Jerica wasn’t sure what woke her. Her gut felt like a cat was wrapped around her intestines purring – only, instead of contentment, it made her heart feel fluttery. She stared down at the ground, unable to breathe past the knot in her chest. Couldn’t see beyond the shoulder she was tossed over. But she felt unsettled to her very core.
She blinked, trying to get her bearings. Despite the anxiety tossing around in her stomach, she almost felt better. The berries had taken the edge off the pain. Her body still hurt worse than she’d imagined was possible. But at least now she could think clearly, and she thought she’d be able to move if she tried. She took a deep breath, then wrinkled her nose.
The entire area reeked of reptile musk.
As a child, she’d frequently been guilty of harassing the reptiles on the palace grounds. She adored catching small snakes and geckos and lizards and playing with them until Lord Biryn noticed she’d snuck away. She’d once managed to keep an iguana in her room as a pet for nearly a week, before it managed to escape and make its way to Levi’s bedroom. He’d fainted when he saw it; she’d never been in so much trouble in her life, when the adults saw Levi.
The smell that clung to the air now was inescapable.
It smelled exactly like the bitter, pungent scent the snakes who refused her affections smeared onto her hands as a protest against her love. She’d never smelled it nearly as strongly as she did now. There must have been hundreds of snakes around them. That, or a… Dragons aren’t real. She swallowed hard. It sure smelled like they were.
A deep, throaty growl pierced through the air. It gradually built until it was a deafening roar that shook the ground and stirred her stomach. Her breath caught again, heart seeming to double its speed. She felt the arm hooked around her legs tighten as the man under her tensed. Her body was tense, too.
The voice pierced straight into mind without passing through her ears first. She felt herself being flipped backward. She got a glimpse of the sky before she landed flat on her back. She would have yelped from the pain that shot through her shoulder, but she still hadn’t managed to draw another breath. All three men were backing away from her, swords drawn.
Jerica gritted her teeth and struggled up to a sitting position. She couldn’t see much. A thick cloud of fog cloaked most of the area. She could see a drop-off ahead of them. There were trees on the other three sides. The men backed down the path opposite the cliff.
The sound itself seemed like it sucked all the oxygen from the area. Jerica broke into a nervous sweat. She managed to draw a breath, but the air felt thick and heavy. She needed to get out of here. Somehow. Some way. Any way.
She pushed herself to her feet, desperately trying to retreat. Her leg gave out from under her, sending her back to the ground. She scuttled away from the edge as best as she could, desperately trying to get back to the path.
The ground shook.
“You can’t leave me here!” She looked towards the men desperately. They all exchanged a glance. The growl came again, shaking her to her core. She glanced over her shoulder. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It felt like it surrounded her from all sides at once.
“I’m out!” Dyntan’s eyes were wide as they darted around the area, then he turned on his heel and rushed down the path.
“Kyrek!” Jerica shouted. It felt like desperation took the place of her blood as terror pumped through her entire body. She crawled away from the edge. “At least unchain me!”
Kyrek hesitated a moment, then hurried towards her, still holding his sword. He grabbed her right arm and hauled her to her feet. Oh, thank the gods. She took a deep breath, then her stomach flopped again. What is he—? He was dragging her the wrong direction.
“What are you doing?” She clawed at his grasp. They were almost to the drop. “Stop it!”
“Murderer.” He gave Jerica a swift shove backward.
She yelped as she fell off the incline and struck the rocky ground with her injured shoulder. The incline was nearly straight up and down. Her body flipped heels over her head. She reached for a handhold, but couldn’t find a grasp. The ground was slipping out of her hands faster than she could even see it. The momentum carried her over to her stomach. The shale beneath her skinned her abdomen.
The tips of her fingers burned like fire as the rocks caught under her nails when she tried to stop herself. She yelped as it felt like her entire thumb got yanked off on a rock. Her right foot hit another rock on the cliff-face. She slipped off it, falling backwards again. She rolled once, twice, then landed flat on her face on the ground below. Rocks rained down upon her.
Jerica whimpered. Her body was never going to move again. The rocks on her back and scattered around her were small, but her body felt like it’d been pinned where it’d landed. She struggled to get her hands under herself, desperately trying to push herself upright.
The ground shook.
More rocks rained down on her.
Something hit her in the back of the head, hard. She collapsed again. She was vaguely aware of the growling still reverberating around her, the ground shaking every few minutes, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Her brain ached and her throat felt tight. She blinked away tears. And then, she let the tears come, wishing to any god there was that she could sell her soul to them to save her from this moment in hell.
The growling stopped.
Jerica realized she wasn’t quite sure how long ago it’d stopped. She cracked an eye open, blinking away the residual tears of her self-pity. There was a fist-sized rock by her right hand. She reached for it but stopped short as she stared at her thumb in horror.
The nail had been yanked completely off during her fall. Thick, dark blood had pooled in the dust next to the rock. She gaped. For all the gruesome things she’d seen in her life, nothing seemed quite as unsettling as seeing her own hand without a nail attached. Focus. She grabbed the rock and pulled it closer to herself, decidedly not moving her thumb as she wrapped her fingers around her new weapon.
What am I going to do with a rock? She sighed softly. Maybe the dragon doesn’t realize I’m still here. That was her only hope. What will that help? This was a hopeless situation. Maybe, just maybe, if she laid still until nightfall, she’d be able to slip away without detection. But what if the chains clanked? And how would she walk with her damaged knee?
One thing at a time. Focus. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying to focus on regaining her energy. As if she could make herself to heal through force of will alone. It was getting painfully cold. She wasn’t shivering, yet, but gooseflesh covered her arms and back and made it feel as though her skin was contracting as it tugged at the edges of her wounds.
Someone walked towards her.
She swallowed hard.
Their steps were quiet, nearly imperceptible. She was acutely aware that they were approaching, but couldn’t make sense of who – or what – might be staring at her. The dragon didn’t seem to be light on its feet. The Nykerians certainly would be nowhere close by now, unless they somehow got lost in the forest again. Like the idiots they were.
Jerica grasped the rock in her hand tighter but resisted the urge to open her eyes. Maybe whoever – or whatever – it was would think she was already dead and lose interest. She certainly felt dead. And smelled dead, too.
There was an agonizingly long silence.
“You can drop the act.” The voice was deep and smooth. “We both know that you’re awake, and that you know I’m here. So… what’s your move gonna be?”
Possibilities raced across Jerica’s mind faster than she could consider them. Was it a shapeshifter? A human that managed to hide from the dragon? Someone who could help her hide, too? She dismissed the idea. It was absurd to think she’d found an ally in this damnable forest. If this was a human, he was probably a Nykerian
She hesitated… But he spoke in the Trade Language, not Nykerian… No matter where his allegiance laid, she needed to get away from him just as desperately as she needed to distance herself from the dragon. She didn’t have the luxury of trusting a stranger – not in her current state. There were only three men she could trust, and they were all back home.
She took a deep breath, considering the question. What was her move going to be? She didn’t have the foggiest idea. All she had was the single rock in her hand. If he was armed, she didn’t stand a chance. Especially not if she allowed him to get near to her.
She thought through her options. There weren’t many. She could take her chances and see if he was friendly; she could wait for him to approach her and try her luck at fighting hand to hand; or she could strike him with the rock and make a break for it while he was disoriented.
None of the options were good.
You can’t let him get close to you. She steeled her nerves. It was a long shot, but it was one that she had to take. If he got the rock out of her hands, she wouldn’t stand a chance. And the last thing she needed was to be at the mercy of yet another hostile man. She could push herself up, chuck the rock, and then attempt to lock her leg so she could run on it without bending the knee. She hoped, anyway.
“Well?” he asked. “You want to sit up and tell me who you are and why you’re here?”
She heard him shuffle a step closer. It was now or never. She took a deep breath then shoved off the ground with both hands. In a single fluid motion, she leapt to her feet and threw the rock towards his head as hard as she could. She tried to lung towards the right, but her leg gave out and sent her tumbling to the ground.
Her stomach sank.
The rock had landed next to the man’s feet, nowhere close to striking him, without him even trying to dodge it. He looked at the rock calmly, nudging it with the tip of his boot, before he turned his gaze towards her. He raised an eyebrow. “Are you quite done?”
“Who are you?” Her voice was ragged.
“I asked you first.”
Jerica looked at him suspiciously. He looked vaguely familiar, like the shadow of someone else that she knew, but she couldn’t place who it was. He had an average build and an average appearance, with light brown hair and green eyes. His skin was similar to her own, when she wasn’t as tanned and as sunburnt as she was now. He wore a simple cream-colored button-up tunic with simple brown trousers and soft-soled leather boots.
“I guess there’ll be plenty of time for chatting later,” he said, glancing up at the sky. “We should get you inside before nightfall, so you don’t catch a cold. Come on.” He started towards her. Jerica scuttled backward. Her back pressed against the cliff-face. He tsk-ed softly. “None of that, now. We both saw how well that went for you. Just cooperate.”
“Don’t hurt me.” Jerica barely managed to keep from whimpering as fear surged through her. Disgust flooded through her. Don’t be a coward. She couldn’t help it. It was pathetic that she’d been reduced from slaying a Chijurru to begging for kindness from a stranger, but she couldn’t handle any more abuse. “Please.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” The man bent and grabbed her arm then hauled her to her feet gently. He put his hand on her chains and they fell away.
She gasped, yanking her hands away.
He wrapped his left arm around her back, being careful of where he placed his hand. He hooked her arm behind his own neck to help support her weight. “I intend to extend to you the grace you show me you deserve. I won’t be harsh unless you force me to be. Now let’s go.”