There was a sharp pound on the wall of the carriage that shook the whole thing. The men stopped, their hoots silencing for a moment before one of the men outside shouted something unclear. I heard swords unsheathing and quickly the two men began fumbling to get outside. As they did, the others shouted again, this time the word was unmistakable.
“Klains!” they said.
I rolled over onto the floor, making sure my dress was covering my legs again, and found the head of a sharp axe through the wood of the carriage beside my head. I jolted away from it, my body shaking with a kind of fear I’d never felt before. Frozen, I listened to a battle pick up outside. It came so quickly it was like a wave crashing down on the camp. I heard men shouting. Some were soldiers. Others sounded too animalistic. Too fierce and primal. Metal clashed. I heard Oona scream and I covered my ears like a coward, closing my eyes.
The axe was pulled from the carriage, the blade receding back through the wood and leaving a slit in the cedar. I turned to peer outside and saw flashes of bodies tangled in a battle. The soldiers in their green cloaks were swinging their swords wildly at men in white and grey leather and furs that matched Pellei’s. They were huge, towering over the soldiers in size, and fighting with the wild fury of three men. I saw silver and white hair. The glints of metal blades. Splashes of bright red blood. I turned from the scene, hugging my legs to my chest, and buried my face against my knees.
The fight lasted barely a couple minutes. When the silence overtook the camp, I was trembling with the thought of them finding me. It was obvious that the Klains had won and I was holed up inside the carriage, helpless. I waited, listening.
When I heard Darien’s strained voice spit curses at the attackers, I was sickened by the fact that he was still alive, but before he could spout anymore insults, I heard the swing of a weapon and what sounded like an axe embedding in a piece of meat. Following it was the sound of a melon hitting the mud...but I knew it wasn’t a melon.
Oona’s high-pitched shriek cut through the air. I was certain she was about to meet the same fate. I didn’t want that, did I? She was my sister. My horrible, heartless sister, but my sister nonetheless. I was an idiot. I was an idiot because before I even gave it any thought, I rolled to my hands and knees and crawled for the carriage entrance. I stumbled out, spinning toward the bloody mess, but my words caught in my throat.
All eyes darted toward me and I realized Darien was still alive, on his knees beside a beheaded soldier. He glared and as the attackers were trained on me, he leapt to his feet, pushing wildly to get past anyone in his path. He made it to a horse, roaring with animal fury as he galloped off without his bride.
“After him!” someone shouted.
Everything was a blur.
“Darien!” Oona screamed. “Don’t leave me here!”
She stood, tripping on the hem of her dress, and as she stumbled to run, an axe made a crescent sweep toward her neck. Her head rolled across the blood-soaked ground before I could protest.
I had no voice. I wanted to scream, but I was dumbfounded. Struck mute as the sight of my sister’s headless body registered in my mind. Everyone was staring at me again. I’d revealed myself and didn’t even manage to save my sister. I couldn’t stop staring at her.
A hand collared my throat before I could even assess the full situation and I was thrust backward into the wall of the carriage. The pressure of a man’s grip was so firm it was cutting off my air supply. The rough wood scraped against the raw lashings on my back, but it was nothing compared to the pain I knew I was about to feel. I clutched the wrist of my captor with one hand and pressed against his chest with my other, struggling as he raised the tip of his sword to my breast.
Make it fast, I thought, silently begging him not to prolong my death.
He was menacing, towering over me in height with a physique molded for crushing foes. A strong and almost wild heartbeat pounded against my palm. Long, silver-white hair hung in straight locks over his shoulders, some strands braided and woven with leather. His eyes were the palest shade of grey. I’d never seen a Klain before Pellei and even then, it hardly felt real. This felt real. This man was a Klain and he was inches away and choking the life out of me.
As he eased the blade harder against me, I could see his sharp fangs protruding from his mouth. He let out a low hiss. The blade pierced the surface of my skin and I winced, feeling hot blood dripping down my breast.
“Stop!” someone yelped.
The man whipped his gaze toward the source of the voice. It was Pellei. She came running toward us, out of breath. Her face was pleading, her hands raised as if to calm a wild beast.
“Don’t,” she protested. “She’s the one who freed me, Roan.”
The man’s grip was still harsh on my windpipe. His eyes met mine again. The hateful expression slowly dropped from his face and softened his features, but barely. It took him a moment to comply, but when he did and his hand loosened, I took in a heavy gasp of air and choked on it. My legs trembled and all I wanted was to drop to the ground and weep.
Roan stepped away, letting his breath slow as he scanned the wake of the battle. His white leather tunic was cinched at his narrow waist, the shoulders covered in light grey fur that was now spattered with blood. He wiped his blade on the cloak of a fallen soldier and then sheathed it on his hip before turning to look at me again.
As soon as Roan’s eyes hit mine, I turned my gaze downward and straightened myself against the carriage wall on trembling legs. I could tell he was thinking of what to do with me and I hoped to the gods he didn’t just decide cutting my head off was the best option.
“Roan, she risked her life to let me go,” Pellei argued. “We should bring her with us. She’ll die out here alone.”
“She’s not coming with us,” Roan said, his voice a deep hum that rippled through the air.
“We can’t just leave her here.”
Even if I wasn’t used to diverting my stare when others were looking at me, Roan’s dominance would have forced it downward anyways. My eyes fell to the ground again as I massaged my throat. I could feel Roan watching me and an uncomfortable tingle crept along my spine. Pellei wasn’t joking when she said her brother was nothing like the boy. Klains could snap a human in two with their bare hands. Rip out jugulars with their teeth. And on top of it all, humans and Klains had such a long history of slaughtering each other that the grudges and vengefulness towards each other never stopped.
“Roan, you should have seen the way they were treating her,” Pellei continued. “She’s no better off with humans than I would have been.”
I was confused. I didn’t want to go with these people. That option was sure to bring all kinds of trouble, but thinking about the life that awaited me if I made it out of the mountains, alone and without protection, had my stomach turning. I’d be punished further for what I’d done and for someone that looked like me, the punishment would be creative. And if people never found out what happened at all, I’d still be an abused outcast and maybe even banished.
“The answer is no, Pellei,” Roan growled, marching away.
I watched his leather boots trek across the snow until he was too far for my down turned eyes to see and then shot a glance at Pellei. She was in distress. I was touched that she cared, but what was she going to do against a brute like Roan?
Looking around, I saw a horse nearby. Darien’s brown stallion. He was tripping on his reins, which were dragging on the ground.
“Pellei,” I whispered, drawing the girl’s eyes. “I have a horse and food. I’ll be fine.”
That wasn’t true, but I didn’t see another choice.
“No, you won’t,” Pellei whispered back. She sniffed the air. “I can smell your blood. They punished you for letting me go, didn’t they?” Her eyes scanned up and down my half-dressed body and she clenched her jaw. “What’d they do?”
I forced a pathetic smile and shook my head, walking toward my black dress and grey and white dress-coat on the ground where they’d been tossed. I slowly slipped both over my battered body, concealing the mess on my back, and folded my arms over myself.
“Anika,” Pellei said. “Where are you going to go?”
I had no idea. I sniffled, rubbing the salt of dried tears from my cheeks, and avoided looking at my sister’s headless body by the tent. Glancing at the steed, I tried to plot out a direction, but I barely even knew where I was let alone the best way to go.
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