Paulette Noble
Crafter & Tale Weaver

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An excerpt from

A Virtual Reality
Part Three: Intentions Abound

“I’m so glad you noticed this patch of wild onions,” Suzanne said. She carefully pulled several of the smaller plants from the ground to get at the pungent bulbs buried in the rich earth.

“I am, too,” I said, holding the basket that she filled. My mouth watered just thinking about the stew that we were soon going to have. The meat had been marinating since the night before. Though we had our secret refrigeration unit, it only delayed the decay of fresh food—it didn’t stop it—so fresh meat was a welcome treat after a long week on the road.

Shortly after camp had been set up, Carson had dragged Joshua off into the forest that lined the northern edge of the Great Swamp. Armed with bows, they’d come back with several small creatures that looked like giant, fat rats. It was just as well that neither Suzanne nor the girls had seen them before they were butchered, or they might not have eaten them. I’d had my own doubts, but Carson had assured me that they were very tasty. He was right.

A rustle in the brush caught my attention and a tiny, cut-off scream kept it. Dropping the basket, I turned toward the noise and reached for my sword…which I left in the wagon. Idiot.

A dirty man in leather armor with large metal rings attached to it held Miriam against his chest with one arm, his other hand covering her mouth and most of her face. Another man, just as mud-splattered as the first, held Liselle against his body in a similar manner but he held a knife to her throat instead covering her mouth. It was her scream I had heard. Tears streamed down their young faces and, instead of the usual joy, terror filled their pale blue eyes.

“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” the man snarled. “Or the little one won’t stay so pretty.” He touched his blade to Liselle’s very pale cheek and she whimpered.

Suzanne gasped. “Please, no,” she begged, frozen where she crouched.

“What do you want?” I said, fearing a violation even Sheila would not approve of. I fought to keep my voice steady, to keep the fear out of it.

More rustling, this time from behind and beside us, and another pair of leather-clad men emerged from the bushes. I spun my head around toward the one closest to me.

“You,” the man with the close-cropped white hair beside us said and grabbed my arm. The other man roughly jerked Suzanne to her feet.

“If any of you hurt them in any way,” I said, my voice thick with an unfamiliar cold rage that suddenly filled the very core of my being, “you will regret your very existence.”

The man jerked me off-balance and I stumbled into him, elbow first. He grunted, but was otherwise unaffected. The hit could have conceivably been an accident, but he knew very well that it had been on purpose. “Then I suggest you behave.”

The man was older and shorter than I was but his glare—and his considerable, muscular bulk—gave me pause. I would have to tread very carefully with him. One look at him said he had been at this type of life a long time; his entire manner screamed experience and competence.

“Let them go—unmolested—and I’ll go with you peacefully,” I countered. If Suzanne and the girls were free, I could fight these men without distraction.

“Tie them together,” he announced to the men, ignoring my offer, and pushed me toward Suzanne so I had no choice but to take the steps or fall.

The stringy bearded man holding her licked the side of her face and, despite White Hair’s warning, I reacted. My fist connected with her captor’s face and his nose splattered blood on both Suzanne and me.

“Don’t do that again,” I snarled.

A tiny scream froze my heart. Liselle. I slowly turned, my open hands up in surrender, and saw the small trickle of blood on her cheek, near her right eye, where the knife had pierced.

“That was your last warning,” the white-haired man said. “Misbehave again, and it won’t be a knick.”

“Then control your men,” I said, “and I won’t have to discipline them for you.”

He chuckled. It wasn’t pleasant. “If you’re not the one, I’ll enjoy breaking you.”

The claim he laid on me sent a shiver racing down my spine. I knew I would not enjoy his up-close-and-personal company by the gleam in his eye as he ran his eyes up and down my body. Sheila would just love that!

“Not going to happen,” I said, daring him to try, and held out my arms in false passivity.

They tied us together at the wrist—Liselle to Suzanne to me to Miriam—with about three feet of rope separating us. It limited our overall movements but, with our hands relatively free, we were still able to help the children when the path got rough, or pick them up when they tired.

With two men in the lead and two behind, we walked out into the Great Swamp.

 

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