His threat was an empty one.
I was given a scratchy drab blanket the color of day-old oatmeal and a small tent on the outskirts of the camp. I tried to settle somewhat comfortably on the itchy, nettle-covered floor, and I could hear the sound of my captor on the ground in front of my tent. His silhouette was a dark lumpy mass against the fabric of the tent as he sank to the ground. He shifted noisily and sighed. I was barely warm with my coat and meager blanket; it would be even colder outside the tent, exposed to the wind. I felt a small amount of satisfaction to know that perhaps he would suffer more than I would during the night.
I drifted to sleep uneasily.
The next morning, I was roused by the sound of voices outside my tent and led unceremoniously to the same part of camp as the night before without courtesy of breakfast. He guided me to the largest tent in the circle surrounding the fire and gestured for me to enter.
The light in the tent was dim. Cautiously, I ducked inside and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was a large tent, tall enough I did not have to stoop and wide enough to hold perhaps a dozen, though at the moment, it was only occupied by me, the leader, and another figure, sitting in the shadows at the other side of the tent.
His face was hidden by a hooded cloak, and he was stooped in his chair. His shoulders sagged forward, and he shifted to face us with slow and agonizing care as I entered. Without a word, the leader followed behind me. The tent flap fell, and the little light that was left disappeared. We were shrouded in almost complete darkness.
"Thank you, Asher," the man said in a low, gravelly voice. "You can leave."
I was beginning to recognize the cold twist of fear deep in my stomach. My attempt at a deep, bracing breath was arrested by its tight hold on my innards.
"You know that won't happen," he responded. He moved around the dark tent, his voice moving away, fainter behind me. It was quiet inside the tent and uncomfortably warm, compared to the cool morning outside. The air was thick with a smoky but herbal smell, like some kind of incense.
The man gave a low throaty laugh that quickly became a cough. It brought on a fit, and it took a moment for him to recover. When he spoke, though, his tone was light and teasing.
"I suppose not."
Candlelight blinked to life at the corner of my eye, and my captor walked to my side, standing less than an arm's length from me. I edged away, eager to create some distance.
"You must forgive me, my dear," the man began, returning my attention to him. I thought I could hear a smile behind his words, and his hood turned briefly to regard my companion behind me. He paused, like something passed between them. "Some days are worse than others, I'm afraid. What's your name?"
"Anna Garrett," I said.
"And I am Gabe," he replied. My captor, Asher, snorted behind me.
"Asher seems to believe that you are in alliance with Malachi and that you share his propensity for dark magic. What are your thoughts?"
I was surprised by his casual, conversational tone but annoyed by it, too. I pushed my bangs from my face and sighed.
"I've explained this before," I complained, stuffing my hands in my coat pockets. "He kidnapped me against my will and brought me here. I was attempting to escape when I was dragged away by him," I said with more force than I expected.
"She's telling the truth," the man announced coolly. I was almost offended, except there was no surprise in his voice. He sounded so certain, and even though I knew it was true, I didn't understand how he could declare it with such confidence.
Beside me, there was a sharp intake of breath.
"But she's surrounded by dark magic. And it's powerful," Asher said. "What else could cause it?"
I was not surprised he didn't believe me.
"Perhaps there is more to this. Have you considered that he could have tainted her somehow? That he was trying to do something before he escaped?" he suggested quietly.
Asher stiffened at the corner of my eye, and suddenly he was in front of me, glaring down at me before I could answer. "What happened while you were with him?"
"N-nothing," I stuttered. The cut across my arm flared painfully, and I resisted the urge to place my hand over the wound.
"Please," he scoffed. "Even I can tell that you are lying."
I didn't understand precisely what he meant, but I could feel Gabe's eyes on me, even in the darkness. The air was still and very little of the noise from the camp seemed to infiltrate this peaceful haven. There was nothing to mask the sound of my breathing and the blood rushing through my ears. I didn't know how to name what he did to me. Worse, I didn't know if I wanted to.
I shrugged out of my jacket, folding it across a wooden chair, and rolled up the sleeve of my sweater to reveal the cut. The dried blood formed a ridge along its length, and I hadn't the opportunity to clear away the blood that was still smeared across my skin. I picked at it with my fingernail, while the others stared.
"What is it?" Asher whispered incredulously. He reached a hand, almost as if he was going to touch it, and his fingers hovered over my arm. But he withdrew at the last minute with a small shudder. Self-conscious, I slid back into my jacket, even though it was warm in the tent. I dropped my eyes, deliberately refastening the buttons of my coat.
"He mixed my blood with his," I whispered when neither spoke.
"It's odd—I can feel his magic in this," he whispered. "What does it mean? And why would he do that?" His eyes flickered to Gabe, who shook his head wordlessly.
"Who are you?" I interrupted, glancing between them. "Who is he to you? And why am I here?"
"He has overtaken the castle. We are all that remains to resist his lies," Gabe said. He started to cough. It was a pathetic, wheezing sound, and he raised a hand to cover his mouth. His hand was pale and thin. I looked away, inexplicably uncomfortable with his frailty.
"And what is my place in this?" I asked hesitantly. If I judged the events correctly, it seemed I had landed in the midst of a civil war. I liked less and less the prospect of involving myself in this world's affairs.
"Asher has the ability to sense the magic around others," Gabe explained, watching Asher. "And you are unusually powerful—probably not as strong as Malachi but clearly very talented. It seems that he has somehow stained your aura. It may be that he was hoping to manipulate you, to use you."
I grabbed hold of the chair in front of me.
"I didn't want this. I don't want any of this," I murmured. I just want to go home, I added inwardly, but I knew it would earn me no pity with these men.
"You understand why you must stay with us, don't you?" he asked softly. Though I couldn't see his face, I could hear some kind of sympathy in his voice. I didn't want his sympathy.
I gritted my teeth. Of course I understood, but impetuously, I refused to look at him. My hands gripped the chair tightly, and the chair creaked beneath my weight. Anger filled me, and it seemed to swell until it filled the entire tent. Asher stiffened behind me, and I knew he could feel it, too.
"We can protect you here," Gabe assured me in a soothing voice.
What he meant, of course, was that I was a liability, a risk, and by keeping me near, that threat was minimized. He promised to protect me, but I knew that guarantee would last only as long as I was not a danger. Whether he truly believed I was ignorant enough to swallow his bullshit, I did not know, but I knew the balance of power and the careful balance I needed to maintain.
"Of course," I said, preparing to walk out of the tent. As I passed Asher, he placed a hand around my arm, presumably to restrain me. A powerful wind swirled around the tent, scattering the papers across a desk across the room.
"You need to learn to control that," he said with a glare.
"Let me go," I growled.
I could sense my power, and for the first time, I believed I could control it. With my emotion, my senses were heightened. It was like an adrenaline rush, the heady sense of awareness when the hormones flood the body. I could feel the power, and I wondered if I could use it.
From the corner of my eye, Gabe nodded, and Asher released me. I swept past him and out the tent, not pausing to even acknowledge the surprised guards waiting outside the tent. I could feel their eyes on me, but they didn't follow.
I marched into the trees until I was shielded from the curious eyes in the clearing and sat against a tree, my back to the camp. I did not venture too far into the forest. I wanted silence, and for a moment, I stared into the trees. But soon—just as I expected—there was the sound of quiet footsteps behind me.
"I will be teaching you to control your abilities. I cannot guide your ability to use it, only restrain it."
"Why?" I asked shortly, not looking at him.
"Because it is necessary," he replied.
I frowned, picking at the bark of the tree behind me. A piece broke off, and my fingers found the soft, sticky bark beneath it. His answer was vague and unsatisfying, but at least he seemed displeased with the task, too, which made me wonder. Among his scouting party, Asher was the clear leader, but Gabe seemed to have Asher's respect. Gabe's presence in this war camp with his illness was baffling—unless he was giving the orders.
"What's wrong with Gabe?" I asked.
His response was sharp. "That's none of your concern."
I kept my eyes fixed ahead. He could keep his secrets—fine, but I would learn what I could from him and use it to my advantage.
"We'll begin in the morning. In the meantime, stay near the camp. There are sentries hidden in the forest who would not hesitate to kill a stranger." He paused. "Do you understand?"
"Fine," I said.
As he walked away, I banged my fist against the tree trunk. The confinement was infuriating, but worse was my lack of control. I was useless against these people. And if they were telling the truth—and I had no reason to believe otherwise—then I had more ability than all of them but no skill to harness it.
As a rule, I didn't depend on others. I chafed under my parent's authority, and I embraced independence with wholehearted enthusiasm. I cherished my autonomy. God, I spent four years clawing through my undergrad program, paying my way as an underpaid and underappreciated office manager at a local bookstore to secure it. I graduated with a stellar record, enough to earn me a research grant and a coveted place with one of the top researchers in my field. I didn't like to feel powerless.
I sagged against the tree. If I was quiet enough, perhaps I could hear the sounds of one of my chaperones creeping about the forest. Thinking of home returned my concerns. I worried that my absence would jeopardize everything I worked for—so fragile, in the end. The taste of sorrow welled in my mouth, and I forced myself to swallow the emotion. I needed to be strong now.
And I resolved to be stronger. Strong enough to survive and smart enough to overcome whatever waited for me.