The sound of a crackling fire brought me to open my eyes.
Night had fallen.
I was tied to a tree —standing— with my arms bound behind me and my ankles secured together. The rope rubbed against my exposed skin, causing it to itch. I tried to loosen the rope just a fraction so it would not chafe me any further, but I could not. There was also a dull throbbing at the side of my head.
The sound of moving gravel made me look up, seeing five of the bandits in a circle by the fire. They all watched me with suspicion, a few poised with their hands over dagger hilts. I almost scoffed. Are they really afraid of me?
Frowning, I looked about for Owen, finding him hunched over against another tree. I noticed that the knots by his ankles and wrists seemed much more intricate than mine. At least he had been tied sitting upright.
“So, yer awake,” the familiar rough voice said by my ear, taking me by surprise. Gyor —was it?— circled from behind the tree, his face dancing from the shadows of the crackling flames, the scarred eye on his face now less intimidating than before. “Tell me, lady, what noble family are ya the unlucky daughter of?”
“I will not answer to scum like you.” I spat the words at him, but he did not seem fazed. His gaze dropped from my face to my neck.
“What a pretty little thing ya got there, lady.” He fingered the bejeweled necklace that hung loosely on my neck. “Must be from a wealthy one, don’t ya think?” He tugged it forward, causing my face to lurch closer to his. “Now tell me, what noble family are ya from?” Something stirred behind him. Gyor looked back and grinned. “So the brave knight wakes.”
“My armor...” Owen mumbled as he took in his surroundings. “Melanie?” He looked around furiously. I closed my eyes briefly; Owen had unintentionally given away my identity. But I could not blame him; Gyor blocked his view of me.
“Melanie, ya say?” Gyor said, fully turning to face Owen, his large shoulders still obscuring my view. “I don’t recall any noble daughters by the name of Melanie.”
“I heard there was a new duchess by the name of Melanie,” one of the younger bandits prompted. I gritted my teeth. His leader whipped his head to face me, an ever-growing smile playing his lips.
“Duchess,” he repeated, leaning in closer, and eying me with an odd look. I turned my head away from him. Nobility came with a price. “Ya must be worth a hefty sum, wouldn’t ya agree, my duchess?” He put a finger under my chin and forcing me to look his way. I felt my chest puff up in rage as I met his gaze with my own angry one.
“I want that necklace she has,” another bandit said, rising from his seat and breaking my icy stare. “Looks valuable. Could give it to someone special. Like my ma.” He walked over towards us.
“She would be ashamed of her son for getting her stolen gifts,” I said through clenched teeth. His eyes narrowed.
“Then ain’t it great that she dead?” he said stiffly, snapping the chain and letting the necklace fall into his palm. He then grinned and walked over back to the fire to admire it.
“Anyone else?” Gyor prompted.
“Lemme have them silk gloves,” another chimed in.
I saw Owen shift under his bindings, perhaps now realizing where I was and the situation I was in. Gyor walked behind the tree and removed the gloves off my hands. He threw it over to the bandit who caught it deftly with a smile. I looked helplessly at Owen, who would not meet my gaze.
They all began to call out items I had never taken notice of when my maids had helped dress me: my earrings, my broach, my hair clips. All were decked with tiny faceted jewels. I kept my jaws clenched and my thoughts elsewhere as Gyor unfastened and split the last of the jewelry amongst the group. My hair now fell loose down my back, my body bare of accessories.
“That’s one of the best harvests we’ve gotten inna while,” Gyor said with a smirk. I bit my lip as he spoke, an overwhelming sense of loss coming over me. But I refused to cry in front of them. “I bet the Duchess is hungry. C’mon boys, we haven’t forgotten our manners, have we? Let’s celebrate!”
A cheer erupted from the brutes as their leader untied my hands and ankles. Any thought of escape fled as Rojer, the colossal muscled bandit, walked over to my left. His arms were folded over his broad chest, a grim look on his face. However, he had been the only bandit, other than Gyor, to not have taken something from me.
He motioned for me to take a seat on the cold ground. I did, ignoring that fact that I ruined the last expensive thing I had left: my dress. I watched as the bandits smiled and laughed while they readied for their meal, whooping as Gyor withdrew a bottle of brandy for this wondrous occasion. I felt bile rise in my throat, revolted by their behavior. How could anyone be used to such wrongs?
One of the bandits approached and placed a bowl of light brown liquid in front of me, its contents sloshing over the rim. I gaped at it.
“What is that?” I asked. I had become accustomed to the Palace food that what was placed before me made my stomach flip.
“Supper,” one of the younger bandits said, slurping up his own bowl. They ravenously ate their share as I sat there, feeling sick.
“Not hungry, my duchess?” Gyor asked, walking over to me. “Or do ya want me to feed you?” I scowled at his grin.
“I will not eat this,” I said, lifting my chin higher. Gyor huffed before he took the bowl from me and ate it himself. I wrinkled my nose at the sight.
“The duchess wants better food, Eyjak,” Gyor told the bandit who took my necklace. “Then let us obey.”
Eyjak was at first hesitant, but went to one of his packs and produced a packet of dried meats and bread. He placed the meats and bread by the fire before putting them in a bowl at my feet. I was sure the frown on his face was a product of jealousy.
As hungry as I was, I ate with caution, picking at the bread and chewing bits for some minutes before eating more. I had no idea what these bandits would do to us now that Owen and I no longer had anything for them to take.
After eating, I was escorted by Rojer to take a seat beside Owen. Several of the bandits pulled out fur hides and began readying for sleep, while others walked into the woods as scouts. They all, at some point, glanced my way. I could only wonder why.
Just then I heard Owen’s stomach grumble, making my eyes widen. Hearing it, I felt ashamed. I had forced the bandits to feed me, yet there he was, starving.
“I am sorry,” I whispered to his shaded face, “I was selfish. I should have asked them to give you something to eat.” He bent his head toward me.
“No, do not trouble yourself over me.” He forced a smile. “It is I who should apologize. I could not stop them from robbing you of your possessions.” Sighing, I looked away. Why do we have such luck? First the skeletons, and now this.
I then turned to glance at Rojer, who stood erect and motionless as a statue. I watched him a moment, realizing he stood out among the bandits. He did not participate in their social activities or unlawful takings, yet he did not try to stop them from doing so either.
“Rojer,” I said in a half-whisper. His eyes flicked downwards towards me, a hint of surprise on his face that I had the desire to speak to him. “Why are you with these men? You must see what they do is wrong. Why else did you not partake in it?” Rojer was silent, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Me mother,” he started. “Owned an inn, she did. Loved me and me father, ’til the night a couple of the King’s Castle Guards came to the tavern. Ruined her, they did. Me father wanted nothing to do with her then, and I found her the next morn, dead by her own hand.” I shuddered at his words. As he spoke on, he clenched his hands into fists, staring out into the dark trees. “They ruined more than just me mother. Other women, too. Young girls like you.”
“And you decided to ambush travelers by the King’s Castle to avenge her?” I asked in a low voice. He glanced down at me, tight-lipped, and spoke no more.
I turned away, gazing at the others, wondering if they joined for a similar reason. I remembered the bandit that had taken my necklace —Eyjak— and how he almost looked guilty after I had mentioned that his mother would disprove of what he was doing.
My eyes then caught sight of two other bandits, laying side by side together, both young and with the same wide face and chestnut hair. I could almost feel the grief they shared, speaking softly as they stared up at the sky. Like Rojer, something had turned them against their own kingdom, their own countrymen.
“Enough talk,” Gyor said, breaking me from my thoughts. “Us men need our sleep, my duchess.” I eyed him warily. I was starting to dislike his reference of my duchess the more he said it.
Gyor looked at some of his fellows, then back at me. They smiled. I grimaced, a bad feeling grew inside me.
“Get over here.” He came forward and lifted me off the ground, a tight grip on my arm. Owen grunted in an effort to reach for me, but failed to. I struggled under his grasp.
“What are you—?”
“A duchess needs a warm place to sleep at night, don’t she? And I just so happen to have one. Of course, that means the two of us will have to share it for the night.” I stared, wondering if he was as daft as he sounded.
Owen’s voice broke Gyor’s smile.
“Do not dare touch her,” he growled, staring straight at Gyor.
I felt my jaw slip. I could never have imagined Owen to possess such a ferocity in his voice. But that dawning came with another realization. It was then that the thought struck me as to what Gyor was really planning to do.
And it was more than just sharing the same bed.
“Shut ’im up,” Gyor said with a frown, tugging me away from Owen’s side. “He’s playing hero again.” Upon his order, one of the bandits stood, walked over to Owen, and kicked him in the ribs. Owen doubled over, spitting up blood. I gasped in horror at the sight.
“Please do not hurt him,” I begged as the bandit grabbed Owen by the hair and sent a fist to his face.
Gyor smiled, bringing a hand to my cheek. I almost gagged at the touch. “It depends, love, on how I’m feeling.”
His words were no reassurance, and my heart hammered inside me. I would not let this happen. I was not about to risk my body for a chance of Gyor to order his men not to harm Owen.
There was only one way I could get out of this.
Without another moment’s hesitation, I shoved my elbow into Gyor’s chest with as much force as I could muster. Gyor gasped, bending over to press a hand against his bruised chest, clearly surprised that I had fought back.
I ran past Gyor, but I did not get far. Standing before me were the two brothers, blocking my escape. They grabbed each of my arms and brought me back to the fuming bull: Gyor. I twisted from their hold as they inched me forward, but to no avail.
“No one dares defy me,” he snarled, whipping his hand across my cheek. I cried out, my eyes watering. Gyor looked down at me, pleased at what he had done. It brought a flash of rage to burn through me.
I kicked out wildly, catching the two bandits by surprise, who let me go at my movement.
The heel of my boot came in contact with Gyor’s abdomen, causing him to drop to his knees, wheezing.
The two quickly grabbed a hold of me once more and pushed me to the ground, forcing me to kneel before Gyor as he rose to his full height slowly. As Gyor glared at me with vengeful eyes, I felt my anger trickle away.
“I’m gonna enjoy stripping every last bit of yer dignity, duchess,” he seethed, grabbing me by the hair.
The two bandits let go of me as Gyor dragged me towards his tent.
With my last bit of courage, I called out, “Rojer, please spare me from your mother’s fate!”
Gyor and his men glanced at Rojer where he stood, staring at me; his dark eyes bore into mine. He must have been watching us from the start. But for a second, Rojer remained as he was and Gyor shoved me dangerously close to the tent’s entrance.
“Let her go, Gyor.”
I felt Gyor’s grip on my arm tighten and I winced.
“Rojer,” Gyor said, “you’ve no business to order me about. Don’t let this witch influence you.”
Rojer stepped forward, his eyes trained on his leader, with his hands clenched into fists at his side. But why did Gyor call me a witch? I possessed no magic.
“Let her go,” he repeated.
At this warning, Gyor released me from his hold, pushing me in Rojer’s direction. I fell to the ground with my head bowed, tears in my eyes. I held a hand to my cheek, the burning sensation still lingering.
“I thank ye, Gyor,” I heard Rojer say before his massive body walked over and knelt down beside me. “And I thank ye, too, duchess, for making me realize what I’ve been a part of,” he whispered. I looked up to meet his dark, remorseful eyes, seeing the kindness behind them. “Now come,” he said, “yer friend needs you.”
Rojer helped me to my feet and slowly guided me back to Owen. I dropped to his side, gently helping him to sit upright. I gave him a forced smile as I wiped away the blood from the edge of his lips. Owen bent his forehead to touch mine, his breathing still haggard. We stayed like this for some time, before Gyor spoke.
“Get to sleep, the lot of you! We leave at dawn.” He turned and opened his tent’s flap, disappearing inside.
I settled down beside Owen, trying to forget what could have happened if not for Rojer. A sudden feeling of safety enveloped me, knowing he was still in the shadows behind us. Any sympathy I previously had for these bandits was now gone, replaced by bitterness. What they are doing now is no justification for whatever made them turn against morality.
Owen bent in my direction, resting heavily against me, pressing his face into my shoulder. I held him close, feeling his shoulders heave as he silently wept, tears streaming down his face.
My initial shock of his tears faded into a sigh. Everything that had just happened was a blow to his pride, and it was the kind of sorrow I knew he had never felt before.
I wiped away his tears and ran my hand through his hair, feeling my heart weigh down on me. I wished I could do or say something to ease his pain, but I was too afraid to do anything more; so I held him instead, hoping he would understand that I felt his grief.
As we sat there, there was nothing I missed more now than the crumbling towers of the Solstice Palace. Anything was better than being out in the night, on the ground, and surrounded by a group of thieving, savage men.
All the while I wondered why Selenah had not been able to help us. She saved me at the waterfall running from the Dark Mages and when the Shadow Reaper kidnapped me, I recalled, staring into the hissing fire that had become glowing embers. What stopped her now?
The night sounds would normally keep me awake, but I droned them out. Owen had pulled away from me, and the fire’s dimness made it impossible to see his face clearly. My eyes adjusted slowly to the darkness and I could only see that his gaze was intent on the ground before him.
“We should go to sleep,” I whispered, turning away.
I paused, looking over at him.
“Please stay with me.”
A sad smile made its way to my face and I nodded, turning back to him.
Careful of his bruised side, I gently sat beside him, allowing him to once more lean against me. I closed my eyes, knowing this was the safest place I could be now.
Sometime before sleep overtook me, I heard Owen whisper something abouthis inability to protect me. I mumbled, “It is all right,” but was unsure if heheard me. I felt his lips brush against the side of my head and it was enoughto send me into a peaceful rest.