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Chapter 5

The days began to blur together into clumps. We travelled by day and found safe places to sleep at night. I recovered from my menagerie of injuries slowly, but at least had my voice back. I’d learned much about the different plants and wildlife. Stay away from the oak and ivy! Jon had yelled. Don’t do that or do this. That’s a squirrel, that’s a rabbit. Those berries will kill you, no, not those ones. He refused to answer any questions about himself, so instead I asked him about everything we came across. I learned that he hated ferns for some reason, and to travel downhill to find water, and to stay away from big brown fluffy creatures called bears because even he couldn’t kill them.

“What’s that?” I pointed to a clump of colorful flowers. I was sitting astride his horse, whose name was Angus (I had also learned many new words to describe horse riding) and Jon was walking beside us.

“Roses.” He muttered. I knew I was annoying him, but it was the only distraction I had from missing my family. I’d eaten crisp apples and succulent peaches (poor, non-Mountain people’s food, he had commented sarcastically) for the first time and red raspberries as well. Jon told me it was the end of summer, the hot season, and soon it would start to get cold and wet. He taught me how to catch fish, which were slimy and scaly and tasted awful. I preferred the squirrels and rabbits, even though I found them sort of cute. I had begged him to teach me how to use the sword after being attacked, but I could barely lift it, and he had laughed and walked off. He had strict rules about not wandering away, and if I had to use the bathroom he wouldn’t leave me alone. The one thing I was really beginning to miss was bathing. I’d hinted at it for a few days now, and he always refused.

“How old are you?” I tried to catch him off guard.

“No questions about me.” He muttered.

“Can I please take a bath somewhere?” my voice sounded whiney, even to myself. Jon not only called me Princess, but Spoiled, which I didn’t quite understand the meaning of yet. He paused, thinking. He glanced up at my hopeful face. His own face was caked with dirt and grime, and I could only imagine how I looked. He sighed heavily.

“I know a spot, we aren’t too far from it. But it takes us into dangerous territory, so we will have to be quick.” I smiled broadly.

“Thank you! I promise I’ll be fast and I’ll-” he cut me off with a look, but his eyes hinted at a smile. He stopped Angus for a moment and climbed up behind me. It didn’t bother me anymore being this close to Jon. He’d never touched me other than to fix my wounds or hold me steady. He pulled the reins to the right and we veered off course.

“Just keep quiet. There are dangerous people this way, ye hear?” his voice whispered behind me. I nodded mutely. I was growing used to the funny way he said his words. He’d called it an accent or dialect, and pointed out that I sounded strange to him.

The days were getting a bit colder, and I was thankful for the warmth of his sturdy chest when we rode together.We rode in silence, the ground rising steadily, the creek becoming wider. Up ahead, there was a continuous cacophony of water on rocks. I could soon see the ground jutting up at a sharp angle, the water cascading down and into the pool beneath it, creating a white foaminess that swirled away from the tumultuous downfall. He seemed to sense I was going to ask a question before I even thought it.

“Waterfall.” He said. I nodded, transfixed by the beauty of it. He slid off and guided us to the edge of the pool. He rummaged around in his pack for a few seconds as I slid off Angus, proud of myself for not stumbling this time.

“I’ll go first since I’ll be the quickest. When you go, take everything off and wash it after you clean yourself, then set your clothes on those rocks. I’ll grab them and boil them for ye, and you can wrap up in this-” he indicated the wool blanket “-for the night while your clothes dry. I have some things you can wear if ye must, but they are pretty large. Here,” he handed me a small bar of soap. It smelled like home, and I wondered where he had gotten it.

“And if anyone comes, just whistle like I taught ye, and take this.” He pressed the hilt of his knife into my other hand. My eyes bulged. I opened my mouth, but he silenced me with more instructions.

“Stab here,” he grabbed my wrist and drove the knife upwards, under the ribs. I nodded, feeling empowered with the small sharpened steel in my hand. He gave me one last look and turned towards the pool. I sat down on a boulder and watched Angus sniff the ground, the dirt scattering where he breathed heavily. I turned, hoping I could catch a glimpse at the mesmerizing waterfall and the way the sunlight sparkled on the surface. Instead, I saw Jon shirtless. I was immediately embarrassed, but he hadn’t noticed me. His whole body was muscled and scarred, pale in the waning sunlight. I looked away to give him his privacy, not wanting to intrude any longer, though I felt a blush rise in my cheeks at realizing he was the first shirtless man I’d ever seen. I played with the knife in my hands, practicing the stabbing motion. Before I knew it, Jon approached. I jumped up, ready to get the layers of dirt off me. I handed him the knife.

“Keep it for now.” He smiled. His face was even more handsome once devoid of dirt, his curls heavy and dripping with the icy water. “Hurry up, before the sun goes down.”

“I will.” I smiled broadly and made my way to the waterfall. I sat and peeled off my boots and stockings, all my layers of once velvety green skirts, my undergarments and untied my hair. I stepped into the frigid water, my teeth chattering right away as my skin prickled. Thankfully, a spot of sun caressed my exposed skin, warming me a little. I began to scrub every inch of my body, dunking my head multiple times, getting the grit and blood from my hair. My ribs were bruised, my arms had various scrapes and cuts on them, but everything else was normal. My skin was still pale and clear, my long hair still its fiery shade of red, and I was sure my eyes were still blue. I grabbed my clothes and began to scrub them, too. The process was tiring; I hadn’t realized how quickly dirt accumulated out here.

There was a flash of movement in front of me, something large and black. At first I thought it was Angus, but I saw someone else riding it. I dropped my handful of clothes into the pool, too frightened to remember I was completely nude. Something ran from my left, crashing through the water and standing in front of me, one arm shielding me while the other wielded a sword. There were loud laughs from the forest, and a group of men materialized out of nowhere. One, two, three…seven in all with three horses. They were tall and stocky, all of them bearded and yet all of them were bald.

“What we have here?” one of the men guffawed. Jon lowered his sword. I turned my hips and chest away from the men, my face flushing hotly. I couldn’t believe they were seeing me like this.

“Just cleaning up after a week’s ride,” Jon called back casually.

“A week’s ride? I’ve never had one last that long!” the men laughed even louder. The man who seemed to be in charge was a bit shorter with a midnight black beard and rotting teeth. “Where did ye find this one, eh? She looks a bit high born!” he called.

“Exiled, guess I was in the right place at the right time.” I could feel Jon’s smirk. Why was he lying?

“Aye, last year we caught a pair o’ twins, didn’ we Laug?” the black beard called to another man.

“Aye, we did, and they didn’ last one month!” the rest laughed. I didn’t seem to be catching the jokes. I noticed one man on the side of the group staring at me with a malicious smile, like that other man on the edge of the forest. I instinctively reached for safety, clutching the back of Jon’s shirt, my fingers brushing his hard-muscled back. He didn’t react at all.

“Well, I’m hoping she lasts through the winter.” Jon’s response made the men chuckle, but there was an edge to his voice.

“I’ll drink to that tonight!” black beard called back. “Well, we ain’t much for watchin’ so weel let ye two be!” some of the men turned to leave. Black beard nodded once towards us and turned his horse. As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. Jon turned to face me, his expression giving me a jolt of fright. He locked eyes with me, nostrils flared. Something told me we had just escaped death. Then I realized once again that I was naked. I blushed, my mouth falling open as I turned away from him.

“Don’t look!” I hissed.

“What? Ye don’t care that those men see ye but as soon as I look your way-” he cut himself off, grabbing my arm. I turned my head to look up at him. I noticed his cheeks were tinged with red. “Ye were supposed to whistle!” he growled.

“I was a bit preoccupied—“ I shot back before his deadly glare cut off my words. I realized quickly that Jon had to have been watching me in order to get to me that quickly. I felt myself redden even more.

“We have to go. They’ll be back before nightfall, and they’ll kill me and take you. Grab your clothes.” He demanded. I rushed from the water, wrapping the blanket around my shoulders and drying off quickly. I stumbled after him back to Angus. He dug around and threw a shirt and pants at me. I tugged them on without question, but they fit too loosely. He already had a plan in motion, though. He fell to his knees and fastened a rope around my waist, cinching it tight around my hip bones and cutting the excess length with his knife. I climbed up onto Angus while he threw my wet clothes into an empty side pack. He handed me my boots, and I tugged them on while he jumped up. As soon as I had pulled the right boot on, we were flying through the woods as fast as we had ever gone.

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