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HomeFantasy StoriesTo Catch a Merchant Princess Ch. 02

To Catch a Merchant Princess Ch. 02

Having escaped captivity, Alicia welcomes the aid of a kind stranger.

Reader discretion advised. 

The story you are about to read contains mature content that some may find offensive. By choosing to read this piece, you agree that you are 18 or older and do not object to content of a sexual nature. 


Alicia awakened with the sun, as she had the day before. This time, however, she felt rested. While the dirt floor was a far cry from her feather-stuffed mattress, it was a great improvement over sleeping on sticks and pine cones.

With only a little food remaining, and not enough knowledge to live off the land, she knew that she had to move on. She could only hope that she was moving away from her kidnappers, and not walking right into their arms. After a quiet prayer to the gods to that effect, and another that she might find civilization, Alicia gathered up her meager belongings.

She barely stepped into the doorway, and then almost immediately darted back inside with a gasp. The man standing near the edge of the woods was obviously looking for something – or someone – and his manner of dress looked all too familiar to Alicia. Unwilling to risk another look, she huddled into a shadowed corner and prayed he wouldn’t notice the turf house, which blended into its surroundings to some degree. Her hand found her dagger and pulled it from its sheath, the naked steel in her hand giving her a small measure of comfort.

For long, agonizing minutes, Alicia sat in silence, her heart pounding in her ears. Eventually, her nerves got the better of her, and she risked a look outside. Her brief, darting glance revealed no sign of the man, but she couldn’t summon up the courage to take a second, longer look just yet.

The minutes dragged on, and Alicia relaxed a little. She smoothed back her blonde tresses, dislodging a few stray strands that had stuck to her sweat-dampened skin. Her heart ceased to pound, and she decided to look outside once again.

Just as she leaned toward the door, someone appeared in the open portal and blocked the bright summer sun. She couldn’t see his face, but she recognized his voice.

"Well, here you are, Pretty."

Alicia screamed.

**

All three men in the camp perked up their ears when they heard the scream, and turned in the direction from which it emerged. Two shrugged their shoulders and returned to their breakfast, but the third stood. "Did you hear that?"

"Yeah. Hope he’s gettin’ as good as he’s givin’ – lucky bastard. I haven’t got my dick wet in weeks."

"I hear that," the other man muttered between bites.

Thakkor grunted, scowling at his two companions on the road. The more time he spent with them, the less he liked them, regardless of their reputation and the work that brought to him. "That scream was terror, and you know it."

The first man shrugged. "Yeah – so what? None of our business."

"None of our business?" Thakkor asked incredulously, stepping toward the two men.

"None of our business," he replied, stressing each word in a tone that bordered on a veiled threat.

"You go running off playing the noble knight again, and you can just keep running. We’re tired of it," the second man added, gesturing with the dagger he was using to carve his meal for emphasis.

Thakkor drew his sword and growled, "To hell with the both of you."

As he turned his back on them and jogged in the direction from which the scream had emerged, the two men just looked at each other and shook their heads.

**

"Put it down, Pretty. I owe you for stealing that, and for bustin’ up my nose, and for losing me my pay. I’m the one to drag you back, and maybe the boss’ll at least give me my coin. You don’t put that down, and I’m going to make sure you regret it."

Alicia backed away, her dagger held before her in a surprisingly steady hand. She could sense the wall behind her, and turned slightly to move toward the center of the tiny interior of the crude house. She knew she was running out of room, and options.

He lunged at her to grab her wrist, but Alicia reacted instinctively. Her lessons in the Baron’s courtyard took control of her, moving the dagger in a deft slash that opened the man’s arm.

He screamed, "Ah! You fucking whore!" Clutching the bleeding cut, he growled in low, ominous tones, "Maybe I’ll just have some fun with you, then cut your throat, and cut my losses."

Alicia glanced toward the doorway for a fraction of a second, the open portal calling to her. Though she knew that she had little hope of reaching it, she prepared to try anyway. Just as her muscles tensed and she tried to plant her feet to sprint, she stumbled over a bit of broken crockery on the floor.

He was upon her in an instant, his eyes full of malevolent triumph. He grasped her wrist, but she managed to jerk one away before he could grip it firmly. He continued forward, slamming them both into the wall and causing dirt to rain down from above. Alicia’s eyes closed from the pain, and she cried out.

When she opened her eyes, she saw surprise in his. He opened his mouth and let out a coughing wheeze, a bubble of blood emerging to spatter her face. He leaned away slowly, and Alicia felt a tug on her right hand. She looked down to see a spreading dark stain on his chest, and the dagger she held dripping blood.

He fell to his knees, continuing to wheeze as his eyes glazed over. Alicia stood paralyzed as he collapsed into an unmoving heap upon the hard-packed earth, a crimson puddle spreading slowly from beneath him.

Alicia’s senses returned to her in a rush, a sobbing gasp bursting from her. She quickly walked away from the man on the floor, gathering up her bag, gourds, and blanket again. Now, more than ever, she knew she had to leave this place, as fast as her legs could carry her.

Once again, someone appeared in the doorway just as she tried to exit. As before, she screamed, but this time she lashed out with her bloodstained dagger as well.

"Shit!" Thakkor cursed as he put his shield between him and the flashing blade. He backed away, holding his sword out wide in what he hoped was an unthreatening gesture, but wisely keeping his shield between him and the wild-eyed blonde woman. "Peace!"

Alicia stared at him nervously, not knowing what to do. He lowered his shield and cautiously sheathed his sword, looking into her eyes and repeating, "Peace." He was dressed well, if a bit dirty from the road. His dark hair and beard were well trimmed, and he certainly looked nothing like any of those she’d seen in the camp of kidnappers. Her white-knuckled grip on the hilt of the dagger softened slightly as she tried to decide what to make of the man.

"Not going to hurt you," he said as he pulled his hand away from his now sheathed sword. "I heard you scream, and I thought you needed help." Looking at the bloody dagger in her hand, and remembering the strength of her attack, he contemplated the dichotomy of that compared to her beautiful, lithe form. Seeing her blue eyes soften a little, he said, "My name’s Thakkor." He waited for a few seconds, and then asked, "What’s yours?"

"A-alicia," she finally answered, letting her knife drop slowly to her side as the adrenaline drained from her body.

"Okay, Alicia, are you hurt?"

"I... No, not physically. You’re not one of them, are you?"

"I don’t know who them is, but no. I just heard you scream, and I couldn’t ignore that."

"Can you help me?" she sobbed, breaking down and letting the dagger fall into the grass at her feet.

"I’ll do my best. What happened?" He approached slowly, barely able to see the body on the floor of the turf house. He bent and picked up her dagger, wiping it on the grass to clean it somewhat.

"I was kidnaped. I have no idea where I am, or where I’m going. One of them found me." She gestured back into the low structure and then choked off a sob, her body trembling as she remembered the feeling of the man sliding off the blade of her dagger.

Thakkor finished wiping the blade clean with a cloth strapped to his sword sheath. "It’s okay. Let’s get away from here and let you clean up a little. I’ll get your things."

Alicia nodded her head and walked away from the doorway as Thakkor hefted the bag and her other impromptu supplies. "I think I saw a creek back there as I was running up here," he suggested, and led her that way across the overgrown remnants of a long abandoned garden.

Alicia knelt to wash in the cool, fast moving water, scrubbing at the blood on her hands and face, and feeling as if it wouldn’t wash away. She was glad for the presence of the man, Thakkor, and gladder still that he had the intuition to stand close enough for comfort, but not too close.

"I guess the best place to start is where you are. We’re a little south of Dalaria, in Ferrartene. Where are you from?"

"Freeland," Alicia answered, the sound of his voice soothing, and helping to distract her from the events of the last few minutes.

"The country, or the city?"

"The city," Alicia answered. "I don’t know the name Dalaria."

"It’s in the far south of Ferrartene. You’re a good ways from home, but not too far from the nearest garrison in Armand."

Alicia looked up at him, her cheeks warming a little when a small part of her mind piped up to remark about how attractive he was. She pushed the thought aside and asked, "Could you help me find my way home? I can pay a little now, and my father is very wealthy..."

"Whoa," Thakkor laughed, holding up his hand. "Now, I wouldn’t mind a little pay, as I just walked away from my meal ticket, but I wouldn’t be much of a man if I left you out here all alone. Let’s just get you home for now, and worry about all that later."

"Thank you," she said, noticing that he had a very charming smile as they looked into each other’s eyes.

He cleared his throat and looked away for a moment. "Oh, here you are," he said, handing her back her dagger. "Looks like you handle that pretty well. You don’t look the part, but I guess looks are deceiving."

Alicia apprehensively took the blade, remembering all too well what had happened the last time she’d held it.

"Just put it back in the sheath. It’s never an easy thing to kill a man, even one that’s rotten to the core. If you need to talk about it..."

Alicia shook her head emphatically, but she did as he suggested and slipped the dagger back into its sheath. She felt a little queasy from the sense of comfort that the blade brought her, knowing that it had snuffed out someone’s life only minutes before.

Deciding that the man was probably unworthy of burial, and assuming that she was in no shape to wait while he did so, Thakkor left the dead kidnapper where he was. "Let’s get walking. There’s a village not too far to the south, and it’s closer to home for you. We can get something to eat and a bed that’s not on the ground there. We can probably reach it by nightfall, and I doubt anyone is going to risk anything there with so many prying eyes about."

Alicia nodded and offered a wan smile. Thakkor hefted her bag into a more comfortable position and gestured with his head to follow. She fell into step next to him, a sense of relief flooding through her as she considered his friendly manner and the sword he carried with such ease. He reminded her of Trell, and that sat well with her, indeed.

What was once a terrifying flight from an unknown fate transformed into a pleasant stroll through the unspoiled countryside.

**

"Hardly Freeland, but it’s civilization," Thakkor declared as they crested a flower-spotted hill an hour or two before dusk.

Alicia breathed a sigh of relief. Though the sedate pace was far less taxing than her previous nervous flights, she still ached to the very bone. The sight of people going about their daily business was a welcome one.

Thakkor felt his heart leap when he saw her smile. Damn me, but she’s beautiful, he thought. "Let’s get on down there and see if we can get a room at the inn."

With a real destination in sight, the walk to the village felt even longer to Alicia than the entirety of the journey before it. Relief flooded through her as they passed between the first of the two log buildings at the end of the muddy road bisecting the community. Thakkor led her unerringly, obviously having passed this way before and knowing exactly where to go.

The tavern just inside the doors of the inn made Alicia nervous, as she’d never seen the inside of such an establishment before. She’d heard numerous stories, however, and many of them were unpleasant. When she relented and took a breath, she was relieved not to smell the unwelcome stench described to her in hushed whispers. The floor and tables all appeared clean, and nothing looked as though it had been cobbled back together several times.

Though the relatively tidy and clean nature of both the establishment and the patrons lessened her worry, she stayed close to Thakkor as he crossed the wide-planked floor to the man behind the bar.

"We need a couple of rooms."

"Got a couple freed up just this afternoon. Two silver per night, and we’ll be serving supper here in a bit." The barkeep eyed the stein he had just wiped clean as he spoke, and sat it down as he finished.

Thakkor reached for his coin purse, knowing that the cost was going to severely cut into his remaining funds.

"Please, let me. If you will hand me my bag?"

"Okay," Thakkor replied, handing her the bag.

Alicia rummaged through it and located her small coin purse. Thakkor’s eyes widened when he saw the glittering gold and silver coins within the silk pouch. While it was mere pocket change to Alicia, it could represent a full month’s wages to him. He wondered how it was that whoever had abducted her had not taken the coin the moment they had her.

Alicia placed the coins in front of the bartender and asked, "Do you have a bath house?"

A woman stepped out of a doorway behind the bar and answered, "Yes, Dear, we do. I do washing and mending as well, if you’re in need."

"Yes – thank the gods," Alicia breathed with a hint of laughter.

"Come along then, Dear. Let’s get you cleaned up and feeling better."

Alicia happily followed, and the barkeep said to Thakkor, "My wife. We don’t get many women, and she coddles them all like her own children." He glanced back over his shoulder at Alicia and said, "Pretty one, she is."

Thakkor nodded, certainly in agreement with that statement. "I could probably do with a bath too, but for now, I’ll settle for a beer."

"We’ll get along just fine," the innkeeper laughed as he reached for a stein.

**

Alicia didn’t want to get up, but the water was growing chill and her fingers were wrinkling up like prunes already. She’d soaked away not only the filth of the road, but a great deal of her fear and despair as well.

Sheltered by a large tree behind the inn, the bath house was comfortable and relaxing. The simple, though expertly crafted wooden tub dominated the structure, the stained planks of the wall almost within reach of a bather. Alicia had learned just how many buckets of water were necessary to fill a tub as she helped to do so, and developed a newfound appreciation for the servants that did so in her home.

She’d found the innkeeper’s matronly wife a welcome companion during her bath. The woman’s calm, earthy conversation was comforting, although Alicia had blushed furiously during a few mentions of Thakkor, and how handsome the young man was.

"I can’t save the one gown, I’m afraid," Bertina said as she handed the rising Alicia a hand-woven towel. "Pity too, because I can tell it was beautiful. Haven’t seen such fine cloth in a dog’s age. All the things you were wearing when you came in need is a good washing. I rummaged through a few of my daughter’s trunks and found some things that I think will fit you."

"I don’t know how to thank you," Alicia sighed as she toweled dry.

"You already have. Don’t get many women through here, and I get tired of gossiping with the same old hens all the time. Where do you call home? I’d take you for a noble by the way you talk, and the color of your coin."

"I’m from the city of Freeland," Alicia answered as she brought the towel to her head to dry her hair.

Bertina blew out a long whistle. "Oh, how I’d love to see that city some day. Long way from home you are, my dear."

"Not by choice," Alicia said in a small voice.

Bertina’s expression hardened. "If that man has..."

Alicia waved a hand to cut the woman off. "No – I’m sorry. Thakkor isn’t responsible. He was kind enough to come to my aid."

Bertina smiled and nodded her head. "Good. Damn pity if a strapping man like that had gone bad. Now, let’s get you dressed and see if we can’t make him stumble over his own tongue when he sees you." She winked and let out a laugh.

Alicia blushed at the insinuation, in no small part because the thought of him looking at her that way made her tingle all over.

**

A knock on the door awakened Alicia, long before she was ready to do so. She’d enjoyed a real, filling meal for the first time since her abduction, and likely drank more wine than was really advisable. It had helped her keep her mind off of Thakkor’s reaction to her emergence from the bath house, clean and dressed in a flattering blouse and skirt.

Bertina’s prediction was not far from the truth.

"Alicia, it’s Thakkor," she heard from the other side of the door.

"One moment. I’m not dressed," she answered.

Outside the door, Thakkor imagined that and felt a chill run up his spine.

Alicia pulled on a cotton dressing gown that Bertina had supplied in addition to several changes of clothing. She only cracked the door, though the gown was long and formless enough to more than preserve her modesty. "Yes?"

"I was talking with a merchant down in the tavern, and he’s bound for Freeland. He’s willing to take us along, and he’ll do it for the price of my sword added to the guards he already has."

"That is wonderful," Alicia sighed, finally feeling as though she might actually return home.

"He’s going to leave before long, though, so we need to be ready."

"I’ll prepare my things immediately. Thank you, Thakkor."

"I’ll be down in the tavern. I’m already packed up and ready to go."

Alicia dressed and gathered her belongings, finding that her bag had enough room for the new clothing once she removed the tattered remains of her gown. Bertina had also provided a few other essentials to tide her over until she reached home, all the little things a woman needs to feel pretty and comfortable.

She answered another knock on the door to find Bertina outside. "Bless the summer breezes, these are all dry." She handed over Alicia’s practice uniform.

Alicia tucked it under one arm and pressed a gold coin she’d fished from her purse earlier into Bertina’s hand. Seeing the woman about to argue, Alicia cut her off. "I won’t accept no for an answer."

"Fair enough," Bertina chuckled. "You take care. He’s waiting down in the tavern."

Thakkor stood as she walked down the stairs, hefting his pack and adjusting the rest of his gear. "Ready?"

"Yes. I’m ready for this all to end and return home."

"Follow me then. We’ll be on our way as soon as we stow our gear in his wagon."

Alicia thought the merchant leading the two-wagon caravan looked familiar when she saw him, and thought she saw recognition in his eyes as well. His two wagons looked much like tiny houses on wheels with a place for the driver, even having gabled roofs. She and Thakkor put their gear into the first wagon, and Alicia noticed that it resembled the moving prison in which she’d awakened after her kidnapping on the inside. The merchant’s wagon had far more shelves and cabinets, however. The apparent leader of the group then called Alicia up to the buckboard of the wagon. "Fantil, at your service," he said as he helped her up.

"Alicia," she said, feeling just a little uncomfortable under his stare.

"Alicia? Who’s your father, if you don’t mind me asking?"

"Abraham Nash, of Freeland."

Alicia saw the flash of stronger recognition in his eyes, and she thought there was something of greed there as well. Fantil slapped his knee and laughed. "I knew I recognized you. I’ve done business with your father. Thakkor explained to me what you’ve endured. Rest assured that I will return you to your family safely, and with all haste."

"Thank you," Alicia said, thinking that the reward he expected for doing so far outweighed any other consideration. She did have to admit that he’d agreed to convey her home before learning her identity, however.

"Let’s be off then. Hyah!"

The wagon lurched into motion.

**

The masked man cursed under his breath, knowing that reacquiring his prize had just become far more difficult – and dangerous. "Ride ahead, and let none see you. You will have further instructions when the time is right."

The men around him grunted their agreement, and then spurred their horses off into a perpendicular course to the road, gaining enough distance to safely parallel the wagon and pass it.

Once again, the masked man cursed. This time, his ire turned upon his employer. He could not fathom why the man demanded that the woman be unharmed – at least any more than absolutely necessary – and that he actually turn her over upon payment of the ransom. It was those restrictions that placed him in his current position.

Mounting his own horse, he took heart that the guards surrounding his prize would face two-to-one odds. Had she joined a larger caravan, he would have been hard-pressed to muster enough disposable men to do so.

He spurred his mount, riding to ensure that no further mishaps prevented his rise to prosperity.

**

Alicia smiled as she gazed upon the flag of her homeland flying over the fortification shadowing the wagons. Though the farthest outpost of Freeland within the Protectorates of Armand, it marked yet another step in her journey home. The fortress served as a waypoint for travelers, providing maintained campsites within the stone wall surrounding the utilitarian structure.

The group of merchants and guards chatted around the fire set in a ring of large stone, recalling past adventures and anticipating a profitable trip. Alicia’s heart raced as she listened to the tales of the guardsmen, revealing a life full of excitement the likes of which she could only dream. With more than a little embarrassment, she realized that she paid far more attention to Thakkor than the others.

"With any luck, none of you will have opportunity to add to your campfire tales on our journey," Fantil laughed. "Though I anticipate our fortunate acquisition of magewares will find us great profit in fair Freeland, I do believe that the cost of bonuses for drawing your weapons might very well offset the gains."

"Magewares?" Alicia piped up, thinking of her lost spell book and component pouch – the one thing she had not found within the wagon serving as her prison.

"Some common magic items, roots, herbs, spell components..."

"Do you have any spell books?"

"A pair of what I’m assured are rudimentary texts," he answered.

Alicia stood, excited at the possibility of possibly acquiring new magic. "May I see them?"

A little stunned, Fantil replied, "Of course. Derell, fetch the chest, will you?"

One of the other merchants nodded and stood, walking across the well-trodden grass to the second wagon to retrieve a chest from inside. When he returned, Fantil nodded to indicate he should let Alicia look through it as she wished.

Alicia immediately recognized the spell components of every cantrip she’d learned under the Baroness’ tutelage. Upon opening the most ornate spell book, she discovered that it was a slightly more advanced text than the one Gwendoline possessed, but still likely a child’s primer. It contained a few cantrips she had never studied, but the two spells at the back of the book were what brought a gasp to her lips – magic missile and flame arrow. A quick inspection revealed that the necessary components for those two spells were also within the chest.

"If you see something you like there, or anywhere amongst our wares, I will of course accept your letter of credit. Your father’s reputation is indisputable."

The last thing Alicia wanted was her father to receive a letter of credit for the tools of a mage. "It is but a silly girl’s interest, and one my father does not approve of," she covered, realizing she’d already revealed far too much to someone who knew her father.

She didn’t fool the wily merchant, however. "Our fathers often do not approve of our interests. That does not make them any less real. Have you studied magic?"

Realizing that her attempt to misdirect the shrewd man had failed, Alicia answered, "A little."

Fantil winked and said, "I might very well see fit to forget any purchases you make, and make arrangements for payment – for a demonstration."

"Aye – some magic."

"Show us."

The interest of the men brought a blush to Alicia’s cheeks. "You won’t say anything to my father?"

Fantil waved his hand before him in a dismissive gesture. "Not a word. Magicians are such tight, uppity sorts that they won’t show you anything. A little forgetfulness is a small price to pay to see some magic."

"I only know minor cantrips."

"More than I’ve ever seen," the merchant encouraged her.

"Very well," Alicia said with a smile. She gathered up the necessary components and spoke the words of a fire cantrip. The men around her applauded and asked for more when the little flame sprang up from her fingertip and she whirled it around. The light from the flickering magical flame caused the shadows stretching away from the fire to dance erratically.

The men putting her at the center of attention encouraged her, and she cast a second cantrip. This one summoned up a miniature whirlwind. Created as a means to quickly dust the shelves of a laboratory, it nevertheless created an impressive little tornado while spinning around the campfire sucking up the smoke.

Fantil laughed and stood up to clap. "Well worth the price of keeping quiet, and the cost of what you used to work the magic. If there’s anything you want, you have my word that I’ll not mention it to your father."

Once again, Alicia’s pocket change was more than enough to replace her lost spell book with a more advanced copy, and to gain the components she needed to cast any spell in the new book, even those she had not yet learned. Though she felt a little ashamed of the vanity inherent in the feeling, the attention buoyed her spirits such that her homesickness faded completely.

As she flipped through the book, one of the new cantrips stood out in her mind – mystic dart. The cantrip was a weaker, elementary form of the magic missile spell. If she could learn it, then she could likely master the more powerful spell. With several days of travel remaining, she would have plenty of time to study, and little else to do anyway. Alicia fell into the book, quietly mouthing the words of the cantrip and practicing the described hand gestures.

"The way you move your hands when you do that reminds me of a dancer I saw once."

Alicia looked up from her book at Thakkor. "Hmm?"

"Just the way your hands move. They sort of dance."

Alicia blushed, feeling a little giddy from the description. "I’m simply performing the gestures as the spell requires."

Thakkor chuckled. "Don’t know about that. I think you do it with a bit more grace than you give yourself credit for."

"Thank you," Alicia responded with a shy smile.

Thakkor smiled back. After a few seconds, he blinked, and then cleared his throat. "Well, I’m going to bed down. I have the last watch, even though there’s not much need of it when we’re camped in the shadow of a garrison. Only an idiot would attack us here. Good luck with your magic, and good night."

"Good night," Alicia responded, and she found that her eyes followed him as he walked away. She couldn’t help but admire the play of his muscles beneath his clothing, which she found almost hypnotic. He also had none of the swagger that the other guardsmen exhibited, or the pompous air that she was so familiar with from her suitors. Graceful and powerful were the words that sprang into her mind.

A warm feeling rose up through her, and she looked away from him when the sensation centered mostly between her legs. She quickly looked back at her book, but found that she couldn’t focus on the words. After a few more futile minutes, she closed her book and decided to find her rest within the wagon as well.

She couldn’t help but take a final glance at Thakkor where he slept, however.

**

Fantil started when Alicia let out a sharp, high-pitched gasp shortly before he planned to stop for the evening. "Are you unwell?"

"I... Oh, I’m sorry," Alicia responded, a little shock on her face. Her expression then changed to one of joyful accomplishment. "I just mastered a new cantrip. It gives me this sharp chill when I have it right."

Fantil nodded and said, "Ah. Well, perhaps you will show us this new magic soon."

Alicia felt a profound sense of exhaustion sweep over her, also a symptom she frequently experienced upon learning a new cantrip. "Perhaps after I’ve rested."

"You’ll have that opportunity soon. I know of a fine place to make camp for the evening, and we will reach it in a short time. I’m afraid you won’t have the luxury of using garrison jakes this time, though."

"I will endure, and I thank you for thinking of my comfort when we stopped yesterday."

"It is my honor to provide you with a pleasant journey home," he said with a nod of his head.

The location Fantil had chosen was indeed well suited to their needs, providing all the wood and water they could ask for, with several existing fire pits. The banter around the campfire proved quieter, as all knew that there was no fortress full of soldiers looming next to them this night. Alicia lay down shortly after the evening meal, feeling exhausted from the journey and learning a new spell.

When she awakened to a full bladder some time later, she knew the hour was near dawn upon rising to see Thakkor on guard. He nodded to her, and her cheeks warmed as she moved away from the encampment to the concealment of the bushes. As she returned from answering nature’s call in the gloomy darkness, she approached the fire near where Thakkor stood. She felt the need to chase away the imaginary creatures of the dark that her mind had conjured up while away from the circle of light in the encampment.

Thakkor nodded and smiled as she approached, but suddenly turned his head away and slapped his hand to his sheathed sword.

"What..." Alicia began.

Thakkor snapped up a hand to cut her off. "Go back to the wagon and stay down. Something’s out there," he whispered as he drew his sword.

Alicia hurried back to the safety of the wagon, instinctively reaching for the dagger she’d worn in her flight from the kidnappers. She’d not put on the belt and sheath after stopping at the inn, however. Her steps quickened from the feeling of vulnerability that revelation awakened within her.

Just as she stepped up into the wagon, Thakkor shouted at the top of his lungs, "Ware!" Alicia turned to look and saw him planting his feet. The firelight reflected off the swords and buckles of several men rushing into the clearing from the ebon shrouded forest beyond.

Chaos erupted as men cast off their bedrolls and snatched up weapons. A heavy-eyed Fantil leaned into the wagon to fumble for something inside, emerging with a crossbow. Alicia scrambled to her bag for her dagger in the darkness.

Shouts and the sound of steel ringing on steel broke the silence of the night. Alicia hurriedly tore through her bag, finally locating her dagger. She snatched it free of its sheath, and then grabbed her pouch of spell components as well. Despite Thakkor’s warning, she crouched low and looked out of the wagon toward the battle now raging outside.

A loud twang startled her as Fantil’s crossbow rang out. A man let out a horrible scream as his chest sprouted a feathered shaft. The merchant cursed as he worked the windlass to reset his weapon. Already, two of the other attackers lay sprawled on the grass near Thakkor, and a third fell to another of the guardsmen. Despite losing four of their fellows, the marauders still held the advantage of numbers over the caravan’s defenders.

One of the guardsmen near Thakkor cried out and fell back, trying to keep his weapon ready while clutching a wound in his shoulder. Somehow sensing the approach, Thakkor brought his shield in line to defend against the attacker that had stabbed his fellow.

Seeing Thakkor hard-pressed by two of the ill-kempt brigands turned Alicia’s heart to ice. She tore open her spell pouch with worried determination, pulling out the flint-tipped maple twigs that were necessary to cast her newest spell. The words burned bright and clear in her mind, screaming for release. Alicia chanted the words perfectly, if in haste, her hands flying through the necessary gestures. As soon as she intoned the final word of the spell, she hurled the miniature dart toward one of the men facing Thakkor.

A streaking bolt of light hurtled from her hand, striking the attacker square in the back. He screamed and flinched, but did not fall. Created to deal with rodents, not men, the cantrip simply didn’t possess the magical power to do more than cause pain.

It did cause him to drop his guard for the fraction of a second Thakkor needed. The quick young warrior blocked an overhand slash from his other opponent, and then cleanly stabbed the man Alicia’s dart had distracted. With a gurgling scream, the man fell away, allowing Thakkor to go on the offensive against his other opponent.

The guardsman who had taken a wound ignored it to return to the fight, preventing another attacker from joining his fellow against Thakkor. Heartened that her magic had aided him, Alicia reached for another of the twigs to cast her spell again. Just as she retrieved it, a slash of Thakkor’s weapon felled his opponent.

The tide of the battle quickly turned as the odds evened. Seeing another guardsman giving ground, Alicia cast her next dart at the man driving him back. As before, the startled reaction to the pain of her magic provided an opening for the defenders of the camp. Yet another of the scruffy attackers fell.

Fantil’s crossbow rang out again. Though the bolt missed, it was enough to send the man running back into the trees. Others quickly followed, though Thakkor cut down one before he could break free of their clash to escape. The guardsmen quickly gathered close to the wagon, their weapons at the ready and panting for breath.

Slowly, the men relaxed as no new threats emerged. One man darted to the fire to toss on more wood, increasing the illumination of the clearing. All of the warriors nursed at least one minor wound, but the guardsman who had fought at Thakkor’s side leaned against the wagon, his sword falling to the ground.

Fantil tossed aside his crossbow and said, "Alicia, there is a wooden case just to your right. Please, bring it to me quickly."

She nodded and set her pouch of spell components down, easily locating the box and handing it to Fantil. He opened it, retrieved a bottle from inside, and scurried to the opposite side of the wagon where Thakkor supported his groggy fellow guardsman.

Alicia watched with nervous worry as Fantil helped the man to drink, and then sighed in relief as color returned to the guardsman’s face. He stood up straight, and nodded to Thakkor, who stepped aside to let him stand unaided. Thakkor bent to retrieve his fellow’s sword, and the man grunted his thanks as his fingers closed over the weapon again.

For another hour, everyone remained on edge, expecting another attack to happen at any moment. Finally, the sun rose over the horizon, and swords returned to sheaths.

"I am of two hearts concerning these men," Fantil said, gesturing toward the fallen brigands that Alicia was taking pains to avoid looking at. "None deserve to lie unburied, but I fear to remain where we have already faced attack."

Unconsciously, Alicia glanced toward the bodies, and let out a startled gasp.

"What is it?" Thakkor asked.

"I... I recognize that man. He was one of those who brought me my food when I was captured."

"I am of only one mind, now. The danger to us, and the black hearts of these men convince me to leave them as they are. We leave immediately, and will break our fast with simple fare as we go."

The guardsmen and merchants acknowledged Fantil’s proclamation, turning to the task of breaking camp and preparing the wagons for travel. The work proceeded quickly, and they were soon on their way.

Once moving, Fantil signaled for Thakkor to jog up next to him. He then said, "You will receive pay equal to that of the others who fought in our defense this night." He then turned to Alicia. "I consider the cost of your passage paid in the welcome aid of your magic."

"I owe you one, too," Thakkor acknowledged with a smile. "I was having a bit of trouble until you zapped that fellow trying to carve a hole in me."

Alicia’s face flooded with color as she remembered what had prompted her to act, in light of his smile. The thought of the handsome warrior falling was simply too much for her to bear. "I did what I thought I must," she responded, smiling back at him.

"Well, you have my thanks," Thakkor said, bringing his hand to his brow in a salute of gratitude.

"You’re welcome." Alicia’s eyes locked with his. In that moment, she felt something she’d only read about previously. Her heart fluttered as feelings she was beginning to think she’d never experience welled up within her.

"And you have my thanks, as well," Fantil said, breaking Alicia out of her almost reverent study of Thakkor’s face. Her blush deepened as she realized that she’d been staring. "Little did I know that my passenger would become a warrior." The merchant let out a loud laugh.

Alicia found it quite difficult indeed to take her gaze away from Thakkor for long as their journey continued.

**

The masked man kicked the corpse at his feet and snarled in frustration. He’d lost too many men in this abysmal failure, and only a fool would provide him such an opportunity again. The merchant and his prize traveled into ever more densely populated regions by the moment, making the probability of successfully recapturing the woman now a remote possibility, at best.

"Strip these of anything useful," he snapped to his remaining thugs.

"You ain’t suggestin’ we leave ‘em for the wolves an’ vultures, are ya?"

 I am suggesting exactly that, you unwashed peasant, he thought. "Very well – bury them if you must. Know that I ride in one hour, and any man not at my side can consider his services no longer necessary."

The scruffy brigands rushed to rob the dead and bury them, unwilling to risk losing the pardon that kept them from the hangman’s noose.

**

Fantil and the other merchants carefully scrutinized their maps after the noon meal, plotting a course that would keep the caravan well within populated areas through the rest of the journey, and stop at towns or soldiers barracks each night. The roundabout course would add better than two days to their journey, but knowing that the men who had attacked them specifically sought Alicia warranted more than a little extra caution.

A large part of that extra time resulted in a long distance between their next stopping point and the one beyond. Fantil chose to abandon the road for the day, remain within the safety and comfort of the town until first light, and then undertake the extended leg all at once, rather than a short hop and a longer one. The day of rest, recovery, and cleaner conditions would aid in the healing of the guardsmen’s injuries, as well.

The decision sat well with Alicia, who almost immediately sought after a bath house, and discovered that the inn had a well-appointed, although expensive one. Fantil paled at the cost, however, and jokingly asked if there were any ponds nearby.

Once again, though expensive by most standards, Alicia still carried enough coin to pay for everyone in the tavern to have a bath. Seeing the scowl on the innkeeper’s face from Fantil’s jest, she smoothed things over by offering, "I will cover the cost of any in our party who wish to bathe, if I may."

"Is that a subtle hint?" Fantil laughed.

Alicia blushed and let out a little giggle. Though not her real reason for the offer, she nevertheless said, "We are all a little fragrant."

"If you’re sure..." He waited a moment, and when she nodded, he added, "I will let everyone know, and I imagine they’ll all accept the kindness to our noses."

Seeing the amount of coin in her purse when she opened it to pay for her bath, the innkeeper agreed to wait for payment until all in her party decided whether they wanted a bath or not. He also quietly suggested that she be more careful about displaying such wealth, and that she might keep her purse in a strongbox he kept in the back room.

Alicia agreed to put her purse in the strongbox for at least the duration of her bath, and thanked the man for his suggestions. She then hurried to the bath house behind the inn, and gratefully sank into a tub that allowed her to stretch out to her full length.

She felt a little self-conscious about the man standing just outside the thick curtain that served as a door to the enclosure around her tub – one of four in the bath house – but could see from his silhouette that he faced away from the curtain with almost military discipline. She soon took an extra measure of comfort from him guarding her against prying eyes.

After washing, she shaved her legs and nether lips with a razor provided by the bath house. She felt far more comfortable with the unattractive and irritating stubble gone. A woman stopped to ask if Alicia needed more hot water just as she finished shaving. With the cooling water returned to a luxurious temperature again a few buckets later, Alicia lay back to soak, and simply relax.

Her eyes popped open when she heard men’s voices and laughter entering the bath house. She immediately recognized one of them as Thakkor, and noticed that he took the tub right next to hers. She covered her mouth and blushed when she saw his shirt fall to the floor through a gap at the base of the enclosures, quickly followed by his boots and trousers.

Alicia couldn’t tear her thoughts away from the thought of him naked, only a few inches away. Her imagination took over, connecting an image of his well-muscled body to the feet she could see through the gap, and she looked away in embarrassment. Though she closed her eyes and tried to relax again, the image only grew stronger.

Water sloshed as Alicia jerked her hand away from her freshly shaven nether lips. Her face felt as though it was on fire, because the mystery man that had always wooed her in her dreams now had a face, and that face was Thakkor’s.

She glanced first at the silhouette of the man outside, and then toward the gap near the floor, praying that she saw no evidence of anyone having even a hint of her touching herself. She realized that the water had grown chill as she fantasized, though she’d not noticed it. Her head awhirl with a mixture of shame and arousal, Alicia quickly toweled dry and put on her clean clothes.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she escaped the bath house without encountering Thakkor, and yet she was a little disappointed that she had not.

**

As the caravan prepared to move out the next morning, the sound of horses cantering toward them from the far edge of town caused all heads to turn toward the noise. Horses moving at that speed would have been unusual in such a sleepy town at any hour, but were almost ominous at the crack of dawn. Alicia saw hands grasping swords, and Fantil moving his crossbow into easy reach. She followed their example, opening her bag to reveal her dagger and spell pouch sitting on the top.

The men came into view around a corner, and everyone around Alicia relaxed. The riders were obviously soldiers, wearing near pristine armor and riding fine steeds. As they drew closer, one of the guardsmen said, "Freeland light cavalry."

The horsemen slowed as they approached the inn, one of their number pointing toward the two wagons and those surrounding them. The group deviated in their course to ride up next to Fantil’s wagon.

"Looks like them," one of the soldiers remarked as the horsemen reined in.

The man to whom the first had spoken nodded, both his bearing and the markings on his tabard proclaiming him as a leader. "We seek the merchant, Fantil, and a woman, Alicia Nash."

"I am Fantil," the merchant acknowledged with a bow of his head.

Alicia leaned out through the low exit to the buckboard and said, "I am Alicia Nash."

"You have friends in high places, Milady. We are to provide you escort, to ensure the speed and safety of your return to fair Freeland." His voice carried just enough disdain to reveal that he felt this mission beneath his station.

"How did you discern where to find me?" Alicia asked, feeling a little irritated by the man’s tone.

"The garrison at the border sent word of your plight by magical means to the homeland. It was a simple matter to determine the course such wagons as those in which you travel would take."

Her carefully studied manners came to the forefront, and Alicia curtsied to the soldier. "I thank you for your aid, Sir."

"I am simply following orders," he responded with little feeling. "If you are prepared, we shall leave at once. Time already slips away, and we will have to slow our pace for the wagons."

"We were about to leave when you arrived," Fantil offered.

"Excellent. Let us be on our way, then," the soldier declared, and then rode off to the side. His men likewise cleared the path to the road.

Fantil shrugged to his fellow merchants in the other wagon, and snapped his reins. The wagons set off, bouncing on the less than perfect road, mounted soldiers falling into neat ranks around them. The guardsmen of the caravan, suddenly finding their presence unnecessary, jogged up to the tailgates of the wagons to ride.

Alicia glanced back, and then sighed when she realized that Thakkor had chosen the other wagon. She climbed up on the buckboard next to Fantil, knowing that she would soon be home, safe and sound.

For some reason, that prospect didn’t bring her the joy that she knew it should.

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