Chapter 3

After twenty-odd years of procuring the impossible for anyone who paid, Nicholas had designated living quarters in every rivalling settlement. His rooms in Ahebban were sparsely decorated. We were there only long enough for me to glimpse an array of identically looking grey cloaks in his wardrobe. The man had no fashion sense.

Nicholas had stared at the stablemaster, who at first had been resolute not to provide me with a horse. His face had gone through seven shades of red and spittle flew in Nicholas direction as he first flat out refused, then negotiated and finally complained while bringing a chestnut mare forward. She was a beautiful creature, and I instinctively reached out to pat her soft flank. The horse whinnied and happily waggled its tail, whipping it right across the stablemaster's pocket scarred face. The horse and I would be great friends.

"You can ride," said Nicholas, more a statement than a question.

I decided to use his aloofness against him, and without a word put my foot in the stirrups and swung myself on the mare's backside. I'd been riding since I was four years old, and could do so in my sleep, gracefully and in absolute control. I smirked at Nicholas, but it was useless, he had already mounted his stallion, which was slowly trotting towards the forest road. "I'll call you Pepper," I whispered, pressed my heels into Pepper's flanks and we followed the gruff hunter out of Ahebban. I shivered in the setting sun and turned in the saddle to glance at the slowly receding building. The evening shadows wrapped the building like a dark cloak, and I felt a weight lifted from my chest.

At night the forest came alive with the sounds of its nocturnal inhabitants. Frogs were croaking, insects chirping and the odd lonely dragonfly littered the sky with glowing dots. The forest road was well travelled close to Ahebban but became narrower as we travelled on. After a few crossroads that took us away from the main road, it was barely wide enough to allow the horses easy passage. The path was regularly interrupted by large roots breaking through the surface, bushes were pushing inwards, and vines extended dangerously far, entangling the horse's hoofs and threatening their walk. Worldlessly Nicholas threw a blanket at me which I quickly wrapped around my shoulders. I did say thank you, mum had always insisted on good manners, though they were lost on the large man. I didn't even know if he heard it.

We did stop eventually, but only because it became so dark that the horses were at serious risk of breaking their legs. Nicholas turned on a torch, held it between his teeth and started putting a fire together. The silence was contagious. I leant against a broad tree trunk, drew my legs to my chest, the blanket still wrapped around my shoulders and watched the man assemble a little pile of tinder. It hadn't rained in days and dry grass was easy to pick. Suddenly, Nicholas looked up and our eyes locked and it was as if he only now remembered my presence. The hands stilled and he raised an eyebrow, making sure that he captured my attention, and yes he had. The man was a riddle, and I love riddles, so how could I not be intrigued. He looked back at his hands, then at me and back again, before resuming his movements. The elegant, long fingers picked up their task but moved slower this time – as if demonstrating. Made sense, he would want me to do it in the future.

I might as well learn all I could, no way to be sure how quickly he would get tired of me. I scooted a bit closer, and Nicholas handed me the torch, so I could illuminate the fire starter.

We spent another three days in the forest, eating bread and cheese Nicholas kept in his saddlebags, sometimes with grilled mushrooms, and once a trout. He did not bother elaborating when we went looking for mushrooms, but I knew my botany and could pick a poisonous out from a crowd. I did wonder though if he would ever talk to me, or if I was condemned to a life of silence.

Finally, we reached our destination. A tiny clearing was well hidden by the surrounding dense forest, with a spring that seemingly had no river feeding it. A small cabin stood on the shore, one floor high, windows made from dirty glass that you could not see through. "Home," said Nicholas, and while the cottage fit his rough personality, it was not what I imagined home to be.

After a few days at the new home, we fell into an easy routine, but peace can only last so long, and not long after I found myself at the end of a hard stare.

Nicholas sat by the side of the pond, right elbow resting on his upturned knee, eyes intently on me. I sat on a stump and watched the tiny ant crawling up my bare lower leg. Birds were chirping overhead and the water gurgled quietly. It would have been a lovely afternoon if not for the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife.

"Care to repeat that?" asked Nicholas, so utterly, annoyingly composed.

"I'm here because all you want is free labour," I spat, daring him to react, but nothing. We'd been at the cabin for a week and I had done one chore after another. Cut the wood, clean the floor, de-spiderweb the place, it never ends. I might as well have taken a cheap job at Ahebban, at least that would pay. I was so sick of always being of service to someone. I hate it. I want my life to be my life.

Nicholas got up and looked at me, and god do I hate that look. I feel like a five-year-old throwing a tantrum when he does it. "I have to go," he said and turned.

I stepped into his path, anger lending me the confidence to push against his broad chest. He did not move an inch. "You bastard," I cursed and tried to shove him again but he caught my wrists, holding them tight. "I do all this for you, day in day out, do this do that. I complain once and you're leaving? Too much effort to stick with me huh? Same shit with everyone, just walk away now, save yourself the trouble I am."

"Language," chastised Nicholas. That man was obsessed with language. He let my wrists go and I crossed my arms in front of my chest and huffed. "You and your drama," he said and I wanted to interrupt, wanted to point out that I had plenty of reason for my drama, but he gave me no time. "I have to go because the fire is about to go out and we need to keep it going."

The heat was rising into my face, and I'm sure my traitorous cheeks showed it. "Well I have to go too," I said, trying for composure and failing.

"Yes, you do," said Nicholas gravely. The hairs on my neck stood up, we were entering dangerous territory. "You can go and split that wood over there," he said pointing to the pile I'd neglected all day. "Or you can go stand in that corner and think about this outburst until dinner's ready."

I narrowed my eyes at him, lost the staring contest and went to pick up the axe. My shoulders burned from yesterday's labour, and every swing jerked overused muscles. It was still preferable to standing in that corner, bored out of my mind with nothing to do.

Nicholas wasn't 100 % bad, to be fair. He'd taught me how to focus my thoughts on mundane things, such as the rhythmic sounds of my axe splitting the logs. And the two quiet thumps when the halves hit the ground. Thoughts directed, my breathing calmed down and I with every painful swing a bit of the anger left until I couldn't even remember what had gotten me so worked up. The chores were barely enough to keep me busy, and I had plenty of time to wander around the forest or observe Nicholas as he went about his daily business. I had been looking for that fight, I realized and my heart beat faster at the insight. Last night, I dreamt about mum, and the day had been filled with unwanted memories trying to claw their way to the surface.

"Keep it together," I mumbled quietly, aware that taking to myself was not a good sign. I shrugged, the motion sending a ripple of pain through my shoulder and back muscles.

Darkness fell around me, the sounds of the forest gradually switching to the nocturnal animals. Chirping chorus frogs held merry conversations, owls chimed in occasionally and the high grass swooshed gently as foxes made their way around. Nicholas was noisily moving around in the house, but I wasn't ready to join him yet – even though nightfall had brought a steep decline in temperature and I was shivering. I ducked out of the way of a bat with misfiring ultrasound, stretched tired joints and yawned. We've had long days as apprentice pharmacists, but the level of physical work I've been doing with Nicholas was a different story. My legs felt like lead and maybe it was about time to swallow my pride and go inside to eat and rest. A branch snapped audibly under my foot, disturbingly loud against the silent background. Silent background? I stiffened, hairs on my arm standing up, where was all the noise? The only source of light came from inside the house and the tree line was barely visible.

I strained my eyes, focused on what might be a shadow. Suddenly, a projectile slammed into the pile of wood, shards spraying in all directions. I screeched and dropped to my knees, searching for shelter behind. Heart beating like crazy, I peered above my cover, hoping against hope that I could see something. For a second, there was nothing but darkness, and then another projectile hit, millimetres from my left ear and I ducked and shrieked again as a sharp pain erupted on my cheek.

Suddenly my heartbeat was the only sound I could hear again. On all fours, I crawled to the side of my shelter, flinching and stilling every time my clumsy movements broke a twig or scrunched a leave. I wiped at my cheek, hand coming back stained with blood, glistening in the pale moonlight. I inhaled, consolidated all my bravery and peaked around the wooden wall. Nothing. No projectile either.

All air was knocked out of my lungs as someone barreled full impact into me. I stumbled back, raised my hands to maintain some balance, failed and landed flat on my back. On instinct, I rolled to the side, eyes widening at the knife in the ground just where I'd been, hilt vibrating from the impact. No time to dwell on it, the attacker was on me again, another blade reflecting the moonlight.

I stared into dark blue eyes determined to finish a job. I cannot believe that this is how I would die. The attacker crushed my throat with his left hand, I couldn't breathe. Small flickering spots danced into my peripheral vision, increasing in frequency with each labouring breath. He flipped the knife so the blade faced downwards, and with a determined grunt went straight for my heart.

The knife, on a deadly mission, easily sliced through my skin. Dull throbbing pain erupted at the point of entry and I tried to scream, but suddenly deflating, that was impossible. My eyelids dropped, I couldn't even tell as darkness invaded my vision. Suddenly the pressure was gone and as the thread of consciousness anchoring me to living threatened to snap, I saw a dark looming presence above me. Strangely detached I watched the person crouch down and gather me in his strong arms. I was warm, and yet the shivering wasn't subsiding, but right now that did not matter. We moved, and the rocking steps lulled me into sleep.

I don't know how much time had passed when a sledgehammer rhythmically smashing against my skull woke me. Blinking rapidly, I attempted to force my foggy brain to recognise my surroundings, but in the darkness, that was a failed mission. I tried to prop myself up on my elbows, the motion sent waves of sickness through my body, my stomach cramped and I barely managed to throw my head away from the mattress and vomited straight on the floor.

A good minute of dry heaving followed, the headache slowly receding to dull pain, and only then was I aware of a hand carefully holding my hair out of the way, and another rubbing comforting circles on my back. They helped me lie back down and I closed my eyes again, to the sweet smell of lilac.

"Am I dying?" I asked and all I got was a small chuckle.

"No," said Nicholas, gruff voice masking all his applied gentleness. "The knife only nicked your skin, but you suffered a concussion." He waited for a moment before continuing: "What's your name?"

My mouth tasted funny. "Jay," I managed to squeeze out, throat dry and scratchy.

"What day is it?", he asked, after I stopped coughing.

I opened my eyes, looking for the annoying questioner, but he only smiled at my angry glance. "It's Wednesday," I said and went to cross my hands in front of my chest. Bad idea. Nausea set in instantly, and my empty stomach contracted.

Nicholas took advantage of my open eyes. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Three," I groaned and closed my eyes rapidly. Maybe that would be enough to make him go away.

"I'll check on you in two hours," said my guardian. The wooden chair scraped against the floor as he got up, and I fell asleep again to the safety of his heavy footsteps, as he milled about.

I wish two hours took longer, and I said so when a strong hand grabbed my shoulder and gently shook me awake. Same questions, same answers. All I wanted was to go back to sleep, to get some rest. But how is one to get any rest at those intervals. My headache was torturous enough.

You could set a clock by Nicholas punctuality.

"Jay," I answered unprompted when he woke me the next time. Nothing happened and I carefully opened one eyelid to blink at him, but it wasn't a dream, he was there. He had a special way to smile, when his left lip corner rose ever so slightly, like a cat playing with a mouse. It never bade well for me.

"What's the flaw in Ahebban's security protocols you exploited to run away when you were 12?" he asked.

"What… what?" I asked, eyes going wide. How did he even know about that?

Nicholas sat down, long legs stretched out under my bed. "I am bored with the old questions."

I propped myself up and thank god this time nothing happened and cocked my head to look for any sign that this wasn't the real Nicholas. He was too jovial. "You being bored, yes let's focus on what's important here," I grunted, throat still not fully up to speak. Small shiny lines fluttered through my vision, and I blinked them away.

"Not my fault you got concussed," said Nicholas and there was nothing to suggest that he did not enjoy interrupting my beauty sleep every two hours. That stupid little smile persisted. Then, he repeated his question.

"Yeah, let's make this fun for you," I said, and automatically ran my hand through my hair. My fingers touched the squishy bump at the back of my head, tender to the touch, and I flinched. "There's a blind spot on the roof and if you know the pressure plate layout you can find a way to the drain pipes."

Nicholas chuckled and it reverberated in his barrel chest. "Smart," he said. "What are the three most dangerous forest plants"?

"You can't be serious," I groaned. Were we having an exam in the middle of a concussion check-up?

"Dead serious," said Nicholas. "Now answer."

I racked my brain for the obscure bit of knowledge. How did Nicholas come up with those questions? "Deadly nightshade," I said, going with the easiest first. "Castor Oil plant" – I would never forget the time we synthesised Ricinus poison in the chemistry lab, I don't even want to know what they were going to use it for. "And cicuta."

Nicholas frowned. "What about Oleander?"

I could not believe he wanted to have a casual conversation about botany. I rarely understand what he's up to and sometimes it's best to shrug and move on. "No," I said and gratefully gulped down water he just procured out of nowhere. "Oleander is toxic, but its taste is so bitter, people spit it out before they get sufficiently poisoned. Toxic yes, dangerous not that much."

Nicholas chuckled. "Well done," he said.

I smiled reflexively, pondering the movement of my face as the tips of my ears heated up. A throwaway comment from a man I didn't know for long should not please me that much, should it?

"Alright," said Nicholas. "Who would want to assassinate you?"

I stared at him and then spaced out, only interrupted when he audibly harrumphed. This was not an easy question to answer. Lucinda, my stepmother, if disinherited people had one, would be the obvious choice, but somehow I don't think that she'd be able to pull this off without my father's knowledge. Granted, he never had much love for me, but I still don't think he'd condone murdering me.

"I don't know," I answered, and I did not want to think about it. Already my voice was wavering, and a tear was stealing its way into the corner of my eye. Let's ignore that I also felt like crying and hiding in a corner, which I could not do, because the only one who got privacy in this tiny cabin was Nicholas.

Nicholas pensively nodded, and thankfully he let me get away with it. "Last one," said Nicholas and sadness washed over me at the announcement. I enjoyed the conversation with the gruff, usually monosyllabic man more than I cared to admit. "Why didn't you call for help?"

I closed my eyes, to collect my thoughts, and to force the persistent tear back. "I…" I started, and then my throat clogged up. Several deep calming breaths later the panic subsided, and Nicholas waited patiently, resembling a statue carved from stone. "I never call for help," I finally admitted, voice so quiet I wasn't sure he understood. I worked up my nerve to look at him, and when I finally did I was met with unexpectedly gentle eyes.

He rose an eyebrow and I swallowed hard before continuing. "I used to call for help," I elaborated, eyes cast down again, I could not stand the pity that must be visible in his eyes now. "One time, a guard came, and he just stood there and laughed." I shuddered, forcing all memories of the weak little kid back into the small box where I kept them safely locked away.

For a few minutes, neither of us spoke, and I could not bring myself to look up.

"I will be there," said Nicholas in his deep rumble, and it sent shivers along my spine.

We barely knew each other, but his words rang true, and to my surprise, I believed them. Maybe because I had to believe in something, or maybe because he already saved my life. He shouldn't have, I thought suddenly. He'd be rid of his unwanted houseguest and free to do as he pleased if he hadn't. There must be a reason why he was looking out for me, no one did that out of the goodness of their hearts. Determination rushed in, and the emotional vulnerability receded. I would find out why Nicholas bothered.

Nicholas got up to leave and his hand lightly brushed the top of my head. By accident, I bet, but I still leaned into the touch, and he lingered.

"Wait," I called, and Nicholas, who had nearly reached the door to his bedroom, stilled and looked back at me over his shoulder.

"Will you teach me how to fight?" I asked. I hate asking for anything. I sound so dumb and why would he bother, he had enough on his hands as it is and…

"Yes," he said, interrupting my destructive rambling. "It's about time someone does."

A/N: Thank you guys for reading, and please let me know what you think.

Kinola: Thank you so much for reviewing, it's greatly appreciated!