The next day dragged by in a never ending struggle to keep moving. I had completely underestimated how difficult it would be to walk such a great distance. Riding horseback had been much, much less taxing. I wasn’t sure if I could take a full week of this.
My feet ached inside of my sodden boots. The sun had been relentless, even through the cover of the treetops, and sweat trickled down my spine in a constant stream. I had drained my canteen several times, and had been delighted to discover that when emptied, it had the ability to magically refill itself with clean, cool water.
Around midday, I’d been brave enough to stray from the creek I’d been walking in. I realized I had to find a different steam if I wanted to keep Dristan off my trail. I ventured out into the forest and kept my bow at the ready, not trusting my surroundings for a single instant. After about a mile of paranoid walking, I eventually came across another creek.
This one was deeper than the last, but I managed. Wading through water was a slower process than waking on land, but it was easier on my legs. Not to mention that the crisp, moving water kept my body from overheating. But still, by the end of the day, my body felt like gelatin and I smelled of perspiration and mud. Nothing about this was easy.
When the sun set, and I felt that I was no longer able to carry on, I exited the water and climbed into a tree near the stream. Wary of predators, I climbed nearly to the very top, and settled on a thick branch. The possibility of falling crossed my mind, but if I slept any further down I could just as easily be killed by a hungry animal.
I set my back gently against the body of the tree and struggled to catch my breath. I pulled my cloak off, tugging it up over my head. I bundled it up and placed it behind my head, like a pillow. The long sleeved shirt I was wearing was on my last nerve, so I pulled that off too. It was too hot for clothes like these. I pulled my knife from my hip and used it to cut off the sleeves of the shirt, creating a makeshift tank top. Much better...
As I waited for my body to cool down, I listened to the forest that surrounded me. The beautiful melody of nature filled my senses. Insects chirped and buzzed while frogs croaked in the distance. The birds sang the sun a goodnight lullaby and welcomed the rising moon. The sounds reminded me of home and I closed my eyes as I listened.
A branch snapped from somewhere far below me.
I told myself it was just an animal...
I awoke out of a dead sleep, sometime in the middle of the night. Not because I’d heard a sound. Quite the opposite, in fact...
The forest had gone quiet. Eerily quiet... I leaned forward on my branch slightly and strained my ears. Something wasn’t right. Goosebumps broke out on my forearms and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as uneasiness crept along my skin.
I squinted through the darkness, scanning the forest floor below, but I couldn’t see anything. I pressed my head back against the tree and tried to keep my breathing slow and even. I imagined that I was part of the tree. Invisible...
If I stayed calm and quiet, I would be fine. Whatever it was would not notice me. It would pass through, blind to the girl in the tree, and I would be just fine.
Five minutes passed. The forest remained silent. Sleepiness tugged at my eyelids, weighing them down, and I thought I might drift off again.
After another five minutes of quiet, I lost my battle with exhaustion. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the tree, sighing to myself.
“There you are.”
A sudden voice from directly in front of me sliced through the stillness like a blade. I jumped in surprise and snapped my eyes open wide. I nearly fell off the branch and grabbed at the sides of the tree to keep my balance.
Someone... Or something... was perched on the same branch as me, about five feet away. I couldn’t see them clearly through the thick blanket of night, but the shadowy silhouette was humanoid. And quite large.
“I knew I smelled a human in my forest.” A silky smooth, male voice purred.
I fumbled for my belt, desperate to grab my hunting knife. I doubted it would be of much help, but I needed some form of protection against this... this... whatever he was.
But he was too fast.
I cried out, squeezing my eyes shut, as he lunged for me. He grabbed my wrists and pinned them roughly against the bark above my head. My legs, which had been dangling over either side of the branch, were rendered useless as he maneuvered himself in front of me. He swung his legs down, mirroring my position, and wrapped them around the back of my calves. He locked his ankles together behind my legs, pinning me in place.
When I opened my eyes again, I found the male’s face only inches away from my own. My eyes widened as I scanned him.
He was handsome. Around the same age as me. His eyes were as black as the night sky above us and his wild, chin length hair was slate grey, like granite. His features were sharp and angular, matching his long, narrow face. His teeth were unusually long and sharp, like needles. His build was lean, but muscled.
But the most alarming feature about him was his ears. His wolf ears, which occasionally twitched or rotated backward on top of his head. What the hell was he?!
“Ah, ah, ah... You won’t be needing your silly little weapons anymore, love.” He said in a mockingly sweet tone. He gathered my wrists in one hand and then used his other one to relieve me of my knife and bow. “You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you?” He tossed my weapons over the side of the branch and they plummeted to the forest below. I heard them land with two, dull thuds.
As I glanced down, I noticed more shadowy figures moving at the base of the tree. He was not alone. My breathing picked up as well as my heart rate.
“Get your filthy paws off me you bastard!” I hissed, struggling to free my wrists from his grasp. He was impossibly strong. He grinned at me through the shadows, his teeth unnervingly sharp and white.
“I like it when they’re feisty.” His voice was soft, yet somehow chaffed against my ear drums. “It’ll make it that much more satisfying when I peel the filthy, human flesh from your bones and use it to make a stew.”
I heard snickering from below.
I grunted in frustration and glanced around and below me, trying to get an idea of how many others were with him. But it was no use. It was too dark and I was too high up in the tree to be able to see any sort of detail.
“Don’t even bother.” He said. “There’s no way out of this, love.”
I snapped my eyes back to his, glaring with as much hatred and ferocity as I could conjure. I bared my teeth at him and continued struggling, trying desperately to kick my legs free. He didn’t budge an inch.
I hadn’t known what dread felt like until that moment. I had been in scary situations before, but I’d never felt fear to this extent. I was going to die. There was no escaping. No one was here to save me.
I was going to die...
“What do you want?!” I cried out. My voice broke as the panic seeped through my being. His grip on my wrists intensified and I thought my bones might snap beneath his hand.
“What do I want?” He said thoughtfully. He tilted his head to the side, his onyx eyes glinting under the dim lighting of the moon. “I want my family back.... My family, who your king executed like worthless, mangy dogs. I want to watch the king being ripped apart, limb from limb, by my hands. I want him to beg me for his life, like my mother begged him for hers. I want to laugh in his face, like he did when he tortured her for days, and then injected liquid silver into her veins.” His strange, wolf ears had flattened backwards against his head.
I stared at him. My body began to feel as cold as the glacial look in his obsidian eyes. His face was as beautiful as his words were cruel. He began to trail a finger down one of my arms. I winced at the ticklish sensation. Bile began to rise in the back of my throat as his finger traced lower, brushing lightly down my cheek.
“That’s what I want, love. Can you give that to me?”
I gritted my teeth, fighting back nausea as his hand crept even lower. “No, I don’t think you can... But there may be other things I want that you can give to me.” He trailed his index finger down my neck, over my collar bones and down through the center of my chest, toward my breasts.
I had to do something. I had to say something, anything, to make him stop.
“He’s no king of mine! He killed my parents, too, yet you don’t see me creeping around in the woods at night, taking it out on innocent people! You disgusting pig!”
His finger stopped just below my left breast, lightly grazing the sensitive skin underneath. He narrowed his eyes at me.
“The king, killing a human girl’s parents? You lie. Bad things happen to liars, love.” He smiled wickedly at me and I felt my throat bob.
His grip tightened on my wrists, the sharp nails biting into my skin. He flattened his wandering hand against my lower ribs and began to slowly slid it up my body. I bucked against him wildly, but I may as well have been fighting against a statue.
His hand slid up and over the mound of my breast and he squeezed roughly. A guttural growl crept up his throat at the contact and I felt hot tears spilling over my cheeks.
“Stop! I’m not human! Look at my hand! Look at my ring!” I pleaded, shaking my head from side to side, desperate to get away from his vile hands.
His brow furrowed. He lifted his gaze to my hands, still pinned above my head. When his eyes landed on my finger, the subtle glow of the ring visible through the darkness, his lips parted in surprise. His hand disappeared from my chest, and his grip on my wrists loosened a fraction. The expression of shock on his face grew stronger as he studied the ring.
I used his moment of distraction to my full advantage. As soon as his grip loosened, I gathered every ounce of force my body could manage, and then slammed my elbow down into his face. The adrenaline coursing through my veins had given me extra strength, and I heard his nose break.
He cried out in surprise and fell backward, covering his face with his hands. Given the narrowness of the branch, his balance was thrown off. I quickly grabbed two fistfuls of his shaggy, grey hair and yanked his head down and to the right, twisting my body. His legs came unhooked beneath us and I kicked my legs free.
“Bitch!” He sputtered, grabbing my wrists and trying to pry my hands out of his hair. But I had hold of his dog ears and he yelped in pain as he pulled at my hands.
I twisted his head to the other side with all my might in an attempt to throw him over the side of the tree. He lost his remaining balance and began to fall.
But he was too fast.
In the instant before his body left the branch, he grabbed hold of my ankle, and I was yanked from the tree right along with him.
A terrified scream erupted from my lips.
I was falling.
Dead.... Dead, I was so dead.
I could not see. A horrible weightlessness clawed at the pit of my stomach as I fell through the air. Wind whipped past me, causing my hair to flail and snap all around me. I tried to maneuver my body to land at a decent angle, but it was no use. All I could see was blackness.
When my body hit the ground, a sickening thud sounded in my ears. Pain like I’d never experienced before exploded all over the right side of my body. Bright lights danced behind my closed eyelids. There was no sound, save for a faint ringing in my ears.
I tried to scream as the excruciating pain intensified, but my lungs would not cooperate. I couldn’t breathe.
I clutched my hands to my chest, panicking as my eyes began to bulge out of my skull. I struggled to inhale a breath of precious oxygen, but to no avail. I gaped at the air like a fish out of water.
At last, I coughed. I sucked in a small breath of air. I coughed again. This time, I was able to gasp in and out shallowly. The sound of my rasping was like sandpaper.
Relief washed over me as I realized I could breathe again, but it was fleeting. I was far from safe, and not alone.
I stumbled to my feet. My ribs, leg, arm and head protested at my movement, causing tears to spring to my eyes. I glanced around, desperate to find my weapons, but I didn’t see them anywhere.
Damn it all!
I did, however, spot my attackers. The man who had attacked me in the tree was lying on the ground about thirty feet away from me on his back. He was gasping for air as well and I could smell blood in the air.
Three figures were standing over him with their backs to me.
“Fuck! Kale, get up!” A female voice shouted.
“She bested him. I can’t believe it.” A male said.
“I’m never going to let him live this down.” The second male snickered.
The man who’d attacked me, Kale, wheezed and coughed on the ground below them.
“Fuck... You...” He rasped.
I crouched low and began backing away while they were distracted by their injured comrade. I made it about twenty feet before the female spoke again.
“Where did that little bitch go?” She hissed furiously. She spun around and the other two followed her motion. They glanced around the forest floor.
I was out of time. They were going to spot me at any moment. It was fight, or flight. I was outnumbered, injured and without a weapon.
Flight it is...
I turned on my heel and bolted into the forest.
New adrenaline pumped through my veins, numbing the stinging pain in my side. I flew between the trees, gasping for breath, vaulting over upturned roots and boulders. Branches and vines tore at my face as I sped past them, stinging my skin.
I heard shouting from far behind me and I picked up the pace. I pushed my body to move at the highest speed I could manage. My lungs burned and my leg barked in agony at each step I took, but I couldn’t slow down. I couldn’t die here.
Suddenly, something crashed into the left side of my body.
I opened my mouth to scream, but a large hand clamped down over my lips before I could even suck in a lungful of air. A muscled arm caged itself around my torso, pressing my back into the attacker’s front. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to bite at the hand against my mouth, but it only tightened against my face.
And then I was weightless again.
But this time I wasn’t falling down.
I was rising up.
I wrenched my eyes open, confused and frightened. Distorted, black shapes came into view below me. They almost looked like the tops of trees. I blinked in disbelief as I realized that was exactly what I was looking at. I was staring down at the tops of the forest canopies.
A strange sound made its way into my consciousness, slithering past the shock and fear that had deafened me. It was a loud, whooshing sound. It thundered from behind me, over and over, as we rose higher above the trees.
Wings. The sound was the beating of wings.
I tried to twist my body around, but my back was still pinned to the front of my attacker’s body. A hand was still pressed firmly against my mouth. I strained my head to the left, but my injured shoulder and neck barked in protest at the movement. I turned to my right, twisting my head, trying to see...
I inhaled a sharp breath through my nose as what I found. My gaze was met with a familiar pair of furious, liquid sapphire eyes. Except, these eyes had slitted pupils.
Large, black wings beat powerfully behind his back, each tipped with a glistening talon. Two, twisted black horns adorned his head, rising up out of his tousled, dark hair.
His face was human. His body was human. But this was not the human form that I’d grown to know. This was his natural, raw form. It shocked me, scared me even, but I was relieved to see that he still looked like... him.
I broke down in tears. They spilled over my cheeks and onto his hand as relief like I had never known before crashed over me in a tidal wave. I sobbed in both joy and terror as he glared down at me.
His eyes held pure rage. I’d never seen such fury in them before. But I’d also never been happier to see him. He removed his hand from my face and used it to hold me more securely against him.
“Dristan-” I rasped, but his deadly voice cut me off.
“Silence.” He hissed icily.
I clamped my mouth shut, but not before a small sob escapes my lips.
Five minutes passed. We descended and landed on a wide branch at the top of an oak tree. But apparently, we were not out of danger yet.
Dristan pushed me, and I stumbled backward. My back hit the trunk of the tree, making me yelp in surprise and pain. He stepped close, practically pressing the entirety of his body weight against me. He brought his hand to my mouth again, ensuring that I didn’t make a sound. He stared into my wide eyes as he lifted a calloused finger to his lips, signaling for me to be silent.
I strained my ears, but didn’t hear anything aside from the soft chirping of frogs and insects around us.
We waited in silence, never breaking our stare, as the forest slowly quieted around us. The still silence that settled over the woods in the next few moments was eerily familiar. It was the same, unsettling silence that I had experienced right before I’d been attacked earlier.
Dristan’s eyes grew wary, and glinted like the edge of a blade in the darkness. His body tensed, sensing something that my human body could not detect.
“We know you’re here, love.” A familiar voice called from below. “I can smell your fear from a mile away, so stop running. I’ll only keep following you.”
I whimpered against Dristan’s hand.
He stared down at me, frozen, as if we were literally carved from ice.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are...”