I lifted my knee to hit his groin, but my skirts

“I lifted my knee to hit his groin, but my skirts hampered the move, and I only grazed him. Still, he bent slightly, bringing his head close to mine. I jerked forward, hitting his head with my own. His hands left my arms, and I tried to run. However, the knock I’d given myself against his hard head turned me around, and I stumbled straight into Splane’s waiting arms. After witnessing his brother’s abuse, he quickly spun me so I faced away from him.

“Bitch!” panted Tennen, holding his nose with one hand while reaching for the vines with the other. “I hope the beast rips you open.”

His sudden punch to my stomach caught me off guard. I barely noticed Splane’s abandonment of his hold as the need to draw in a breath occupied me. Tennen roughly grabbed my wrists, pulled them behind my back, and tied them as I remained bent over in pain. Together the brothers hauled me onto the cart. I caught my breath enough to struggle, but it did no good. They lifted me over their heads and struggled to thread the pole through my bound arms.

“Idiots,” I said when they finally stepped back, sweating and red-faced from their efforts. “You should have tied my wrists together after you had me in front of the pole.”

They ignored me and jumped from the wagon. I listened to them grunt as they began to push the cart through the gates. Not again, I thought, eyeing the beast’s domain.

Desperate, I leaned forward so my wrists pulled against the wood, then tried to place a foot on the pole, hoping to boost myself up and perhaps climb to the top. My heel slipped on my skirts.

“I hope the beast catches you!” I screamed at them, no longer caring if he heard the noise we were making. Oh, I still feared him but preferred he catch all of us and not just me. Perhaps I would then have a chance.

They laughed as the cart stopped moving. Facing the estate, I saw nothing but overgrown vegetation and trees. I twisted, trying to see Tennen and Splane. Instead, I heard the creak of the gate as they pulled it closed.

“We’re not afraid of that thing,” Tennen said, a distance behind me.

“Bold words for little men standing outside the gate,” I said. “Come inside and see if you fare so well. Do your own dirty work instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you!”

“Someone? You mean something. This is the third time for you, isn’t it, Benella? You won’t bother us again.”

Tennen spoke the truth, and I struggled against the thin vines binding my wrists. The beast would not forgive a third trespass. I wriggled and writhed and panted as I fought against my binding. Pain bit into my wrists with each frantic tug and twist, and my fingers grew slick. My hair came loose from its long braid and tangled in front of my face, obscuring my vision.

Tennen’s laughter taunted me and my pathetic struggles until the sound abruptly stopped. I stilled and tried blowing the hair from my eyes. For a fraction of a moment, I caught a glimpse of black eyes and brown fur before my hair once again blocked my view. I froze. The beast. He was here, mere feet away.

The dark trees around us had gone eerily quiet as if holding their breath. The silence allowed the low rumble of the beast’s growl to echo, surrounding me with his menace.

A scrape against the ground and a faint creak of the wood was all the warning I had before the beast pushed the cart and sent it flying to crash upon the gate. The bone-jarring stop rattled my teeth as my head smacked back against the pole. The momentum sent me forward again, a sudden jerk stopped by my tied wrists. The vines bit deep, and I grunted in pain.

Behind me, Splane squealed like a girl a moment before I heard their hurried retreat. I laughed groggily as my ears rang and the world spun from the thump to my head.

“Two little girls, that’s what they are. They should be wearing a dress,” I mumbled, wincing at the pain at the base of my skull.

“Why have you returned?” asked an angry voice in a deep scraping growl.”