I sat atop a white and gray speckled horse, trailing the line of twelve soldiers. They had been waiting on the outskirts of my village for the Captain and the dark haired soldier to return. They were as shocked as anyone else had been when they’d realized that there was a Fae prisoner in tow. Not one of them showed me a lick of kindness and the soldier had not spoken to me since we’d left my village two days ago.
He’d sparsely even looked at me, though he was ordered to ride beside me at the back of the line. I was handcuffed and chained to the saddle of my horse. The other end of my long chain was then cuffed to the soldiers waist. That way, if I dared try to run, I could not, and would not, escape.
I hadn’t slept much since leaving the village. At night, chained and forced to sleep next to the blue eyed soldier, I was too frightened to close my eyes. I was afraid of the visions of my father. Afraid of the men surrounding me, of what they might do if I let my guard down. Afraid of what was to happen in the days to come...
The soldier couldn’t have been happy, having to ride beside the Fae bitch, as I’d been nicknamed. Not to mention that the end of the line was where the stench of horse manure and unwashed human bodies was the most unbearable. The smell was ripe enough to make your eyes water and stomach heave. But he never complained. He never sneered at me or murmured foul things to me as the other men had. He only rode next to me in silence, keeping his eyes forward, or on the tree line of the thick woods surrounding us.
As we rode in silence along the wooded trail, I did my best not to think of my father. My efforts were futile. Visions of his face, crumpled with despair as I was dragged away, haunted me every time I closed my eyes. He had trailed us to the edge of the village where the soldiers had been waiting and had begged the Captain for a chance to hug me goodbye, but the Captain refused. Helpless in the arms of my dark haired captor, I’d cried and reached out for my father’s hand.
My father had lunged forward and grasped my hand, his fingers warm and comforting against my own. The look in his eyes had broken my heart. Not because I’d seen any shame or hatred in them, but because I’d seen such love and pain. Even after I’d been declared Fae, the most hated species in our land, my father had still loved me.
“I’m sorry, Brenya. I’m so sorry.” He’d said to me, before I was ripped from his grasp and hauled away.
The sound of his voice still echoed in my mind. What could he possibly have been sorry for? I was the one who should be sorry. He’d likely starve do death without my hunting skills. And I was certain that none of the villagers would take pity on the father of a Fae girl. He didn’t have anyone else to take care of him. And with his misshapen spine and old age, he would not be able to fend for himself. My eyes burned at the thought and I sent a silent prayer up to the gods to watch over him.
After I’d been ripped away from my father, I’d realized that he’d left a crumpled piece of paper in my hand. I had immediately shoved the paper down the front of my dress, hiding it between my breasts. To my relief, no one had seemed to notice, thanks to the scuffle of soldiers pulling my father away from me.
And here I was, two days later, still unable to read the note from my father. There were eyes on me every moment, every day, every night. Even my bathroom breaks were monitored. The note, which scraped gently again the skin of my bosom with each trot of my horse, was a constant reminder of the look in my father’s eyes as I’d left. And a constant reminder of what I was.
I felt dirty. Not because I was covered in dried mud, sticky sweat, and horse shit. But because of what I was. Because of the blood that apparently ran through my veins. I was Fae. I was the very thing I’d had nightmares about as a child, the very thing I’d been taught to fear and despise my entire life. The evil, cunning, horrid, monstrous Fae.
And yet... I didn’t feel evil. I didn’t feel like a monster. I didn’t have pointed ears, or sharp teeth. I felt and looked perfectly human. My father was human, and my mother, who had died of the blister fever three years ago, was human. So how could I be Fae? I didn’t care what the soldier had said, the ring had to be mistaken. Perhaps it had lost its abilities after existing for so many centuries. The damn thing still would not come off of my finger. It was as if it were somehow magically welded to me.
I glanced sidelong at the man as he lifted a leather canteen and drank from it. Clear water dropped from his chin and I licked my dry, cracked lips at the sight. I was only offered food and water once a day, at nightfall, which was still hours away. The rain was long gone by now, and the sun beat down on my back relentlessly.
The man met my eyes for the first time in two days. I held his gaze, too stunned to have the good sense to avert my eyes. He lowered the canteen as he gazed at me. For a moment, I was sure he’d either give me a good tongue lashing, or worse, kick me off my horse, for staring at him. I braced myself for whichever would come first.
“Here.” He grunted, tossing the canteen at me.
I fumbled for it, shocked, and managed not to drop it. I held the canteen as if it might explode in my hands or turn into a snake as I blinked at him quizzically. He raised an angled brow at me. I clumsily uncorked the top and guzzled down half of the contents before carefully tossing it back to him.
What was he playing at? Why was he being kind to me? There had to be some ulterior motive. Soldiers were not kind. Perhaps it was a game of good cop, bad cop. The others would treat me poorly, while he would try to gain my trust and get information out of me. Whatever his angle was, I did not buy it, or trust him for a single instant.
“Thank you.” I mumbled, staring down at my shackled hands.
He nodded once, turning his gaze forward again. How shameful I felt, thanking a man who’d bound me in chains. Feigning politeness, I swallowed my rage, not keen on suffering another beating. It would not be wise to give any of these men a reason to hurt or kill me before I could figure out how to escape. So I would keep on playing the part of the poor, weak, fragile little Fae bitch until then.
Whatever game he was playing, I decided I could play as well. A game of my own. Perhaps I could gain information from him. If I was careful and cunning enough I might even be able to find out what, exactly, the king planned to do with me. But I’d have to be careful with my words.
“You are more kind than the others.” I said softly, to keep the soldiers ahead from overhearing.
He turned his head toward me. When I met his gaze there was no warmth in it.
“Do not presume to know me.” He said flatly.
I lowered my chin in fake submission while anger flared in my belly.
" Yes, of course. Apologies, my lord.”
“I am not a lord.” He grumbled.
Of course, I already knew that. Lords did not accompany soldiers. But I wanted to know his rank, so I pretended to be ignorant.
“I am sorry... general?”
He snorted under his breath.
“First Lieutenant.” He said.
Meaning he was second in command, the Captain being first in command. This was easier than I thought. Perhaps the Lieutenant was dumber than he looked. Or perhaps he wanted me to know.
“Then I thank you for the drink, Lieutenant.” I said, dipping my head.
“Don’t mention it.” He said. “Ever.”
I nodded, eyeing the key chain hooked to his hip. Perhaps I could steal it while he slept and unlock my cuffs. I noticed his eyes narrowing when he saw me gazing at the key ring, as if to say, don’t even think about it.
I turned forward and began braiding a stray lock of hair from my horses mane. Just an innocent, harmless girl, far from home, lost and afraid...
“What is your name, Lieutenant?” I dared.
I peeked at him and found him tight lipped, eyes ahead. His brows were furrowed, creating a deep V between them in his forehead.
“My name is not your concern.” He said at last.
I continued to braid the lock of horse hair.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked quietly, though I already knew the answer.
“To the king.”
“How far is the journey?”
“Is he going to kill me?”
He slid his cobalt eyes to mine. I gulped at the dark blaze burning inside of them. I could not identify the emotion burning there. I could not look away. His hood was pulled back and his tousled, black hair was fully visible. The contrast to his eyes was so drastic that it physically stunned me. I knew I should avert my eyes, but I felt almost paralyzed by his gaze. It was as if he’d literally pinned me in place with one look.
“If you keep asking questions, Brenya Blackwell, you’re likely to be killed before we arrive.”
Not a yes and not a no. It wasn’t a direct threat, but I widened my eyes at him, ever the terrified young girl. And perhaps I wasn’t entirely acting.
“Apologies, sir.” I whispered, shifting my eyes downward at last. “I am... afraid. If I am to be executed, I only wish to have time to pray before we get there. If I am truly Fae, I must repent and ask the gods for their forgiveness. I do not wish to die unprepared.” From the corner of my eye, I watched him study me in silence. I watched my lies work their way into his mind and weigh on his conscience, if he had one at all. I hoped to the gods that he did.
“My name...” He said softly after a few long minutes.
“Is Dristan Draconian.”
I repeated his name in my head, enunciating each syllable. Dry-stin. I had never heard that name before. Knowing his name sent an unwelcome, pleasant warmth across my cheeks.
I met his striking eyes once more and gave him my most shy and innocent smile.
“Dristan.” I repeated, letting my tone insinuate a hint of flirtation. It did not have the desired effect and I growled inwardly as his eyes hardened.
He snapped his gaze forward, his brows furrowed once again, as if the sound of his name on my lips caused him discomfort. We didn’t speak again for a long while. The murmuring of soldiers ahead, the faint chirping of birds above us, and the dull trotting of horse shoes on dirt were the only sounds.
“Get rid of that fork that you hid in your boot after supper last night.” Dristan said in a low voice. My fingers halted their braiding. “The Captain ordered me to have you wash your clothes tonight since you smell so terrible. The soldiers keep complaining about the stench. If he sees it, the least you’ll be rewarded with is a black eye to go with that split lip.”
I blinked at the fine braid between my calloused fingers. How had he seen me steal that fork? He’d been looking the other way. And why would he warn me instead of expose me for it?
I peeked at him and found a small smile playing on his sculpted lips. Irritation flared in my gut. Perhaps he saw through my act as plainly as I saw through his. I couldn’t quite put my finger on him. What was his game?
I didn’t utter another word as I slowly, carefully leaned sideways and stretched my bound hands downward, pulling the fork from my boot with my index and middle finger. There was just enough length of chain, but the cuffs still bit into my wrists as I reached for it. I let the fork drop with a quiet thunk on the grassy trail.
It disappeared into the distance behind us and I scowled briefly at the side of the Lieutenant’s face. His grin widened a fraction as he continued to gaze forward lazily. I did not ask anymore questions that day.
“Can you at least turn around so I can take off my undergarments and wash them in privacy?” I grumbled as I hung my soaking, gray dress on a tree limb.
Dristan scowled at me as I stood beside the creek. He tightened his grip on the chain that connected us, still cuffed to his belt. The sun had set, and the oil lamp at his feet cast a soft, orange glow around us.
The thin, white under-dress that I wore did little to keep me from feeling naked before him as he glared at me, although his eyes did not stray from my face. The other soldiers were camped a ways off, about a ten minute walk from the creek. The lieutenant could easily take advantage of me out here without any of them ever knowing. But he kept his distance, his eyes never roaming lower than my chin. I silently thanked the gods that I’d been chained to him instead of one of the others.
“Make it quick.” He said at last, turning his back on me. I huffed a sigh of relief. I was not a virgin, but I was still modest. I did not want anyone, let alone a stranger, seeing me naked. I slipped out of the under-dress, bra and pantries, carefully hid the note from my father in one of my discarded boots, and waded out into the trickling water. It only submerged me up to my thighs, so I had to sit to wash myself. It wouldn’t have been so bad, save that it was dark, and I could not see beneath the surface of the sparkling, black water. I tried not to think of what might hide beneath as I scrubbed at my under things.
The Lieutenant had been kind enough to give me a small bar of lavender scented soap. When I was sure that I’d scrubbed every inch of the clothes clean, I hung them on the limb with my other belongings, and then waded back out into the water. I used the last of the soap to scrub every inch of my hair, scalp and skin. I scrubbed until it hurt. Yet, the Fae blood in my veins still left me feeling dirty.
I gazed at my reflection in the surface of the water. My cheeks were gaunt from malnutrition. My normally tanned skin was pale in the moonlight. With the dirt washed clean, I almost didn’t recognize myself. In my village, baths were a luxury, and soap even more rare. We only bathed once every couple of weeks.
I’d been told before that I was strikingly beautiful, while others thought I was strange looking. I was different than other girls in my village. I had a small button nose, sharp cheekbones paired with a rounded face, and full lips. My hair was long. Dark brown and wavy. My eyes were strange, and almond in shape. One iris was dark green, like the forest. The other was a deep, sapphire blue. My mother had always told me it was because I was special, half forged by the earth, half by the sea. The other girls in my village had always feared me, spreading rumors that I was a witch. They weren’t far off, it would seem.
“Times up.” Dristan said from the tree line, his back still facing me. I frowned at my clothes, dripping wet from the limb.
“If I put those wet clothes back on, I’ll freeze to death in my sleep.” I said softly.
“I brought a set of dry clothes.” He said plainly. I narrowed my eyes at his back.
“Why?” I asked.
“You said it yourself. You’ll freeze to death in those.” He shrugged.
“But... Why do you care?” I pressed.
“Do you want the clothes or not?” He growled.
“Then hurry up and stop asking questions.” He said, turning toward me, only long enough to toss the pile of dry clothes near the creek bed. Then he turned his back once more.
I dressed quickly. The dark, wool leggings were dry and warm and fit me well. The gray sweater, however, was gigantic. It hung to my knees and was torn in a few places, but it was clean and cozy nonetheless. I pulled on my leather boots, the note still tucked safely inside, and gathered up my damp clothes.
“You can turn around now.” I said. When Dristan was facing me once more I gave him a small smile that, for once, was not fake.
“Thank you.” I said sincerely.
He stared at me a moment.
“Your eyes are quite unique.” He said rather forwardly. I blinked in surprise. Was that a compliment? First he was kind, now he was flirting with me. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“So I’ve been told.” I said carefully.
“Different colored irises are very rare. I’ve only seen eyes like yours once before.”
“Really? And who shared my unique feature?” I asked casually, though suspicion slithered down my spine.
He hesitated before responding. “Never mind. Come along.” Then he turned to lead me back to camp. His behavior was strange, but I decided not to press the matter for now.
I watched my feet as I trailed behind him, careful not to trip on the gnarled roots of the forest floor. Had I been paying better attention, I wouldn’t have ran into the Lieutenant’s muscled back. I was about to ask why he’d stopped when I noticed his hunters stance. He stood, planted in front of me, knees bent, eyes hard as he scanned the trees ahead. He held out a hand, signaling me to stay quiet. I crouched, listening for any sign of danger.
Just as I was sure he was being paranoid, a figure emerged from the trees. I recognized him immediately. A soldier from the group, alone, with his sword drawn. I tensed at the sight of the weapon and the cruel look in his eyes.
His gaze slid to mine and he grinned with crooked teeth. Warning bells went off inside my brain as dread crept up my spine.