Early on the weekend, Betrayal’s Hands part 6! As a side note I did a lot of grimacing as I edited this chapter this morning. It was downright ugly in its rough draft form. I wrote this story years ago with some feedback from a friend for color and creative content. By and large I really like it, but seeing this chapter in its raw form served as a great example to me of how far I’ve come!
Anna’s moaned and whimpered as dawn approached. She let out a shriek and sat up in her bedroll. She saw Cor sitting near the fire looking at her with eyes that were deep and troubled. She turned her face away from him.
‘I’m so weak. He should just leave me here to die.’ She thought to herself. She crawled out of the pine bedding and moved off into the woods to relieve herself. The whole time she was alone, she started at every little sound in the wilderness. She wondered when the attack would come. Mentally berating herself for her cowardice, she hurried back to the camp. She couldn’t bring herself to face Cor or let him touch her, but she felt better in his presence.
“Are you feeling any better today, Anna?” Cor asked. He worried that if Makan had escaped the search parties would be well on their way to catching them. Cor had led them west and taken a longer route to confuse any trackers.
Anna flinched when Cor spoke, not looking in his direction. She walked to a stump near the fire and sat huddled, as though she couldn’t get enough heat. As Cor moved closer, her shoulders began to tremble uncontrollably. He stopped a few paces away and set down a tin mug of tea and a chunk of bread with nuts, meat, and fruit baked into it.
“We have to get moving Anna. You know the risks if we stay.” Cor made an effort to avoid mentioning Makan’s name.
When he moved away, Anna snatched the travel ration, wolfing it down and washing it away with the tea. She moved to the hors Cor had saddled and resigned herself to another frustrating day of feeling helpless. She grabbed the saddle’s horn and leapt into the saddle, even more terrified that Cor might try to help her mount the beast.
“It’s OK Anna. We’ll get moving.” He took the horse’s lead rope and made his way back to the road. Setting as fast a pace as his legs would let him, he continued towards the west.
The following days were much the same. Anna seemed unable to come out of the protective shell she’d built around herself. Cor gave her the space she seemed to need, all the while growing increasingly angry at what had happened to her. They traveled long hours, tiring the horse as well as themselves, sleeping only when exhaustion loomed.
“The pack on your horse holds a Kingdom sword,” Cor informed Anna after they’d been traveling for over a week. Both were weary, but they were coming up on the fens that ran along much of the border between Aradmath and Nordlamar. The marshy lands were full of things best left undisturbed.
“We were harried by a tribe of trolls when we came through to rescue you and your warriors,” he explained, continuing because she showed no response to having heard him. “We must expect more of the same heading back through.”
Still Anna showed no response, but she did reach behind her to feel the sword in the rolled up bundle. Cor nodded and smiled faintly, it was good to know that some of the old Anna was still there.
Anna, for her part, was looking forward to a confrontation with something not human. She hated Makan with a passion, but she was also terrified of him. It made no sense to her, and she knew she needed to get over her fear, but the thought of him made her tremble at times. Maybe a troll would do her the favor of ending her miserable life.
The next day, at mid-morning, they entered the fens. A haze surrounded them, thickening the further in they went. Her horse whinnied, catching scents of things unfamiliar and entirely unwholesome. The sound of his hooves splashing into the growing puddles was muted by the thick air, yet both riders knew the sound carried far into the distance.
The ground fell away from them gradually, leaving the horse to wade through water nearly halfway up his legs. Cor gripped the stirrup so that the horse could help him through the bog. The horse snorted and shied often when a splash sounded somewhere in the distance. Then Anna was nearly unseated when the horse reared up under her. Directly ahead of it something large and sinuous swam beneath the surface of the water, rippling the water with its passing. Only Cor’s weight on the stirrup kept the animal from bolting.
“That’s why I’ll take a steady chariot or a ship any day,” Cor muttered, having settled the horse back down enough to continue. “They’re predictable and dependable, not skittish!”
Anna ignored him, peering into the depths and silently challenging something to attack them. More than challenging, begging.
An arrow whipped past Corillius startling him with how close it was. He cursed and ducked low beside the horse. “Anna, get down!” he hissed, moving forward into the mists.
By the hand of the Gods alone Anna was uninjured. Arrows flew around her, three striking her horse and making it scream in pain. Cor cursed and moved back, coming up alongside of his hesitating charge, and grabbing the reins from her.
“Ride, cousin!” He snapped, flipping the reins and urging the horse forward. Forced into action, Anna crouched low over the mane and let the horse surge forward, its pain and panic putting it into action. More arrows came at them, but they quickly fell behind. Then Anna’s horse collapsed under her, sending her sprawling in to knee deep water. She came up spitting and coughing out the tepid water.
Cor, following behind, catching up before Anna’d caught her breath. He patted the horse reassuringly, as he would a soldier. It was breathing hard, as though it could not get enough air, and the foam at its mouth was flecked with blood. Cor nodded to himself and pulled his sword, giving the horse a merciful death.
“Leave me,” Anna said, making Cor turn back to face her, surprise on his face.
“What?” He asked, elated that she’d spoken but concerned about what he had thought he heard her say.
“Leave me, I’m no use to you, I’ll only drag you down, get us both killed.”
Her defeated tone upset him more than her words did. He walked over to her and stared at her face, and felt even more rage when her head dipped down and her eyes stared at the muddy water.
“Men and women died for you, Captain,” he spat out, urged to slap her to knock some sense into her. The physical reminder wouldn’t bring her around, he knew, but throw her deeper into depression. “Don’t let their sacrifice be for nothing!”
He turned and pointed at the path into the fens “Get on that path and move, the People need you. Our people! If anyone stays behind it will be me, giving you time to return. Even if you’ve lost your nerve, they need you if we’re to fight this war!”
She sniffed and started walking towards the path, obeying him. Cor clenched his fists in anger. The old Anna would have yelled back at him. She would have fought him kicking and screaming for saying such things. He despaired that she might forever be broken.
Heavy splashing alerted him a moment before a lumbering figure emerged from the mists. Cor pulled out his sword and slashed out, cutting the crude spear that had been thrown at him in half. He couched low as the troll drew a club and charged. The troll was larger than he was by two heads, and more suited to fighting in the swamp. Anna could see more of them emerging from the mists as well.
“Run, fool woman! Get back to Nordlamar!” Cor cried, dodging the first powerful swing from the troll and using his longer Kingdom sword to cut into the triceps of the troll.
It howled in pain and dropped its club into the water. It tried to back away but Cor lunged forward, sword striking it in the belly and digging in deeply. He backed away as the other trolls slowed their approach.
Cor glanced behind him and saw Anna standing next to the path. “I can fight, you cannot! Run or I’ll kill you myself and save the trolls the bother!”
Anna shrank at his rebuke. He hated to say it to her, but it had the desired effect. She turned on the path and started running. Three trolls surrounded Cor and two more tried to reach her. She fled running as though possessed and escaping the lumbering creatures.
Cor circled slowly, waiting for an opening. The trolls were wide and possessed long stringy arms. As such only the three could surround him, though he expected that was more than enough. He dodged a spear thrust, then ducked under a club. The third troll grazed him with his spear, making Cor grit his teeth at the line of fire that flared across his lower back.
He spun and grabbed the spear behind the head with his free hand, pulling himself into the troll’s reach. He held his sword out as he turned, cursing the longer length of the Kingdom weapon. It cut a shallow wound in the trolls arm and chest, making the troll let go of the spear and back up a step to draw its club.
Cor turned rapidly and thrust the spear out, catching the other spear wielding troll in the stomach and stopping its advance instantly. He yanked the weapon free and thrust blindly out at the third troll, coming nowhere near him but buying him time.
Cor turned again in time to see a club swinging in at him. He tried to slip the blow but grunted in shock and pain when it crashed off of his shoulder. His arm went numb and he dropped the spear in the water from unfeeling fingers.
The man lunged forward, instead of falling back as a sane warrior might. He dropped his other shoulder into the troll’s midsection, rocking the larger creature back a step. He fell to his knees then in the water, feeling the wind whistle over him as the troll tried to grab him with its free hand. He thrust up with his sword and was rewarded with the hot and coppery splatter of blood upon him.
He yanked the sword free in a sawing motion and turned to face the remaining troll. The other two had given up their pursuit of Anna and were returning as well.
“Alright, let’s get this over with,” He muttered, not knowing if they could understand him or not. He pointed at the one with the club with his sword and nodded. “You die first!”
The troll sneered at him and spat out something in a guttural voice at him. The flowing language was beyond Corillius’ ability to understand, but the tone and gesture were not.
Cor heard the splashing from the other two trolls running towards him. He cursed and threw his sword at the troll he faced. It brought its arms up and tried to dodge the blade, which deflected harmlessly off its arms, and then felt Cor shoulder slam it in the torso as well.
This troll wasn’t off balance as the other had been. Cor was knocked back into the water, once again on his knees. He was where he wanted to be though. He reached down and his fingers gripped mud. A second grab and he found the spear he had dropped earlier. He grabbed it and waited for the troll to raise its club high above him.
Corillius lunged upwards, driving the spear from the water up and into the chin of the troll. His left shoulder ached but some of the feeling was returning to his arm, allowing him to steady the spear with that hand.
He turned to see the other two trolls come to an abrupt stop and then look at each other. The spoke to each other briefly then split up, each one coming from a separate direction towards him. Corillius cursed. The last two seemed smarter.
Cor heard the splashing in the distance again of something approaching. The trolls laughed and Corillius had a fresh reason to curse. He was running out of ideas and weapons, plus his shoulder was beginning to really ache with the return of feeling to it. Thinking about his injury he again felt the flare of the cut across his back as well.
Something came charging out of the mists, surprising Cor and one of the trolls. The other one could not see it, but it felt it when it bumped into it and sent it stumbling. Then it felt Anna leap onto it and latch onto its back, her hands going around its neck to hold on.
Anna bore the troll to the ground, keeping her head above water by driving its head under the surface. She put her hands on the back of its head and drove her knees into its lower back. The troll thrashed under her, trying to use its greater strength to knock her free. Ana’s repeated strikes to its spine and kidneys thwarted it.
Cor seized the initiative, stepping up to the other troll that was stunned by the turn of events and using his spear to send the troll’s spear into the water. He stabbed forward next, but the troll was on the defensive and ready. The troll knocked the lunge aside, and tried to close with Cor. He stepped back quickly; swinging the sharpened point across in front of the face of the troll and making it pull back. He thrust again, feinting and fooling the troll. He drove it home after the troll’s missed parry, making the creature howl as the six foot shaft of wood sank several inches into its thigh.
Cor pulled it out and the troll dropped to one knee in the water, his leg not supporting him. He whipped the spear about, cracking the shaft into the side of the troll’s head and dazing it. Another thrust, this one into its chest, and the fight was over.
He turned to help Anna and found her still pummeling the troll in the water, though it had long since stopped moving. He tossed the spear into the water and went over and gently grabbed onto her shoulder.
Anna spun more quickly than Cor remembered her being able to. Her hand came up inside of his guard and slashed across his cheek, her nails digging furrows in the skin. He staggered backwards, hands held up defensively.
Anna rose and took a step towards him, then stopped and took a shuddering breath. “Never threaten me again,” she said, her eyes dark and deadly.
The look of guilt, surprise, and pain on Corillius’ face made her look away quickly, hugging her arms about herself. In moments she was shaking and silently sobbing.
“Anna, it’s okay… you saved me,” Corillius said to her soothingly.
She nodded, then began walking up the path again. Cor reached up and felt the blood running down his face. He shook his head and shrugged. It seemed there was hope for her still. If he had to deal with a few scratches along the way, so be it.
“Come, let’s get out of here before more show up,” he said, searching in the water until he found the sword he’d thrown by cutting his leg upon the blade. He also retrieved the other sword from the dead horse and thrust it into the rolled up blankets in the pack he was making to carry the last of their things.
They moved on, traveling as quickly through the swamp as they could. With their first altercation out of the way, nothing else threatened them in the marshes. A few reptilian predators swam close as twilight descended on them many hours later, but they were left alone and finally regained solid ground a few hours before dawn.
Corillius spent some time examining his wounds at the camp they made. He scrubbed the shallow cut in his leg as best he could, hoping the exposure to the swamp water wouldn’t infect it. His shoulder was bruised and so sore he couldn’t move it fully, but nothing was broken. His back he couldn’t see, but he was able to get Anna to look at it and clean and dress the wound.
She tended to him without speaking. She hadn’t spoken another word since the swamp. Instead her mind was thinking about the battle. Cor had told her to flee because she was of no use in a fight. It had shamed her but it was true, she was a coward. Then something within her had risen up and fought back in denial. She’d been overcome by a rage so powerful it filled her with heat and tinged her vision red. Such intense feelings were stronger than any the previously temperamental woman had ever known, and they frightened her. At the same time they soothed her. Anna longed for their return because when she’d felt like that, she’d known no pity, no fear, and no weakness. She could live like that, she thought, at least until something stronger ended her misery.
With their wounds tended Anna slept. Cor kept both watches, though he drifted and fell asleep briefly after the many days of exhaustion. When the sun rose fully he stirred and noted they were on the borderlands of their nation now. Their spirits buoyed, it was only a few hours of walking before they spotted a patrol. They’d made it back physically, Cor hoped that Anna could make the return voyage mentally and emotionally as well.
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.
Here’s chapter 5 for Betrayal’s Hands. The entire thing, not some cheesy mid-chapter split like I did over the last couple of weeks. ;-) Enjoy it, things are starting to move fast and become a lot of fun!
Corillius looked over at Anna. She was slumped over the saddle on the horse he’d stolen for her. He weighed the options, deciding quickly that Anna’s health was worth the added risk of stopping early for the night. She hadn’t spoken a word since he’d removed her from Makan’s brothel. He was becoming increasingly worried that her spirit had been irrevocably broken.
He reached out and touched her knee. She looked up and jerked her leg away from him.
“Anna, honey, we’re going to stop for the night.” Cor said softly, trying his best not to feel hurt that she rejected his touch. She stared through him and then turned her head away.
He led the horse into the woods by the side of the road, going in far enough so that their fire wouldn’t be seen by any patrols. He found a tiny clearing that backed into a huge evergreen tree which would provide them with natural shelter.
Cor reached up to pull Anna from the saddle. She whimpered and pulled away from him violently as soon as her feet hit the ground. She stumbled into the hip of her horse, gripping the back of the saddle for stability. Cor sighed and backed away, allowing her space.
He moved off to begin building the fire and gathering wood to keep it going through the night. Brushing up the leaves and supplementing them with pine boughs, he built a nest for their bed, spreading it with his cloak and the blanket he’d stolen with the horse.
Anna leaned against the horse, fighting for control. Somewhere, deep inside her mind, she realized that Cor wasn’t going to hurt her, that he’d never consider doing the things that Makan and his friends had done to her. It didn’t matter. Her reactions to him were uncontrollable.
“Come and sit over here Anna, I’ve made a place for you.” Cor motioned to the bed he had prepared, relieved when she took his direction. She lay down on the softness, rolling herself up in the blanket. “I’ll watch your sleep,” he said softly, knowing that for her, the night would likely be filled with nightmares. He moved over to the fireside and wished that he knew what to do for her.
‘I hope that the People’s healers will be able to help her.’ He thought to himself as he sat staring into the flames.
Several hours later he heard her whimper in her sleep. He longed to go to her and comfort her, as they’d once done for each other as children. Simply to hold her and assure her that everything would be okay. He almost got up, but then realized that it could go horribly wrong.
Cor stood up instead and moved off into the night, telling himself that he was keeping a proactive watch against pursuit. In reality he needed to put distance between himself and her fearful cries that he couldn’t help.
“You will suffer for this, Makan,” Corillius vowed quietly as he leaned against a tree. “I will avenge Anna and deliver more unto you for the pain you have caused my nation with your inhumanity!”
* * * *
Night was falling quickly as T’leren walked barefoot down the road to Halburg. The nighttime noises were frightening to the girl who’d never spent a night outside of her own bed, never mind outside in the wild. As she followed the road, she began to hear the hoof beats of a horse coming up the road behind her. She listened as they approached, and realized there were a number of horses approaching. The jingling she heard indicated that they were armored war-mounts. Panicked that her father had found out where she’d gone and come after her, she turned and ran blindly into the woods.
She ran, crashing through the underbrush, running into branches that tore at her skin and her clothes. Her panic caused her to run blindly, stopping only when she fell to her knees after tripping on a large root. With tears of pain in her eyes, she looked up only to see a fire in the near distance. Her instincts warred with her fear of the forest at night, and making a decision, she approached the fire quietly, glancing around for anyone who might belong to it.
“Well what have we here?”
T’lerin gasped, turning around and trying to see where the gruff voice had come from. Something heavy dropped to the ground behind her, making her spin again. She stepped into a thorny bush and yelped in pain. Trying to back away from it only landed her on the ground.
The man leaned over her, his features hidden by the forest green cloak he wore and the growing darkness of the night. She did see the cruel looking dagger he held in his hand, however.
“On your feet, dearie,” he barked, gesturing at her menacingly.
T’lerin stood up slowly, cringing both in pain and in fear. All sorts of horrible possibilities raced through her mind.
“That’s a good girl,” the man said. “Now where’s your guards? Who rides with you… er, well, where’s your horse or carriage?”
“I’m alone,” she said, terrified by the man and also terrified that he might find out who she really was.
He laughed. “If that’s true, then you’re a fool, girl!”
“Now walk towards the fire, I’ll be right behind you so don’t you think of trying nothing!”
T’lerin nodded and moved past him, limping heavily from the abuse her feet had taken. In one of her falls she had lost her shoes as well, promising her no reprieve. In a matter of moments she walked, captive, into a small clearing where several men were lounging around a campfire. Some were drinking, others were eating venison from a small deer that was roasting on a spit over the fire. Others still were working on their equipment or playing dice. They all were rough, shoddily dressed, in varying levels of personal hygiene, and all very interested in her appearance.
“What’d you find, Sven?”
A few other less savory things were called out upon her entrance, but Sven, the man that had her at knife point, just grinned at them all for a long minute. “She just ran into the camp like something was after her, says she’s all alone, she does!”
There were some bawdy cheers and a few suggestions as to what to do with her. A few of the men stood up and moved closer, making T’lerin shrink back. She backed into Sven, and felt the point of his knife against her back.
“Careful there lass, there’s no need for you to be getting yourself hurt,” he said, chuckling.
“What can you do for us?” A man with a scar running across his cheek and chin asked. The skin around it gave his expression a permanently leering affect.
“Aye, what skills have ye?” Said another man who was missing some teeth and had breath that a dog would find upsetting.
“Who cares!” Another man said, earning some laughter from a few of the others. He had a nose that had been broken a few times too many. “She’s got all I want hidden under that fancy dress of hers!”
“And she’ll learn right quick the skills to use ‘em too!” Another man hopped to his feet beside the broken-nosed man.
“I found her, I get her first!” Sven said behind her, putting his knife away excitedly.
T’lerin’s eyes were wide and she was gasping for breath. She was terrified. It was as if every bad thing she could have imagined had come true at one time, in one place. She swooned and fell to the ground, passing out from her fright.
“Well where’s the fun in that,” broken-nose said.
“She’s still breathin’, that’s enough for me!” Sven said, kneeling down beside her and putting his hand on her leg to tear her dress.
The bellowing voice caused them all to turn and clear a path. A giant of a man walked through the aisle, looking down at the woman and frowning.
“She’s a noble, you fools!” He snapped, turning to look at them all. Sven, the closest backed away quickly.
“Boss, she said she was alone and she walked into our camp,” he said, hoping to get his prize back.
“Then she is a fool,” he said, repeating Sven’s earlier words. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll harm her.”
“Boss, what else are we going to do with her?” Sven said, nearly whining now.
“Wake her up… gently,” he ordered.
T’lerin was repositioned on the ground and lightly slapped across the face, bringing her around. She looked up at all the staring faces and realized her nightmare had been the truth, she truly was doomed.
Then she saw the largest and perhaps the ugliest face she’d ever seen. He towered over the tallest of the other bandits by at least a foot. His eyes were sharp but he had teeth that were yellow stained, large, and in the case of his canine teeth, pointed and reminiscent of tusks. The firelight flickered in his eyes, reflecting their pale yellow color. T’lerin whimpered in fright and nearly passed out again.
He knelt down next to her and looked at her, amazing her more with his size. He was surely strong enough to break a tree in half with his bare hands! He sniffed a couple of times and then stared at her face. Finally he spoke in a voice that was as deep as she had expected it would be, yet the rumble of it still made her gasp.
“What’s your name?”
“T-” she started. She realized she did not want them knowing who she was or even that she was noble. T’lerin was a noble name, and letting them know it would give them power over her. “Teri,” she said, hoping he would mistake her hesitancy as a frightened stutter. It wasn’t far from the truth.
He frowned. “You wear a fine dress and fine jewelry, Teri, whose daughter are you?”
T’lerin knew he didn’t believe her. Terrified, she knew that she could only plunge deeper into the deceit. “No one important… I’m a servant.”
“Ha!” He barked, laughing scornfully. “You don’t wear the clothing of a servant. Your hands and your feet wouldn’t be so soft either. You’re a noble.”
She shook her head, tears of fright spilling from her eyes.
“Tell me who to send the ransom note to and you’ll be spared the affections of my men,” he said, encouraging her. Then he grinned, terrifying her with his sharp toothed smile. “Sven here seems to have a crush on you.”
T’lerin could not stop the trembling of her chin, the tears continued to flow and she sobbed as she struggled to bring in breath enough to speak. The giant scowled at her, scaring her further.
“Crying won’t do you any good, my pretty. Sven here likes it when his women cry… but some of the others prefer to hear them scream.”
She gasped, closing her eyes and shaking her head, hoping to make it all go away. His hand, a meaty fist as big as her face, grabbed her jaw and pinched it mercilessly to silence her. “Speak, wench!”
Her mouth opened and she muttered the first thing that came to her mind, “tutor!”
His hand fell away and he leaned back some. “Go on,” he urged her.
She took a ragged breath, pulling herself back from the precipice of madness, and continued with her lie. “I tutored children, I taught them numbers and how to read.”
The man chuckled. “Well boys, we’ve got ourselves a smart woman on our hands!”
Many of them grumbled in return, a few chuckled nervously, not knowing what their leader had in mind. He laughed sharply before saying, “Here I thought no such thing existed!”
That brought laughter and cheering from the rest of the bandits, even Sven. “Can I have her now, boss? She’s worth nothing if that’s all she is.”
“She’s mine, Sven. I’m taking her. I don’t believe her, yet, but we’ll see. Until I’m sure I don’t want any of your filthy paws on her, you hear me!” He said, turning his malefic stare upon them all.
“But boss, I found her!” Sven whined, pushing the issue when he knew he should not.
The large man grabbed T’lerin’s hand and yanked one of her rings free. He stared at it, noting the small colored gemstones set in the gold, and then tossed it to Sven. “That’s for your troubles, now get back on watch!”
Sven stared at T’lerin for a minute longer, his gaze promising her what would happen if he ever had the chance, then he turned and skulked back into the woods.
The leader reached down and picked Teri up. He threw her over his shoulder easily, frightening her with his raw strength and size, then turned and walked out of the firelight and over to where he had his bedroll set up beneath a crudely constructed lean-to made of pine boughs.
He dumped her unceremoniously on the ground and knelt next to her, tying a rope around her wrists and then around a tree. For safekeeping he tied another rope around her ankles, hobbling her.
“Now tell me about yourself, Teri,” he said, picking up a large chunk of venison from the ground and flicking some dirt off of it before biting in. Juice ran down his chin, making Teri squeamish but also reminding her of how hungry she was getting.
Teri had no choice but to sink deeper into her lie, inventing and struggling to remember everything she created about the person that she pretended to be.
* * * *
“My Lords, our scouts have returned and found few signs,” a worried soldier said to Barons Makan and Darleth.
The two Barons stood in the morning air that was beginning to grow chilled with the onset of fall. Makan was staring at the lands that unfolded before him, looking to the north as though if he looked hard enough he could pierce the distance to find his quarry. Yet, in truth, he didn’t know for certain if they even went to the north. His instinct told him that was right, and seldom was his instinct wrong, but in this matter there could be no mistakes.
“Few signs are not no signs. Tell us what they discovered,” Darleth said. Makan remained staring to the north, his bones chilled beyond the morning air.
“He brought this back, My Lord.”
Makan turned and nearly choked when he saw the broken and torn slipper. It was his daughter’s, he had no doubt of it. He’d never noticed it before, but it was clearly of quality fitting a noble lady.
“Where was this found?” Darleth asked, his voice growing cold.
Makan ignored the look Darleth sent his way, desperately hoping that the baron would not understand the link.
“Near Halburg, My Lord, a few hours ride away. They found it in the woods but could find nothing else save a campfire that was abandoned. Whoever left it covered their tracks well, but the scouts think there were many of them.”
“Then look again, fool!” Makan snapped. “Move the men that way, clearly they must not have gotten far.”
The soldier saluted and hurried away. Darleth turned to Makan and studied him for a moment, searching for some telling sign. Makan shook his head slightly in disbelief of the unfolding events, then turned to stare hatefully to the north again.
“Why would the soldier find T’leren’s sandal near Halburg, Makan?” Darleth asked quietly, although intently.
“I’ve no idea whose sandal that is,” Makan said, not bothering to look at him.
“But I do,” Darleth persisted. “It is one of her favorites, she wears it often. I ask again, My Lord, why would T’leren’s sandal be found so remotely?”
Makan turned, his expression one of an exhausted man. “She took her,” he said. He shook his head and looked anywhere but at Darleth. “The northland bitch told me that if I didn’t kill her and every one of her so-called warriors that they would be back to hunt down my family and destroy every last one of them, leaving me for the last.”
“That’s why I found you trussed up like a pig,” Darleth said, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems they mean to make good on their promise.”
“And my daughter is already gone. I have another, Darleth, and she’ll be glad to have someone as powerful and wise as you, don’t worry!” Makan said, trying to sound convincing and to keep Darleth his ally. He needed all the help he could get to bring T’lerin home, but he dared not show his weakness. It was a fine line he walked and one he was certain the young Baron would use to his advantage in the future. Fear reminded him he had no other choice.
“They’ve yet to find a body,” Darleth said. “We must assume they mean to use her as a hostage until they can escape the Kingdom.”
“We’ll find them,” Makan said, suddenly filled with hope and conviction. “I’ll not let my daughter suffer in the hands of such barbarians!”
“Indeed,” Darleth said, seeing opportunities opening for him before his very eyes.
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.
Regular readers may remember a post I made some time ago regarding the devil being in my icebox. Well, just like before, this post does not mean my refrigerator is possessed or misbehaving. It’s a book! The Devil’s Icebox, sequel to Dark Earth, is now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and loads of other places like Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and others in the very near future. It was a lot of fun to write and it sets the stage for two more books in this series. I don’t have timing on those books, but knowing me I’ll probably have at least the first available before 2012 is over.
The Devil’s Icebox was slated for release on May 1st. Everything came together great on this, from writing the story to having two consummate professionals helping with the editing and cover art. So why not get it out a little bit earlier – I’ve had a lot of feedback wanting an immediate sequel for Dark Earth.
Devil’s Icebox blurb:
Lord Baxter’s portal between Earth and Dark Earth beckons. Eager to seek the promises of the otherworld’s powers, Cassiopeia has been sent by her Lord to ensure his realm rivals the mightiest of nations.
She shares a history with the protector assigned to her, a history filled with familiarity and contempt. Setting the past aside and sharing the present offers forbidden opportunities, as well as a new world filled with opportunity and unimaginable surprises. Her quest remains the only constant, and the one thing she yearns most to be rid of.
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.
You’re probably thinking one of two things: ‘What the heck is he talking about?’ or ‘Wow, this sci-fi thing is turning into more than just a hobby.’ In either case you may be tempted to call the guys with the white jackets and needles full of chemicals designed to make me drool on myself. There are, of course, better ways to make me drool. Fortunately on my wife has figured those out and isn’t sharing. :)
Before I get completely derailed from the purpose of this post, I’m writing this to answer a question I’m asked all the time. Where do I find the time to do all of this stuff?! I hate to give away my secret, but not for the reason you think. It’s not a machine that allows for time compression / distortion giving me an extra couple of hours each day. It’s not a support staff of people doing work behind the scenes. It’s so simple you may not believe me: It’s just me being dedicated, motivated, and organized.
Years ago my wife knew I liked to write. She considered it harmless enough, as long as it didn’t interfere with anything else. After a while I got more and more into it and still she supported me. It was the kind of support that meant she was humoring me, again because it was important to me. Maybe that’s not the best kind of support but it was the right kind, and it’s the sort of relationship that I’ll go to my grave insisting is the best to have. As time passed and the writing thing started to take off her support went from humoring me to being excited. I was more than a little excited myself, but I keep mine tempered with the knowledge that it can disappear in a heartbeat if I take my eyes off the task.
So how have I managed it all and continue to do so? I work a full time job that often runs 50 – 60 hours a week, including time working from home. I have two young kids and a great wife that I enjoy spending time with. I’m mildly obsessed with power lifting and staying in shape by picking up the kind of heavy weights that makes Planet Fitness employees run screaming in terror. And up until late last year I was completing my MBA in Strategic Management. As of this writing I have 18 books published and I expect to hit 20 on or about June 1st. Most of them published between late 2011 and now.
The secret is doing the work. Just like anything in life, a job doesn’t get done if you don’t do the work. Procrastinating doesn’t help, nor does convincing myself that I just can’t write for whatever reason I’ve got. Success comes from overcoming the obstacles and doing the work anyhow. Sure, there are plenty of nights after the kids go to bed where I’ll think that loading up Black Ops and trying to improve my kill : death ratio to something above 1:5 would be fun. Most of the time I file that wistful thought away and load up the latest writing project, then start typing. On the rare occasions I do talk myself into playing a game I remember inside of a few games that no amount of practice is going to make me good enough to be a threat, so I bow out gracefully and get back to writing. Damn kids might beat me on a virtual battlefield but I’ve got the old adage to fall back on that the pen is mightier than the sword!
I set a minimum of 500 words a day. Some days circumstances prevent me from writing at all. Other days I’m limited to a couple dozen or hundred words. Those are rare days, because it’s my mission to write. My future and my family’s future depends on it. That’s why my average daily word count is closer to the 2000 – 4000 word range. Right now that means two to three hours of writing. That cuts into family time a little bit, but remember the support I spoke of earlier.
My goal is to make writing the day job. That’s a ways away still, but when that happens it’ll allow those two to three hours to turn into four to eight hours and I can do them out of a home office, then have my evenings left for dedicating to my family. That’s the goal, and that’s what’s most important. Setting goals and working towards them is the only way the vast majority of us will ever achieve success. Sure, one out of a million people may win the lottery or achieve some other windfall of cash, but that’s not me or anyone I know. If it’s you and you’re feeling generous, let me know! Until that happens I’m a proponent of putting my nose to the grindstone.
As a shining example of that I’m roughly three chapters away from completing my next Vitalis book (Evolution). The last one, Squatter’s Rights, took me five or six days to write. This one will be a little more than a week, but I haven’t been able to dedicate quite as much time as I’d like to. I’m expecting it to come in at 20k words or perhaps a little more. Novella length, and a great bit of horror / thriller / adventure for my unruly group of survivors stuck on the undiscovered world of Vitalis.
Up next is the 5th novel in my Voidhawk series. Tons of great plans for that one as well. I’ll be exploring Dexter, Jenna, and the remainder of the Voidhawk’s crew in greater detail.
Chapter 4, part 2
Makan stood over his latest slave, grinning viciously. A whip hung from his hand and red welts, some bleeding slightly, crossed her body. She’d tried to cover herself from his first blows, but that had infuriated him. With the help of some stone faced servants she had been tied to the bed so he could whip her freely.
Now he dropped the whip and stared at her. Tears ran down her cheeks and she lay panting and sobbing on the bed. Her body was covered in sweat and red lines. Makan loved the feeling of power that breaking in a slave gave him, and this one in particular was the best he’d ever had.
“Enough foreplay, I think you’re ready for me now,” he growled at her.
He took off his robe and let it fall to the ground. He untied her legs and nodded appreciatively when they lay trembling on the bed. He slipped up between her legs and grabbed her feet, pulling her legs upwards and displaying her obscenely to him.
“Don’t worry, my pretty, this time I’m going to teach you a new way to serve me,” he said, watching her closely for a reaction.
Annalyse could handle the pain. It hurt badly, and it made her body betray her and tremble, but her mind could cope with it. Pain was life. It reminded her that she was still alive and that so long as she remained alive there was hope. She might one day avenge herself against the son of a bitch that raped her day after day; she might yet see her sister and father and her people again; she might one day return with the armies of Nordlamar and crush the Kingdom.
But the realization of what was about to happen to her struck a chord of terror in her. She felt him brushing against her, seeking her opening and she writhed on the bed, trying to break free. Her body was weak, undernourished and abused. He laughed, enjoying the fight.
Anna’s mouth opened and a tortured moan came out when she felt him hit home. He forced himself into her sending a tearing sensation through her bowels. She felt the sudden wetness and knew that something really had torn, for her blood was serving as the only lubricant that would be provided where he was. She shuddered and tried to fight again, but her body was finished.
Makan laughed again as she collapsed under him. She glared at him, tears streaming from her eyes, and then they began to close. He rutted against her, filling her repeatedly. His perverse excitement spared her life, for he was unable to last very long. He grunted and, after a final vindictive thrust into her bowels, he pulled free of her.
“Look at me, slave!” He ordered, slapping her on the face roughly.
The slave opened her eyes and he looked into them, chucking happily. He was somewhat disappointed though, for his sport was over. Her eyes possessed a dull glaze that he’d seen in some soldiers who’d spent too much time fighting. A thousand yard stare, they called it. She was done, her will was broken. He’d broken her at last.
Makan turned and picked up his robe. He put it about him, wiping himself clean with a linen beside the bed, and turned to the door. He bade a servant to open it and watched as two other servants came through the door, one with a pot of water and the other with some rags to wash the slave with.
Something else caught his eye then, movement in the passage. He glanced up and saw another servant, though this one had a fire in his eyes. Makan gasped, realizing he was no servant.
Old but still spry, Makan stumbled backwards and took only a shallow cut on his arm from the sword in the man’s hand. He backed away and realized that the only way out of the room was through the invader.
Corillius kicked the door shut behind him, glaring at the servants and then at Makan. The servants cowered, hiding as far from him as possible. Corillius advanced slowly upon the older man, sword held in front of him at the ready.
“Untie her!” Corillius demanded of the servants that were huddled near the bed. They looked to each other and the closer one reached up and started furiously working the knots binding her wrists.
The Nordlander waited impatiently. He’d seen the way Makan had reacted and he knew the man was a dangerous fighter. He was going to kill him, but first he wanted to make certain Anna was safe. It had taken him very little time to find out which brothel Makan favored, with the help of a few well placed bribes. He still hoped to join up with his warriors before they moved out on the following day.
“Who are you?” Makan asked, trying to prolong things so he would have a chance to turn the situation to his advantage.
Corillius’ eyes held a deadly promise for the Baron. “Be silent,” was all he said.
“One yell and the guards will rush in here,” Makan bluffed.
“I said, be silent!” Corillius again warned him. Then he added, “The sound in these rooms is deadened, there is no escape for you.”
“Then I might as well charge you now,” Makan said, eyes narrowing as he judged the man.
“Yes, you might as well.”
Makan instead stood his ground, waiting to see what might happen next.
“Anna, get up,” Corillius said, his voice a little softer.
Anna didn’t move at first. Then she woodenly rose and, wincing from the torture her body had endured, made her way over to him. She stood next to him numbly. Corillius glanced at her and felt despair. The rag doll standing next to him wasn’t his cousin, just a beaten girl who looked like her.
He turned back to Makan, fresh rage simmering in his eyes. The crafty baron had started to edge towards him but now he backed away again, seeing the big Nordlander’s expression. Cor advanced on him, sword held at the ready. Makan held his hands out and low, a submissive gesture but also a stance that would let him spring quickly if he needed to. Blood dripped from Makan’s right hand from the earlier graze.
Makan lunged as Cor raised his sword. Then younger man turned and drove his fist into the back of the Makan’s neck while kicking out with his foot to trip him. The baron crashed to the floor, grunting and cursing. Makan turned his head and tried to get up, displaying a broken nose with blood gushing from it. Cor’s foot stepped on his back, pushing him back down to the wooden planks of the floor.
“This woman you’ve tried to destroy once promised you a fate,” Corillius said, sheathing his sword and then grabbing on to Makan’s neck and picking him up. The Northman threw him down on the bed so that the blood from his nose mingled with the blood already staining the sheets from his most recent and devastatingly brutal rape of Annalyse.
“I’m going to personally see to it that it comes true,” he hissed, picking up the whip from the ground. “But first, here’s a little taste of what you did to her!”
Cor ripped the robe from the beaten baron’s body and struck him repeatedly with the whip, making the man grit his teeth from the pain. Corillius spared no strength, he flailed the man mercilessly, with each lash drawing blood.
Finished and panting from the effort, Corillius reversed the grip on the whip and introduced Makan to the receiving end of a brutal intrusion like that which he had inflicted upon Annalyse. Corillius stepped back, breathing hard and glaring with murderous fury at the man who was reduced to sobbing and groaning in agony on the sheets.
“Bind him!” Corillius demanded of the two servants. Having seen what he’d done to a member of nobility, they hurried to obey. In moments Baron Makan was bound fast to the bed.
“Now one of you take off your clothes and help this lady dress in them.”
After looking at each other one of them took off the skimpy rags they were forced to wear and tied them on Anna. Corillius then grabbed up Makan’s robe and threw it over her shoulders.
“I meant what I said,” Corillius said to the two servants. “And I came here all the way from the north. I found her, and I found her warriors. They’re all free now. If you untie him I will find out and I will return to treat you to a worse fate than what is in store for him and his family!”
The two servants nodded, terrified of the large Northman, and cowered as far from him as they could. Corillius opened the door and, after looking out it, he led the docile and uncaring Anna out into the passage.
In the early hours before dawn, escaping both the brothel and the city proved easier than he would have imagined.
* * * *
Despite Makan’s ranting and raving, the two servants fled the room after Corillius and Annalyse left. They didn’t even stop by their beds in the servants’ quarters, but instead fled into the city. They had no idea where to go, but they were terrified of Corillius and had no desire to incur his wrath after what they had seen.
Thus it was that, Baron Darleth was the one to come and find Baron Makan in his predicament. He’d hoped to call upon the man to discuss some political shuffling he’d been considering, and discovered that he hadn’t returned home. It was a simple guess to imagine the Baron was still being entertained by his slave. With a new servant to show him his way, Darleth’s surprise was considerable to see the man thus imprisoned.
A chuckle broke from Darleth’s humorless lips. Makan’s body tensed, and he renewed his struggles against his bonds.
“Who’s there?” he queried nervously. His only relief came from the fact that the handle of the whip had fallen free of him many hours ago.
“I see that your slave found a way to escape you and turn the tables, my Lord.” Darleth’s voice was full of humor.
“Darleth? Is that you? Release me!” Makan’s voice gained strength as he realized that it wasn’t the return of the northlander. He flapped his arms and tried to turn his head to glare at the younger man who seemed to be taking his time in working the ropes.
Darleth grinned, a frightening thing with little of humor in it. He knew that this was most likely the best thing that had ever happened and might ever happen to him in his lifetime. Not only would he possess Makan’s daughter, he would hold this over Makan’s head for the rest of his life. He moved to release the older man’s wrists and ankles from the ropes and wrap him in a loose sheet from the bed.
“How long have you been like this?” he asked, once Makan was upright and feeling a bit more in control.
“Moments, hours, I don’t know. It was full dark when the Northman attacked me to save the whore, what is the hour now?”
Darleth turned his head to the side so that Makan would not be able to see the smile that tried to move his lips. “It’s late afternoon, after four bells.” He replied.
Makan groaned. “They’ll be long gone from the city by now.” He didn’t mention to Darleth the repetition of the threat to his family. The only power he had now was in keeping information to himself.
“They’re northern savages, lucky, apparently, but no match for our forces,” Darleth assured him. “Come, let us away and have our private guard immediately set after them. I have some excellent trackers amongst my men that have been denied the ability to hunt anything other than wild game for too long.”
Makan nodded enthusiastically. “Yes!” he hissed, hastening to the door.
“A moment, My Lord Baron,” Darleth said, turning to the serving girl who had, through a miraculous effort of will, kept her face neutral throughout the exchange. Darleth motioned her closer to him and smiled at her.
“You will not speak of this… to anyone,” he stated as well as asked. She shook her head emphatically. Of course she would have to tell some of the other slaves, news of this nature would have to be shared, but the nobles must not know of it.
Darleth nodded and grabbed her by the neck, pulling her to him before she could yelp in surprise or protest. He buried his dagger in her belly, point facing upwards to pierce her lung and heart. She struggled in his grasp for a few moments then slumped, dead.
“Of course you won’t,” he said, smiling softly at her. He turned to Makan, his eerie smile still in place.
“We must keep this little incident to ourselves,” he offered by way of explanation. “Imagine what could happen if news of it were to get out.”
Makan shuddered and nodded. He thought Darleth to be on his side, but he also wondered if perhaps the younger baron had just made a veiled threat as well.
The two men hurried out of the brothel, stopping only so that Makan could change back into his clothes. They gathered up their horses and rode off in separate directions, each gathering their private guards and meeting at the northern gate by the toll of the fifth bell.
At the older baron’s house he readied his men, ignoring the pleas of the Baroness to talk to her. She seemed addled, but he was otherwise occupied. Finally she stepped in front of him and slapped him, gaining his direct attention.
Enraged, Makan backhanded her and sent her stumbling to the ground. “You foolish wench, I’m on important business! Whatever you want can wait!”
Stunned, with tears running down her cheeks, the Baroness stared at him for a long minute. He turned to storm out of the room before she found her voice.
“T’leren is missing, My Lord.”
Makan stopped as soon as the words registered. His mouth dropped and he gasped imperceptibly. “What do you mean, missing?”
“Your daughter is gone, no one knows where. None of the guards or servants saw her leave, but she’s not here,” she said, her voice gaining strength and anger.
Makan closed his eyes and felt hopelessness sap his strength. Already the Northlander’s oath was coming true.
“What of D’lariana?” He asked, turning to face her and feeling shame for his treatment of her.
“She is in her rooms, protected by your guards, My Lord,” the Baroness said, clipping each word curtly.
Makan walked over to her and helped her up. “We should not have struck one another,” he said softly, by way of apology. “I must tend to these affairs, I suspect it might bring T’leren’s disappearance to light. I will return as quickly as I am able. We will talk more then.”
She nodded, a part of her overjoyed to hear his words and hoping that perhaps things might come back around for them. “Be safe, husband,” she whispered as he turned to leave. He paused, nodded, and then hurried out to his horse and his awaiting troops.
What follows is an official write-up on a very entertaining story my friend, fellow writer, and publishing partner J.E. Taylor shared with me recently. Officially this is a stop on her blog tour to promote her new book, Crystal Illusions (a Steve Williams novel). Unofficially, it’s highlights a downright amusing story about that awkward moment in every parent’s life when their son or daughter asks that question…
Earlier in the tour, I spoke about my son and his interest in scary movies. Well, he’s surprised me again. Remember as you read on that my boy is only twelve. Well, we seem to have the damnedest conversations on our way to his Jukido class – for those that don’t know what Jukido is – it’s a form of martial arts that’s derived from Jujitsu.
Now, he knows that along with my thrillers, I also write things he is forbidden to read until he’s at least eighteen because they include some extremely explicit sex scenes. Well maybe this is the reason he asks questions but I was not fully prepared for having THE TALK just yet. But as you well know, life doesn’t always wait until you’re prepared.
Anyhow, he said something akin to me being a virgin – and, um, no, I didn’t immaculately conceive my kids. J I couldn’t help but laugh at the comment and inform him that no, honey – I’m not a virgin. Then it occurred to me, perhaps he didn’t understand exactly what a Virgin was. So I asked and he told me what he thought. His explanation was a hoot and a half and I really couldn’t help but laugh no matter how hard I tried. When I got a hold of the giggles, I explained a virgin is someone who hasn’t had sex. Obviously I don’t fall into that category – after all, I got pregnant and had both he and his sister.
Then the question comes – you mean you can get pregnant from kissing?
Perhaps I should have said yes and left it there – then it would be a few years before the reality of what sex is would come to light – but then again, he asked a logical question for a twelve year old and deserved a truthful answer of sorts. However, trying to explain sex to a twelve year old was like dancing on hot coals – awkward and a little painful – but finally we arrived at the analogy of puzzle pieces and when those particular puzzle pieces are put together – that could end producing a baby. I then went on to say he wasn’t to put his puzzle piece anywhere that it didn’t belong until he was out of school and old enough to take responsibility for a child.
I’m sure the conversation was even more painful for him, but honestly, I’m glad this is something we can discuss – albeit on an awkward basis, but at least he’s not afraid to ask questions.
Still. It really brings home the fact that my boy is growing up faster than I’m truly prepared for.
So, those of you with children – Is this anywhere near the realm of how your TALK went? And for those not yet in the market for having kids, do you remember having THE TALK with your folks?
Thanks for swinging into this stop on my Blog Tour and I hope you’ll swing in to Bitten By Books on the 20th for a chance to win a $50.00 Amazon gift certificate and if you’d like to check out Crystal Illusions, you can purchase it here on Amazon.
Assistant D.A. Carolyn Hastings has an uncanny knack for putting away criminals. With one of the best prosecution records in recent history, her future as Manhattan’s next District Attorney looks certain. But her sixth sense for winning cases threatens to work against her when she starts seeing a string of murders through the eyes of the killer.
With suspects piling up as fast as bodies, and the motives of those closest to her questionable, Carolyn doesn’t know who to trust. When the FBI assigns Special Agent Steve Williams to the case, Carolyn discloses her deepest fear – that the man she loves may be the one responsible for the city’s latest crime spree.
The only thing Steve knows for sure is Carolyn has an inexplicable psychic connection with the killer, and all the victims have one thing in common…a striking resemblance to Carolyn Hastings.
And he knows it’s only a matter of time before this psychopath knocks on her door.
“Taylor has a strong thriller where every single character has reasonable doubt flashing like a neon sign hanging over them, and right from the beginning you are trying to guess who the killer really is. Gripping, rich and magnificent – crime whodunnits don’t get any better than this!” Author Poppet / Gemma Rice – Author of Quislings, Blindsided, Djinn and Dusan
Until next time,
Wow, how’s that for a title? Sounds ominous! And, I guess, that’s kind of fitting given the events that take place in this first part of chapter 4 of Betrayal’s Hands.
T’leren strode down the road away from the city. She’d never before felt such freedom. The day was bright, the sky clear and blue with a faint wind that cooled her skin, and the world lay before her with its multitude of choices.
An hour later, she decided that she was a fool, sitting on a rock at the side of the dusty road to remove her shoe. A blister had formed on her heel and her legs ached.
“I don’t believe the cobbler meant these shoes to take this punishment.” She spoke aloud, though no one was around. Staring morosely at her shoe, she tried to decide what to do. Finally, she came to her conclusion, slipping off her other shoe, and tying them together by the ribbon laces. Slinging them over her shoulder she stepped back onto the road. With the dust already coating her toes, she set off again.
It still seemed a wonderful thing, this freedom of action and purpose. As she contemplated her new world a village came into view. Villages this close to the city were all large and in good repair, and each boasted an inn to house travelers who came from far away and wished to spare the expense of city inns. T’leren entered the outskirts of the village, drawing the occasional odd look from the villagers for being a well dressed single female alone.
Entering the dim common room of the inn, T’leren moved to the bar. She quickly drew the attention of the grim looking innkeeper from where he was stocking several freshly cleaned cups behind the bar.
“I would like a meal and a room for the night,” she said, enunciating clearly and respectfully. After all, she was in his world now, even though by all rights she was of far higher station than he.
The barkeep studied her for a minute, a scar on his cheek that ran over across his jaw twitching a little, then shook his head. “No rooms available, miss,” he said.
T’leren felt her lower lip tremble. She took a deep breath and calmed it. Behind the man stood a pegboard with several room keys on it. She looked at the keys and then back at him. He shrugged, “Them’s all reserved, sorry to say.”
T’leren nodded. For a long and precarious moment she considered letting slip who she was, then she would see how fast a room might be made available. Her mouth opened and she spoke, “I see, how far is it to the next town?”
“A day’s ride or so, if you head to the west. North outta here will put you half a day or so of walking to Halburg, a right decent little farming town,” he said, clearly relieved that she was going to make no issue of it.
T’leren thanked him and walked out of the inn, slipping her shoes back off when she was back on the road. Her blister had split open and was bleeding, but even with a limp that cut into her pace, she hoped to make Halburg on or before nightfall.
* * * *
A small group of men and women gathered in the shadows of a tanner’s workshop. Among them were Corillius and four others. He looked into the darkened face of each person, judging how their time in Duth Darek had changed them. They were on the edge of the markets where the slaves were held.
Slavery was a forbidden practice among the Free Peoples of Nordlamar, and the squalor that many of Aradmathian slaves were kept in was unfit for pigs destined for slaughter. Each wore a visage that promised no mercy for any who came in their way.
“I’ve bribed a few locals for information, and tortured others for more,” Corillius said, his voice low but meaningful. “Our people are being held in the barn over there, behind the public cages and the stage. They are being fattened up before being sold, as well as being disciplined to make them better slaves.”
The squad leaders muttered oaths at this, and Corillius nodded in agreement with their anger. One woman spat in contempt.
“There are six doors to it: two on our end, the eastern one; a large one for wagons on the south; one on the north; and another two on the western face. We have five groups. Everybody will take a smaller door and once inside, Veera, take your squad to the south and secure that door and try to find a wagon in case some of our people are injured,” Corillius said.
“On the way out we’ll need a distraction. Arrik, your squad is to open the other slave cages and set them loose. If we’re on a wagon then as many as possible will ride upon it, but if need be every one of us will run alongside to defend it so our countrymen can be returned.”
Arrik nodded, the red stubble growing back on his cheeks from the flowing red beard he’d been forced to shave to come on the mission.
“Captain,” Veera said, looking at the other squad leaders as if to be sure of what she said before it was uttered. “What if we can’t get them out?”
Corillius nodded thoughtfully. He’d considered the possibility, but in hopes of it never reaching that stage he’d given it as little thought as possible. “We kill them if they can’t fight beside us, and not a one of us to be taken alive. Kill your own warriors if you must, understood?”
Everyone nodded, sobered by the thought that, after coming so far, some farther than they’d ever journeyed in their lives, they might die unknown and abandoned. To a Nordlamar citizen, freedom was worth more than life.
“Good, then let’s be off. They have a bell that tolls on the hour, by my reckoning we should be in place by the next toll. Go on the last bell.”
Without any whispered words of good luck they were gone, sneaking back through the darkness to their squads to relay the orders and to move into position. Corillius nodded in recognition of their skills and attitude. He was proud of them; how well they’d come together so quickly. He moved back to his own squad and they moved towards the northernmost door on the east side of the barn.
They rushed the door with the fourth stroke of the bell.. The lock was a simple latch that gave with a kick. The door smashed open, startling a pair of sleeping guards awake from a nearby table. Before they could do more than figure out they were under attack the Nordlamar warriors were moving down a hallway and wiping blood from their blades.
Elsewhere the other squads met with similar success. Deep within the heart of the Kingdom the guards were lazy and soft. Security was something that protected a fat man’s purse from pickpockets, not from attack by a band of highly trained enemy soldiers. In fifteen minutes every Aradmathian guardsman was put to the sword and the building was theirs.
The captive Nordlamarians could scarcely believe what was happening to them. They were all hale and hearty, with a few recovering injuries here and there but nothing to stop them from being fully mobile and able to wield a weapon. Corillius looked them over long and hard, looking for Annalyse, but finally had to admit defeat.
“Where is your captain?” He asked once he’d gotten them settled down.
“That bastard Makan took her,” a man said. “They took her to a brothel or something,” another woman said.
Corillius’ eyes widened and his fists clenched in rage. Anna was a maiden! To be raped and tortured like this was unforgivable! Moreover, she was his cousin. “Where is she?” he asked.
The one that had spoken before shook his head in dismay. “We all love her, captain, and there’s not a one of us that wouldn’t lay down our lives for her. When that bastard raped her before us all, then let his men have their way with her, we’d any of us have traded places with her in a minute.”
Corillius shook his head and glanced away, tears or rage and agony at hearing the news coming to his eyes. “How could this happen?” he wondered aloud.
“She fought back, Sir,” another said. “Young Valus had his head put on a block and she spoke out, telling them to leave him alone. When they couldn’t shut her up, they beat her and still she railed at them. Finally she’d nothing left but insults for Makan, trying to draw his anger to her instead of the others. She even told him that if he didn’t kill every one of us then one of us or someone else would hunt his family down and kill them one by one and save him for the last.”
Corillius almost chuckled at the vow. It sounded like something his cousin would say. She was given to speaking her mind and giving in to her temper. “What happened next?” He asked.
“The whore-son killed the boy and then, right there in Valus’ blood, he stripped her naked and had his way with her,” she continued, fresh tears running down her face at the memory.
“And you’ve no idea where she’s at now?” Corillius persisted, staring at them all.
“I just heard that Makan had her taken to a private brothel. One of the guards was joking about it,” the same mane spoke again.
Corillius nodded. “Thank you. Grab what spare weapons you can and clothing as well, then follow my warriors out of here. They’ll get you out of the city in small groups, and you’ll meet up again in a day or so. If not, my warriors know what to do, but if you find yourself separated head to the north, northwest, and do anything you can to get back home.”
“Captain, you’re not coming with us?” Veera asked, looking at him.
“I hope to meet you,” he said. “But I’ll not leave without Annalyse. She’s a symbol to the army and the people.”
“But Sir, you don’t know where she is,” Veera persisted.
“I’ll find her. Nobody gets left behind, and nobody makes a slave or a whore of a Nordlandiir!”
“Captain, we’ll come with you!” Three of the former captives stepped forward, then the rest followed suit.
It made Corillius’ chest swell with pride to see the loyalty his cousin had instilled in her warriors. He shook his head and said, “No, we’ve too many people, I stand a better chance by myself, plus with Annalyse at my side nothing will stop us, you all know what a fighter she is!”
There was some chuckling and cheering, though muted to avoid alerting any passing Aradmathians. The would-be slaves were broken up into small groups and plans were made. By the time the fifth and final toll came from the bell, the building was deserted save for the rats and the corpses.
* * * *
The rest of chapter 4 will be posted next weekend!