Hollis ran through her mental list for what felt the thousandth time since the grey hours before dawn. It would do nothing to help her now, though; they’d been on the road for miles, the sun scorching where the trees offered no protection. She rode Winston, trailing slow behind the young draft horse. Oberon had called him Tyr, but she’d been too exhausted to ask what it meant.
He’d checked her bags, ensuring she had the map, then her doll (as he called Teddy), and her father’s Bible. She’d wept as her home faded into the trees and misty dawn, a chilling sense of foreboding taking root in her core like a noxious weed. Oberon had kept his tongue behind his teeth, and for that she was thankful. This would be the farthest from home she ever dreamed of venturing, and the unknown made her fright at every small sound and shadow.
She watched Oberon’s sturdy back and taut shoulders, his head held high and austere, as though he were the king and this his kingdom. She felt a mere peasant, with dust-caked cheeks adorned by tear tracks. His fortitude terrified her in moments such as this, for she knew there was nothing he could not conquer. And then, there was his mission. It shouldn’t have surprised her that it included murder, and she doubted she would be able to pry more out of him on the subject.
She was left, then, with a mysterious being, created for the sole purpose to save mankind, who’d gone rogue and claimed her as his companion. Her brain hurt as she attempted to work through the conundrum, but her hips ached more than anything at the moment.
She needed to use the restroom, and though she had no qualms about leaning against a tree to urinate, she wanted to ensure he’d leave her alone while she did it. With a sigh, she gave a tug to Winston’s reins, throwing her leg over and sliding down as he ambled to a stop. She led him to a suitable spot, releasing his reins and knowing he’d stay put.
A raucous crashing tore through the underbrush, and a heavy hand gripped her shoulder, spinning her around and pinning her to a tree, the bark cutting into her flesh.
“Where are you going?” Oberon spat, golden eyes alight with fury. She recoiled, a wickedness seeping forth from his gaze.
“I just have to…have to…”
She burst forth crying, her day already difficult enough without him berating her. He withdrew, straightening himself.
“Stop it,” he said, voice wavering as she continued to snivel.
“Don’t cry,” he tried again, but she only wiped her runny nose along her shirtsleeve.
“Do you need your doll?”
She shook her head, refusing to meet his gaze. Why, of all things, did she have to be stuck with such an inhuman brute?
“We must continue,” he said, voice lower and softer. “We need many more miles before nightfall.”
“Then don’t yell at me for trying to pee!” she yelled, throwing her tear-filled eyes in his direction. Oberon jerked back, confused.
“I did not raise my voice, tiny Hollis,” he said, sounding rather innocent. She didn’t care; she’d never had any interactions with men, and any change of the tenor in his voice was cause for anxiety to her.
“You could have told me to stop. I would have waited,” he continued. She set her jaw, stemming her flow of tears to glare at him, her mood swings feeling irrational but justified. He frowned for a moment before he understood. His face softened, eyes melting into pools of the sweetest honey.
“You are afraid to ask anything of me,” he surmised. She crossed her arms, choosing to ignore him and his eery ways of knowing how she felt.
“I will watch Winston. Be aware of your surroundings,” he said, jerking his chin to the right, into a thicker clump of forest. As spiteful as she wanted to be, the urgency to urinate was stronger, and she stomped off, making sure to be extra obnoxious. She didn’t care if anyone heard them; she’d seen the revolver in Oberon’s bag this morning, and knowing he couldn’t die was a perk rather than something to be frightful of.
Oberon waited, leaning against the tree, glaring down at the shoes Hollis had forced him to wear. He hated them, the way his toes were crammed together and sweating, his arches throbbing. She’d told him humans would find him suspicious if he wasn’t wearing any. He no longer cared, bending down and peeling them off, sighing in relief before he shoved the contraptions into the side pack of Tyr’s saddle.
Leaning back once more, his eyes slipped closed as he drank in the forest. It hadn’t changed much in the miles they’d gone, but he could feel the subtle shift. They were closer to other humans, who were clustered together like frightened mice in a small town. These woods were frequented by hunters, and not ones who chased prized elk or bucks.
Around here, all he could hear were the screams of women. Why they were hunted specifically was still a mystery that even the trees could not share with him. He had an inkling that it had more to do with wretched science and controlled breeding to ensure their species survived. Snorting, he opened his eyes, wondering how humans were still the dominant species.
His ears perked in the direction of Hollis, listening as she stomped back, an angry, petulant air surrounding her. He wanted to feel guilty for frightening her, but she was becoming more unstable with each passing mile, and he was at a loss as to how he could help, so he chose not to try. His experience with women was shrouded by the customs of his past life, and so he felt any way he chose to proceed now would be incorrect. Hollis was not a noble, wealthy woman of status, nor was she a whore in a brothel.
He smirked to himself, remembering rather faintly his last intimate encounter, the memory grey and faded to him, but potent all the same. Whenever he desired a woman, he never had to pay for one. Virgins and prostitutes alike threw themselves at his feet in worship and called him a god, but none had what he desired, none would suit him for eternity.
Hollis crunched through the last of the ferns, face smeared with dirt, blue eyes wild and livid, ashy blond hair braided down her back but springing loose around her temples. His smirk deepened as he drank in her curves. Her. She was what he’d been missing. A self-possessed woman who loathed him. It presented the perfect challenge, but also meant she would remain her own person, should she fall for him. Oberon promised himself he would not try to woo her; he wanted her emotions toward him to be authentic, just as they currently were.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Don’t smirk at me,” she hissed, shoving past him and nestling her foot into the stirrup. He still held the reins, gazing up at her reddened face as Winston swayed beneath her, swishing his tail to rid himself of biting flies.
Ahh, Oberon thought, feeling her flow of emotions, her physical pain. A bit of pity crept into his heart, knowing this situation was beyond his control. At least he knew now she was fit to bear children.
“We need many more miles before nightfall,” she mocked, deepening her voice in a petty manner. He chuckled despite himself, angering her further as he released the reins.
They rode on in silence, leaving Oberon to think and observe and relish his beating heart. This place was so unlike any he’d ventured to, but he found he enjoyed the hues of the trees and flowers and snow-capped mountains in the distance. He didn’t miss the ways of his past, either; he respected the way Hollis was toward him, even when angry. In his own time, no woman would dare raise her voice and speak back to a man, especially one such as Oberon. Even men trembled in his wake.
Dusk fell, and he paused, listening. No humans. Scanning the road ahead, he urged Tyr onward for the break in the trees that opened to a wide, grassy valley and gurgling stream.
“We stop here,” he said, not bothering to glance at Hollis. He didn’t want to see her tear stained face anymore, for it made him feel powerless. He swung down, listening as she followed, and they began to set up their camp. Once the horses were set loose to graze and Oberon had walked the perimeter of their camp for good measure, he seated himself next to the small woman, leaning against a log.
“Winston will make for home if you don’t tether him up,” she said, using a small knife to cut chunks out of a stick. He wondered if she intended to stab him with the sharpened end.
“He won’t. He is concerned for your well-being.”
She snorted, not caring to glance up. Oberon studied her, the angle of her cheek, her small ear reddened by the day’s sun, the smattering of freckles on her shoulder where it peeked out from her shirt.
He turned his gaze to the valley, the orange sunset spectacular and unhindered by mountains or clouds. His heart felt peace.
“I’m going to sleep,” Hollis said, standing and traipsing to her sleeping bag, an odd contraption that made perfect sense. He was thankful she would be warm, but he would have ensured that either way.
He let her be for a while, knowing she needed her time to grieve. The farther from home she went, the more real her family’s deaths would feel. Nothing Oberon did or said would take that sting away.
He watched Winston and Tyr, the young onyx horse nipping at the older one to assert some form of dominance, but he was unperturbed, shaking his head and snorting. They would be his eyes and ears while he got a few hours of sleep.
No matter which way Hollis rolled, there always seemed to be a rock or root poking her. Every time she felt close to sleep, a strange sound would jolt her awake, and she’d have to begin the process all over again, her body exhausted and jittery. Of course, of all days, this one would be the beginning of her cycle. She glared at the tips of the swaying grasses a few feet in front of her, wanting to rip them from the ground out of sheer anger. A hearty cramp surged through her back and into her abdomen, and she hissed, wishing for relief but knowing it was impossible.
She heard his footsteps behind her, and she stiffened, hugging Teddy tighter. She’d been relieved to have him leave her alone for the majority of the day and night, but she knew her luck was wearing thin. She felt him behind her, his strong arm wrapping about her torso and pulling her close, so gentle it stunned her. He was usually more gruff and forceful with her. Even she had to admit, she felt safer in his arms, wrapped in his embrace as the eery woods sang their midnight lullaby. He said nothing, and neither did she, relaxing bit by bit, until her eyelids drooped, her pain disappearing altogether.
She sighed in relief, falling into a peaceful slumber as his light snores met her ears.
The next day brought with it numerous clouds and strong gusts of winds. By the time late afternoon hit, Hollis was a wind-whipped mess, and Oberon was agitated and starving. They’d packed enough food for a week, but Hollis learned he had a voracious appetite, and protein was at the top of his priority list. She promised to keep an eye out for rabbits or squirrels, but they were too smart to stick around once they heard the hooves stamping the brush beneath.
Tyr spooked up ahead, rearing and backing up, and Hollis’ heart clenched. Oberon steadied his mount with ease, circling back to stand next to her, golden eyes searing.
“There’s a home up ahead,” he said, voice low, eyes searching hers. She felt her stomach plummet, for it could only mean two things; they were decent hearted people who would shelter them for the night, or they were hunters. Her mother had warned Willow and Hollis about the latter from the time they were old enough to comprehend anything. She chewed her lip as she considered. Her mother had often spoke of other homesteaders that would frequent the same town to restock their necessities. Some she even thought of as friends.
“Do you think it’s safe?” she asked him, brows tilting up in the center. He frowned, glancing down the road once more as he leaned forward in the saddle. Somehow, this creature had the capability to know things, about everything. It was infuriating at times, but simultaneously helpful.
“Nothing is ever safe, tiny human,” he said after a pause, his eyes sweeping back to her. She felt chilled by his words. He raised his face to the sky before returning his gaze to hers.
“Either way, it will storm soon. If I sense danger, it will not be a problem for long,” he said, golden eyes simmering. She swallowed hard, getting lost in the depths of those pools of honey that seemed to glow, feeling herself redden. As much as it bothered her to find him so attractive, she couldn’t help but admire his protectiveness over her. It made her feel singular, prized—but also left her a confused mess, knowing she should despise him, the fact that he wasn’t really a human, but a science project.
“It is a woman, if that makes you feel more at ease,” he said, eyes switching between hers. She pressed her lips together and nodded, a sense of relief sweeping through her veins. Winston’s ears twitched as a fly buzzed around his head. They could all use a decent night’s rest and a shower, even if it had only been two days.
With a heavy sigh, she nodded again.
“Okay, we can try,” she said, moving to urge Winston forward. Oberon’s hand jutted out, gripping her knee to stop her, his eyes fiery. She stilled at the contact, glaring at him despite the butterflies that erupted in the pit of her stomach.
“Do not be worried, Hollis,” he said, tanned face sober, his jawline dotted again with stubble. She wondered what it would feel like against her cheek, and she flushed hotly. Slow, a deep smirk gathered on his face. She wondered if he somehow knew her train of thoughts. She surmised it wouldn’t be that hard to guess—her mother often referred to her as an open book.
“Don’t give me those eyes,” he said, voice low and husky, a drastic change from the gentle tenor of a moment ago. She gulped, recognizing the change, remembering his oath to take her on her front porch steps if she didn’t lock herself into her room. She shook her head, his grip on her knee tightening.
He let out a rough sigh, close to a growl of frustration.
“You should only fear me after I’ve killed someone,” he said finally, withdrawing his hand.
“W-why?” she stuttered, perplexed. His malicious smirk widened.
“Because, that is when I most desire to bend you over and—”
“And do what?” a high, unfamiliar feminine voice called, followed by the cocking of a gun.