I poked at the fire with one of the sticks I’d acquired from the forest floor. I was spending my first night camping here by myself. Until now I’d spent every night of my life in Tarthin, a small, uneventful town near other small, uneventful towns. But now I was on an adventure, or perhaps mission was a better description. I was travelling to the city of Qren to search for my Aunt, my only living family member, who’d simply vanished on her last trip there.
She went to Qren to buy supplies for the stall she had at the market. It was a trip she made regularly to source obscure ingredients she wasn’t able to grow herself. She sold remedies, cures for ailments and supplements for vitality. I assisted her with the herbs, growing some in my garden and helping her dry and process them, but she never let me go with her to Qren, despite me pleading with her to let me join. She said it was too dangerous, that I’d get lost or robbed or kidnapped. I think she just didn’t want to lose out on the money if there was no-one to tend her stall in her absence.
She never returned from her last trip there. On her usual supply-runs she was away for about a week at a time. It had now been three months. A week after her expected return I grew nervous, asking around anyone returning from Qren to see if they had heard anything from the city or on the road, but no-one had. If something had happened to her on the journey someone would have seen something and would know about it. She must have made it to Qren, but why didn’t she come back? I couldn’t handle sitting around at home any longer, waiting and wondering. She wasn’t well-liked, no-one else cared that she was gone. I had to try to find her myself.
I spread one of my blankets out on the floor and leaned back against a wide tree trunk. I took a bite of bread and cheese, enjoying it while it lasted. I only had fresh supplies to last a few days, after that I was going to have to survive off dried bread, cured meat and other preserved foods I’d packed for the journey. As I swallowed a large chunk of crusty bread I’d bought warm from the bakery that morning I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest – alien and otherworldly to me. Normally at this time of the evening I would be listening to the sounds of tradespeople finishing work for the day, going home or to one of the taverns, and then the sound of the empty, monotonous streets. The sound of the forest coming to life for the night was enchanting. I thought about the animals waking from their slumber, unaware of all the events that had passed during the daylight hours, thinking that the world only came alive at dusk. I hoped I’d get to see some of them as I was passing through.
I woke groggily after a night of intermittent sleep. I’d not been able to get comfortable on the forest floor, despite having plenty of blankets and a comfy pillow. As the night had progressed the sounds that had at first sounded curious and charming grew stranger and eerier. I’d listened to every noise, trying to trace its origin – from what body in what location was the sound coming from?
By the morning my fire had reduced to embers and I was shivering under my blanket. It was April and the mornings were still crisp. I roused myself, re-lit the fire and made a kohi while shrouded in my blanket. The forest seemed still again in the daylight. I wasn’t sure now whether it really had been as lively as I’d thought last night, or whether my imagination was wilder than the forest itself.
I packed up my small camp and loaded the bag onto my horse Sivia, a gorgeous silver mare I’d had since I was a teenager. She seemed to have had a better night than I had. She was a good horse – calm, sturdy and reliable. For now I planned to use her to carry my bags until I joined the main road, when I would ride her the rest of the way to Qren. There was faster route, if I took the road out of Tarthin, but I didn’t take it. I told myself it’s because I wanted to explore the forest, but perhaps I was delaying my arrival in Qren. I didn’t know what I would find there.
Kicking away the embers from the fire I congratulated myself on surviving my first night before I started picking my way through the forest, leading Sivia behind me. I was glad to have her as a companion. I thought about my Aunt. Where was she now? Was she in trouble? Or had she simply chosen not to return? She was eccentric, and sometimes impulsive, perhaps she’d simply gotten bored of Tarthin and chosen not to come back. I wouldn’t blame her. I hadn’t been many other places but I could definitively say that Tarthin was boring. It was possible that she’d met someone and run away with them, but my Aunt was a solitary woman, and from what I could tell despised men, so that was unlikely. She hadn’t written to me, if something had kept her there she would have written to me. Maybe she’d fallen ill, but I didn’t want to think about that. I wanted to think that I would find her.
It didn’t take me long to reach the river, which I would use as my guide while I was in the forest. I was disappointed to find that it was really more of a stream, but it was pretty, trickling along between large mossy green boulders. I kept close enough to see the river on my left, but I enjoyed walking under the canopy of the trees, looking out for birds and animals. I was familiar with the forest close to Tarthin, but I hadn’t come this way before. So far it wasn’t much different. The trees were tall, with smooth tan-coloured trunks not breaking into branches until high up the stems. The forest floor was mostly bare earth but every so often there were large patches of blue flowers, a pleasant interruption to the otherwise brown landscape.
I made good progress throughout the day, the trees were widely spaced and the ground was even, meaning Sivia and I passed through easily. I came across a small clearing and decided to make my camp for the night there. I tethered Sivia to a tree and went to gather firewood. I wandered deeper into the forest, away from the river, picking up pieces wood as I found them. It was dusk now, the light just changing to that hazy sepia colour you get in the transition between day and night.
When I had enough pieces to make a decent fire I turned back in the direction of Sivia. I needed a bigger fire than the previous night, so that it might last until morning. As I turned a wave of pure terror hit me in the pit of my stomach. A dark figure was stood leaning against a tree, casually, watching me. I recoiled automatically, dropping my firewood at my feet.
‘What are you doing?’ the figure asked in a clear, deep voice. He was wearing a hood, leaving his face in shadow.
I was too stunned to reply.
‘What are you doing?’ he repeated, raising himself from the tree and slowly making his way towards me. He was tall, and broad. He made an intimidating form, dressed all in black, stalking deliberately towards me.
‘Collecting firewood,’ I replied, trying to sound calm but a quiver in my voice giving me away.
As he continued to approach he lifted off his hood. I took a sharp intake of breath - I was surprised to see that he was young, perhaps my age, and handsome, not the decrepit and intimidating face I was expecting to see. He was much more handsome than any of the men I’d ever seen in Tarthin, but that didn’t make him any less threatening.
I felt him look me up and down as he approached, taking in my body, assessing me. I suddenly felt very self-conscious. I was wearing simple, practical clothes for traveling – slim fitting trousers, a tight long sleeved top and boots. I’d brought several variations of the same outfit with me in different colours. The one I was currently wearing was a deep blue.
‘Is that your horse?’ he asked, gesturing back towards the clearing where Sivia was waiting for me.
I nodded, rooted to the spot, watching him approach. He was in front of me now, his eyes locked on mine. I felt as though they were pinning me down. My legs felt heavy, like they would be unable to move even if I wanted them to.
‘What are these?’ he asked, thrusting some papers into my hand. I looked at them in my shaking fingers. These were my Aunt’s papers. I took them from her house when I searched it before I left. I had been looking for clues or anything useful to give me an idea of where she might have gone. They didn’t mean anything to me – they seemed to be random scribblings of dates and words but I brought them with me in case they might mean something to anyone else aiding me in my search.
‘You’ve been through my things?’ I asked, looking back up at him, not masking my annoyed tone.
He ignored the question. ‘Explain them,’ he said firmly. He stood facing me with his arms folded, waiting for a reply. He was at least a foot taller than me and I could see the thick muscles of his arms tense under his black tunic.
‘I don’t have to explain anything to you,’ I said as confidently as I could as I manage. I moved to push past him, back towards Sivia, keeping the papers in my hand.
He moved quickly and before I could take a step I felt a cold blade at my neck. I gasped as he held the point of the knife firm against my skin. I reached for the dagger that I had in my belt but instead of feeling the hilt of it I touched his hand, already on it.
He lifted my chin up with the blade, forcing me to look up at him.
‘Not quick enough,’ he said with a smirk. ‘Tell me what you’re doing with those papers.’
‘I can’t,’ I said feebly. It was the truth, I couldn’t. I felt as though my mind had been immobilised by the shock. I was desperately trying to think of an explanation to give him, but couldn’t grasp at anything to say.
He kept me there, looking up at him, his bright blue eyes unsettling me.
‘Do you know it’s an arrestable offence to possess something with those symbols on?’
‘Don’t play dumb with me.’
I swallowed hard. ‘I’m not. I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what they are.’
He took a step back but kept the blade on me, the point of it resting against the skin at the centre of my collar bone. I was breathing heavily, taking short panicked breaths, causing the knife to press harder on the in-takes. He took a long look down my body and back up to my face. I blushed at his lingering gaze.
‘You don’t look like a witch,’ he concluded, ‘but you’re not telling me the truth.’
‘I’m not a witch!’ I said reflexively, I could hear the panic in my voice as I spoke, I was beyond controlling it now.
‘Come with me. Don’t try to run,’ he said coolly.
I immediately tried to run. As he lifted the blade away and reached to take me by my arm I bolted, as fast as I could. He was only a pace behind me as I sprinted between the trees, not knowing or caring where I was going as long as it was away from him.
I screamed as I felt his hands around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell onto my front and in seconds he had spun me round and was on top of me, straddling me with a knee either side of my hips. I laid there, defeated. He was a lot heavier and stronger than me, there was no way to fight him off. Unable to escape I covered my face with my hands, not wanting to look at him, not wanting to see what was happening. I felt him wrap rope around my wrists and tie them together firmly but carefully. When he had finished he sat back and gently pulled my hands down, away from my face. Those penetrating blue eyes met mine.
‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ he said, earnestly. I wanted to believe him. ‘But you’ve made yourself look even guiltier now. I need to know why you have those papers on you and where you’re going.’
What were those papers? What were the symbols on them? He’d mentioned witchcraft but my Aunt wasn’t a witch, that was one thing I knew for certain.
‘I’m going to Qren.’ I said, looking up at him. I didn’t know whether to tell him about my Aunt, would I get her into some sort of trouble if I mentioned her? ‘I’m going to the markets there, to buy supplies for herbal remedies. I don’t know what’s on the papers, I must have picked them up by mistake with some of the orders from people requesting things from Qren.’
‘You’re a terrible liar. But at least that means I’ll get to take you with me,’ he said with a roguish look. ‘I’m going to stand up now. Do not try to run again, or I won’t be as forgiving.’ He spoke slowly, the threat clear in his voice.
I nodded, compliant.
He helped me up and then with a firm grip around my left arm led me in silence through the forest. I was so disorientated now that I didn’t know where we were in relation to Sivia.
‘You’re hurting me,’ I said feebly. His grip was too strong around my arm.
‘I’m not falling for that,’ he said dismissively.
‘You said you wouldn’t hurt me,’ I mumbled quietly, sounding like a sullen child.
He loosened his grip very slightly and from the corner of my eye I felt him look over to me, but I didn’t look back.
I could see the light of a fire as we approached a camp in-between the trees, with the silhouettes of two people around it. A man sat was near the fire, as we grew closer I could see that his hands were also tied with rope. He looked over as we advanced, a quizzical expression on his face. He was of smaller build than my captor, a slender figure with short blonde hair and a delicate face illuminated by the fire, giving him an almost angelic glow. The other figure was stood in front of the fire. He turned to face us as he heard our footsteps, standing motionless with his back to the flames as he watched. He looked like he was even taller than my captor and just as powerfully built, a solid wall of muscle. I’d never seen men like this before, they must be warriors of some sort I thought to myself. He had long dark hair in waves reaching his chin. His face was hard to make out away from the fire, as it had grown dark now. When we reached him he looked at me, his face unreadable, then at my captor. He raised an eyebrow at him.
‘You were supposed to be hunting for rabbits,’ he said flatly.
‘I know,’ he replied ‘but I found her not far from here, with these in her belongings.’ He took the papers out of his pocket and handed them over.
The new man studied the papers for a few moments, then looked at me.
‘She won’t explain them,’ the first man interjected.
‘Are you alone?’ he asked me. I nodded.
The first man went back the way we had arrived, I assumed to fetch my horse and belongings. He left me stood face to face with this new dark figure.
‘You look like you put up a good fight,’ he said with a curl at the side of his lips. My clothes and face were smeared with dirt where I had been pulled to the floor and I could feel wisps of my hair falling about my face, it was long and I had it tied back into a braid, which was half unravelled after the tussle earlier.
He asked me to explain the papers and my purpose in the forest, so I repeated what I’d told the other man earlier. I wondered if I had given the same details, it had all been a blur to me the first time. When I finished he sighed and shifted his weight on his feet, clearly not believing a word I’d said.
‘Do you have any weapons?’
I shook my head.
‘Speak,’ he said curtly. I didn’t like the tone of power in his voice.
‘No,’ I said quietly, fighting back tears.
‘Any more papers?’
‘I’m going to have to search you,’ he said, and began feeling his way across my body with his hands, moving them firmly over the fabric of my clothes. I stood awkwardly while being man-handled, but he was professional about it, not looking at me, moving quickly and efficiently. When he ran his hands over my breasts he paused. He’d found the money I’d stashed in my bra for safe-keeping. I’d brought a considerable amount of money, not knowing how long I’d need to stay in Qren or how much I’d need. I closed my eyes tightly, distraught, holding back tears. He gently moved his fingers inside the delicate material to retrieve it. I blushed as they grazed across the soft skin there.
‘Look at me,’ he said, his voice calm but commanding.
I opened my eyes and complied, his dark eyes staring back at me intensely. I didn’t want to cry in front of him, but it was taking a lot of effort not to. I bit on my bottom lip to steady it.
‘I’ll give you one last chance to tell me the truth.’
‘I’ve already told you. Why are you doing this to me?’ I asked, my voice sounded small, lost against the crackling of the fire.
‘We catch criminals,’ he replied simply.
‘I’m not a criminal.’
‘Well you can’t explain why you’ve got that paperwork, so it looks like you are.’
‘Are you Protectors of the Crown?’
‘Not quite,’ he said with a smirk. ‘We’re sort of like them, but we work... independently. What’s your name?’
I wondered whether to give him a fake one.
‘Your name,’ he said again, sternly.
‘Odella,’ I admitted.
‘I’m Ayol, the one who’s hunting is Garrett. He,’ he said pointing to the blonde man, ‘is Thaniel. You can go and sit by the fire,’ he said, dismissing me.
I sat myself away a short distance away from the one called Thaniel, relieved to be away from the questioning. I reached out my still tied hands to warm them and tried to process the events of the last hour. I was deeply confused – who were these men and who or what did they think I was?
Ayol didn’t take his eyes off me while my captor, Garrett, was away. I could feel his gaze on me as he stood loitering around the fire, a shadow in the dark.
‘Are you ok?’ Thaniel whispered to me.
‘Um, I’m not hurt, but I’ve very confused,’ I said back quietly.
He gave me a forced smile. I think he was aiming to comfort me but it looked so under duress that it had the opposite effect.
‘Try not to worry,’ he said. Ayol stood a step closer and shot him a lethal look. We sat in silence then until Garrett returned with Sivia and three rabbits. I refused any food, feeling far too nauseous and full of adrenaline to eat. I felt sick with fear and my mind was a vortex of thoughts spinning around, so many at once competing for my attention, it made me feel dizzy. I sat solemnly by the fire, the eyes of at least one of the men on me at all times. When they’d finished eating Garrett took the blankets and cushion out of my bag that was still loaded on Sivia, obviously knowing where they were after his snooping earlier. He led me away from the fire by my tied hands.
‘Odella’ he said out of the blue, making me start, ‘that’s a pretty name. Not as pretty as you though.’ He looked at me, waiting for a response but I ignored him. ‘What do people call you for short? O? or Della?’ I said nothing. ‘What about Ella?’
‘Just Odella,’ I said quietly.
We stopped in front of a narrow tree trunk. ‘You can sleep here, but I’m going to have to secure you to the tree so that you don’t try and escape. Again.’ He looked at me with an apologetic smile. I glared at him as he laid out the blanket for me and told me to sit, then took a long length of rope, looped it round the tree trunk and secured it to the rope already round my wrists. There was enough room for me to move around, to lay down and try to get comfortable, but there was definitely no chance of escaping in the night.
‘Please don’t do this to me,’ I said looking desperately at him. I could hear my voice cracking.
He knelt down in front of me, meeting me at eye level. ‘You’ll be safe here tonight. No-one will lay a finger on you while you’re with us,’ he said, looking at me sincerely. ‘Not unless you want us to,’ he added, with a dangerous smile, his eyebrow arching suggestively.
‘You certainly think very highly of yourself,’ I said, ‘I’d rather you didn’t even look at me.’
‘How could I not look at you? Even while you’re grubby from the forest and you’ve got bits of twigs in your hair from our little scuffle earlier you’re still beautiful.’ He lifted a piece of broken branch from my hair, inspecting it quickly before flicking it away into the night.
I shuffled away from him a little, backing up towards the tree.
‘Sorry,’ he said seriously, ‘I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. No-one will touch you. I swear it.’
‘If you didn’t want to make me uncomfortable, why have you tied me to a tree?’
His mouth broke into a smile which he quickly tried to suppress.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’ I asked. I was trying to sound reasonable but I could hear the infuriated tone in my voice.
‘You know why,’ he said, dismissively.
‘I don’t.’ I looked at him helplessly and was caught off-guard by his face again. He was so attractive and he looked so decent, it was at odds with what he was doing to me now. He looked back at me, his expression impenetrable, for what seemed like a long time.
The one called Ayol cleared his throat. I looked towards the fire, at his towering silhouette.
‘Here.’ My attention turned back to Garrett. He moved the cushion onto the blanket. ‘Will you be warm enough? Do you want an extra blanket?’ he asked quietly. His concern caught me unaware, it seemed genuine. I looked at him, puzzled.
‘You don’t need to be so scared,’ he said, reading my expression. ‘Are you comfortable?’
‘I’m fine.’ I said curtly and turned away, my back to him and the other men. I felt him linger there for a minute, observing me, then I heard his footsteps as he walked away. As I drifted into an uneasy sleep I could hear Ayol and Garrett talking in hushed voices together, I assumed about me, but I couldn’t make out anything they were saying.