The gray sky weighed heavily on Jacey’s spirit the next morning, making her almost feel as if she would cry. She watched Heddwyn stow her bags on the horse as he had done hundred of other times. Except this time, they weren’t leaving together. She tugged her cloak tighter and waited. As he finished, he turned and looked at her. Jacey bit her lip and swallowed.
“Two weeks,” he said.
Jacey nodded. Unfortunately, two weeks seemed like such a long time at that moment.
Heddwyn leaned over and kissed her gently. Jacey wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him for dear life. She feared what might happen to him these next two weeks, more than what would happen to her. He hadn’t been alone for so long. Quietly, she shuddered and leaned her head against his chest.
“Just–don’t have the baby without me, Jacey.”
Jacey nodded. “I won’t.”
“Okay.” He took her and gently lifted her onto the horse. She tried to smile but she doubted it came out at all.
“Are you done yet?” Conward said.
Heddwyn turned. “You–” He pressed his lips together and Jacey could see the tension course through his shoulders.
Conward raised his eyebrows. “I what, Commander?”
“Just remember the only reason you have your position is because of your father.”
“Noted. Done yet?”
Heddwyn nodded and stepped back. Immediately, Conward started the group and Jacey watched him as long as she could.
Although many would say they rode quickly, Jacey found it to be about the same she rode with Heddwyn. As such, she kept up easily but stayed away from the main group. Whereas normally the soldiers joked with her or told stories during the whole ride, these men ignored her. Their faces were dark, like they had only one job to do. The contrast between these men and Heddwyn’s startled Jacey and made her wonder if, in spite of his strictness, that Heddwyn understood some things better than he let on.
When they finally stopped about mid afternoon, Jacey could only be thankful. Wearily she slipped off her horse, wondering as she did how she would possibly mount again. With the pregnancy, her balance had been thrown off for a while and Heddwyn had helped her up each time she needed it. Now, looking at the men’s dark faces, she dreaded asking any of them.
On wobbly legs she made her way to a tree and sank to the ground. The baby began to kick frantically. Absently, she rubbed her stomach and closed her eyes. Her body ached more than normal. She couldn’t actually remember Heddwyn ever riding that long without a break.
For a long minute, she just rested. It felt good to be on solid ground again. Around her, the men did the tasks of watering both the horses and the slaves. After a few minutes, Jacey dug into her pouch, pulled out some of the rations that Heddwyn gave her, and absently began to eat for the fifth time that day.
Heddwyn had mentioned a type of sixth sense he often had that warmed him when something wasn’t right before he could tell what. Yet, Jacey never experienced it until that moment. The soldiers stood around the slaves and the horses, talking with each other, a few arguing. The slaves still sat huddled together, whispering among themselves. Nothing looked changed or dangerous and yet… yet something wasn’t right. Jacey pushed herself up a little and looked beyond their stop. The forest beyond looked normal.
Suddenly, a shrill call echoed through the hillside and immediately nearly twenty men on horseback rode into the camp. Jacey gasped and pressed herself against the tree, feeling for Heddwyn’s knife although at the same moment knowing that would not protect her in the least. Immediately, the Targoian solders sprang to the defense of their belongings. Jacey inched her way up the tree, glancing from one side to another in search of a hiding place.
And finding that she had no one protecting her.
At that moment someone else galloped from the woods directly towards her. Before she could even respond, he leaned over and scooped her up onto the horse.
“We have her!” he shouted in Aldroian, kicking his horse. “FAll back!” Immediately, the horse took off in a gallop back into the trees, leaving Jacey no choice but to hold onto the man and hope she wouldn’t fall off.
The mad galloped lasted long enough that Jacey feared it would never end. Then, quite suddenly, they stopped and he dismounted, pulling her down with him. In one smooth motion, he grabbed her arms and twisted them around her behind her back to be tied tightly with a rope. He shoved her towards the ground. With a gasp, Jacey tried to twist and take the full force of the shove in her shoulder instead of the stomach. Frantically she pushed herself up and glared at him but he already stalked way.
Before too long, the other twenty or so men arrived. One of them approached her kidnapper, pulling off his helmet to reveal shaggy blond hair.
“Where do you have her?” the blond-haired one asked in Aldroian.
Her kidnapper motioned with his head towards her. “There.”
“That isn’t a commander’s wife.”
“She wears the sash. Lord Conward said that they would not protect her and give us a chance to come in and get her. She was the only thing not protected in the whole place.”
Jacey felt chills go down her back. That oversight of not protecting her had been intentional!
“She is too small. She might be a mistress but most certainly not a wife,” the blond one said.
“Then she’s the one that they said would tip Borut over the edge. Either way, I got the right girl.”
“She wasn’t suppose to be with child either. What are we to do with her now?”
A third man approached them. “We do exactly what they’ve been doing. Kill her.”
“I will not take part in killing a woman,” her kidnapper said.
“Then I will.” The third man drew his sword. Jacey looked away quickly. They were right. Heddwyn would not spare them if they killed her. “After what they’ve done to our towns, he deserves it.”
“She is with child, you fool!” her kidnapper said.
“As was my wife!”
“That has nothing to do with it! We do not want war like that with Targo.”
“Maybe you don’t, but I don’t care anymore.”
“Don’t do it, Jos. At least not until he comes,” the blond one said.
“He’s too soft to let me to do it then,” Jos said. “I am doing it now.”
“No, you aren’t.” A fourth man stepped forward, his eyes darting to each man. “Where is she?”
Her kidnapper motioned to her again with his head.
The fourth man, obviously suppose to be in charge, glanced her over. Jacey almost caught her breath. His eyes looked so familiar, like she had seen them somewhere before.
“I thought we were looking for his wife,” the leader said.
“We followed exactly what Lord Conward told us. There was no one else who could have been his wife,” her kidnapper said.
He looked her up and down again. “But you didn’t remove her weapon.”
They looked at her and all at once they seemed to see Heddwyn’s knife, that Jacey herself had forgotten about. Her kidnapper stepped towards her. “We’re trying, Dylan. But most of us–”
“Are you a fool, man?” The fourth man, Dylan, said. Jacey gasped and pushed herself up. She heard that tone of voice far too often as a child while teasing her brothers. He had changed so much since she had seen him last. “The last thing we need is for her to know our names.”
“What differences does it make what I call you? I could call you Dylan Meiner-jijo or idiot and she won’t know the difference. She can’t understand any of it. She’s Targo.”
Jacey pushed herself up further and swallowed. “Dylan?” she whispered.
Dylan turned and looked at her, like he heard something but wasn’t certain if he had.
“Dylan, it’s–it’s Jacey.”
He blinked and began searching her face. “Jacey?”
“Yes! It’s me.”
Immediately he was at her side, fumbling with his knife to cut her bonds. “Jacey–what happened? Why–?” He looked at the men. “You fools! We failed. A simple task and we failed.”
“I swear, Dylan,” her kidnapper said. “I did exactly as he said.”
“Jacey is my sister! Not Commander Borut’s wife.”
“There was no reason why there should have been a problem.”
“Dylan.” Jacey put a hand on his arm.
He turned and looked at her. “What?”
“I–am Heddwyn’s wife.”
For a moment he stared at her, all color gone from his face. Then, like in a daze, he shook his head. “Impossible. You won’t have let him attack us.”
“He didn’t! He doesn’t want a war with Aldroa. He isn’t foolish like that.”
“He has, Jacey. Many times. Parthos–he lost his wife because of the attack.”
“No.” Jacey looked at her brother. “Heddwyn does not kill the women. He may take them as prisoner but he doesn’t kill them. I was there when he attacked once. I know. He–he wouldn’t.”
“Then who would?”
Jacey shook her head. “I don’t know. But not Heddwyn. He’s been trying to get out of this area during the last five months. That’s not the actions of someone wanting to start a war with Aldroa.”
The men shifted.
Dylan shook his head. “I–I don’t know what to say, Jacey. Someone has been and that someone does exactly what he does.”
“Except Heddwyn would never have one of his men kill a woman. Even when he picks his men, he looks for ones that won’t. I can’t say the same about Ketekey.”
Dylan stared at her. “You’re saying then that we were set up.”
“I don’t know why Lord Conward would set you up but–it is quite possible. I don’t know he would gain from it though Heddwyn’s said often enough that Rok Conward has no military talent at all. Even with another war, it is doubtful that Rok Conward would be given a command position.”
“Wait–you know Lord Conward?”
“Not–closely. I’ve met him, yes.”
“You were an innkeeper’s servant in Ketekey and you met him?”
“Not in Ketekey, Dylan. What are you thinking about?”
He stared at her a moment. “LOrd Conward is from Ketekey. He’s been giving us tips for the last several months about how to avoid Commander Borut.”
“No. There’s no Lord Conward in Ketekey. I know. I’ve lived there three years. He’s Targo. On the war council.”
Dylan exchanged glances with the other men and stood. “Here. Let me help you up.”
Thankfully Jacey took his hand and rose. “Thanks. I’m a little off balance as of late.”
Dylan shook his head. “I don’t know what to say, Jacey. You’ve been gone four years and suddenly I find you’re the wife of a man we have come to fear. And… carrying his child.”
Jacey blushed slightly. “I didn’t know what happened after the mudslide. He offered to marry me and I believed he would treat me well.” Jacey paused and glanced towards the sky. “I don’t think anyone is going to like this, Dylan, but– you have to let me go.”
“No. I can’t do that.”
Jacey looked at him. Even after four years, she was still slightly taller than him. “It will take about four hours for the messenger to return to camp and tell Heddwyn what happened. After that, Heddwyn can ride quickly. He’ll be here in less than half a day. And then…. He won’t handle me being captured well I don’t think.”
“So he was right that your capture would ruin Borut?”
“I think so. He… he will do anything to protect me, if he believes me to be in danger. After how strange he’s been acting, I think he would end up killing himself in the process too. And all of you. You have to do it.”
Dylan searched her face. “Is this what you want, Jacey? Or are you doing it for us again? Because we will do whatever it takes to defend you if you say the word.”
Jacey paused. He remembered.
It had been four years ago. She sat in the corner, sewing, as her parents, Dylan, and Troy discussed in low voices about the lack of money coming in. She had heard this discussion often enough and so far, neither Dylan nor Troy had managed to earn enough money to bale them out of the trouble. But she had heard enough of it to know.
Quietly, Jacey stood and cleaned her throat. “FAther?”
Miener glanced up. “Yes, Jacey?”
She paused. She hadn’t asked him if she could do this and now that it had come to it, she didn’t know how he’d respond. Quietly she pulled out the large bag of money and placed it on the table.
He picked it up and expertly weighed it in his hand. “Where did you get this?”
She took a deep breath. “I signed a contract with an innkeeper in Ketekey to be his bond servant. You needn’t worry. His wife died and left him with some children and him having no clue how to raise them. But I made certain that it is honorable in the contract.”
“You signed yourself away?” Dylan exploded.
“It’s only for five years. I’ll be back in five years and everything will be fine.”
“Five years is a long time, Jacey,” Miener said. “I can’t promise–”
“I’ll be fine. But you need the money and we need a way to get out of debt. It’s mine turn now, as the oldest daughter.”
“Do you want to do this, Jacey?” Miener asked softly.
Jacey paused. “I don’t have choice. I already agreed. I’ll be leaving in two days.”
“You have a choice in everything, Jacey!” Dylan said. “Don’t say that. You’re going to be an old maid of you do this.”
“I don’t here, Dylan. We needed to do something drastic. I’ll be fine.”
Jacey licked her lips and looked back up at Dylan. “No, Dylan. It’s not like before. This time I want to go back, for him. I love him.”
“You love–a man who kills for pleasure?”
“He kills because it’s his job. He’s–really quite gentle.”
Dylan sighed faintly. “Fine. But you better have a good reason for this besides he’s going to snap.”
“You need to talk with him. He speaks Aldroian. You need to tell him what you know.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because… because he’ll be able to figure it out. He knows what’s going on better than I do. And he knows how the Ketekeys think.”
Dylan nodded. “Very well.” He turned. “You heard her. We’re riding out to meet him.”