Rana groaned and opened her eyes, body stiff. She screamed, eyes growing wide at the faces leaning over her. She jumped up to a sitting position, pressing her back against the side of the tent. The men chuckled. Her brain was slow to catch up, remembering where she was and who these men were.
“Sleep well?” Drayan asked.
She blinked rapidly, forcing herself to start breathing again. Jayk was standing just behind him, smirking. She let her head fall back against the side of the ten as her body relaxed. “You scared me.”
“No,” Jayk said sarcastically. “Really?”
She sent him a glare, then rubbed her face. Her eyes were still filled with sleep, but she could tell that it was already morning from the light spilling through the flap of the tent. She pushed herself to her feet, crossing her arms as she looked at the brothers.
She cleared her throat. “What do you want?”
“Time to be up, honey,” Jayk said. He threw a pair of boots down next to her blanket. “Got you a present. Put these on then with Drayan to go get some breakfast. We’re heading out soon.”
“Yeah,” Rana said. She quickly put the boots on, then ran a hand through her hair, cringing at the mess she knew it had to be. Her hair was thick and unruly. It was hard to force it to obey her, even when there was mirrors and products and brushes galore. She didn’t know how she’d manage to tame it with nothing but her hands.
She followed Drayan out to where the bonfire had been the night before. There was a cart set up on the edge of the clearing, with men gathered around it. Drayan led her to the cart then gestured at the food spilling out of various bags onto the wooden counter. “Take your pick.”
Rana grabbed several strips of jerky and a roll, then followed Drayan back to Jayk’s tent. She downed the food quickly, hunger still gnawing on her from the night before. She was well-awake by the time she got back to the tent. Her body was still weary, but she felt much better than the day before.
Jayk had his mattress rolled up and tied to his pack. His and Rana’s blankets and pillows were in the crate that had been next to his bed, and all of it was stacked outside the tent.
Jayk gestured towards the edge of his tent. “Pull out those stakes.”
Rana looked at the stake holding the corner of his tent to the ground and stepped forward uncertainly. She sank to a knee and put her hand on the stake. She pulled, but the stake didn’t budge. She frowned and put both hands on the stake, pulling with all her might. It still didn’t move. She kept tugging at it.
Suddenly it broke loose, and the stake went flying out of the ground. She fell backward onto the ground, but grinned victoriously, holding up the stake. It was exciting. She wasn’t usually ever allowed to help the men do things. When she offered as a child, she’d be lectured about how it wasn’t fitting. She’d given up trying. But it was thrilling to get to actually be helpful.
“I got it!”
“Good job,” Jayk said, grinning. “Get that other one back there.”
“Okay!” Rana popped to her feet and hurried to the back of the tent to work on pulling the last stake out of the ground. When she was finished, she helped Jayk fold up the canvas tent and tie it up. They spent the next half hour tearing down the rest of the tents and packing them onto a wagon, then getting the two wagons hitched to horses.
When everything was packed up, they started on the road. The men leading the horses pulling the wagons and a small group of men to guard it headed to the road, to make it easier to travel. The rest of the party walked through narrow trials in the forest.
Rana stayed close to Jayk all day. Occasionally she’d lag a few steps back to speak to one of the other men who said something to her, but she made sure that he was always in sight just in case. There was no guarantee he’d protect her, but he seemed like her best bet.
They stopped briefly for lunch but didn’t bother to build a fire. They ate quickly and then started walking again. Finally, they stopped for the night after the sun set. Rana helped Jayk and the other men set up the tent, while some of the other men started a bonfire. The sky was dark by the time they all gathered around the fire.
Glynn found Rana and took a seat next to her. “Survive your first day as a bandit, hon?”
“Yeah.” Rana smiled. “Don’t know that I qualify as a bandit, though.”
“Eh, sure ya do,” Glynn said. “We ain’t too picky here. Heck, they even take blind men.”
Rana laughed. Jayk sat down on the other side of Glynn, hands filled with food. “That’s alright. We like our blind man. It’s rather fun to watch the faces of the people he beats up.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Glynn said dryly.
“How’d you learn to fight, anyhow?” Rana asked. “I mean, since you can’t use… I mean you have to rely on… If you can’t actually see your opponent.”
“Oh, you just gotta learn to use other senses,” Glynn said. “It’s not so hard.”
“Sure. Go ahead, act like you’re going to hit me.”
Rana looked towards Jayk. He shrugged, gesturing for her to do as Glynn said. She turned to face him more squarely, pulling back her fist threateningly. “Then what?”
“Well, if we were actually going t’ fight, I already know all I need t’ know to beat ya.”
“How?” she demanded.
“I listened,” he replied simply. “You didn’t stand up. I can hear that you’re still sitting to my left. The second time you talked your voice sounded like you turned to face me, but you’re right handed so I know it’s your right fist that you’ve got pulled back. I know how far you are from me.”
“What makes you think I’m right handed?” Rana questioned, glancing towards her right fist, cocked behind her head. She hadn’t thought of that being predictable. It was just natural to use her right fist to punch.
“Because you are,” he chuckled. “Last night, when you squared off to me. You turned your left side to me. Most righties do. It makes it easier for you to guard yourself with your left arm, leaving your right hand free for striking. It only makes sense that you’d use your right hand again tonight.”
“Huh,” Rana said, letting her hand fall to her side.
“You just put your hand down.”
“How?” she demanded again.
“Listen,” he repeated, laughing at the frustration in her voice. He waved towards her. “Come on, you try it. Close your eyes.” Rana hesitated, glancing around the camp. She wasn’t sure how wise closing her eyes would be. “Do it.”
“You can’t hear me closing my eyes,” Rana said accusingly.
“No,” he agreed.
“Then what makes you think I don’t have them closed right now?”
“Because you don’t,” Glynn said crisply. “I don’t have to hear your eyes close to know that. You’re just too stubborn to do as you’re told the first time.”
“Oh…” Rana frowned at him, annoyed that she was so predictable.
“So, if you would…”
“Yeah, sure,” Rana answered, closing her eyes. “Now what?”
“Listen,” he said. “What do ya hear? Tell me.”
“Music. Talking. Laughing.”
“Be more specific. What do you hear?”
Rana furrowed her brow, focusing on the sounds around her. “There’s a mandolin.”
“Better,” Glynn said. “What else do you hear? Really listen.”
“I can hear the fire crackling,” Rana said. She took a deep breath, trying to tell what else she could hear. “There’s an owl hooting in the distance… I think I hear the spring peepers…”
“Good,” Glynn said. “What else?”
“Yeah,” Rana said. “That’s it.”
“What ‘bout Drayan sneakin’ up behind ya?”
“What?” Rana opened her eyes and turned her head. She jumped as she saw Drayan just behind her, bending down so his face was mere inches from her own. She let out a surprised yelp.
Rana took a deep breath, giving Drayan a sideward glance as he sat down next to her. He slapped her shoulder good-naturedly, grabbing a plate and settling in to his dinner. She turned her attention back on Glynn. “How could you have possibly known that?”
“Well, I evidently listen better than you do, so I heard someone creeping up,” Glynn said.
“How’d you know it was Drayan?”
“That was a guess,” Glynn admitted with a chuckle. “It just seemed like something he’d be likely t’ do.”
“Hm.” Rana was silent for a moment. It was incredible what Glynn could do. She wondered if she’d ever be able to develop her listening ability like he had his. “Do you think you could teach me to listen better?”
“Sure,” Glynn said. He stood up. “Come on.”
Rana popped up obediently, following after him as he walked away from the party. “Where are you going?”
“To train,” Glynn said, stopping in the clearing. “Close your eyes. And listen. Really listen.”
Rana closed her eyes. She furrowed her brow again, trying to really listen. She could hear the owl and the spring peepers clearer, now that they were further from the noise of the camp. She could still hear the mandolin playing, and the jesting going on amongst the men.
“What do ya hear?”
“I still hear the mandolin, and—”
“What do you hear me doing?”
Rana listened as hard as she could, trying to focus all her attention on Glynn. Suddenly she heard the grass crunch in front of her. She gasped, excited at her discovery. “You took a step closer to me.”
“I took many.”
Her eyes snapped opened, startled at how close his voice sounded. To her surprise, he was standing mere inches from her face. He’d been out of arm’s reach when she closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure how he’d managed to get so close without her realizing.
“You need to listen better,” he said.
“It helps if you can keep you opponent talkin’,” he said. “Last night when I fought you, ya wouldn’t stop bickerin’ with Jayk. I knew exactly where you were. Okay, now try again. Close your eyes.”
Rana closed her eyes again. They went at it for a solid half hour, her trying to hear as he demonstrated various approaches to her. By the end of their training, she thought she had a better idea of what was expected. Glynn grinned. “You’ll get there. We can keep practicing every night.”
“Sounds great,” Rana said. She turned back towards the ring of men, walking with Glynn to join his companions. She hesitated when she didn’t Jayk anywhere. He’d watched part of the training but must have slipped away when she had her eyes closed. “Do you know where Jayk went?”
“Nope,” Glynn said. “I wouldn’t worry about it, though. He’s a funny duck. He’ll show up when wants.”
“Yeah…” Rana agreed. She was silent for a moment as they took their seats by the fire. “Last night he said to me that the only reason he took me is because Father wouldn’t let him out of the ultimatum… do you know what he means by that?”
“Well, he’s a funny duck,” Glynn repeated. “He’s the humblest and the proudest man you’ll ever meet, all at the same time. There ain’t nothing ol’ Jayk wouldn’t do for a friend, give you the shirt right off his back if ya asked. But his pride says that he’s gotta do exactly what he said he was gonna do.”
“So, when he said Father and I either had to fight or he was going to kidnap me…”
“That meant that their either had to be a fight or a kidnappin’,” Glynn finished. “And when your cowardly father turned down the fight, well… there weren’t much choice left to him but to take ya.”
“Even though he didn’t actually plan to kidnap me in the first place?”
“Exactly,” Glynn said. “Pride’s a funny thing, sweetie. Now you’d best stop askin’ about him before he creeps up and catches us gossiping and we both get in trouble.”