Chapter 2

"Wake up, girl!," a deep voice accompanied by a swift kick to the ribs said, ripping me out of my dreamless sleep.

I jerked my head up, wondering if I had overslept for Hazel's monthly trek to the village. And then, it all came flooding back, and the sense of despair I had felt earlier returned. My captors were nearly done with packing up the camp, loading their belongings on the geldings with an efficient speed. The horses snorted impatiently at the extra load, but made no protest to dislodge the weight. Olivar retied my ropes to the saddle of the horse and I determinedly jutted my chin out, mentally preparing myself for anything that might come my way. You will escape, I silently repeated. You will escape.

The leader briefly glanced at me as he swung the last of his saddle bags on his horse. Rummaging in one of the sagging sacks, he extracted a rawhide flask and held it to my chapped lips.

" Take a drink. You won't get another," he informed me magnanimously before tipping it downward.

Warm water trickled into my mouth, relieving my parched throat. Lachlan's scornful face briefly surfaced in my mind; he would have spat the water back into the man's face before swallowing it down. Humiliating as it was, I gave up my pride and greedily drank as much as I could before it snatched it away.

The day passed by quickly. Nagging questions surfaced in my mind as my thoughts wandered back to the village: Was everyone safe? What would happen if others accidentally stumbled across the village? Armed men in greater numbers. It was only a small consolation to know that the men had decided on delaying the hunt for the village until later.

The closer we got to the settled lands, the harder it would be to return to the northern forests. And this place, Edan...I shivered at the thought of the destination the men referred to so often. I harbored no illusions that my situation would improve if I was taken there. The stories the elders had told of what happened to Faelen sold in slavery still echoed loudly in my mind. Some were lucky and became household or field slaves, or were enlisted into the Khorsandian army. But most went to the mines, where they worked in almost total darkness until their death.

But more than anything, I thought about the people I had left behind. This was always the time of year Eona and I childishly abandoned our chores to go pick strawberries together. Was it possible that I would never hear a hard earned compliment slip from Hazel's grudging lips or wander aimlessly with Knife? Who would assist Rhea and her baby in the naming ceremony? Lost in worried thought, I scarcely noticed the long distance we covered in the day.

Three days later, Rainer shot down a deer. The men whooped triumphantly and gave thanks for their good fortune. But it hadn't been a clean shot, and my stomach churned at the creature's wet, terrified eyes. Her body sagged as Rainer leaned down and jerked his dagger across her throat, leaving a ragged red line. I turned my head away as they skinned it, but the nauseating smell of fresh blood rose high into the air. Even after we left the useless remains of the carcass behind and had moved on, the scent stayed with us.

I eavesdropped on the men's conversations in hope that they would reveal something that could lead to my escape. While they never revealed anything worthwhile to my benefit, I learned tidbits about their lives by listening. The leader, who all the other men addressed as 'sir', possessed the easiest life of the four. He was employed by one of the merchants who supplied the Khorsandian royal family with cloth and was clearly proud of the connection. Rainer, one of the middle aged men, was a failed farmer who had taken up company with the leader transporting merchant goods in order to make a living. He was more bitter with his lot in life than any of the others, and I was careful to be weary around him. Jarland, the young, handsome man was a third son whose merchant father planned to make him a caravan leader in a year or two. Olivar, the captor who took most of responsibility of watching me, was a quiet farmer who had lost his lands. Though I held a bitter enmity against all four of the men, I felt almost sympathetic for the family he lovingly described to the others. It was strange to look at a Khorsandian as something besides a cruel, heartless monster. It went against the stories to think of a man like Olivar having a loving family. I had always secretly felt that my mother's beauty and kindness had made her a rarity among her kind. And I'm right, I thought angrily. None of these men felt the slightest guilt for abducting me from my home.

Olivar's land had been taken away from him in his failure to pay the rising taxes that all four men complained about often.

" The prince spends all day in his books and feasts all night! What does he care of how hard the taxes cost us, as long as he and his queen mother have their extravagant feasts every evening!," Rainer grumbled, straining his eyes as he searched ahead for a road.

I followed his gaze, wondering what these 'roads' that the men had been searching for looked like. I had learned that they had foraged their own path through the mountains to save time. They hadn't come across an existing road in the deep woods for many days and the worry that they would never find a clear road again was beginning to show in their faces.

" Aye, and not to mention the famine coming over the land! Ever since the king died two years ago, Khorsandia's been threatened. The queen is nothing more then a joke. I'm surprised they let her even take the role as regent. If the duke didn't advise her well, the throne would of plunged to an uprising a long time ago. The prince wastes the treasury on extravagance and pays for it by raising the taxes higher and higher. Khorsandia needs a man like the duke. A man whose not afraid to go to war with the Faelen to expand the borders!," Jarland confidently told the others, his eyes darkening at the mention of the prince.

My brow furrowed at his words. War with the Faelen? That was impossible. Everyone knew that we abstained from violence. But our village was so far north and so secluded that it had been over eighty years since we had received contact from the outside world. The tribes had banded once banded together centuries ago to revolt. Could we really be on the verge of war?

I shivered at the thought and returned my gaze to Jarland. As the youngest, his opinions tended to be the most radical. Olivar shook his head in agreement with his words, but chose to remain silent.

" The duke will turn him into a decent king. They say he's decent with a sword and knows a thing or two about politics. The boy went with him at one of the citadels right now, outlining plans and learning the arts of war. The duke will guide him to be a warrior, you'll see," the leader responded calmly, grinning at his own words.

Jarland snorted contemptuously at the statement. " That's a good jest! Ever since the king died, brigands have known no boundaries. They all know as well as you and me that the queen doesn't have a steady hand on the throne, and they take advantage of it. Aye, once we're on the main road, we'll have to be on our guard."

" They leave the big parties alone, and that's how I'll be traveling after this journey is over. No robber band will attack any group that's too large, unless it's some insane stunt by the Sun Thief. But it's a common occurrence among smaller parties, like ours," the leader added.

The men rode in silence for a moment, each one of them considering this thought uneasily. I was indifferent to it; thieves could be no worse than the men I was with now. Surprisingly, Olivar spoke up.

" They say the Sun Thief is making his way toward Edan for the Festival of the Light. The stories say that he gives the money he steals from the merchant caravans and the nobility to the poor. That's why he's managed to keep his neck out of the noose for so long! The peasants want to keep being handed money," he mused in a voice that was more awed then scornful.

The Sun Thief. The name caught my imagination, and I briefly wondered about the man who claimed he could steal the sun. No doubt he was just as despicable as my current companions if they admired him.

" Well, it's certainly something the nobles would love to see. Bad enough that no one knows who he is or his age or anything about him! Nothing but that his hair shines like the sun and that there's nothing he can't do. I've heard that there are five other men with him, and they ride on six black stallions, said to be the fastest in the land. They say he can't be killed and that he was sent from the gods to restore good to the land," Rainer added in a marveling tone.

The leader laughed derisively at the suggestion. " It's probably all lies the man himself has spread to enhance his reputation. He might toss a few coins to the unlucky, but I'm sure he doesn't hesitate to slit the throat of the hard earned coined of a peasant anymore then he does of a baron."

" Khorsandia is lucky to have the duke so close on his tail," Jarland added, eager to share his gossip. " He's supposedly closing in on the trail. I'm willing to bet we won't see another year before we see his body swinging in the wind in King's Square. The duke's an honorable man, and I'm not sure about you men, but I sleep easier knowing he's cleaning the thieves and beggars out of this country when our own prince won't."

Even the leader murmured an agreement to that statement. I reflected on the conversation and wondered what sort of world I was entering, and what would happen to me if I didn't escape before I reached Edan.

All sense of time gradually left me as we traveled. I ate nothing but the coarse loaf of bread the men tossed at me after they had eaten. Eventually I became used to never being full, and learned to ignore their taunting offers of all the meat I could eat. Occasionally as we traveled, I would grab at berries I spotted or scoop up water from a stream we tramped through. I'd store the food I found in my hands and nibbled on it for strength when I felt my legs buckling. Somehow, I managed to keep up my strength and survive, but I was young and used to long bouts of time without food. But how could Khorsandians expect children or the elderly to survive such a heinous trek?

Though I had grown up tramping in the forest, my bare feet began to suffer the changes in the terrain. Pus oozed out from blisters with almost every step and gradually the pain increased to a point where I gasped at the impact of the ground. My healing skills were the only thing that gave me relief and that kept me going. Each night I would make an attempt to repair the day's damage with the water from the small bowl I received nightly. The water wiped away the dried blood and helped keep the scratches from festering, but was useless for my battered soles.

Olivar had a kind side that he often kept hidden from the other men. Some nights, after watching painful tears that blinked in my eyes when I tried to use my magic to mitigate some of the pain, he would toss a few ragged strips of cloth my way. The first night I had stiffened and defiantly ignored his gesture. But as the days wore on and the sharp pangs grew to the point of agonizing, I eventually realized that I had no choice. The humiliation stung, and part of me wished that I had the stamina to pridefully walk until I was crippled. But I had learned enough of about these men to know that a crippled Faelan wouldn't be any use to them, and they wouldn't hesitate to abandon me. If I couldn't walk, I wouldn't be able to forage for food or find my way back to the village. My only hope was to stay strong and wait for the Khorsandians to let their guard down.

Eventually, I learned to fall asleep quickly. I soon learned that under my living conditions, it was necessary to draw as much strength from sleep as I could in order to survive. I had given up on waiting for whoever was on watch to fall asleep. Staying up night after night trying to find a moment to escape only resulted in making the following day unbearable.

Am I a coward?, I wondered desperately sometimes late at night. Hazel and the others would have tried to escape immediately, regardless of the costs. The one time I had tried to untie my ropes had been in front of Olivar, who had stopped me in my attempts barely before I started. "If you try that again, Ilan will cut off three of your fingers. Know that," he had told me simply, then mimed slicing off the digits on his left hand. His simple, straightforward attitude about it made me believe him. The only times I truly relaxed were before I fell asleep clutching onto my mother's necklace. It was the only physical thing that I had to remind me of what I had left behind.

At last, after what I judged a month of hard traveling, we found the King's Road, the path to Edan the men had been trying to get back on. The men whooped with joy when Rainer spotted it, and to my delight, the leader decided to stop the traveling early for celebration. It was the first positive emotion I had felt in days. With each passing day I was hounded by the knowledge that more and more distance was coming between the village and myself. Up until this point, I had never ventured more than half a day's walk from Hazel's cottage and the village. Would I even be able to navigate my way back home? The horrifying thought had forced me to pay attention to our surroundings. But we moved too quickly and sporadically for me to maintain an idea of where I was.

The King's Road gradually became more populated the further south we traveled. The leader developed a habit of glancing back periodically to look at me, as if he were making sure I hadn't managed to escape before he had the chance to sell me. Merchant caravans went past us, armed by a small legion of strong, able-bodied warriors armed with several weapons. Other times, travelers like the men would past by, or farmers transporting their goods to the market. Once, an ornate carriage with ten guardsmen and a team of four horses rode by. The men stopped their horses a moment to tip their hats to offer respect to the noble within.

Many of them had a Faelen man or woman with them. I looked closely at the first one I saw, who accompanied an elderly man who looked nearly incapable of traveling. The Faelen he was with was several decades younger, but rode next to him on a smaller horse. Though the man said a few words to him with a kind smile on his face, and the Faelen man responded without hate or anger, I saw the sadness in his eyes. But I wondered what bound him to the old man, who looked too weak to engage in a pursuit after him.

The next two slaves I saw resembled the rumors that I had heard. One was a young girl being mercilessly beaten on the side of the road. The third one hung at the gates of a small village, his corpse swinging gently in the wind. He had not been there for long, but the crows had pecked the dead man's eyes out.

The leader laughed shortly as he twisted in his saddle to watch my horrified expression. " It's good for the people when they hang a runaway. It keeps the other ones in line. Just look at the face on ours," he commented casually to the men.

I turned my face away and kept walking, trying to ignore the stench as we passed. I will be strong, I repeated silently.

The climate had subtly changed over time. The high, northern forests were cold and arid, with shaded shelter of the dense trees from my home dimming out the sun. But now, further down south and out of the deep forest, it had transfigured into a different climate completely. The forests began to dwindle, exchanged for grassy plains and farmer's fields. The villages grew and became more frequent, but the men still showed no inclination to enter one of the towns. We camped off road each night, and I sometimes fell asleep before the men had finished talking about Edan. The city was all they ever talked about anymore, and every mention of it churned my stomach. We were getting close.

But one day, we stopped in a village. It was the biggest I had seen yet, with sturdy stone walls and a line of people seeking entrance. I had paled at the first sight of it, thinking that it was Edan. I knew I needed to find a chance to escape soon. The men were used to me and knew what to expect from me, and I had learned all that I could of their behavior. And at least with them, I knew that I would mostly be ignored and fed, albeit a little.

" How long do we plan to spend in Osen, sir?," Rainer asked as we approached the small line in front of the gates.

The leader shrugged. " Long enough to buy some extra food. I wish we could make it to Edan without stopping, but we still have a good week ahead of us, and once we pass Osen the prices will rise. Too bad the game is so rare in these parts. Otherwise I'd suggest that we catch our food until we reached the capital."

The other men nodded in agreement, and I exhaled an inaudible sigh of relief. My extra food had disappeared along with the forest, and fierce pangs of hunger had begun to frequently jab at my stomach. I was unsure of what I would have done if there was nothing to eat but meat. I might put aside my pride for an extra gulp of water and some bandages, but eating the dead flesh would have betrayed my people.

We moved forward with the line until it was our turn at the gate. The four guards wearily looked us over as their captain asked in a dry monotone for the surname of the four men and the reason for their business in Osen. The leader repeated what he had told Rainer, and I learned at last that his name was Ilan. A scribe dutifully scribbled them down, and my breath involuntarily caught at the sight of the parchment. Because she had nothing but the paper in her three precious books, Hazel had taught me how to write by scratching the letters into the dirt with a twig. I wondered how it would feel to write on the faded yellow paper, to make a permanent mark that wouldn't be washed away with the rain.

" Do you intend to sell her? You'll have to pay taxes to the Osen Merchant's guild if you do, but you'll fetch a fine price," the captain remarked, his eyes briefly resting on me as we moved forward.

The men glanced back with surprise, as if they had forgotten I was with them. Ilan, the leader of our small company, grinned at the man's words and acknowledged the captain's words with a nod. I involuntarily flinched and turned away to hide my anger. I had come to despise the man's smile more than the others.

" We plan on selling her in the Edan slave circuit. The festival of lights will bring in big spenders, and we'll be able to relax and enjoy the festivities at the same time," he replied conversationally, but the captain had already turned to the next traveler.

The men rode on through the archway onto the cobblestone street without any change of expression, but my mouth dropped open. Never in my life had I seen so many people at once. Mounted riders eased their horses into a gentle walk through the streets, children raced through the streets playing games, and countless amounts of men and women milled around, bickering over prices and talking loudly. The cacophony of the people dimmed everything around me, and I stopped to take everything in.

" Come on, girl!," Olivar snapped, yanking my ropes as his horse rode onward. I stumbled but regained my balance and quickly caught back up.

I took in all the sights and smells as we went onward, deeper into the heart of the town. Houses and crowded shops lined the sides of the cobblestoned streets and hot bodies bumped into me without apology. The thick smell of too many people in a small place was repugnant to the point where I felt nauseous, but no one else seemed to notice the odor. Merchant stands began to appear the deeper we went, until they were side by side continuously.

I was mesmerized by the sight of so many things I had never even dreamed of existing. Vibrant, intoxicating cloths shone from stands in shades that I had never seen, and rich, musky scents rose up from the spice stands. My stomach keened in hunger at the sight of the fresh vegetables and fruits, and I determinedly focused my eyes on my feet to negate some of the hunger.

Different stands attracted different crowds. I watched the children gravitate toward a man who made toys and several women dressed in fine clothes pick over a jewelry stand. Merchants called out to the men as we passed, insisting that there was no fruit, sword, or anything else being sold that was better then what they could offer.

At last, we came to a square that was devoid of anything but the milling people around it and a wide scaffold. I realized that we had reached the center, and wondered why Ilan had waited to buy food. Or even how food was bought—in the village, we had always shared what we found.

Ilan nodded to Rainer. " Keep an eye on this one. Maybe go take a look at the horses and see if they have any decent prices. Jarland, I need you to help me to barter for some bread and fruit, if we can get any at a decent price. Olivar, see if you can't find us some news of what's been going on in this part of the country since we've left. Meet back here when you're done, and we'll be on our way."

The men nodded and went their separate ways, Olivar back in the direction that we had come from, and Ilan and Jarland onward through the square. Rainer scowled, apparently not pleased that he had ended up having to watch me when he could be milling with the other folk in the town. But I unfortunately knew from experience that this would not make him any less watchful. He checked the secureness of my rope on the saddle before dismounting and led us toward the horse markets.

My muscles involuntarily tensed as we approached the corrals. Like the rest of the Faelen, I had been brought up with an instinctive fear of horses. They were automatically associated with the Khorsandian warriors and no child grew up without hearing tales of Faelen trampled to death under their hooves. Though my initial fear had abated as we had traveled onward, their wild eyes and skittishness still unsettled me. As Rainer began talking to one of the merchants, I prayed that he wouldn't try to trade the brown mare he rode now for something faster. I had no fond feelings for the horse, but I had at least grown used to it's mannerisms. Wearily, I closed my eyes and waited for the conversation to cease.

My eyes flew open at a shrill, high pitched whinny. No one else paid any attention, but my malaise and the close proximity of it made me snap my head around to discover the source.

Several paces from me was a stallion that was the most spectacular, beautiful creature that I had ever laid eyes on. His intoxicating, midnight black coat starkly contrasted the vibrant colors of the market place, and I wondered how I had managed to miss him before. I His powerful muscles ripple as he struggled to free itself from it's ropes that the hostlers used to keep it from galloping away. The wild, darting eyes of the men told me that they were terrified of the giant.

I briefly wondered who could ride a horse like him. Didn't they realize that a creature like that wasn't made to be ridden? A wave of bitter anger swelled through me as I realized that the horse and I were both trapped in enslavement. Neither of us were meant to be held down by ropes.

Rainer's brown mare uneasily shifted her hindquarters as the stallion continued his struggle to free himself. Rainer, as everyone else, was oblivious to it. He talked onward with the horse merchant, making a joke punctuated with a short chuckle. I realized that my rope was long enough to reach the stallion.

The harsh sound of a whip stung my ears. The horse screeched another angry whinny, but the whip slapped down again and again. At last the horse began to cease struggling, but the whip kept coming down, until I couldn't bear it any longer. Abandoning all rational thought, I reached the stallion in four long steps and stepped in between him and the hostler with the whip.

" Stop it! Stop it, you're hurting him!," I shouted in Faelish, keeping my head enough to know that speaking Khorsandian would give away the one advantage I had.

The greasy, fair haired hostler with the whip momentarily stopped, his face twisting into anger.

" Someone control their slave before I sell the creature on the market myself!," he spat angrily, waving me aside.

Rainer was lost in conversation with the merchant. I prayed that he wouldn't notice for several more moments.

" Daveth, don't be so quick to criticize. First time all day we've had this thing controlled with anything less than four men and a few ropes. The owner of this devil got the better end of the bargain when he paid us to watch it. We better see a few extra coppers for this one," one of the younger hostlers remarked as he cautiously loosened his rope, looking relieved.

" She's a Faelan creature. They never like horses. It must be up to something," another one grumbled, shooting a suspicious, uneasy glance in my direction.

It was unclear if he was referring to the horse or me. Biting my lip, I looked at the tight rope cutting a bleeding red line into his neck, and was suddenly aware of how close I was to the horse. Nervous terror began to creep back into my body—I was close enough for one sure kick to crush my skull. The dark horse gently snorted in my face and I felt his hot breath dusted wisps of hair off my sweaty face. Remaining still, I slowly rose my head and met his black eyes. A wave of sorrow replaced my fear as we watched each other.

You're just like me, aren't you, I thought as I tentatively reached out to stroke his thick black mane. Bound by ropes in a place you don't want to be, forced to serve those who don't understand you.

Thick hands abruptly grabbed my shoulders and jerked me away from the black horse.

" My apologies. I can't take my eye off her for one moment," Rainer apologized to Daveth the hostler, simultaneously glaring at me.

The rough, sudden movement Rainer had made upset the stallion. Whinnying, he made a sudden lunge toward Rainer, ignore the thin rope that dug into his skin. The hostler swore and lashed another stripe onto the horse's back as he ducked out of the way. I cringed as he raised the whip high, ready to bring it back down for a second lashing. But it never came.

" What have you done to my horse?," a cold, deep voice demanded bluntly from behind the hostler.

I turned my head in unison with everyone else who was close enough to hear. A tall man with his face well hidden by the hood of a finely tailored cloak strode forward to the stallion, sparing a disgusted glance at the greasy whip handler. A slightly shorter, dark haired man followed him, leading a dappled gelding. Unlike his younger, irate companion, he wore no cloak and peered at me with curiosity.

The cloaked man stroked the stallion's mane and muttered soothing words under his breath. The hostlers watched in amazement as the horse almost magically calmed in the man's presence, but I still felt a surge of bitter anger. No matter how he treated the horse, ownership was still ownership and would never compare to freedom.

" He never fails to give the hostlers a good time, does he? Sometimes I think the devil does it for a good laugh," the dark haired man remarked wryly as his companion removed a sack of coins from his cloak.

The cloaked man laughed at the invoked memory, a surprisingly rich, pleasant sound. Daveth flushed an unpleasant shade of red at the off-hand comment as one of the younger hostlers unhooked the reins and handed them over.

" I'm sorry, Milord. Yer horse was under control for the most of the day ye spent away from him! We took care of him best we could!," he insisted defensively, jutting out his chin.

The cloaked man cast him a look incredulous amusement. " I'm sure of it," he replied dryly as he extracted several coins from the bulging coin pouch.

Daveth burned with shame as the other hostlers exchanged triumphant glances. He was correctly anticipating the negative effect this would have on his business. Frantically, he looked around and settled his squinty eyes on me.

"We nearly had him calm and eatin' out of the palm of our hand when this filthy witch-slave here interfered. Riled him up on purpose," he blamed haltingly, casting a savage look in my direction as he hurled the accusation.

The cloaked man turned his head slightly in my direction, noticing me for the first time. Rainer angrily shook his head and spoke out in protest, obviously worried that the wrath of the owner would come down on his head. I silently hoped it would, even if it meant I had to suffer for it.

" My lord! This lying swine was intent whipping your fine horse into an early grave! Ask any witness! I was attending to business over there while he senselessly beat your horse. If my slave here hadn't stepped in to calm it, it would still be being beaten! If anything, she deserves a reward!," he shot back triumphantly, sparing a look of pure hatred for Daveth.

I winced as his already iron grip on my wrist tightened painfully. The dark haired man chuckled softly as his companion looked between the two angry men. He crouched down and peered at me until I felt forced to look up and meet his eyes. I leveled his stare with a defiance, expecting his gaze to be haughty or contentious. But instead, they were a warm, gentle brown. Confused, I leaned away from him. The man smiled.

" I thought her kind were afraid of horses. She's not a full blood, is she? Don't look so frightened, lass, I won't bite you," he told me kindly, brushing the dust off his tunic as he stood back up. " Is she for sale?"

Rainer's eyes quickly darted back and forth between myself and the two men as he silently tried to determine how high a price I could fetch in Edan and how much he could wrestle from these men.

" We planned to sell her in Edan's slave markets. The gelds stretch further near the time of the Festival," he said at last, settling on an answer. " We wouldn't dream of selling her unless, perchance, the right price was offered."

The cloaked man's lips turned into a wry smile as he recognized Rainer's game. " And I pray that you find it. We can't buy every slave that hurtles into our path, John. We have enough trouble finding someone to take care of a horse decently as it is, much less a Faelen," he added, glancing back at his dark haired friend.

Rainer hastily backed down. " If you want to buy a slave before Festival, this is the time to do it, milord! It'll be a fair price for both of us, and I'm not sure if you'll be able to find another Faelen that looks like her. She has a pretty face, for one of their kind, and she's forest fresh," he exclaimed with sudden animation, grabbing my jaw and forcing it upward in a painful motion.

I fought a defiant grimace and reverted my eyes back to the dusty ground. Who was he trying to fool? After months of long, hard days and small portions of food, I was covered in dirt and haggard, as far away from beauty as possible. I closed my eyes as the two men looked at me, not sure who I wanted to win. Either way, I was still a slave.

" Look at me," the cloaked man asked gently, lifting my chin up with his gloved hand.

In doing so, his cloak tipped back slightly, revealing eyes that were a pure, unadulterated grey, like clouds gathering before a storm. He stared at me quizzically, almost as if he were searching for something. In spite of the degrading nature of the situation, I was mesmerized for a moment. The man had the face of a fallen angel, finely chiseled and sensuous. I had never seen that kind of beauty on a man before, and it made me briefly wonder why he would try to conceal it.

But then his lips curved upwards into an amused smile, and I remembered that this man was like the rest of them. I angrily jerked away from him and proudly focused my eyes straight ahead.

" Odd eyes though, for a Faelen or a human," John remarked as his companion pulled back. " But you're right, as usual. We can't be dragging along a forest fresh Faelen who can't string two words of Khorsandian together."

I speak it as well as you do, I felt like hissing, but bit my tongue. The cloaked man turned back to the waiting Daveth, who had been eyeing the bulging purse with impatience ever since the conversation had turned to me. He extracted several copper coins and placed them in the hand of the hostler, who grinned smugly as he bowed to the man and muttered a 'milord.'

Rainer watched the cloaked man eagerly, blatantly hoping that he'd come out with some profit too. The cloaked man, seeing my captor's stare, turned with a wry smile and extracted two more.

" For your horse tamer among the crowds. Thank you for her intervention," he told Olivar lightly, whose eyes bulged as the coins were placed in his hand.

John smiled with amusement at Rainer's expression, and I wondered how much value the coins equated. By Rainer's extravagantly clumsy bow and elaborate words, I quickly deduced that it was a high sum. The cloaked man nodded, and taking his black horse by the reins, turned to leave. He muttered something under his breath to John, and both men laughed.

Straightening, Rainer turned his focus back towards me. " Come on, don't just stand there gawking at his horse," he snapped at me as he grabbed his own brown mare's reins.

I felt the ropes begin to tighten as he started to lead her away. Turning around, I wistfully tried to catch a glimpse of the stallion one last time.

But before I took a step, something was slipped into the pocket of my dress. I craned my head slightly and just caught a glimpse of the cloaked man winking at me before the ropes jerked, forcing me to walk forward.

I scowled and wished that the ropes would have let me separate my hands. I wanted to throw the object on the ground and show him that I hadn't intervened with the stallion for his sake or so that Rainer could earn a few extra coins. Twisting my head, I tried to look for the stallion, but the jostling crowd closed in behind me.

We stood in the merciless sun for what seemed an eternity as we waited for the other men to return. Ilan and Jarland returned first, triumphantly carrying several loaves of bread and a sack of fruit and vegetables. My mouth salivated at the sight of the food, but I made no indication that I was interested in it. I had learned over the course of time that Jarland in particular enjoyed watching my expression as they ate and I starved.

Olivar returned shortly after them, and I felt a small sense of relief at the sight of my slightly kinder caretaker. His expression was pleased with the news he had heard, and he began talking as soon as we made our way out of the city. He told the men of the mutual friends he had spoken with and how Ilan's second cousin wanted him to stop in the tavern on his next Osen visit. I only half listened. My mind was still caught up in the turmoil of the scenes I had just witnessed.

The guards exhibited none of the security or questions when we left the walled town, merely a bored glance and a quick check to make sure the men weren't trying to smuggle any goods out without paying taxes. The men triumphantly resume talking as we began to travel onward on the King's Road again, happy with the knowledge that we would be in Edan in two weeks. Though the better part of the day had been spent in Osen, we covered more ground then usual.

" I heard the Prince's coronation is less than a year away from the Festival of the Lights, and his marriage sooner. It's odd to imagine the old king's child ascending the throne.," Olivar remarked, revealing one of the choice pieces of gossip he had heard.

" Scary, more like it!," Jarland replied contemptuously, his lips curling into a sneer.

" Aye, but not for the Lady Aeronwyn. I wouldn't say that the prince isn't thanking his good fortune that his betrothed is the wealthiest heiress in Khorsandia," Olivar replied conversationally.

Rainer made a crude remark and the men laughed. My mind slowly drifted away from their banter about politics and back to the events that had transpired in Osen. How had the man managed to own such the horse anyway? I was sure it had been born wild; the glazed, docile look that shined in the men's horses was different from the intelligent, rebellious glare I had seen in the stallion's. Had the cloaked lord captured him himself or boughten him from a horse merchant? Why am I even thinking of this? I'll never see the horse again, I furiously chided myself. I had to keep my mind focused on escape, the only thing that mattered. But before I could turn my mind to other matters, Ilan declared that we'd stop to make camp tonight.

After the horses had been cooled down and a good fire had been built up, the men relaxed. I waited impatiently as they ate, trying to ignore the dull roar of my stomach. The urge to leap up and snatch the rough wheat bread out of Ilan's hands was almost too great to ignore. I chewed slowly each night after one of the men gave me my food in an effort to savor the taste. But even then, it didn't last long. I hoped that Olivar might give me some of his rations on his watch. He had begun to become more and more prone to doing small kindnesses for me. I knew that his deeds should have made me feel more sympathetic towards him, but I still found myself unable to look at even him without a surge of angry contempt welling in me.

The cold, venomous hatred I felt scared me. The emotions deepened with every day that passed, and I found myself powerless to stop it.

" They charged just as much as the sellers in Edan, but with haggard horses looked like they hadn't seen a meal in weeks! But it wasn't a total waste... our little Faelan earned us some extra coins," Rainer boasted later when the talk had turned back to the merchant prices.

My muscles automatically tensed as they always did when their attention focused on me. Olivar glanced at me incredulously. " Her? How?," he asked in between bites of food, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

Rainer recounted what had happened ,elaborating where he saw fit. He pridefully told how Daveth had nearly blamed Olivar himself for the mishap he had managed, but thanks to his scintillating wit, to get himself out of it. The slight exaggerations in the story made me tempted to laugh, but I carefully turned my back to hide my smile. I still couldn't afford one of the men to notice. Rainer, Jarland, and Olivar ignored me for the most part as we journeyed, but Ilan seemed suspicious at times. More then once I had caught him carefully watching me as while he and the others spoke. His suspicion made me uneasy, and I didn't want to give him any more reason to believe that I had understood everything that transpired. I would lose the one advantage I had, and I didn't want to even imagine the circumstances that would change.

" Three bronze gelds, all for having her run out and work some sort of witchcraft on the horse? The lord must of been mad!," Jarland exclaimed loudly, clearly jealous at Olivar's good fortune.

" Or so wealthy that he thinks nothing of it. But times are too hard for even minor nobles to casually toss that amount of money. He must of been an important man," Ilan mused, taking another bite of his bread.

I watched them eat longingly, waiting for them to finish so I could see what would be left for me. Sure enough, shortly after they finished, Olivar came and placed a small bundle of food in front of me with a bowl of water. My mouth formed a tiny circle as I looked wondrously at the large loaf of bread and two bruised apples. It was the greatest amount of food placed before me since I had been captured, and I glanced up at him for a moment, wondering if it was a trick. My cheeks reddened in humiliation as the middle aged man smiled kindly and nodded his head. What would Hazel and the others think if they could see me becoming excited over a meager portion of food?

" Eat it all. You've earned it," Olivar said magnanimously, not seeing the dark glare that had come over my face. I waited until he had turned and walked away before snatching the apple up with trembling hands and sinking my teeth into it. Control yourself, part of my mind reminded, but my senses lost out to ravenous hunger.

" They eat like animals. Every single one of them," Rainer mused as he watched me shove the bread into my mouth. I reddened as they guffawed in amusement and wished I could afford to hurl the food at the ground or that I could summon the courage to take one of their daggers and die trying to slit their miserable throats. It was at times like this I sometimes wished I couldn't understand their words. I quietly drank my water, and curled up in a small ball, waiting for them to go to sleep.

Rainer had first watch. After Olivar, I preferred his watch to the others. He busied himself with tending to things around the campfire, occasionally talking to himself when he thought all of us were asleep. Once I had even seen him sneaking a look at the book that Jarland had brought. He had run his dirty hands over the creamy pages with a marveled expression, sometimes trying to sound the words out. I had been surprised to learn that Jarland was the only one of the four who could read. I had assumed all Khorsandians were capable of what Hazel had taught me, but apparently Jarland, as a merchant's son, was the only one who had received any education in the least. I had initially dreaded his watches most of all. In the beginning, he had leered and had taken pleasure in killing any small creatures that were unfortunate enough to wander close to the campfire. But eventually he had lost interest in his game lost interest and now virtually ignored me.

But Ilan was another matter. He was quieter than the others, but no less watchful. More than once I had woken to find him staring oddly at me. I knew that he suspected something, and that it wouldn't be much longer before I slipped under his scrutiny.

Rainer was busy carving an object out of a small block of wood he carried around that night. I turned over on my side, ready to go to sleep. Ilan would undoubtedly want to cover as much ground as possible tomorrow.

But sleep evaded me. I shifted my hands once, trying to ease the chafing of the rope. The ropes were adjusted daily to prevent my circulation from being cut off. This small act that Ilan had commanded hadn't been out of his innate kindness; he worried that I would lose my market value if too much damage was done.

My mind turned back to the stallion. Was he still in Osen, or had the cloaked man been there for business like we had? The man's cocky grin abruptly returned to me, and I remembered how he had slipped an object inside my pocket. Frowning, I awkwardly tried to reach in my pocket with my bound hands. After several unsuccessful moments of unsteadily grasping at nothing, my fingers seized upon a cold object. I lifted my hands out, careful not to move too much; I didn't want to attract the attention of Rainer. It still surprised me that the men had never thought to search me for something of value. The first few days I had lived in terror that they would discover my mother's necklace, but they had never even thought to look me over. They assumed that Faelen would have nothing worth any value to them.

I held the small object out in order to get a look at it and the color illuminated it in the firelight. It was a silver coin engraved with the symbol of a fiery dragon entwined with a crown, the same emblem I had seen on the bronze coins the cloaked man had given Olivar.

I knew nothing about the way money worked in this world, but something told me that it wasn't a measly gift. After making sure that Rainer was still occupied with his woodwork, I carefullytucked it back inside my pocket. It didn't make me proud to take the man's gift, but I doubted that I would be given money again, especially in what the men considered to be hard times. Yawning once, I closed my eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep.

A.N.- Apologies for the sporadic update. I lost myself in other things, as usual. I'm about 150 pages into this or so, but I have a horrible habit of rethinking what I want to happen and consequently I like to stay a few pages ahead of the game. And of course, thank you for the reviews.