Copyright © 2017 by Frost Kay.
“Jade, we won’t catch a thing if you don’t tread more lightly. How can you make so much noise?” Stephen complained.
“Shhhhh…,” Jade’s tiny voice admonished, her fawn-colored eyes narrowed. “You’ll scare the animals.”
The young boy huffed. “Suuuurrree. I’m the reason we’ll go without meat.”
Jasmine smiled as she glanced over her shoulder at the young boy helping her niece through the underbrush. Each day, Jasmine checked the traps, and each day, she’d bring along either Jade or Ethan, the three-year-old twins. In the meantime, the other would stay with the widows of her village. Today was Jade’s turn. Her niece was trying to walk quietly, but it seemed that the harder she tried, the louder she became. As Jade loudly snapped yet another twig under her feet, Stephen met Jasmine’s gaze, exasperation clear on his face.
“At least the animals in our traps can’t run away,” she offered, grinning.
Stephen rolled his eyes and shifted an overly-large bow onto his shoulder, looking dejected. “I know.”
Pain lanced her heart. The poor thing. He wanted so badly to have a chance trying out his new bow. She sighed. It had been months, yet, in many ways, the Scythian attack still affected them as if it had happened only yesterday. Stephen was but one of the many children to lose his father. She frowned, some of the pain in her heart giving way to anger. None of them would be in this situation if the Scythians hadn’t been such monsters.
Jasmine tried to do what she could for the village, and Stephen was one whom she happened to be in a position to assist. He needed archery lessons and she needed help caring for the twins, so their arrangement was a win-win.
A small hand slipped into hers, jarring her from her thoughts. “Okay, Auntie?”
Jasmine blinked several times, focusing on her niece’s round face as she forced a smile. She squeezed Jade’s hand three times, reminding the little girl that she loved her—one squeeze for each word. It was something her family had always done. A toothy grin split the small child’s face as she returned the three squeezes.
She pulled her gaze from her niece to scan the forest. At the edge of a meadow, a small plant sporting small, bright green leaves caught her attention. Dropping to her haunches, she brushed Jade’s dark brown hair from her eyes and widened her own at the small girl. “Guess what I just spotted?”
She leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “I found strawberry plants!”
Her niece squealed and bounced on her toes. “I love strawberries!”
“Yes, I know.” Jasmine pointed to the strawberry patch on the left. “They’re right over there, so I need you to stay in the patch and do some picking while I help Stephen with his bow. Okay?”
Jasmine released the child’s hand and Jade rushed over to the patch where she immediately flopped down, her hands already searching for the sweet, plump fruit.
Jasmine shook her head and turned to her other charge. “You ready?”
Stephen smiled and nodded as he yanked his bow from his back. “Where can I shoot?” He skipped over to a flat spot.
She chuckled. “Slow down a second. You need to calm down, and be still.”
“But I can’t,” he said, bouncing on his toes.
Jasmine smiled and wandered over to the boy. “Just close your eyes and breathe. In through your nose, and out from your mouth. Try to calm your mind, still your limbs.”
He slammed his eyes shut and breathed in rapid succession. She hid a smile at how excited he was and repeated, “Slowly, Stephen, slowly.”
At her admonition his breathing slowed and, as she was hoping, his body relaxed.
“Perfect. Now, open your eyes and take up your stance.”
Stephen planted his feet shoulder-width apart, rotated into a closed stance, and straightened. Jasmine eyed his stance. “Good, very good. Beautiful form. But don't forget your sequence. You need to perfect this form as well as the movement, so you can effortlessly repeat it each time.” Adjusting his grip, she continued, “You must also remember to grip exactly here.”
She stepped back, briefly glancing back to Jade. Her niece was happily munching on strawberries, oblivious to the rest of the world, with her face already stained crimson.
Jasmine turned her attention back to Stephen. “Draw.”
He wobbled only a little as he pulled back on the bowstring, though his form mostly held.
The boy smiled at the praise and his cheeks pinked. She stepped forward to tap his hip where it stuck out a bit, and he quickly straightened into a smooth line, accepting the silent critique.
“Lower your bow.”
He did as she said and looked at her expectantly. “Now what? Can I try it with an arrow now?”
He let out a joyful whoop and snatched an arrow from his quiver.
“But,” she added, “you must first replicate that stance perfectly ten times.”
His nose wrinkled, and he returned the arrow back to its quiver. “Okay.”
Leaving the boy to his practice, Jasmine found a comfortable tree, leaned her back against it, and slowly closed her eyes. She took the moment to enjoy the peace and quiet of the forest. She’d always been drawn to the almost magical stillness it offered, and now, like a plant in the desert, she soaked it up. It was something she needed.
After a while, she cracked an eyelid, checking on Jade. She was hardly surprised to note her niece hadn’t moved, but she couldn’t help checking on her all the same. Ever since the death of her brother, and the subsequent transfer of the twins to her care, she couldn’t help but be overprotective of them. They were her only family now.
Her eyes had just closed again when a sound reached her ears, faint but familiar—thundering hooves. Her brows drew together as the sound grew closer. The hooves weren’t slowing down.
Jasmine’s eyes snapped open. The only reason for a rider to be charging in such a reckless fashion through the forest was if they, firstly, were guilty of a crime or secondly, were being chased by something terrible. Neither scenario boded well for herself and the children.
“Stephen,” she barked, “we’re leaving.” Rushing to Jade’s side, she urged, “Get up, sweet girl. We need to go.”
“I’m still hungry.”
“I know. You’re always hungry. But I promise to make some lunch when we get home.” Scooping up the little girl, she threw her on her back and instructed her, “Hold on.”
As the sound of the rider drew even closer, Jasmine spun on her heel and swept toward the little boy, who was still struggling with his bow. “Let’s go,” she ordered, grabbing his hand as she passed him. It seemed like his feet were dragging behind her. “Hurry up!” Before they got anywhere her arm jerked, and he cried out.
Jasmine released his hand and turned to him, finding his clothes caught on a branch.
“I’m stuck,” he said, pulling at his clothes.
Her heart picked up speed. The thundering hooves were much closer now. They were almost out of time. She frantically scanned the trees around them. She finally spotted a tree hollow behind a bush and sprinted toward it. She then pulled Jade from her back and pushed her through the bush and into the hollow. “Stay here. I’ll get Stephen, and then we’re going to play hide and seek.”
She rushed back to Stephen and tugged on the bow. Somehow, he’d got it hooked in the limbs of a bush and it wouldn’t budge. “We don’t have time for this,” she growled. Pulling a small dagger from her sheath she cut the bowstring.
“My papa made that,” he cried, appalled.
“I know, and I’m sorry. I can fix it when we get home, but for now, we need to hide.”
Desperation filled her voice. The rider was so close, she could hear the horse’s ragged breaths. She yanked Stephen to her and shoved him in the hollow as well—it was just big enough for the two children. Carefully, she sank down behind the bush, sheltering the hollow entrance. “I need you both to be silent. Can you do that for me?”
Whispered yeses reached her ears as the horse and rider broke into their meadow. Sweat poured down the flanks of the horse, its chest heaving as the rider dug his heels into the poor creature’s sides. The tall rider held a struggling woman in his arms and Jasmine hissed. If the woman wasn’t careful, she’d fall. A fall like that could kill a person; she was surprised he could even ride like that. Almost as soon as the thought ran through her mind, the woman flung herself from the man’s arms, and narrowly missed the horse’s hooves as she crashed to the ground. Clutching one arm, she struggled to stand. Just as quickly, the man pulled the horse back and dismounted in one smooth motion, storming toward the woman. When he reached her, he yanked her up by the hair and Jasmine had to muffle her gasp of alarm.
“How stupid are you? Did you really think you could get away? And now all you’ve done is hurt yourself.”
The young woman slammed her head into his nose and spat blood in his direction. He dropped her hair and clutched at his face, cursing. The woman collapsed to the forest floor, heaved, her face pale, and began to crawl away.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” he growled. “I think you need to be taught a few lessons.”
Jasmine’s stomach dropped when he pinned her to the ground. Oh God, she couldn’t sit there and watch. She had to do something. She glanced back to Stephen and Jade, their small faces pale and frightened. “Don’t watch, loves.” She swallowed. “I need to help the woman, but you two do not leave this hollow unless I come and get you. Understand me?”
“Yes,” Stephen whispered, voice shaking.
“I need you to keep Jade calm and quiet, Stephen. Can you do that for me?”
“Even if I get hurt or look like I’m not okay, do not come get me. You take Jade home and get help. You must not approach that man.” Turning to Jade, she whispered, “Auntie loves you so much, but I need you to be a good girl and listen to Stephen, okay? Once I’m done, we’ll go home and make lunch. Okay?”
She kissed both the children’s faces and pulled in a breath before slipping quietly from her hiding place. The man had flipped the woman onto her back and was now holding her down with his weight and pinching her chin between his fingers. The rumble of his voice filled the air, and Jasmine could only guess at what disgusting things he was saying. Anger burned beneath her chest. It was men like this who made the world an awful place for innocents. She glided through the forest on silent feet, drawing closer to the man and woman.
“You’ll learn your place,” the man threatened as he slapped the woman across the face, her eyes falling shut. She wanted so badly to charge across the meadow and teach him a swift lesson, but she knew better, so she did the opposite. Inhaling quietly, she continued her careful trek.
When she’d almost reached them, the woman’s eyes popped open, revealing vibrant green eyes. The green eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to speak just as a hand clamped over Jasmine’s lips. While keeping her gaze on the woman, she raked her nails down the arm detaining her. Her captor cursed, and the huge dirty hand pressing against her face pressed harder, now covering her nose. When she tried to breathe, no air would come. She thought frantically, trying to recall any of the things her mama had taught her to do in such a situation. She needed to offset her attacker. Jasmine threw herself down, becoming dead weight, hoping to upset his balance. Her move did little to aid her, however, for all he did was grunt and heft her against his body. Dizziness overwhelmed her, but she refused to give up. As a last resort, she bit down with all her might. She gagged as a metallic taste filled her mouth, but she didn’t dare let go. When she felt a blow to her side, she was forced to release his hand as she gasped. Then, something knocked her in the head, and she found herself on the ground, staring at the raven-haired woman.
“This wench drew blood,” a male growled.
“Well,” a deep, smooth voice answered, “at least she has fight. That’s exactly what we need. Are the men here?”
“They’re waiting at the border with Blair. He was getting antsy, because you were late, my lord.”
Border? She thought, What border? The treetops swirled together above Jasmine. The only border close is … No! Jasmine tried to sit up, to escape, but the world lurched when she made the attempt and then she was right back on the ground.
“There were a few complications,” the smooth-voiced male answered.
“Like abusing the master’s woman, my lord?”
“She needed to be taught a lesson.”
“He’ll be displeased with what you’ve done, my lord.”
“We’ll see. Let’s move. It won’t be long before the Crown figures out she’s missing.”
Right before the world went black, the green-eyed woman mouthed something to her.
She didn’t need to be told. That was something she would always do.