The familiar ride in the back of a prison wagon is as unsettling as I remember it to be. Over every pebble and dried water puddle in the trail, the wooden wheels jump and rock, sending the wagon into an entourage of wood groaning and metal chains clanking. All the while, the interior and the exterior of this old, dusty prison wagon remains intact.
For me, the rocking back and forth of the wagon is not a problem. I rest my head against the wall and sit on the side bench, closing my eyes for only a second of reprieve. Two months ago, I felt the tug of hunger in my stomach and I didn't expect to feel that again so soon. Only months ago, but it seems like days. My company was different, they were my blood. I slept easier when they were around, huddled against me in the back of an equally grimy wagon.
In the rough nights, I can't find it in me to sleep. Wandering eyes flutter around the nearby campsites, circling the ember of flame as these people talk in such hushed tones I can only pick out a few words. They're not keeping their voices down because of us, eating the scraps they are forced to give, but for the others we may encounter. The downfall to their entire operation.
When they sleep at night, there's always someone on guard so I don't get the chance to plan our escape into the dark, if there was one to begin with. We're stuck so deep I don't contemplate it enough.
I find myself wanting to sleep but when I close my eyes, my mind wanders to the familiar horror of what got us here in the first place. Every dream, every nightmare, is filled with that memory of a courtyard turned to rubble and the unknown status of the prince—the victim in all of this. My eyes are rimmed with red, exhaustion, and I don't know how much longer I can take keeping myself awake.
Although the commotion on the trail keeps me conscious, settling into the night like a distant threat lurking in the woods, waiting to strike, the same cannot be said for my companion. He sleeps more often than I would like, he's been in better conditions and right now, he's fighting for his life against these threats.
Renit Marron, prince of Esaria, didn't know what was coming for him when that arrow shot through the trees and sank directly in his shoulder. Neither of us were prepared, that's another thought plaguing my guilt. I should have paid more attention to what was happening, I should have been the one to take that arrow. Renit is the fighter, he stands a chance. Not me.
The prince sits against the back wall of the wagon, eyes heavy lidded and strong legs stretched out before him. His weak arm, the one with the arrow piercing through on both sides, hangs limp against his thigh while the other is tucked in tight against his stomach. He's trying to stay awake but that's near impossible in the early hours of the morning—our companions outside of the wagon are preparing for the last stretch of the journey to our destination.
They continue to speak in muttered tones, a voice I recognize and others I don't. A voice I so desperately want to shake the source of and slap across the cheek a few times for being so foolish to join this cause at the beginning—and to take us instead of offering the privilege to go free.
Renit slouches, his head bobbing back and forth. He stares at nothing and no one, the common trend ever since that arrow found itself in him. The looming ghost of infection hovers over us and I desperately need, more than anything, for him to make it to our destination. There I might be able to convince the others to heal him—if they have a healer present. The lack of one sits like a rock in my stomach. A healer is Renit's only hope of survival, we don't have curative supplies to clean up the wound or stitch the remnants of his skin back together. The only thing I can do is hope that these people—whoever they are—whatever they consider themselves, are kind enough to keep the prince alive. If that's the whole premise of this operation then they have to.
With every worry and threat battering my skull like a hammer against wood, I don't have the slightest bit of chance to sleep peacefully. I have remained on this bench, watching through the small, barred window for anyone's approach. No one has spoken to us, not even the one person I thought wouldn't be here in the first place. But here he is, siding with them, leading them.
I shiver. In the early summer nights, the warmth isn't constant and our belongings were taken, along with our horses, so our spare clothes we so carefully packed are now gone, rifled through, and probably used by the snarky archer we faced a day ago. To think we had been at that castle only daylights ago, preparing to leave for Fosux, is baffling. How had the world been so close yet so far?
That familiar voice rings out to his companions and others respond, hustling to put the last of the belongings on the horses and in the spare wagon. I catch a flash of orange hair walking by the window and he doesn't stop to check if I'm all right or ask if we need more food. Two months apart and our friendship has changed significantly.
The wagon shakes and Renit's eyes flutter open, then closed again. His shirt is stained where the arrow sunk into his flesh, stained with blood, and wrinkled from where I tried to stop the bleeding. His immortal body did the rest but the arrow is still in there—tipped with titanium. The wound will take much longer to heal.
Horses of varying strength pull the wagon out of the forgotten campsite they used for the night. They'll leave evidence of being here but no one will know the truth of their identities or who their prisoners were. Is word out yet that we never arrived at Fosux? Will any guards along the trail be wise enough to check who resides in the back of this wagon?
Our luck doesn't stretch that far. We've been lucky, over these months, to not face more than we did. Renit, he faced the brunt of everything I was supposed to get and he took every punishment with his chin held high. I have yet to thank him for the punishment he received on my behalf; the destruction in the courtyard was worthy of one.
I watch the trees through the barred window, looming against the greys and blues of the early morning sky. Faint stars freckle the surface and wisps of thin clouds shield others—including the moon—from my eyes.
We were supposed to go to Fosux, we weren't supposed to be here, at the hands of questionable enemies. Renit doesn't deserve this, he doesn't deserve the humiliation he will receive at the hand of his father for getting himself caught in the first place and he doesn't deserve the arrow in his shoulder, the one keeping him from moving other than a slight lift of his head.
To see him that way makes me sick. I can't stand the sight of him near dead and feeling that way too. He knows the burden of the consequences and like me, he doesn't want to face them. For all those days I blamed him for cruel behavior…those were wasted days that I could have spent doing something more productive.
This heart needs you. I need you.
I hold on tight to those words, I tuck them away into the back of my mind to remember later as I slide off the bench and kneel at his side. The heat practically pours off of him and my stomach sinks. Infection is setting in, as well as fever. I run my fingers through his hair, the back of my hand brushing against his forehead. My eyes squeeze shut as the extent of his wound just became more critical. He's practically burning.
"Renit?" I whisper. The wagon rocks back and forth after one of the wheels dipped into a puddle and I brace my hand against the splintered wood by his head.
Those silver eyes flutter open, dull and lifeless, and I try to put a smile on my face. "Hmm?" He grumbles from the back of his throat. Just like that, his eyes are closed again. His eyelids are dotted with sweat beads.
"You need to stay awake," I say as gently as possible. Either he shakes his head or the wagon bumps over another pebble and rocks him back and forth. "We need to figure out what to do with your wound."
His chin dips forward and he takes a deep breath through his nose, one that comes up short. I want so desperately to cup his face in my hands and apologize for everything—all the little things I did to anger him on purpose. If I don't do that soon, it may be too late. I don't know how much longer he has left if they don't heal him.
I hold onto that last shred of hope. They have to, otherwise their mission is failed. And I'll never forgive Bren for letting the prince slip through my fingers because of an arrow wound after living three hundred years plus. Renit deserves a death more honorable than that.
"Take it out," he mumbles.
"What?" I lean in closer to his face to hear those whispered words and his eyes flutter open again, dark eyelashes rimming on red stains. Caked blood covers the side of his face, hidden near his ear. Either from him or the man I killed during the ambush. Those minutes were a blur, minutes I wish I could have back.
I should have taken that arrow.
He forces himself to swallow, a dry, shaken sounds and says, "Take out the arrow."
"That will hurt you. Besides, the tip is out the other side. I can't pull in either direction." I lean around his shoulder and peer at the titanium tipped arrow, carved into a sharp point. Those archers knew who was coming and knew what they had to do to take down the prince. Stop his magic, get titanium in his system. And they did exactly that. I have no doubts there are bits of that arrow top lodged somewhere in his shoulder—preventing him from summoning that deadly storm. If he managed to craft a cloud, that would be a miracle.
His left hand shifts and he winces, forcing himself to lean forward. That small movement is the most I've seen him make since we were first forced in this wagon. He huffs, grinding his teeth together, and takes another deep breath that only stretches the wound in his shoulder. "Break the arrow and take it out." His hand fists into his tunic to brace himself.
I sit there, frozen. "Renit, I don't think—"
"Please." The word is a whisper in the wind on his dry lips. "Please, do it. If you want me to live, then you'll take out the arrow."
I swallow the lump in my throat. Of course I want him to live, I want to bring him back to the castle and kill all of these enemies for myself so no one thinks of hurting him again. A protector of sorts, I've become. For a witch that has never once cared about me other than what he has to show, I want to protect Renit with all I have. He deserves a shred of care from someone, I believe.
"You can't hold out until we reach where we're going?" I ask, sidestepping the task at hand.
He shakes his head slowly, hollow eyes concentrating on the dusty floorboards. If only they stopped right now and took us out of the wagon because we arrived at our destination. Where they're taking us, they never said, but the path to Fosux has remained the same. That can only mean one thing—Fosux is in the hands of the slaves, not the king's men.
I sigh, shifting closer to the wound to examine it. I'll have to break the arrow at his front and slide the majority of it out his back. The act of breaking it alone will cause some pain and pulling out a sliver of an arrow will be like threading a rope through Renit's intestines and tugging on it. I don't want to hear his screams of pain.
A handkerchief. If he has something to bite down on, his screams might be muffled. I tug the only belonging I have out of my pocket and wad it, placing the cloth between his lips. "Bite down on this," I urge. He opens his mouth enough for me to place the clump of fabric between his teeth. "I'm going to break it at the front and slide the rest out the back, all right?"
Despite the pain blanching every movement, the prince nods.
With one fist holding the arrow at his body and the other bracing against the fletch, I grip tight. "Ready?" I warn. His hand clenches tighter around his tunic and a muscle feathers in his jaw as he bites down on the handkerchief.
With all my might, I bend down as fast as I can. Renit screams through his teeth as the arrow tugs in his wound but doesn't snap. He buckles forward, tears forming at the corners of his eyes, and I squeeze mine shut to block out the sight of him screaming, in pain.
"Sorry." I swallow down my nerves and grip the arrow again once he's panting, his head thrown back against the wooden wall of the wagon. Whispers of forbidden conversation waft through the boards, drowned out by the clopping of hooves against loose stones and pebbles. The sun is slowly rising. "I'll try again."
He nods, again tensing himself as the wound starts to trickle with fresh blood. The slight movement of trying to break the arrow awoke every part of his system. He shifts his mud-covered boots, dirty after stomping through the woods and then thrown into the wagon, and adjusts the handkerchief in his mouth.
I grip the arrow on both sides sticking out of his front. This time, it will break. Even if he screams, even if he pleads for me to stop, the pain will last only for so long. Once the arrow is out, we can start the healing process and I won't have to worry about losing him to infection. At least I hope so.
"One more time," I reassure.
Without warning, I snap down with all my might and relish in the sound of wood cracking, splintering. The arrow didn't break all the way but the end dangles from the rest, hanging on by a few shards. Renit groans, leaning into my side, and huffs a few shaken breaths.
"Almost done, I'll break off the end and slide the rest out of your shoulder." He nods and leans back. Now his tunic is beginning to shine with a fresh onslaught of blood and I work quickly, bending the arrow this way and that until the splintered end breaks free and I drop it, immediately turning towards the rest. "This will hurt more so…brace yourself."
"Do it," he grumbles though the handkerchief. A bead of sweat breaks free from his hairline and slides down the side of his face, rolling over the hill of a sharp cheekbone and into the caked blood bordering his jaw.
Renit leans forward, allowing me proper access to the arrow tip and I grip onto the shaft. He braces himself, taking one more deep breath, and I tug. The arrow doesn't budge but Renit squirms, screaming into the handkerchief. The sound alone is nearly enough to make me give up entirely. I don't want to cause him any more pain but I have to.
Ignoring everything I've grown to become, someone who doesn't want to hurt the prince that was the beginning of this mess, I tug as swiftly as I can, maintaining a constant pressure. The arrow breaks free from the hold in his shoulder and he breathes heavy, clutching and biting as hard as he can as the arrow slips through the inside of his shoulder.
I can't imagine the pain he is experiencing. I can't hide my own grimace at the sight of what I'm doing until the blood-covered arrow is in my hand and out of his body. Renit slumps to the side and I catch him with my free hand, before he slams himself into one of the many splinters sticking out of this old wagon. Where did they manage to steal a wagon so close in resemblance to the kingdom's?
With a shaken hand, I take the handkerchief out of Renit's mouth and put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. He moans, loud this time, and all conversation being had stops so they can listen to the disaster unfolding inside the wagon.
To hell with them, they're the people who put us here in the first place and if they weren't going to heal him then it was up to me to remove all bits of that arrow so his body has the chance to start healing itself. But we aren't out of the woods yet, there's no telling if titanium shards are still in his body, I have no doubt they laced the entire arrow with it—even a small splinter in his bloodstream could snuff out his power until the blockage is gone. Removed.
That's a task I'm not looking forward to.
"Is that better?" I ask. A stupid question, of course this isn't better. Now he's facing another onrush of pain because of the arrow I yanked out of his body. To my surprise, he nods. I want to comfort him, to rock him against me and pray he goes to sleep but the blood has to stop. "Can you summon your power?"
He blinks, fighting the invisible battle inside his body, connecting witch to power, and shakes his head. "No, there must be shards in the wound. You need to dig them out so they don't find their way into my bloodstream."
"I pulled an arrow from your shoulder, isn't that enough?" I scrunch up my face and he frowns. Already he's in a better mood, if a frown is to be considered better, but before—his eyes barely opened.
He yanks on the fabric of his tunic, tugging it past his shoulder to reveal the wound fully. I grimace at the hole tearing through his flesh, a break in the tattoos covering his abdomen. Blood old and new cakes against his skin and he winces as he touches two fingers to the fresh mark. "If you won't do it, then I will." He begins digging without hesitation and grits his teeth together. I try to block out the sound of his skin squelching, his insides moving and gushing against his fingers. Unable to stomach the sight, I gag and force myself to turn away towards the window.
What wounds has he faced to where digging through an arrow hole in his shoulder is nothing? The battle he fought in was bloody, from the history I've learned during my time in the castle, and Renit was at the frontlines for that. He killed men, dragged friendly soldiers back to their camps after they couldn't walk. He tortured, fought, and was likely injured himself. Destruction of witches on a battlefield would be monumental. The storms brewing, the lights flashing, the ground quaking. The thought alone gives me nightmares.
Renit continues to dig, grimacing as he does so. I watch from the corner of the wagon, a hand over my mouth as I try to stomach what he's doing. For a man that hasn't moved much in the past day, he's digging awfully quick. Is the deliberation of infection scaring him too?
I don't get the chance to find out as the wagon rolls to a stop and a few seconds later, the door bangs open. Renit stops digging and reaches for the dagger at his hip, only to find nothing there. They took all of our weapons. The masked woman steps into the carriage and someone shuts the door behind her, leaving the three of us in the dark.
She's one of the archers from the trees, not the one that shot Renit but backup, in case something went wrong. I have no doubt she won't hesitate to put another arrow in his shoulder if Renit decides to make a threatening move.
"Move and you die," she orders from underneath the black cloth. She pulls back an arrow, pointing it at the two of us. Another waits in the tight wrap of her palm, two shots as fast as lightning.
"What's going on?" I stand from my crouched position and she quickly whirls to me, pointing the arrow directly at my heart. Renit growls under his breath but resumes digging. Even the prince knows he can't win this fight if he tried, she's very skilled with a bow.
She watches me with brown, almost black eyes. Underneath the soot hood and cloth, her olive skin is merely a shadow in the shade of the wagon. But those eyes—so predatory, so focused. She's not muscular and strong like the other witches I've seen, in fact, her knees are so bony they stick out from her fitting pants like balls wrapped around the middle of her legs.
"A wagon is approaching. Speak a word, scream, and I shoot you dead. Starting with you, princess." Her large eyes crinkle, the only sign of a smile, and she trains that arrow onto me. I don't move in fear that if I do, even the smallest shift towards Renit, she'll use that as an excuse to release one of those titanium tipped arrows.
Her eyes stint to Renit for the fraction of a second and then back to me. Not a hint of a grimace or care that blood is currently streaming down his chest as he pulls out one titanium piece. She lowers her hand, shifting for something in her pocket, and tosses an object at me. Despite not wanting to catch it, I do.
"Put that on him." She jerks her chin at Renit and I heave a sigh at the sight of the titanium band in my grasp. A mirror to the one wrapped around my wrist. If they were smart, that band should have been on his skin long ago. When I don't move right away, she pulls back the string of her bow as tight as possible. "Now, do it now!"
Her accent, almost a sing-song pitch and nasally, hisses to us as the wagon approaches. A horse nickers and voices ring out, a man greeting another. Through one of the larger cracks in the wagon, I catch a glimpse of a man with the royal seal over his heart. One of the king's men. My stomach leaps into my throat but I hide my nerves, freedom within reach, and clamp the band around Renit's wrist. He barely notices and continues digging for titanium with a wince. Three shards rest against his thigh.
Bren steps down from the driver's seat and shakes the man's hand. The guard was heading from Fosux, likely on his way back to the capital. Bren hands him papers and I scowl at the thorough nature of this plan. Even forgery was in place to capture the prince—we never stood a chance in the first place. Bren maintains his normal swagger, a loose confidence, as he points in the direction of Fosux and shakes his head about something. The man laughs underneath his breath as he studies the papers.
The female archer remains as still as a statue as I watch the other guards, two burly men, take in the sight of the wagon. Their eyes fall short, barely studying the exterior, before turning back to each other and whispering about something with hardly any urgency. Dammit. These men won't saving us today.
As soon as the thought goes through my mind, the guard hands Bren back their forged papers and climbs into the driver's seat. If they know we're supposed to be on this trail but find nothing, there's a chance these guards will travel back or notify the king that we've been captured. And to think they had us in their grasp, merely on the other side of the trail.
The prince, they would have stopped at nothing to protect him.
Renit digs out the last shard from his wound as the reins are whipped and the horses with royal chest plates continue on, carrying our freedom towards the castle with them. The archer waits, listening carefully, until the sound of the wagon wheels creaking is a distant afterthought.
A moment later, the door bangs open and Bren's eyes go directly to me. But they don't linger long. Instead, he steps aside and allows the archer to jump down back onto the trail, taking her thin knees with her. Then the door is shut again, Renit and I are left in the dark, and the wagon lurches forward as the horses continue on.
"Their plan is extensive," I sigh and plop down next to Renit. This is the most alert he's been in hours, other than when I shoved bread and cheese down his throat so he didn't go hungry. That battle alone had been enough to deteriorate my strength.
"I expect nothing less from rebels." Renit hands me the bloodied handkerchief and I put pressure on the wound as he rests his head against the wall and closes his eyes. He's exhausted, not only from dealing with the wound but also because his life has never been that easy.
Always underneath the boot of his father, whipped, beaten, and used as a weapon instead of the witch—the man—he wants to be. Renit has always been what people want him to be, never who he truly is. I have yet to see his true colors but after two months of being around each other, bickering in training and nearly killing each other on multiple occasions, parts of him are beginning to leak through the cracks.
My hand stills. Rebels. "Is that who you think they are?" I ask.
I resume pressure and Renit shifts uncomfortably. "Yes, it's clear they're rebels. Your friend, if that's what you want to call him, is leading this group by the looks of it."
"He is my friend, I just…I never expected him to be part of something like this. I see why, of course, because of what happened that night but that's Bren out there. He's always chosen the safe road about things."
Renit shrugs to the best of his ability without straining. "Young witches often are lost in their own minds. They join a cause ancient beyond their own and find themselves too wrapped up in the process. Rebels are no different, they won't get close to the crown."
I arch a brow at him. "They have you. They're as close as they can get."
"But they won't kill me." He meets my eye and there's a shine in the silver. "Their plan involves keeping me alive so they won't kill me, I wouldn't be surprised if they don't touch me more than what they already have done." He looks down at the wound, at my bloodied hands, and watches as I apply pressure to the back instead of the front. If only we had two handkerchiefs.
They might not kill Renit but my importance doesn't stretch much farther than Bren. He's the deciding factor in my life and since he's leading this operation, they won't kill me. If he wasn't here, I might already be dead. I heard the chaos that erupted during the night, him scolding the archer that shot an arrow at me in the first place.
Not the female but another, a bruised man with hunched shoulders that stood much shorter than Bren. He took the verbal beating and then slouched by the fire for the rest of the night until I drifted off to sleep.
These rebels won't kill me or Renit and that's the only safe haven I seem to have.