Try as she might, Rory couldn’t bring herself to trust Artyrus. Suppressing her misgivings, she ignored the brigand, though every rational impulse within her told her to turn and run the other way. Merlin had sent him—or at least, that’s what he’d claimed—and he’d stolen away with her, dragging her back to her duties in Chamelaute.
It wasn’t as if she wouldn’t have gone anyway. She was well aware of her obligations and the needs of her people. She’d have made her way home regardless, but the bastard was so insistent. Even now, her aggravating companion led the way astride his midnight-black horse, who was every bit as colossal as he was.
Resentfully, she eyed the back of his half-shaven head, the ash-blond hair sprouting from the top of his skull forming a short tail that bobbed in time with the beast beneath him.
Rory groaned. There were worse ways to travel through Wylewoode. There had to be, though she was hard-pressed to think of any at the moment.
“We’re stopping,” she shouted to her escort several yards ahead, slowing her horse. Her civility was a courtesy Artyrus didn’t deserve. She offered her compliance out of the goodness of her heart, despite her disdain for her supposed guardian.
“No.” Artyrus continued onward without sparing her a glance, his broad shoulders as stiff and unyielding as his ornery disposition.
Tempering her rising fury, she followed him, willing herself to be reasonable where he refused. Someone had to behave like an adult if they were to survive their trek, and that would be a monumental undertaking.
Now she understood the plight of her former sidekick Ric, the newly crowned king of Llundyn, for she had done the very same thing to him. She’d joined him by force and very much against his wishes. That arrangement had worked out better than she’d hoped, but she was under no illusions. Lightning wouldn’t strike twice.
“Mind your pace,” Artyrus added, his tone dripping with condescension. “We’re still days behind schedule.”
Rory tugged the reins, her horse rearing as she came to an abrupt halt. “Who put you in charge?”
“No!” Her steed turned in an anxious circle beneath her before she met his gaze, her eyes burning with unrestrained anger. “I’m through taking orders from you. I’m hungry, I’m tired and I want a break. We’ll get there when we get there. Why all the urgency?”
He turned to face her, his patience apparently waning. “I was more than generous with you and your friends in Llundyn, and we stayed far longer than was reasonable, given your circumstances.”
“Ah. How benevolent of you.” Rory took a fortifying breath, all the while reconciling the little she knew of Artyrus with the seemingly endless knowledge he possessed about her. She smiled brightly, steeling herself for the inevitable battle of wills. “You may go at your own pace, but I’m going to set up camp. You’ll make excellent time without me.”
Trotting away, she eased her horse into the tree line, aiming for the stream that ran alongside the roadway. To her satisfaction, she didn’t hear her captor tailing her. Perhaps he’d seen sense after all.
For the first time in days, she began to recover herself, reveling in the peace their rare separation afforded. It would undoubtedly be short-lived, but she wouldn’t let that ruin the moment.
So what if she was a bit petulant?
Running away from Artyrus was childish, a far cry from the commanding manner in which she typically acted, but she’d had enough. He’d destroyed her restraint.
“Well, that’s better,” Rory sighed, patting her mare, Briar. Doubtless, she was temperamental like Rory was. Only somehow, she managed to get away with it. For even Artyrus, God’s steadfast gift to bravery, was apt to steer clear of Briar’s moody escapades and snapping teeth.
Throwing her leg over the mare’s broad back, Rory dismounted, guiding Briar toward the stream for refreshment. The familiar thrum of rolling waters soothed her stormy spirit, the crystalline flow deceptively languid as she plunged her canteen into its depths. Briar wasted no time, easing in at Rory’s side and quenching her thirst.
To any onlooker, the pair made for a hapless duo. But they were all they needed, making the ubiquity of Artyrus an utter nuisance.
Drying her mouth on the arm of her sleeve, Rory reached into her satchel, feeding Briar a handful of oats and taking care not to catch her fingers in the overeager horse’s mouth. “This will do, will it not?”
Her newfound freedom was intoxicating, bringing a small, satisfied smile to her face. Why it had taken her so long to assert herself, to demand control of the situation, was beyond reason. Perhaps it was Artyrus’s unsettling reticence that had unnerved her—that, or his sullen disposition. Somewhere along their journey, she’d decided not to poke the bear, unwittingly leaving the brute in charge of their odyssey.
She wouldn’t make that mistake again. Better yet, she’d simply rid herself of him altogether.
Or perhaps not.
From beside her, Briar started, spooking only a moment too late for any resistance. Swiftly secured from behind, Rory was swept away from the tranquil waters, thrust headlong into the relentless embrace of her most formidable nemesis.
Rory thrashed about like a beached fish, arching and kicking furiously to no avail. “You’ve got to be kidding! Leave me alone!” Wielding her heels as a weapon, she struck, her foot whacking its target with vicious accuracy. Artyrus’s sharp intake of air was little consolation, however, as he managed to hold her fast.
In one quick motion, he released her, but not before he’d somehow managed to capture both of her arms, deftly securing them before her with a leather thong. He stepped away, doubling over for one precious moment to catch his breath. “You’re ridiculous,” he wheezed, regaining his composure.
“You’re playing a game you cannot possibly win. This is child’s play,” Rory snapped, holding her bound hands in front of her. He was sorely mistaken if he thought a simple leather strap would bring her in line. She wriggled her wrists, maneuvering one against the other to free herself. He’d gone too easy on her, leaving the band with plenty of slack. Twisting her wrists, she gave them a final tug.
Artyrus only smiled, an evil little smirk that had Rory itching for all-out war as he’d merely given her the means to entrap herself. He stepped toward her, plucking her sword from its sheath, seemingly unfazed by the hatred surely evident upon her face. “Your cooperation, if you please,” he urged, his dark eyes meeting hers. “I do not wish to report such juvenile behavior to Merlin. Certainly you’d like to prove yourself worthy of your obligations.”
Rory scoffed. “Tattling as if we’re a pair of children. Why am I not surprised?”
“You are, indeed, behaving like one.” Artyrus folded his arms across his chest before raising a single eyebrow.
His assertion was annoying in its own right—but making matters worse was the sinister truth that he’d somehow hit a mark she hadn’t realized existed. Her life had been one trial after another, with duty ever looming in the back of her mind and obscuring every facet of her future.
Perhaps some piece of her did crave the freedom of youthful irresponsibility, and being held to account was the last thing she needed. Rory closed her eyes, the fight she’d been harboring within her suddenly dissolving. Her sentiments hadn’t changed, but taking a stand in the middle of a booby-trapped forest wasn’t good headwork.
Artyrus nodded, wordlessly turning to lead the way back toward the roadway. Sighing, Rory grasped Briar’s reins, guiding her along as she followed in Artyrus’s shadow.
The man was at least aware enough to maintain a healthy distance, quickly reaching his horse where he awaited Rory, who was traipsing toward him slowly. “Up you go.” Clasping his hands before him, he indicated his monstrous midnight steed with a bob of his head.
“No, thank you.” Rory raised her bound wrists. “I can manage my horse well enough, even without the full use of my hands.”
His grim features softened as he bent at the waist, beckoning her forward. “Nonsense. And besides, traveling together should help prevent any further detours.”
Rory huffed, willing herself to ignore his provocation, finally having tired of the ceaseless back and forth between them. Making her way toward him, she mounted the devilish stallion without protest, settling into the saddle.
Clasping her boot as he rose, Artyrus extracted a dagger before moving around the front of his horse. Rory eyed him with growing suspicion as he reached for her other one, plucking a second dagger from its sheath. She was still armed to the teeth. Losing a pair of blades was of no consequence.
“Are you through?” Rory asked. “For one so concerned with making good time, you’re certainly wasting enough of it.”
Artyrus ignored her, instead jamming his foot into the stirrup before swinging his leg over, seating himself behind his unruly passenger. He retrieved two more daggers with maddening calm, which were concealed beneath a thin layer of linen, set between her shoulder blades.
“In case you wish to slit my throat,” Artyrus gruffed, urging his steed onward with Briar following at his heels.
Rory fumed, even as she refused to acknowledge—at least outwardly—that he’d succeeded in disarming her almost entirely.
His ability to annoy her was truly unparalleled.
Their journey proceeded without disruption, providing Rory with an opportunity she’d always loathed—time to think. With Artyrus firmly in command of their route and horses—and even greater control over her from where he sat with his arms encircling her form, though he dared not touch her—she allowed her mind to wander for the first time since she’d left Chamelaute.
Planning had never been a strong suit for the wayward woman, taking on each obstacle only as it arose and never before. It was a way of life and not a bad one, though it sometimes led to a close call now and then. Rory eyed her surroundings, eager for a distraction.
The woods themselves were nothing special. Indeed, they were no different from any other woodland terrain. But their ordinary nature bred complacency, leaving one vulnerable to all the perils within Wylewoode. Deadly plants, quicksand and creatures that defied the imagination all resided within the confines of the forest. And though it was difficult to fathom, there were people there, too.
Rory had no interest in them, for only a loon would remain in Wylewoode by choice.
“Perhaps it’s time,” Artyrus said around a yawn after a time, guiding his horse through a gap in the foliage toward the water’s edge. Lifting his arms, he shielded Rory from the tangled mess of branches as they ambled through to the nearby bank.
At first glance, the riverbank was pleasant enough, though the poisonous brambles lining the opposite shoreline reminded them that they were not in friendly territory. Soft light from the fading sun filtered through the canopy of greenery overhead, bringing a chill to the early evening air as shadows veiled the warm glow of day.
“Very well,” Rory replied, reflecting an indifference she didn’t feel. She was bushed and ready for a break. Artyrus dismounted first, turning to assist her as she did the same.
“Your hands.” Pulling a blade from his breeches, Artyrus gestured toward her bound wrists. She offered them, palms up, avoiding his steady gaze as he cut cleanly through the strap in one slice, his brusque manner never failing to peeve her.
Artyrus excused himself then, striding into the brush and out of Rory’s eye line. He had disappeared periodically to relieve himself, but it had never lasted long enough for Rory’s liking. In truth, he could continue his trek and vanish altogether and there’d be no complaint from her lips.
She set to work, unpacking their meager belongings from each of their horses before sending them to the water’s edge to graze. Minutes later, she’d gathered more than enough fodder for a fire and had a small blaze underway.
The burgeoning flames crackled as she prodded them to life, and before long, she had the makings of a tolerable meal, none of which she had any intention of sharing. Rory looked up, suddenly mindful of the blessed solitude in which she’d completed her tasks. How long had it been?
Rising to her feet, she stretched, casually surveying her surroundings as she worked to hide her concern. Artyrus’s stallion, Magnus, remained nibbling the bracken creekside. All his possessions sat untouched, neatly laid alongside her own.
Much as she wished to ignore her unease, Rory knew something wasn’t right. Recovering several blades from among his belongings, she wandered in the direction of her absent chaperone. Leaving him to survive the ills of Wylewoode was tempting, of course, but the havoc it would wreak upon her conscience wasn’t worth it.
Creeping through the boughs, Rory moved quietly, following the sporadic traces of Artyrus’s presence. He was somewhat ghostlike—his ability to obscure his tread leaving her reluctantly impressed, particularly in light of his size.
She hadn’t gone far when she sighted him, the whole of his body suspended mid-air from where he hung by his ankle. Gently swaying in the mild twilight breeze, he issued curses too numerous to count as he contorted his body, attempting to grasp the rope as he folded himself in half.
Being too top-heavy for success, he heaved one final obscenity, collapsing as he seemingly conceded defeat, swinging like the tail of an irritable cat. The spectacle was equal parts pitiful and humorous.
Rory laughed, giving herself away as he twisted to meet her gaze. “Maybe a little help, if you wouldn’t mind,” he muttered, his face becoming a concerning shade of red.
“Poor fellow!” Glancing up at her captured keeper, Rory placed her hands on her hips, relishing a moment of fortune. She wasn’t about to let the occasion end without a bit of chiding. “I imagine this is what you deserve, in light of your ridiculous strong-arming earlier. The pitfalls of these woods are vast. You’d be wise to allow me the lead.”
After a brief deliberation, he merely sighed. “As you wish. Now, if you please.” Gesturing at his ensnared ankle, he was nothing short of resigned from where he swung in an interminable arc.
And while Rory should’ve been reveling in her minor victory, she was oddly dissatisfied. Unsheathing her reclaimed dagger, she made for the tree that anchored her companion in the heavens. “Tuck and roll,” she advised before severing the rope.
Like a sack full of bricks, he plummeted to the earth, his strapping form landing with a wicked thud as he turned to his back, exhaling in a mighty burst that twisted Rory’s insides. Flopping an arm across his eyes, he lay in the dust, recovering himself. “My thanks,” he managed.
“It’s nothing,” she uttered, backing her way through the path she’d come by. Shaking her head, she dismissed the entire episode, refusing to allow empathy to bloom, instead returning to her forgotten meal.
He reappeared slowly, plodding through the foliage as he made for his belongings, and it was no surprise that Rory found herself suddenly preoccupied with her feast, though her appetite had since expired.
The weight of her hefty cloak melted over her shoulders, providing warmth she hadn’t realized she was in want of. She glanced up at Artyrus, who offered only a shrug in acknowledgment. “It’s getting cold.”
“Here,” Rory replied, proffering her plate as he seated himself nearby. “Eat.”
He took a hearty bite, gagging slightly as he forced piece after piece down his gullet. “Whew. Let’s hope you lead better than you cook.”
“Forgive me,” she scoffed. “Culinary arts are among the least of my priorities.” Scowling, she turned away, though not before she caught a hint of a smile upon his face.