Lilitha nodded towards Clara’s mug. ‘What are you waiting for? Have a drink.’
Clara looked down at her mug guiltily. ‘It’s your money.’
‘And you’re my friend—it’s on the house.’
Clara gave her a rueful smile and did so. Lilitha took a swig from her own mug, the drink burning her throat nicely. She glanced around the room. The main bar of the Arrowhead was mostly empty, which was the way Lilitha liked it. Two young girls out on their own wasn’t exactly safe.
The few occupants weren’t taking any notice of them as the two friends sat in the back corner, keeping their heads low, hoods pulled over their faces.
Clara choked a little on her drink. Lilitha grinned. She glanced outside through the window and saw it was getting dark. She needed to get home soon before her father did. If he knew she’d been out …
… not to mention stolen his money …
Lilitha swallowed, her throat suddenly dry, and took another drink.
‘Looks like it’s going to rain again,’ Clara sighed. Heavy clouds bruised the sky. The roads were already boggy. It made the surrounding buildings look sad.
Lilitha turned when the doorbell tinkled. Her eyes widened and she quickly ducked her head. Clara looked over and did the same. ‘Shit!’
In strode Sir Mandalay, the town’s most senior Champion. Lilitha bit her lip. Taverns were supposed to be for male customers only. They could get into big trouble if they were discovered.
As he shed his cloak by the door, his blue eyes searched the room, and Lilitha lowered her head further. Dressed in his red and gold uniform, he sat a careless hand upon the sword at his hip and approached the bar. His blonde hair was caught up in a ponytail. His strides were powerful and long. He was a big man. Even his shirt pulled at the seams in his shoulders. He wasn’t the town’s best knight for nothing.
The two girls pulled their hoods further over their heads and sank low in their seats. Leaning against the counter, the knight flirted with the woman behind. He was whispering to her, stroking her arm. Giggling, the woman flicked back her dark hair.
The two girls looked at each other, communicating silently as they braced themselves. Fidgeting with her mug, Lilitha watched and waited. When Mandalay leaned in to kiss the woman’s throat, she and Clara slipped quietly out through the rear door.
They didn’t stop running until they were forced to catch their breath.
Lilitha was doubled over and gasping. ‘That was close.’
Clara spat on the ground. ‘Enough rebelling. I think I want to go home now.’
Lilitha curled an arm around her shoulders. Around them, the buildings were derelict, slumped in the muddy ground. Sopping garments sagged on the lines strung between windows. The poor and overworked were trekking resolutely up and down the muddy paths.
Lilitha steered Clara around and they started on their way back. As they turned the corner, someone seized Lilitha’s arm, stopping them in their tracks.
‘Hello there,’ Mandalay said.
‘Run!’ Lilitha shouted.
Clara tore from Lilitha’s grasp. Mandalay made a snatch for her, but Lilitha threw herself against him, pushing him into the wall so her friend could get away. Clara's cloak whipped around the corner and out of sight.
At the sound of his deep, throaty laughter, her heart leapt into her throat. He was grinning at her, eyes glittering, cheeks flushed. He didn’t seem puffed at all from the chase.
Lilitha tried to run but he seized her wrist.
‘Let go!’ she cried.
Still laughing, he jerked her against him as if she weighed nothing at all, whipped her around and shoved her against the wall, reversing their positions. His breath hot and wet against the back of her neck, he pushed hard against her, mashing her cheek into the brick.
‘What’s a girl like you doing in a place like that?’ He pulled off her hood and pressed his nose into her hair with a sigh.
‘Got off me!’ She tried to scream but he squashed her hard against the wall until she could barely breathe. Not that it would have done much. Nobody would come to help her.
‘Why? What’s in it for me? Or should I just throw you into the lockup for a couple of days? That’ll teach you for your disobedience.’
‘It’s a stupid law.’
‘Who says? You? A woman?’ He snorted with laughter.
‘Precisely,’ he hissed in her ear.
He yanked her around, pulling her up against him as he mashed his mouth against hers. He was chuckling as she twisted and squirmed in his arms. She tried to bite down on his tongue, but it darted away from her teeth like a slippery leech. When he finally released her, Lilitha yanked her head back and spat in his face.
He licked the spit away from his lip. ‘That’s the way.’
He hauled her down the street, banging at doors, twisting handles, searching for somewhere he could have some privacy. Those on the street pointedly ignored them, looking at their feet, crossing the road to the opposite side. A Champion’s business was not their business, particularly if that Champion was Sir Mandalay himself.
He finally threw open a door halfway down the street. A mother and her three children looked up fearfully.
‘Out!’ he snarled.
The woman picked up her youngest and swept them all outside. Mandalay slammed the door behind them. There was only one room. Blankets and linen lay strewn across the floor. A half-empty basket of food sat in the corner.
Mandalay was staring at her, panting, eyes bloodshot, clenching and unclenching his fists. He gave a low, eager whistle as he ran his eyes over her.
‘What are you going to do?’ Lilitha said numbly.
She took a step back, and he stepped towards her, towering over her, looking as tall as a mountain.
‘I’ll make it easy for you,’ he said. ‘Do as I say and I’ll let you go as free as a bird.’ He made a fluttering motion with his hand. ‘Resist me and not only will I take what I want, I’ll arrest you for female indecency.’
His blue eyes bored into hers.
Lilitha’s back was pressed up against the wall. So many thoughts flashed through her mind, brave ones, timid ones. He seemed to fill the room. The door seemed so far away. His hands looked powerful.
‘Go fuck yourself.’
‘Shame. I could have made it fun.’
He lunged, and Lilitha ducked. She raced for the door, but he slung and arm around her waist, heaving her right off her feet. She yelped as he tossed her into the blankets.
He got on top of her, straddling her as he pinned her wrists down. Lilitha screamed.
‘Relax, sweetheart.’ He leaned over to lick an angry tear from her cheek. ‘If you’re good, I’ll try to have you like it.’
Holding her wrists down with one of his huge hands, he reached down to wrench open her cloak. He didn’t take his time, pushing up her tunic and grabbing onto her breast. He cupped it, caressed her nipple with his thumb, before pressing down with a groan, flattening her breast beneath his broad palm.
‘You feel so good,’ he sighed.
Lilitha glared up at him, more tears streaming down her cheeks. She wanted to scream at him. She wanted to gnash her teeth and shout every foul word imaginable but something cold and powerful was gripping her throat. It was embarrassing and humiliating and she hated herself for it.
He teased and fondled, pinching her nipples, tracing his fingertips between her ribs. His blue eyes were almost black as he lowered his mouth. Lilitha gritted her teeth as he enveloped her left breast.
Lilitha winced as he sucked her for several long moments. As he finally pulled away, he licked at her nipple, then dragged his tongue up along the rest of her breast, into the dip between her collarbones, up her throat. He was panting as he leaned in for a kiss. Lilitha turned her head away. He kissed her neck instead.
A shadow moved. There was a scraping sound. Lilitha looked towards the window. Her heart jumped at the sight of Clara looking at her through the window. Her friend was so close she could have reached out and touched the knight’s head. Ashen-faced and wide-eyed, blonde hair trailing out of her hood, she was holding a bucket in trembling hands.
Lilitha’s heart pounded harder. Go away, she mouthed.
Clara shook her head.
Mandalay sat up, obstructing her view. Straddling her hips, he began fumbling with his belt. Just as he pulled it free, something thick and brown poured over his head, slapping wetly against his shoulders, soaking through his hair and knight's uniform. The smell was foul.
He froze, his mouth open in a perfect O. Everything was deadly quiet for a second. Then, with a beast-like roar, he leapt to his feet, spinning around with a snarl. Clara stood frozen, still clutching her bucket.
‘You little bitch!’ He lunged at her but tripped in his pants. Staggering, he crashed into the wall, his head smashing into the timber with a sickening crack. He dropped like a stone and didn’t stir again.
They looked at each other in horror: Clara, her bucket still braced against the window ledge; Lilitha, dishevelled and bare-breasted in the bedding. Lilitha swallowed, the steady drip of what was left of the bucket’s contents echoing in her ears.
She reached out a foot and nudged at his hip, but he didn’t move, neck arched at an unnatural angle, white beneath his half-shuttered eyelids. All the remaining colour vanished from Clara’s face. Then Clara dropped the bucket and Lilitha leapt to her feet.
They raced through the streets, skirting around wagons and carts and animals. A large horse reared on its hind legs with a whinny. At every clack of a passing horse, every shout of a masculine voice, they glanced over their shoulders and pounded the pavement faster.
They stopped in a distant part of town Lilitha only vaguely recognised. Concealed within the alcove of an empty building, they braced themselves against the wall, gasping for air.
‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,’ Clara gasped as she bent over her knees.
‘What have you done? I told you to run!’
‘I couldn’t leave you!’ Clutching at her chest, she slid to the pavement.
’But now we’re both in trouble.’
Clara gazed up at her helplessly. Lilitha dropped her head into her hands.
After taking a moment to get control of herself, she helped Clara to her feet. ‘Come on. It’s getting dark now. You’d better get home or we’ll be in worse trouble.’ She bit her trembling lip. Her chest felt so heavy it felt like it was weighed down with lead. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making you come. It’s all my fault.’
’You didn’t make me come. Besides, we go all the time.’
’What the hell was he even doing there? Champions never go there.’
‘The barmaid, I suppose,’ Clara said.
They both turned at the clatter of horse hooves, but it was only a merchant steering his wagon. It took a while before Lilitha’s heart settled.
‘Go,’ she told Clara, taking her hand and squeezing it. ‘I’ll see you later. And keep yourself safe.’
‘You too.’ She pecked Lilitha on the mouth. ‘See you soon.’
Clara hurried away, mud spraying up behind her boots.
Hood pulled low over her face, Lilitha tried not to slip in the mud as she made her way home. It was starting to rain now, her cloak damp, her breath coming out in a mist, though she hardly noticed the cold and wet, her mind in chaos.
How long would it be before Mandalay woke up? If he woke up? Lilitha paused. He had looked kind of dead. What if he was? She should have checked him more thoroughly. Gripping herself, she continued walking. That would make her a killer. That would make them both killers. They would never get away with it.
She passed almost no one, most taking shelter as they prepared for the oncoming storm. It had been raining ceaselessly for the past two weeks. Roads were blocked. Food was scarce. The water was polluted with overflowing sewerage. She could smell it on the air.
Soon, her house came into view. Her heart was beating wildly as she straightened her tunic and approached the front step. The door opened with a whine. The house was filled with shadows. It seemed empty.
‘Father?’ she called quietly, voice echoing nervously in the silence. The only response was the drumming of the rain against the roof.
Lilitha released a breath as she closed the door behind her.
Quickly, she stripped out of her clothes and got to work on his dinner.