Joe drove through the night in silence, lost in his own thoughts. To be honest, he was starting to regret his decision.
Even this far away from his home continent people had heard of that kidnapping.
They knew the name of the family, what the kid looked like and, worst of all, how the handover of the ransom had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
The kidnappers had died in the militia ambush, but so had some militiamen and the little girl's parents had been caught in the middle of the fight and both, tragically, had been killed.
Now the victim was tied in a sack in the back of Joe's stolen wagon. He had become part of that story, as if he didn't have enough problems of his own.
Of course, he could solve the problem easily enough. Stop the wagon, kill the kid, bury the evidence. Problem over... But Joe really wanted to try again. Third time lucky, right?
The first attempt had also been a girl. Isha, she had been eight-years-old. Joe had found her by the side of the road after bandits had attacked the wagon she and her family had been on.
From the moment he had picked her up, Isha had been terrified of him. In the end, Joe had been forced to tie her up. Just temporarily, until she calmed down.
But, after two days in the cave, Isha still did nothing but cry and beg to be let go. On day four, she had bitten through the rope holding her and ran from the cave.
Joe had chased her, of course, yelling for her to stop. But she hadn't. She had run straight off the cliff to her messy death on the rocky shore below.
Joe watched from the top of the cliff as the pounding waves dragged the small body out to sea, washing the rocks clean of blood at the same time.
Joe had tried again a month later back in the small city he called home. It was a boy this time. Twelve-year-old Arne. Joe had figured that maybe Isha had been too young, too timid.
Arne was anything but timid. He was a street kid Joe rescued from a guard patrol one night. They actually knew each other, which was also part of the reason Joe had picked him.
Joe had used Arne when he had been younger to climb through windows and unlock doors from the inside of the buildings Joe wanted to get inside of.
Arne was a bit big for that now and was part of a gang of other kids who plied their trade picking pockets and running errands for adult criminals.
Joe had taken him in, fed him and put the offer to him as if it were a job. Live with Joe, let Joe look after him. That was it. Arne had been suspicious at first.
In his experience, the only time a grown man wanted to 'look after' a kid was when there was sex involved.
Joe made it plain that that wasn't the case, and Arne had cautiously accepted the offer.
Probably only because it was the start of winter and Joe's gaff was better than being on the streets, but Joe could live with that reason.
It didn't take long for the society Joe moved in to accept that Joe and Arne were together.
Of course, others also made the assumption that there was more to it than met the eye, but Joe soon put them right... Even sometimes giving them their teeth back.
The only problem with the relationship between Joe and Arne had been that Arne was a little shit.
He stole Joe's stuff, he made fun of Joe behind his back,
and he got into huge arguments with the half-giant whenever Joe's idea of 'looking after him' conflicted with the boy's wild and larcenous lifestyle.
And when Joe and Arne argued, everyone in the building knew about it. Then it happened, an argument that got a little too hot, and Joe had pushed Arne away; that's all, just a push.
Arne had flown backwards across the room and smacked into the stone wall with a sickening thud before sliding down to land on his butt on the bare floorboards.
Joe, his flash of berserker anger immediately replaced by remorse ran across to apologise. But Arne was barely moving. His hands fluttered like dying birds against the dirty floor.
The boy shook, and Joe could see him trying desperately to take a breath as his eyes looked at Joe with shock and confusion.
However, the spreading red stain across the front of Arne's threadbare shirt told the story.
Joe's 'push' had caved in the youngster's chest, snapping ribs like twigs, their jagged ends ripping into his lungs, making them useless.
Arne had tried to move, to get up, but his life was already over, and he slid sideways onto the floor,
dead eyes seemingly staring at the rat droppings and bits of dropped food that littered the floor.
Joe had almost lost it then.
It was only with every last ounce of his self-control, and the knowledge that he had to get out of the apartment, the building and even the town right now, that stopped the berserker rampage.
Even so, the red rage bubbled just beneath the surface, stirred by the ever-increasing sound of the whistles behind him.
Whistles summoned by the cries of 'Murder!' Joe had fled, a price on his head.
So, for the first couple of hours after leaving the lonely inn, Joe's mind had been a whirl of old memories and new fears.
By the time the trail down the mountains had begun to flatten out Joe had decided that he was going to kill the girl. By the time the rain had stopped, he had changed his mind four times.
He was definitely going to kill her. He's do it quick, while she was still in the sack.
Thinking that, Joe had turned his body and pulled aside the thick canvas curtain that separated the driver's platform from the wagon interior.
He strained to make out the sack against the mess of bedding on the floor. It wasn't moving. Maybe she was dead already, he had thought.
By daybreak, with the morning sun rising over the end of the Valley and the start of the lush plains, Joe had changed his mind again.
What sort of arsehole would he be to kill her after rescuing her...? Especially after the amount it had cost him. He should give it a try, it might work out.
And if it didn't well, she wouldn't be the first body he'd fed to pigs.
It was well into the morning when the lack of movement from the sack started to, maybe not so much 'worry' him, but annoy him.
Was the kid dead? Or wasn't she? There was a ford ahead, across the wide but shallow river that fed the waiting plains.
Near it was a broad grassy bank where no doubt many a wagon had pulled up, just like Joe was intending to do now.
Joe manoeuvred the big wagon off the road and called the horses to a halt, the voice commands of a wagoneer being just as effective as those transmitted down the long, thick reins.
The girl in the back could wait, dead or alive, a few minutes more wasn't going to matter. Joe led the thankful horses to water while he got on with making camp.
Once the fire was burning well, Joe turned to the wagon to fetch a kettle and pans.
The sack was where he had tossed it. Still tied, but at least the kid had landed on soft bedding. Joe turned to the hanging pans that swung from a line strung down one side of the wagon.
The wagon was big, but so was Joe, and it didn't take long until he cracked his head on the corner of a high cupboard.
Joe cursed, and then automatically turned to look at the sack to see if his expletive had had any effect on its occupant.
He watched the hessian material for movement and was rewarded with a light rise and fall.
Deeply hidden relief didn't quite manage a smile to crack on his face, but it softened the rock-hard features a little. Alive then.
Joe collected his hardware and climbed back into the mid-morning warmth.
Joe set small cauldron of water to boil.
Then he broke a dozen large oatmeal biscuits up into two shallow flat pans, added more water, then set down on the grass for the biscuit to soften into usable horse feed.
With the immediate jobs out of the way, Joe checked the horses and then turned back to the wagon. He took a breath and let it out slowly. Time for the girl.
Joe untied the knot and up-ended the sack.
A tangled collection of arms, legs, hair and body odour, all wrapped in the remains of what had once been a pretty party dress, landed on the thin mattress Joe used as a bed.
The little girl sorted herself out and sat up. Joe watched with annoying familiarity the widening eyes and dropping jaw.
He didn't try to smile, that often had the reverse effect of what he was trying for. Joe kept his face passive.
"What's your name?"
The little girl's voice when she replied, surprised Joe in that it didn't tremble and it wasn't a whisper.
The single word was spoken as if she had just been asked her name by a new neighbour or teacher.
Joe fought down the grin.
"Do you mean 'Ophelia'?"
"Thought it might be."
Her seeming acceptance of the normality of being tied in a sack and taken away in the night impressed Joe more than he imagined it could.
He held out a hand, the fingers of which were thicker than the child's grubby arm.
Joe waited. Then, tentatively, the little girl reached out and her fingers curled around his thumb. The half-giant and the four-year-old 'shook hands'.
Joe fought the urge to wipe his thumb on his shirt; she really was very dirty.
"Are you gonna eat me?"
Joe sat back on his haunches, and Ophelia followed suit, crossing her legs under her.
"Do you think I should?" Joe asked.