Slumber Page 55

I dug through my pack and pulled my dagger out, clutching it in comfort as I waited for exhaustion to give into the inevitable. Somehow I did drop off to sleep, fatigue tugging me under despite my nervousness about being alone in the mountains.

My neck tingled, the feeling turning to something sharp enough to pull me out of semi-consciousness. I groaned and slapped my hand to the spot and pulled away a huge centipede, its legs clambering frantically as it dangled between my fingers. I squealed under my breath and threw it away, shuddering as I touched my neck to make sure there was nothing else there. I winced. The damn thing had bitten me!

I jumped to my feet, flinching at the forgotten blisters, and shook myself out. Not sure I was safe from the insects, who obviously liked the Aran root as much as I, I curled into a ball in the open soil, glancing around to make sure there was nothing else near me.

Oh haven I hated this!

Thankfully, I must have drifted back to sleep, for I woke up lying flat out on my back; the ceiling of the forest above me, now giving way to the blue of the sky.

The blue of the sky! What time was it? I cried out and lunged sleepily for my things. It was definitely past sunrise. Probably mid-morning. I’d missed a good few hours of light for walking. Grumbling at myself, I chewed on a biscuit and sipped from my canteen as I hurried upwards, remembering to hold back the whimpers from the pain in my feet and body. Those first few steps were agonising, the breath whooshing out of me. I sucked in air and took a few more tentative steps, building momentum and chanting Haydyn’s name like a mantra to get me through. At the thought of Shadow Hill I began chanting inwardly; sure I was close to the Hill by now. I didn’t want to be heard.

By afternoon, the sun was stronger than ever and wearing me down. But my feet. My feet were unbearable. At the constant sound of the stream to my right, I gave in. It didn’t deviate from the direction of my magic, only from the worn track that kept me from the thick of the woods and all the plants and twigs that would trip me. The thought of cold water against my sore feet was too terrible a temptation to ignore. I headed off, taking my steps carefully, until I found the wide stream rushing past at a refreshing pace that made my dry mouth ache. I could almost feel its soothing nature on me. I smiled wearily and sat down, pulling off my boots hesitantly.

“Aaahh mmm…” I whimpered as the boots knocked against sores. I pouted like a little girl as I peeled my stockings off, a garbled shout of pain escaping before I could stop it, as the stocking, stuck with sweat, ripped open a blister. I glared at the boots. Perhaps taking them off hadn’t been such a good idea. They might not go back on without a fight. Slumping at my losing battle with my feet I slid them into the stream, wincing at the stings here and there. And then the cold water did what I had hoped it would, numbing my swollen appendages until I didn’t feel a thing. When they’d had enough, I kneeled over on my knees, ripping off the jacket and waistcoat and scooping water up to clean my neck and behind my ears as best I could. Feeling sweat along my hairline, I tugged the cap off and uncoiled my hair, sighing in satisfaction as my scalp drew breath.

The crack of a branch made me flinch and stiffen. I was terrified to look behind me. I heard the heavy breathing and my heart spluttered in absolute horror. A smell drifted upwind. Stale. Dirty. Human.

“What be here then?” He growled in my ear.

Chapter Twenty Four

There was no chance for me dart out of his grasp and escape him. Huge arms encircled my waist, dragging me back from the stream as if I weighed nothing more than a sack of flour. I shrieked and reached behind me, clawing at skin and pulling at hair. The stranger merely grunted until I was shunted up on to his shoulders, high, high, off the ground. He was huge. I wriggled and screamed and fought and pummelled, and was merely slapped at for my troubles, as if I were as insignificant as a flea. My heart raced so fast it hurt, bile threatened to rise in my throat, and I was shaking so hard my teeth chattered together. Frustrated tears welled in my eyes. I was so stupid. Brint had warned me about the Shadow people. Had I listened? No. I’d wandered off the path because my feet hurt!! Not only that, I’d unbound my hair.

I beat at the man’s back once more with fury. “Put me down!” I cried out, exhaustion making my voice weak.

How was I to escape these people? My feet hurt, I had no energy. I was useless. Once again kidnapped and taken. I could only hope the people showed me mercy.

The stranger’s hand slid around to my bu**ocks and he squeezed me painfully, making me shiver in revulsion. “Good,” he commented gruffly. “Very good.”

What the haven did that mean?!

The more we trekked, the more I felt my magic wailing at me to turn back. He was deviating from my path! Just as I was about to yell at him again, he slowed, walking up a few stone steps before I heard the creak of a door. I swung, looking around us. We were still in the woods! As we entered the dimness of a tiny shack, an awful realisation dawned on me. He wasn’t one of the Shadow Hill people. And we were all alone.

As he set me on my battered feet, I ignored the pain and tried to dart away from him. His huge sweaty hands wrapped around my waist and he pulled me back forcefully against him. I shuddered at the feel of his wet lips against my neck, fighting the urge to be sick. I yelled in outrage and raked my fingernails along the skin of his hands. The stranger growled and burled me around. I caught a glimpse of a rough face, drooping eyes and a toothless mouth surrounded by a beard, before his meaty hand walloped me across the face. Ringing burst into song in my ear as I crumpled to the ground, dazed, my left cheek blazing with heat and throbbing with pain. Disorientated, darkness fell over my eyes.

A few minutes later, as I came to, I felt a tugging at my feet and looked over to see the huge Mountain Man tying my ankles together with rope. Disbelief cleared my head and I pushed out my legs, trying to get away from him. With horror, I realised he’d already tied my wrists so tight with rope that the slightest movement chafed them painfully against the scratchy material. Distantly aware of his hands sliding along my leg, I searched the room, looking for anything, a weapon, some way out. I lay on a soggy pallet in the far corner. And there was nothing. Nothing else in the room but a large hunting knife, a pail and a door. There was one window. Tiny. Not nearly big enough to climb out. No. No.

My eyes widened as I felt his hand crawl up the inside of my thigh. I snarled at him and shook his hand off of me. Mountain Man did nothing but smile and crawl alongside me, the stench of his body odour making me gag.

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