8. Darkness Before the Dawn

Stellia lies in the dark. Hours go by.

Whether it is in truth night, or still day, she cannot tell; a smelly blindfold covers her eyes. Her head smarts terribly. She hears muffled sounds, of horses, and, more close by, rude male voices laughing, shouting, arguing. Later, the crackling of a fire.

Her captors are celebrating, though she wonders if they have much reason to do so, given the number of their comrades that lie dead in Phoros, cut down by the spearmen of Hestia.

She manages to sit up. Her head spins, she comes close to vomiting. At least the pain has lessened. As for the immediate future, her prospects are dismal. The raiders usually take food and supplies, livestock if they can manage to carry some off. Only on a few occasions have they kidnapped anyone, usually young girls. None have ever been ransomed.

She is thirsty, but she has no wish to call for water and meet her captor any sooner than necessary. She thinks of her parents. Sorrow cuts into her heart like a blade.

Is her father still alive?

Over and over she hears the awful sound of the brigand’s cudgel striking him, and sees the gash on his head as he lies still and hurt inside the house, mother weeping next to him.

He must live! It cannot be otherwise, it was just a blow with a stick, really.

Even if her father is all right, her parents must still suffer terrible agony. Two children in one day, lost! One to Hestia, Shaper knows why, the other to the brigands. The soldiers are not coming after her. If they were, they wouldn’t find her.

She assumes that she was brought south across the Threshold hills, into the Thorns. She has never been there—no one goes there, the Parson told her, except apostates and witches and the blasphemers that serve them. It is a labyrinth of pine-covered gulches and canyons, covering a peninsula nearly the size of Taronnis itself. Separating it from Taronnis is the Threshold, a ragged maze of hills, gulches, and ravines. Few patrols chasing down brigands fleeing southwards have ever emerged from it again without having lost men to ambushes.

One day, supposedly, the Guardian will order the area cleansed—the notion has the Parson waxing jubilant when he talks about it—and everyone hiding out in it put to death, though when and how she means to accomplish this, no one knows. It certainly does not seem likely that her soldiers will come looking for Stellia anytime soon.

Without warning, the tent flap is slapped aside, and someone rips the blindfold from her face. She blinks, even the dim light inside the tent seems bright after hours of blindness. A bearded face thrusts itself into hers in the semi-darkness.

“Hello, lovey,” he slurs.

With a gasp, Stellia shrinks back. She sees the fire behind the man, outside. No one is sitting around it. Perhaps they have all gone to sleep. She is alone with her captor. Not that she could expect help from others in this camp, were they awake.

His face is so grimy with sweat and dust that even his brown teeth look white by comparison. His hair and beard are filthy, clotted together with dirt. He looks hateful and ugly, though even were he beautiful, he would disgust her no less with his drunken sneer—and drunk he is, judging by the stink of fermentation that is his breath.

He wastes no more words, and begins to do what he came for. He has a knife, large and nasty looking. For the moment, he only uses it to cut her bonds, though she doubts that it is out of kindness.

Screaming is pointless, but she does it anyway, even as his rotting mouth seeks hers, as he forces her legs apart, and tears at her clothes. She kicks and bites, his lip bleeds savagely; she hopes he will fly into a fury and stab her to death; it would be preferable to what he intends. He only laughs. She manages to knee him in the groin, he snarls but isn’t slowed down. The cloth of her shirt rips. Her breasts are exposed, and he growls with delight.

Suddenly, his face knots into a frown, and he gives a startled grunt. Has she managed to make him mad, after all? But his anger is not her doing. Something pulls him toward the tent’s opening. Or someone. Is she being rescued? Or merely fought over?

She gathers her torn shirt to cover herself. For a moment, she sees her attacker through the tent flap, looking up at someone. A pair of boots is planted in the dirt next to him. The tent flap drops again. She hears muffled cursing through the canvas.

Then, a sound like a punch. Someone gasps, or wheezes. There is a rustle as though something is slowly lowered to the ground.

“Drunken swine,” a deep voice mutters.

The bear! The burly man who rescued her in Phoros together with his younger companion!

The tent flap lifts, and a big head pokes inside. He no longer wears a mask, and though the light in the tent is dim, she can see his face well enough. His square jaw is bearded, yet somehow he has managed to remain well groomed in this wilderness, and his wavy dark hair is cut short. His face is angular and his expression hard, yet it has none of the meanness about it that one would expect from a brigand or highwayman. His eyes—blue, she remembers, as she remembers every detail of those dreadful moments outside her parents’ house when she first saw him—glitter with fierce alertness.

He places a finger over his lips and gestures for her to wait. The head disappears again, and she hears the sound of something being dragged away. An eternity crawls by until he returns.

Two strong arms lift her out of the tent. She sees the night sky, clear and full of stars, above the shadowy tops of towering pine trees. Cool air fills her nostrils, sweet and fresh and scented with resin. She has a brief glimpse of the camp: a huddle of pup tents among tall grass in a clearing, with a dying bonfire in the middle.

Stellia’s savior slings her over his shoulder. Moving swiftly and silently, he carries her into the forest.

NEXT: Proper Introductions


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