Hunted

Oriana and Jonathan had decided it would be a good idea to pretend their conversation had never happened, at least as far as the rest of the family would be concerned. Oriana knew by then that they would never do her any harm, but it was safer for everyone if they didn't know her true identity.

Instead, she spent the next few weeks learning anything Wrench's family would teach her. Already naturally inquisitive, Oriana's desire to keep her mind occupied left her even more eager to learn than usual. The fact that she was leaving everything she'd ever known behind for the Romantics' homeland (which they told her was called Viducia) still made her uneasy if she thought about it too directly.

She learned to play a few simple tunes on Jonathan's lute, and how to dance like they did (which involved a great deal of jumping around and was delightful). She learned some of their songs and taught them some of the ones she knew. She learned a little about how the caravan ran, but couldn't wrap her head around anything other than the most basic workings of the machine.

When she tired of learning or ran out of subjects, she would hunt for dinner. This concept utterly baffled the family, who had never seen anyone use a bow as much more than a toy at short distances. Oriana tried to teach Wrench how to shoot, but her friend seemed just as incapable of understanding it as Oriana would be trying to build a caravan from scratch. Wrench had eventually become frustrated and thrown her namesake at the fox they were hunting, accomplishing more than she had all day. That night at dinner, a proud look followed her for the whole meal.

But there was only so much to keep her occupied on the road, and by the time the mountains that separated Viducia and Oriana's homeland—Mardok—were in sight, she was beginning to dwell on the past again. Even though she could almost see Wrench's family like they were her own, she missed her mother. Wrench's constant babbling about all the wonders of her homeland barely managed to attract Oriana's attention, and her meals sat abandoned after being poked at in vain.

By the time they finally reached the boundaries of Wildwood—the forest that encompassed most of Mardok—and set up camp in the shadow of the mountains, she was barely able to sit still with all the thoughts scrambling for a spot in the front of her mind. The night was already making way for the earliest hint of dawn when she finally nodded off.

It wasn't long after that she was awakened by a peculiar feeling. Her nose tickled, her mouth felt hot, and she was having trouble breathing. Still groggy, she had almost concluded that she was getting sick when two things happened at once; she realized there was a strip of thick cloth tied over her mouth, and she felt herself lifted into the air and over the shoulder of someone whose dark silhouette she couldn't recognize.

"Gots her. Take care of the rest of 'em."

It took her a moment to wake up fully and realize she was being kidnapped, but when she did she flailed like a fish out of water, punching and kicking at her assailant and trying without avail to scream through her gag. Unfortunately, the brute carrying her, while not much taller, was built like an ox and didn't seem at all affected by Oriana's protestations.

Despite this, Oriana kept at it, refusing to go easily. The man brought her back into the forest, and she had just lost sight of the campfire outside the caravan when she managed to push her gag from her mouth and scream at the top of her lungs.

"Won't do ya any good, ya little freak, " the man said, laughing. "Them Romantics is all tied up by now and they'll be dead soon enough."

This only caused Oriana to fight even harder. She couldn't let Wrench's family die! But she was having no effect whatsoever; he was just too much bigger. She had to try something different.

“Let me go! I'll pay you!"

Instead of letting her go, he stopped for a moment and tied a thick rope around her arms and body, and a smaller one around her ankles, before throwing her back over his shoulder. Oriana's attempts at stopping him may as well have not happened for all the good they did.

"You gots no money. Not that you'd be able to pay more'n the mayor anyway."

"I’ll… I'll use my magic on you!”

“Ain’t no such thing. Besides, you told that music boy you don't got any, and other than you hunts with a bow you don't seem special. Good with a bow you may be, but it won’t do you much good now, all tied up.”

"...how do you know all that?"

The man laughed again. He didn't seem to be taking this very seriously.

"Followed you right from Owvry! Heard the whole thing. Everything. Broke off to Noxton to hire some muscle when my partner didn't show, but picked up the trail again in time to grab you before the mountains. 'mpressive, dontcha think?"

Oriana did not.

"Where are you taking me?" she demanded, as much as a small girl can demand something from a very large kidnapper.

"To see the mayor," he obliged. "Not that it's any your business. You sure talks a lot for a kidnapped person."

He had just decided to gag her again when there was a crash a dozen paces away.

"What is that...?" He dropped Oriana on the ground and disappeared into the brush, but it didn't do her much good; she was still tied up and almost entirely unable to move. Not to mention there was more crashing now, behind her and very loud.

It sounded like a bear.

Even if she wasn't tied up, and had her bow with her, a bear was not something Oriana could deal with. Her stories of fighting one had not been ones she'd ever intended on coming true. She tried to curl up into a ball, making herself as small as possible in the hope it would pass her by.

Unfortunately, it seemed to be headed straight for her, and as soon as it cleared the brush, it stepped right on her ribs.

"Ow!" Oriana protested, but was alive, which she thought was odd. Bears were supposed to be heavy.

"Oriana? What're you doin' down dere?"

"...Wrench?" Even though the sun was just now peeking through the trees, Oriana could make out her friend's blinding white smile and the slight flash of her gigantic wrench. It was certainly a more welcome sight than a bear. "But... he said you were all tied up!"

“Yeah, well now I ain’t. Speakin' of ‘he’, where is dat tern-lover!” Wrench's face suddenly contorted into one that could have peeled the bark off a tree. It was obvious she didn't intend to speak with the man.

“You must have scared him off," Oriana surmised. She had certainly been scared.

“Well... good riddance!" Wrench decided, face returning to normal. "Let’s get ya back to da caravan den.”

“Is everyone okay?” Oriana asked, as Wrench helped her get loose from her bonds and up onto her feet again.

Wrench's eye twinkled in a way that spelled trouble as clearly as letters might. “Not everyone.”

* * *

“… and Crow's drownin' mudder in a pool a pine needles and den I hears ya scream and wake up tied up beside da caravan! Turns out everythin' but yer scream were a dream. So me fadder says dey took ya into da woods an' I stands up (dat rope couldna held a sleepin' hare from chasin' a fox), clocks da guard 'fore he knows what’s goin' on, unties me fadder, and takes off after ya.”

“What about the other guards?”

“Da family can handle demselves," Wrench assured her, coming out onto the road. "Dose guys jus' got lucky wit—”

“Oriana!” came a startled cry.

“Oi Jon, she’s fine—”

“What did he do to you!” Jonathan interrupted, looking very much like he didn't believe she was fine.

Puzzled, Oriana and Wrench looked at each other.

“Oh, yer face…” Wrench whispered, her eye wide with shock.

“What? I’m fine.”

“Yer, uh... yer covered in blood. Gross.” Wrench didn't sound worried, but she sure looked it.

Oriana, figuring it must have been a trick of the early dawn light, wiped a hand across her face and felt something slick. Her own eyes widened and she knelt in the grass, frantically wiping her hands on it and refusing to look.

"Are you sure you're okay?" Jonathan demanded, trying to get a good look at her face.

“I-I don’t know! I think so!” Oriana was trying not to think about what was on her, trying not to cry.

Jonathan seemed satisfied that she wasn't injured and gave up questioning her. “Okay. Don't worry about it. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Though she felt fine physically, she needed Wrench's help to get back to the caravan. Outside, near the dying campfire, she noticed a group of bodies and her stomach clenched. Who had been hurt? Were they dead? But as they drew closer she wasn't able to recognize a single one of them; they all seemed to be big burly men like the one who had taken her.

“Sorry I wasn't of any help back there," Jonathan fretted. "They grabbed Samantha while I was sleeping and they said they'd kill her if I resisted. I... I couldn't let them do that.”

“It's okay, I understand. But they were going to kill all of you anyway," Oriana murmured matter-of-factly, exhausted. "The one that took me said.”

“What? They gave her their word they wouldn't harm her if I surrendered! Those scoundrels!”

“I thought you said you weren't gullible." She peered up—her face a grim mask—at Jonathan.

Jonathan stared right back, shocked. Then he started laughing, and Oriana weakly followed. “That was in very poor taste,” Jonathan protested, but he was grinning.

“I know, I'm sorry! I couldn't help it. I feel a little crazy," Oriana said. The look on Wrench's face said she thought 'a little' might be generous.

“It’s quite alright. I think we all do after this," Jonathan assured her.

Oriana sat on the step of the Caravan as Wrench went inside to get some water and a cloth. “So what happened here anyway?”

“They grabbed Uncle Julian first," Jonathan explained, kneeling beside her. "He was up late tending the fire. They knocked him out cold before he had a chance to fight back, the cowards. Then they grabbed you, which you know all about. I wouldn't have even noticed if Auntie Piper hadn't woken up looking for Uncle. She tried to warn us, but they had already tied Samantha and the boys up in their sleep, and with that as leverage they got the rest of us before we could do anything."

Wrench came back outside with the cloth and got to work while Jonathan continued. "Wrench here didn't even wake up until you screamed, slept right through being tied up. But then…” He chuckled, but it was a darkish sound. “That was about it for them."

"She got loose, took out the one guarding us, untied Uncle Julian, and ran off after you. The other thugs were busy ransacking the caravan, so Uncle Julian loosed the rest of us. It didn't take long for us to best them when they didn't have the element of surprise and prisoners to hold over our heads.”

“What about now?" Oriana asked, wincing as Wrench cleaned a small scratch that definitely wasn't the source of this much blood. She recalled the pile of bodies. "Are they dead?”

“No, I don't think so. A couple are unconscious, and they're all tied up. We bandaged the worst of their wounds. They'll hobble off after we've moved on I'm sure. I doubt they'll be eager to chase us across the mountains, and the one Wrench encountered won't even be walking any time soon.”

Oriana shuddered at the thought of being hit by Wrench's implement. Wrench expressed her annoyance at her patient moving around by firmly grabbing Oriana's chin with one hand and pointing it straight forward.

“Just to be safe, though, we’re packing up early and heading into the mountains today," Jonathan said as Wrench finished and returned to the cabin. When Jonathan was sure she'd gone he gestured toward the mountains with a small smile.

"It’s time for you to meet Viducia.”

The End

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