7. September 2013 - 01:16

Extracts of Falaysia Book I

Xadred

 

The way to Xadred was long and exhausting, especially since Jenna and Gideon were carrying bags of wool to sell in the city for food, and the two old people didn’t own a pack mule or horse to help. In addition, Jenna could hardly breathe since Tala had bound her breasts with a coarse cloth so she’d look more like a young man. She had also broadened her waist with more cloth and a bit of unspun wool to distract from her feminine curves and it was now beginning to itch like a bitch. Jenna had refused to cut her long hair, but since long hair, according to Gideon, wasn’t uncommon for men in Falaysia, she had just tied it together strictly. A bit of dirt on her face, a large typical shepherd’s hat on her head and Jenna was the spitting image of a peasant boy or young shepherd.

She didn’t find it flattering that she could be made to look like a man so easily, but if it got her home she’d do almost anything. Of course it would be embarrassing when they met the first normal people on their way, and yes, at some point they were going to as they were approaching a town. Jenna wondered how long Gideon would keep up this pretence of living in a fantasy world. She would give him until the next major road they came to to make her believe she was in some medieval world. Then he’d have to be really crazy to miss the looks of consternation of his fellow men and have no regard for the fact that his behaviour could very well land him in some psychiatric institution. As soon as she came across normal people, she’d tell them she’d gotten herself involved in Gideon’s fantasy world and was just playing along out of sheer desperation.

Jenna sighed – not only because of these burdening thoughts, but also because the long walk was physically exhausting, especially since it wasn’t the first one that day. Her back ached, her calf muscles were cramping and her feet hurt. Of course Gideon instantly looked at her worried. The pace the old man had set all day amazed her. He was obviously still quite fit and probably not as old as she had first suspected.

“It won’t be much longer,” he said consolingly.

Jenna forced a tired smile. He’d been saying it wouldn’t take much longer for quite some time, and additionally they had to walk uphill now. She climbed the large hill with difficulty and breathlessly came to a halt at its crest. Breathlessly for two reasons: The first one being the walk uphill had taken the last of her strength, and the second because she was so upset with what revealed itself to her beyond the hill.

There, nestled in a green valley was the city of Xadred. It was a large city, but not as large as those Jenna was used to. Still it was large enough. Many of these dusty unpaved paths, like the one they’d been travelling, led to its centre, as well as a broad dark river that seemed to come from the mountains in the east. High grey walls surrounded the tightly packed houses and towers of the city, protecting it against unwanted visitors.

Jenna was petrified. This city was like nothing she’d ever seen before, if anywhere than on pictures in a history book. It was definitely a medieval city and the meaning of what she was looking at, threatened to shatter Jenna’s mind. A hollow feeling slowly crawled out from one corner of her soul and soon filled her whole body. She felt sick and dizzy as if she would faint. She staggered a little, but managed to stay on her feet. Actually she wasn’t the type to faint.

Jenna inhaled deeply. She needed to keep a cool head. Surely there had to be a logical explanation. There were still some well-preserved medieval cities in the modern world – even here in England. Alnwick for example, or Canterbury… Though Jenna knew immediately that this was none of these two cities. This city wasn’t large enough – but it didn’t mean she wasn’t in Britain anymore. There were many areas she wasn’t that familiar with. Why should this city not be located in one of these regions?

This could even be the newest holiday attraction or the backdrop for a movie, or she could simply be dreaming. She couldn’t allow herself to give into despair, to believe what her eyes wanted to make her believe. There was something she couldn’t understand with her average mind – so what?! All this would resolve itself eventually. Things would fall back into place.

“Are you coming?” Gideon, who was already on his way down the hill, asked. He looked at her intently and the look in his gentle eyes told her he knew what she was thinking. He even seemed concerned. The good man. Even if he was a bit crazy and there was indeed a logical explanation for everything – he wanted to help her and really cared about her.

“Is everything all right?” he asked thoughtfully.

Jenna just nodded. Right now she wasn’t capable of more. There were just too many thoughts racing through her mind, too much anxiety and too many emotions. She had to calm down and felt sure Gideon’s presence would help. So on wobbly legs she followed him. It was probably best to let things just come to her, to remain calm and plan her next steps thoroughly. There’d be time enough later to fall apart.

“Can we walk on?” Gideon asked cautiously.

She nodded again, and together they continued on their way. The closer they came to the city, however, the more threatening, the more real it all became to Jenna. She could see people on the palisades of the walls, men in heavy armour, so highly polished the sunlight reflected off them. She saw other people walking into the city dressed just like Gideon. There were no camera crews, no tourists, nothing indicating there was anything wrong with this town and these people.

Her stomach clenched as one of the bullock carts, which had come from the city, rattled past her. The man sitting on the box was wearing the ancient rags of a farmer, and he nodded at them with a friendly, almost toothless grin before urging his ox with a rod to move a little faster.

It was virtually impossible for everyone here in this area to be crazy and have the same strange obsession. A threatening, unbearable thought slowly pushed itself into Jenna’s mind. What if the elders hadn’t lied? What if she really was in another world, another time? What if all this talk of magic, all the stories Melina had once told her were true? Then it was possible Demeon did possess supernatural powers and that he was the one who had brought her here… How was that possible? And why did he do it? No – no, that couldn’t be… Couldn’t…

Jenna suddenly felt her knees buckle again. Her heart began to beat hard in her chest, and her ears began to ring as tears welled up in her eyes. She had to stop, sit down somewhere… This was all just too much…

A hand closed around her upper arm and when she lifted her head, she looked into Gideon’s worried eyes, eyes that didn’t remain on her long but would again and again fix on a point behind her.

“Jenna – you have to pull yourself together,” he whispered to her and to her surprise, he pulled her off to the side into one of the cleared corn fields that lined the road to town. “You have to walk on as if nothing’s happening. And you mustn’t look at them! Do you hear me?!”

She blinked confused, but let him push her forward without resistance. Soon she heard it, too: a dull thunder in the distance. And when the ground beneath her feet began to shake, she looked around anxiously. Not far from them she noticed a large group of riders racing across the field in a wild gallop toward them. When they reached the road, they reined in their horses and let the robust animals fall into a leisurely trot.

Gideon again grabbed Jenna by her arm with an amazingly firm grip and pulled her forward. “Don’t look at them!” He uttered tensely. “Lower your head and just continue to walk humbly! You’ll get us both in serious trouble if you don’t! Please, Jenna!”

The fear in Gideon’s voice made her comply immediately, even though a dangerous sense of curiosity seized her.

It wasn’t long before the group of riders reached them and trotted past. Jenna stared grimly at the ground she stumbled along, but couldn’t help her other senses from immediately focusing on the supposed danger. She heard the snorting of the horses, the squeaking of leather, the clinking of metal. She felt the warmth emanating from the horses, smelled the sweat from animals and humans and somehow could no longer contain herself and raised her eyes timidly.

For a moment she couldn’t breathe and her pulse quickened one more time. The men who rode past looked really scary. Except for the light armour, consisting of protective leather and chain mail, they were sparsely clothed. Brown skin peaked out here and there, which was often covered with hair. They were armed to the hilt. Jenna couldn’t even fathom the number of deadly weapons they wore and her throat tightened.

Most of them had long to semi-long shaggy hair that blew wildly in the wind and matted beards. They reminded Jenna of Vikings. Although she’d never actually seen one – How could she? – she had always imagined them looking like this. Only these men seemed a little more wild and bloodthirsty. Some had scarred faces, vestiges of past combats. There was something frightening cold and foreboding in their eyes that sent one shudder after the other down Jenna’s back, even though they weren’t looking at her, didn’t seem to notice her. That was what she was thinking until she lifted her head a little too inquisitively and looked up into the coldest pair of eyes she’d ever seen. Blue Ice and a gaze that made her blood run cold. Jenna wanted to look away, look down quickly, but she couldn’t. Those piercing eyes had captured her, were now trying to peer into the depths of her soul. At least that was what it felt like.

The dark warrior, who towered over her on his restless horse, prancing in place, made no move to follow his troops. Instead, he held the animal back and frowned at her, scrutinizing her with an intensity that was almost unbearable.

Jenna didn’t move. She was as paralyzed as a mouse in front of a snake and felt certain she was in the same precarious situation. Every pore of this man’s body radiated he was dangerous. A wild, agitated animal just itching to kill again – even though it hadn’t been that long ago. The dried splashes of blood on his face, the dark hair of his scruffy beard partially caked with blood, and the threatening blaze in his eyes told her this. He wanted to do it again… and it would only take a small trigger…

For a few heartbeats Jenna thought her last moments had come – all because she had dared to look at this man – but then his lips twisted into a scornful smile. He then yanked his horse around and it reared from a standing position into a gallop, racing back to join his comrades.

Jenna let out the breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding and closed her eyes, then turned to Gideon, who grabbed her arm with a pale face, while shaking his head and moving her forward.

“Chevax perbetir savan nagi,” she heard all of a sudden beside her and again lifted her gaze unwillingly. Of course it was another of these fierce warriors, smaller than the man with the icy eyes, but no less threatening. He seemed angry and spat at her feet.

Jenna jerked back and raised her hands. She had no idea why the man was so angry and what he had said to her. All she felt was fear. Why couldn’t he just move on like everyone else?

“Hamat-di. Hamat-di,” Gideon replied for her with his head bowed humbly. “Sel ido sar e folo jag. Hamat-di.”

The man laughed angered and his hawk-like face twisted into a mask of hatred. Jenna felt hot and cold at the same time as the warrior grabbed his sword and began to pull it from its scabbard with a sadistic grin as he leaned down to her.

“Fero mi-so te faco zeribre…“ He smiled, but froze in motion when a loud voice echoed over to them.

Jenna’s eyes flew across to the other warriors, who were already a good distance away. One of the warriors had parried his horse, which now reared, and shouted something to the man in front of her in a severe and rather impatient tone. If she wasn’t mistaken, it was the man with the icy eyes who probably was the warrior’s superior because the guy suddenly made a disappointed, sullen face and slid his sword back into its sheath. With one last snide glance at her and Gideon he kicked his horse forward and re-joined the moving squad.

“Great God!” Gideon uttered with a deep sigh of relief, then looked at her shaking his head. “Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?”

Jenna swallowed hard and nodded nervously. “I… I’m so sorry. I… I… just don’t know what’s going on here… I…” She closed her eyes, inhaling and exhaling deeply through her nose. Only then was she able to get out a complete sentence. “Who are these… people?”

“Nadir-warriors,” Gideon said quietly with a furtive glance toward the men. “There’s nothing worse!”

She could easily believe that. All the more she was wondering why the guards at the gates of Xadred let these warriors pass without a word.

“They’re in charge in Allgrizia,” Gideon continued, as if he could read her thoughts. “No one dares to stand in their way unless they’re completely crazy. People are terrified of their brutality, their fighting skills and Nadir’s magical powers.”

Jenna felt her painstakingly repressed panic rise again at these words. Her mind was still struggling to understand what was happening to her. It contradicted all logic, simply couldn’t be true. And yet Jenna knew it was. “Magical powers?” she asked, her throat tightening.

“Yes,” Gideon said. “There are not many who have such powers, but those who possess them are more powerful than anyone can imagine.”

Jenna felt sick. It was all becoming more and more abstract, more and more crazy. Magic? Such a thing didn’t exist! ‘Take it easy,’ she told herself. ‘Panicking will get you nowhere, may even harm you. You’ve got to keep it together and try to understand all this.’

Okay – if this was in fact a foreign world, some parallel medieval universe, then Demeon had brought her here by supernatural forces and those forces could also be described as magic if you please. And why couldn’t there be someone here who possessed such powers? She should be happy because this someone could maybe send her back to her world by using these particular powers. God! That sounded so crazy!

“And who… who is this Nadir?” she asked a little more composed.

“He’s the most powerful man to ever exist in this world,” Gideon replied almost reverently. “A magician no one’s been able to defeat yet. He’s built a huge army that destroyed the troops of most of the kings in this world and now dominates a large part of Falaysia. Unfortunately, Allgrizia is one of his possessions. They say he was born in this country.”

Jenna hadn’t even been aware they had been walking during their conversation and had now reached the gate of the great wall around the city. One of the guards came up to them.

“What do you want in Xadred?” He asked in a tone that suggested he had asked this question all too often in his life.

“We want to sell our goods to a merchant,” Gideon replied as politely as possible.

“What are you bringing?” the guard inquired bored.

“Only wool, sire,” Gideon said humbly.

The guard didn’t even bother to inspect their bags, instead waved them on. “You may pass,” he droned.

Jenna walked through the massive archway, impressed, but with her heart pounding. The houses she saw were like those she remembered from her history books, part wood and part stone, set close together so the streets were very narrow. There were no sidewalks so everything snaked about on the cobbled streets: people, dogs, horses, carts – everything a medieval city had to offer.

As they proceeded further into town they came across the first market stalls at the edge of the road, offering all kinds of wares. The more stalls, the busier the road became. People of almost every class rushed around to stock up on fresh foods or other important items; people in civil clothes, some in simple rustic clothes with haggard faces and bodies worn down from heavy labour; people in tattered rags begging for charity, men, women, children, old people, even dogs rummaging in the garbage for scraps of food. Every now and then an armed warrior or a guard with a grim expression rode through the crowd without regard for gambling children or old women and men. Jenna saw hands snatching purses or nimble fingers grabbing things from the merchant’s tables when they were distracted. Again and again small scuffles in the crowd quickly turned into physical fights, and no one intervened in bringing this violence to an end. It was every man for himself, only focusing on their own well-being. The atmosphere of this city wasn’t making a very good impression on Jenna. She quickly realized aggression and anxiety were the people’s main emotions. Rarely were they friendly to each other, distrust written on almost every face. Only occasionally was there a smile on their grim faces, which was probably more of a malicious nature. Soon, only deep loathing was all she felt for this city. She could understand why Gideon and Tala lived so far outside the city and only visited to provide themselves with food. There was no way she could stand living in Xadred for long. So – the man who could help her, who could possibly get her out of this nightmare, supposedly lived here. Jenna was uncomfortable with that thought, but Gideon had to know what he was doing. They stopped in front of a house that had a large sign with the name ‘The Golden Lion’ at the entrance.

“I suggest we rent a decent room. It’s what I usually do when I’m here to sell my goods in the city,” Gideon said. “We don’t want to attract attention unnecessarily and also it will do us some good to rest a little after such an exhausting trip. Then I’ll go and exchange the wool and when it’s dark we will deal with your problem. Is this alright with you?”

Jenna nodded at once. ‘Rest’ sounded wonderful. However, wandering around a city like Xadred in the middle of the night was quite distressing. “Isn’t it much more dangerous to walk around in the dark?” she asked timidly.

Gideon shook his head. “It makes no difference.” And the way he had said it sounded very convincing.

 

**************************************************

 

 

Night-blind

 

“Leon?”

Something had woken Jenna from her light sleep, and she found herself looking for her companion confused. He had laid down next to her that evening. His blanket was still in the same place, but he was nowhere to be found, at least not within the cone of light cast by the small campfire in front of her.

“Leon?!” Jenna called again and looked around, her pulse quickening. She listened intently to the silence of night, but there were no noises a person might make. There was no reply, no crackling steps within the undergrowth. Just eerie silence.

Jenna was slowly becoming scared. Where could Leon have gone in the middle of the night? Had he left her here all alone? Had he taken off because he could no longer bear her at his side? But they’d been getting along so well today, had actually been laughing and joking around, had talked so much, getting to know each other better. She’d even gotten the impression he had taken a liking to her, just as she had to him. His increasingly warmer expression whenever he had looked at her, the gentle sound of his voice had told her so… And he’d begun to smile at her more and more…

No, he wouldn’t have abandoned her, but what had happened to him then? What if this terrible beast that had invaded their camp had dragged him off into the forest to feed on him without her being aware of it? Just the thought made her stomach clench, but then she shook her head to banish her stupid thoughts. It couldn’t be, after all Leon had said they were harmless. He’d probably just gone off to take care of what nature sometimes demands of one. Jenna decided to wait. She could no longer sleep, not until Leon had returned. So she waited… and waited… and waited… until she could no longer stand it. She stood and looked around.

“Leon?” she whispered. Why she was whispering, she didn’t know. There was no one else around whose night’s rest she would be disturbing, but the silence was so scary… surely she could venture a few steps beyond the camp, if only to take a little peek into the bushes.

Branches crackled and snapped under her feet as she slowly made her way into the darkness of the forest, constantly looking over her shoulder at the fire so she wouldn’t lose her bearings.

“Leon,” she cried out again, much louder now. He had to be somewhere! This was getting more and more strange.

A loud cracking sound nearby caused her to fling around. Her heart leapt up into her throat then slowly slid a little deeper to finally pound wildly against her ribs. She’d expected the worst and at the moment that would be her monster from the Pixie-lake, but nothing happened. Nothing moved. She took a deep breath. This was getting her nowhere. There was no way she was walking around unarmed in the forest at night. Even if everything was okay and Leon showed up, there could be wild animals out here who could be spooked by her presence and attack her. She narrowed her eyes and bent down a little to examine the forest floor a little closer. She spotted a thick branch that was just the right size for her to use as a club and picked it up gently. It felt solid in her hand, not rotten or infested by insects. Jenna was satisfied. At least it was some protection she imagined. She decided to return to camp and wait for Leon there. It had been crazy of her to go looking for him in the first place.

She turned around and froze. Everything around her had been blanketed in the deepest darkness. Turning around once more, her eyes searched the forest, but there was nothing. Not even the faintest glimmer that would indicate a fire. A cold shiver ran down Jenna’s spine and her heart began to beat wildly. She’d been right. There was something weird going on, and she found herself right in the middle of it. She heard it again, this crackling, snapping noise that could only be made by humans. Someone was walking through the forest, she could clearly hear that now, and they were coming towards her. But from what direction? It was almost as if the noises were coming from several different directions. It was probably an echo leading her astray. Or could it be that there were several people trying to surround her?

Jenna was sick with fear. She would have never guessed that her heart could beat as fast. Her nausea became stronger and the pounding pulse in her ears was almost unbearable. She staggered back a few steps and hit her back against a tree. Well, at least they wouldn’t be able to attack her from behind now. Jenna’s hand gripped the branch tightly, her only weapon, as she could just make out the outline of a figure running in a crouch in the darkness through the undergrowth. Every now and then the person stopped and turned around, as if they were lost. No, they didn’t appear to be after her, she could feel that in her gut. Though something about the way the person moved felt familiar to her. Jenna frowned.

“Leon?” she whispered shyly.

The person jumped then looked around confused. Finally, he’d seen Jenna and came toward her. Jenna sighed with relief when she realized it was indeed her friend.

“Thank God!” he uttered quietly and surprised her when he hugged her briefly. “When I couldn’t find the fire, I got lost.” He paused to get some air. “We must get out of here, immediately! Can you find the way back?”

Jenna shook her head. “I didn’t walk that far from camp, but… the fire must have gone out.”

Leon furrowed his brows. “It’s out?”

“Well, I can’t see it anymore,” she admitted quietly.

It was obvious Leon felt as uncomfortable as she did with the prospect.

“That’s not good,” he muttered looking around tensely. “Hopefully they didn’t put it out. If they did then they know we’re here.”

Jenna’s heart skipped a beat and she looked at him aghast. “They? What do you mean by ‘they’?”

“Bakitaras,” Leon said very quietly. “They set up a camp not far from ours. I stumbled across it by accident while I was doing a little wandering through the woods, but they didn’t see me. At least I hope so.”

“Why were you out walking through the forest at night anyway?” she asked reproachfully. She was kind of mad at Leon, as if he were to blame for the danger they were now in.

“I suffer from insomnia, have for a long time now,” Leon said softly and silently drew his sword. He looked around once again. “I think it would be better if we didn’t leave together…”

Jenna looked at him incredulously and wanted to start arguing, but he gently covered her mouth with one hand.

“Listen first. We’ll only be doing them a favour if they catch us together. There’s no way we can go back to the horses. If in fact they’ve discovered our camp, we’d be walking right into their arms. So we’ll have to make it out of here on foot. They won’t be expecting that. I’ll lead the way and you follow me at a distance, close enough that you can still see me to some extent. Try to make as little noise as possible and if they catch me, you hide, and then try to escape alone.”

Jenna could only stare at her friend in shock and shook her head in despair, even though she knew he was right. Just the idea of something happening to Leon, leaving her to wander round alone in this strange world, was too frightening. After all, he was the only friend she had at the moment, and she wasn’t sure she had the heart to let him down.

“Yes,” he said emphatically, looking at her intently. “You have to try and make your way to Vaylacia alone, or turn around and go back to Gideon. Promise me Jenna! You have to promise!”

Jenna was close to tears, but she pulled herself together and finally nodded bravely. There was no other solution, no better plan and the longer they waited, the more ground they lost, the higher was the probability they’d be discovered and something bad would happen to both of them. Good God! She didn’t even want to think about it!

“Good.” Leon smiled and consolingly patted her cheek. “All will go well,” he muttered. “You can do it!” He nodded at her encouragingly one last time then set out as quietly as possible.

Jenna had to force herself not to immediately follow. It was so terribly dark and the farther away Leon got, the more frantic she became. The idea of wandering around this terrible world all alone was unfathomable. She couldn’t, didn’t want to… all too soon only Leon’s outline was visible in the darkness, so Jenna tightened her hold on the branch and set out as well. The snapping of dried twigs under her feet sounded unnaturally loud to her and she winced each time even the slightest noise was heard. Fearfully she peered into the darkness surrounding her, all the while straining to keep Leon in sight.

Jenna winced once again, but this time it wasn’t a sound that had frightened her, it was movement in her immediate vicinity. She stopped abruptly. Her heartbeat was accelerating as she examined the area more closely, but there was nothing there. Probably it had been only her imagination. Turning back around she froze. Leon was nowhere to be seen. In the distance the faint sounds of his footsteps could still be heard. She ran. She had to catch up with him. There was no way she was going to be out here alone. She had to at least be able to see him! But as fast as she ran, she couldn’t find him. Still, she continued to run, desperation driving her forward, all caution thrown to the wind. She forgot about the dangers, of what could be lurking behind every tree. Her sole thought was not to lose the only person who could help her in this world. She stifled a scream when she tripped and fell.

“Fu…nny hell!” she cursed under her breath and sat up halfway. Even though the ground was covered with leaves, her fall had been relatively hard and every bone in her body hurt. As she wiped her scraped, dirty hands on her clothes, she slowly raised her eyes then winced. There, directly in front of her, were two large feet and muscular legs, clad in dark pants, and a sword, whose tip was pointing directly at her face.

Jenna didn’t dare raise her eyes further. Not that she could. The icy claw of dread had seized her, paralysing her whole body.

“Voi-a, shu had-we ke ta?” a deep rumbling voice asked. A voice she’d never heard before, a voice that sounded wary and threatening.

Fear overtook Jenna’s whole body. She felt empty inside and shrank inwardly, all the while her heart beating wildly, pounding in her temples.

“Had-te le?” came another male’s voice from somewhere else.

“Ta,” the deep bass voice said to her. “Fero sil ido sar-e jag.”

Jenna noticed the sword in front of her had been lowered, and she ventured to look up carefully.

The man looked like one of those feral-looking warriors she’d seen at the gates of Xadred and again in the city itself. He wasn’t wearing armour, though – at least as far as she could tell in the poor light – only a faded shirt pretty much unbuttoned, displaying some of his ample chest hair. His long, light hair fell shaggily over his broad shoulders and was looking a bit pathetic. The warrior scratched his heavy beard. He didn’t look at her but scanned the environment instead, then asked his companion something with his powerful voice. The answer came quickly and just as unintelligible to Jenna as anything else the two men had spoken so far. She heard the other man approach her, again speaking to his friend in this strange language.

The blond guy shook his head in answer, while Jenna grew more and more anxious. Now she could see the other warrior as well. He wasn’t as big as his companion but just as muscular. He too wore simple clothes, which probably meant they hadn’t expected to run into anyone in this forest tonight. The strange guy seemed to be all the more pleased that he had found her here. He bared his bad teeth with a mischievous grin and stepped so close to Jenna he could examine her thoroughly even in the dark. He was really ugly with short dark hair, bushy eyebrows and a rather poorly trimmed beard. His nose, which Jenna suspected had been broken at least once, was large and crooked, with a gold ring piercing one of his nostrils. Jenna was afraid of this man, even more than of the taller warrior because he didn’t seem quite normal.

The taller of the two said something else and his guarded tone worried Jenna, causing her panic to escalate even further. The shorter one came closer and screwed up his face in disappointment. He spoke again, turning away from her a little, and she let out a sigh of relief, but the very next minute his foot shot out and struck Jenna in the face with such force, it threw her backwards to the ground. Then the night grew even darker than it already was. Relentless pain roared through her, driving her to tears. Her frantic heartbeat thundered in her temples. Something warm and wet ran across her lips, then down her chin. Jenna couldn’t move. She wanted to die, wanted no more kicks or beatings… please…

A loud crash erupted from the bushes, as if something large was trampling the branches nearby, and finally the deep snort of a horse confirmed her suspicions. As the stars slowly stopped spinning in front of her eyes, she risked tilting her head to one side. She saw the blurry outline of a man on a dark horse coming towards them. Then he stopped a few steps from her. Wonderful, yet another man who wanted to torment her. What would they do once they eventually discovered she was a woman? Jenna didn’t even want to think about that – as if things weren’t already bad enough.

In a short, severe tone, a deep voice barked something to the two men, and even in Jenna’s dazed, injured state she could feel them tense immediately.

“Ber-il he!” came the commanding voice again from the direction of the rider, and the tall blonde immediately set into motion, grabbed her by the arm and roughly pulled her to her feet. Surely they didn’t think she could walk! That was impossible. She was done for.

Jenna immediately sagged as the warrior let go of her, but with great effort managed to right herself again. Her head was spinning, and her face ached terribly, but she finally stood on her own, only to have them shove her forward, obviously overestimating her strength. She struggled to stay on her feet and regain her focus since everything was still a blur, but was able to pull herself together. God only knew what would happen if she fell again. She came to a halt in front of the horse. As the rider leaned down, she heard him laugh softly. He turned to the two men again in what sounded like a question. The warriors remained silent, however, their respect for the rider obvious. He had to hold a fairly high position among them.

Jenna squeezed her eyes shut, hoping it would clear her head, but all it did, was make the dizziness worse and she began to sway. Almost at the same moment a strong arm grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her, face down, across the horse. Jenna blinked. The horse was huge, and the ground now seemed frighteningly far away. Not a nice prospect. If the man decided to just toss her off, it would be quite painful for her. She glanced to her right and saw a long leg, clad in dark cloth. Moving her eyes down, she noticed a bare foot belonging to it. The man must have been in a hurry otherwise he would have certainly put on boots. She tried to look up, but the ache in her head was so intense she stopped the attempt immediately.

There was another brief exchange between the three men, and then the horse suddenly took off. Jenna was beginning to feel sick. Between the motion and the pressure on her stomach, she guessed it was inevitable. Something else was bothering her much more: Her fear had vanished. It had given place to a complete, all-enduring indifference, and that wasn’t good. Because without fear there was no more reason to fight. You just gave up. And that she didn’t want to do. But what could she do? In her current situation the only thing possible was devising a plan, which wasn’t going to be easy since she had no clue what was ahead. She’d just have to bide her time, knowing the wait was going to be unbearable.

Jenna tried to distract herself by studying the rider’s foot more closely. Actually it was a nicely shaped and surprisingly clean foot. The warriors had seemed so slovenly to her yet. Maybe he was an exception. Was it possible that this man was also an exception when it came to the treatment of his prisoners? After all, he’d lifted her onto his horse relatively gently and so far he hadn’t abused her – which was more than she could say for the other two. Had she by pure chance been captured by the most attractive and least dangerous warrior throughout Falaysia? Maybe she’d even be able to persuade him to release her. After all, she hadn’t harmed anyone and was totally unimportant. They may have even mistaken her for someone else. Gideon had told her she should never lose hope, which she now clung to with all her might and in the end hoped that all would be well.

Looking to the other side she saw they were now slowly riding up to the warrior’s camp. It wasn’t very large, maybe four or five tents in front of which torches were burning, at least as far as she could see from her current position. In the middle of the camp there was a large bonfire blazing that gave off enough light for her to see there were other warriors gathered around a man. Jenna’s heart began to beat furiously again when she realized that man was none other than Leon. The Warriors were pushing him back and forth roughly, laughing at him tauntingly until they noticed them coming. Leon also looked over at them, but his gaze was far less respectful. Sheer hatred shown in his eyes – until he spotted Jenna. For a second his face fell, but then he pulled himself together again and put on a mask of indifference.

The horse stopped. Jenna felt a hand grab her by the neck and found herself on the ground shortly thereafter. She stifled an anguished cry, the impact causing a sharp pain to flare up in her nose and her temples. She’d been wrong – that man wasn’t an exception. He said something in this foreign language – only this time much louder and Jenna was sure he’d turned to Leon. Although she didn’t dare to move, she couldn’t resist the temptation to sneak a glimpse at the man who’d brought her here. As expected, he’d jumped off the horse and turned to Leon so his back was to her. He was tall and broad-shouldered, wearing only dark linen pants that did nothing to hide his well-toned body. A leather strap restrained his somewhat long, dark curly hair at the nape of his neck and although he had no weapons on him, he had such an intimidating personality that Jenna’s heart began to race again, especially when he turned to her and looked at her with this strange smile.

Blue Ice. She’d seen these eyes before, had been exposed to their frightening coldness earlier. Such eyes were unique. Such eyes you just couldn’t forget. She even felt relief when he turned his back to her to question Leon. Full of hate, her friend glared at the man, hissing back at him in the same language. He didn’t seem to care that how he answered could cost him his life, though it wasn’t him who had to pay the price for his behaviour. The warrior reached out and grabbed Jenna by the hair and yanked her to her feet. She screamed in pain, flailed around in panic until he finally released her. Panting, she staggered back a few steps from the man who now gazed at her searchingly.

With a keen eye he scrutinized her body in detail. It wasn’t long before a curious smile began to spread over his hard, cold face. As he spoke, his words were directed at her friend, his gaze, however, remained on her with a strange and frightening expression. He walked toward her slowly, his movements like those of a feline predator on the hunt. Jenna backed away from him almost mechanically, sick with fear and her pulse pounding in her temples.

“Marek!” she heard Leon shout, the concern in his voice hard to miss. This had to be the warrior’s name since he hesitated before throwing a menacing gaze over his shoulder at Leon who continued to berate him. For a brief moment Jenna thought Leon’s words had actually stirred something within this evil man, but in one quick move he was suddenly at her side, pulling her toward him. The smell of sweat filled her nose, and under his thick, dark beard, she could see a sinister smile beginning to twitch at the corner of his mouth.

Breathless and eyes wide with fear, she stared at him. She could have punched, scratched, kicked him or at least tried to pull away but she didn’t. An inner voice told her there was nothing she could do for now. Resistance would only make things worse. She knew her cover had been blown. She could see this in the way Marek was looking at her. There was something in his gleaming eyes that made her chest tighten, driving her fear to a new level. Something about his gaze didn’t bode well for her. Jenna felt her knees going weak, and the very next moment the warrior ripped her shirt open down to her belly. Unsurprised he took in the scarves tightly binding her body, concealing what only a woman would have. Then he turned to Leon.

With his next words addressed to her friend his lips curled into a lascivious grin, turning Jenna cold when his gaze zeroed in on her breasts hidden beneath the linen. In the blink of an eye, the man withdrew a dagger that had been hidden at his side. So he hadn’t been completely unarmed, and the knowledge of this was precisely what put fire back into Jenna. She wasn’t going to die without a fight. With an amazingly skilful blow to his elbow she was able to free herself from his firm grip. She delivered a kick to the shin of another warrior standing nearby then slipped through the gap between the two surprised men.

Jenna ran as fast as she could, sidestepping the men grabbing for her… only to be tackled to the ground from behind. She felt the heavy weight of a man’s body lying on top of her for a few heartbeats. As soon as the weight disappeared she was snatched up and thrown so adeptly over a shoulder she couldn’t breathe for a moment. Gasping, she looked down at the muscular back of the man who had recaptured her and knew immediately who it was. Black curls bound with a leather strap…

This guy scared her and she had no idea how she was going to get out of this dangerous situation. With as tight a grip as he had on her, there wasn’t the ghost of a chance of her escaping – no matter how much she squirmed or struggled. It would only provoke him to hurt her even more. So all she could do was hanging here helplessly and wait for him to finally put her down. He spoke again and it made her incredibly nervous that she couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. What was this man planning? It couldn’t be anything good.

“Marek!” she heard Leon shout again. His tone had changed, was more anxious, almost desperate as he talked imploringly to the man. She couldn’t see him, but as he pleaded his voice was growing farther and farther away. A new wave of panic seized her. Where were they taking him? They wouldn’t hurt him, would they?

She could feel Marek laughing and knew his words were directed at Leon. His tone… so threatening and so provocative… Husky laughter came from several of the other men, which made Jenna sick. Leon wasn’t speaking in a normal tone anymore, he was shouting with a mixture of despair and anger. Jenna lifted her head to try and look over the man’s shoulder, but she needn’t have bothered because the man only laughed again and moved on so that she was just able to see Leon being pushed into one of the tents. Their eyes met, Leon’s brimming with tears. Although he didn’t speak to her, she didn’t need words to see exactly what he was trying to say: ‘I’m so sorry.’

Then he was gone from view. Not only because the flap of canvas had fallen closed behind him, but because she herself had been deposited in a tent across from him. Jenna felt the urge to vomit. She knew precisely what this man was planning to do to her, and there was no one to save her from it. She should probably consider herself lucky that Marek had even bothered to close the tent behind him and not invite a few of the others to participate in the ‘fun’, but that didn’t help, didn’t reduce her fear or drove away the tears that were flooding her eyes. There was no escape… no rescue. Even if she were to free herself from Marek, how would she escape all the other warriors? The only thing she had left was to try to budge him, to talk to him, beg him not to do this to her. But how was she supposed to do that when they didn’t even speak the same language? Even if they did – she doubted she’d be able to find the right words to change his mind in her frantic state. If there even were words that could reach him.

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