"Sit up straight! You look like a scullery maid hunched before a pile of unwashed dishes!”
The endless sea of trees continues rolling by without you blandly staring at them, chin slumped in one hand, as your eyes instead flit from the carriage window to your overlarge traveling companion. One Waldon Mehew. Your father's steward, perhaps your least favorite person in the world, and your official escort from Drangleic to wherever it is your estimable father means to send you off to. You never bothered to memorize the name of it - this assuredly horrid place - for the one already in your mind is 'prison'.
"Are you listening to me?" he asks as if you're too dull to understand the meaning of the question. "I said to sit up straight, you miserable girl!"
Watching how his beady eyes lock in on you, you bite back in telling him how his much-too-small waistcoat makes him look like a suffocated, undercooked loaf of bread. Or about how you’re fairly certain its mid-button is about to snap off and possibly put your eye out.
No, you don't mention either of these things, nor call him the fat, fine-dressed chicken he is. Because that wouldn't be 'lady-like'.
Lengthening your back - hearing it pop due to just how long you've been trapped in this bloody carriage with the man - you grace him with a smile smothered in sarcasm. "Is this better?" you ask him as a lady should, albeit with a fox-like bite.
His pudgy features sour. "I don’t appreciate your tone. It's no wonder your father's sending you away to learn some manners. Not to mention some respect. And wipe that look off your face - you're a lady, not a court jester."
"You mean this look?" you wonder, attempting to sound as simple minded as he thinks you to be. Your lips spread wide, forming the most abhorrent excuse for a toothy grin imaginable.
The man nearly chokes. Yes, chokes - because of a damned, goofy smile. It's a wonder his overworked heart hasn't simply popped by now. "Stop that! Stop that this instant!” he barks at once. “You will not, under any circumstances, tarnish your father's reputation with such tomfoolery once we–"
The scream of several horses from outside steals the rest of his words away. And with a scandalized gasp and an aghast little 'why, I never-', the rumbling of your carriage stutters, rocking the both of you as the horses pulling it balk in alarm, and your entire traveling procession comes to a very sudden halt.
Grateful to at last have something other than the ever-pleasant company of Waldon Mehew to distract you from the mind-numbing tedium of your travels, you brush a hasty handful of curtains aside before peeking your head out the window.
There are men on horses facing those riders leading your procession. A band of them, many of them cloaked, and two of them armored. They seem to have spilled in from the surrounding woods. And if your sudden stop and the alarmed nickering of the horses is any indication, they did so without warning.
Who are these people…?
"Get your head back in here!" comes Waldon's reproach behind you.
But you ignore him, favoring the voices you can barely make out from those gathered on the road up ahead.
One of the armored men rides a bit closer to your father’s men, the sheen of a silver mask on his face, hiding away most of his features. All but his eyes, and a few framing tufts of chin-length, ashen hair. His voice is thick and hoarse, with a heavy accent licking its inflections. "This is a quaint little traveling party you have here. Don't see many of your ilk in these woods." His mount stops just before the captain of your guard’s in order for the two men to eye one another. "I wonder… what have the fancy lot of you brought here for us?"
"Nothing at all, beyond my impatience,” is the captain’s reply. He sounds to have a backbone to him, despite being outnumbered by whoever this dodgy band is. Your eyes stray to the glint of the masked man’s battle axe, sheathed at his horse’s flank, as the animal steps just so in the cloud-misted sunlight. “We haven't business with you," the captain says. "Now move along and let us pass."
"Whatever's in that carriage is our business now," the man with the silver face says. "As is anything in any of your pockets." He seems to give your procession a brief once over, before adding as an afterthought, "And we'll take a few of the horses, too."
The captain’s steed sashays uneasily, hoofing side to side at the sound of its rider’s sword being drawn. "Funny man," he lours. "Though I fear I’m in no mood for jests. Move. Now. Or we'll put you down like the lowly dogs you are."
“We’re not going anywhere.” The masked man grabs up his own weapon, untethering it from its place along his saddle. "These woods are ours. Coming here was your first mistake. And crossing steel with me will be your last."
His mount spurs forward at the clip of his armored heels, its hooves digging into the earth, with the captain of the guard’s swift to follow suit. Their horses pass right by one another, axe sparking off longsword, and immediately both riders twist around to better swing again. Every rider at their backs kicks off to join them, clashing in a sudden chaos that fills the forest with shouts and hoofbeats and crashing steel.
Your eyes grow wide at the discord, the thumping of your heart pushing up against your ribs as if to escape your chest. But before you can even think to hide back within the cabin of your carriage, a single rider bursts forth from the fray, a shimmer catching on his armor. His steed is a mousy gray, with scorch-tipped horns sprouting from its brow; the lengths of them peeking past pools of silver mane matching that of its rider. And though you endeavor to watch his way, you duck back behind the curtains enough so that he might not see you, as his horned horse slows beside those strung to your carriage.
"Don’t do anything stupid," you hear him tell your scrawny coach driver. His voice is deep with warning, but not altogether harsh. "Drop the reins and run along, while I still feel inclined to let you."
The scatter you hear shortly after suggests the boy is rather quick to take this silver-haired stranger up on the offer. The carriage wobbles as he hurries off to abandon both you and a nervously floundering Waldon to whatever fates will find you.
Your chest constricts to see but a few of your father’s men still on horseback beyond the silver-mane’s way, though you lose sight of them completely as they’re swift to be surrounded.
It seems my father has unwittingly sent me here to die, you think bitterly, wondering if he’ll send anyone here to avenge you. Wondering if he even cares. Not that it really matters any longer.
A few more guttural screams cry out, and with them the heavy slumping of their felled riders crashing into the earth.
It seems only yourself and Waldon, holing up in this carriage like a pair of frightened kittens, are left.
Waldon doesn’t seem to like this course of events. And ignoring his thick-cheeked sputtering behind you, you brace yourself before unlatching the carriage door, slipping out into the grass with a tense frown on your face.
So be it. If I’m to be the last left facing these vile brigands, I will do so whilst standing.
The length of your crimson gown catches on the footboard as you step off it, and you tug the fabric off without a glance, your eyes very much on the armored rider now staring at you.
He’s an intimidating man to look at, regardless of circumstance. Coarse, ivory fur adorns his broad shoulders, and plated steel covers all the rest of him, each facet of it etched with painstaking intricacy. Carmine standards brush past his steeled thighs, shifting slightly along his horse's flanks, and chainmail creeps up his neck and around his strong jaw. Up and over his face, until only the indent of his nose and mouth are visible beneath it. His watchful eyes are nothing more than blackened slits, carved into the helm sitting nose-to-nape atop his head; the center band of it layered like scales of an iron dragon. And a thick mane of silver hair pours down his back, white as a winter stream.
"Well look at you," he muses, sounding surprised to see you glaring at him. "A highborn, bright-eyed maiden, all the way out in a foul place like this… And my men didn't even have to drag you out to say hello." After studying you a moment, he glances at your opened carriage door. "Are there any more of you in there?"
"Any more of what?" Your hand finds your hip, and you imagine you must look as disapproving as your mother. Scolding this man and his sword. "People, you mean? Or bright-eyed maidens?" Giving him a dour once over, you add, "The only fair-haired maid I've seen today is staring right at me."
A scoff rewards your insult, escaping past the chain hugging to his lower face. And with tendrils of his moonlit hair catching in the wind, he slips off his horse in order to come straight for you, in an approach so smoothly steadfast you fight the urge to run from it.
Your feet stumble an instinctive step away from him instead, and it's enough for him to shove you just a step more, until your back bumps flat against the side of the carriage, just beside its door. And with you cornered by it and him, he reaches round to snatch up a fistful of your hair at the nape of your neck, squeezing sharp enough for your breath to catch.
He must hear your little gasp, or perhaps he's simply amused by whatever apprehension wavers in your eyes as you stare up at him. Either way, his responding chuckle causes your cheeks to flame their resentment.
You won’t allow yourself to become some toy for him to amuse himself with. Not without putting up a fight. And going to slap him at once, you're also not really thinking that to slap an armored face is indeed a foolish thing. It’s not like taunting him was much wiser.
He catches your wrist without effort the moment you try it, as though he saw the attempt forming in your mind.
“Oooh,” he coos, leaning in as he slams your offending hand against the carriage wall, pinning it beside you. You flinch at the rattled thud it makes, but refuse to allow your startlement any other sounds that might further amuse him. His fingers tighten in your hair as he comes closer still, his face dipping low, until his noseguard brushes cool along the underside of your jaw. “You have two hands, you know,” he breathes. “Though I’ve imprisoned the one. Why don’t you try again?” His face turns so that you can stare directly into his dark, angled eyes. “Best hit me hard, if you wish to stop whatever I might do next.”
Biting at your lip, your nerves fetter you to hesitance only for as long as it takes him to laugh at you again. The mocking, husky purr of it has your other hand swinging with a mind of its own, only for his fingers to rip out of your hair and snatch your wrist midair, shackling round it. And with an unforgiving slam, both your hands are harshly restrained at your sides.
“Not fast enough, sweetheart.”
He steps in close. So close his steel-gilded chest brushes against you. And though you twist your face away from him as his face stoops low once more, you can still feel how his brow brushes featherlight along your neck, and hear the way he inhales the scent of your hair.
The man hasn't a mannered bone in his body, and a whisper of fear reminds you of how helpless you really are, pinned under him like this. Surely it's fear that sends a small shiver running down your spine. One he must feel the vibration of, because he gives you a lowered, appreciative hum in response.
His sightless eyes meet yours again, shadow in steel. “You tried. You failed. Are you going to behave now, princess?”
Your wrists wriggle against his iron grip, though your efforts reward you nothing save his mirth. “Behaving isn’t something I’m good at.”
“I see,” he says. “I’ve caught a willful creature, it seems, with a spark to her heart. I wouldn’t put it out. I’m fond of wild things.” Setting free one of your wrists, he reaches instead for a handful of your skirts about the hip, tugging your waist to his in one firm movement. His proximity sends heat creeping up your ears despite yourself, and suddenly his lowered chuckle doesn’t make you want to slap him any longer. No, it has quite another effect entirely; sending little, heated shockwaves to a newly forming pit in your stomach.
You struggle just to swallow; suddenly nervous as you look up at him, though not entirely certain as to why.
“I needn’t tame you, wild girl,” he says as he watches, his face hanging over yours. His fingers tangle tight in the crimson of your gown. “Not when you're already coming around so nicely. That spark in your heart is singing for me. And I have a way with setting such sparks to flame"