The forest was full of gleeful sounds, sparking a false sense of security to the Viator people that had finally set up camp for the night. Multiple campfires burned, one for each family and lone merchant in the caravan; each one brought to life by whispers of their ancient language and a snap of some fingers. Their brilliant combined light drove off the foreboding darkness and any animals that had been stalking them previously. A few men began to play a cheerful tune to keep the sound of crackling firewood company, urging many to clap along with the beat and a few to dance. Violet images of dancing elves, brought to life by the musicians' music, leaped around the dancers playfully. Children that finished their dinner began chasing each other, squealing in delight at their little game. Some tripped over their own feet in the haze of their excitement. Despite the freshly scraped knees, they got up and continued playing their game.
Had he been ten years younger, Besnik would have thought the lack of adult supervision to be neglectful. Now that he had a child of his own traveling with him, he realized it was to give the parents a moment of peace. His daughter was not too young, only nine years of age, but this was her first time traveling with him. The experience had already started to take its toll on him.
His once dense black hair had begun to discolor into a dark gray. Circles had formed under his eyes and the lids were constantly heavy with stress. Before he was confident that he could stay up all night and still have the strength to fight off any danger that may pass. Now, he was lucky to feel remotely refreshed after a few hours of uninterrupted shut eye. He may have looked like a fit young man, but he felt like an old curmudgeon.
He had hoped bringing the young girl along would be a fantastic bonding experience. Unfortunately, it had not been as wonderful as he hoped for.
Every spring and summer the man would pack up a stock of weapons from his father-in-law's smithy and travel the countryside. He sold the wares to help bring in some extra coin for the family. His heart and soul would ache for his wife's company for only the first few days. Then the love of the unknown replaced any feeling of longing that lingered, and he was suddenly home again.
It was not that he didn't love his wife—though he could do without his father-in-law sometimes—but his people were born at the side of the road and destined to venture the world. Tall tales of his people being great wizards and fortunetellers filled his head whenever he ventured forth, making his soul soar in child-like glee. It was something he knew his beloved could never experience herself. She was a lady bred to stay at home and rule it like a kingdom. Luckily for him, she knew of his passion and trusted him to be apart from her for such a long time.
When their daughter had been born, he was disappointed. He feared the traditions he held so dear would fall onto deaf ears; as she would no doubt prefer to be exactly like her proud mother. But the moment she was toddler, the little girl begged to go with him on his adventures. The little sneak would even try to crawl into the back of the wagon when she thought no one was watching.
From the moment he returned, she would ask when she could go with him to the days leading up to his departure. It broke his heart more than he thought it would every time he left as her shrieks and cries echoed in his ears for miles. Even the sight of happy families on the road made him long for home. The mere idea of embracing his wife and child made him toss and turn restlessly in the middle of the many nights.
When Besnik finally offered to take the girl with him, his wife refused and insisted their daughter stay home to learn to be a proper lady. At some point the girl's tantrums had worn her mother down and she was free of the woman's grasp.
After he went over three simple rules, Besnik and Sorcha went on their first adventure together with high hopes for the coming months.
The first rule being that the girl was never allowed to stray from the road or wagon; and never go into the woods alone. Nasty and unexpected things lurked in the ground and beneath bushes. Ditches, exposed roots, trenches, traps, or wild animals. Since she did not know what to look out for yet, he always insisted she stay in his sights.
Second, she was not allowed to play with any of the weapons they were selling. Apparently, Sorcha had grown an affinity for the shiny blades and had been known to sneak off to her grandfather's forge. There, he would let her play with dull daggers and spar with wooden swords whenever the old man took a break to spend time with her. This infuriated Besnik's wife, but he found it to be endearing. Her desire to be different gave him hope that she would enjoy the road as much as he. Of course, he knew the girl would never be allowed to go with him again if he brought her home with nine fingers. And so, he made sure she only played with her wooden sword instead.
The third rule was something he hoped she never broke. Unless she had her father's permission, Sorcha was never allowed to enter someone else's wagon. Far too often he had heard tales of children being tricked to their doom. It did not help that some of the paler countrymen had grown a hatred for the Viatoribem. They would even target children who remotely resembled his people to sell off into slavery.
For the first few weeks, it was a success. Sorcha behaved herself and was more than happy to listen to stories that had been told to him when he was her age. They had their own swordfights before dinner and everyday he learned something new about his blossoming little girl. It filled him with pride watching her try to remember the words of a common folksong, and he scolded himself for thinking she would be less than the amazing child she was now.
All the trouble started when they met up with a large caravan of Viator. It was a community of families selling blankets, trinkets, carvings, and other hand-made knick-knacks; accompanied by a few lone merchants and fortunetellers. It was a group that Besnik had encountered before and knew their route well. He believed it to be a good experience for Sorcha and no doubt some of the mothers could help him if he were ever unable to watch her.
As a father, he always saw his daughter as the most beautiful little girl in the world and no one could tell him otherwise. However, when Sorcha boldly began to introduce herself to the other children, clearly excited to be around others her age, he noticed that she was very different compared to them.
Sorcha had very long legs. So much so that she towered over most kids in the caravan, even those that were a few years older than her. Her thick ebony hair was very difficult to tame without her mother's expertise and had come to resemble a bird's nest. Dirt covered most of her clothes and enough of her face to give her an unkempt appearance, as neither of them had been able to bathe recently. Next to the other children, his daughter looked like she had been raised by wolves.
He was not surprised that they teased her, and he blamed himself for it. The moment the group stopped to set up camp, he brushed out the tangles in her hair, despite her protests. He even used some of their drinking water to dampen a piece of cloth and clean most of the dirt from her face. She may not have appreciated his efforts, but Besnik was proud of himself and hoped she would not be teased as much.
One afternoon, a boy had been particularly cruel. His torment had been enough for Sorcha to leave him with a black eye. While Besnik had been in the middle of a sale—unaware that his daughter had even wandered away from him—the boy's mother approached. She dragged both children along with her by their earlobes and ignored their pained pleads for release. The mother was a stocky woman with thick arms that budged out of the sleeves of her dress the same way a strong man's muscles flexed beneath a tight tunic. Her cheeks were as round as her nose and her lips creased into a frown. Her boy sported a bright shiner and fresh tears on his cheeks. Sorcha kept her chin up but did her best to avoid her father's gaze.
Besnik was more terrified of the short woman than he was disappointed with Sorcha, but luckily, she was sympathetic. She had apparently been keeping an eye on the group of children and had been appalled when her own son began to antagonize the poor girl. But before she could pull him aside for a couple of swift smacks across his rear, the girl reared back and punched him. The woman admitted she had been mad for a moment, but knew it was a lesson her son needed. However, she warned Besnik that not every parent would have the same reaction. A lot of the families were very proud of their young heirs and to have them bested by a girl, no matter how much they deserved it, would make it worse.
That night, the lone father did his best to tell his little girl just how important it was that she restrain herself. They were guests to these people and if they wanted to stay with them, then she would need to follow their rules too.
Sorcha responded with nothing but weak nods and skeptical glances.
For the next few days the children had avoided her, no doubt terrified that she would knock a few baby teeth out next. The girl was forced to stay by his side and idly play with her wooden sword in a poor attempt to keep herself busy. Had he known how unbearable her loneliness was, he would have done something sooner; he still wasn't sure what, but surely, he would have thought of something.
In order to get back in their good graces, Sorcha had managed to steal a few throwing knives and used them to show off her amateur skills. He would have never noticed their absence if she had not killed a squirrel in the process. The sudden death of the rodent made a few of the younger ones scream, immediately drawing the attention of the other parents to them.
As punishment, he had her help skin the dead animal, telling her it would be their dinner tonight. She had protested with tears, insisting that it had been an accident. He made sure she knew that some accidents cannot be fixed. The girl had lost her appetite that night; but the next morning, Besnik calmly told her that her grandfather's blades were not toys. If she were not careful, she could kill a person instead of a squirrel next time.
She simply nodded; her eyes still red from the night before.
Despite his efforts, his daughter managed to get caught up in mischief with the other children. It didn't seem to matter how often he scolded her or withheld dinner, someone would drag her by the ear to him with a new tale of trouble. Some of it he took with a grain of salt, but some were absolutely shocking to him. At this point he did not care if she was just reacting to the constant teasing, she needed to grow a thick skin and ignore it. This would not be the last time in her life she would be harassed, and it was time she figured that out now.
After being with the caravan for three months, the group picked up a man and his small circus. His name was Artellicus, a self-proclaimed collector of rare items and human oddities. The vibrantly charming man claimed he and his men had gotten lost and requested to follow the caravan until they reached the next town. The Viator welcomed the newcomers with open arms and a hot dinner. One of the fortunetellers told him it would take a few weeks before they would see any signs of civilization. They were in the heart of a vast and dense forest and had to take extra care not to run the horses ragged.
Though he appeared to be disappointed at the news, the man smiled and assured them it would be no problem. All he asked was that no one went near three of the wagons without either himself or his men.
And under no circumstances was anyone to approach the red one.
Artellicus had four wagons in his arsenal. One was clearly for supplies, two had brilliant creatures and strange men painted on them, now faded from years of abuse from nature herself. But there was one, at the very back of the line, that was covered in a great crimson drape. The outline of iron bars could be seen in the right light, but that was the most anyone could see beneath the cover without daring a peek inside.
The moment Besnik laid his eyes on the ominous wagon, he pulled Sorcha aside. He warned that if he ever caught her near it, he would do more than smack her upside the head.
The first few days every child in the caravan seemed to wander toward the new wagons unattended. He even watched as a few dared each other to approach the covered one only to be shooed away by one of the strange men before any of them could get a peek.
There had been a few close calls though. Besnik had watched as one of the smaller children tip-toed toward the tempting shape and managed to pull up a corner of the fabric.
The boy was met with a hideous snarl. He screamed out, "Monster! Monster!" until he was safe behind his mother's skirts.
Besnik was glad it was not his daughter sneaking around this time. In fact, the only odd behavior he had noticed from her was her eating habits. Some nights she would ask for seconds, but if there wasn't enough then she wouldn't finish her meal at all. He figured it was part growth spurts and part teasing. Though he had to admit, if it kept her out of trouble, he would allow the behavior to continue.
Her new ritual continued for weeks, and in that time his daughter had not gotten in trouble once. Such peace was what had given him this moment to finally enjoy the air tonight. Music that had been passed from generation-to-generation filled the air, tipsy men and women clapped as others began to dance in the firelight. Children screamed in delight as they darted by, trying to see who could outrun the other.
For the first time in months, he took in a deep breath and allowed himself to relax. He stared up at the leaves above, wishing his wife could share this moment with him.
"Wretched little bitch!" Artellicus' snarl was accompanied by the crisp sound of a hand meeting someone's face. The sound cut through the peaceful night like an arrow shooting from the shadows.
Everyone quieted and looked amongst each other as if someone would have an answer for the interruption. Then the man cried out in pain before another strike was heard, followed by a young girl squeaking from the impact.
Besnik did not need to call out for his daughter to know it was her receiving the abuse. A hot rush filled his body and he had crossed the camp in a flash, unaware of how fast he was going until he reached the mysterious, red-covered wagon.
There, in the shadow of the cage, he saw the vibrantly dressed Artellicus shaking his daughter by her hair. Despite her predicament, Sorcha still managed to flail about. Her hands swiped out at his face to claw at any flesh her nails could scrape against, while her feet kicked out to throw the man off balance.
No explanation could calm him. Without a word or warning Besnik threw a fist at the vagrant and felt teeth break against his knuckles. A plume of red sprayed toward him and the man released the girl, his hands flying to push the blood back into his now gaping maw.
Besnik grabbed Sorcha by her arm and yanked her to his side, slowly pushing her behind him. His nostrils flared as rage filled his chest, his torso pushed forward and his shoulders straightened in a way that made him feel like raging mother bear.
A crowd began to form around them, their murmurs bringing Besnik back to the world. Artellicus' men rushed to their boss' side, one of the them offering a handkerchief to clean his face with. Once he managed to spit enough blood and teeth out of his swelling mouth, the fuming man pointed at Besnik and Sorcha with a shaking finger.
"That child!" he spat with fury burning in his grey eyes. "Is out of control!"
Besnik took a deep inhale and tried to keep his voice even when he spoke. "What did she do?"
"Now you want to know?" Every word that came out of his mouth was like venom. "I caught her peeking 'neath the curtain," he gestured to the crimson wagon next to him. "And told her to back off."
"You grabbed me! Hard!" Sorcha chimed in. The lanky girl held her arm out to show off the bruises forming on her skin.
"Quiet!" Besnik barked at her.
"I grabbed her so I could pull her away from it." He explained before holding up his arm. Two small bite marks were indented into the flesh. "And she went and bit me! So yeah, I gave her a smack and hoped that'd be the end of it, but she wouldn't stop attacking me!"
The heat in Besnik's face was almost unbearable. Never had he felt so much disappointment, rage, and embarrassment at himself and his own daughter. He gave her an inch and she went ten miles with it. Perhaps he had simply been too lenient with her. Perhaps his punishments were not harsh enough.
Tonight, he will show the hell raiser no mercy.
"I'm sorry," Besnik nudged his daughter's back. "Sorcha. Apologize to Artellicus."
"No!" she glared at him as if he were a stranger.
"Sorcha," he hissed. His entire body burned as he felt everyone's gaze upon him. "I am not asking you. I'm telling you. Apologize. Now."
Before she could even finish, Besnik's hand caught her across the face. An audible gasp could be heard from his fellow Viatoribem. Many of them clearly surprised he even had the gall to discipline her like this.
Sorcha stood still; her head cocked to the side from the impact. Her chin began to quiver, and he saw her hands tighten into fists out of the corner of his eye. Finally, she looked at him. Angry tears flowed from her big green eyes. Her lips curled and uncurled as whimpers squeaked out of her instead of words.
For a moment he felt his heart break as the hot sting of his discipline rested in his palm. He had never realized just how small she was compared to him until he had struck her. It seemed almost unfair to even consider hitting a child the way just had, but she had left him with no choice. He had tried to use words but nothing he said worked. He had no choice but to do this.
He had to.
Before he could show her any regret, the girl managed to force out two, quivering, defiant words:
Besnik sighed in defeat. "Then go. To the wagon," his arm never felt heavier as he lifted it to point in the general direction of their temporary home. "I'll deal with you soon."
Sorcha flew as fast as he had. The crowd parted and watched her flee with mixed emotions. Some were amazed at what just transpired, a few were sympathetic, and others were relieved that it finally happened. One by one, the people departed; slowly returning to their dying fires and half-finished dinners and drinks.
When it was just Besnik, Artellicus and his men, he made sure to apologize again; this time he was much more sincere as his body finally began to calm down. He even offered a sword of the man's choice to compensate for the trouble, if he wished to look at his wares in the morning. The offer seemed good enough for the wounded man—at least for now—and he reminded the father to make sure the girl stayed away from his collection of wagons.
Besnik nodded weakly and assured him that he would.
With heavy footsteps, the father trudged back to his wagon. He knew what had to be done now. But where anger had given him conviction, exhaustion now filled him with dread. There was no way around it though. She may hate him for the rest of the trip, but it was for her own good. If she ever wanted to come with him again, the girl had to learn how to behave herself properly.
When he entered through the little carved door, he found Sorcha huddled in her hammock. Layers of blankets hid her as sobs racked her tiny body. The sight was enough to break his resolve. The shame of being hit in front of everyone was punishment enough. He went to give her a kiss good night, but the girl yanked herself away the moment he placed a hand on her.
Without a word, the man climbed into his cot and resigned himself to sleep.
It had been the familiar creak of the wagon door closing that made Besnik's eyes shoot open. His body remained still as his sight tried to adjust to the darkness. Every sound made from the wind and intruding shadow echoed in his ears and made his heart race.
It wasn't a robber. Their footsteps were too clumsy despite how light they were. The silhouette of a small figure appeared in front of Sorcha's hammock and, for a moment, Besnik believed it to be the girl. Perhaps she was returning from a night of sneaking out. But as the figure pulled itself upward to loom over the hanging bed, the father saw a more sinister outline.
Horns poked from the intruder's head and boney fingers reached for his slumbering child.
Besnik felt his muscles tense as he slowly moved beneath the blankets. His hand gripped the handle of the dagger that hid beneath his pillow for courage. If this devil was a dream, he prayed it would turn to smoke when he strikes. But if it was real, then he could not allow Sorcha to wake. To see an incarnation of evil at her age would ruin her soul.
The creature stepped down and stared at the hammock, clearly entranced by either the girl or the small ray of moonlight that seeped through the cracks of wood. Besnik moved with the silence and focus of a mountain lion. His hand snatched the devil's tiny arm and traded places with it. He raised the dagger over his head, ready to bury the silver blade into its heart and send it back to the pits it crawled out of.
Wide blue eyes stared up at him with terror instead of the yellow, snake-like orbs he had been told to expect. The very human emotion made him falter and his eyes could suddenly see the intruder for what it was.
A child. It was only a freakish child.
The figure beneath him was small, about the same size as Sorcha, but male. The boy's skin was an abnormal color and he was alarmingly thin. A set of horns had begun to sprout from the top of his head, but they were nothing compared to his comically large, pointed ears. He wore nothing but a pair of tattered trousers that had not been washed in a while.
Besnik lowered the weapon slowly and stared at the boy. Questions swarmed his mind to the point where he could not let him leave without answering them. He motioned for the child to stay put as he stood. The man crept through the wagon and gathered a handful of food. He held a piece of fruit out to the boy; but when the little hands reached out for it, the man pulled back and gestured for him to follow.
The two went to the front of the wagon silently, stepping outside to sit on the driver's seat. When the horned child was busy scarfing down the promised fruit, Besnik went back inside and returned with a blanket. The man covered the boy's figure with it, hoping any who might happen to wake would mistake him for Sorcha.
Besnik was patient with the boy, offering him a slice of plain bread when the fruit was nothing but a core and seeds. His mind raced as he stared, his eyes now used to the dark shroud of night. The boy even had a tail that he used to wrap around one of his legs, perhaps for security or a nervous tick. He had a feeling he knew where the child had come from, but he had to make sure.
"What were you doing in my wagon?" Besnik asked the moment the boy was done.
His mouth shifted and contorted in thought as strange little grunts filled the silence. Besnik's patience paid off when words finally came out. "To say 'good-bye'."
"How do you know my daughter?"
The tail around his leg tightened. "She..." the boy hesitated as if he were to part with a secret. "She would talk to me. And pass me food," he peered forward and pointed at the crimson wagon that loomed in the shadows. "Through the cover."
"How did you escape?" Besnik asked.
"She gave me the key."
It hit him all at once. Her bettered behavior, her strange eating habits. His daughter had found a friend in the poor exploited boy. It was no wonder the collector was adamant about keeping everyone away from the cage.
Now Besnik wished he had done more than punch that damned Artellicus. No doubt the poor child had experienced terrible abuse form his "master".
But a new problem presented itself the longer he stared at the cluster of circus wagons.
The boy had nowhere to go and he could not stay with Besnik and Sorcha. They wouldn't be able to leave in the middle of the night. The road was too uneven to travel on blindly in the dark. And when morning comes, Artellicus would notice the boy's absence and demand the camp be turned inside-out in his pursuit. The only chance of freedom the child had was if he fled into the dark.
He would not last the night the way he was now.
Besnik told the boy to stay put and stepped back into the wagon. He began to gather basic supplies that would keep the boy alive for longer than a day. He filled a pack with food, a canteen full of water, a dagger, flints and pieces of kindling. Next, he fastened a few spare blankets to the outside of the pack, grabbed some of Sorcha's clothes, and one of his cloaks for the boy to wear. The cloak would be much too big for him, but if he managed to live long enough, he would quickly grow into it.
The man went back outside and gave the child the clothes, telling him to put them on, and helping whenever the fabric got caught on his horns. They were almost too big for him, but they were better than nothing.
"Be careful where you walk," Besnik warned as he helped fasten the cloak around the tiny neck. "Don't stop until morning, and even then, make sure you've found a hidden place to sleep. You don't know how long that bastard will track you down," he turned the little body around. Thick fingers tucked the end of the fabric into the mouth of the bag so that the ends would not get snagged on thorns or branches. "Remember too," he spun him around again and looked into the ghostly blue eyes sternly. "Not everyone is kind. Lots of people are like Artellicus. Some are worse. If you manage to find friends, then good. But be ready to make the woods your home if you don't want to live in a cage."
The boy stared at the foreboding forest, his fingers picking at one another. "But it's scary."
Besnik felt his heart ache. An image of a younger Sorcha being too scared to fall asleep by herself in her own room flashed in his mind. It felt cruel encouraging the boy to venture off into the woods by himself, but there was no choice. If there was any chance he could get away with hiding the boy from Artellicus, then he would do it in a heartbeat.
But this was the only way.
"It only looks scary," Besnik reassured him. "Some people might even say that about you, I'm sure."
The boy whipped his head and shot him a pained look.
"But," he squeezed the boney shoulder and smiled. "Come daylight and you'll see. The woods have a beauty to it. Give it time and you may come to call it 'home'."
His speech was enough to put a smile on the boy's face. He hopped off the wagon and the father watched as the little figure tip-toed through the camp, only to stop at the edge of the wood.
Narrow shoulders lifted as the boy took a deep breath. Then, with one courageous jump, he vanished into the dark.