Chapter Thirteen: The Bargain

A high-pitched ring echoed in Sorcha's ears. She had been weightless for an eternity until feeling ebbed from her drumming heart to her numb fingertips. A soft light reflected through her closed eyelids, encouraging her waking consciousness to return to the world. Her body suddenly had weight, and she realized she was lying in a bed.

Fear continued to pound in her chest as images of the fading nightmare lingered in her mind. Harriette's killing spree had been an endless massacre. The blood of her victims watered the dark landscape and made the skeletal trees grow until they blocked out the sky. Then, one head had rolled to Sorcha's feet.

Pure, unbridled terror had clutched at her throat and threatened to snuff out her life. The head turned on its own and Nicholas' cloudy eyes stared at her. He had shouted something horrendous at her, and his skin had melted away to reveal a polished bear's skull beneath. The creature snarled and had leapt at her with a gaping, fang-filled maw.

Most of the nightmare faded into forgetfulness, but the ivory face refused to leave her mind. She tried to focus on her surroundings and fight back the unwarranted fear.

She could feel the cold sweat on her neck as it soaked into the soft pillow beneath her head. Her fingers curled, resisting the stiffness in their knuckles, and felt soft furs caress her palm. For a moment, she thought she was back home, and the possibility of recent events being nothing but a strange nightmare filled her with life. Yet, the sound of a dying fire told her she was elsewhere. Her mind went to the private room Menaheim had set up for her, but the bed she rested on was too stiff—though still comfortable—compared to the one he had provided.

She was somewhere new.

She remained still despite how quickly her eyes had opened. She did not know who owned this home and could not risk drawing attention to herself. Her ears strained as she listened for signs of life. A soft flutter of paper came from above, and she noticed the home's layout.

The bed was nestled underneath a loft. Amateur charcoal drawings smeared onto yellowed parchment decorated the wooden walls and ceiling. Most of them were quick sketches of the local wildlife. Each one depicted the graceful motions of prancing animals. Whoever drew them was above the loft, with only inches of floorboard keeping her hidden.

A mass next to her legs stopped her from moving. The ball of darkness shifted when her knee jabbed into its soft side. She put her elbows behind herself and pushed upward to get a better look of the strange thing. Muscles quivered and ache at their sudden use, but she forced the limbs to move.

The perfectly circular mass of pitch-black fur shifted. One long arm stretched lazily outward. Curved claws peeked from the round toes as three more limbs unfurled. A long, puffed tail stood erect and shook away the last of sleep along with a big, pink and toothy yawn. The feline's triangular head lifted to show off the stark white patch over its right eye. Purple eyes blinked and stared at her with intelligence that sent a shiver down her damp spine.

"Oh, good. You're finally awake." A deep, smooth, masculine voice came from the cat. Its mouth moved in a way that made no sense to Sorcha. As if its mouth moved slower than the words that had come out.

She screamed and kicked her legs frantically, trying to knock the cursed animal off. It yowled in surprise but dug its claws into the furs.

A wet lump pushed itself into her throat as she flailed about. It tickled her esophagus, calling her attention until she halted her assault. A terrible cough overwhelmed her as her body tried to rid itself of the mucus trapped inside.

Soft footsteps shuffled above. The floorboards squeaked gently, like curious mice. Her fit had ceased when a familiar figure peered around the corner.

"Are you alright?" Beau'omme asked with wide, startled eyes. "You screamed. Was it a nightmare?"

"The cat spoke!"

"Then she nearly kicked me well across the room." The cat huffed as it ran a tongue over the furs that had prickled down its back.

She pointed, her mouth gaping like a fool.

"Oh, that's just Zephyr," he waved her paranoia off with a nervous smile. "He's always done that."

"But how?"

"A curse. And that's all you need to know," purple eyes snapped at the horned creature. The beautiful feathery tail twitched before the cat finally jumped down to abandon the bed for a lone tabletop.

She took a breath to speak, but the cough returned and with it, the disgusting lump. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get it to leave. There was another soft shuffle of feet and before she knew it, he was at her side.

Steam rose from the simple cup nestled between his long, boney fingers. "Here, this'll help, I promise. Just… try not to taste it."

There were no alarm bells when she took the cup from him. She would not have wakened if he had wanted her dead. In a single toss, she threw the lukewarm beverage to the back of her throat and swallowed quickly. A bitter, earthy taste clung to her tongue despite her hurry. The liquid passed over the lump and, finally, she could feel it loosen.

Once again, she coughed until the mucus jumped into her mouth. Her lips curled at the slimy taste and felt her stomach churn. Without thinking, she put her mouth over the cup and spat the sickly green and yellow substance inside.

"Thanks," she managed before setting the cup on the floor, trying not to look inside.

"Of course," he grimaced. A taloned foot stretched out and shooed the cup towards the wall.

The sight was enough to snap her attention upward. No matter how often she saw him, his features were still unnerving. And now, she saw more of him than she ever planned.

There was no hood pulled over his head. No cloak to hide his posture or strange limbs. And no mask.

An off-white, long-sleeved tunic covered his torso. The ends were tucked into dark trousers, which could not hide the way his leg bent and twisted itself like an animal's hind limb. A thick, bald tail curled around what she assumed was his ankle. The thick appendage constricted now and then as the silence continued.

Even here, he had to hunch over to keep his head and the curve of his horns from bumping into the loft's ceiling. Cheekbones threatened to protrude from their blue-gray prison, much like the strange bumps that decorated his head instead of hair. Yet the blue in his eyes looked livelier than they ever had during their time on the road.

"Where am I?" She asked.

"In my home," he answered. "Well, technically, it's Zephyr's. He built it himself when he was—," he stopped to glance over his shoulder. The feline had paused its grooming to glare at him. "He lets me stay here," he finished.

"Impressive work for a cat," she grumbled. A terrible shiver crawled up her spine, and she pulled the blankets closer. "What the hell happened? How long was I out?" Everything felt like one terrible blur. She could not separate the memories from the nightmares. That there had been no way poor Harriette went on a killing spree. Or that she had accepted medicine from Beau'omme playing as the Shadow Kin.

"You were sick. I don't know for how long, but it was bad enough to make your companions hesitant. But you've been asleep since I found you."

"And how long ago was that?"

"A few days."

"Gods…" She rubbed her forehead and could smell her own sweat clinging to the padded clothes. "Was there another girl when you found me?"

His prolonged silence spoke louder than his words. "There was."

"Did she… hurt anyone?"


She ran her fingers through her hair and caught the knots that had formed during her prolonged slumber. "Why didn't you stop her?"

"It wasn't my place. Who am I to say what would satisfy her? Peace of mind years later that she had spared the lives of cruel men? Or the relief that she had done something to those that had been cruel?"

"So, you just let her have at it?"

"It gave her a choice. And that's just what happened. She chose their fate."

"Do I get a choice in anything then?"

"You do."

"Then I'd like to go home. Right now."

"I can't do that."

"Why not? I'm sure you've got plenty of energy now, right? That was your problem before. Not enough sleep or enough to eat. So, what's the problem now?"

His tail tightened around his leg. "The Between is not kind to anyone that has ailments."

"How d'ya mean?"

A dark purple tongue flashed over his lower lip anxiously. "We had to go through it when you still had a fever." The space between his spiked brow pinched together. "You almost died."

Visions of being choked by fear came back to her. More things she had wished were only just nightmares.

Another icy shiver tickled her damp flesh, and she pulled the furs closer. "B-bullshit. How do I know you're not just saying that to keep me here?"

His mouth twitched and there was a flash of something dark that slithered over his eyes. For a moment, Sorcha regretted asking. Then, with quick jerking motions, he tugged the tunic from the lip of his trousers. His cheeks flushed before he pulled the fabric over his horned head with some difficulty.

The unexpected sight of his bare torso caught her off guard. Like some chaste young lady, she turned away immediately and felt the heat rise to her face. If he had been a normal man, she would not have been nearly as bashful. But he was already so strange looking, she feared of what else he had hidden beneath the cotton. Curiosity gnawed away the fear quickly, and she dared to take a hesitant peek.

His flesh there was still the same color as the rest of him. Lean muscles shifted over a large ribcage as if they were their own sentient being. Aside from the curve of his hunched posture and skin color, his body looked normal enough. Small scars from prey animals littered his sides. They were hardly noticeable and would eventually fade into nothingness.

Except for one.

It was large, starting just below his left clavicle and stretching across his chest until it tapered off beneath the right pectoral. The terrible line was raised over the surface of his skin and even paler.

He raised his hand and dragged a claw over its length gently. "What do you think caused this?"

"If I didn't know better, I'd say a dragon." Sarcasm could not find its way into her words this time. She was more surprised that, whatever had done this, only left one mark.

He shook his head. "It was a blade. Simple, thin steel. The cut wasn't deep or nearly as big." He frowned and became quiet. His eyes focused on the large mark, the corners of his mouth twitching now and then as if he wanted to speak, but then changed his mind. "It wasn't fatal. I think I was more surprised than hurt when it happened. Still, I fled. But I didn't just run. I ported."

There was silence again. This time, Sorcha caught the feline's gaze from the other side of the room. The sound of its rough tongue cleaning the ebony coat had been a soft noise, easy to ignore. Now that it had stopped, the quietness in the home had become eerily apparent. Even the small fire had turned into a silent pile of glowing embers. It was as if the entire home listened, dreadfully eager to hear a tale.

"When I stepped out, I felt a pain like I had never experienced before. My chest throbbed and felt so hot that I thought I was on fire. When I looked down," he paused again. The memory had turned into a nightmare. "It had grown twice as long and wide. There was puss everywhere. And the stench… like it had been rotting for days. If Zephyr hadn't been here, the infection would've killed me."

"All that happened from a tiny scratch?" She whispered in disbelief.

He nodded. "There was fluid in your lungs when we came out. Just from having a fever and cough."

"But then I shouldn't be too bad off now," she argued. "My fever's down. And I'm awake this time. I'll just be back to having a fever again, right?"

"What? No! That's the problem," he sounded agitated and struggled to get his shirt back on. "We don't know what'll happen if I take you there again. And we'll be in there longer if we're aiming for the city. Which means you could come out dead this time."

"Fine, then… I'll do it the hard way." She shifted her legs, feeling the muscles ache from lack of use. "Thanks for all you've done, but I'm walking home."


"I'm walking home," she repeated.

"You can't do that, you're still sick."

"And the more I move, the better I'll get," she groaned and tried to stand. Her knees quivered enough to make her sweat. Her lungs burned for air and struggled to take even a few deep breaths. Not the start she was hoping for, but she was grateful she could stand. "Now, if you wouldn't mind. Could you move so I can leave?"

He tried to stand upright, but his horns bumped against the wooden loft in a gentle warning. He crossed his arms and glared down at her. "No."

The shadows around his sunken eyes sent a fearful shiver down her spine. Hiding behind his stern frown were rows of pointed teeth and, apparently, an unnaturally purple tongue. Images of him chasing her on all fours through the forest made her hesitate.

There was only one reason he was showing her kindness. If she was not careful, he may revert to a more savage side again. "The sooner I'm out of your hair—er, horns… the sooner our lives can go back to normal."

"Trust me, I want to be back in my own bed as much you do," he retorted. "But I wouldn't be able to sleep well with you wandering about out there alone."

"Then come with me if it'll make you feel better."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"You know why."

He was still being hunted. "Fine. Then move."


Her legs quivered, already exhausted from standing. "Beau'omme… I will make you move."

"An interesting threat," Zephyr purred.

The words sparked something in Beau'omme's head. A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "If you can knock me down, then I'll let you leave. If you can't, you have to stay here and let me tend to you."

She crossed her arms and tried to ignore the smell that wafted from her clothes. "And what happens when I'm better?"

"I'll take you home." He answered.

A part of her wanted to stay. The bed—his bed—was firm, but not uncomfortable. And the plush pillow and warm furs were already beckoning her back in like a succubus' whispers. And there was no immediate fear of him causing her harm.

Still, her mind went back to when he had her hostage. The ferociousness he had shown. The way he had treated her after one act of disobedience. Before, her punishment had been constriction. But here, in his own home, he could do anything he deemed appropriate.

And desperate times brought out the worst in people.

There were parts of her that fought with another. Fear that he would turn savage again. Grief as she longed for underappreciated friends and family. And guilt for trying to kill the boy she had freed as a child. Each one demanded something different of her with no way of satisfying every demand with one simple choice.

Finally, she held her head up high. Her cheeks felt numb from the heat that had plagued them for so long. She breathed through her lips to satisfy her poor lungs. "I accept your challenge."

He bowed his head ceremoniously at her. His taloned feet shifted for the best distribution of weight.

Even cracking her knuckles made Sorcha feel weary. There was a soreness in her arms, as if she were still trying to shake off the stiffness of death itself from her body. She feared she could not best him. But all she had to do was knock him down once. There was no time limit. No restriction of how often she can try to wrestle him down.

She would get him on his back, even if it took all day.

The willpower that burned in her belly mixed perfectly with her natural stubbornness. A few men had bested her with brute strength; but most of the time, she was victorious. Though sickness had withered away some of her muscle mass, she could not believe the tall, lean creature was not even breaking a sweat.

Every time he pushed her back, she charged at him with reignited fury. Her sweaty palms pressed against his and her fingers tried to squeeze his boney digits to distract him. Bare feet pushed against the smooth wooden floor until they threatened to slip from beneath her as the obstruction refused to move. Sweat trickled down her temples and her legs buckled beneath her.

She could not lose. She refused to let herself crumble when freedom was so close. But it grew harder and harder to face him each time. Exhaustion whispered pleads in her ear. That a comfortable bed was just next to her. A warm fire nearby to keep her warm. And blankets to weigh down on her tired body and lull her mind to sleep.

For the first time, his fingers squeezed hers to grab her attention. "Why are you doing this?" He asked.

"I… want… to go… home." She panted.

His grip on her hands loosened. He went to straighten his posture but stopped when his horns tapped the loft's ceiling gently. "I know you do. But you have to let us help you."

She stopped fighting and stared up at him. For a second, she glimpsed her old pains reflected in his expression.

He knew exactly how she was feeling ever since he was a child. His self-exile in the forest must have left a longing for home that went unanswered. Not because he was too weak to go back, but because he was not wanted back.

"I won't be held prisoner again." She said.

"You won't be a prisoner here, I promise."

She wanted to believe him. She truly did. But she had encountered too many people with ulterior motives recently that she shoved the hopeful voice aside. "Then how come, of all people, you were the one who saved me? Seems awful convenient don't you think?"

"Would you've rather I'd left those men alone?"

"It just seems weird that I was captured after you let me go."

He did not scoff or smile sarcastically like she had expected him to. He only stared and lectured her. "You're not really suggesting that I had paid those men to capture you? Do you know how insane that sounds? I would've had to know exactly when and where you'd be released. Not to mention the time needed to gather up that many people, scrounge up the money to pay them, and then make a few of them look near death?" He leaned forward. Two rows of pointed teeth flashed beneath his lips. "I didn't know you were there. I attacked those men because I saw suffering, stolen people trapped in a cage."

Even as her theory crumbled before her feet, she still carried on. "If you're so eager to be a vigilante, then why didn't you come when I screamed?"

"You… screamed?" His hard expression softened.

"Yeah. I did. And you were nowhere to be seen." Suddenly, the anger that had been hiding revealed itself. For the first time when she needed help, she had cried out for it until her voice was raw. And though he had saved her much later, it had not been for her sake.

"I… I didn't hear you. It must've been the storm," he explained. "If I had heard you, I would've come. I swear, I would have." His hand went into his pocket and rested there. "I let you go to repay you for what you did. I didn't intend to see you again after that night." He took a deep breath and his face hardened. "I would never stoop so low as to make hideous plots like that just for some company." A long hiss came from his nostrils as he took a deep inhale. "I'll help you as best as I can. But you are not a prisoner here." He assured.

"So, I can go about as I please then? Even out into the woods?"

"The woods? No. There're still men out there looking for me."

"Then I'm a prisoner with some rights."

Something snapped inside of him. He stepped from the cramped space and out to the open room. "Fine. You want to leave that bad? Then go. The door's right there," he gestured to the lone barrier.

She marched to the door, her head held high, shoulders back and spine straight. Her heart was pounding, and lungs still desperate for more air, but she tried to keep even breaths. The journey to the door was a short one. But as she reached for the iron handle, something pale, mounted above the doorway, stole her attention.

The Shadow Kin's mask stared down at her with hollow sockets. Terrible shadows flickered over its frozen snarl. Irrational fear quickened her heart, but she smothered the terrible seeds left behind by the night terrors. A memory rushed over her in an instant, but she recalled it as if it were happening again.

She was still in throws of that terrible fever. Two blue orbs glowed in the dark sockets. Sheer terror dried her throat and paralyzed her weakening limbs. Long, skeleton-like hands grabbed her and broke her frozen spell. Dread had been a constant companion in the haze of her sickness. It was only a matter of time before death would rescue her. Yet even when its stark-white face stared down at her, ready to take her to the other side she had longed for, she fought against it. Then, the Shadow Kin peeled the terrible white face off. When she looked at his true face, her whole being calmed. Her heart no longer pounded with fear. Tense, tired limbs no longer felt that they had to be ready to flee or fight. She did not trust this moment of security under his concerned stare. She brought up the chains he had restrained her in and expected him to lash out, that she should be grateful she was being rescued at all. But when he assured her of their suspended use, she surrendered to the calm. She accepted his help and allowed herself to drift to sleep.

And in the back of her head, she knew she would be safe.

Even now, as she stared at the hanging skull, she felt ashamed that she had accepted help. That she had allowed her defenses to drop the moment she was in his arms—and in the arms of someone so monstrous.

She wanted to leave now and stop this cycle of dependency. But as she stood there, she realized how sore her limbs were, how fast her heart pounded, how another lump tickled her throat. How a raspy sound accompanied every inhale. And how chilly the room still felt, despite the padded clothing she still wore. If she went out on her own and encountered more bad luck, she would die.

"How long will I have to stay?" She asked.

"I, uh… I-I'm not sure," the question had taken him off guard. "Zephyr?"

"Assuming all goes well, one month should be sufficient," the cat answered.

"And how am I to get my strength back?" She asked. "Pacing around this room for a month won't get my legs back to normal."

A soft, aggravated sigh pushed past Beau'omme's lips. Long fingers rubbed at the base of one of his brow-horns. "You're free to do whatever you like here. As for walking…" there was a pause as he chewed his lower lip. "We'll show you where the border is in the forest. When you're well enough. Until then, Zephyr and I will escort you whenever you go outside."

She stared at the skull-mask above the door as she took it all in. There could be worse things than being stuck in this little home with two cursed beings. At least this time, chains would not bind her.

"Speaking of the outdoors," Zephyr cut in. "We should get started on dinner. And I'm sure the girl would like to rest now, after all of… this."

Her stomach made a low growl at the mention of food. She could not remember the last time she had had a meal. The traffickers had not been eager to share anything, and when they did, it had been half-eaten scraps. Whatever he offered, she would happily devour it.

"Right. I'll go check the traps then." Beau'omme gestured to the bed. "It's okay if you fall asleep again. It may be awhile before we come back."

"I'll keep that in mind." She shuffled past him as he lumbered to the door. The invitation to rest never sounded so wonderful. It did not matter how long she had rested already; her every fiber was sore from the strenuous activity of standing and trying to wrestle the monster down.

The warmth she had left behind still embedded into the blankets. Like a hug from an old friend, she pulled the blankets over herself and felt at ease. Just as sleep crept up her legs towards her hips, she caught Beau'omme's stare.

"We'll be back soon. I promise," he assured her. He squeezed the iron handle, welcoming a small breeze into the home. He left the little home with Zephyr as close to him as a shadow.

His continued kindness made her shift uncomfortably in the bed.

Her mind wandered to her most recent suitor, Cornelius. The young man had been gentle, kind, and took her attacks gracefully. Even now, when there was nothing she could do about her actions, guilt wormed its way into her thoughts. And though her reunion with Beau'omme had not been the best, she was feeling cruel to snap at him constantly.

Apologies, however, was not one of her strengths.

"Beau'omme," Zephyr called with a stern voice.

"I know," Beau'omme grumbled as he picked up the pace. Another lecture was imminent, and he was not in the mood for it. His hand squeezed the amulet in his pocket, hoping it would provide some comfort.

"I don't think you do," the warlock clawed up a thick tree trunk. Leaves rustled and weak twigs snapped as the feline leapt from branch-to-branch. White claws clung to the drooping branch that had lowered him to the horned beast's eye level. "Showing her the border? Letting her outside—"

"With an escort."

"We won't be home all the time!"

Beau'omme threw his arms in the air. "What did you want me to do then? She can't stay cooped up in the house for a month! We don't exactly live in a castle."

"And what happens when she runs off? Or if hunters find her? You think she won't tell them exactly where we live? Or set an ambush for you?"

"She wouldn't do that." His hand burrowed back into his pocket. His fingers latched onto the smooth amulet. His thumb ran over the eroded design, as if Sorcha had done the same thing a hundred times before.

Zephyr spat and shook his head. "Were you even part of that conversation in there? She doesn't trust you one bit."

"She's just tense. Give her time, she'll come around."

"But what if it's not enough time?" Zephyr pressed.

"We were going to leave anyway, right? Why should it matter now?" A brief prayer, begging for the conversation to end, fluttered from his mind.

"What has possessed you? Why do you feel such responsibility for this girl? You've done your dues. She is not near death. She is far from any danger. Why do you insist on caring for her?"

"Because I wouldn't be here without her!"

The feline finally fell silent.

He took a deep breath. The fresh air cooled his nerves. "She was the one that released me. When we were both children. If she hadn't done that for me, I don't think I would be here."

"And you're certain she's the same girl?"

Beau'omme nodded and rubbed the amulet again. "She knew things no stranger would."

The branch holding Zephyr in the air bowed downward. Purple eyes stared unblinking before words finally came. "You don't owe her a life debt anymore, you know."

"I know."

For Beau'omme, it did not matter how many times he returned the favor. He could save her life a hundred more times and he would still feel obligated to do it a hundred more. It was not just the continuation of life he was thankful for, but for freedom.

He remembered how angry he had been while trapped in that cage. And it was not just the master he held fury for. He had hated his mother for trusting such a cruel person. He hated the gawking crowds that paid money just for a look at him and those that paid extra for a supply of rotten vegetables to throw. All that rage had come out in furious snarls and pathetic, boyish roars. Every single person had laughed at his burst of emotion, and it only stoked the fire. There had been a few occasions where he had been successful in lashing out at the crowd. His claws had raked across a woman's face, and his teeth had bitten more than a few stray fingers and arms.

If she had not freed him, he would have become an actual monster.

"Very well," the warlock resigned. "I will do my best to be pleasant. So long as she does not kick me off the bed again." He hopped off the branch and landed with a hard thud.

"Where're you going?"

"Back home. To monitor our guest." Zephyr announced before his sleek, silent figure disappeared in the shadow of a tree.

The warlock's concern came from a good place. But this was something Beau'omme had to see until the end. Once she was safe at home, then they could worry about their future.

But first, he had to get dinner.

Sorcha had feigned sleep when the cat returned; its spoken spell to open a window had announced its return. It was not long after that a terrible, ripping sound intruded through the silence. Beau'omme had returned with dinner, and still she stayed quiet. She could not break herself away from persistent thoughts.

An entire month secluded from the world and left—mostly—alone with a creature was intimidating. And already she had started off on the wrong foot.

Of all people to understand her plight, Beau'omme was the closest thing to a kindred soul that she could ask for. And though she felt absolutely justified in her anger, she should try to play nice.

Wood clattered from outside and the thick scent of smoke found its way in. She could hear the horned being shuffle outside. She could picture him getting the skinned prey ready. Long fingers, tipped with sharp claws, stuck a stick through the red animal. And with a gentleness she would not expect from someone of his appearance, placed the prize over the hungry fire.

Shortly after, the beautiful smell of meat being cooked reached her. Memories of campsite meals with the people of the caravan sent an icy wave of longing through her body. Home had never sounded like a dream before. And yet, she laid in a bed that was not hers, longing for the comfort of her own room. She missed the gossip her mother had about the jewelers down the road. And her mind wandered to all the possibilities as if she had never met the dreaded noble.

Kem would have tried to take her back home, but she would have convinced him that sleeping in The Yawning Lamb's cellar was a better idea. They would have spoken to Amelia about it, and she would have indulged in their mischief. The next day she would get an earful from her mother and father, while her frowning grandfather would have cheered her up. And then they would have announced that they had miraculously kept her engagement to Kem. She would give her mother the reigns for planning the event, knowing there would be no negotiating with her on the matter. It was all the easier to do, knowing she was about to pull the biggest scam with her best friend.

And then, they would have been free.

"Sorcha?" Beau'omme's raspy voice made her jump in place. He stood in the doorway, staring at her. "Is something wrong?"

"I just, uh," she ignored the drying moisture on her cheeks. "I wish I had a way to tell my parents I'm okay. That I'll be coming home soon."

"Is that all? We have plenty of parchment here. And ink and quills. You could write them a letter and I'll find a way to get it to them." He scratched the back of one pointed ear, already trying to think of a solution.

"That's kind of you. But there's a problem."


"I can't read or write."

His eyes went wide until the blue rings were tiny islands in a sea of black. "Are you serious?"

"Why would I lie about that?"

"But… it's important!"

The corners of her mouth twitched and threatened to pull into a smile at his exasperation. "Yeah, well, it didn't interest me," she picked at her fingernail. "By the time I was older, my parents didn't think it was necessary anymore. They figured I'd be married by now. And so long as my husband knew how to read and write, then it wouldn't matter if I knew or not."

He scoffed. "Well, of course you did. I hated reading when I was a child. I just wanted to play and—," he stopped as another memory muted him. "You know, I was a little worried about how to entertain you during your stay here." For the first time, she saw him smile. Both rows of pointed teeth fit in between one another in an impossible display. It was equally intimidating, as it was fascinating to see the expression. "But now I know exactly what we'll do."

"Oh, no." She prayed that he would not suggest what she feared he would.

"I'm going to teach you to read and write."

She should have known she was not a lucky person. "You can't be serious."

"What else are you going to do when you're not exercising your legs? Just laze about in bed?"

"I'll chop wood."

He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. A brow tried to arch but did not get far thanks to the three horns that crowned it. "And when you're done with that?"

"I'll—" something tickled at the back of her throat and she coughed violently into her elbow. "Think of something," she finished between coughs.

"A wonderful idea, but I think she needs some rest now," Zephyr's deep voice chimed in from above. She could only assume the feline had perched itself on the loft. "We'll cross the literary bridge tomorrow. For now, let's try to get dinner ready without it burning, hm?"

Beau'omme's face drooped and sniffed at the air. There was a moment's pause before he darted back outside. The scent of over-cooked flesh eventually reached Sorcha and she could not help but giggle softly to herself.

It was not her idea of fun, but the horned being had a point. She would no doubt spend most of her time trapped in bed. And if she were to be stuck here for a month, learning something new would not kill her. She finally resigned to the idea. It would be interesting to see the look on her family's face when she returned home, suddenly able to read and write.

Perhaps, if everything went well, her time here would not be as terrible as she had dreaded.