littered forest floor.
They paused to admire the view before Zade pointed to a lone stag warily trotting through the trees. Zade reached behind him and slipped the bow off his back. He handed the bow to Annabelle, and with a timid look in her eyes, she took it. Zade came up behind her, aiding her, holding her arms up and steady while he took an arrow from his leather quiver. He set it in place for her and trailed his fingers up her forearm to her shoulder gently. She bit her lip, sighted the stag, and Zade pulled the string taut.
They released it together, and the deer went tumbling to the ground.
TEN YEARS LATER
The brisk summer’s breeze floated through the fine strands of Annabelle’s blonde hair, whipping it in thick tendrils against the flawless fair skin of her face. She wandered aimlessly in the forest, walking through the trees, glancing behind her every so often, just to be sure she wasn't followed, as was a frequent pastime of her brother William.
William didn't trust Zade, and certainly wasn't fond of Annabelle's desire to be with him. But she couldn't help herself. He was dangerously irresistible.
Ever since they were kids, Zade had always found a way to make Annabelle want to willingly break all of the rules her parents had set out for her. She tried to be a good girl and do what her mother said, to be home before dark, to be safe, to get food from the market and come straight back home. She knew good girls weren’t supposed to leave the village, weren’t supposed to be in the forest alone at night, weren't supposed to sneak off to meet boys in said forest. Good girls were supposed to obey everything her parents said; good girls were supposed to cook and clean and do whatever their husband asked of them. They were supposed to want to marry the man with the most wealth in town.
But not Annabelle.
Tomorrow she would be married to Lucas Kiopran, son of Kenneth Kiopran, the town’s blacksmith. And she had never met the man before in her life.
With a sigh and another weary glance behind her, she stopped meandering in the forest. She just stood, listening to the sounds the wild made before her.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go into the woods alone?” Zade said. Annabelle whirled around and smiled.
“I'm not alone, not anymore," she whispered, sneaking around a tree trunk, staring into Zade’s dark eyes. They bored into her pale ones, and the corner of his lip turned up in his famous lopsided smirk.
“Lucas Kiopran, huh?” Zade said suddenly, and Annabelle groaned in disgust.
“My mother wants his money,” she replied with a stoic expression.
“And he gets the most beautiful girl anyone will ever lay eyes on,” Zade said softly. “What a lucky man.”
Annabelle blushed. “I’m not a prize to be won. Besides, I’ll always be yours and yours alone.”
Zade reached forward and gently traced the side of Annabelle’s face, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“What do we do now, Zade?” she asked, leaning into his touch. Her hand flew to cup over his, to keep his hand there, even if for a moment longer. He deliberately ignored her query.
“Do you want to marry him?” he asked, a look of torture on his face. He dropped his hand abruptly, and the absence of his warm touch sent a disconsolate wave through Annabelle.
She huffed incredulously, however, and shook her head, leaning up against the rough bark of the tree behind her. “You already know I don’t.”
Zade’s smile reached his eyes. “Prove it,” he said to her quietly. She waited a moment before lifting her gaze to meet his.
“Run away with me,” he said, voice quivering with a perceptible anxiety that Zade so rarely exhibited.
“Where would we go, Zade?”
“We can go anywhere. Just me and you,” he assured her.
“As long as you’re with me, I’ll go anywhere.”
“Really? You’d leave your home, your family, your whole life?
“I would do anything to be with you.”
Zade smiled at Annabelle and drew her close to him. She fell into his warm embrace, and kissed the skin at the hollow of his throat.
“When do we leave, Bella?”
She was ready for this. She was ready to be with Zade. She was ready to start living the life she wanted, a life with Zade by her side, not Lucas Kiopran.
Annabelle would miss her family, her loving siblings William and Leila. She would miss the encouraging words of her father, and even her sweet mother, who had always wanted the best for her.
She stared at Zade, at the clear sincerity that glimmered in the broken sunlight that filtered through the leaves. Annabelle's gaze shot behind her, in a moment of true confusion. With a sigh, she turned back to Zade.
"I love you, Zade," she said with absolute certainty.
"I know you do," he replied with a small smirk. His hand outstretched to take hers and it hovered in the air, slightly trembling. He waited for her to make a decision.
She was ready to leave this place behind her.
So Annabelle placed her hand in his, their fingers twining together. She smiled up at Zade, prepared to find their future beyond the village gates.