Not Meant To Be…

This story was written and dedicated to Emily and Mary, my cousins. A story in three parts, unless it just gets too long to keep to three.

Please offer advice as you feel is needed, about grammar, story structure, making things more clear, or whatever comes to mind. It is not perfect, but it is something I plan to publish one day. I greatly appreciate any comments whatsoever, although I will not be offended if my readers do not give any. I think reviews are great, and serve a great purpose, but I also feel that to assume one must write one takes something away from the story. I want you to get wrapped up in it, to get lost in it, and to enjoy it and feel it as though it were happening right in front of you. You may respond if you wish to, but do not in any way feel that you must. That is not the purpose of this story.

I hope it inspires you to write more, Emily and Mary.

-

Part One

-

I crept forward through the trees, gripping the stolen steel knife tightly in my right hand and feeling the ground with my left. The man was sleeping, unaware of my presence. He would not even realize that he was being stabbed before he'd already be dead. I was that skilled. It wasn't that I wanted to kill him, it was that I had to. I was a fugitive, escaping a hostile country, and I needed his horse and supplies. He was unfortunate enough to be the only one around, and he was alone. That left him as my only option.

I slipped up to him and thrust my knife sideways into his back with one swift motion, expecting as usual to feel it slide between his ribs into his heart. Instead a hand grabbed my wrist, yanked it forward, and twisted the knife from my hand. Before I knew what was happening, I was on my back staring upwards at him, panting from pain and surprise. The knife was in his left hand, dripping blood.

"Trying to kill me in my sleep?" he asked softly, a tired and disappointed tone in his barely audible voice. He let out a sigh and peered straight into my eyes. "That wasn't a very good idea."

Then everything went black.

-

I woke up with a splitting headache, and at first I thought I was still in the prison cell. Then I remembered my perilous escape last night into the wilderness, and my attempt at stealing supplies from one of the outlaws banished to the forest. I had failed.

The more awake I became, the more I realized that my whole arm was in pain from my shoulder down to my fingers, and it seemed that the pain was what was causing my headache. Or so I thought. I couldn't really remember falling asleep, so I assumed I'd been knocked out. Deciding to try once again to escape before something terrible could happen to me, I sat up as silently as I could.

I was lying on a large fur pelt by a crackling fire, with a cast iron pot propped over it with some sticks and rope. It looked odd to me. A horse was tethered to a tree nearby, and a few supply bags were sitting near the fire. On a rock sat my captor. He was carving something out of wood.

"Good evening," he offered, staring at me blankly with his piercing green eyes. I noticed at once that he was not afraid of me, nor inclined to do anything about me. Nor was I restrained or tied in any way. "You slept a long time, which was quite surprising," he continued. His voice was still quiet and reserved, like he didn't want to raise his voice higher than it needed to be for me to hear him. "I'd like to ask you a few questions if you're feeling up for it."

I gave him the hardest scowl I could muster, and refused to speak. He was an outlaw, I knew that much. No one traveled alone out in these woods unless they were an outlaw, a fugitive, or a bandit. But they were all considered the same by the laws of the world. Anyone was allowed to kill an outlaw and take their stuff. By rights, it was legal. The only downside was if you got caught. Either you were killed, or you became their slave. I hated the law at that moment, and I was not going to allow him the satisfaction.

He, however, did not seem to care. "I suppose not," he said to himself, whittling away at a thin piece of wood with a small carving knife. "But I'll ask anyway."

I turned my head and continued to ignore him, choosing instead to get a good look at my surroundings. I had to escape, kill him, take his stuff, and make it to the border. Everything depended on it.

"Your dagger," he said, interrupting my thoughts. "Not very well crafted. Looks like a prison guard's weapon. It didn't happen to be poisoned, did it?"

I said nothing, but a sinking feeling grabbed my gut. What if it had been? I didn't know much about prison weapons…I just grabbed it and killed my guards with it.

"I see. I'm guessing that's a yes. Well then, I suppose there's nothing for it then." He set aside his wood and knife, and stood up. I tensed into a battle ready position when he walked over and knelt beside me, and threw a punch at his gut and then at his face when he reached out to touch me. He blocked both easily, and so gently, that I hardly realized he was blocking until my blows missed their goals. He set my fists aside and took my arm in his hands.

"Don't touch me, outlaw!" I hissed, slapping his face and scooting backwards. Both motions caused me splitting pain that traveled all the way up my spine into my jaw. I tried not to whimper.

"Calm down," he ordered, giving me a stern look as though lecturing a child. It caught me by surprise and I couldn't help gaping at him. "And sit still. It will hurt worse if you move."

I stared at him for a while, confused, and then glanced at my shoulder as he ripped the sleeve of my shirt off and tossed it to the ground, and undid a neat bandage that was wrapped around it. He examined a clean stab wound in my right shoulder with careful fingers, frowning in thought, and then pulled a water pouch from his belt. It appeared that he had cleaned and bandaged it last night. "It is poisoned," he mumbled, dripping water onto a rag. He cleaned my wound again and squeezed some of the blood and puss out of it, and then placed the wet cloth onto the cut. "Press on it," he ordered, placing my hand over it.

I saw the value of this, and did as he ordered. But I could not deny that I was still confused. Why would he help me, unless he planned on selling me as a slave? I shuddered at the thought. From one captivity to another. Would I ever escape?

My captor dug through his bags, frowning and muttering a few things here and there. When he found what he was looking for—a wooden bowl, a marble cylinder with a rounded end, and a leather pouch—he seated himself by the fire and got to work. First he pulled a pinch of something dried and green from the pouch—an herb of some kind—and dumped it in the bowl. Then he crushed it with the marble. Finally, he found a spoon and opened the pot over the fire, lifted out a spoonful of boiling water, and poured it into the bowl. Then he stirred, and repeated the step. After three or four spoonfuls of water, he stood and returned to his spot beside my arm.

"This might sting at first," he said quietly, and I braced myself for a sting. He produced another clean cloth, dampened it with water, and scooped some of the herb mix he'd made. Then he rubbed it over my cut.

It did sting, not terribly, but enough to make me start in surprise. At first I wanted to pull away from him and make him stop, but as he massaged it into my skin around the cut, adding more herb mixture and continuing the massage, the pain began to vanish. It was replaced with a tingling sensation through my nerves, spreading from the cut into every inch of my body. It felt like a cool rippling of water mixed with mint was flooding through my blood vessels, and my headache vanished away into nothing. Eventually, I could feel nothing but the cold, minty freshness all around me.

"There," he sighed, stepping back and giving me a calculating look. He reached out and wrapped my arm tightly with a bandage, and then began to clean up. By then I was feeling light-headed and calm, and more relieved than I had for longer than I could remember. Involuntarily, I laid down against the soft fur pelt and closed my eyes.

Gradually, with the feeling of coolness and the sound of the warm crackling fire, I fell asleep.

-

When I woke up again, there was no headache, no pain, nothing. And my mind felt clearer than it had in years. I felt that I could focus better. I sat up and looked around, finding the camp to be much the same, except that we were in a different location. Alarmed, I stood up and looked around. My captor was nowhere in sight, but he horse was here, which meant he could not be far.

I grabbed the first weapon in sight and slipped up to his horse, ready to fight and kill. And then the unexpected happened. He walked into the camp with a dead rabbit, a long bow, and a quiver of arrows on his back. He glanced at me, offering a small smile, and then set his catch down by the fire. I knew, just from the look on his face, that if I had tried to escape, he could have easily stopped me. For the first time since my capture by this outlaw, I became scared.

"Good morning, traveler," he offered. "Going somewhere?"

I set the knife down and seated myself on the fur I woke up on. I shook my head.

"You'll be feeling better today, I imagine."

I nodded. What else would I do?

"I'd like to ask you some questions, if you don't mind."

I frowned at him. Where was he going with this? Everything he said, he spoke like a gentleman. In no way did he seem like a ruffian or a bandit. Perhaps he was more than I thought he was. And if that were the case, I was in more danger than I was with a regular outlaw.

He almost seemed to be waiting for me to finish thinking, before he cleared his throat and began to work on preparing his catch. "I know that you are a fugitive," he said to me conversationally. "I know that you escaped prison, and are heading for the border. Really, that is the only explanation. I know that you have been trained to fight by someone. I also know that you have been trained in stealth and assassination, among other useful skills that are rather useless to mention at this point in time. But that is beside the point. What I want to ask you has nothing to do with those things." He stared at me evenly.

"Then what would you ask of me, outlaw?" I asked, a hard edge to my voice.

He paused in his skinning, cracking a small smile. "Your methods of travel. Looking back, do you think it was wise to try to kill me the other night?"

I glared at him. "What's your point?"

"My point," he clarified good naturedly, "is that it was a bad idea. In your situation, you should have just taken the horse and run. Stopping to kill me and snoop through my supplies put me on my guard. You would have had a better chance if you moved quickly."

"But I…"

He cut off my protest. "Now," he said, slightly louder than usual, "now you're…what?" he looked at me expectantly. "What are you now?"

"Captured?" I snapped.

"And?"

I glared at him as darkly as I could. "A slave?" I asked bitterly.

"Ah yes," he sighed. "A pity, isn't it?"

"Stop mocking me," I hissed, standing up.

"Or what? You'll leave? You'll try to kill me again?" he sighed again and shook his head. "Listen, I am trying to tell you to be more mindful of your situation. You're never going to make it to the border if you keep getting uptight like that."

I frowned, and crossed my arms. Now I was confused. "I still don't know what you're trying to say, and I don't need your lectures."

He shrugged. "Whether or not you care to listen to what I have to say, or answer my questions, I do need you to pay attention to at least one thing."

"I never said I wasn't listening."

He paused and stared at me until I closed my mouth and sat down again. Then he continued preparing his catch. "I just happen to be heading to the border, and from what I know of the journey there, it is more perilous than anything you or I likely have encountered in our short lives. I need a companion, a travel-buddy if you will, to watch my back as I watch theirs. Now you can agree to this, or you can be dragged along as a slave, trying desperately to escape or kill me at all the wrong times. Either way, you're coming with me." He offered a small chuckle. "Now what do you have to say?"

"What makes you think it's going to be 'perilous' as all that? I've crossed the border twice in my life." I watched him carefully, feeling strangely pleased with his proposition. Though I wasn't quite sure why.

"Because, silly girl, this is the Westwood Forest." His quiet admonish left me feeling slightly offended, but he ignored my protesting expression and kept talking. "Outlaws are exiled to this forest because it is too dangerous for people to live in. Wild animals, which have never been seen except by those who never live to tell about it, roam here every day and every night. And to add to all that, they say the trees themselves are alive and bent on destroying all who try to cross through." He stood and gave me a simple shrug. "We are forced to take this road because you and I are both fugitives, and we have no other way to go."

"I find those wives tales to be nothing more than ridiculous," I retorted. "And if you believe that superstitious nonsense, then you are more of a fool than I took you for."

"Everyone is a fool," he chuckled. "But some fools are wise enough to listen to advice when it's given. I am a fool for traveling this road to the border, little choice as I may have. But I am wise for preparing for the worst. You are a fool for being dense and immature in your actions. But you may yet learn to be wise." He grinned, then stood from his seat and opened the lid on his pot. He had finished preparing the rabbit, and with careful grace, positioned the skinned, cleaned, and gutted catch into the pot. Then he glanced up at me, wondering why I did not comment on his rather bold speech.

I huffed and turned away to look into the forest. Bold yes, and offensive as well. But I could not think of a comeback, and so I refused to say anything. At least I could deny him the pleasure of giving him a response.

He seated himself and began to clean and tan the rabbit skin, almost as if he had nothing better to do. Finally he cleared his throat. "I am taking the road Northwest," he said to me. "There is no real path, but I know where Northwest lies. The border is closest in that direction, though I believe we will have to cross mountains to get there."

"There must be a faster way," I offered stubbornly.

"There isn't."

"And how would you know?"

I peeked back over my shoulder to see him smirking to himself. "Like you, I've crossed the border a few times before."

"Then there must be a safer way," I argued.

He shrugged. "Perhaps. But would you risk capture and death just to get to it?"

"We're risking death either way, according to you!"

"If we each traveled alone, yes. But with a companion," he made a thoughtful expression and then shrugged again. "I'd say it's much safer this way, and the odds are in our favor."

"Then how about going around the mountains?"

"Marsh or Mountains, take your pick," he smirked again. "I'm pretty sure you'll make the same decision when we reach that point in our journey."

I wondered what else I could say, but after a moment I realized that he probably had this more thought out than I could possibly know. Confused and slightly put out, I turned around and watched him tan the small fur. "Fine," I snapped. "The road is chosen."

He offered a small, satisfied smile that made me want to slap him or kiss him, it was so darn cute. I couldn't decide which one at the moment. "Then you agree to travel as my companion rather than my slave?"

"What's the difference?"

He gave me a disappointed stare. "As my traveling companion, you get weapons. You help me hunt, you take turns keeping watch at night. You eventually get your own horse, if we can find one. I depend on you to watch my back, and I watch out for yours. We make decisions together, so that the best choice can be made. On the other hand, if you refuse to cooperate—try to escape, try to kill me, or other stupid ventures of the like—then you shall sit with me upon my horse with your hands tied, have no choice in anything we do, and sit still and quiet or else I'll knock you out." His eyes narrowed. "You'd be stupid to try anything foolish, I hope you see that."

"I am not stupid," I argued. "And I do know how to take advantage of a situation. For instance, I prefer the former choice."

"I thought so. But just so we're on the same page, if you try anything stupid or reckless, then you'll travel as a slave. I will not allow for this mission to be compromised. Do you understand?"

I stared at him blankly, a warning sounding off in my head. "Mission?" I asked curiously. "What mission?"

His face became blank for a moment, and he turned away so that he was no longer looking directly into my eyes. "It is not your concern," he finally said. "It is a family matter, and I don't want you to mention it again. Do you understand?"

"Touchy," I chided. I stood and walked over to him. "Listen, I understand, okay? I am not a child, and I don't have to be treated as one. If we travel as equals, you'll have to be more respectful." I frowned and stared squarely down at him until he looked up at me with an annoyed expression. It was the first one I'd seen on him, and it caught me by surprise.

"I give respect as it is due," he said quietly, and nodded his head once.

I would have taken offense, said something, or argued at that remark, but somehow I couldn't. It was so true, and he wasn't saying it to bait me. I felt somewhat shamed, like he had just put me in my place, like he was better than I was, and was reminding me as gently as possible. Astounded, I turned and retreated to my rock to sit on, a frown on my face. How could it be that I, of all people, would be shamed by this outlaw? How could it be that I felt so much less prestigious than he? Who was he, really?

I hugged myself and shivered. I did not want to think about prestige, class, or ranks. At the moment, I was far away from all of that. When I reached the border, I would have to step into my role. But until then, I was released from that binding. I could be whatever I wanted to be here.

He stood, catching my attention. But before I even looked up, he was already wrapping the fur I had slept on around my shoulders. "It gets colder as the terrain rises," he said softly, looking concerned. "We'll have to make winter garments."

"Make?" I asked.

He gave me an odd look. "It's not like there's a place we could buy them here, is it?"

I shook my head, and he smiled kindly at me. Then he went back to his tanning.

I went back to my thinking, getting lost in the overwhelming immensity of all the thoughts and feelings that filled my head.

-

That night, he sent me to find more firewood while he finished making supper. I scavenged for the best pieces I could find, staring off into the darkness with a sense of urgency, but my common sense reminded me that my captor was right. Escaping on my own was foolish, and I had much better chances of reaching the border if I went with him. It would be easier in all respects. Besides, I kind of wanted to travel with someone, especially someone who seemed to care about my privacy and well-being, as strange as that was.

I returned eventually to the camp with an armful, and dropped my twigs and logs by the fire pit. "There," I said with a large exhale. "That should do for the evening." I sat down on a rock and draped the fur around my shoulders. It was warm, and the leather on the inside was soft.

"Perfect timing," the outlaw offered. He stepped over and handed me a tin plate and a wooden fork. I recognized it as the piece of wood he'd been carving the other night. Perhaps it was last night? I couldn't remember. I took both and glanced up at him. "Thanks," I said quietly. My stomach growled, and concealing a grin, set my eyes upon my food.

It smelled and looked delicious, and even the way it was set on the plate was artistic, which surprised me. The rabbit was soft and juicy, seasoned with spices and dripping with a light sauce. A sprig of something like basil was set delicately beside it. A potato had been boiled in the juices and seasoned with salt, and it was sliced into thin round slices. My mouth watered just looking at it, and with a astonished smile, I placed a bite into my mouth.

It was better than most meals I had ever enjoyed in my life.

"This is amazing!" I declared. I stared up at him in surprise and delight. "How did you do it? Do you eat like this EVERY night?"

He offered a shy smile and took a bite of his own food. "No," he said honestly. "But I could afford to spare a few spices for tonight. A good meal helps to heal a poisoned wound."

"Well I appreciate it, really." I devoured my meal hungrily, and felt satisfied when I was through. After a moment, I glanced up at him. "Actually, I think my arm already healed. What did you do to it? What was that herb?"

He chuckled. "It feels like it's healed, perhaps." He shook his head. "I assure you it is not. As for the herb, it's a simple herb that can be found around here sometimes. It's good for poison and infections, and acute pain relief, if you know how to use it."

"How do you know how to use it? How did you come across it?" I asked, realizing I knew nothing about my captor, although he already knew plenty about me. And that was another strange thing. How did he know all that about me? He didn't even know me!

He munched on the rest of his potatoes, staring at the fire blankly. "I learned," he said eventually.

I gave him a look. "That's not much of an answer."

"I suppose not. But I don't really feel like talking about it right now." He stood and began to clean up. I realized with some annoyance that he always seemed to do that: whenever he finished one thing, he did another. Always cleaning, cooking, preparing, or working on something. Did he ever stop? "The night is getting late, and we have an early start tomorrow," he said quietly. "I need your help."

I let out a sigh, remembering our agreement. "With what?" I asked. I didn't really want to do anything. I wasn't really accustomed to doing a lot of work. I usually had someone do it for me, even when traveling.

He seemed to understand that, even though I never implied it. "I need these plates and forks to be cleaned and stored, and the pot to be cleaned out," he explained. He passed me the plates and forks, and took the pot for himself. "The bucket of water here is for washing, and there's soap here on this rock. Get it wet, lather it up and clean off all the grease, and then pour a cup of water over it to clean the soap of. Be as sparing as possible."

I appreciated the instructions, but I didn't want to seem like a total idiot. "I know how to wash dishes," I mocked.

He smirked at me. "In theory," he corrected. "But don't worry, it's not a lot of work." He got to work, and before long, his small cast iron pot was clean. He glanced up at me watching him. "Well?"

Blushing, I turned and got to work. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and it was finished pretty quickly. Or so I thought. The instant I had them washed and dried, I turned around to find everything else done. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "You work fast," I offered.

"I have to," he mumbled. He grabbed the dishes from me and packed them in a bag, then pointed to the fur on the ground. "This is where you sleep. I take the watch tonight, since you're still recovering."

"I feel fine," I frowned. "I'll take second watch. You need sleep too."

"I can sleep and watch at the same time if I have to," he smirked.

"How is that even possible?"

His green eyes sparkled in the night, rather smugly. "Who got stabbed? You or me?"

I saw his point, but it still seemed ridiculous. I sat down on the fur.

"Here," he ordered, tossing me a rolled up travel blanket. "The night will be cold. It wont rain though…" his voice trailed off as he looked up to the sky. "I'll be in the tree if you need anything."

"But…"

He ignored me and vanished up into the tree like a wild animal. I stared gaping at the branches, and then shook my head. Just who had I gotten myself tangled up with? Determined to figure out more about him, but feeling sleepy, I curled up on the fur and wrapped the blanket around me. It wasn't the bed I was used to, but sleeping in a prison had hardened me some. I fell asleep pretty quickly.

-

It was still dark when I woke, and at first I thought I was dreaming. But a warm hand on my shoulder and a quiet voice lured me from my sleep.

"We need to break camp," my captor whispered, a hesitant tone in his voice. It sounded to me like he regretted having to wake me up. "Most of it is finished, but I'd like help scattering the fire and covering the pit. I don't like to leave evidence of where I camp."

"Isn't that a little paranoid?" I yawned, whispering as well. I felt like my eyes were still glued shut, but I sat up anyway. It was very cold.

"You'd be too if you were me," he almost chuckled, but grabbed my cold hand in his warm one and pulled me gently to my feet. "Come on."

"Just who are you anyway?" I mumbled. I stared tiredly around me, noticing that everything was already packed and ready to go, besides my bedding.

"I'm not sure you really want to know," he said. This time he did chuckle, as if making a joke, but he dropped the subject and grabbed my blanket. "Can you fold this lengthwise in thirds, and then roll it up tight?"

I nodded, though I couldn't remember exactly what he wanted me to do. He showed me again by doing the same thing to the large fur, and I nodded and followed suit. He handed me a leather strap, and instinctively knowing what he wanted, I tied the blanket tightly in its roll. He nodded, so I handed it to him. "What next?"

"Water my horse?"

I yawned and found the bucket, then brought it over to the large animal. It didn't really like me, it seemed, but it drank the water with a few annoyed snorts. I understood horses well enough to know that it was only drinking because my captor wanted it to.

I turned to watch as the outlaw refilled the pit and scattered the fire, and then swept away some of the markings on the ground of where we had been. After much work, he surveyed the area and nodded. "Anyone passing through will think we were here maybe a week ago. That's good. If anyone is following you, they might get discouraged and try another route."

"Is anyone following me?" I asked yawning. I was so tired….

He walked over and grabbed the bedding, then tied it to the sides of the horse. Without even a word, he walked over, placed his hands around my waist, and lifted me up onto the horse as though I weighed nothing.

Astonished, I stared at him, but he ignored me and grabbed the reigns of his horse and began to walk. "We have a long way to go," he sighed, clearly ignoring my question. It was the last thing he said for several hours. And somehow, I knew that I should not speak either.

We traveled hours like that, me sitting silently on the horse, while he plowed on through the dark forest on foot. He picked a difficult path, but not an impossible one, and most of his directions seemed foolish to me. But as we continued through ferns and trees and other crazy twists and turned, I came to realize that we were bypassing gaping holes, cliffs, mudslides, quicksand, and moving vines that seemed to tangle around anything that moved. My awe for the outlaw grew, and so did my impression of him. Of all the men who I could have possible come across, I was so fortunate to find myself traveling with this one.

When the sun had passed over our heads, and the day had grown too long and wearisome, I began to grow even sicker of the silence. Everything I tried to say he cut off and would not let me speak, but I was getting sick of the silence. Not to mention, I felt like I was starving, and my arm was beginning to ache terribly.

"I tire of this," I moaned finally. "My stomach is eating me from the inside, and my arm is in terrible pain. Can't we please stop and rest for a little while? We've been traveling for hours!"

He sighed, clearly annoyed, but offered a curt nod. However, we continued traveling.

But I was patient. Even I could see that this was no place to stop. I would have to be content to wait, however uncomfortable I was. Cramped and starved, and aching all over, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat for almost half an hour longer. Finally, I could take no more. I HAD to get off. "Oulaw," I ordered impatiently.

He turned and gave me a bemused expression, then walked over to the side of the horse. "We've already stopped," he commented quietly. "Though it must be brief. Something tells me this is a dangerous area." He graciously lifted a hand, and being a lady by training, I took it and slid down to the ground. I was surprisingly unsteady, but he caught my other hand and held me up, before letting go and turning to search his bags. "Go stretch your legs, but don't go far. I'll get something to eat."

My stomach grumbled. "How long?" I licked my lips. I was growing faint.

"A few minutes," he assured me.

I turned and began to pace slowly, stretching my legs and loving how it felt. I felt selfish and silly, like a spoiled child, but I didn't think that it was wrong to feel this way. If he knew who I really was, he would probably have to do more to accommodate me. So I was doing him a favor by being so gracious.

I meandered over to him after a minute or so and waited, shivered slightly, as he produced a piece of bread and some left over rabbit meat. Somehow, he'd wrapped it up and placed it somewhere cool, because it tasted cold and fresh, and still as delicious as I remembered it. I devoured it as slowly as I could.

While I was eating, he took my right elbow and turned me to the side, undoing the bandaged around my upper arm. "It will have to be cleaned," he said. "Prepare yourself…it might sting."

"The herb?" I asked in confusion. "But you need to prepare it, don't you?"

"I already have some made up."

"But it puts me to sleep!"

"That depends," he smiled softly. "I added something to it that night to make you sleep. Otherwise, you would have been up throwing up all night. In this case, you don't need it." He oiled a clean damp cloth and got to work cleaning and massaging the cut. I couldn't help marveling how neat a cut it was, and it seemed to be healing rather quickly. It would leave almost no scar, or perhaps none, when it was all finished healing.

I kept eating, finding that I enjoyed the minty coolness of the herb and it tingled through my nerves. It was soothing, and all my aches seemed to vanish away like a fog as the sun comes out. I didn't really want to admit it, but I also liked the feel of his gentle fingers on my skin. Even my maids were not as gentle as he was right then.

Eventually he finished. "We have to get going," he said, cleaning up the small mess he made and bandaging up my arm again. "If we don't make it through this area before nightfall, we might be in serious trouble."

I nodded, finding that I was still eating my bread. The meat I'd already finished, and I wanted more. But…I wouldn't be greedy. Obediently, I walked closer to the horse and waited for him to set me on top.

My companion gave me a strange look, but hoisted me up just as before and led his horse back onto the nonexistent trail. I concealed a smile. I loved how light I felt when he lifted me up. It was quite delightful.

"Tell me," I said after several minutes of a fast walk through the bushes and brambles. "What are you out here for? Why are you heading for the border? Where are you from?"

He sighed, sounding annoyed. "I suppose I probably should answer your questions," he mumbled. "Though I don't really want to."

"Why not? We're traveling together. I feel I should at least know something about you."

He gave me a resigned look over his shoulder, and for the first time since I'd ended up in his company, I noticed his appearance. He had deep black hair, cropped shorter than most men around these parts like to have, and it sloppily though handsomely covered the tips of his ears. His face was handsome, and fairly clean shaven, though there was a suggestion of a beard starting to grow. His build was strong yet light, and he looked very athletic to my eyes. But the thing that startled me the most was the shape of his ears.

They were elegantly shaped, and the top ends of them were pointed. I'd seen people with strangely shaped ears before, but these were not strangely shaped. They were slender, not long, but perfectly shaped as though they were meant to be that way. I gasped quietly, unable to form any words or thoughts. I had no response available for this phenomenon.

He turned his face away and was quiet. But eventually, he took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "I come from farther away than any region or country near here," he said quietly. "You would never have heard of it, so I don't feel I need to tell you. I'll just say that it is far. As for why I am here, it's fairly simple actually." He unconsciously quickened his pace, as though his mind were roaming. "I am different, and no one has ever heard of me. If you have no history in the world, you are nothing. And you learn to live out here like I have. But you get used to it. You just accept it, even if it means that you are legally an outlaw. You don't actually have to have done anything wrong."

"That's terrible," I whispered, still in shock and unable to come to a conclusion about him or his ears.

He shrugged. "In the end I feel I'm more fortunate than anyone else. I live a life as I please. I grow stronger every day that I live. Where no one can survive, I can roam and be fine. I can make a small profit by selling rare items that can't be found except in the most dangerous of places. All in all, I'm not unhappy with my life. It's just the way it is."

"You like being alone?" I asked. "No one to talk to, or travel with?"

"I travel with others from time to time," he said conversationally. "I don't avoid people unless I know they just want to kill me or steal from me, or exploit me and my skills in anyway. In other words, I'm traveling with you because we both need someone to travel with, and I know that I don't have to be afraid of you."

"But I almost killed you," I protested.

"You couldn't kill me if you tried."

I frowned and crossed my arms. "Don't be too sure," I warned. "Because I know I can. I am not in the best of health, nor was I when I attempted to kill you the night I escaped from prison!"

"I see. Well, think whatever you like. I know my own boundaries. I know what I can handle. You, on the other hand, have no clue."

"Lecturing me again?" I snapped. "I don't want it or need your 'words of wisdom' or whatever. Please refrain."

He chuckled to himself and fell silent.

I, however, was not finished talking. I wanted to hear more. "So why are you heading for the border?" I asked once more. "You said you had a personal mission of some sort. What kind?"

"I told you I don't want to speak about it," he snapped. It was sharp, and his response caught me by surprise.

"You don't need to be rude," I snapped back.

"Then mind your tongue. There are many ears I don't want to hear about my personal business. Yours included." He frowned at me over his shoulder. "The last thing I need is some inexperienced girl accidentally letting out too much information. Don't try to deny it, because you are just as capable of doing it as the next girl," he interrupted my protests. "I have my reasons, and I don't want you to bring it up again. You're going to have to be satisfied with that."

Feeling slightly cross and put in my place, I chose to ignore him for the next couple of hours, and he was happy to do the same.

And we traveled through a silent forest for the rest of the day.

-

Please continue to the next chapter to read further.