The largest of the three men stepped forward menacingly, broadsword held aloft in his hand and motioning for the other two to circle us from the back.
I followed their movements with my eyes, holding onto Kai’s arm even harder. He eyed them warily, assessing the level of danger they posed, then turned back to the man in front.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Kai called out, his voice betrayed no emotion.
My breath gathered in my lungs as the man stood silently, watching us. I shifted my weight from my left leg, testing if I could stand without support. My knee buckled under my weight painfully, and a hiss of pain escaped through my teeth.
The men snapped out of their staring match, both sets of eyes focused on me.
Kai steadied me with his free hand, calloused palm gripping my wrist in a gesture almost identical to the night we first met. His eyes flicked to my knee momentarily, then back up at my assailant.
“I asked you a question,” his voice unwavering, “In the name of the Emperor, I command you to make yourself known!”
For the first time, the bandit’s eyes showed a flicker of emotion, and not a pleasant one. Anger clouded his features as his brows drew together. The voice that escaped his throat was one of hostility, every syllable filled with hatred.
“I answer not to that tyrant’s name, nor do I obey him!”
I stared at him in confusion, trying to decipher his thick, southern accent. What was he saying about my Father? I looked up at Kai with a questioning stare, bet he continued watching the man intently.
“Talk sense, man. Why do you speak ill of your liege?”
“I am Alarick, and he is no liege of mine, nor of my men! His forces annihilate our people, castrate our boys, rape our women and enslave our girls. He is a demon, not of this realm!” What was visible of his face had reddened with rage.
I wasn’t sure if I had heard properly, but there was no mistaking the hatred in his words.
“General, what is he talking about?” I hissed, still supporting myself on his arm
“Quiet.” he snapped at me, turning back to the bandits.
“You are aware that your words alone are tantamount to treason?” Kai enquired
The man let out a macabre laugh: “ Stranger, we are all traitors here!” he flicked his ugly sword casually, “ This is no mans land, no Imperial edicts are followed here. You, soldier, will suffer the death so many of our own suffered at the hands of your comrades!”
He began to walk around us, boots crunching on the sandy floor. Kai mirrored his movement till he an I were back to back. I watched the other two men apprehensively, trying to balance on one leg and still appear composed.
They leered at me with gap toothed smiles, what was left of their teeth were yellow and rotten. One of the lifted the filthy scrap of fabric that had previously covered his face and blew his nose into it loudly.
The distaste must’ve shown on my face because the other, shorter man started to inch closer to me.
“Think we’re dirty, don’t you, wench? Come on over here, we’ll give you a better time than that soldier boy of yours!”
I blanched at his vulgar words, glaring at him: “I’d rather swallow poison than be within an arm’s reach of you, swine.” I spat
My anger only seemed to fuel his excitement further.
“Feisty too! You’ll warm me bed up just right!”
I clenched my fists, silently seething as I stopped myself from lashing out at him. Kai glanced back at me with a warning look.
Huh. Now he notices me? I turned away, completely ignoring him.
“I doubt you would last long enough to warm anything,” I bit back curtly
The bandit’s leer vanished, replaced with a nasty scowl.
“ Think you’re funny, do you girl?”
I egged him on: The angrier he was the more mistakes he’d make. I lifted my chin, looking him in the eye innocently:
“ Funny? No, good man, I merely speak the truth.” I leaned forward conspiratorially, “It looks smaller than my baby brother’s!”
For a split second, I basked in the satisfaction of the outrage on his face as his manly prowess felt the blows of my comments.
The man lunged forward, broadsword missing me by an inch. I stumbled backwards into Kai, dragging my injured leg behind me.
Kai wrapped his muscled arm around my waist, effectively lifting me off my feet. I momentarily forgot our predicament as I squawked with indignation: “Put me down, you beast!”
Naturally he paid no heed.
I felt his breath fan on my neck, hot as he whispered: “I want you to run, get on Ebony and go,” he sized up the attackers as he spoke.
Wonderful. Now he wanted me to play the damsel in distress?
“My knee is dislocated, you imbecile!” I hissed back, trying to hang on to his arm, “ Besides, I am not leaving you here on your own, so there!”
He looked down at me stunned. A slow smirk spread across his lips as he regarded me with what seemed to be satisfaction.
“Then,” he shrugged, “ We fight.”