Despite the strength of the glowing, steady fire, there was blatant coldness in the unpleasantly awkward atmosphere, not to mention the narrowed and continual stare directed toward the highwayman in the chill of that night. The sky was clouded, starless; it was reminiscent of the emptiness of the road and the fields that lay scattered around where the Scot had made his temporary camp, deep within the dense forest.
“I’m still finding it difficult to believe that you’re keeping me prisoner. But I suppose that I’m only ransom by now?”
Alistair intentionally said nothing in reply for many moments, instead trying very much in vain to prevent his lips from curling upwards in amusement at her words, and also from becoming visible on his face, as it would have been completely noticeable due to the bright firelight. In addition he kept his head low, knowing that even if the smile had not been clear it would have been obvious enough once she looked into his eyes.
Rather than bother humouring his prisoner he instead slowly removed his dark hat, placing it gently against the earth while his fingers, a cloth held between them, glided and circled over the polished surface of his flintlock. He was meticulous in his vain cleaning, seeming to be bored more than anything else. There was little else he could do, it appeared.
Reaching down to his feet and temporarily halting his cleaning, he took a long swig from a bottle that lay by his side before wiping his lips on his sleeved arm. Only once he was well assured that she was becoming irritated at his brushing off her questioning did he speak.
“Aye, you’re the ransom. Be proud. It’s not often I bother keeping girls like yerself as ransom. Most of the time, I just take what I can get from them and leave ‘em on the road.”
“So why am I such an exception?”
“You’re richer than most.”
His mostly silent companion shivered at his statement, shaking her head slightly as her eyes flickered back to stare into the carelessly hewn wood pieces that were slowly yet surely being consumed by the fire. The familiarity of the flames (reminding her vividly of wet autumn nights, spent before the fireplace) was one of few comforts she had in the unkind cold of an oncoming winter spent out in the open with a shameless kidnapper and highwayman she wanted nothing to do with.
“It still doesn’t make terribly much sense to me. Isn’t it a bit of a waste to be taking me along with you? For all you know, I could run away tonight and they’ll find you. Besides, I’m just a burden,” she said at last, her soft tone masking a silent fear that she felt was all too present.
“Well, ye are a burden, but a valuable one,” he said lightly. “So that’s why I’ll be keeping an eye on ye tonight. Be sure of that.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how are you planning to achieve that?”
“I’ll tie you to a bloody tree if I have to,” he replied coolly.
“Awfully considerate,” she muttered to herself in a tone bitter enough that she did not bother hiding it. The spoken words themselves earned a glance from him, however, one of his brows lifted.
“Ye should be thankful to me for having not killed ye yet. It would make me life a lot easier, for certain,” he glanced at her again, gaze level. “I don’t care much for ye. You’re just here for me to get my share out of the deal,” he reached into the pocket of his waistcoat, revealing a small, slightly torn pouch of jingling coins, which he tossed down to his feet. “Then, well, we can both happily go on with our lives, eh?”
She eyed the pouch with annoyance, well aware that it was hers. “I was getting the impression that you didn’t really want me around.”
“You’re just extra weight on my shoulders as far as I’m concerned, aye. But then again, who knows, ye might grow ta like me.” He chuckled quietly to himself, a smirk tugging at his dry lips.
“Keep believing that.”
Seizing an idle twig lying beside her, she threw it into the flames, followed with a small handful of crumpled, dead leaves. She furrowed her brow as the fire rose, mind clouded with something she was certain wasn’t smoke.
She remained in her thoughts until the moment he piped up again.
“I’d suggest that ye get some rest. We’re moving on tomorrow, to the south east, where yer family are.”
For the briefest moment, the girl even dared to wonder whether or not she would make it back alive. “There’s no actual guarantee that my family will pay, you know.”
The highwayman was silent at that, eyes having drifted nearly completely closed.
“I can find a way around that, if need be.”
Rolling her eyes, the prisoner gently lowered herself down onto her side, trying to keep her eyes shut as she blindly reached for the travelling cloak lying on the dirt beside her. Closing a hand over the slightly damp material at last, she pulled it over herself as some sort of blanket or sheet, drawing the cloak somewhat tighter over her shoulders.
“I know you’re awake.”
His words came as nothing but an annoyance at the moment he spoke.
“Well, I am now, aren’t I?” She answered briskly.
“Are ye afraid?”
A sudden accusation, she thought idly.
A short silence followed before she heard a soft shuffling of dirt and the clink of disturbed glass, before a number of fingers pressed themselves lightly to her forehead. Saying nothing in all her exhaustion, she only pulled the cloak further over herself.
“You don’t need to be. I won’t harm ye-“
“Not unless I run,” she finished, mumbling the words vaguely. “Your words don’t reassure me much, I’m afraid,”
She heard his snort at her accusation, then his fingers as they tugged slightly on the material of her dirtied, thin cloak - worn from travel - as he hauled himself to his feet.
“I’m not as terrible as ye probably assume.”
They were both silent, seeing little reason to speak up again for several moments. The girl wished only that she could perhaps be less afraid of what lay ahead, although she was ashamed to admit it. Being somewhat less cautious of the Scot’s presence was her first concern in the list of what worries plagued her at the time.
“Good night,” she heard her captor say softly many minutes later. Ignoring him, she closed her eyes with more force, mentally refusing to open them again until morning.
“Good night, Alistair,” she replied, instantaneously pleased to hear a low sound emanating from his throat - similar to an irritated growl - at the use of his name. It was certainly not as if she had not been aware of his existence before he had captured her along the road. She knew perfectly well that he was very much wanted by men of the King, and it was easy enough to know his name.
“I thought that I had already told ye not to call me that...”
His quiet mutterings and the distinct, shrill scrapings of what sounded like a knife were the last things she heard before she fell finally into a light sleep, mind plagued still with vague recollections of splintering wood and the distressed snorting of horses from her carriage’s sharp halt and collision, the incident having occurred only days previous.
Perhaps she would not have dreaded sleep quite as much as she did in the days afterward, had her mind not been as troubled as it was.
“Not brilliant with horse riding, are ye?” His words were amused, the corner of his mouth twitching into a smile as he watched his prisoner attempting to gain control of her horse, clutching and tugging at the weathered reins.
“I’m actually more bothered with the fact that this horse is stolen.”
She flinched, irritated at her horse’s obvious inability to move when required, no matter what she did or said.
“It’s not as if you’re the one who stole it. I already took care of that.”
“Does it matter?”
Glaring at the highwayman with unwavering irritation, she tried to steady her horse, but to very little avail.
“Have ye even ridden before?”
“Of course I have,” she answered quickly, words sudden and rather protective in nature. “Just not while captured, and on my way to possible death.”
“Lord, aren’t ye an overflowin’ well of enthusiasm?” grinning in an aggravatingly cocky manner, he spared another, more impatient glance over his shoulder. “But still, hurry up. I’ll be caught at this rate.”
“The fact that you’re speaking to me is beginning to make me feel less and less obliged to.”
“Remember that I’m the one who’s armed, ‘ere.”
“What do I care?” Sighing nearly inaudibly to herself, she glanced around the obviously deserted forest, her mind privately filled with anxious fears of capture despite her better judgement and her words. It seemed absurdly foolish to worry as she did, but the idea was one she dreaded.
Then finally, she was shaken from her thoughts as she found herself gradually moving forwards at a gentle pace, her horse seeming to have at last made the decision to co-operate for at least the time being – even if that short period proved to be only a few minutes.
“Oh look, a miracle!”
Thus, the moment of joy snapped, gone as quickly as it had arrived majorly due to the girl’s sudden, incredible desire to shoot the highwayman in the head.
“I still have the ability to run, don’t I?” she pointed out in a matter-of-fact tone.
“If ye do, I’ll shoot. You’d do well not to doubt me.”
Smiling to himself, he ignored her yawn and careless roll of the eyes, beginning to guide his horse back the way they had come initially, a short number of days before.
“Let’s not get lost, at least,” she said before she could stop herself, only to be completely ignored once more, this time for the span of several minutes.
“I know these roads and forests better than most, lassie,” he answered at last.
“No less, I don’t believe you,” her reply sounded all too distrusting, which, he supposed, was natural, being that he had been the one to have kidnapped and robbed her unexpectedly.
“If you’re set on continuing to be as irritating as possible, then who knows, maybe I’ll purposely get us lost, or maybe strand ye back on the road,”
That kept her silent, despite her will. Instead she stared down at her hands as they gripped the thin reins in a slackened grip, noticing the curiously unfamiliar streaks of dirt along her fingers and palms. As she absentmindedly thought back to what exactly had occurred those days ago, she came to wonder why it was that she had come into such a situation as she found herself in, and why it had been her of all people to be the highwayman’s prisoner – no matter of what reasoning he had made. Glancing briefly at her Scottish captor, a short wave of surprise crossed over her mind. It felt peculiar in a sense, knowing that she could find herself dead at any moment and at the mercy of a man she had known for less than a week.
The very feeling it gave her could well be called surreal, not to mention disturbing.
Before long she was noticing that, in the hours that spanned their continuous journey, very little changed as they rode on - aside from the occasional sighting of a bird overhead or villages that lay nestled in the valleys and atop the hills. Aside from those nearly unnoticeable differences, the scenery was the same wall of dark green around, split very rarely by streams and alternate routes, the road feeling to stretch for endless miles. The sky seemed constantly the same dead shade of light grey, always withholding and threatening to let fall rain that would probably never actually arrive.
It was not that she didn’t try to entertain herself, however – rather, she mentally playing games in her wearied head that unfortunately rarely lasted for longer than three minutes, whilst all the while trying to ignore the fact that practically every part of her was aching from an unpleasant combination of sleeping on the ground and riding, when she was very unaccustomed to either.
Occasionally he would call back to her, generally with some observance or stupid joke that more often than not just annoyed her further. All she truly took note of was the endless brown of the road and the horse and of her own dirtied hands. It must have been hours before she could even force herself to speak up again, seeing no point in it previously.
“Is this what it’s like?”
The highwayman pulled lightly on the reins of his horse, slowing enough eventually to find himself trotting beside her.
“What was that?” he repeated.
“Being a highwayman. Is it much like this? Do you not grow tired of just walking down the road for hours on end, every day of your life, waiting for someone to come along so that you can rob them?”
He only laughed drily.
“You’re very ignorant, lass. Although, it’s a common thing to see, especially from a person who never walks or rides along this dirt road without protection.”
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
“You say it as if it’s a good one.”
“Then it’s only a question of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
Alistair stared at his prisoner with slightly dilated pupils, before turning his head to the side, hiding a smirk.
“I find it strange, looking at the way ye speak. Where I come from, women don’t speak like ye do.”
She laughed shortly to herself at the peculiarity of his observance. “I only speak as I see fit to talk,”
At this he lifted an eyebrow, looking almost impressed, yet not enough so that she could for certain say that he was genuinely intrigued by her. “Aye, fair enough.”
Steering his horse back to the side of the road somewhat, he said no more.
The time that they spent travelling along that road seemed only to slow as the road and forest alongside stretched farther. The slight humidity in the air, combined with the slow pace of the journey itself made for the sort of ride that left the girl feeling far from indefatigable. Once her captor ceased speaking altogether she became drowsy, bored out of her mind, kept from falling asleep only by the fact that she was constantly moving along a reasonably bumpy road, not to mention the fact that the cold chills of late autumn (felt through the torn material of a worn cloak) were often enough on their own to keep her from relaxing.
She was halfway to being certain that she actually had fallen asleep somewhere along the way, though, especially after she found herself jolted back into reality some time later by a snap of the highwayman’s fingers. She felt as though she had been shaken awake, the reality that she had been riding for what must have been a number of hours escaping her for several drawn out moments.
“Keep fallin’ asleep like that and soon enough you’ll be falling off, yer silly lass. Look ahead. Do ye see where we are, and what lies ahead?”
“I wasn’t actually asleep... I don’t think...” Blinking her eyes a number of times, she furrowed her brow as she lifted her head, looking around herself at the hills that surrounded them. Within sight was the distant glint of a lake, alongside many open fields filled with a number of white flecks that were more than likely sheep or cattle. The road that they were following had thinned, also, whilst the trees overhead were less dense, with the addition of a number of ragged stumps here and there.
“If we keep going along this road, we’ll come to a manor, belonging to some aristocrat. I can see the massive house of that idiot from ‘ere...” said the highwayman distastefully. “I didn’t realise that we’d be following this road, unfortunately, so we’ll need to take a detour. We’ll need to go through the forest in order to pass the manor safely.”
“What?” Perking up slightly from her sleepy state of mind at the sudden nature of his words, the girl stared at her captor. “We’ll be mauled if we go through the forest! What about wolves and all that?”
“Better that than being caught and hanged,” said Alistair absent-mindedly, clearly referring to himself. “They’ll recognise me easily.”
“And what of me? What will they do to me?”
“Nothin’ serious, I imagine. It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” she answered quickly, only to be completely ignored.
Easing his horse away from the dirt road, he swept a wide gesture in the direction of the forest which lay ahead. The forest should have instantly given the impression of an undesirable place even from a short distance away, what with the darkness inundating the forest floor, but the Scot clearly thought little of that side of things.
“It be beautiful, aye?” He threw an easy grin over his shoulder. “Come on. The sooner you follow me, the sooner you’ll no longer be my hostage,”
“Some compromise that is. I shouldn’t be your hostage in the first place,” she bit her lip. “Besides, you’re a strange sort of highwayman to be keeping hostages,”
“Eh?” He seemed to have noticed her voice anyhow.”You think I’m strange, do ye? What’s yer idea of a typical highwayman, then?”
“I’m not sure, to be honest. All I know is that you seem a bit too cheery for someone whom I had supposed did little else than steal and kill.”
“Really? So ye weren’t fooled by what people say of the road and of what life is like out here? Believe me, there’s a lot more to it than romantic rides for miles upon miles and yelling out ‘stand and deliver’, or whatever it is that ye and the rest of yer city friends think,” he replied, somewhat harshly. “Believe me when I tell ye that. Believe me.”
Once they left the road, the sunlight quickly became thinner, filtering down sparingly whilst the forest became more and more difficult to navigate through.
For a good half an hour they continued through the forest, treading lightly on the wet earth and dodging overhanging branches. To the prisoner’s surprise, Alistair seemed to have a good idea of where he was heading, his path swaying and meandering as they were led on.
“Thick, innit? Lucky you’ve got me to guide ye,” he said after a short while.
“Lucky? Quite honestly, I feel worse knowing that you’re my guide, here. Knowing you, I’ll probably be shot or mauled before long,”
“Eh? Lassie, the only reason fer yer bad luck and fear is that you’re a girl, not to mention too thick in the head to know any better,”
“What was that?” She opened her mouth once more, about to send back a retort of some kind (preferably a harsh one), only to be stopped as the highwayman ahead of her sharply halted, whipping his head back in her direction.
“What is it?” she repeated.
Shushing her, he held up one hand. “Hush! Do ye hear that?”
Lifting his head, he coaxed his horse slightly to the side, looping the reins twice around his slender fingers before stopping completely, pulling in a vain effort to quiet his horse.
Perplexed, his companion also raised herself up, cocking her head to the side.
“What are you on about?”
“Listen!” His voice was lowered his time, and rasped. “Be quiet and listen! If ye keep speaking, you’ll only be attractin’ unwanted attention-“
“Oh, well, you’re doing brilliantly, aren’t you?”
“Just shut up, will you?” he snapped, staring back at her with narrowed eyes.
It was at that moment when their bickering was interrupted with the distant sound of rumbling, similar to thunder, alongside a rather cheery and distant ring. It sounded like a horn of some kind.
Glancing upwards with wide eyes, she saw for the first time in the highwayman’s face a semblance of fear.
For moments neither of them spoke, frozen in place. Alistair was the first to speak again.
“We have to hurry, quickly. Follow me and whatever ye do, don’t lose sight of me, got it? This forest is probably larger than I thought,” by then, his voice was little more than a hoarse whisper; frantic. With a quiet grunt he began guiding his horse forwards once more, eyes trained on the thick forest ahead.
She was too stunned and confused to bother arguing with him further, instead following his actions as he again began moving forwards.
It was several more tense minutes before she could force herself to speak up again.
“Why aren’t you moving faster? They’ll catch up to us and catch us at the rate you’re going!”
“If we gallop, we’ll be immediately heard and caught without effort,” he answered in the sort of tone that suggested he thought her very stupid.
Eyebrows knitting in irritation, she dared not speak again, instead diverting her attention back to what sounded like a hunting party coming near. Within a dozen short minutes she was sure that the pounding of hooves against earth and the call of the horn had grown louder and clearer, obviously signalling the party’s steady approach.
The Scotsman said nothing, continuing his silence until she very nearly yelled his name to get his attention.
“What is it?!”
“I know that!”
“Why don’t we hurry, then? What does it matter if they hear us? The important thing is that we’ll be further away.”
“That’s suicidal! No way in Hell are we doing that!”
Increasing her pace, the captive managed in urging her horse to trot until she was riding side by side with her kidnapper.
“You’ll regret not listening to me,” she said.
What happened next in those few seconds was a rapid blur, ending as she found herself with one arm held in a tight grip by the Scotsman, her horse as well as his having come to a standstill. There was a flintlock pressing into the flesh of her forehead, Alistair’s face bearing an ugly scowl.
“If ye even dare to argue with me again, or if we get caught, do ye know what I’ll do? I’ll kill ye, and I’ll do it with no regrets. There’s no way in Hell that I’m going to allow ye to go home and walk free after you’ve gotten me captured,” he snarled.
She swallowed, blinking several times.
“I know you won’t kill me. You wouldn’t have the heart.”
“Ye think so?”
She nodded, completely silent.
He stared at her for several moments longer, before finally lowering the gun and taking up the reins once more, not uttering a word.
Feeling somewhat guilty, she felt she ought to have spoken up again, but could not bring herself to do it. Instead she kept her eyes on him as he rode, thinking over what words had been exchanged and his threats.
Her thoughts were soon interrupted, however, as the horn sounded again, startling her horse. Gritting her teeth, she looked back, tugging sharply on the reins.
Staring back at the Scotsman, she waited for him to speak (and preferably give her some sort of assurance), seeing how his clammy fingers were slipping over the reins and his eyes were widened as he spoke. Eyes meeting his for the shortest moment, she saw him give a curt nod.
Finally, she spoke the thoughts of both of them. “I think… I think we’ll have to gallop.”
Without another word exchanged she watched him lean forwards on his horse, urging it forwards until he was trotting, then moving at a canter until at last he was galloping ahead through the trees. Startled at first, it took her a few moments to steady herself and do the same, following him as closely as she could without knocking herself off of her horse for the mere fact that she was inexperienced.
“It must be a hunting party from the manor… must have guns…” he breathed almost inaudibly, keeping his gaze always ahead of him. “I had no idea that they’d be hunting today, did I, now?”
Not daring to answer him, the two continued for many minutes, but still the sound of galloping from behind them seemed never to cease. The horn only grew louder and more formidable with every stride they took.
Weaving and ducking their way about the trees, the ride seemed incessant, the forest never-ending. Still they galloped with nothing but trees looming ahead of them, the sky nearly impossible to see overhead due to how dim the light was. As they rode on the forest seemed only to darken, shadows deepening whilst dim shouts echoed from behind.
“They have to be retiring soon. The sun must be setting,” she commented, receiving no initial reply but a grunt.
“We’ll see about that.”
The forest only grew thicker, and more impenetrable. There were scarcely moments when the approaching hunting party could not be heard coming from behind them. The ring of the horn wavered in volume, sometimes inaudible, other moments deafening. It was difficult to tell whether the hunters were growing further away or not.
Their questions were soon answered, however, as for one terrible moment she looked behind herself and caught the vaguest glimpse of another horse.
With a sharp intake of breath and a feeling of slight resentment she forced her horse to go yet faster until she was ahead of the Scotsman. Part of her told her that she ought to have waited behind and let herself be caught, but then questions would be asked, and she would more than likely be shot by the highwayman or otherwise trialled for trespassing. Either way, it was a grim outlook if she didn’t get away.
Soon, however, she could not even hear the galloping of Alistair behind her, and she realised that the only sounds around were the ringing of the horn and the calls of the birds, not to mention the pounding in her ears. She slowed slightly at this observance, wondering whether she had taken a wrong turn, only to glance back.
Roughly fifty metres behind her lay the highwayman on the forest earth, his horse beside him with its neck twisted at a horrific angle. Behind him she could see the barely noticeable shapes of approaching hunters, and realised that he had fallen and more than likely was going to be caught.
Tugging on her horse’s reins until she was stationary, she felt conflict growing within her, coupled with slight guilt. Should she leave the highwayman to be handed over to the authorities and ride on herself until she reached home? It would seem wise, but on the same wavelength, that turn of events would spell out certain death for Alistair. As insufferable and hot tempered as he proved to be, she knew full well that she would live to regret allowing a man (guilty or not) to die, all because of a selfish whim.
It was stupid, and it was irrational. But still, she felt that it was right.
Gritting her teeth, she leapt off her horse, nearly tripping on her dirtied skirts as she ran back to where Alistair laid.
Taking his hand, she tried to help him to his feet once she reached him, glancing behind herself all the while in steady watch of the hunters’ looming arrival.
Finally she succeeded in getting the highwayman to his feet, but as she did the horn sounded, louder than ever, and she caught a glimpse of a rider.
“Come on, come on…”
Glancing downwards again with a fiercely beating heart, she saw the nearly frightened eyes of the Scotsman.
“They’re comin’, aren’t they?”
At last managing to drag him to his full height (which was far taller than her, she idly noted), she gripped his wrist tightly, lurching him backwards and behind a tree in the final moment before the hunting party rushed past them in an rapid blur of bright colours and the glint of saddles and bridles.
Bodies pressed to the rough bark of the trees, both were panting heavily as they watched the party disappear from sight.
“Ye came back, ye idiot,” Alistair breathed at last, still staring behind him at the trampled form of his horse, with a vaguely forlorn expression. “Why… why the Hell did ye do that?”
Glancing in his direction, she realised that, for the first time, she had no answer to give him.
She awoke again late the next morning, partly due to the sun’s glare in her eyes, and also because of the strange fact that someone was singing in her ear in a language she didn’t understand a word of. It was a slow, groggy awakening, not to mention difficult, as the singing (although odd) was rather comforting, and seemed only to be making her sleepier.
Then, suddenly, it stopped, fading away in preference to the distant rings and echoes of birds’ calls.
“Mornin’, lassie. I delivered the letter I made ye write, whilst ye was sleepin’. Yer family should be well and truly aware by now that you’re my ransom,”
A hearty chuckle followed the Scotsman’s words.
Using one elbow as leverage, she managed to lift her head off the ground and stare at the highwayman. Looking behind herself briefly, she could see where the forest ended, and mentally reminded herself that they were, after all, camping on the outskirts, although it still came as partly a surprise after the shenanigans of the day previous.
To her left, the one remaining salvaged horse was tethered to a tree, and in the distance lay the manor.
“Ah… I see.”
Looking back to the highwayman, she was abruptly startled when he thrust a piece of bread into her face, gesturing for her to take it.
“Breakfast,” he said simply.
Gingerly reaching for it, she took a bite into the bread, only to find that it was terribly stale and practically inedible. Holding it away from her face to examine it somewhat, she very nearly screamed when she saw the vague movement of a few maggots on the food, mere centimetres from where she had bitten into it. Shuddering, she threw away the bread a short number of metres in such a disgusted manner that it would have been an easy mistake to believe that the bread was about to explode.
“H-How long has that been in the saddle bag?!”
He shrugged, rummaging through the aforementioned bag and producing another mouldier looking piece. To both her amazement and repulsion he took a large bite out of it, speaking as he chewed.
“A week, maybe. I don’t keep track.”
“Hey, it’s this or starving, lassie. We don’t have any other food.”
“Forget that. You now owe to me two apologies,” she mumbled, still staring on in horror as he ate, and occasionally glancing back to the bread she had thrown away.
“And why would I be needing to apologise?”
“Two things,” she answered in a rather simplistic, easy tone. “Firstly, you very nearly poisoned me with that poor excuse for food just now. Secondly, you yesterday threatened to kill me. I’m certain that I’m owed some sort of debt to cover for that.”
He said nothing in reply, only looking at her with a purely bewildered expression.
“Ludicrous…” he muttered finally, turning away from her. “Next you’ll be asking me to give ye an education.”
“I could just make do with some sort of thanks, actually. I’m not terribly sure if you recall this, but I did succeed in taking you from imminent death only a few hours ago,” she pointed out, voice quiet.
“Eh?” He sighed, looking at her with eyes that were barely, only barely softened. “No way in Hell…”
Getting to his feet with some effort, he ate the last of the bread before striding over to where the horse stood. Not giving her even the shortest second of eye contact, it seemed fair enough to the prisoner that she could well have made the assumption that accepting a girl to have saved his life would be a massive blow to his pride.
Deciding not to bother provoking him further, she retired her efforts at obtaining some form of thanks out of him, knowing full well that he was unlikely to relent.
“What do we do, then? It could be a fair while before the letter comes back, you realise,” she said resentfully.
“I’ll head back tomorrow. It shouldn’t be long, given that we’re not far from yer family. It’s been a week,” he responded at last. “Until then… we have little else to do, except wait.”
The prisoner glanced upwards, somewhat surprised to see something different in Alistair’s expression; something changed in the way he looked at her, almost as if he had some sort of respect for her. Whether it was from what words had been exchanged between them in the week gone by, or what had occurred in the forest the day before or something else completely, she knew not.
“Hey, lassie. Get up.”
What an unpleasant awakening.
“You heard me. Hurry. I’ve received the letter, albeit lately.”
Groaning, she raised herself to her knees, realising vaguely that her muscles did not ache quite as much when she had first been made to sleep on the ground those two weeks ago when she had been kidnapped. It felt satisfying.
She was distracted quickly from such thoughts, however, as she found a piece of paper being held before her face, covered with a slender sort of handwriting that she couldn’t quite decipher.
“It’s been about a week, hasn’t it? I knew it would take a while…”
He gave no answer, only taking her hand to bring her to her feet. As soon as they were standing she caught his oddly cold glance, coupled with fingers that shook with a slight tremor, and found herself surprised with his behaviour.
“Walk with me.”
She blindly obeyed what he told her, stumbling somewhat as she clambered to her feet and trying to meet his strides as he led her towards the forest. Why he was leading her back into such a dreaded place as the forest left her very much confused, but she thought better than to question his intentions.
Only once they were in complete cover did he present the letter to her, holding it delicately in gloved, outstretched fingers.
“Tell me… what would ye say if I were to tell ye that I was goin’ to kill ye, right now?”
Blinking in shock at the simplicity of the statement, she only stared for several moments. “I’d be confused, that’s for certain-“
“Not only that, but what if I were to say that yer family had been killed in a fire and that you’re now useless to me?” He interrupted shortly, looking at her in such a way that she soon felt very uncomfortable. Despite the utterly ridiculous nature of what he was saying, she felt a terrible sense of dread creeping over her, making her skin crawl.
“Wh-What are you talking about?”
Wordlessly, he handed the letter to her.
Biting on her tongue, she was very nearly afraid to read the letter after what he had said.
Seeing her holding the letter, it was with an unpleasant feeling of guilt that Alistair noted the increased widening of her eyes and the shaking of her hands as she read on, not to mention the silent movements of her lips that could only spell out disbelief.
“No… this is impossible.”
“This is wrong. This is nothing more than a disgusting, repulsive sort of joke,” she answered plainly, her flashing with brief anger. “What in the Lord’s name is wrong with you?!”
“I’m not lyin’ to ye. I wouldn’t ‘ave the heart to do that.”
“There’s no way that this letter could possibly be real. This is obviously fake, all feigned! What could possibly make you want to do this?! Tell me!”
She was shouting, then, her eyes blazing with a fiery mixture of confusion, despair and fury.
“Why would you lie to me like this? As if I’m supposed to believe that my family are all gone because of some stupid fire-“
“Look at the signature. It was intended fer ye to receive, even though few people doubted that you were already dead by the time this letter was written.” He responded in as calm a manner as he could manage, although he still felt guiltier than he ought to have felt.
“Where am I supposed to go, then? What am I supposed to do? I have no one to protect me, nothing to inherit… I’m as good as dead now, aren’t I?”
Her voice had become impossibly soft, the evidence of tears clear on her face. “I should have been killed with them…”
“Perhaps,” he grunted.
Suddenly he closed his fingers over her wrist, forcing her to turn around as he confined her hands behind her back with one hand, cocking his flintlock with the other.
“The thing is, lassie, that with ye family dead, I can’t get my ransom, can I?” he rasped, speaking the words right into her ear. Pressing the barrel of the gun to the side of her head, he was soundless as tears still fell from her eyes.
“What about these last two weeks, then? What about the time I spent travelling with you whilst we were on our way here? What, was it all for nothing?” she managed finally, speech barely audible.
“All a waste, now. There’s no point in me letting you go. That’ll give ye the perfect chance to get me caught.”
Pressing the gun more forcefully into her flesh, he placed the other hand on her shoulder. “Goodbye.”
He was a highwayman after all, wasn’t he? A heartless highwayman, with no thought or consideration to anyone aside from himself, only being interested in gaining what wealth he could until he would either die in luxury or be hanged.
That was all he’d been, and all that he’d ever be. It seemed foolish to consider that she had ever imagined otherwise, even if for only a moment. She was going to die, and join her family in a very different place, knowing full well that there had been no point at all in spending that single hellish fortnight of her life as some useless excuse for a ransom.
The gun clicked.
She hardly expected to feel anything at all after that, expecting to be little more than a crumpled body on the forest floor as the shot was fired. But what she certainly would have never expected, not in all her life, would have been to find herself very suddenly in an embrace from behind as the sound of something falling and hitting the earth resounded, echoing through the forest.
The gun hadn’t been loaded, after all.
With that realisation she forced her eyes open, blinking in pure incredulity.
“Ye have to understand me, lassie. Ye have to know that I’m sorry. I don’t want to kill ye. I couldn’t live with m'self if I did that, and that would be a pity, wouldn't it?”
Hearing him chuckle softly, she turned and stared up at her captor, there being very little else that she could think to say - all sentences or questions died on her tongue as she looked on with wide eyes in the sort of disbelief that she felt would never dissipate, for as long as she lived.
“Ye have relatives near here, do ye not? Best get goin’ before I’m caught.”
Dropping to the ground, the girl barely managed a smile as the highwayman threw a saddlebag in her direction, which ended up falling on the ground a few metres away from her.
Retrieving it, she slid it over her head and under an arm so that it lay at her hip, the strap of it diagonal.
“I believe so. I recall years ago being told of the (possible) existence of relatives in this part of the country. Whether they’re alive or not is a different matter, but I’ll have to see. At the worst, I’ll try and get a job in one of the factories. There’s little else I can do, now. I don't know where else to go, I'm afraid..." with a soft sigh she looked back out to the road, expression wearied.
He glanced at her with a nearly sympathetic look as she shivered, his fingers again taking up the reins of his horse.
“Ah, well, no point being cynical, aye?”
“I suppose not.”
Glancing about herself, her gaze finally drifted to the nearby town as she sighed.
“Goodbye, then. I’ll be seeing ye when I see ye, lassie.”
He turned his head back to the road, but before he could guide his horse any farther he found himself yanked back by the end of his cloak, and brought into a gentle, unpractised kiss.
When they broke apart he could do little than stare, his eyes meeting hers for what could well be the final time.
“Goodbye," was all she said. "And thank you."
She did not dare to turn around again for fear of not being able to leave, or for fear of being overcome by apprehension of what lay ahead. Instead she continued her walk along the road until she came to the town’s entrance, roughly half an hour later, leaving the Scotsman far behind.
Suddenly remembering her saddlebag she looked downwards, reaching into it and digging about for what was actually within it. She counted an abundance of food, a little water and a few coins, but what truly surprised her was the feel of paper, brushing over her fingers. Lifting it up, she read what few words were on it, feeling her eyebrows lift and a vague smile crease her lips at the familiar writing.
Meet me tonight at the crossroads.
Who knew, perhaps things weren’t quite over, after all.