Betrayal’s Hands: To Hunt or be Hunted
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.
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