| Dochia drew her sword and engaged. The thief replied with a perfect parry. She fenced to the left only for him to almost nick her right side. Thirty minutes later she hadn't made any progress. The thief parried her every stroke with an otherworldly skill.
"Iron cannot touch me, my lady." the thief grinned, circling her.
If she wouldn't have seen the sheen of sweat on his forehead, she would have thrown the hefty pouch tied to her belt and run. Or she might have left the frustration overtake her, and she would have charged him with all the strength she had left.
She'll show him later who he called "lady." For now, she pulled the rope sitting at the side of her saddle and, with an effort she knew it was her last, threw it across his shoulders. She didn't let him recover from the surprise and used the strength of her horse to tighten the rope around his armor and pull him off his saddle.
She rolled the rope around him a couple of times and secured it behind him. Then she dragged him to trunk of a fallen tree, so he can prop his back. That was the place she eyed to camp for the night, in the glade covered by white and yellow dots in the tall grass.
Dochia dropped to the ground, leaned her back against the trunk and took in the heady combination of floral scents coming from the glen as she tried to calm her breath.
What was she going to do with him? She could kill him or she could leave him here to die slowly of hunger and thirst.
Her heart almost stopped when she heard Niklaus was held in Hermannstadt. She quickly sent word to as many of the Dragon order brothers she could. However, only Peter and Duncan answered her call.
The two of them would have to do, and she didn't have time to deal with too-full-of-themselves thieves. She gave him a mutinous look.
"You might still need me, my lady." the thief answered her glare.
He dangled his right hand in front of her, so she could see the long scar trailing across the edge of his hand to the top of his small finger.
"The grass of the beasts." he answered her baffled look.
Dochia gave him a snort, as if she would believe such stories.
"No sword or arrow can touch me, as you could well see, my..." She didn't let him finish, and she planted firmly a gloved fist in his face.
"My lord." he continued unperturbed.
"My name is Stoian and no prison can contain me as I can open any lock with a flick of my hand."
She had heard of the thief who broke out of every prison he was put in. She also heard of him sharing the bounty with the serfs on the fiefs of unforgiving lords. She pulled her sweet brandy flagon from her belt and held it to his mouth. She then looked at him in question, bidding him to continue.
"A baby hedgehog fell into one of my traps. I make my traps of iron, so my prey wouldn't chew on their prison and escape. Can't eat one of those scrawny creatures, you know, so I readied to release him. His mother came into sight, with a blade of grass in her mouth. She dropped it on the cage, the iron melted, and it let the baby out."
Dochia sent him an incredulous look and snorted.
"I cut the skin on my hand and pushed the tiny blade of grass under. It healed fast and since then, well, much happened."
He let a swift shrill, and his horse came close. Dochia scolded herself for her carelessness and rose to take and tie the horse properly.
"Tell me my... lord. What would you need out of your satchels?"
Dochia pointed to the satchel containing food.
Stoian muttered a couple of unintelligible words. Dochia gasped when the horse left and returned with her duffel bag.
"I could ask him to untie the rope that binds me, once you go to sleep. You see, any beast in the forest would do my bidding. The grass of the beasts is a wicked help to hold." he dangled again his scared hand before her.
Dochia raised and tied the reins of his horse to a branch above its reach. She still didn't believe a word of his story; however, she wasn't taking any chances. Tiredness was catching up with her, and she needed at least a few hours of sleep.
"I heard the grass of the beasts makes itself known to the few chosen ones only on the night of Sanziene. I surely would watch for it tonight; however, I already found it, and I find myself in a great need of sleep." he grinned again as he rolled his muscles under the rope and then dropped his chin to his chest.
"It glimmers red in the night for those meant to see alone..." his words trailed one by one.
Dochia grimaced as she remembered last year's debacle. She wanted to forget this superstition even existed, and she succeeded as she forgot tonight's significance. Damn the thief for reminding her.
His steady breathing allowed her to relax and let the sleep take her. She slept in fitful bursts, but thankfully, she didn't dream of Duncan again. She didn't dream of anything, for that matter.
Dochia stretched her arms and noticed the faint glimmer of the dawn. She had no time to lose. She took in one last time the beauty of the glen and the encasing mountains.
There, in the darkness of the dying night, perched on a bare rock jutting to an unattainable height, a lone flower glimmered in an eerie blood red.
Dochia trailed her eyes from the flower to Stoian and said in a determined tone.
"You're coming with me."