The Lupine Saga 124

The teens’ progress was somewhat slowed, considering the night they had and Va’il’s exhaustion. Va’il had packed some provisions, but he had still mostly resorted to hunting when following after Ruby. He returned to her the money pouch that had been left in the room before, though they didn’t find a place to purchase anything new. In fact, in their haze, they hadn’t really paid attention to their exact direction since their escape either. They had been going in a westerly direction, still, but not perfectly west, as would soon become clear.

The next day arrived, and the teens were feeling freed from the previous anxiety regarding the sudden departure from Ruby’s captors. It was still in their minds that they were probably being pursued in some fashion, but it was a worry without backing at the moment. It also had something to do with how far west they were, finally. Grip’s influence was far-reaching, but they had already gone past the edge of that sphere of influence. Though, it was still time for them to run into another group of people. They had to, considering how much longer their scant provisions and water would last. It was unfortunate that Va’il hadn’t been able to bring everything they previously had purchased, but it was to be expected considering the circumstances.

“There’s a sound,” Va’il said.

“What sound?”

“Over that far hill. There’s the sound of yells, metal, and more. And there’s a smell. The smell of blood. Human,” Va’il said.

“A battle?” Ruby asked.

“I think so. We shouldn’t go that way.”

“A battle? Out here? Where are we? Wait. Human blood? Are you sure? Just human or anything else?” Ruby asked.

“Just human. We’re pretty close. I mean, unless it was a completely one-sided fight. No, that wouldn’t matter. There’d be more in the air than just blood. It’s humans, all of them,” Va’il said. He wasn’t looking too well, he didn’t care for thought of all the death near them. Ruby understood that, and she didn’t want to deal with it either, but there was a suspicion she had.

“We should go, Va’il. Please,” Ruby said.

“Okay. Are you sure? It’s not going to be pretty. It’ll be much worse than anything you’ve been near before, hand-breaking swordswoman or not,” Va’il said.

“I understand. But we should go there. I’m pretty sure I know where we are. Or, at least, I hope I’m right. If we are, then we should go. If I figure out we’re not, we’ll have to run,” Ruby said.

“All right, if you say so. I’ll be ready to run. Let’s go.”

They gradually got closer to the hill, and the sounds of battle become clearer. Finally, they arrived at the top of the hill, overlooking a battle far below them, with two human groups fighting. The fight hadn’t been going on for too long, but the sights and sounds were still the ghastly markings of a vicious fight.

Ruby steadied herself as she looked at the battle below her. She smiled for the briefest moment when she realized something, before returning to her feelings of sickened shock.

“This has to stop,” Ruby said.

“Yes. But it’s a battle. It’ll only stop when both sides either decide to quit, truce, or one side loses,” Va’il said. He was annoyed, more than anything else, at the sight of people fighting one another. If he didn’t stay annoyed, he knew he’d give way to tears, and right now he needed to support whatever decision Ruby was about to make.

“Va’il, I’m going to ask something strange of you. Do it, and we’ll stop the battle. And more. You’ll see after that. And, first off, be rough about it. It’ll have to look real until she realizes,” Ruby said.

“What?”

“Just, don’t really hurt me. Though, if you draw some blood, it’s fine.”

“What? What?”

“Okay, here’s what you’ll have to do and say.”

#

The battle was between two groups of humans. One side had a red banner with a diamond in the middle, and the other side had a purple banner with a tree in the middle. The commanders of each camp were soon greeted with some dire news.

In the commander’s tent for the purple-bannered side sat a woman. She was conversing with her strategists with a map and several texts laid out on a table in front of her. She was a good-looking woman with darkish hair, and was well-adorned with jewelry and fancy regal clothing. In the middle of her conversation a man burst into the tent.

“It’s urgent, Lady Murasaki!”

“What’s going on? Our line is fine, is it not?”

“It was, but we’ve had to order a stop to the fighting,” the messenger said.

“What? That’s ridiculous! And do we just roll over while they annihilate our army?” Murasaki asked.

“No Lady, they have stopped too! There’s a matter for both you and the commander of the reds to attend to that has appeared,” the messenger said.

“What could possibly warrant the halt of a battle as important as this?” Murasaki asked, gradually becoming more and more incensed.

“Most gracious Lady, there appears to be a hostage situation. A noble girl has been taken by some mercenary of some sort. A non-human one!”

“What? Which noble house?”

“We’re not sure. It could be one of the reds’ girls, actually! But no one on hand could tell which she belonged to, and the lupus won’t let us get too close. One false move and he’d rip out her throat, he said! He demanded a stop to the battle and for the commanders to come and claim her, he’ll make his demands then,” the messenger said.

“Sounds like a tactic the reds may use. A noble girl? Which house, I wonder? Then again, I can think of a few stupid girls who’d get themselves captured. But if it’s a red girl, that’d be interesting. Wait, how can we be sure it’s a noble girl, and not some random peasant?” Murasaki asked.

“She has a golden signet, though no one could get close enough to make out any detail on it. The lupus has us staying rather far away. And the girl looks like she’s been dirtied, her features are slightly obscured from that distance.”

“A signet. Well, even if it is a trap, the reds will probably have their commander go as well. He’s not one to know all their nobles either. I’ll go. Ready the men and horses!”

Murasaki stood and removed a couple layers of regal clothing that were useless to her. She donned her armor and long, thin sword, and then met with her sub-commanders. A group of about twenty, about the same size as the opposition, rode out towards a hill in a distance. There, at the top, were two teenage people, a human girl and male lupus. No one was within one hundred meters of them, and the lupus had the girl firmly in hand, with one hand gripping her throat, his claws resting on her skin. He wore a fierce expression and bared his fangs. The girl appeared to struggle a bit, but the lupus had forced one arm behind her back.

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The Lupine Saga 123

“Oh, so you think I should always look like a thief rolled in mud, and smell like a soldier in unwashed armor, do you, Va’il?”

“Yes.”

“Jerk!” Ruby laughed a bit and pushed Va’il a bit. He laughed too, but then noticed some leftover rope marks on Ruby’s wrists.

“Really Ruby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. It’s all my fault. All of it’s my fault. I should have protected you,” Va’il said, sulking slightly.

“Yes, you should have. But now, you have. And I’m fine, now. It was nothing I couldn’t handle, just a simple kidnapping,” Ruby said.

“A simple kidnapping! That’s far from simple! Oh wait, no. You’re passing it off again. It’s not so simple for you, is it? Don’t be the lying Ruby again,” Va’il said, this time sounding a little angry.

“Maybe. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want people capturing me, forcing me, restraining me. I really was scared, Va’il,” Ruby said, looking down.

“I know. I won’t say it’s okay because it’s fine now. But now, you’ll be fine. They didn’t do anything too bad to you, did they?” Va’il asked carefully, though the question itself was as frank as Va’il usually was.

“No, I’m fine. They didn’t hurt me. Though, if they caught me now, I’d bet they would, ha,” Ruby said. She chuckled lightly.

“Good. So he was right. Well, if they were going to, or had, I would’ve acted sooner,” Va’il said.

“What? What do you mean? You can’t mean you didn’t come as fast as possible!” Ruby was angry again.

“That’s not what I meant. What I mean is that I was told you’d be unharmed. I did rush to find you as soon as possible. And that was much more difficult than you’d think. That story doesn’t matter, all that matters is that I did eventually catch up. But you know I didn’t rush in the moment I found you, right?”

“The wolf that howled at night, right?”

“Right. I was worried you wouldn’t catch on. I stayed a distance away once I did finally find you, but I wouldn’t have if I thought you really were going to be harmed, or if I’d seen something once I caught up. Nothing would’ve stopped me,” Va’il said, the lupus in him tensely speaking the final few words.

“I knew you’d hear me. I knew it had to be you. If it really had been just a wolf, I don’t know what. But it had to be you. Cause it was silent all the next night. Good lupus, good boy,” Ruby said. She patted Va’il on the head twice, which removed his prior tension.

“Ha, I’m no dog. But it’s still nice. But yes. And your silly message. That play we all know, that woman’s quote. Two talon’d, three clawed. Not two nights, but three. You knew I’d understand, then? You knew I’d hear from that distance?”

“Of course. Well, maybe. Three was safest, that night was the stupid guy’s turn to stay up. He’s paid for his incompetence. And even if you didn’t understand, I figured you’d rush after me if I ran off. Unless you slept through the night or something silly.”

“Sleep could wait. But you ran off in a direction I wasn’t expecting. I was on the other side, I had to take a way around to avoid those men. And at least my night vision is good. Thank Mum for it. You looked just like a small rabbit fleeing from a big mean predator,” Va’il said, licking his lips once.

“Who was the predator? Well, no, whatever. I’m just happy. Don’t leave me again. What happened to you anyways?”

“My life was saved,” Va’il said. He laughed a bit.

“Saved? I thought something happened to you. Last I recall, you were whisked away. I was scared you were gone for good.”

“The drunk we met earlier. He’s a crazy man. He found out about the plan to kidnap you. And dispose of me. He told me they were instructed to keep you safe and take you back to Rising, so he rushed in when they did to save my life,” Va’il said.

“He overheard? That’s suspicious. And take me to Rising? I guess we’ve been going back that direction, but why? And those men, they are probably Grip men,” Ruby said.

“That drunk was very suspicious. And very wonderful, in his own way. I had pretty good reason to believe him back then. His history is probably something really fantastic. I’m sure he knew it was Grip men who took you. Why they’d go in the direction of home, I don’t know. But just being in Rising wouldn’t matter if you arrived as a kidnapped person. It’s easier to use a hostage when you can prove their existence to the people who matter. So, though safe, you had to be rescued. Though, it looks like you had an ordeal of your own. You did get away for just long enough, but how, and what were those screams?”

“I see. I should’ve expected. I suppose I won’t know why for a while. Well, we know why, but you know what I mean. You sure you want to know how I escaped?”

“Yes. How did you escape?”

“Running wouldn’t have been enough, not with them. I needed something that’d distract them long enough for me to get to you without them catching up right away. And, I guess it also served as a signal to you. When it was time, I rushed the man who was supposed to be watching me, though he was tipsy from all his drinks. I pulled his sword out, and while I used the momentum to stand and turn, I slashed downwards. Well, almost. I turned the blade and used the side to smack his hand as hard as I could. It probably broke a couple bones, but I didn’t want to hurt him more than was needed for our distraction. I dropped the sword and ran at that point. I figured that’d take him and at least one other off the pursuit, especially if he didn’t realize in the low light I hadn’t taken off his hand, just hurt it enough to make him want help instead of chasing me,” Ruby said factually. Va’il whistled slightly.

“Used a sword, I see,” Va’il said. He breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing would’ve stopped him if Ruby was in true danger, and so he was very relieved that Ruby was competent in desperate situations. He thought he had to protect her, but the older girl, just a human even, had the ability to take care of herself as well.

“Yes. It’s actually my best form. Makeen and Shiroi have helped with some of the other forms a bit, but, if I can brag a bit, I’m best with a sword or preferably stick,” Ruby said, laughing a little.

“Sure you can. That’s really amazing of you. And it helped save you. Good job, Ruby. Really, wonderful job. Now, let’s head home. After a nap.”

Ruby smiled at the compliments, relaxed her tired body, and continued their journey.

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The Lupine Saga 122

Ruby had nodded off throughout the day. The journey had tired her, of course, but this day she had purposefully tried napping when she could, regardless of whether it was five minutes or an hour. She had stayed still and quiet all day long, as normal, while the wagon bounced along.

Night fell, and the men cooked some provisions and drank. Ruby smiled when she noticed which man wasn’t drinking. She had watched each of them somewhat, noticing certain traits and habits. And the man who was to be this night’s watch apparently hated it the most. Ruby had figured it’d be him this night, a thought from several days ago, as they had rotated in the same order for a while. She also knew, from once waking up in a cold sweat with fear in the middle of the night, that this man was especially addicted to his drink. She had noticed on that night last week that he drank on his watch in the middle of the night, when she and all the rest were supposed to be asleep. It wasn’t too much to render him useless, but it contributed to Ruby’s plans.

Soon enough the night had grown, and the men started getting ready to sleep. Before that, Ruby had made herself comfortable near the fire, and had closed her eyes long ago, soon after she had finished eating. Two slept in the cart, and the other was a distance away on the other side of the fire. The one watching that night was careless, as usual, Ruby noticed. She had been complacent for a while, and appeared almost indifferent to her situation to the men. They were well-trained, that much she knew, but still naive in their regard of her.

The night went on. Ruby stayed awake, forcing herself to remain alert even though her eyes had to stay closed for several hours. She knew that time didn’t pass as fast as her patience told her it did, and what may seem like an hour could be as little as twenty minutes. She waited and waited, every so often taking a peek at the fire to see how much wood had been burned. She peeked whenever a new log was thrown on, and took note of how far down the prior log had burned when a new one was used.

She used the fire as a timekeeper of sorts in this way. When she was satisfied with how much time had passed, having seen several pieces of wood devoured, she waited only a short while longer, waiting for the fire to burn until just before the point where the man would put another log on. Of course, this was all tempered by how often the man drank.

Finally the time coincided, and the man had emptied his drink in one large swig containing at least a quarter of what he had continually drank for the night. He rocked a little bit, shuffled the fire a little bit, and looked angry, as usual.

And then he looked away. Ruby fully opened her eyes and rushed forward using both her hands and feet, as there wasn’t enough time to stand. The man heard this and snapped his head around, about ready to react.

Of course, Ruby’s body had been ready for this moment for a while now. Her heart had already been beating like crazy, and her mind was primed to follow a routine she had practiced in her head a hundred, a thousand times. Her reflexes and actions were trained by years of instructors, both private and public. And she was ready to stake her life on moving faster than she ever had before.

Ruby was already at the man’s side and beginning to stand by the time he turned his head around. Ruby had raised the sword before he could reach out towards her. And he was already saying what Ruby was planning for him to say in reaction to her, before he could say the words that had first come to his head.

“Argh!” A brief crack followed immediately by a scream came from him, which woke up the other three men.

They knew that a scream waking them meant their prisoner had done something. The three men immediately got up and looked off in the distance as Ruby disappeared into the forest. They were all about to run after her, their first priority, but the first man, the screaming man, briefly stopped them.

“Help me! My hand! Gah! Help!” The man pleaded with his companions, delaying them for the crucial seconds that Ruby needed. One man stayed, and the other two ran. That’s as far as Ruby knew, for something new was in store for her.

#

Ruby ran as quick as she could, not stopping for the yells she left behind. It was dark and she felt various bushes scrape her legs from time to time, but she could see well enough to avoid the trees. She ran until it felt like her body wouldn’t let her move any more, and she had to finally stop, a great distance from where she had left, though she could hear the men approaching her quickly. And then she heard it, the brush in front of her cracking.

“Skates or carry?” Va’il asked, appearing in the darkness.

“Carry!” Ruby replied, almost laughing out the word.

“All right, you carry, and then hurry on,” Va’il said. He took a pack off himself and put it around Ruby, and then leaned down while Ruby climbed onto his back.

Va’il jogged on in the darkness, dodging trees with ease and carrying Ruby through the night. The yells of the men became more and more distant as the night continued. By the time the sky had begun to lighten, any distant sound of the men was gone, and for the first time in a while, Ruby relaxed.

“Are you tired?” Ruby asked, as it was obvious Va’il had slowed down a lot.

“It’s all right,” Va’il replied.

“Let me down, I’m more than rested enough. We can switch to skates,” Ruby said.

“I can still hear them.”

“Well I can’t. If they are out of my range, we have enough time to lace up and move quicker, right?”

“I guess so. But we should still hurry. They might be able to track as well,” Va’il said.

Ruby acknowledged Va’il, and was let down. Together they put on the slipskates that Va’il had brought, and then continued on, wordlessly.

The sun was directly above them by the time they took a break and finally spoke again, several hours after they had continued their journey on slipskates. No matter how good the men were at their running and tracking, they would never again catch up to Ruby and Va’il. They would never be heard from again. Taking a moment to rest in the shade, Va’il breathed a sigh of relief, though Ruby spoke first.

“You’re late,” Ruby said. Normally she’d sound half-joking, but there was a serious inflection in her voice.

“You’re the one who said to wait for three days,” Va’il replied with a small smile.

“Don’t do that! I really, really was scared. You, you!” Ruby looked at Va’il, her face dirty from travel, and tight with anger. Va’il dropped his half grin and felt his throat tighten.

“I know. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Ruby,” Va’il said. They sat in silence for a while, unable to speak freely, unable to think of what words to say. Va’il remembered something, and turned to Ruby. She looked back at him, her eyes still reddish and her mind a jumble.

Va’il fiddled with his bag, and then held out his palm in front of Ruby. There sat in the palm of his hand a golden ring, Ruby’s signet. She reached up slowly and took it. She held it in her fingers and played with it a bit. She then put it on her finger and held up her hand, smiling.

“That’s how you should always look,” Va’il said, smiling. Ruby kept staring at the ring, but she felt herself blush slightly. She then thought it over again, and looked sharply at Va’il.

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The Lupine Saga 121

“What’s following us?”

“That wolf. I heard it when it was my turn last night. Late at night when you all slept he was howling. But it was more distant.”

“Now that you mention it, I think I heard him too. Well, maybe. Wolves aren’t unusual around here. Bunch of prey to hunt down, ha.”

“Ha, true. But just probably near some territory of theirs.”

“Just one howl though, not a pack.”

“You’re paranoid. You think he’s hunting us? You’re drinking too much.”

“He might have a point. I mean, I may have heard something a while back. I didn’t think anything of it thing. But now, he’s sounding pretty close too. Closer, right?”

“Yeah, a lot closer. How far off can you usually hear them howl?”

“Many kilometers. They can have pretty large territories. He’s probably a lot farther off than you think. Or she, whatever.”

“Wolves. I hate wolves. Training for them still doesn’t feel like enough.”

“Hey, don’t talk about that.”

“Oh whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does.”

“Fine fine. I know, don’t talk about stuff that matters. Freaking wolf. I’m not going to sleep well.”

“Ha, dream of him biting your rear. You know that’s how they kill, bite you in a sensitive, fleshy area, and wait for you to bleed out?”

“Shut up.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Pretty vicious, right? Well, effective. A wolf doesn’t care about its prey’s feelings or ability to reproduce should it escape, right? Bite right where it hurts. Ha.”

“You’re getting pretty gross there.”

“Well, they are interesting. At least the animals are. Now, a lupus on the other hand, those are really vicious.”

“Yeah they are.”

“I don’t want to hear.”

“You ever read about the lupus of Gren, the black-furred one?”

“The myth crazy uncles tell to scare kids?”

“My great-great grandfather told my grandfather, who told me, it really happened, he was there when the army back then tried heading into those northern areas. History may say it was weather that forced them back, but grandfather believed him.”

“He actually see it, or was he just trying to scare a kid and pass on a myth?”

“His records say he was really there. It’s the only story of his, apparently, where he admitted freely he was a coward. Every other story he’s heroic in.”

“So what happened?”

“So the lupus of Gren, back then they called it Nightmare. There were other names, but my ancestor would only refer to it as Nightmare.”

“Oh, how scary. So typical. Whatever. Guess I could use a story with my drink. You’re giving him a good scare here anyways.”

“Heh. Well, Nightmare apparently was already at the border waiting for the army to cross. There wasn’t really a clear border, so the army passed into the territory one day without even really knowing it. They camped for the night. When they awoke that morning, there was a body lying at the entrance to one of the large tents. The commanding officer looked at the body, and then entered the tent. Everyone inside was dead.”

“A large tent? Sure it wasn’t just a small army one?”

“He said a large one. An entire tent’s worth of men, gone, in one night, with no one noticing. It was a gruesome sight, apparently. Well, nobody could explain what happened, and the army kept moving that day. And then it happened a second night, even though there were more guards awake that night. Another tent, gone. Most of the men inside were still in sleeping positions, and a few were on the ground, their hands on their necks. All with the same gruesome markings as before.”

“That’s getting pretty amazing, but gross.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the most surprising thing. So the third night, no one slept. It was already being called Nightmare by this point, as it seemed to take men in their sleep. So my ancestor was just as frightened as the rest.”

“They all stayed up? Did Nightmare come?”

“Yes, Nightmare came. Everyone was up and ready for the Nightmare. And it lived up to the name. It came when everyone was awake, without regard for them. My ancestor said he at first acted courageous, drawing his sword and chasing after Nightmare as it tore through rows of soldiers alone, a trail of bodies in its wake. But Nightmare was fast, and didn’t attack head-on. Nightmare moved in inhuman ways, dodged spears and swords and arrows, and tore apart armor like paper. To be honest, the army’s training and equipment back then was not nearly as good as now. Today Nightmare would have a tough time. But Nightmare would still be frightening, somewhat.”

“So what happened? Did they get him?”

“I’m getting there. But first, my ancestor said that at one point it looked like Nightmare was getting close to where he was. At this point he had stopped chasing. It’s true that when you consider the total number of soldiers killed, it wasn’t really that significant a number. But it was still just one lupus, and that was enough. So, when Nightmare got closer, my ancestor took the coward’s way out. He hid beneath a few bodies near him, hoping Nightmare wouldn’t notice a living body beneath them.”

“Indeed, that’s cowardly.”

“But I can understand it, after hearing how he had trembled when telling this story to my grandfather. Anyways, Nightmare at this point was escaping from the chasing horde, and had stopped for a brief second in front of my ancestor, when the largest surprise happened.”

“Don’t tell me he attacked in surprise and managed to bring down the great Nightmare? Oh how silly.”

“Oh, he wished it was that good. No, it’s when he saw Nightmare up close. Through all the blood covering Nightmare, he noticed something that made him shiver uncontrollably, to the point where he thought Nightmare would come back and finish him off later. It was that Nightmare was a female lupus. He couldn’t stop shaking at the thought, that a woman, no, a female lupus, was the Nightmare that had destroyed the morale of an entire army. And he couldn’t help but think about the consequences of her gender. If this is what a female could do, what about a male? What about an army of male lupus? He cried and wet himself while hiding under that pile of bodies, long after Nightmare had left. The army decided to turn back that night, considering the morale.”

“Seriously? I never heard that in any of the myths. A single female? That’s insanity. I’d be cursing if it wasn’t for the little lady with us.”

“Yeah. They’d pass on the legend in the books and understated it a bit compared to the real version, but to mention it was female would be too embarrassing. Well, that, and I think that Nightmare was so quick no one but my ancestor ever saw her long enough to tell.”

“Ugh, real or not, I think I might have trouble sleeping tonight as well.”

“Nightmare the lupus, interesting,” Ruby said, finally chipping in.

“You’re still up? Go to sleep little lady. It’s probably just a myth anyways. It’s not like we really have to worry. Lupus are northeast of here. Very far northeast, for most of them. We’re safe regardless.”

“So which army?” Ruby asked with a smile.

The men looked around silently, realizing their mistake. They had thought that as long as they didn’t mention things directly, it wouldn’t matter. But mentioning an army of humans in front of their prisoner made things hard to deny. So they internally cursed themselves, and then remained silent. Ruby, though, had a flash of inspiration. She took in a deep breath and stood tall.

“Not talon’d, but clawed!” Ruby yelled as loud as she could. At the end of her sentence two of the men had jumped at her, and held her mouth closed.

“What was that?” one of the men asked.

“Just a nightmare,” Ruby replied when her mouth was released. She laughed a bit. “Sleep well, humans.”

“Stupid girl. Let me hit her after all.”

The man’s comment was met with angry stares that told him not to say another word.

Two more days and nights passed, and then a third day passed. And finally, the third night arrived.

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The Lupine Saga 120

They removed the restraints on her hands and feet soon enough that first day, with only a word of warning, telling Ruby not to even think of escape. She considered it, but it wasn’t likely she’d be able to get away from four men watching her constantly. They never let her leave their sight, regardless of how embarrassing it made certain actions. At night they’d stop somewhere far off the road, eat, and sleep. One man always stayed awake through the entire night, sleeping only when the other three were awake the next morning.

Ruby watched and watched, but couldn’t see any opportunities for escape. A day passed, her mind full of anxiety and fear. Once the second day rolled around she had relaxed a bit, as it seemed they weren’t yet going to harm her. She considered seeing if she could find some time to run off, but she realized it wasn’t an immediate option. There was always someone with their eye on her, no matter what. If three of them were looking elsewhere, the fourth was looking at her. If he looked away, another one of them was looking at her. She was always being watched, except for when she was asleep and the last man was tending the fire.

Ruby woke the third day with the morning sun shining brightly in her face. When they set off that morning, she noticed that the sun was behind them, as it had been the two days beforehand. She was surprised, and wondered what it meant, that they were heading west, the same direction she wanted to go in. Though she realized it was a good thing they seemed to be heading back to Rising, without knowing their intentions it was impossible for her to accept the journey back to Rising as a good thing. For all she could tell, she may be heading back as a hostage. Or worse, so she hoped that she was only a hostage for some reason or another. She made sure to never mention her name, and fortunately she had thrown her signet identifying her away, but she had a feeling that the men were escorts, rather than captors.

That feeling was broken every time they saw another traveller or came too close to a city or village. Those times they forcefully tied her up and gagged her again, sometimes even covering her with heavy cloaks while she lay helpless on the wagon bed. She struggled a few times, but it was soon obvious that she couldn’t fight back. And once she stopped fighting back, she noticed that they removed the restraints quick enough, except for the times they were still close to a city. Her captors did not risk her escape, but her escorts didn’t keep her restrained if there weren’t any nearby risks.

She also noticed the progress wasn’t all that fast. With five passengers and limited space for provisions they stopped often. Their pacing was also very leisurely, and the horses were rested often and didn’t change. They were rather good horses, four of them, so Ruby assumed they were also the personal horses of these men and thus wouldn’t be traded. It was slower than Derlik’s pace, and likely slower than her and Va’il’s prior pace.

Ruby constantly wondered what happened to Va’il. She knew from the first day that he hadn’t been harmed by her captors, but she couldn’t understand what happened to him, and who had taken him. From the initial conversation that first day she figured Va’il’s escape and apparent kidnapping as well wasn’t part of this group’s plan, but she didn’t know whether that was good or bad. She worried for his safety, but her worry was overwhelmed with questions about why she was separated from him. She had far too much free and boring time, so she imagined all sorts of different things happening to him. Some made her smile while she sat bored in the wagon, some made her cry during the times she was bound and gagged. But there was something in the back of her smart mind that reassured her, that told her he was all right. True or not, that was all she believed.

#

At least a week had passed since that night, by Ruby’s count. After that, Ruby stopped counting how many additional days passed. It wasn’t the kidnapping she expected. It had been a while since that first day, the last time the men had spoken about something other than food or other factual item. It was boring with no conversation and nothing to do. Even when she travelled with Va’il they didn’t talk much, but that was only because the days were already full and exhausting between the skating, hunting, and camping.

Soon it was more than a week since anyone, including Ruby, had bathed. At this point she felt awful in her clothes most of the time. And the smell on each of the men around her was awful. She had to laugh in a delusional way at one point, as one of her fantasies now had Va’il finding her from hundreds of miles away based on the overpowering odor she couldn’t hide. And then she’d get depressed, knowing she was now too far away from Va’il, that he hadn’t shown up soon enough to show that he’d been tracking her. And his reminder about how far he could smell her was a painful reminder, though it had its own twisted benefit, considering her situation.

But she wanted Va’il to come, she wished for it every day. One day, it was all she did. Then she’d plot ways to get away from the men. And then, one day, the men talked. They really talked in more than just simple words for the first time since that first day.

It was night, they had stopped after another slow day. It was still early enough in the night that all of them were still up, sitting around the fire. The three of them who were going to sleep were drinking solemnly, watching the flickering fire. One of them then remarked on a sound they all heard at that moment. A distant, far-off sound.

“I swear it’s following us,” the man said. The others all seemed a bit surprised at the sudden outburst. By this point Ruby had stopped paying attention to the men, she didn’t bother telling the difference between each of them, or who carried on the conversation, or which of them corresponded to their first-day impressions. The man who had been injured had also healed enough that he no longer had bandages or a sling, and Ruby didn’t care to tell them apart anyways, at this point. That was true of three of them, the fourth she noted for a certain reason. But this was the first time they’d spoken seriously, so she listened quietly, and a glimmer in her eyes and a curl at her lips formed as she did.

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