Panicked breath left Jezzia’s mouth in puffs of white. The rough surface scratched her bare arm as she huddled against the wall. She closed her eyes for a moment, steeling her resolve, before bending slightly to peer around the corner. Darkness crouched in the empty space of the town’s square, beckoning to her.
Heart in her throat, she ran, lengthening her stride on light feet. The tatters of her ruined dress flew out behind her. She wouldn’t last long like this. Not in what she was wearing. But she had no choice. Master wanted an heir, and she had been chosen to bear it. It was either run now and risk death, or brave life locked in a gilded cage.
Her palms slapped the side of a ruined building. It had been burnt three years ago when the Graygual had invaded. She slipped into a shadow. Falling still, she listened.
Leaves softly clattered in the breeze like dancing skeletons. Somewhere a baby cried.
Or was that a woman? It was hard to say. Lately, one could be heard as often as the other.
She wiped a tear from her cheek. Taking a deep breath, gritting her teeth so they wouldn’t chatter, she eased along the wall as quietly as she could. A smattering of laughter sounded distantly to her right. Then, closer, she heard the siren of death: “She went toward the horses!”
Fear stole her breath and dumped adrenaline into her body. She ran. Blindly, unable to think. Tree branches thwapped her in the face. She waved her hands in defense, ducking too late. A root caught her foot, making her stumble. Her forehead bounced off the hard dirt as she fell. Up ahead, not twenty paces, a horse neighed.
Small stones scraped her bare knees. She pushed herself to her feet and ran on, moisture in her eyes blurring the edges of the yawning barn door in the moonlight.
“I see her!”
“No,” Jezzia cried.
Terror ripped the sobs from her chest as she ran into the barn. Her body smacked into a padded chest and stomach, partially concealed by shadows. She bounced off, eyes going wide as she stumbled backward.
“What have we here?”
Jezzia’s back hit wood, stopping her.
“A runaway, eh? You know what happens to runaways…” A large man stepped closer to her, a sneer coating his dirty face. In the faint light from a nearby lantern, she could make out the stains down his shirt front. Blackness gaped between a few yellowed teeth. Lust sparked in his eyes as his gaze roamed.
Tears running down her face, she covered herself as her mind furiously searched for a way out.
“She went into the barn,” someone shouted.
“Wish I could keep ya.” The man’s voice grated. “But they’ll torture me for that. A small feel won’t hurt, though. Something to remember on cold nights.”
His hand reached out to her. She squeezed her eyes shut against the grope she knew was coming but couldn’t block it out no matter how often it happened.
The stable master grunted, then coughed. Wetness sprayed across her face. She flinched as the voice outside yelled, “Raton, bring her out. You know you can’t have her.”
Confused, Jezzia opened her eyes to the strange, musical voice.
The soft light fell across a face as handsome as his gaze was terrifying. Stormy gray eyes, hard and desolate, assessed her. His light hair, soiled and greasy, fell around his chiseled face in a disheveled wave. A foreign style of clothing, equally soiled, adorned a lithe but muscular body.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She looked down at the lifeless body of the stable master. She fingered her face and saw the glimmer of crimson across her fingertips.
The shadows behind the handsome man moved. Coalesced into an arm and shoulder, and then another face. Other men, then a woman, stepped out of the darkness like ghosts. Gleaming swords and knives caught and threw the light. Despite their dirty and scruffy appearance, they’d kept their weapons clean.
Jezzia grabbed at the fragments of her dress and pulled them tighter around her.
“Raton, you barking fool,” came the voice. “Is Master’s prize in there? Don’t make me come look for myself. You know what’ll happen if you get caught handling his possessions…”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed as he glanced toward the front of the barn. His head tilted a fraction, before he looked toward the back. Within the deep shadows, metal clinked and chimed as leather groaned. More than one person was saddling horses, Jezzia could tell, but she couldn’t see anyone in the darkness. She couldn’t hear any footsteps.
They’d been waiting in the deep shadows, whoever these people were. The stable master could not have known. His death had been inevitable.
“Killing a Graygual will mean being hunted,” Jezzia whispered as three people, two men and a woman, walked to the sides of the barn doors. The curvy woman smirked. Her lips moved, as if she were talking, but the sound didn’t carry to Jezzia. The man in front of her chuckled. His smile seemed predatory.
“Burn it all!” Hard footsteps approached the barn. “I know she’s in there, and I’m going to take great pride in—”
As soon as the chest of her pursuer reached the entrance, the stranger beside the barn door reacted. His limbs moved so fast Jezzia couldn’t keep track of him. The Graygual grunted once, before crumpling to the ground. Another of the strangers stepped forward to help the first, dragging the body inside. Liquid spilled onto the barn floor before the body was thrown to the side in a splash of limbs.
“How many were chasing you?”
Jezzia blinked stupidly at the man in front of her. No matter how many people she’d seen murdered in cold blood, it still shocked her. Worse was the screaming, though. The begging for their lives.
Jezzia shuddered and dragged her mind from the memories. “I don’t know. Usually they’d only send one or two after a runaway. There isn’t far we can go. But I’m…” She tried to harden her voice. She hated the quiver. “Master had special plans for me. He’ll bed anyone pretty and young, but I’m…”
She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. And then she didn’t have to.
“They think it’s a great honor to be chosen for breeding.” The woman beside the barn door grimaced while staring out. “They’ll send more to fetch you. At least three, I would bet. They won’t want you wandering off and dying from the cold. Such a kind people.”