To the Ends of the Earth

By: Skye Warren

A Stripped Standalone

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.

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