Thick darkness shrouded the world in a stifling and sticky blanket. The ink of night replaced the sweltering heat of the sun, offering little respite. The temperature seemed unaffected by any shift in the earth’s cycles this time of year and not a breath of air stirred the heavy atmosphere. Despite the humid night, a small fire snapped and hissed, struggling to burn the damp, moss-covered logs in the center of a large copse of thick trees. The dancing firelight within a small circle of stones cast it’s eerie flicker, warding off the darkness in it’s small space. Acrid smoke hung in the air, held down by the heavy canopy of leaves and evergreen boughs far above.
Elizabeth Smythe struggled to raise her head, the agony of which made everything spin, and her belly knot painfully. A primal sense prickled over her, foretelling of danger. Despite the pain, she remained quiet and still, listening to the sharp voices around her with confusion. With her chin low, touching her bare, sweat-slicked chest, she dared only to take shallow breaths. Fear kept her motionless, too afraid to move lest she be discovered awake. Foggy awareness slid through her mind as her senses awoke and her heavy, grainy lids fluttered. She moved her lips in an effort to moisten her mouth and found her thick tongue as dry as her cracked lips.
Foreign, angry words reverberated around her. Moving her head as little as possible, she craned her eyes as far as she dared to see. Golden light flickered over naked torsos and faces, illuminating and distorting appearances, that bright paint disguised even further. Her blood ran cold and she couldn’t help the fear squeezing the gasp from her lungs. Biting her lower lip to fight back a sob was all she could do without being noticed. Bare thighs crouched around the small circle of smoking flames, some stood in breechcloths behind them, guarding their brethren from within the heavier shadows. Terrifying colors of war paint around hard, glittering eyes, marked their dangerous intent as each moved with lethal and lithe grace.
Elizabeth closed her eyes again, letting her head drop down further. She had heard stories, awful stories, of what could happen to a young woman. Her mind ached as she tried to recall how she had gotten here, and why. There was too much pain, too much confusion and all she could draw upon was a blank memory.
Blinking, she lifted her eyes again, this time a little further, to watch the men. A pouch handed over to a large warrior with broad shoulders seemed to satisfy him enough to quiet the banter going on among them. He examined the contents, drew the pouch closed and tied it to his breechcloth’s belt. He stood and the others followed. Elizabeth quickly diverted her eyes and dropped her chin. The voices began to die down quickly, along with the fire, and the men began dwindling away, one by one. Uncertainty was the only thing left for her. What were they going to do with her? Would they kill her? How? Why? Fear clutched her belly. She knew many of the tribes were at war in these parts. However, she hadn’t done anything to anyone. She had always thought she was helping, she was a teacher. Closing her eyes against the stabbing pain in her head, she tried to focus. She tried to gather her wits for what was here and now, and stop trying to reason out what had happened. She opened her eyes again to see her bare, dirt-caked toes facing those of a large pair of well-worn moccasins. She felt her heart pound and her breath come in frightened heaves as she tried to look up far enough to face the warrior, but lifting her head was proving to be too much of a challenge. With a sudden lurch she fell forward, caught against the warriors smooth, sweat slicked chest and abdomen. His rough hands were surprisingly gentle when he moved her away from his torso. With her head still limp, she could see what was missing before and why she couldn’t move. She’d been bound and suspended from the tree with her arms over her head, and now, they hung useless before her as if they were dead tree limbs. When he picked her up, she realized all of her clothes were gone and she was naked. If she had been more coherent, she would have been mortified, but the heavy fuzziness in her head kept her too sedated to do anything. The warrior set her down with her back to the dying fire. Fear clutched at her heart and widened her eyes when he drew out the large knife from his belt sheath. Elizabeth was helpless and prayed it would all be over with soon, that death would be swift and painless. Placing the blade against the leather thongs binding her wrists, he sliced them off, never taking his eyes from hers. They glittered with intensity in the near darkness, just as dark as the world around them. After re-sheathing his blade, he steadied her with one hand. Slipping a soft, leather dress over her head and pulling her arms through the sides, he helped her sit on a thick fallen log. Holding a leather bag, he took a long drink from it before he held it to her lips. Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide as she took a drink of water between trembling lips. When she had swallowed several mouths full, he put the bag away. Without taking his eyes from her, he gave a sharp whistle and the instant thunder of hooves approached them. Picking her up again, he kicked dirt onto the glowing embers and went to his horse that had stopped only a short distance from them. With sure steps, he went to the sturdy mount waiting in the darkness, away from the chaos. Her mind was in such a fog that details were swimming past her. She wanted to get away. Wanted to fight, but she couldn’t and she didn’t know why.
The horse waited quietly when he slipped her over its back, steadying her trembling body with a hand. She felt the horse’s back muscles tighten when he mounted behind her. Clasping her tightly, he gathered the reins and guided them into the night.
Though she tried to fight it, the smooth even gait through the dark forest’s underbrush soon lulled her to sleep. When she awoke, she was reclined against the thick chest of her captor. Jolting away from him, he caught her in his solid embrace before her lack of balance threw her from the horses back. The shock of her mind becoming aware and the sudden memories of where and how she had been naked flooded her.
Elizabeth could barely remember anything of the day that had passed. She had woken on several occasions, only to be dragged under again, unable to stay coherent. She could only guess they had ridden all day and she had somehow, almost mercifully, slept through it as he rode. A short time later, the warrior stopped and dismounted without effort, keeping a hand on her leg. Reaching up, he grasped her waist, pulling her down as if she were a rag doll. Elizabeth couldn’t stifle the yelp of pain. Every part of her body ached and she knew she would have dark bruises on her back and ribs. With a gentle effort, he set her on the ground, against a fallen log, always keeping a sharp gaze on her. He moved back to the horse and when he returned, he began building a small fire using a long bow. Sinew wrapped around a stick in its center, the stick’s point resting on a scrap of hallowed wood, lined with a mat of dried moss and shaved tinder. He moved the bow horizontally, spinning the shaft of wood against his calloused hand. Elizabeth smelled the smoke before she saw the sparks jump to life, consuming the tinder that fed it. He blew on it, gently keeping it alive before setting it beneath the prepared fire pit.
Despite the damp heat, she was glad to see the fire and feel the heat against the moist air gathering in the early evening. Soon the dancing flames sent sparks ascending to the heavens. Drawing her eyes upward, Elizabeth couldn’t help but sink back against the old log and rest her aching head. She had to figure a way to escape before he tried to kill her, or worse. She watched her captor for a while, neither one of them taking their eyes from one another. Maybe if she studied him long enough, he would make a mistake and she could get away. But after watching him for just a short while, she didn’t think there were any mistakes made in his sleek, panther like movements. She looked into his hard black, glittering eyes framed by red paint and wondered what his intent was for her. The small fire flickering before his crouched frame left little doubt of any physical weakness. He was about the broadest and strongest man she had ever seen. The damp heat made his smooth chest and bare thighs glisten in the firelight, accentuating every contour of his lean frame. Long, loose hair hung in a dark veil down his back. His breechcloth hid what was necessary, however she could see the thick muscle of his haunches, disappearing behind him. Though she didn’t feel entirely safe, she did not feel threatened anymore either. Something about him exuded a fierce, yet calm assurance. If he was going to kill her, surely he would have done it by now. He had gone through a lot of trouble to bring her out here, if that was the case. Unless, he didn’t want her found.
Closing her eyes for a moment, she reopened them and looked skyward, through a small portal in the thick cover overhead, watching the fat round moon and sparkling stars, pearled by swathes of sheer clouds. Letting her eyes close again, she drifted.
When Elizabeth opened her eyes again, early morning colors of orange and pink were just staining the horizon. Thin tendrils of smoke curled from the fire’s charred remains. Her head didn’t hurt quite so much now, but the aches and pains her body felt were a different matter altogether. She lay on her side trying not to move, wrapped in a long blanket and was glad her captor had been thoughtful enough to give it to her. Not wanting to see if his gentle demeanor would be the same this morning as it had been the night before, she forced herself up. Trying not to cry out in pain as her stiff muscles began moving again, she rose up with slow persistence, grimacing. Heat on the back of her neck made her turn. The warrior stood watching her with hard eyes from a distance, his lips a thin line and his expression as unreadable as stone. Yet, he was as un-rumpled as if he had slept in a comfortable bed somewhere. Even the paint on his face looked fresh and untouched. She wasn’t going to show any weakness, no pain. Clenching her jaw, she forced herself up when all she really wanted to do was just lie back down again and whimper in pain and beg him to let her go home to her father. But she would not give her captor the satisfaction of knowing her discomfort. When she stood a completely new set of muscles cried out in protest, making her gasp. She wobbled and shook from lack of food and water. She didn’t know how long she had been without either, but she could tell it was too long. Though her mind was beginning to clear, she still had holes in her memory.
With easy steps, the warrior crossed the distance between them, handed her a handful of large, soft maple leaves, and pointed to a fallen log not far from their little encampment. He pointed and crossed his arms, giving her a stern look. Looking down to the leaves again, Elizabeth looked back at him and suddenly understood what his unspoken words meant. That was to be her morning toilette and she had better not run. Stepping gingerly, she went to the far side of the log and did her business. She wondered if she would stand a chance if she just snuck away into the underbrush, or maybe just ran. She looked over at him, he stood, waiting quietly as if listening. In her condition, she wouldn’t get very far in one piece. With the way she felt, she was surprised she had made it this far. When she returned, she walked slowly; keeping her teeth clenched and tried to keep her feet from shuffling. As if he understood, he remained motionless until she met him. Reaching down, he picked her up by the waist and placed her over the horses back again. Her thighs screamed and she bit her tongue not to follow suit as a sharp gasp managed to escape. Her sore bottom and legs were not going to make today’s journey pleasant. After picking up the blanket and kicking dirt over the dead fire, the warrior mounted in a smooth leap. Clicking his tongue, the horse began moving in a slow walk. He chirped again and it moved faster, again until he moved over the well-trod path, at a gallop.
He held her with one large, thick hand and the reins in the other as they sped along through the underbrush and thick forest. There was a tension between both man and beast, an unsettling urge to hurry away from this place. She thought maybe it was because he didn’t want to be caught kidnapping her, being strung up for kidnapping was not a pleasant undertaking. She only hoped she lived long enough to get away in one piece. From the look of things, she wasn’t going to make it far from this stone-faced man who seemed to let nothing go unnoticed. She fought the urge to weep.
The pain seemed to be subsiding some, though it was still there. She tried to keep her mind active and not centered on her physical discomfort or the terror clutching her heart. About the only thing she could think of was what might be in store for her future now.
They ate as they rode. He gave her hard, jerked meat to eat and a leather skin bag with cool water. The warrior rode hard that day, only slowing to let the horse rest and drink from a near by stream. Often times the horse would start galloping on his own accord without her captor even flinching. It was definite that they were in a hurry to leave this place.
Elizabeth was glad when it was too dark to ride any further. When they dismounted, she wrapped herself in the blanket, too tired to care where she fell, and slept on the soft forest floor. She believed she had only slept for a few hours when his rough hand covered her mouth. She struggled and screamed against his hand when he woke her, when she became coherent, she instantly stopped. Picking her up, blanket and all, he tossed her over the horse’s back again. Fresh pain made her gasp and darkness hid her tears as they resumed their journey in the cover of darkness.
Dawn lit their path a few hours later, and the horse’s stamina drove them forward. She felt the warrior on edge, tensing with every movement around them and she couldn’t help the gorge of fear that rose within her intensify. Around mid-day, he pulled out a long bow and strung it while they rode. He nocked an arrow, holding it down to the side, ready for anything. The tension around them was the only thing keeping Elizabeth awake and alert. New fear claimed her when she thought about what she had been through, and what she couldn’t remember worried her even more. She wondered if she would ever see her home and father again and she wondered if they were ever going to reach wherever it was they were going. But then again, maybe she was better off now. Uncertain thoughts tumbled through her mind and the only thing on her mind was that they were riding in the wrong direction.
Elizabeth was never so happy to see the sun sinking on the horizon again. She hoped they would be stopping soon because of darkness, and was sadly mistaken when they continued to travel. The horse just didn’t seem to know how to stop. He just mechanically kept moving. Elizabeth wanted to sob and cry for her bruised and sore body, but she didn’t. She kept quiet. Out of pure exhaustion, she felt herself wobbling and teetering loosely with the horse’s motions. When the warrior’s strong arm came around and secured her, she didn’t pull away. He pulled her in closer to his body and she melted wearily against his him. His warm, earthen musk blended with the horse’s creating a mysterious scent she knew she shouldn’t find mesmerizing. But as she was falling under sleep’s spell, she couldn’t help but be enticed by a scent she had loved since she was a girl. A scent she identified as strength, man and horse.
When dawn cracked the horizon, Elizabeth bolted awake. She sat up with a painful start as her muscles cramped, jolting her awake. She buried her head in her arm to stifle the scream as pain tore through her legs. When the spasms had subsided, she lay back, and realized they weren’t moving. They were actually sleeping on the ground! She carefully opened one eye and didn’t see her captor anywhere around her. She thought that maybe she might be in luck. Maybe she could attempt to get away. Moving her legs, she felt the heavy weight around one ankle. Looking around quickly, she saw the warrior by her foot, his hand clamped around her ankle. Elizabeth slumped, knowing her escape would be futile, even if she had not been in his vise like grip.
She studied him while he slept. This was the first time in three days that she had been able to look at him, especially without him looking at her with those piercing eyes. Only one corner of the thick blanket rested on the back of his leg as he lay on his belly, and his thick brown thighs spread apart enough for his breechcloth to fall between, blending with the contours of his haunches. His broad back rose and fell with even breaths and he rested his head on his free arm. His unbound, long black hair shimmered blue in the sunshine. Loose wisps clung to his face and she could see where the paint around his eyes began to smudge, it made him look a little less intimidating. He seemed harmless like this and she would bet when he was without the war paint he was very handsome. She wanted to touch him. Daring herself to touch his hair, she reached out, only to pull her hand back quickly, rubbing her fingers together to quell the itch to do so. She imagined the course texture threading between her fingers and she began to wonder how it would feel if-
“Do you like what you see?” His rich baritone voice startled her.