Nyx curls into a tighter ball as another kick strikes her in the ribs. She can taste blood in her mouth, but not enough to make her wretch. A sloppy punch grazes her shoulder, its target probably her head. Angry laughter fills the alley as some of her attackers laugh at their clumsy friend. Nyx relishes the brief pause in the beating, but it quickly ends when somebody coils her hair around their hand. With a violent jerk, she is lifted to her knees and forced to stare into the blue eyes of the leader of her personal lynch mob. The young man slaps her across the face and the woman next to him kicks Nyx in the thigh.
“What should we do with her now?” the man asks the small crowd behind him. He turns back to sneer at Nyx. “The guards won’t punish her, so it’s up to us. We have to do something before she makes everyone forget about her sins.”
“Snap her fingers!”
“Pull out her teeth!”
The man looks at the blonde woman, who decides to stomp on Nyx’s heel. “All good suggestions. What do you think, dear?”
“Shave her head and etch our names into her scalp,” the woman says with a sadistic grin.
“Interesting idea,” the man admits, stroking his chin with his free hand. He gives another twist to Nyx’s hair, causing her to grunt in pain. “I like this hair. It’s strong and gives me something to control her with. Etching our names into her is a good idea. Let’s strip her down and carve our names into her body. Every man she’s with will know about her sins if we do it that way.”
The crowd roars in approval while the woman grabs Nyx by the collar and tears her shirt in half. A flicker of fire runs down her arms, but she immediately holds back for fear of causing another incident. The woman draws a dagger to start cutting Nyx’s pants from the cuff to the waist.
“Please let me go,” she weakly whispers. She pulls her head back when the man puts his ear near her mouth. “I’m here to help.”
“We’re better off without your kind of help,” the man hisses before spitting in her face. He pulls a rusty knife from his belt and holds it over his head. “Who wants to go first?”
“I believe you are done here,” says a deep voice from just above the man. Timoran leans over the smaller man, the barbarian’s green eyes filled with a brewing fury. “Your friends have already run away.”
The man turns to see that only the blonde woman remains, her face pale as she presses her back against the far wall. When Timoran turns to face her, she makes a gurgled cry and collapses in a heap. Ignoring the mumbling woman, Timoran grabs the man by the wrist and squeezes until Nyx’s hair falls out of his grasp.
“Now, I would like your shirt,” Timoran calmly states. He releases the man to allow him to remove the brown tunic and hand it over. “Thank you. Run to the guard station and turn yourself in. I will check their records in an hour. Go!”
The man is racing out of the alley before the echo of Timoran’s final word stops reverberating around the alley. Timoran leans down to wrap the tunic around Nyx and pick her up in his arms. She resists him at first until she realizes that she has no chance of breaking out of his arms. Begrudgingly, she lets him carry her out of the alley like a wounded child. Her sobbing tears are muffled when she turns her face into his arm.
“I told you not to leave the barracks without me,” Timoran says as they walk down the street. Several passersby take a quick glance at the small form he is carrying. “You may have won some people over, but there are many that will attack you. Remember that it is my job to protect you while you are in Hero’s Gate. Never run away again.”
“You talk like I’m your child, but you barely know me,” Nyx mutters like a scolded child. She feels his hold loosen, allowing her to roll out of his arms and onto her feet. “I wanted to get some food and have some time to think. I don’t want to be cooped up and watched every second of the day.”
“You see what the alternative is,” he mentions, patting her on the head. He stops when she tries to smack his hand, a look of pain on her face caused by her broken ribs. “I do not want to coddle you, but you cannot wander this city alone. Please do not make this any more difficult than it has to be.”
Nyx sighs and looks up at the smiling, weather-worn face of the barbarian. “I promise to stay with you as long as you agree to let me help the guards and mercenaries. Simple scouting missions in the forest should be acceptable. Agreed?”
“I do not believe that is such a good idea.”
“The goblins are-”
“I see a tavern over there,” Nyx interrupts him while pushing her hair behind her ears. She tries with all of her might to ignore the pain in her chest. “Maybe I’ll go inside and see what happens when I announce myself. Looks to be some very large and mean-looking guys in there. I’m pretty sure one of them has ogre blood.”
“We will discuss this over a hot meal,” Timoran calmly says. He puts a hand on Nyx’s back and leads her down the street. “That is the best I can offer without permission from Lord Highrider and Tzefira.”
“It’s better than nothing,” Nyx admits. She adjusts the tunic and wrinkles her nose at the mild stench. A wave of melancholy rolls over her when she sees people are still cautiously staring at her. “I don’t want to be hated, Timoran.”
“Very few people wish for that, my little friend,” he kindly responds. “Trust me when I say that this will not last. Once the problems are over, people will move on with their lives. It may take time, but it will happen.”
“I’m going to make sure it does,” Nyx quietly declares, balling her hands into fists. She holds back the urge to cover her hands in fire. “I’m not sitting around while my friends fix my mess. This city will forgive me because I’ve earned it. Don’t even try to talk me out of getting involved, Timoran.”
“I would not dream of it,” the barbarian states with an amused smile. He pats Nyx on the shoulder and crouches to look her in the eye. “I am with you to the end of your adventure as long as you stay by my side.”
“Deal,” Nyx agrees, doing her best imitation of a haughty princess. “First order of business . . . I’m really hungry. Can we get some food?”
Timoran’s bellowing laughter startles everyone on the street.