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The Sixth Betrayal

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!

 

Chapter 6

 

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.

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