I start to question what Thorn considers as far because we’ve been walking for at least an hour. I get the feeling that I am slowing him down but he doesn’t complain. I stop to rest against a tree which makes him purse his lips with annoyance.
“How can you possibly be tired?” he says. “You haven’t changed your speed since we left the cave.”
“Walking is exhausting too.”
“For you maybe.”
“You said the camp wasn’t far,” I say.
He chuckles. “It’s not. I could cover it in a few minutes.”
I roll my eyes.
“It’s not much further, I promise. It’s just up that hill.” He flicks his eyes to the steep hill behind him and I groan. “I don’t think hills are a fan of you either,” he says. “Come on, I’ll help you.”
I leave the tree and I stop at the bottom of the hill as Thorn just casually scales it like it’s not even a problem. He keeps one hand tight around the quilt and extends another to me. I hold his large hand tightly as I use my right one to grab onto strong branches sticking out of the slope. He manages to lift me to the top effortlessly. I didn’t have to use any strength or energy to move at all. How can he bear my whole weight with one hand?
He releases my hand slowly, almost like it was difficult for him to do so. I wait patiently as he walks over to a small tree and collects something from underneath it. He drops the quilt to the floor and I swallow as I glimpse his naked frame. His back is arched and muscled, it is a man’s body, not a boy’s.
He lifts his arms up to pull the shirt over his head and his shoulders get even bigger, the lumps forming down his arms like moving boulders. He bends over to pull up the pants and I get a clear view of his backside. It is firm and clenched, like he is doing it on purpose because he knows that I’m looking. I clear my throat and pretend to be looking elsewhere as he turns back around.
“Like what you saw?” He grins at me.
“I can hear your pulse racing.”
“Oh.” I stare after him in confusion. “Huh?”
I jog to catch up to him and we walk along another short path in the meadow that leads towards more woods.
“Why do you keep clothes lying around?” I ask.
“You never know where you might wake up in the morning. I have clothes scattered all over these woods.”
He is very strange. I guess living out here by himself has made him like that. He keeps a giant wolf as a pet so it’d be fair to assume that he hasn’t had human company in a while. I owe him my life so it’d be rude to judge him. However he lives out here and no matter how crazy it may seem, it helps him to survive. Maybe he could teach me how to do it too.
I start to hear voices through the trees and I keep stopping to listen because I’m not sure if I’m imagining them. Thorn doesn’t react, he keeps on walking.
“Do you hear that?” I say.
There are definitely voices and I can see the outline of bodies moving between the trees. I was wrong, he doesn’t live alone. Does he have a family?
Thorn suddenly stops so that I am forced to be in front of him. Even from a distance, I can recognize Lyle’s red hair. I turn sharply to run back but Thorn blocks my way.
“They’ve been searching for you all night,” he says. “You have people that care about you. Go home, Devon.”
I gasp as he uses my real name. He knew it all along. “No,” I say, trying to get around him. He restrains me and holds my hands tightly together. I go limp against his hold.
“You’re going to get hurt out here. It’s not safe.”
“You don’t understand!” I cry at him. “They are not searching for me, they are hunting me.”
“You don’t belong here,” he says softly. “I’m sorry.”
“No, please,” I beg him. “Please, you don’t understand-”
Thorn presses his fingers to his mouth and makes a whistling sound. I turn around as he releases me. Lyle looks right at me. I paralyze for several seconds until Lyle starts charging at me. I back up into empty air. Thorn is gone.
I lose my sense of direction and breathing as he corners me into a tree. Several men flank him, they all have weapons. Lyle holds up the handgun in his palm and presses it into my forehead. I pinch my eyes closed as I pant.
“I was certain that I’d be finding your remains,” he says. “I don’t know how you managed to stay alive but I am very pleased that you are.”
I open my eyes to see him withdrawing the gun, his hand smacks across my cheek and I wince as the impact makes me fall sideways. He doesn’t allow me to fall, he grips my arm and yanks me back upright, his hand tightens around my throat as he pins me against the tree.
“Did you really think that you could get away with humiliating me?” he growls. “With leaving me?”
His fist collides with the side of my jaw and this time I do meet the ground. I cry out as I touch my bruised face, unsure if it’s broken. He kicks my stomach and rolls me over to my back. His legs drop astride my waist and he pins my struggling arms over my head, his weight starts to crush me into the ground.
“Do you think you’re too pretty for me?” he says, he holds both of my wrists together with his hand and clamps around them. His other hand touches my face softly and then he trails it down my throat. “Am I not good enough for you, is that it?”
I snarl at him. “Yes.”
“Your body is thinner,” he says as his hand pulls at my waist. “Not much to eat out here. I’ll give you something to eat.”
I spit into his eye. His face turns red with anger for a moment as he wipes it.
“Is that the way to treat your future husband?” he says. “The person that is going to give you everything?” He squeezes his hand in between my legs and starts rubbing against it slowly. “I don’t think I’ll wait until our wedding night. I think I’ll take you right now.”
“No,” I say desperately. “Help!” I scream.
His hand clamps around my mouth and I struggle endlessly to get out from underneath him.
“Hold her still!” he orders.
He keeps his hand around my mouth as two of his men drop behind me and restrain my arms. I carry on struggling, trying to scream through his tight skin that is keeping my voice bound. I feel my pants become looser as he rips open the buttons, he starts to drag them down my waist until he hears something in the distance. He stares over my head, narrowing his eyes into the trees.
“Check that out!” he yells.
Footsteps run past me as I lay restrained on the ground. The two men still have my arms and Lyle yanks my hands out of their grip.
He sits up and starts tying a thick rope around my wrists. He tightens it so harshly that my wrists feel broken. He pulls on the end of the rope and drags me forwards on my stomach.
“Did you find anything?” Lyle shouts.
There is silence. I stay on the ground as Lyle and the other two men withdraw their guns and circle around me. I look up through a gap in my hair to see Lyle telling a man to check behind a tree. The man walks towards it slowly and turns a sharp right with the gun pointed at his eye-level. There is a scuffling noise and the man vanishes.
Lyle starts shooting. He shoots in every direction of the woods. I try to use the top of my arms to cover my ears. It goes silent and I drop my arms to see Lyle frantically looking for his men that have all vanished.
Something drops from the top of a tree and I flinch as Thorn lands behind him. Lyle turns around quickly but he doesn’t have time to lift the gun. Thorn punches him and even from the ground, I can hear something crack in his face.
His hand grips around Lyle’s throat and he lifts him into the air before smacking his whole body down into the ground. Lyle’s feet kick as Thorn keeps a strong hold of his throat.
“Stop!” I shout. “You can’t kill him, he’s a potential!”
“So?” Thorn says.
“There was only a small group of them,” I say as I try to crawl my way over. “If you kill him then the King will send his whole army into these woods.”
“Let them come.”
Thorn lifts Lyle’s head up by the scruff of his neck and then slams his head down. The blood leaks out onto the leaves. Thorn twists his head curiously.
“Still has a pulse,” he mutters. He clenches his hand into his fist and pulls it back.
“Please don’t,” I say. He stops, turning to look at me. “There will be thousands of men with guns deployed into these woods to hunt us.”
“They don’t know that I exist. If I allow him to live then they will.”
“They will hunt whatever has killed him,” I say. “Lyle is like a son to the King, he will seek revenge.”
“This man is most definitely not going to be waking up anytime soon,” Thorn says. “I cracked his skull. He’ll be in a coma for at least a few weeks, assuming he doesn’t die before then. The King will come looking for revenge anyway. That’s what they do, they like doing it. At least this way there is no chance of Lyle waking up and telling him that you’re still alive.”
I swallow as I keep my eyes down. He has a point.
“Why were they hunting you anyway?” he says. “What does this have to do with the King?”
“Lyle is the King’s potential,” I whisper. “He is training to take over the throne. And I was supposed to be his bride.”
Thorn’s lips twist angrily into a small snarl, it quickly vanishes, leaving me wondering if it was even real. He turns his head sharply towards the east and then rises to his feet.
“What is it?” I say.
“Humans,” he says quietly. “Lots and lots of humans. They’re headed this way.”
“You can hear them?”
“I can hear vibrations. For most noise I have to be in a certain radius but with vibrations I can hear them for miles. That’s why I circled back. I heard your scream.”
I stare at him in wonder. My mouth opens to ask him something completely ridiculous but he charges over and rips the rope from my wrists. I rub them tenderly for a few seconds before he picks me up and throws me over his shoulder.