(Originally posted 1/21/2002)
The root was being stubborn. Anne grumbled to herself as she thrust her dagger into the soft soil and tugged harder to pull the thing free. Coated in dirt, she had been walking and digging for two hours after leaving Jhelom. Tiring and concentrating on the task at hand, she never heard the man come up behind her.
A filthy hand clamped down over her mouth, and another grabbed the wrist of her dagger-wielding hand. Her heart skipped a beat as nightmare memories screamed back. Not again! Old fears mixed with new and completely paralyzed her.
Her captor dragged her away from the tangle of roots and forced her to her feet. Turning with him, she saw another man standing nearby. He plucked the dagger from her hand and tossed it onto her pack which lay nearby. When he turned his head to pitch the knife, Anne’s eyes widened. His left ear and cheek were withered and garish with purplish-red scars. She scanned his other features and shuddered in cold despair when she recognized him.
The man noticed her surprise and frowned. “What’re ye lookin’ at?” he snarled. “Never seen a man burned before?” He backhanded her across the cheek, drawing an angry shout from his companion when he hit the fingers over her mouth. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Now ‘old ‘er good. I got some rope.”
Anne’s captor leaned into her and breathed foul breath into her ear. “Ye scream, and we’ll cut ye. Ain’t no one to hear ye anyway. Understand?” He slowly removed his hand and grunted slightly when she stayed silent. Anne never took her eyes off the other man, drowning in terror. How had he found her? Did he even remember? The burned man roughly lashed her hands together behind her back while the other man held her still. They pushed her down by a tree and lashed her ankles together too. Stepping back, they gloated over their prize.
“A bit dirty, but she ain’t ‘alf bad lookin'”, the first man leered. His scarred companion shared his grin.
“Purty eyes,” he agreed. He leaned a bit closer and grabbed a fistful of her hair, yanking her head forward and bringing tears to her eyes. “And purty ‘air.” He paused, looking hard at the golden locks as they shimmered with red highlights in the scattered sunlight. Frowning darkly, he released her hair and grabbed her chin roughly, studying her face. “Hey. I know ye…” He scowled as the memories came back. “Ye little bitch. ‘ow’re ye alive? They said ye were dead!” He pushed her sharply, knocking her head against the tree. Lights danced in front of Anne’s eyes. “Dammit, Dar! This’s the bitch that burned me!” Dar pulled at his arm, yelling for him to settle down and not damage her so quickly. But the scarred man was furious and let loose a punch. Dazed already, Anne barely registered the hit and slipped into unconsciousness.
It was full dark before she came to. She was still propped against the tree, her hands and feet cold from blood loss. Groggily, she opened her eyes and looked around the clearing. The two men were hunched by a small campfire, arguing over what to do with her. The scarred man wanted to rape her, slit her throat, and leave her – in that order. “To ‘ell with the guilds!” He snarled. “She’s dead!” Dar was trying to calm him. Sure they could have some fun with her, he said. But there could be some gold in bringing her back alive….
Pressing her eyes closed again, Anne forced her scattered thoughts back together. Her terror had abated while she had been unconscious, and she fought down a new wave as she listened to them talk. Think, she snapped at herself. You got out of this once. You cannot let them take you back. Think!
She glanced to her right, but her pack lay several feet away and closer to the men. They had taken her dagger, and her sword was with her pack. Frowning, she berated herself for removing her communication crystal – it was tucked in her pack as well. Biting her lip, Anne wiggled her fingers, trying to get some feeling back in them. The motion pushed a hard lump into her back. One of her herb pouches! Easing forward to get her numb fingers under her belt, she was dizzied by the pain blazing from her head and cheek. But she managed to work the pouch free. It fell onto the gnarled roots behind her, thankfully with the drawstring up. Working the knot free was tricky, but she did it. Her fingertips burned with more than blood deprivation when she dug into the moist roots tucked inside the pouch. Blood root had very acidic sap under its thick skin, and crushed by the weight of her fall, the sap was everywhere. Trying to ignore the rope burns on her wrists, Anne lifted a handful of root and sap and started rubbing it against the rope. Her hands stung as the acid ate into her skin, but she could feel the twine rope weakening.
The men were still arguing when she finally was able to snap the binds. She bit down a hiss as blood rushed into her hands. Rubbing the feeling back, she watched the men carefully before quickly reaching down and untying her ankles. She left the rope loosely hung over her feet and tucked her hands behind her back again while planning her next move. Her sword hilt was obvious over her pack. But the move would put her much closer to the men. Fear crept back into her thoughts. Gritting her teeth, she barely breathed the words, “Poise, Precision, Discipline….” The mantra blotted out the fear as she focused on her sword. Her confidence built slowly. She could do this, they were training her to do this. And she had to be quick.
She surprised even herself when she sprang toward her weapon. The roll was perfect, a fast tuck and tumble got her to her pack before the men even reacted. Her blade rang faintly as she quickly drew it, falling into a low crouch facing her captors.
“Kill her, Dar!” the scarred man snarled, drawing a battered sword of his own. “She took my ear, dammit.”
Dar coldly nodded. “If she ain’t goin’ quietly, she ain’t goin’ at all.” He eyed her ready stance and pulled a long dirk off his belt. In his other hand, a dagger appeared. “Ye really want to play, girl?”
Poise, Precision, Discipline… The words repeated in her head as Anne waited. One hand held her sword, the other rested on her pack’s straps. The men then lunged at her in a small semblance of unison. The scarred man stepped left to keep his sword away from his companion. Dar moved to her right with blades held at the ready. Not ready to handle two weapons at once, Anne spun to her left, sword hand leading to catch the scarred man’s blow. Her left hand snatched her pack off the ground and carried it with her. The parry was clean, pushing the attacking sword harmlessly aside and leaving the man wide open as her pack smashed into the side of his head. Bottles shattered inside the pack, and Anne flinched slightly. But the carefully padded vials of explosion potions had survived, and the scarred man dropped hard to his knees. Finishing the spin, Anne slung the pack over her shoulder and checked quickly for the other man.
Too late. Dar’s arm shot forward and his dagger drove deeply into her left shoulder. Cold shock almost took her off her feet. Staggered, she viciously reminded herself of what they would do to her if she passed out. That worked up enough anger to burn the shock away. Checking that the scarred man was still dazed, she charged Dar – who looked a bit startled that she hadn’t fallen. With only his dirk, he dodged desperately as her longer blade thrust and swung by him. The exchange of swings was crude, neither fighter adept with their weapons, but Dar didn’t know the lay of the clearing as well as Anne. She drove him back toward the spot where he had captured her. She almost shouted in victory when his foot twisted in the hole. The stubborn root snagged his boot and sent him sprawling. Anne advanced quickly to finish him, but the man gasped in pain as he landed and then went slack. Kicking him over, she saw his own dirk thrust deep into his lungs near his heart. Grimly nodding, she turned to go back to the scarred man.
He was shakily regaining his feet when she stalked closer. He lifted his blade and glared at her. “Bitch! Ye’ll scream fer mercy before I kill ye.” He started forward, much more cautious than before. “I’ll hack off that purty head just like yer father.”
Weakness from her wound was eroding her anger, but mention of her father brought a new wave to steady her. She couldn’t best him in a straight fight – she was weakening too fast for that. Remembering some of the moves she had seen during the fight at the temple, a cold smile crept onto her lips. Feigning outright rage, she darted forward and swung wildly at him. The man sneered as he sidestepped, her blade completely missing him. As she passed in front of him, he snarled and brought his own sword around. But Anne let her legs buckle and pulled her swordarm in, her momentum spinning her around as she landed hard on her knees. The man’s blade barely cleared her head. But the spin had left her lower than planned, and her swordpoint was dug into the dirt. Seeing the man recovering, Anne dropped her sword and reached across to the dagger in her shoulder. Growling as it pulled free, she turned it over and drove it up into the man’s groin. His agonized yelp was piercing as he fell back and collapsed onto the ground. Writhing, he whimpered and clutched at the dagger’s hilt.
Blood flowed down her shoulder, but Anne picked up her sword and climbed back onto her feet. She stepped over the man and held the swordtip to his throat. “You are an animal,” she spat at him, shaking with fury and fatigue. “My father was a good man!” She was shouting now. “What were you doing here? Who sent you?” But the man was beyond hearing anything but his own whimpers. Glaring down at his scarred face, memories of their last encounter replayed in her mind. Hatred flared up agan, and Anne coldly shifted her target. Her sword drove almost effortlessly into his heart.
The rattle of his last breath stole all the rage. Stumbling away from the corpse, Anne sat down hard. She stared blankly at the man for a few moments, her rational mind puzzling whether she should be bothered by the fact that she had just killed another human being. Shrugging slightly, she dismissed the question. She would have to kill men again someday – on command and without question. And men like THAT, she looked at the corpse, deserve to die.
Wrapped in her thoughts, she didn’t notice how cold she was getting or the amount of blood that was seeping from her tunic into her pants. A soft breeze then rustled past her cheek, and her wandering mind imagined a soft voice carrying with it. “Run….”
Blinking, she looked up for the source of the voice but saw no one. Then she heard faint shouts further to the west – and the rude echoes sounded like more brigands. Frowning, she decided they probably were her attackers’ cohorts.
Wiping a hand across her mouth, Anne crawled toward her pack. A quick search found her comm crystal. Somewhere during the fight, it had cracked and gone silent. Feeling a bit more worried, she dug out a roll of bandages that hadn’t been coated by crushed glass. With shaking hands, she clumsily bound her shoulder and spared a moment to regret the mixture of potions soaking into the leather backpack. All of her healing potions were gone, and her powder packets were soaked and useless. The only survivors of the glassware were her vials of purple liquid. Lifting the specially bundled pack, Anne looked from it to the clearing. She didn’t want anyone to know she had been there. What if some of the others would recognize her too? And with her rapidly failing strength, she needed something to keep them occupied while she escaped.
Slipping a vial free, she stowed the remainder and gathered her things. Dragging Dar’s body over to the scarred man left her reeling, but she managed it. They would be close enough to the fire now. Shouldering her pack, she forced herself to trot to the clearing’s edge. She wrapped the vial in another bandage, and taking a deep breath, tossed it back into the campfire.
Anne ran through the trees as fast as she could. She had gone only fifty yards when the explosion threw her into the mud. Scrambling up, she kept running with only one glance back. The clearing was ablaze. The moisture from the nearby swamp kept the fire from spreading, but everything in the clearing was charred to ash. When the brigands arrived to investigate, all they found were two badly burnt corpses.
The muck of the swamp slowed her flight. Breathing hard, Anne had to struggle to keep moving. The tower was only a little further, she promised herself. Someone on patrol will find me. Just a little further.
Crawling onto a grassy tussock, her knees gave out. Shivering, she helplessly watched the stars fade out as unwanted nightmares came back to haunt her.
A filthy hand clamped over her mouth and woke her from her sleep. Wide-eyed, Anne stared up into cold eyes. A man dressed in black sat on the edge of her bed, a dagger in his free hand. He leered down at her and pressed the dagger’s tip against her throat. “Yer a purty one, ain’t ye?” he said softly. “I’m takin’ my ‘and away, but if ye scream, I’ll slit yer throat. Understand?” Anne barely managed a nod as terror paralyzed her. He moved his hand away to stroke her hair as it splayed across her pillow in the moonlight. “Such purty ‘air. Always thought ye had purty ‘air.” He leered at her again. “The boss said I could have ye. Cost me five gold, ye know. ‘ad to outbid three men for ye.” He rand a dirty finger down her cheek. “Ye’ll be worth it.”
He pinned her with a cold look and emphasized the point by pressing his dagger a little harder. “Ye do anything I don’t like, and ye’ll pay fer it.” Seeing that she was terrified, he sneered and grabbed the front of her silk nightdress. He took his dagger from her throat to slit the material. An animalistic hunger twisted his features.
Anne forced herself to breathe once the dagger moved. She could hear shouts from outside the small house – including her father’s voice. For a second, she berated herself for not making him agree to fleeing sooner. Then her attacker’s hands started sliding her nightdress aside. Desperately, Anne felt along the far side of her bed. She felt the bundle where she had hidden it, and her fingers shakily dug out the vial. It was made of shatterglass – the kind her father had said would break on impact. She had hidden it after secretly experimenting with a mixture forbidden to her. The vial was scarcely half full, but the purple liquid should be enough….
She waited until the man’s eyes dropped from her face. Bringing her hand up quickly, she smashed the vial against his left shoulder and snatched her hand back again. The tiny bit of liquid barely even flared, a small jet of flame shooting up and scorching the man’s shirt. But it was a hot flame that burned his ear and face. A sickly scent filled the air. Shrieking, the man fell back and beat at the flames.
Leaping to her feet, Anne darted out the door and into the hallway. She yanked on a loose board in the wall, revealing the pack her father had hastily prepared for her. They both knew this day might come. Shouldering it, she ran for the back door. It led into a small courtyard with a fence she could easily climb. The door slammed open, but Anne froze in her tracks. Three more men stood around her father who was kneeling. The men whirled around when they heard the door open, and her father yelled to her “Run, Anne! Run!”
As she watched in horror, a sword swung down and took her father’s head clean off his shoulders. The three men then started toward her.
Anne backpeddaled and pulled the door closed. Throwing the bolt, she ran back past her room – where her attacker whimpered in pain – and skidded into her father’s bedchamber. His window opened onto an alley, and her bare feet soon slapped against the scattered paving stones. Clasping her torn nightdress closed and holding her father’s pack close, Anne sobbed quietly as she obeyed her father’s dying command.
For the next three years, she ran.