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To Catch a Merchant Princess Ch. 01

A beauty held for ransom is more than her kidnappers bargained for.
Alicia fought to keep her eyes open, and thought that she was certainly going to lose the battle this time. Oblivious to her waning attention, Alfred continued to drone on about his exciting – at least to him – day of trading.

He hadn’t even noticed that she’d completely changed her hairstyle since he’d called upon her only two days earlier.

Alicia stared past him at the manicured lawn of her home, the beauty of the sculpted bushes and carefully chosen trees lost upon her in her irritation. The sound of the songbirds couldn’t cut through Alfred’s endless oratory, nor could the smell of flowers overpower the miasma of the scented oils in his hair.

She knew that she couldn’t possibly do what she wanted to do, which was to stand up and walk away without a word. Her father would have an apoplexy, and Alfred would no doubt spend days decrying her lack of manners to anyone foolish enough to listen. At a loss, she simply nodded and offered half-hearted smiles any time he paused, and spent the rest of the time fidgeting and twirling her finger into one blonde curl.

Alicia straightened as her father’s carriage rolled in through the front gate of the low wall surrounding the property. Alfred didn’t even notice her audible sigh of relief over his continuing oratory. As soon as he paused for breath again, Alicia interrupted him.

“I fear my father has returned, and I must return to the house to see if he has need of me.”

Alfred froze for a moment as the next onslaught of boring recollection ground to a halt in his head. Eventually, he managed to sort her words out of his own egotistical rambling. “But of course, my fair flower. May I call upon you again on the morrow?”

“I fear tomorrow finds me in the tutelage of the Baroness Gwendoline,” Alicia answered.

“Ah, the fates conspire against us. I will speak with your father on the morrow then, to determine when we might once again share each other’s exquisite company.”

“Yes, the fates are truly most cruel sometimes.” Silently, Alicia thought, And sometimes they do me a kindness I could never repay.

Alfred stood and whipped his hat back on his head, only to doff it to Alicia a moment later. “Until we meet again, my fair flower.”

“Farewell, Alfred,” Alicia responded. She even managed to avoid frowning when he took her hand and kissed it before turning toward the stables.

As soon as he passed out of sight, Alicia quickly removed the pin holding the top of her bodice closed to hide her ample cleavage. Every gown her mother bought her seemed to border on the indecent, and she had no desire to display her attributes to the likes of Alfred. If she’d left her bodice unpinned, he would not only have talked incessantly about himself, he would have done so to her chest.

She greeted her father and welcomed him home, knowing full well that he would have no time for her, let alone need of her. His bookkeeper had met him at the massive oaken front door, as always, and they discussed the business of the day. She fulfilled her customary obligation, and sat quietly upon a cushion-covered couch with her mother as the men discussed important matters.

For the last few years, this part of her day had set her teeth on edge. While she had no real interest in the business of trade, she had nevertheless acquired a deep knowledge of her father’s business through these evening sessions. She frequently knew what her father or the bookkeeper was going to say before they said it. Despite having no passion for the trade, she had little doubt that she could have easily stepped into her father’s role and managed the business adequately. At times, she’d even considered solutions to problems that eventually came to pass a few days later. However, she knew that her idea would have met with immediate dismissal in the form of her father nodding absently without having heard a word she said.

Her only value to her father lay in the influential men seeking her hand in marriage.

Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t true. Her parents loved her, but didn’t often express it very well. Even those things that made her feel like a possession were born out of love. Her father simply wanted her to have a rich husband who would take care of her as he did her mother. He couldn’t comprehend Alicia’s independent nature and desire to make her own way in the world. Such a thing was an alien concept to his limited worldview.

A servant announcing that dinner was ready ended the first trying segment of Alicia’s evening, and began the next.

“Did you have a pleasant visit with Alfred, Dear?”

Alicia contained a sigh, having hoped that she might have more than a bite of her dinner and a sip of wine before the inquisition from her mother began. “Yes, Mother,” she replied with little conviction in her voice.

“He’s quite handsome, and he shows great promise in expanding his family’s prospects,” Her mother continued, either ignoring the bland tone of Alicia’s voice, or dismissing it.

“A fine choice for a husband,” her father agreed from the opposite end of the long table after a sip of wine.

Growing testier by the moment, Alicia said, “He barely notices me. All he does is talk about himself.”

“Well, Dear, you’re hardly drawing attention to yourself or encouraging him. You must make an effort to accentuate your charms. You have far prettier gowns, and you have barely made up your face.”

Alicia pursed her lips as her mother spoke, and then retorted without a moment of thought, “I could meet him unclad and his first word to me would concern the trials and triumphs of his day.”

Her father put down his fork, the ominous clink of silver on china causing the servants to stiffen and her mother to cover her mouth. “I will not abide such uncouth language from you, Daughter.” He paused for a moment to regain his composure, and then continued, “Alicia, you must stop rejecting every suitor who comes to call. Most women of your age are already two years married, with far fewer prospects.”

“Is it too much to ask that I actually find my future husband interesting?”

That pronouncement prompted a gasp from Alicia’s mother and audible swallows from the wide-eyed servants lining the tapestry covered walls.

“Is it too much to ask that a daughter respect the father who provides such a fine life for her?”

Alicia hung her head and apologized, “I am sorry, Father. I spoke without thinking.”

“See that it does not happen again. You simply must abandon these fanciful notions of marriage that you have acquired from vagabond poets. Those ridiculous writings are the rambling of fools addled by drink.”

“Yes, Father.”

“I hear that Baron Ranyer is having a grand ball, Husband. Do you think we might receive an invitation soon?”

In a way, Alicia was grateful for her mother’s change of subject, but it also reinforced the notion that she should obey her father without question, even in a matter of the heart.

The remainder of the meal proceeded uneventfully, and Alicia gladly took her leave once granted permission. She stepped out onto her balcony in the night air to sigh and stare at the stars.

The distant sound of men’s voices raised in anger drew Alicia’s eyes toward the city. Though she couldn’t see the shouting men, she could certainly see the poor section of the town where they dwelled. She felt a flash of shame for lamenting her own life when such obvious evidence of people far less fortunate lurked only a short distance away.

The sounds grew louder and more voices joined in, stealing away the serenity of the night. Alicia stepped back in to find a servant awaiting her pleasure.

“Your bath is drawn, and your nightclothes are prepared, Milady. May I be of any other service?”

“Thank you, Kylie. Please, take your ease.”

“Very good, Milady,” Kylie responded with a bow of her head, and then turned to leave the room, her footsteps silent on the carpeted path. Alicia knew that she would return before the sun to lay out clothing for the next day, and assist her in fixing her hair and putting on her face.

Alicia removed her constraining gown with a sigh of relief and sank into the expensive ceramic tub. Soon thereafter, she pulled up her down-filled comforter and drifted off to sleep.

****

Alicia awakened deep in the night with a gasp. She panted for breath, staring into the gloom of her room and hastily pulling her hand away from her mound, where it had come to rest as she slept – and dreamed.

The images of her nocturnal fantasy lingered in her mind, refusing to go away. She could not escape the touch of the devilishly handsome, perfect model of a man that had wooed her in her dream. Her nipples were painfully stiff against her silky nightgown, her rapid breaths causing the cloth to caress them much as her lover had in the dream. The warmth and aching tingle between her legs was almost maddening in its intensity.

Try as she might to ignore the screaming of her body and the rapid pattering of her heart, neither would give her respite. Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, she let her hand drift back to its previous position, and surrendered to her need.

Soon enough, her silken nightgown crept upward as her arousal grew and her fantasy continued where it had left off. As soon as the bunched cloth rose above her cotton panties, Alicia slipped her fingers beneath them to her wet heat. Her back arched from the direct contact, and she choked off a moan as her fingers were replaced by those of her imaginary lover.

So unlike the real suitors who sought her hand, her dream man spoke of her, not himself. Now, he admired her with a look in his eyes that bordered on worship. Alicia’s fingers traced her folds, the amount of slippery wetness surprising her. Her fingers moved faster, and the man in her mind’s eye did the same. The flush in her cheeks deepened as her fingers danced over her sex, but from excitement rather than shame this time.

She pinched her lips tightly closed against the sounds of pleasure trying to escape her unbidden. Her finger found the center of her pleasure, rubbing the swollen bud in circles as a warm point of ecstasy grew ever larger within her. Her muscles contracted, causing her hips to rise ever so slightly toward her fingers, and thus those of her dream lover. He looked deep into her eyes, whispering words she couldn’t quite make out in an aroused, encouraging tone.

Alicia bottled up her cry of release when she came, a tight, quiet squeal in her throat the only thing she allowed to escape her. Her head rose up from the feather-stuffed pillow and she trembled as the delicious agony of her orgasm shot through her body. When it released her, after what felt like an eternity, she collapsed into the mattress to pant for breath.

As her fantasy and arousal ebbed, a slight frown darkened her features. She wondered if her father was right, if such wonderful emotion was nothing more than a flight of fancy that only existed in the tales and poems of bards and writers. With a sad sigh, she tugged and wriggled until her nightgown once more covered her, her bliss blunted by thoughts of reality.

Sleep once more claimed her.

****

The next day found Alicia in far better spirits. She’d developed a close friendship with Baroness Gwendoline, a woman only a few years her senior. Though Alicia had long ago mastered the courtly manners that she supposedly visited the Baroness to learn, the two maintained the illusion of their lessons to spend time together. The Baron was a far older man, and thus had little in common with his young wife. Alicia provided a welcome distraction from the boredom of the Baroness’ life.

Even more than the Baroness’ friendship, Alicia anticipated her secret lessons.

Gwendoline had some small skill in magic, which she agreed to teach when Alicia showed aptitude. Though far from a wizard, Alicia could cast cantrips that she found useful on occasion. She knew her father would never approve, and that provided the drive to learn every bit of magic she could.

In addition to her study of magic, Alicia had also found joy in another endeavor that she knew her father would disapprove of. Gwendoline’s mother had narrowly escaped an assault in her youth, and demanded that every woman within her sphere of influence learn the means to defend herself. Gwendoline had demonstrated what she knew when the subject came up, and Alicia’s strong interest had prompted the Baroness to suggest real self-defense training.

The middle-aged Master of the Guard had intimidated Alicia at first, but she soon grew accustomed to his gruff manner. The exhilaration she felt as she learned even endeared him to her after only a few sessions. In some ways, he paid more attention to her than her own father.

The Baroness also had remarkable skills with makeup that hid the occasional bruises Alicia sustained, which were virtually unavoidable.

Trell had steadily introduced new techniques and weapons into the sessions, far beyond the training he usually offered to anyone outside his own guardsmen. Alicia had gained a great deal of competence with a knife, and now showed promise in using a sword. His praise and her sense of accomplishment pushed Alicia to excel in an endeavor not usually associated with women, let alone those of the gentle class.

“Hold!” Trell laughed as he parried an enthusiastic thrust. As always, he was a little surprised by the amount of force the trim woman managed to put behind her strikes. “You overextended again, Alicia.”

His weighted wooden practice sword pressing against her side emphasized the point.

“Always assume your opponent is feigning weakness or lack of skill. Seek your openings, but be ready to return to a defensive position in an instant.”

Alicia nodded her understanding as she stood up straight, realizing that she was indeed off balance. She took a deep breath and blew upward to dislodge a droplet of sweat clinging tenaciously to the tip of her nose. Beneath her padded practice uniform, her clothing was saturated with sweat.

“That’s all for now. You’ll have to rush through your bath to be ready in time as it is.” Trell held out his hand for Alicia’s practice sword, which she handed to him with a deep breath.

“Outstanding, Alicia.” Gwendoline applauded. “I would adore seeing you challenge one of the younger guardsmen. I do believe you match their skill.”

“Truth to tell, so would I,” Trell agreed, signaling across the courtyard to one of his men to come take the wooden weapons. “You’re a remarkable woman, Alicia. If you go after everything the way you’ve gone after your training with me, you’re going to carve yourself out a nice little place in the world.”

“Thank you,” Alicia replied humbly, now that she’d regained her breath. She blushed, but her cheeks were already red from exertion, and so the change was virtually unnoticeable.

“That’s not idle praise, either. If I thought your father wouldn’t have me hanged, and the men could deal with it, I’d ask you to train formally for the guard. You’ll be wasted as a bauble for some noble.”

“I say, Trell,” Gwendoline interrupted, her voice full of mock indignity.

Trell grinned at the Baroness and chuckled as he handed the swords to the guardsman. “You can play the silly girl all you want, Gwen. We all know that your hand is guiding the Barony as much as your husband’s. A damn fine day it was for us all when you married him. Marcus means well, but he doesn’t always think things through.”

Gwendoline let out a musical laugh and waved to Alicia. “Come along, Alicia. We must get you in the bath and make you presentable for the popinjays again.”

“Thank you, Trell. I only wish I had opportunity to practice when I’m not here.”

“Keep up with your exercises. That will keep you fit, and you can pass that off as a way to keep your figure.”

“I will,” Alicia responded, and then followed the Baroness through the massive double doors back into the keep.

A short distance down the corridor, Alicia glanced away from the murder holes in the stone wall that always made her feel ill at ease and asked a question that she’d wanted to ask for some time. “Do you love your husband, Gwen?”

The Baroness smiled. “I do. At first, our marriage was little more than a political necessity. I’ve learned that there’s much to love in him since then, however. I’m content, which is more than many can say.”

“Am I selfish to want the love that the poets and bards speak of?” Alicia sighed.

“Of course not, Dear. Unfortunately, you may have to settle, as I have. Your father is on the brink of reaching a higher station, and you have a place in that. I don’t mean to be cruel, Alicia. I just do not want you to spend your life dreaming of something you might never have.” The guard stationed at the door moved out of the way to let the two women back into the keep proper.

“I know. I hope I can at least find a man that I can learn to love. The suitors Father chooses set my teeth on edge.”

“Don’t give up hope, Alicia. You never know where you might find love. Keep searching for it. Young men are full of themselves, but there may be more lurking beneath the surface, if you nurture it properly.”

Alicia smiled and said, “I’ll try.”

“That’s all any of us can do,” Gwen responded as she stepped onto the polished marble floors beyond the ironbound door.

****

Alicia sighed and closed the curtains on her carriage, not really wanting to know how close she was to home. Her visits to the Baroness were amongst the high points of her life in recent years, but that only made the return home all the more melancholy.

A chill ran up her spine when she felt a prickling sensation all over her skin, as though every hair had stood up on end at the same moment. A second later, she heard a muffled thump from the front of the carriage. She listened for a few seconds, but didn’t hear anything else unusual. She did notice that the carriage seemed to be slowing.

When the speed of her journey slowed to a point that she could no longer question it, she stood to speak to the driver through the window leading to the driver’s seat. She cried out in alarm when the carriage suddenly lurched to a complete stop and the horses whinnied in protest. Thrown into the opposite seat at the front of the carriage, she nursed a sore elbow and a slight bump on the head.

The relief-carved door banged open with startling force, accompanied by the sound of low, nervous voices – and a curious chant. Alicia stared into the open portal, unable to distinguish anything against the low-hanging sun’s glare except the outlines of human bodies. “Who are you?”

She received no answer, but felt her head swimming as the prickly sensation she’d experienced just before the carriage stopped returned. Too late, she recognized the touch of magic.

The sleep spell overcame her, and she knew no more.

****

Alicia struggled to open her eyes, which felt gummy and heavy. Her mouth was dry, and she felt as though she was hearing the indistinguishable sounds around her from inside a barrel stuffed with cotton.

When she managed to open her eyes, she found that she could see little more than she had with them closed. Sunlight burned into her brain, causing her to groan and try to shield her eyes from the light.

It was then that she realized she was bound and gagged.

Panic quickly overruled confusion, and she struggled against her bonds. A shadow passing in front of an open doorway caused her to freeze in fear.

“My apologies for the restraints. I fear it is a necessity, as certain objects found in your possession point toward a study of the mystic arts.”

Even with the glare from the sun blocked, Alicia could still see little. She realized that she was within some sort of boxy wagon, and that it was moving. She was lying upon a low, narrow bed, and staring up at the silhouette of a man. The man’s voice was unfamiliar. Even once her eyes adjusted to the light, she realized the man was wearing a hood and some sort of mask over his face. She could see only hints of his eyes, which told her nothing.

“So long as your father cooperates, no harm will come to you.”

The cowled man then turned and spoke to someone unseen behind him. “Allow her to break her fast, but watch her carefully.” His voice dropped an octave and he spoke slowly as he continued, “Remember my orders concerning her person.”

The unseen man answered in a low, smoky voice, “Yeah, we got it. We don’t like it, but we got it. Not worth losin’ pay over.”

“Your pay is the least of your concerns if any man despoils her.”

With that, the masked man stepped out of the wagon and two men replaced him. The men were unshaven, and dirty. Their clothing was well worn, and their leather armor dark with age. Both wore lecherous smiles and stared at her body in a way that made Alicia’s skin crawl.

Alicia recognized the voice she’d heard earlier when the dark-haired man of the pair spoke. “We’re gonna take out that gag and untie one o’ your hands. If you start to screamin’ or try to start magic talkin’, we’ll tie you back up right quick.”

Holding her breath against their smell, Alicia couldn’t have responded if she’d wished to.

The scruffy man lifted her head while the other untied the gag. Both took advantage of their position to stare down her bodice and chuckle. Alicia clenched her teeth as tight as the knotted cloth allowed her to, her face burning with shame and anger. The blonde rogue then untied one of her hands while the first man retrieved a wooden plate and a tin cup.

Despite her fear and disgust, Alicia accepted the cup eagerly. Her mouth was as dry as a desert, and she was thirstier than she’d ever been in her life. She drained the cup once, sipping slowly, and then drank half of another, doing her best to avoid eye contact with her captors. Her hunger encouraged her to accept the bread and cheese provided, despite how questionable it looked, and the unclean nature of the men serving it to her.

As she ate, Alicia winced, realizing her bladder was full. She clenched her muscles against the pressure, her legs already pulled tightly together against the men trying to see up her skirts.

The blonde man must have noticed, because he said, “Need to go water the bushes, do ya?”

Alicia nodded almost imperceptibly, the urgency of her need overwhelming her.

The dirty kidnapper laughed and opened the front door of the wagon. “Our guest needs to have a piss.”

The dark-haired man leaned down and said, “No trouble out of you.” He then tied the gag back over her mouth and blindfolded her as the wagon slowed, and then stopped.

“Come on then,” he ordered once the wagon creaked to a halt and he untied her other hand.

Alicia managed to stand, her whole body stiff and sore from sleeping so long. How long, she didn’t know. From the light streaming into the wagon earlier, she knew it must be at least the next day.

She winced when her captor grabbed her hand to lead her out of the wagon. Blind, she had no choice but to accept his touch. Once down off the wagon and away from the road, she felt tall grasses brushing against her skirts. She quietly prayed that it would hide her as she answered nature’s call.

“Go on then – be quick about it,” her captor demanded as he released her hand.

Alicia’s face burned as she reached up under her skirt to pull down her panties. Even though she couldn’t see him, she could feel the man’s eyes burning into her, waiting for her to lift her skirt. She heard his soft chuckle as she squatted and tried to avoid soaking her dress or herself. The painful pressure in her bladder overcame her embarrassment, and she sighed involuntarily as she urinated. She choked off a yelp when the man pressed a cloth against her hand to clean up.

Almost insensible with shame, Alicia barely remembered her captor dragging her back to the wagon, or it lurching into motion as he tied her to the bed.

****

A combination of the heat, pain from her bound wrists, and despair served to distort Alicia’s sense of time. She knew that she had eaten a few times, repeated the embarrassing ritual of answering nature’s call, and even washed once, but the memories all jumbled together in a vague, incomprehensible morass.

A cup of water – cool instead of lukewarm as were all those previous – and the welcome relief of strong nighttime breezes served to clear Alicia’s head for the first time in quite a while. Light from the moon and a fire outside illuminated her surroundings, allowing her to notice her possessions from the carriage stowed on shelves at the front of the wagon. Beyond that and the bed on which she lay, there was nothing more to see. The glazed windows were too high for her to see anything save the sky, and the wagon’s door was closed.

The sound of a horse broke the quiet sounds of the night and the fire, causing Alicia to take notice. She also heard swords slipping free of their scabbards, causing both her mind and heart to race.

Hope surged as she considered that someone might be coming to rescue her. Fear assaulted her when the possibility that the rider might be a highwayman entered her mind. A multitude of possibilities and emotions crashed down upon her in the space of a few, rapid heartbeats.

Whistles approximating a birdcall were immediately met with muttering and the sound of swords sliding against wood and leather once more. Whoever had arrived at the camp was not an enemy, and those outside were standing down.

“What news?”

Alicia recognized the voice as the cultured man in the mask. He spoke quietly, but obviously stood near the wagon.

“Our demands are in his hands. They have no idea where to look.”

“Excellent. Should good fortune smile upon us, we will have our coin, satisfy our employer, and be rid of our unwilling guest soon.”

“What if he don’t pony up?” A gruff voice asked.

The masked man replied, “I am prepared to encourage him, if necessary. I’ll begin with a lock of hair taken at the scalp, and I’m afraid it may become rather gruesome from there. I see little reason to doubt that he will pay what we demand, to ensure the safe return of his daughter. Soon, we’ll all be rich, and our employer will find far less competition in his endeavors.”

Excited muttering greeted that quiet announcement outside.

Inside the wagon, the harsh truth of her situation ignited a spark of anger and determination within Alicia. The continuing laughter fueled that spark, allowing it to sprout into a flame. Her eyes narrowed as she bit down on the gag in her mouth. Slowly, but steadily, that flame burned through her despair.

Chafed, rope-burned wrists once again pulled against the bonds holding Alicia to the bed. Though she might accomplish little, she was determined not to meekly accept her place as a pawn to ruin her father.

Whatever the outcome, Alicia planned to fight.

****

“You do it. I’m havin’ my chow.”

“It’s your turn.”

“What’s it matter? His mightyship isn’t even here. Let her wait.”

“It’s your hide.”

Alicia listened to the first man cursing, the sound moving off into the distance. She’d given up on trying to escape her bonds, even though she’d managed to loosen them tantalizingly close to freedom twice. Whenever they retied her hands after eating or answering nature’s call, she lost all her previous progress.

Her stomach growled, reminding her of how long it had been since she’d last eaten. She suspected that the argument outside related to exactly that, and now knew why the predictable schedule she’d grown accustomed to had broken down over the last two days. Someone – likely the masked man – was not with the group right now, and discipline was growing lax. Laughter and boisterous voices hinted that the men had taken to drink this night.

The litany of curses she’d heard retreating into the distance returned in reverse, now growing louder as the man approached the wagon that served as her prison. The wagon had not moved in the last two days, indicating that they’d reached at least a temporary destination.

“Goblin-whore of a door,” the man outside cursed as he fumbled with the latch. Alicia saw the reason for his difficulty when he managed to open the door – his attempt to carry both his own meal and hers.

He sat down a steaming bowl and a large tin cup on the floor, bringing over Alicia’s cup of water and plate of bread and cheese. These he plopped unceremoniously on the bed next to her as he mumbled curses under his breath and worked to remove her gag. As soon as he finished removing the gag and untying one of her hands, he returned to his bowl and cup.

The smell of his stew overwhelmed even the stale, acrid scent of his sweat, making Alicia’s mouth water as she ate. She couldn’t help but glance in his direction as he noisily ate and drank, the smell of meat and vegetables almost maddening.

He must have noticed the looks, because he paused and let out a mocking laugh. “What, you want some of this?”

Alicia didn’t answer, but instead averted her eyes and returned to her bland meal.

He stood up and said, “I tell you what, I’ll give you some – but you gotta do something for me.” When Alicia continued to ignore him, he moved the bowl close to her, torturing her with the sight and scent of the stew. “Come on, now. I’m not gonna ask for much. Smells good, don’t it?”

Alicia turned toward him and defiantly stared into his eyes, ignoring the stew as best as she was able.

“Your loss. I kin always get more, but looks like you’re makin’ do with what you have. All I was gonna ask is for you to eat it with your tits out. Give me a little show, and it’s yours.”

One of the more disquieting lessons Trell had delivered just before turning toward training with weapons returned to Alicia in a rush. She could hear his every word as though he were speaking to her now, telling her what she must do.

If you can’t use your fists and feet as weapons, you may have to use other things. You’re not going to want to hear this, but it could be that this is something that could save your life.



A man with all the blood drained out of his head down between his legs will do stupid things. May be that he’ll give you a chance to escape that you wouldn’t have got otherwise. Modesty – or even your virtue – is a small price to pay for your life.

Alicia’s hand twitched toward the bodice of her gown, her stomach turning sour. She swallowed to keep what she’d eaten down, and tried to summon up the determination to try something so desperate and humiliating.

He grinned lecherously when he saw her hand move, and let out a little chuckle. “That’s a good lil’ Missy. Show me them tits and you’ll eat good tonight.”

Her nerve nearly failed her beneath a wave of shame, but then she remembered the casual, cold words of the masked man. She had nothing more than his promise that she would be unharmed to assure her safety, and she assumed that they’d traveled far from her home by this point. The masked man had already confirmed that she faced tortures if her father did not pay. The distance that they’d traveled indicated that she might face far worse eventually.

With a surge of willpower, Alicia reached up and tugged down the bodice of her gown to reveal her right breast.

“Both of ‘em, Missy.”

Another tug left the bodice of her gown supporting both of her firm breasts before his leering eyes.

He walked over and handed her the bowl. “See there, I’m not such a bad fellow. I keep my word.”

With only one hand free, she couldn’t even try to use the bowl to hide her naked attributes. She had to sit the bowl in her lap and carefully bring the spoon to her mouth for each bite. She did her best to eat with a semblance of desire, but her stomach roiling with disgust from his stare made it difficult.

“Oh, that’s nice,” he sighed and adjusted the crotch of his trousers in such a lewd manner that Alicia nearly choked.

Somehow, she managed to put his stare out of her mind, even gaining some small measure of pleasure from having something different to eat. She took the last bite and sat the spoon down in the bowl, thinking that she’d abandoned her modesty for nothing, as he simply sat near the foot of the bed devouring her with his eyes.

He picked up his cup and said, “You know, some wine would wash that down right nice.”

Alicia’s cheeks burned, knowing that he wanted something in trade, and having little doubt about what it was.

“Hike them skirts up and I’ll give it to you. Got me a little peek or two while you were having a piss, but I’m wantin’ a good look.”

Thinking her effort a waste, she dismissed any consideration of continuing with the humiliating charade. That thought, so adamant and final as it emerged in her mind, quickly eroded. She’d come this far, and decided to see it through, hoping for an opportunity of some sort. After taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she reached down for her skirt.

He let out a growling chuckle as she bunched up her skirt to reveal her curl-adorned sex. “Get them legs apart a bit. Gimme a good look, Missy.”

Alicia bent one knee and pulled it back toward her where she reclined against the wall behind the bed. He held out the wine cup blindly, trying not to lose sight of her as he did so. She considered clubbing him over the head as soon as she took the cup, but decided that the light tin would likely do little, and he lurched away as soon as her fingers closed around the cup, anyway.

She made a show of drinking the cheap wine, knowing it for the low vintage it was, but still finding it as crisp and delicious as the finest wine from her father’s table after nothing but water for so long. He moved in front of her to find a good vantage point, trailing mocking laughter.

As he sat with his eyes locked in the V of her legs, Alicia saw the opportunity she’d been waiting for. He couldn’t have chosen a better position if she’d directed him. With her leg already cocked and ready, she acted as soon as the thought entered her mind. She drained the cup in a quick swallow, dropped it, and grasped the side of the narrow bed. Her foot snapped out, her heel connecting hard on the target of his nose.

His head snapped back, blood running from his nose. He wavered for a moment, shaking his head, and Alicia thought that she’d failed. Just as panic set in, his eyes rolled up in his head and he fell to the bed, unconscious.

Alicia let out a great sigh of relief and immediately reached for the rope binding her other wrist to the bed. Her deft fingers loosened the knot in the space of a few anxious breaths, and she was free.

She slipped out of the bed, away from her unconscious captor, her mind reeling with a thousand fears. She poked the grubby rogue, but he didn’t stir. Seeing a sheathed dagger on his belt, she snatched it free. The naked blade felt good in her hand, especially since irrefutable evidence that what Trell had taught her was quite effective lay sprawled on the bed.

She retrieved her day bag from the shelf along the wall, knowing that it contained a few things that could be useful. In a flash of inspiration, she stuffed in the bread, cheese, and the kidnapper’s tin cup. Last, she snatched up the panties she’d discarded before answering nature’s call for the first time of her nightmare, refusing to leave those for the lecherous rogues.

Alicia crept over to the wagon door and cautiously peeked out the window. She looked for only fractions of a second at first, but steadily remained exposed in the window a bit longer until she had a good idea of her surroundings. The men were gathered around a fire near a barrel, drinking and making merry. Another fire burned nearby, but appeared abandoned.

Fearful that the smelly man on the bed could awaken at any moment, Alicia knew that she had to act swiftly. There might very well be someone just outside the door that she couldn’t see, but she had to take that chance. Her only hope lay in escaping now, while the men were in their cups and distracted.

The door mercifully made little noise as she cracked it open, and a peek through the crack revealed no change in the attitude of the men. A faint, muffled groan from the man on the bed spurred her into action. As soon as she was outside the wagon, she darted around it to interpose it between her and the men, expecting to hear cries of alarm the whole time.

Having no idea where she was, she moved swiftly in what she hoped was a straight line away from the encampment. The seconds felt like hours, her ears perked to the wind trying to hear over the sound of her heart pounding. The sounds of the men faded as she moved across a narrow field at an angle, trees emerging from the gloom ahead.

When the previously quieted sounds behind her suddenly surged into the shouts of alarm she dreaded, she ran.

****

Alicia lay huddled in a hollow beneath the boughs of a recently fallen fir. Her chest and legs burned from running, and she’d acquired uncountable bruises and scratches in her near blind rush through the gloomy woods. Somehow, she’d managed to hold on to her bag in her flight, but she knew her gown was in tatters.

Now that she’d ceased to pant for breath, she could hear the night sounds of the woods reawakening. She hoped and prayed that meant that her pursuers were nowhere nearby. Her mad dash across the field had culminated with startling several deer, and the animals had rushed off in all directions. Thanks to those unwitting accomplices, her kidnappers could not distinguish the sounds of her own clumsy flight from the frightened animals. The men had poorly chosen their route of pursuit, allowing Alicia to leave them hopelessly behind.

As her adrenaline drained away, so too did her strength. She tried to remain vigilant, prepared to run again if necessary, but exhaustion overwhelmed her.

Back at the wagons, the suddenly sober kidnappers fearfully prepared their story for the masked man.

****

Alicia awakened damp, stiff, and still weary. The sunlight filtering through the canopy overhead and her impromptu shelter was still too bright to let her sleep, however. As she regained her senses, she realized that the fallen fir was far from an ideal place of concealment under the revealing light of day. She knew that she had to move – and quickly.

She tried to crawl carefully out from under the tree’s dew-sodden boughs, but still managed to smear sap across her forehead and acquire a new tear in her gown. As soon as she stood, she examined what was left of the dress, and knew that she had to abandon it. The bodice was torn, revealing almost the entirety of her right breast. The rest was more rips and tatters than gown. Every tear could trip her up if she needed to run, and every trailing piece of material was something else to snag on branches and thorns.

The other dress in her bag was as ornate as the one barely hanging onto her lithe frame. It might preserve her modesty for a short time, but would present exactly the same problems. That left her carefully hidden practice uniform in the bottom of the bag. She’d stayed too long in the courtyard to wash the garments, as she usually did before returning home, and the thought of putting it on caused her to instinctively crinkle her nose. A shifting breeze pointedly reminded her that she smelled none to sweet anyway.

The form-fitting uniform was the only sensible choice. While the padding was far from real armor, she couldn’t ignore even that limited bit of protection. If nothing else, it might stop some of the thorns and brambles from reaching her skin to add to the painful array of cuts and scratches already covering her body.

Alicia stripped off her gown, and tried to decide what to do with it. In the end, she settled upon stuffing it back in her bag. She found that she felt a little more at ease once she donned the padded pants and shirt of her practice uniform. She could move easily, and swiftly, without fear of her skirts catching on every entanglement. Her stolen dagger fit in the sheath on her belt, if not perfectly.

A nearby stream allowed her to quench her thirst, but she had no way to carry more except for the tin cup she’d stolen from her kidnapper. With no way to keep the water from sloshing out as she walked – let alone if she needed to run – Alicia drank her fill and prayed that she could find water again. She considered washing some of the grime, sweat, and sap off her, but urgency and fear prodded her to move.

The woods was not large, and Alicia could see the brighter sunlight marking the edge of the trees, but she thought it best to avoid the open spaces beyond. Her captors were likely looking for her, and any cover would make it more difficult to find her. Since she had no idea where she was, following the stretch of trees in one direction at least gave her something resembling a destination, as well. Decision made, she started walking, picking her way through the fallen limbs and undergrowth.

The endless mosaic of trees, ferns, and woodland creatures stretched on and on. Alicia kept a brisk pace, glad that she’d chosen to do the exercises Trell had taught her daily. If not for that, she knew that she would have probably collapsed hours ago. As it was, her muscles all burned and ached from the prolonged walking and carrying the weight of her day bag. As the sun climbed, she determined that she was moving more or less north.

Every snap of a twig sent her heart racing. It took a great deal of willpower not to run, and even more to put her dagger away and move on afterward. Just as her stomach started rumbling, she happened upon a mulberry tree. Realizing that she had only her little bit of purloined bread and cheese, she supplemented a small portion of it with as many of the purple berries as she thought she could eat without becoming ill. Then, she tore a square from her tattered gown to create a pouch, and filled it with berries as well. She knew that there were many edible plants, but such was outside the scope of her education. She could only trust those few things that she knew, such as the mulberry. Another stream provided her with water, helping to restore her strength.

Alicia reached the end of the tract of trees shortly before sundown. She stared out into the rolling hills, knowing that danger could lurk behind any of them. Unfortunately, she knew all too well that the same dangers – and more – could very well surround her in the wood.

Tentatively, she hovered along the edge of the wood, just within the tree line, looking for any evidence of civilization. She saw a road with a lone wagon following it, but feared to approach. She might find aid, but she also might find her captors. The wagon looked no different from the one that had served as her prison, from a distance.

Despair quite nearly enveloped her again, but then she saw something – a fence. It looked ancient and ill maintained, but it was a fence. Beyond that, she could just make out a turf house and a few outbuildings.

Alicia bit her lip and contemplated her options. As with following the wood, any decision felt as good as another to her. All presented danger, and all presented hope. She decided to risk going to the house and asking for help. She had some coin in her bag, so she might be able to purchase food, shelter, and perhaps even a way home.

After another long, careful observation of the surrounding countryside, she sprinted toward the house, trying to stay low so that the swaying grasses and surrounding hills would hide her. As she neared the place, she slowed. Something felt wrong. She couldn’t quite put a finger on what was giving her that feeling until she reached the fence. From that vantage point, she could tell that the place was abandoned.

Winded, and with her hopes dashed, Alicia dropped to her knees and shook her head, her eyes misting over. She took a deep breath and let it out in a dejected sigh before standing again. If nothing else, the place offered shelter from both the elements and prying eyes. Not knowing what else to do, she continued to the squat, mud and sod building, and peeked inside.

Once her eyes adjusted, she noticed a hodgepodge of cast-off items lying around on the dirt floor. She guessed that travelers had used the abandoned house as a temporary shelter with some regularity over the years, and had left a few things behind here and there. While the objects were refuse to those who had left them, they were treasures to Alicia.

A pair of gourds attached to leather straps were obviously crude canteens. While both were cracked at the top, they at least provided her with the means to carry water. A tattered, course bundle of cloth proved to be a blanket. It was dusty, musty, and had what she thought were horse hairs clinging to it, but it was better than nothing. A wooden pail that looked sound enough to hold water was the last of her treasures.

With darkness rapidly descending, Alicia decided to spend the night. She doubted that she would find anywhere more comfortable or safe, and she could feel the exhaustion of her flight threatening to overwhelm her. The bucket offered a temptation too difficult for even her weariness to diminish, however. She warily carried it to a creek meandering through the valley near the house to fill it, and then returned to her shelter for the night.

The pail proved sound, as she had hoped, and she managed to avoid splashing out much of the water while carrying the heavy bucket back to the turf house. Once inside, she moved to a corner away from both the doorway, and the area where she planned to sleep. There, she stripped off her clothing and used another torn chunk of her ruined gown as a washcloth to remove as much of the filth covering her as possible. Though she wished she could wash her clothes, she felt far better after the semblance of a bath. She did use the last of the water to wash her panties, and hung those from a wooden peg set in the wall to dry, pulling out another pair from her bag.

As she stepped into her panties, Alicia rubbed her fingers over her mound and frowned. The stubble irritated her, and was starting to itch. The Baroness had suggested the grooming tip, and Alicia had come to enjoy the clean feeling of her baby-smooth labia, framed by trimmed, dark blonde curls. With no way to remedy the stubble, she sighed and pulled up her panties.

She crinkled her nose against the smell of her clothing, and put it on as well. She considered putting on her clean gown, but decided against it for the same reasons that she’d chosen the practice uniform in the first place. She was far from out of danger.

After another portion of bread, cheese, and mulberries, she drifted off to sleep with her head resting on the bedraggled horse blanket.

 ****

Author’s Note: This tale is light on sex, heavy on story, and six chapters long. To me, it makes the naughty bits all the more fun when they arrive. It’s one of my favorite tales, written in my Darkniciad pen name, and set in a fantasy world of swords and sorcery. While it’s certainly not for everyone, if you enjoy a love story that’s also an adventure, come take a walk with me in my world.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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