Hilda regained full consciousness strapped to the back of a wyvern. A blanket enveloped her, tied by ropes. The blanket and ropes pinned her arms to her sides, but her legs and ankles were free, for all the good it did her while she was aloft. She groaned and raised her head to relieve the pressure. Her face and toes were cold from the altitude. At some point, her hair had come loose, and she spat strands out of her face as she tried to get a glimpse of the land below.
The sun was at its highest point in the sky when her wyvern’s wingbeats began to slow. It lost altitude gradually until it finally landed in a patch of tall grass. A man’s voice called out, and the wyvern lumbered under the cover of some pines.
Hilda’s teeth chattered as her captor untied the ropes lashing her to the saddle and hoisted her down from the animal. “I need to stand up,” she said. “The blood’s pooled in my head. I’m going to throw up.”
“So throw up,” Ehfaz said.
“I’ll be sure to aim for you when I do.”
Ehfaz chuckled and carried her like a sack of potatoes under the trees. He tossed her onto the ground and returned to the wyvern. Hilda squirmed until she got her knees under her and she could finally sit up.
She wasn’t alone. A young woman with dark, wavy hair sat with her wrists tied a few feet away. Claude’s future wife. The woman sobbed, her cheeks windburned and streaked with tears.
“Great, just great,” Hilda murmured to herself. She’d warned Claude to stay away, but there’s no way he would if Ehfaz had stolen his bride. He’d waltz right into this trap.
“Hello,” Hilda said in Almyran. “Your name?”
The woman’s eyebrows rose as she looked at Hilda. “Lady Goneril! You’re not dead!”
“Shh.” Hilda glanced at where Ehfaz was tending to the two wyverns. “Call me Hilda.”
“I’m Sabiha. Oh, what are we going to do? He flew so fast, and I’m terrified of heights. Do you think he’s going to kill us?”
Sabiha continued to babble. Great, she was one of those who ran at the mouth when she was afraid. Hilda didn’t understand a third of what she said, but it probably wasn’t that important.
“Hush,” Hilda said. “I will save us. Just need, uh, no rope around arms?”
Sabiha frowned. Hilda sighed. Her Almyran wasn’t great, but it wasn’t that bad, surely?
“Khalid will come for us,” Sabiha said, lip quivering. “We already had a plan for me to flee Almyra, so I’m sure he was able to follow quickly.”
Hilda had managed to catch most of that. “What plan?”
“We aren’t going to marry each other. I already have a lover, and Khalid is in love with you. We’ve spent weeks making a plan that will let me escape without disgracing my family. We were going to leave last night.”
Two other wyvern riders had landed—likely hired men. Ehfaz was on his way back, so Hilda and Sabiha shut their mouths. So many feelings swirled inside Hilda she thought she might burst. Claude was so handsome and smart and kind she’d just assumed Sabiha would want to marry him. Anger and despair and joy clashed so violently that in the end, Hilda felt ill.
“Untie me,” Hilda said in Fódlish. The way Ehfaz had wrapped her left no possibility of getting her hands free. Since her legs weren’t bound, maybe she could get him in range for a kick.
Ehfaz chuckled. “Absolutely not. I’m not going to give you the slightest chance of overpowering me.”
“Then how will I eat?”
“You think I’d waste food on either one of you?”
Hilda gritted her teeth. What could she do? She and Ehfaz were cut from too similar of cloth to be able to manipulate each other. Using her raw strength and skill was the only way she could win. She had to figure something out—Claude was on his way. She needed to rescue Sabiha and get them out of there before Ehfaz could spring his trap.
“What are you going to do to him?” Hilda asked.
“Worry about yourself first.” Ehfaz smirked. “I’ll leave you dead and broken before Fódlan’s Locket so your brother will retaliate. The fighting will start before Khalid arrives. I’m sure a ‘stray’ arrow will pick him off when he shows up.”
“Then let Sabiha go. She’s served her purpose. She doesn’t even want to marry Khalid.”
Ehfaz shook his head. “No, I think I’ll keep her. Maybe I’ll marry her myself. Wouldn’t hurt to have the backing of the Nasir family.”
“She has to be willing to marry you.”
“I have ways of making sure she’s willing.”
Hilda scowled. It would be super gross, but if he came close enough, she was going to tear his throat out with her teeth. It was better than he deserved. Now was the time to act if he truly was planning on starving them.
Sabiha continued to weep quietly.
That gave Hilda an idea. She burst into tears. Not the restrained, despairing tears of Sabiha, but loud, ugly sobbing. She threw back her head and howled as tears rolled down her face.
“Be quiet,” Ehfaz snapped.
Hilda wailed louder. Usually, merely getting misty eyed worked, but this was no time for half measures. The only person crying had never worked on was Claude.
Ehfaz was no Claude.
“I said shut up,” Ehfaz said, storming over to her.
He raised his hand to strike her, but the second he was in range, she launched herself at him. Her head smacked the underside of his jaw, and he tumbled backward onto the ground. The men at the wyverns turned and drew their bows.
“Run,” Hilda shouted to Sabiha and sprinted away. The blanket reached almost to her knees, but she worked the opening wider. There was no time to look back and see if Sabiha followed. This was likely her only chance to get away. She created the opportunity, and there was nothing else she could do for the other woman.
Thank the goddess it was daytime. It was hard enough to run in a forest, and even more difficult while wrapped in a blanket. Ehfaz had long legs. He’d likely catch up soon. There was no way for her to climb a tree, nowhere to hide. Her head pounded from the poison and the wyvern ride. She forced her feet to move faster. If she stopped, she was dead.
Hilda stumbled as something hit her in the left deltoid. An arrow protruded from the blanket. One of those bastards had shot her! Thank goodness he wasn’t as good of a shot as Claude. She swerved, and another arrow whistled by her ear.
They couldn’t run and shoot at the same time. If she could just avoid the arrows, she might be able to put enough distance between them that Ehfaz couldn’t catch up. An arrow struck the tree beside her. She gasped and ran faster. Another arrow grazed the right side of the blanket, an inch above the rope. Damn it, so close. If she could just get her arms free.
Hilda yelped as she tripped over a root. An arrow sailed over her head—good timing for her fall—but without her hands, it took her a moment to regain her feet. Another arrow hit her in the shoulder blade. Dirt and pine needles filled her mouth as she fell again.
It was all the time Ehfaz needed to catch up. He grabbed the rope, hauled her to her feet, and slapped her so hard across the face she toppled back on the ground.
She spat blood in his face when he hauled her upright again. “Go ahead,” she said. “Kill me now.”
If she was dead, Claude wouldn’t make any stupid decisions when he showed up. Or so she hoped. Assuming he actually did still love her, of course. No matter what, she had to keep him safe. She’d promised, and besides, two countries would benefit from his leadership.
“I would love nothing more,” Ehfaz snarled in her face. “But I know how important you are to Khalid. I know you were going to be wed. Your brother asked about it in every one of his letters. Pity he never got any of yours in return.”
Hilda stared at him.
Ehfaz smiled. “That’s right. Your letters to him were boring and banal—nice work, by the way, you obviously understood you might be spied on—but his…his revealed so much about you. It made it all the easier to play to your weaknesses, to allow you to act the delicate flower while still encouraging you to fight Bakur.”
Damn it, Holst. Then again, she should have done more investigation when she hadn’t received any replies. She’d just assumed her letters might have gotten intentionally lost or that they hadn’t made it over the Locket.
“So, I’m not going to kill you now. No, I think I’ll deliver a mortal wound when he can watch me do it. Then you can watch me kill him. Something romantic in that, no?”
Hilda trembled. She’d played the helpless maiden most of her life, but usually it was an act. The feeling was far more terrifying than she’d ever imagined.
This time, the tears that leaked from her eyes were real.
“Oh, good,” Ehfaz murmured. “You realized there’s no way out of this.”
That didn’t mean she was going to make it easy for him. She went limp. He cursed and struggled with her dead weight as he dragged her back to where he’d picketed the wyverns. She hadn’t run nearly as far as she’d thought. Sabiha, to her chagrin, was still there, although she, too, bore a red mark on her face from being struck. One of the soldiers had her by the arm.
“I’m not going to let you kill me,” Hilda said. “I’ll bite off my tongue and—”
Ehfaz slapped her again. Sabiha gasped.
“I’m not going to give you the chance,” Ehfaz said.
He pulled a bottle out of a saddlebag and uncorked it. Then he pinched Hilda’s nose shut. She tried to hold her breath, but she eventually failed. He poured the liquid into her mouth the moment she gasped for air. She sputtered and choked but accidentally swallowed some. Her eyelids grew heavy.
Ehfaz sneered. “Good night.”
Hilda tumbled into darkness and knew no more.