I walked as the sun beat down on me through the trees. I was thirsty, tired, hungry, and had to use the bathroom. I tried to ignore that urge, having never gone to the bathroom in a forest. I felt rather stupid and a bit out of my element, plain and simple.
My clothes were caked in dirt and blood and tattered beyond recognition. My feet ached from walking the long distance, and my sides hurt from the exertion. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I took in my surroundings. The trees hadn’t thinned at all, but in my stubbornness I knew I was headed in the right direction. At least I hoped so.
I hid behind a nearby tree and lifted my skirts, trying to convince myself that I was at home. Not a second after I finished my business, I glanced up as something caught my eye. Fear flooded my veins. A man stood trying to conceal himself behind a clump of trees. I felt the color drain from my face in utter embarrassment.
He was odd, but he was wearing clothing I recognized. He was from Mount Tier, probably the person they exiled this morning. He had a blank stare and was gaunt and ghostly. Something about him frightened me, but he was at least from home. He could tell me where the gates were.
“Hello,” I called nervously. He stepped out from the trees cautiously and took a few steps towards me.
“I’m Elise, I’m from Mount Tier as well. Perhaps you could show me the way to the gate?” I tried to be as charming as possible. It was working.
He nodded mutely and pointed the direction I had been headed.
“Thank you.” I smiled kindly. What did Jon know about us? People weren’t all bad. I waved in farewell and turned on my heel. I walked on, trudging over clumps of plants and rocks, coming across some water and drinking until my belly ached. The sun beamed down on my back, making me hot and itchy. I kept telling myself that I was almost home, so close now. I paused to catch my breath and noted that the trees were finally thinning.
I heard a snapping sound behind me, and turned quickly. I didn’t see anyone at first. Then my eye caught sight of a shirtsleeve, so out of place amongst the trees. He emerged from the shelter of thick, green plants like a phantom. The man from earlier. Perhaps he was trying to get back home as well. His face had changed somehow, though. He wore a sneer of maliciousness.
“Mind if I join you on the journey home, dear?” his voice was anything but kind. I began to shake my head and back away.
“Oh, what a pity. I’d like someone to keep me warm tonight.” He took a few threatening steps forward. I backed up, hitting a tree. I felt cornered and caged, like the birds we kept at home.
“N-no thank you.” I stuttered. He laughed cruelly, bridging the gap between us. He reached out his thin hand and stroked my face. I turned my face away from him, my chest heaving; I felt like I was going to faint. He grabbed my throat suddenly, constricting my airways. I gasped and choked for breath as he crushed my windpipe. I clutched and clawed at his deceptively strong hand. He smiled, showing yellowed and decayed teeth, and threw me to the ground. I gasped for air, my head feeling light. Coughing, I tried to crawl away. I didn’t see his foot speeding towards my ribs, but I heard the crack and felt the onslaught of pain. I couldn’t even cry out. I fell onto my back and wrapped my arms around my side, tears leaking involuntarily from my eyes. He straddled me, and I couldn’t muster any strength to fight him off through my pain.
I felt a hand on my thigh, and my stomach plummeted even further. What was he going to do? I squirmed, but only succeeded in making him laugh even more. The hand rose, my skirts exposing my bare legs to the forest. I heard the sound of a horse, only it seemed to be running instead of walking like last night. I whimpered, hoping it wasn’t more men like this one.
“Ye may want to get off her now, ye hear?” Jon’s voice sounded loudly from above me. My eyes flashed open in exultation. The man didn’t move. Jon’s face was livid, and he held his broadsword in his hand. His horse snorted and stomped the ground.
He jumped easily down and held the deadly instrument to the man’s throat.
“Up.” He commanded. A dangerous calm emanated from him. The man scrambled up and off of me, and I sat up quickly, pulling my skirts back down to my ankles and trying to breathe.
“Walk.” He growled, jutting his head towards a large rock. The man obeyed. Jon’s eyes flashed to me.
“You, get on the horse and head that way,” he indicated deeper into the forest. “Don’t turn back. I’ll come and find ye.”
I could only gasp in reply. He made a clicking noise, and the horse obediently walked over to me, bending his great head. I grabbed onto his sturdy neck as he pulled me up. I wouldn’t be able to get on; I could barely stand up straight. We turned and I hobbled a few paces before I had to take a break and gather my breath. I turned quietly and looked towards the rock, immediately wishing I hadn’t.
I heard the man’s bumbling pleas, saw the glint of the broadsword in the sunlight, and heard a sickening, indescribable sound. When he raised the sword again, it was stained with bright blood. Jon looked up, his eyes meeting mine. I knew I should fear Jon; it would be unhealthy not to. But he had saved my life more than once now, and I couldn’t fully be afraid of him.
I turned and hobbled a few more steps, the bulky animal obeying my slow pace. We stopped and rested again, and I felt a hand at my elbow. I felt dead inside, like I’d been torn up and spit out by some great monster. In a way, I had been. Jon’s eyes were unreadable.
“He didn’t hurt ye…” it sounded more like a question, and his eyes flashed with anger and concern. I had a feeling he meant a different kind of hurt.
“Just my ribs,” my voice rasped. I put a hand to my throat, and he nodded knowingly. He gritted his teeth.
“Do ye think you can ride?” I knew it would be painful, but I wanted to get as far from here as possible. I nodded.
He grabbed my hips and hoisted me up. I ground my teeth together to keep from crying out. He swung up behind me, being careful not to touch my side. Before long, my head lolled to the side and I fainted.
My eyes fluttered open to the dim twilight. A fire crackled nearby, and I could just make out the form of Jon bending before the flames. My head ached still, my ribs were throbbing, and my throat felt crushed. I was propped up with the saddle, covered in a wool blanket. The ground was springy and soft beneath me. I made to move, but the pain hit me and I couldn’t help but make a pathetic noise. Jon turned towards me.
“Awake, princess?” he stood and walked over to me, some sort of bag in hand. All I could do was nod. His tone was light and airy now.
“I think I like ye more when you can’t talk.” He chuckled, squatting down next to me. I glared harshly at him. He held the bag to my lips. “Drink up.”
I reached for the bag, realizing it was filled with water. I held the opening to my lips and drank. The iciness eased some of my tension. He stood and went back to the fire, grabbing some long stick with some sort of meat attached to it.
“Try this. You need to eat.” He ripped off a chunk. My stomach growled heartily. It didn’t smell horrible, but it appeared much different than anything from home. I nibbled at the edge, and the flavor was better than expected. I soon finished that chunk and a few more. I wanted to talk, to ask questions.
“Jon?” my voice was barely a whisper. He set aside the water bag and inched closer to me. “How did you know?” I croaked out. His face soured. He sat with his arms resting on his knees, facing me. He glared into the darkness.
“I followed ye.”
My heart fluttered. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d…well, I’m not sure what would have happened.
“What was he going to do?” before the question was fully out, he shook his head.
“I’m not going there with ye. It’s your idiotic family’s fault for not teaching ye the ways of the world.” He met my gaze. I was shocked at this answer.
“He’s dead and gone now, and there will be many more that I’ll have to kill to keep ye safe. So best not make my life too difficult anymore, got it?” I picked at the blanket in shame and nodded.
“Good. No more questions. Get some sleep, we’ll be fine here for the night.” I stared into his eyes as he gazed back. He walked back to the fire, lying down in the dirt with his hands behind his head, staring up at the trees.
“And Elise?” I was startled at hearing him say my name, instead of his usually sarcastic Princess.
“Yes?” I rasped.
“I do promise to keep ye safe.”