That evening they set up camp in a forest close to a river so they could wash before heading toward Peria and Artem’s court. While the men set up camp, Rowena was allowed to bathe first. She undressed and slipped into the cold, calm water, shivering as goose bumps came up on her arms. Sinking under the water she enjoyed the feeling of the water around her, caressing her skin and spreading her hair out like a blanket behind her.
She surfaced again, gasping for air and soaking wet. She felt so much more refreshed and lay back in the water, just allowing herself to float along with the current. Every so often she would swim back upstream a little way so she didn’t lose her clothes, which she had left on the branch of a nearby tree.
When her fingers began to wrinkle from the water she climbed up the riverbank and out of the river. Shivering as the air made contact with the water on her skin, she hurriedly pulled on her under dress and began to lace up her corset. She reached out for her dress but her hands met empty air. She looked around the tree and on the floor, puzzled as to where it could possibly have gone.
‘Looking for something?’ Erik’s smooth voice slid out from the trees. When he emerged he was holding Rowena’s navy blue dress in his hand.
‘Oh it’s just you,’ Rowena said, trying to be light, but couldn’t help hiding the fear that was creeping up inside her. ‘I thought it was someone else.’
‘I wouldn’t worry my dear, there isn’t anyone else around.’ Although she was sure this was meant to be reassuring, the oily tone with which Erik spoke made it sound very threatening. His eyes were fixed on her and the creepy smile on his face told her that he was enjoying seeing her squirm.
‘Umm, may I have my dress back please,’ she said, using her arms to cover as much of her exposed flesh as she could.
‘It’s a pretty dress isn’t it,’ he said, ignoring her and holding out the dress to admire it. ‘His majesty got it for you I remember. That was very generous of him.’
‘He’s been very kind to me, and he did not need to be, but I’m very grateful.’
‘I’m sure you are,’ he said, an edge creeping into his voice. ‘But the real question is do you deserve it?’
‘Pardon?’ Rowena did a double take, not sure what Erik was trying to say.
‘I heard you talking with Ishak earlier. Poor little princess, all lost and alone, what on earth is she to do? Lucky for her that her handsome prince showed up in time to save her.’ He advanced on Rowena, his eyes sparkling with anger, hatred and pleasure. The mixture of all these emotions was so intense and frightening; Rowena took a step back, almost slipping down the side of the riverbank and into the water. ‘And like the fool he is Artem believed your little story. I wonder who he’ll trust after I tell him who you really are.’
‘Please don’t do that,’ Rowena pleaded.
‘Now why would I tell him in the first place?’
‘But I thought you just said you were going to tell him.’
‘I could tell him, but why would I want to stop him from taking his princess home? Especially if he won’t return. Artem has been in control for far too long, he shouldn’t have been in power in the first place. It’s time someone else took over.’
‘But you’re not from Madrimar. Even if you got rid of Artem you would never become king.’
‘You know your stuff my lady,’ he said sarcastically. ‘But there is someone else, a good friend of mine who wants to take the crown away from him. I would be a bad friend if I didn’t help him get what he wants.’
‘Well I’m going to tell him,’ Rowena said, her back hitting a tree as she tried to back away from Erik, who was now uncomfortably close. ‘I care too much about him to lie to him anymore. Artem will be hurt and refuse to take me home, then he’ll be re-elected as Madrimar’s King of Thieves.’ Erik laughed at this, a jarring rumble that made Rowena shrink away.
‘I love your innocence. You think that because you say something will be so that’s the way things will be.’
‘I say that because there is no way you can stop me from telling Artem the truth.’
‘Well then I’ll just have to go for second best. If I can’t kill the King, then I’ll just have to destroy him.’ Rowena flinched as Erik’s hand slid down the side of her cheek. ‘I wonder what he would think if he knew the woman he has fallen for was actually just using him for her own ends.’
‘Take your hands off me,’ Rowena said, trying desperately to stay calm under Erik’s touch. ‘I said, stop touching me,’ she said, slightly more firmly when Erik refused to take his hand away from her arm.
‘What would he think if he could see us right now? His love being intimate with another man.’
‘Get away,’ she said, putting her hands on Erik’s chest and trying to push him away, but he was too strong and managed to stand his ground. ‘I’ll scream,’ she said weakly, her voice wobbling.
‘Go ahead, they won’t be able to hear you.’ His hand was on her waist now, pulling her against him. In a last attempt to break free, Rowena slapped Erik full in the face; he staggered backwards but was still too quick for Rowena, grabbing her skirt before she could get out of his reach. There was a loud ripping sound and a slit appeared in Rowena’s underskirt. She pulled away from him, trying to get her skirt out of Erik’s grip.
Erik stumbled and let go of the skirt to steady himself. Rowena took the opportunity and ran towards the camp. She crashed through the undergrowth, emerging into the clearing and running straight into Artem.
‘Whoa, what’s happened?’ He stared down at Ena, her hair still damp and tangled, her under dress ripped and the straps falling off her shoulders. She looked a mess.
‘Nothing,’ she said hurriedly. ‘I was just… I mean…’ The others gathered around, all looking concerned. ‘It was Erik,’ she said. ‘He had my dress and I didn’t know what to do.’
‘Did he hurt you?’ Artem said, immediately concerned, a hint of anger edging his voice.
‘No, I don’t think so. It just scared me a bit.’
‘Right then. Where is he?’ Artem’s face was fixed in a determined frown as he marched off towards the river.
‘Please don’t make a fuss,’ Rowena said following him. ‘I don’t want there to be an argument over this.’
‘I just want to talk to him.’ Artem stormed out of the trees and onto the riverbank to find it was deserted. ‘Where has he gone?’ There was no sign of Erik or Rowena’s dress anywhere and no clues to where they had gone.
‘Just leave it Artem,’ Rowena pleaded, taking hold of his arm. ‘He’s gone now and there’s nothing you can do.’
‘I just don’t like the thought of him treating you like that,’ he said turning to Rowena and taking her hand. ‘I just wish I could have taught him a lesson.’
‘Please forget it. Let’s get back to camp.’ Rowena led Artem away from the riverbank with little resistance. ‘Are you alright Artem?’ Rowena asked as they entered the camp.
‘I’m fine, just angry. How dare he treat you like that.’
'It’s fine, there is nothing that can be done about it now.’