For You I Suffer
At first, I hardly knew in which direction I ran. My only thought was away! Away from the agonizing knowledge that the baron wanted nothing more than to be rid of me. I knew that I was at fault, that I had no one to blame but myself for betraying him. But I had at least hoped to have a chance to plead my case, to tell him how much I loved him and hope that he would find it within his heart to forgive me. Even if we only went back to how we once were, with him as my lord and master and me ready to grovel at his feet, I would have been satisfied. But now there was no hope, and all I could do was to try and escape the pain of it.
It was very dark, the moon choosing that night to hide its bright face. Once I could no longer see the lights of the castle, I found my way more by feel than anything. I tripped once and then again, my shackled hands unable to catch me as I spilled to the ground. My face hit the dirt hard and some of it got into my mouth and went up my nose. I spat out the odorous soil, my knees and palms aching with minor scrapes. The chain holding my hands together clinked as I shivered in the night air, the breeze growing cooler with the reminder that autumn had nearly arrived.
My cheeks were particularly chilled as they became wet with tears. I wanted so much to just lie there. I was so tired that I did not think I could manage even one more step. But, though my heart ached so much I felt I might die from the pain, I knew that my parents would be sorely disappointed in me if I let myself give up. I could just imagine the looks on their faces if I were to stay here, lying in the dirt until hunger and cold took their fatal toll. Just imagining how upset they would be with me gave me the strength to rise up onto my knees.
As I slowly gained my feet, I had a sudden and overpowering urge to return home. It had been so very long since I had seen the fields and meadows where I had spent my childhood. Far too much time had passed since I last saw the house where my mother had labored to bring me into the world and where I had wept for her and my father when I learned of their deaths. And the memory of Hilde, who I had barely thought of these many months, grew in my mind like a beacon of longing, guiding my steps.
I was running before I was fully aware that I was moving at all. I was not at all certain that I knew the way home, but if I could only find my way into the forest, I was certain I would remember the path. Exhaustion clouded my judgment, for in a more rational state I would never have considered such a mad journey. But my steps headed toward the distant, dark haze of Furuiki as though infused with their own purpose.
The distance was too far to reach in a single night, even if I had been completely healthy. As it was, in my fragile state, I was only able to last as long as it took me to find shelter. I had skirted the more populated villages and was nearly on the boundary of Windshire lands when I found a suitable place to bed down. The barn stood well apart from the main cottage, and even better, there was a small stand of apple trees between me and the structure. I picked up a few pieces of fallen fruit from the ground beneath the tree and headed to the barn.
I opened the door cautiously, listening carefully for any sounds of occupation by man or beast. But all was silent, so I closed the door behind me to the same degree I had found it. Climbing was difficult with the restricted use of my hands. But with the last of my strength, I climbed up an old ladder to the hayloft. The hay pricked mercilessly at my tender skin as I lay down, but I was asleep before I could even register the discomfort. The apples fell unheeded at my side.
The sun was low in the sky when I finally awoke, but it was not early morning. Rather I had slept the day away as my rumbling stomach vociferously informed me. The day must have been warm, for my body did not ache as though I had been shivering in my sleep. I glanced out of the small window in the wall of the loft, but I saw no signs of life. Perhaps the owners were away or had business elsewhere for the day.
Whatever the case, I was grateful not to have been discovered. My resolve to return to Fashel had not waned while I slept. I chanced a brief trip outside of the barn to relieve myself. Upon my return, I tried to clear my mind enough to form some sort of plan as I ate several of the stolen apples and picked a bushel's worth of straw from my hair. I thought back to my journey to Windshire all those months ago. Overwhelmed by the strange sights of Furuiki, I had paid little attention to our route. But I did remember that we had followed the path of a small stream - a tributary of the River Pesh - nearly from the time we entered the forest until we left it at its closest egress to the castle. I knew that if only I could find it again, I could follow it back to the Pholan. From there I could easily find my way back to my home since Fashel was one of the larger villages beyond that great city.
I did not stop to think about how suspicious a shackled, naked man would look even in such a cosmopolitan place as Pholan. Instead, I kept my thoughts focused solely in one direction, afraid that if I let them wander they would return to the one place I did not want them to go.
Now that I had a course of action, I was eager to put as much distance between Windshire and myself as I could. Realizing that I would never see the baron again, I wanted to be far away from anything that would remind me of him. Otherwise, I knew that my resolve would weaken and I would go crawling back to him to beg for scraps of his affection if only he would allow me to remain at his side. It had been a long time since I had let myself feel any pride, and though it was difficult, I tried hard to scrape together enough to see my plan through.
I waited until darkness fell once more before leaving the barn. Though I did find a small bit of cloth to tie around my store of apples, I had been unable to find even a blanket to use as a covering. Thus, I remained naked as I made my way across the barren field stretched beyond the cottage. The inhabitants had returned at dusk, and I was glad that the moon was still dark as I ran past lighted windows. I could see the family - a man, woman, and two adolescent boys - sitting down to dinner. But I was soon beyond the warm reach of light from the window and darkness was once again my only companion.
Even in my weakened state, I had managed to go farther than I imagined the night before. I had only been running for about an hour when I sensed rather than saw a black mass looming ever larger in the distance. I was not until the smell of pine reached my nose that I realized I had finally reached the outskirts of the forest. I paused at the edge of the dense growth, marveling at the size of the trees even though they were young compared to those nestled in the deeper reaches.
I could hear the sounds of night even over the pounding of my heart. Small creatures scurried beneath the undergrowth and carpet of fallen leaves. A hoot and a strangled squeak announced an owl's successful hunt. I heard a few snarls and growls, but told myself that they were from small animals and not from anything large enough to hurt me. The baron's soldiers had chased away all the wolves they could find after my encounter with Argent, and I could only trust that they had done their job well.
But I still shook from more than the night chill as I took my first steps into the forest. I forced myself to proceed, however, driven by emotions far more powerful than fear.
The location of the stream remained a mystery, for though I was sure I would run across it if I moved further into the forest, I knew I would not be able to locate it at night. I planned to find somewhere to bed down until dawn when I would be able to see where I was going. Moving carefully amongst the dense maze of trees, I walked for well over an hour looking for a suitable shelter. I feared that I would only steal a few hours of sleep before daylight prompted me to continue my travels. But as I moved through the darkness, I realized that the night was still relatively young due to the changing of the seasons.
I was reluctant to stop out in the open. Even the smaller hunters would find me an easy target if I left myself completely exposed. So it was with great relief that I came across the entrance to a cave hidden behind low-hanging branches. Worrying that some creature might have also thought it an ideal place to spend the night, I approached the shadowy hole warily. I found a large rock, and hiding behind a tree, I lobbed it into the mouth of the cave. Nothing stirred, so I stepped from behind the broad trunk and moved closer. I waited several more minutes, but everything remained quiet.
Pleased with the prospect of having walls around me and a roof over my head, I pushed the branches aside and ducked into the dark space. The cave was small, but it was certainly large enough for one man to fit. The stone was smooth but unforgiving as I lay down, trying to find a comfortable position. Though I had only been awake for a few hours, I felt as though tiredness had seeped into my bones and become a part of my very being. It was not long before even the hard floor of the cave became as inviting as a feather mattress, and I was soon fast asleep.
I was unsure at first what had woken me. When I opened my eyes, all I could see was the vague outline of the cave as it was still night time. Nothing had come to investigate the incongruous scent of human, so I could not blame my wakefulness on some curious beast. I had no way of telling what time it was, but from the complete absence of light in the sky, I guessed that dawn was many hours away yet. Convincing myself that it was merely the discomfort of my resting place that had disturbed me, I closed my eyes. But they opened wide barely a second later as I final realized what I had heard even in my sleep.
"It's darker than a witch's cunt out here." The man's voice was low and gravelly, and his boots shifted through the leaves less than five feet from the mouth of my hiding place.
I held my breath, afraid that Lady Une's guards had somehow found me. I cannot say why I was so certain it had to be them. My trainer had not tried to seek me out when I was chained in the kitchen and clearly the baron was not looking for me, so I could think of no other likely suspects. But the truth became horribly clear when another man's voice joined the first.
"And pickin's is damned slim way out here on the edge of nowhere." He spat into the undergrowth. "If we didn't have to rely on only these useless peasants, we wouldn't be out here starvin'."
"It's those damned soldiers' fault," the first man grunted, "for chasing us away from where we used to hunt. Stalking the trails through the forest yielded plenty of rich prey, and no doubt."
"Well if the boss weren't so afraid o' that black-eyed bastard of a captain, we could try our luck. But he got the fear o' death scared inta him when that son-of-a-whore sliced up his face with his sword, neat as ya please."
Bandits! Quatre's voice echoed in my head as I remembered the night he took me to Wufei and his soldiers. I had been their reward for clearing the more traveled parts of the forest of the brigand scourge. But curse my luck, it seemed I had stumbled across their new haunt. I had only heard the two men speaking, but there was no way to be certain if they were alone. I breathed through my mouth, trying to stay as quiet as possible, but the air whooshing in and out of my lungs sounded as loud as thunder as it rushed past my ears. The beat of my heart pounded in my chest like drums at some primitive rite, and I was certain they could hear it.
"If the boss is too frightened of a little boy and his toy sword, maybe he should step aside and let someone else take charge."
"Who, you?" The first man's scoffing chuckle rasped in his throat. I winced in disgust as he spat again, the projectile landing inches away from where I hid. "I'd like to see you try it. The boss lost more than a piece of his face that night. He's been itchin' fer a fight ever since we were forced into robbin' only poor farm folks instead o' the dandies goin' to and from the castle."
"Yeah, well, maybe I'll give ‘im what he wants."
Their voices grew fainter as they passed me and began to move away. I crouched in the small cave, trying to stay as quiet as a mouse until all I could hear was the sound of crickets calling for a mate. And still I remained frozen in place, shivering at how close I had come to being discovered.
I judged that at least ten minutes had passed since I last heard the men's voices. Completely awake from the fright of almost being found by the bandits, I decided to take advantage of the cover of darkness and to get as far away as I could. I eased out of the small cavern on my hands and knees. Once I was clear of the low ceiling, I stood and brushed the dirt and leaves away from my skin and hair. I looked around to get my bearings, not wanting to follow in the direction I had heard the men walking or to head back in the direction of Windshire.
I had just made up my mind on which direction to go when something warm and foul smelling suddenly covered my nose and mouth. The impromptu gag muffled my startled yelp. Fear shot through me from head to toe, making my heart race and sweat break out over my skin. I struggled, trying to dislodge the meaty hand from my face, but all I got for my trouble was an equally brawny arm wrapped around my waist. The man's wrist was as thick as my shin, and even at the peak of healthy I would have been hard pressed to fight him off. A light flared into being as a torch came to life before my eyes. I winced at the sudden brightness after spending so many hours straining to see in the dark.
"Well, well. And just wot have we got here?"
The voice and the torch belong to the first man I had heard, and as he stepped in front of me, I finally had a face to put with the voice. If his voice had sounded unpleasant, his face was doubly so. The man was tall and gangly, but he still likely outweighed me by at least three stone. I could not tell how old he was, but his aged face looked like it had been chewed by something and spit back out. His scarred, pocked skin was not improved by the dirty, lanky brown hair that hung in his face.
But the thing that disturbed me most was the fact that I likely looked far worse than even this miserable specimen.
"I told you I thought I heard somethin' bigger than a rat scuttling around." The man holding me squeezed his arm tighter, thwarting my attempts to free myself.
"You did at that," the first man replied.
"What the hell are you doin' out here, wanderin' around naked in the dark, boy?" The vibration of the second man's chest transmitted his growling query directly to my body as it pressed against my back. The odor wafting from my captor's body was enough to make me gag. But I was not required to answer as the first man responded for me.
"Fuck me, I know who he is. He must be the baron's...I forget what it's called. Well, he's the baron's own personal whore is what he is. I overheard some dandies talkin' about ‘im right before I relieved ‘em of their valuables." Thick fingers latched on to my chin and forced me to meet the first man's muddy gray gaze. "That's what you are, boy. Ain't cha?"
The man holding me laughed as he felt me tremble.
"All this hair is definitely a sight, but he sure don't look like much, not from back here anyway. I was whipped in prison when I was a lad, twenty lashes for stealing some fancy lady's purse. But even my back don't look as bad as his."
"Hmm, well he looks plenty fine from the front." The man standing before me rubbed his thumb over the scar on my cheek and then over my lips. I pressed them together in disgust and tried to jerk my head away, but the man's grip tightened painfully on my chin.
"Yeah," he repeated, "he looks plenty fine." He looked me up and down, his expression twisted into an unattractive leer. He finally let go of me and threw his companion a glance over my shoulder. "Bring him along. The nights are getting long and cold, and I'll bet the boys would appreciate some warm and willing companionship."
"Let me go!" I shouted, struggled against the strong arms holding me in place. "Release me or else!"
"Or else what?" The taller man had turned to lead the way but he unexpectedly wheeled back to thrust his ugly face close to mine. "Is someone searching for you, sweetness? Should we be on the lookout?"
Yes! I wanted to spit the word into his horrid face, to be sure in the knowledge that I spoke the truth. But I could only remain silent as my tongue refused to give shape to the lie. No matter how much I might wish it, no one was coming for me. Even if someone had cared enough to look, no one from the castle could possible know where I had gone. I cursed my foolishness, realizing how absurd I had been to think that I would actually be able to just find my way to Fashel as easy as you please. And now my situation had become even more dire. Rather than the comforts of home, I had found nothing but trouble.
"No, huh? That's what I thought." The man smiled cruelly. "You're running from somethin'." He flicked a finger at the linked iron dangling between my hands. "If you managed to get all the way out here, I'm guessing you managed to give ‘em the slip. So I'll bet no one's gonna think to look for you way out here, ain't that right? Not wearing what you ain't." He smirked at his own tasteless joke. "Not that it would matter if they did. We'd just run ‘em through and leave ‘em to the blood-thirsty beasts of Furuiki, eh?" His smile grew as he fingered the hilt of the sword strapped to his waist.
His companion snorted in amusement at the brutal threat. I could feel the blood drain from my face as the man turned away. They would surely murder anyone who invaded their domain if they could, but I feared that being stabbed through the gut was the least of my worries. Only a simpleton could have missed the innuendo that had dripped from the man's words.
The man holding me stepped to the side and grabbed my shackles, allowing me to see him clearly for the first time. He was slightly taller and heavier than his partner, but he otherwise compared just as unfavorably. He leered at me and the foul stench from his rotting teeth made what was left of the apples I had consumed roll ominously in my stomach.
I did not want to think too closely about where we were headed or what awaited me there. The effort to keep my footing as I was pushed and pulled along a rudimentary dirt path provided plenty of distraction. We walked for a long way, traveling for about three-quarters of an hour before the feeble glow of the torch was suddenly swallowed by a much brighter glow.
We emerged from the trees into a large clearing. Nearly a dozen men filled the space. Some stood around talking while others tended to swords and knives, whetting them with stones and cleaning them with dirty rags. One man crouched over a large pot that sat over a fire in the center of the clearing, sniffing appreciatively at a thin whiff of smoke that rose from whatever was bubbling within it. To a man, they were hard, filthy, and dangerous looking. And a moment after we stepped into the open space, all of their eyes had locked on me.
"What the hell is this?" said one man who had been cleaning his sword. His voice was low and resonant, and a deep, ragged scar ran down the length of his cheek. It was puckered as though it had become infected before it had healed. I guessed that this was the "boss" of whom my captors had spoken. The bandit who had led the way walked over to him, leaving his companion to drag me along.
"We found this unexpected treat while we were scoutin' the perimeter."
"Where are his clothes?" the scarred man asked.
"Yeah, did you have fun without us?" another man guffawed. The tall man grinned, showing a broken row of crooked teeth.
"In fact, we found ‘im like this, wanderin' in the forest as naked as ya please. I'm betting that he's the baron's pleasure slave."
The bandit leader's good eye widened at the news though the one above the scar seemed fixed in a narrow squint. A rumble of surprise and speculation ran through the group. I felt their gazes run lecherously over my body though more than one man looked askance at the scars that covered me.
"How could he be the baron's slave when he looks like someone went after ‘im with a butcher's knife?" I resisted subconsciously when the shorter one of my captors grabbed my forearm and lifted my manacled wrists above my head. A sharp tug caused me to stumble forward until I stood in front of him.
"See these? I'm guessing he didn't wiggle his ass fast enough and someone took offense." He laughed and I shied away as his hand smacked against the very curves he had just accused.
The boss tossed his sword to the side and stood. He was not as tall as several of the men, but he had a commanding presence. His hair was a dirty blond and beneath the hideous scar, he might once have been considered handsome. I could not discern the color of his eyes in the diffused light from the campfire, but his gaze was intent as he stared at me.
"The baron's pleasure slave, ya say? I heard that the manzoku no dorei were treated like pampered pets, kept locked up in the castle, spoiled and fawned over. But it looks like this little bird had flown the coop." My surprise at his apparently learning turned into disgust as the scarred man reached out toward me. I flinched but he merely touched a hank of my tangled hair. "It seems like we've found ourselves a little payback, don't it fellas?" They all laughed though I was hard pressed to figure out the joke. The boss looked at me with a strange glint in his inscrutable gaze. "String ‘im up," he ordered.
The man holding me pushed me forward as the other bandits whooped and hollered. I had no idea what the leader had meant until the theif dragged me over to one of the trees at the edge of the clearing and lifted my hands until the chain of my shackles draped over a branch. He let me go and I instantly discovered the effectiveness of the trap. My chain was caught behind a spur, and the branch was just high enough that there was no way I could lift the chain from it and escape. As it was, I was forced to stand on my tip-toes. The position was so reminiscent of the posture Dorothy had forced me to adopt that I instantly panicked.
"Please," I cried, my voice sharp with rising hysteria. "Please, let me go! I have nothing to do with the baron. I swear! All I want to do is return home." I was facing away from the clearing and could not easily turn around to see the men behind me. So I jumped in surprise when the boss's deep voice suddenly spoke right next to my ear.
"I want to be a king," the bandit leader sneered, "but we can't all get want we want, now can we? You see this scar on my face?" he whispered, running a finger down the misshapen pucker of flesh. "I got this when the baron's captain of the guard mistook my face for a festival goose." I shuddered as he traced another finger down the long line of one of the marks on my back. "He rounded my men up like dogs and forced ‘em back to Windshire to stand trial. We're the only ones who are left, and we're forced to try and make a living out here in the backass end of nowhere."
I wanted to yell at him that his fate was his own fault for living a life of crime, but I was hardly in any position to exhibit an attitude. I turned my head away, both to avoid the hot rush of his breath across my ear and to try and keep an eye on the rest of the men who had begun to form a loose semi-circle behind us. Several of them had taken themselves in hand and were massaging their growing erections lewdly through their breeches in anticipation for what was, for me, swiftly becoming a horrible certainty. I pulled against the branch, but unlike the peg stuck in the kitchen wall, the old tree would not so easily relinquish victory to a mere human.
"Oh, I'll bet that bastard and his lackeys were so proud of themselves for saving the over-privileged, noble sods who provided us with such a good livin'. And I'll bet your precious baron was ever so grateful."
He moved forward until he was pressed flush against my back. I knew precisely how grateful the baron had been to the soldiers for rousting these thugs, and I would rather express that gratitude to Wufei and his men over and over again than let even one of these revolting bastards touch me. I tried to push the man away with a wrenching movement of my body, but he simply pressed back against me and grabbed my jaw in a painful, vice-like grip. I closed my eyes as I felt the back of his hand brush against my ass as he reached down to loosen the laces of his breeches. Tears pricked at my eyes when a warm length of flesh flopped between the fleshy mounds. I pressed my thighs together but was unable to resist the booted foot that suddenly kicked my legs apart. The head of his cock poked unerringly against my vulnerable entrance.
"But now it's our turn to be grateful, eh? We've had a gift just drop into our laps. And no matter how ruined and used it is, far be it for us to look a gift horse in the mouth."