My body was moving before I even finished the thought. I raced towards the scream that had faded into the twilight and turned my blood to ice.

No, no no, was my only thought. Fear gripped my throat and scrambled my mind. So much so, that it took me precious moments to realize that I didn't know where she was. The streets were loud with other noises, and I couldn't tune them out to try and find her. Frustration ran through me as I blindly searched around, but know that I wouldn't be able to find her like this. I needed to slow down and think, which was easier said than done when a child's life could very well hang in the balance.

I forced myself to slow down and took a deep breath. What did I know? They were somewhere nearby, as the very fact that I heard the scream, would indicate. I was fairly certain that the direction of the scream was from the east, and as the sun was setting, I knew the way.

They were worried that someone was after them, and the reasonable assumption was that there were two possibilities – kidnapping or murder. If they were being kidnapped then they must be somewhere inconspicuous, for no matter how drunk someone was; they would notice something was wrong, especially if a child was involved. If they weren't being kidnapped then the likelihood of my finding them was close to none. I refused to think of that, so right now, I would focus on the former assumption.

Clara didn't seem like she was from here, so it stands to reason that neither were her pursuers. They would want to leave as quickly as they could, and hide their quarry somewhere unobtrusive. The dock is the most obvious location, as there were plenty of empty storage areas about and hardly anyone to man them, along with quick access to ships. But there was no guarantee that it would be empty, as it was a mostly open, public place, hence risky – so, not the main port, but somewhere nearby. Asarel's shoreline was about as long as the city itself and there were innumerable places to hide a vessel. However, there was only one large port was because there were cliffs that made the seas too dangerous for bigger ships when the storms hit – which they were prone to do at their will, and often without warning.

Hence, it would be suicide if anyone not familiar with our seas tried to get too close to those areas. That cut down their choices remarkably. I may not be as well versed with the city, but I knew most of the out-of-the-way places where a ship could dock – a lesson from my father.

Now then, where to look first? Madman's creek was the probably the closest and that would be the most logical place to port if they wanted to head out quietly. The port dues were higher and that bought those without strictly legal merchandise a certain degree of leeway and privacy.

I ran towards the shoreline, letting my general sense of direction guide me first and then the salty smell of the sea. That too left me astray, once I'd gotten used to it. Fortunately, there were a few helpful people still around that weren't drunk yet and soon I was close enough that I could recognize some of the signs from my trips here. What I had forgotten was that there were many more dangers lurking around the corner, and just as I was about to take the last turn into the main opening, a group of four men noticed me.

Drunk as skunks, I deemed them to be below my notice, and ignored them, even when they started throwing obscene requests at me. They made me feel dirty, even though I knew better than to listen to them. If nothing else, my life had prepared me to look unaffected in almost any circumstance, for I'd be damned if I showed them a hint of weakness. However, I stayed as far away from them as I could.

Looking a head, I found the main port. Even from here, I could see that it was brimming with ships of every major shipping company in five – no, six nations. I scanned over them with a practiced eye and found more than half a dozen of my family's own ships.

No, there was no way anyone would risk a kidnapping here, especially so early. Madman's creek it was then, and it was barely a league away by horseback.

My breathing was already heavy and my feet and thighs were aching from running around for so long. I needed to get a suitable means of transportation. I had a few coins on me, probably more than enough to get a decent carriage. Now, if only I could find one.

I had to pass the repulsive bunch again, because the Creek was roughly in that direction. They whistled and shouted out things that could get them shot if my father heard them, and I found myself reaching for the gun, almost unwittingly. Too much trouble, I told myself and gritted my teeth, as I left them behind.

Amazingly, I found a sloppily tethered horse next to a small house just a few feet away. I made my way to the animal and touched her head, whispering soothingly. Anger flared up as I noticed the scratches on her flank and that she was made to stand outside no protection against the cold. She pulled her head back and shook me off, backing away, making a huffing noise. She probably wouldn't let me ride her, and I felt sympathy for the creature that had to suffer such poor treatment.

"Who th' hell are ye?" a man yelled from behind me, making the horse even more agitated, almost untying her bindings.

Turning around, I saw a grossly overweight man with a tankard, teetering as he came closer. I took a step back as he came closer, grimacing at the smell. This one must've been drinking for quite some time. Remembering that it was not safe to be alone so late, I backed away, ready to run if I had to. The place I wanted to go to was dangerous on its own right, but it posed a larger one if I was a woman. Looking back to the drunk, I pondered on the thought.

"Hello, sir. I was wondering if you have a shirt and breeches I could borrow? It's for my brother you see, he's so very clumsy, and he tripped and his wine fell over him." Internally, I winced at such a poor lie.

He leaned down, peered at me and grinned, showcasing gruesome yellow teeth, "You're pretty."

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

He was too far gone to be reasoned with, and much too big for me to take on, even if I had had some inkling as to how to fight. With hard clarity, I knew that if I kept going like this, I would be taken advantage of. Rape and murder happened quite frequently in such deserted places, and though my family's name would protect me to a certain degree, that was only if they actually believed me.

The best choice for me was to turn around, run back to Thornhill Manor and get some help. It was the most logical thing to do, and by now, father would have heard of my disappearance. So why am I going through so much trouble for practical strangers? It made more sense to go back, tell him about it and let him handle it.

Of course, by then it would probably be too late.

With an inward curse, I knew I had to do it.

"Well, now, are you alright?" I asked slowly with a concerned voice. Slowly getting closer to him, I carefully felt around me till I found something thin and hard beside me. I held it behind my back, letting my hand feel if it was strong enough. When I was just close enough to hit his throat, I struck. However, he stumbled around as I was doing it, and the momentum made me spin and fall, having not struck anything. I fell on top of him and immediately tried to get up, only to find one hairy arm clamed around me, holding me to him. Before I knew it, he was on top of me, smiling with his rotten teeth and I almost gagged on the stench of alcohol on his breath.

With an urgency that I'd never felt before, I renewed my struggles, but the blasted drunk didn't even seem to notice. In fact, it seemed as though… my god he was enjoying it! Frozen with shock and dread, I screamed, "Get off! Get off! Help, please!"

Blinding swinging my arm around, I hit something that toppled and made a loud noise as it fell. The horse, already skittish, got even more agitated and started moving around, breaking free of her loose restraints. She brought down her front legs frighteningly close to us and created even more noise.

I was scared out of my mind and desperately tried to get out of this mess. The horrid man's breath was on my neck as he groped me. Tears shimmered as I squirmed and prayed that I would not be raped and killed by this piece of lard.

And suddenly, the weight was lifted off and I could finally breathe. I gasped and crawled away, not caring where I was going as long as I got away from that bastard.

My heartbeat was so loud it crowded my mind and the fear was the only thing I could think of. Bile crowded at the back of my throat and I puked at the memory of his stench. Shivers, that had nothing to do with the cold, ran up my spine and invaded my entire body, making me unable to even clean myself up properly. I tried to hold my shoulders to stop it, but it wouldn't go away. I could still feel his hands on me, grabbing me, restraining me. Suddenly, it got so hard to breathe.

"You're ok?" a gentle voice broke through my mental haze. The shivers subsided for a few moments as I looked up into the face of my savior. He was very good-looking, from what I could make out in the darkness. Light hair and concerned blue eyes started at me, as they waited for me to answer.

With a jolt, I remembered who I was and what I was doing. I was Areena Harstworth, not some addled ninny that needed a stranger's help. I was not weak. No one has the right to make me cower and I will certainly not give that would-be-rapist any sign of weakness. My spine straightened automatically and my eyes narrowed, as I looked at the vermin, now lying unconscious on the ground.

The man who seemed to have helped me moved closer when I slowing got up. His hand, which reached out to give me some support, froze as he saw my expression. I stiffly got up without his help, unwilling to be touched again by any man. I raised my head to an arrogant angle, "Thank you, milord. Your kindness did me well, and I will repay you someday for it," I promised, and I would keep it. As soon as I found out who he was, I'd send a generous donation of some kind to him, or help him out of some debts – he looked like the sort to trifle with the gambling dens. All anonymously, of course, can't have anyone knowing about what could have happened.

"Would you like me to take you somewhere, miss, perhaps home?" he asked, still looking mildly concerned. The words brought out my suspicions and immediately defensive. Had I traded in one rapist for something even worse? A slaver, or a murderer? Honestly, how much worse can one day get?

With an unmoving stiff smile, I politely refused the offer, "You're very kind sir, but that won't be necessary. I will find my way back on my own, I assure you."

He looked dubious, as he should, and then shrugged, "If you insist miss, I really have no other choice. Take care now." With a tilt of his head, he walked away.

I watched him for a long time after his silhouette had disappeared. Then, I looked back at the man. He was snoring loudly, obviously asleep. Bile gathered in the back of my throat again but I held it back.

He wouldn't be asleep for long, and I had things to do. I will never again leave myself so vulnerable. Shaking like a leaf, I made my way over to his house. A plan was forming in my mind.

I would be a man for a while.