Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
King Femola’s heel pressed against her chest, making it even harder to breathe. I bet I could knock him over if I tried. She bit back a sigh. What would that benefit? It’d be hugely satisfying, but it’d just garner more abuse. She didn’t feel like getting hit again.
“Well done, Ani,” the king said.
Ani. She would have laughed, if she wasn’t in such a terrible position. Their parents must have hated them as much as she did, to give them such absurd names. Lesaf Femola, King of Nykeria, and Aniasu Femola, his War Lord.
“Thank you, sire.” Lord Femola stepped forward.
She wished she could stand up. She didn’t try. It wasn’t going to work no matter how hard she tried, and she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of watching her tremble and fail to even stand up.
“What do we do with the rat now?”
“That’s not a decision I want the responsibility of making,” Lord Femola answered.
“We could behead her,” Lesaf said. “Chop, chop, problem gone.”
Her stomach constricted. That actually wouldn’t be an awful way to die…
“You know the stories…”
The gods bless Derik. She closed her eyes for a moment. They were too scared to execute her. There were rumors galore surrounding her: how she’d gotten her fighting ability and what it meant for the person who killed her. Derik had encouraged every single rumor he heard. The most common belief was that an As’veri had marked her during the Royal Picnic all those years ago, and that she’d explode when she was killed. No one wanted to be the one to find out if it was true or not.
Lesaf grunted. “Lock her in the dungeons?”
“No good,” Lord Femola answered. “I don’t like that we’ve got one Ainsley here. If we keep her here then the rest of them will come. We don’t need to deal with that.”
“So, we trade her back?”
A prick of hope kindled in her chest.
“Not if we want a hope of winning this war,” Lord Femola said. “She killed the Chijurru, single-handedly.”
Chi-what-now? She thought for a moment. Yes, the beast. That was what landed herself in this mess to begin with. Chijurru. That must have been the name of the monstrosity that she fought. She committed it to memory.
“She—?” Lesaf cursed. “Then what?”
“I only see one option here…”
Jerica saw multiple options. Let her go free. Trade her back for treasure. Trade her back for Lyiaza’s hand in marriage. Give her a nice bath and a meal. Somehow, she doubted any of these options were the one that Lord Femola saw.
“My gods, are you serious?”
Serious about what? She cracked her eyes open again, uneasy.
“It could solve two of our problems at once, if she really does explode when she dies…”
“Are we even sure the dragon would kill her?”
What? She sucked in a breath to protest, but no words came out. She was not going to meet any dragon. She was fairly certain they didn’t exist, but she wasn’t going to call that bluff just then. Given the Chijurru she’d fought, she didn’t want to know what else might skulk out of that gods-forsaken forest they claimed housed a dragon.
“Absolutely,” Lord Femola answered. “According to the folklore, the dragon only teaches those who are pure and just. Anyone else who goes before the dragon gets broiled.”
I don’t want to be broiled.
“Mm, very well, it’s worth a try,” Lesaf said. “Who will take her?”
“I could spare two of my Rangers and the Lieutenant,” Lord Femola answered. “I think they’re well trained – and she’s injured – enough for the three of them to be able to manage her. I can have my third Ranger transport me back to the battle.”
“Call your men,” Lesaf said. “We’ll rid ourselves of this pest once and for all.”
“Are you really…” Jerica’s voice was still weak. “Going to go through all that trouble, when you could just dump me off at the gate and take all of Levin’s gold?”
“Oh, shut up,” Lesaf snapped. “I don’t want to hear from you.”
“You’re making a mistake,” Jerica said. “Do I look like I’d be any good for the rest of this battle? Just let me go. You’ve had your fun.”
Lesaf kicked her ribs, hard.
Jerica coughed; all the wind knocked from her body.
“The fun’s just getting started.” Lesaf gestured at the Rangers that Lord Femola had called in from the hall. “Get her out of my sight.”
The Rangers swiftly hauled her to her feet and dragged her into the hall. She was still coughing by the time Lord Femola came out after him. Her head was lolling against her chest. She couldn’t be bothered to lift her chin.
“You three, take her to the forest and dump her off at the Dragon’s Lair,” Femola ordered. “You, take me back to the battlefield.”
Oh no, not another… She groaned as she felt her body being ripped apart once again. She imagined she was squeezing her eyes shut tight as she was hurdled through space. She didn’t try to catch herself this time. Her curled body landed on her shoulder and hip. She couldn’t push herself up this time before she puked.
“Never thought I’d see Sanguis in such a sorry state that she’s just another little girl,” a Ranger laughed. He grabbed her arm and leg and hauled her onto his shoulders and started towards the forest. “Come on, let’s give the dragon its little slut-snack and be done with it.”
Jerica felt like her brain had been submerged in gelatin. She could see he was heading towards a forest, but couldn’t be bothered to try to tell anything about it. Her body had given up entirely. She wasn’t even sure if she remembered the conversation between the Femolas accurately at this point. It felt like any memory she might have had was just as likely to have been hallucinated instead, and they all slipped through her fingers as quickly as they appeared.
“How far in is it?” the other Ranger asked.
Kyrek was silent for a long moment. “It can’t be that far in.”
“That sounds like an ‘I don’t know’ to me,” the Ranger answered.
“Who cares?” the Ranger holding her asked. “The longer we’re here, the longer we don’t have to deal with the fucking war. We’ll wander around the forest a while and take turns carrying the idiot then wash our hands of it all. Let’s go.”
“Well, I don’t know about you,” the other Ranger said, following as the first one hauled her forward. “But I don’t want to be in Liminality any longer than we have to be.”
“Why?” the Ranger carrying her taunted. “You spooked by a few trees and some rumors, Kohen?”
“We’ll see what you think once you’ve actually been in the forest more than two steps, Dyntan” Kohen muttered. “The forest has a way of changing on people. We’ll be lucky to make it out alive. Dragon’s just as likely to eat all of us as it is her.”
Dyntan laughed mockingly. “You’re such a little bitch sometimes. Shut up.”
Jerica closed her eyes as the party settled into a tense silence. It felt like Dyntan walked with his choppy, un-even stride for three days before he finally tossed her to the ground and ordered Kohen to take his turn. Kohen was shorter than Dyntan and bobbed her up and down as he walked, but his shoulder was broader and muscular and didn’t dig into her side as badly as the first Ranger’s had.
She had no concept of time. Only pain.
Eventually, he threw her down. Her ears rang. She wanted nothing more than to cup her head in her hands, but she still couldn’t reach it. The chain around her neck dug into her throat if she tried to curl forward enough for her hands to be able to reach; and the ring around her waist stopped her from lifting her hands.
Jerica tried to open her eyes, but her face was so swollen from Kyrek’s abuse that she could only see part of the moss that covered the rest of her view. She probably could have forced herself to sit up, but what was the point? With any luck she’d die soon and be done with all this nonsense. Anything would be better than this.
“Alright, fair’s fair, Kyrek,” Dyntan said. “We put in three hours each. It’s your turn.”
Three hours? She took a deep breath, trying to remember how long that meant they’d been walking. Three and three is… nine? It didn’t seem right, but she didn’t care. It’d apparently been less than a day. She noticed a small patch of berries in front of her, beyond the moss.
“No. I’m leading—”
“The only thing you’re leading,” Dyntan said. “Is yourself towards an ass-kicking. I take orders from Femola, not you, and he said nothing about you being our little leader. Buck up and carry the whore.”
Jerica sighed softly. It felt like it’d been two million years since she’d been in a position to do anything about a man being nasty towards her. She was at their mercy now. Even if they left her right now, it was doubtful that she’d manage to find her way out of the woods, in her current state. She cracked her eyes open again. But if I could get some food…
“You could.” She coughed, nearly as surprised at the sound of her own voice as the men who whirled around towards her were. “Just leave me here. To die.”
“Shut up,” Dyntan snarled.
“I mean, that’s not a bad idea,” Kohen said. “She’ll starve to death before she manages to find her way out. Might be dead by the end of the night, with the looks of her.”
We can only hope.
“I ain’t taking that risk,” Dyntan said. “And you’re stupid to even think about it. Can you imagine what’ll happen to us if she somehow survives? Femola will skin us alive.”
“I could just slit her throat and be done with it,” Kyrek said, starting towards her. Her heart fluttered. She wasn’t quite sure she’d meant what she said. She was too young to die. And this wasn’t the way she wanted to go, even if it was her time. Alone, naked, surrounded by strange men in a strange forest.
“Did you forget why we’re here?” Dyntan snarled, stepping in front of Kyrek. “My gods am I the only one here with a brain? We can’t kill her or we get boom.”
There was a moment of silence, and then, “Fine. Heft her up.”
Dyntan grabbed her arm and hauled her upright, then threw her onto Kyrek’s shoulder. She grunted as his armor dug into her ribs. This was the worst shoulder she’d been on yet. The forest was also much worse. It was spooky now. The trees were shorter and had gnarled branches that interlocked overhead. The bark was pale and flaking and thick underbrush obscured the area around them. Fog began to cloud the path where they walked.
Jerica closed her eyes again. Another week passed. Maybe a month. A year, even. She was acutely aware of each and every step. Every time his stride jostled her injuries and made her ache even more than she already did.
“We’re walking in circles.”
Jerica opened her eyes as she heard Dyntan.
“No, we’re not,” Kyrek argued.
“You really going to argue with a Ranger?” he challenged.
“We didn’t take any turns,” Kyrek said. “How could we possibly have gone in a circle?”
“The forest plays tricks…” Kohen said ominously.
“Oh, shut up with your nonsense,” Dyntan snapped. “And I don’t know how, but look right there. You can still see where we threw her down in the moss. Same patch of berries – same pattern in the peeling bark right there – same lichens on that same log. We’ve been here before, Kyrek.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” he snapped. There was a moment of silence. “Sounds to me like it’s your turn to carry her, then, if we’re starting over.”
Dyntan sighed. “Whatever. Give her to me.”
They exchanged her once again, making no efforts to be gentle. She took a deep breath. Her brain was never going to get any clearer. She was slowly beginning to accept it. The fog was getting thicker, and so was her mind. Maybe I am going to die today. The thought settled over her like a heavy blanket. She didn’t have the energy to feel anything about it.
“My gods, not again!” Dyntan shouted, throwing her to the ground.
The men cursed every god above and below. Jerica groaned and looked around. She was back on her moss-patch again, berries right in front of her face. She was closer to them this time. They were small, barely the size of her pinky nail, but they looked so plump and enticing, like tiny strawberries just waiting to be feasted upon.
“What are we going to do now?” Kohen asked.
“What if we veered off the path?” Kyrek suggested.
“Are you insane?” Dyntan asked. “We’re getting lost on a path, and you think we’d fare better going off on our own, without a plan or a map?”
Just a little nibble. That’s all she needed. Some moisture on her lips. A bit of sweetness on her tongue. Something to remind her that not every faucet of every moment of life was never-ending badness.
“Well clearly the path isn’t working out for us!” Kyrek snarled. “Do you have a better idea for what to do?”
“The forest is alive…” Kohen murmured.
“SHUT UP!” Kyrek and Dyntan snarled in unison.
Jerica spotted a berry mere inches in front of her face. She turned her head slightly to look at the men. They weren’t paying attention to her. The Dyntan and Kyrek were in each other’s faces, bickering back and forth. Kohen was staring off in the distance still muttering about the enchantment of the forest.
Jerica turned her head back towards the berry and strained her neck to reach it. She plucked it straight from the vine with teeth. She ate it, stem and all. Her throat tingled. That’s not good. She didn’t care. It was delicious – the sweetest fruit she’d ever tasted in her life. She reached for the next one, and the next. By the time the men noticed her she’d already eaten five, and her head was buzzing pleasantly.
She wasn’t sure, but it almost felt like the berries had muted some of the pain. She barely minded as the short Ranger hefted her onto their shoulder and started walking again. She closed her eyes. Sleepiness overtook her, and she dozed off.