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The Fear of Betrayal

Here’s chapter 15 of Betrayal’s Hands. It’s nearing the original stories end, but I think I’ll need to rewrite the ending to make it a complete story. Originally I’d hoped for a trilogy but I lost my steam in taking the story any further beyond this initial volume…at least for now. Perhaps when the characters in my other series and stories stop being so damn interesting and fun I’ll revisit Cor, Teri, and Anna…but that’s for the future!

 

Chapter 15

 

“Why did we leave the forest?” Teri asked as they stood along the edge of the Darkwood. The morning sun offered hope of a pleasant day, though neither one felt their mood brightened.

“There are things in the northern reaches of the Darkwood you’d not want to run into,” Cor said. “Things that make your last boyfriend look like a family pet.”

Teri made a face at Cor behind his back for his comment about Krev, but otherwise let the barb go unanswered. Instead she asked, “So where do we go? This way leads to Aradmath.”

“I told you I’d show you the way to Nordlamar,” Cor said gruffly. “It’s to the north. I’ll take you through the fens on this side, then you’re on your own.”

“I don’t want to go there,” Teri lied in a quiet voice.

Cor glanced at her and saw that she was lying. He shook his head, baffled by the contradictions posed by the small female. “It’s a good place for a girl like you. Lots of people be happy to help you out, and you can meet a good man there.”

Teri’s jaw dropped. “How dare you,” she said, stunned. “I don’t need to meet a good man, I…” It was true, she didn’t want a good man. She wanted Cor.

“Fine,” He snapped, interrupting her. Shrugging, he turned away from her before muttering, “There’s plenty of good women you could meet too, if that’s your mind.”

Confused by this last comment, Teri remained too stunned by it to mount a retort. Cor started walking, keeping near the verge of the woods, and Teri was forced to trail after him. After a few minutes of walking in silence Teri’s face began to burn. She’d realized what he’d meant by his last comment. She tucked her chin down, trying to hide her embarrassment. It wasn’t unheard of in Aradmath, the joining of two women, but it was hardly polite conversation.

The pace he set wasn’t as brutal as that of the prior day. Teri found she could keep up with the big man, although it took most of her energy and concentration to do so. She wondered for a brief moment if Cor could have out-walked Krev with his long legged pace.

She had little chance to talk throughout the day, even when he stopped to rest she found herself too tired for thought. When she caught her breath embarrassment stayed her tongue. Cor’s wit was rapier sharp and no matter what she said he always seemed to be able to infuriate her with his retort.

That night, fatigued and aching, she nevertheless stirred up the energy to ask of him, “Why can’t you be nice?”

Cor looked at her, surprised by the blunt question. He almost laughed at her, then realized it might not be what she wanted by way of a response. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath about women.

“I saved you, didn’t I?” He asked, annoyed. “I’m taking you somewhere where you’ll be safe. I even kept you a maiden, as you claim to be.”

He stood up from where he’d been tending the fire and stared at her, then with a growl he turned and moved off into the darkness descending around the campsite. She caught something from him about never satisfying a woman as he stalked off to make sure nothing came at them from the swampy fens they were on the border of.

Teri, frustrated with Cor’s strange behavior, shook her head. “Claim to be?” She kicked at an offensive dirt lump, “Why would I claim to be something I’m not?” She vented her frustrations aloud. Suddenly a thought occurred to her which had been hiding in the back of her consciousness for some time. “He thinks… that Krev… that I…” Hysterical laughter pealed from her and she collapsed against a tree trunk. Tears ran unheeded down her face, and the giggles simply couldn’t be put down.

This was how Cor found her when he came storming back from the fen. “What the…” He reached out and shook her gently, and then realizing she was hysterical, and without thinking, he slapped her across the face. As soon as the blow connected, he was backing away. Teri had stopped laughing, and was sitting slumped against the tree with her hand over her face.

She’d been slapped before. Much harder, in fact. Cor’s blow almost seemed playful compared to Krev’s heavy handed discipline. Still, she hadn’t expected it. It stung and surprised her, and the simple fact that he did it made her eyes fill with tears. She looked up at him through her fingers and saw the look on his face.

She gasped.

Teri had expected a glare or a look of smugness. What she saw made her heart open for him in spite of his brutality. It was brutality that, she now knew, was unintentional. He looked like someone that had just accidentally killed his own family.

“Cor,” she said, letting her hands fall away. Already a red mark was appearing on her cheek.

He backed up another step, his hands coming up in front of him defensively. “I… No. No, not again!” He backed up another step and then whispered with moisture in his eyes and pain in his voice. “I’m sorry.”

He was gone then, turning and stumbling not only away from the campsite, but into the fens.

“No!” Teri cried after him, scrambling to her feet and following into the marsh. “Wait! Please!” She stumbled on a hummock and splashed into the muddy water. When she looked up, he was gone. Determined not to let him flee to his death, she followed doggedly, stumbling and splashing in the fen water. “Don’t leave me!” she wailed, suddenly afraid of what it might mean for them both if he continued to run. She might indeed lose her life, but from the look on his face, she felt it possible that Cor would lose his soul.

When he came to his senses, Cor was a good distance ahead of the girl in the dark marsh. He could hear her splashing about behind him. Stopping, he crouched in the dark, struggling to pull himself together. “Cor?” She called to him. “Please, I’m not hurt…” He could tell she was crying now, her voice growing hoarse with the tears. “Don’t leave me alone…”

The fens were dark and there was an unpleasant smell rising from the murky water. Not the smell of plants and earth that Teri had expected, but more a stench of death, of rotting flesh and putrescence. The scent and the darkness, coupled with sounds echoing from hidden places, amplified Teri’s fear.

“Please Cor…” Teri was sure he couldn’t hear her. He was gone and she was alone in this terrifying place. She continued to splash through the muddy water, her clothes soaked through and her body chilled to the bone. She started to shake, but more from fear than cold. She stopped moving and sat despondently on one of the taller hummocks rising from the marsh.

“How am I going to get out of this?” She wept aloud to herself, and then she straightened some. “At least if I die here, it will be better than going back.” She sighed, and picked herself up to continue wading through the water.

Cor shuddered, still crouched in the shadows only a few paces ahead of the girl. His face was wet with tears he couldn’t remember, and his heart still raced. He wondered for a moment how he had gotten himself into this mess, he was in no position to be responsible for a girl, even a pretty one like Teri. Gathering the tattered remnants of his dignity to his breast, he stepped out from his concealment.

Teri shrieked as a dark shape moved towards her from the dense brush. Flailing her arms wildly, she would have landed in one of the deeper pools if the blackness hadn’t caught her first. She thrashed and struck out at her captor, until the black beast growled, “Stop that you little fool! Unless you’d like me to let you drown?”

Cor’s voice sent little thrills up and down Teri’s spine, and she began to weep in earnest her relief at having found him. “Thank the Lady you came back!” was what he thought he heard from the face pressed into his chest. His hand reached down and tipped her face up so that he could see her. He chuckled softly at the image she presented, all mud and weeds. Her pretty eyes peered solemnly out from behind a mask of mud.

“They wouldn’t recognize you now.” He smiled, feeling a bit better from her obvious joy at their reunion.

“No,” she giggled, “I don’t suppose they would.”

The moment, tender and filled with promise, was fleeting. As much as the desires Cor had hidden deep within himself fought to be let loose, his caution overpowered them. “Come, the fens are no place to spend the night.”

Teri’s greatest concern wasn’t the dangers of the swamp, but rather the fright she must look. She just knew that if she were cleaner Cor would have been unable to resist her, swamp or no. She reached up and wiped some of the grime from her cheeks, hoping to make a difference. She knew how precious the moment was; how rare and possibly unique the opportunity.

“Come, this is no place to dally,” he said again, his tone softening the effects of the words.

Cor pulled away from her and turned, aiming for the southern edge of the fens. Teri hurried to stay close to him, reaching out and capturing her hand in his. Cor took a deep breath but otherwise made no sign he noticed.

Once back at their campsite Cor grudgingly allowed a small campfire so that Teri could warm herself. She, in turn, grew bold by the turn of events. “How much water do we have?” She asked him.

“Two skins we filled earlier, why?” Cor asked her, uncertain.

“I need to get out of these muddy clothes and clean them,” she said, untying the laces on the crudely sewn dress she’d made for herself over the winter.

Cor felt his heart beat faster. He looked forward to seeing her, but didn’t welcome the distraction and confusion it would bring. Reluctantly he said, “Let it dry on you, there’s no water safe to drink until we clear the fens.”

Teri’s final hopes were dashed against the rocks. She’d been ready, then and there, to let Cor have her. She bit her lip and blinked away the tears of rejection. After a long moment of fighting to maintain her composure she asked, “may I at least wash my face?”

Cor gave her one of his rare smiles and nodded, “won’t help, but go ahead.”

Teri’s mouth fell open in spite of herself. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes and a small squeak of protest escaped her mouth. She stood up and turned away, stomping a few feet away from him, where she hugged her arms about herself.

How could he? She could not believe that he could just so callously insult her like that. Perhaps the Aradmathian view of women being little better than property was true. Perhaps she was no more than a object of passing fancy.

She was surprised when she felt Cor’s hand on her shoulder, pulling gently at her. She resisted at first, and only when he gave up and removed it did she turn to face him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, the words sounding strange coming from a man such as he. “I meant it could not improve your looks.”

Teri, without thinking, reached out to slap him. Cor jerked his face back, surprised by her speedy and sudden attack. Her fingers still grazed his lips and chin, leaving a tingling sensation in their passage.

“Gods, woman!” Cor said, holding his hands up defensively. “That’s not it! I meant that you are pretty no matter what mess you’ve made of yourself!”

Teri’s hand no covered her own face, and fresh tears ran from her eyes clearing a path of dirt and mud from her cheeks. “Cor… I’m sorry! I thought you meant… I thought…”

“You thought I was like your betrothed?” Cor guessed.

Teri nodded, too ashamed to speak.

Cor chuckled self-deprecatingly. “I’m probably worse,” he said. Then he shrugged and turned away and headed back to their campsite.

Teri followed him, sitting down on a rock and reaching for her skin of water. She splashed some in her hands and then proceeded to rinse her face reasonably clean. She looked up at him and found him watching her afterwards.

“Less a swamp rat and more of a drowned rat,” he said with a smile.

Teri understood he meant no insult this time, though his smile was what it took to convince. She smiled in return and thanked him, then blurted out the question truly bothering her. “Why are you so hard on yourself? What horrors have you done?”

Cor blinked in surprise at her question, then sighed. “I’ve too much blood on my hands,” he admitted finally, staring at her challengingly.

“Too much blood? You were a soldier, weren’t you?”

Cor shrugged. “Yes, I was.”

Teri looked at him curiously. Something about his manner clued her in that she had guessed poorly. “That’s not it, is it?”

Cor chuckled darkly again. “This is no game, lass. I was a soldier, that’s where I learned how to kill. It’s what I do best,” he said. Then, in almost a whisper he admitted, “and I learned that it’s easy to do… more so when the innocent fall before me.”

Teri’s eyes widened at his vague but chilling confession. She couldn’t imagine the man that had saved her butchering the innocent. It seemed so out of character. Sure, he had his grumpy moments – a lot of them, in fact. But even at his worst she couldn’t imagine him committing such an evil action.

“I don’t know what you did, nor who you are,” Teri said softly and slowly, making sure each word was spoken as heartfelt as she meant it. “But I do know that I cannot see such a person in you.”

“You don’t know me,” he said. Anxious to be done with the conversation, he rose up from his seat. “I’ll take watch, get some sleep.”

“Cor, wait!” Teri said.

With an impatient pose he turned to face her. “What?”

Pressing the time she had remaining to her, she said. “I’ve grown to know you well over the winter and now. You are bothered, true, but you are a caring and gentle person. One who only commits to force when no other option is available.”

Sarcastically, he said, “like when I slapped you earlier.”

Teri shook her head emphatically. “No! I let my emotions get control of me and needed it, I think, to make me stop. I realized that you thought I loved Krev, or that I had lain with him.”

“And that amuses you?”

“Yes, it does,” she said, smiling. Her smile faded as she made herself remember her captivity to the half-ogre. “Krev was a monster and a brute. At best I could get him to talk with me at times, but I was his slave. He made me do things for him, some unpleasant, some horrible.”

“And yet you remain a maiden?” Cor asked, his tone one of disbelief.

Teri could accept his suspicion at her claim. It was a bold one to make, that a simple bandit would leave her, a young and attractive woman, untouched. “He insisted that I would fetch a better price as a maiden.”

Cor nodded, understanding the claim as possible. “He made me do other things for him in place of that,” Teri openly admitted.

“Other things?” Cor was curious, even if the question bordered on the inappropriate.

Teri blushed but wouldn’t relinquish his gaze nor the rare moment of openness between them. If it meant spilling her soul to him she would do it, if only it would get him to open up to her in turn. She would do anything to help him, she realized. Anything at all.

“Yes, other things. He taught me how to pleasure a man with my mouth and hands, and taunted me with the threat that one day he would take me in other… well, my maidenhood would remain intact, at least.”

Cor watched her carefully for her reaction. She spoke openly and honestly, it seemed, and though she was embarrassed she confessed willingly to him. “And these are the things you offered to me once?”

Teri nodded, a fresh surge of redness appearing on her cheeks. “Yes, I did,” she said softly. She wondered if he wanted them now. In spite of the sadness she felt at the thought that he might use her thusly, she felt a tingle in her belly and in her loins at the thought of it.

“And do you still offer them?” He pressed.

The excitement at her progress with him dropping considerably, she nevertheless held her ground. “If you desire me in such a way, yes.”

“Sounds like it must have been horrible,” he muttered before he could bite off the bitter sarcasm. He did, indeed, desire her, but not like that. No, if that was all she offered then he was by far better off abandoning her as soon as possible. Once she was safe, of course.

Teri blinked the moisture from her eyes that his verbal slap caused her. She took a deep breath and said insistently, “There was no pleasure from it for me. He was a cruel monster that used me for his pleasure and beat me if I refused or did not perform to his liking. With you it would be different, I think. I hope.”

Cor looked at her, at a loss for words. He opened his mouth and then shut it, deciding he dare not say anything before thinking it through. Finally he nodded and said, “Yes, I would never beat you.”

Teri smiled sadly. “That’s a kindness, but it’s not what I meant.”

Cor nodded, suspecting as much. “I… yeah, well, I’m going to make sure nothing followed us out of the swamp. Get some rest, we’ve a hard day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Teri nodded and watched as he turned and left the campsite. He looked back at her once then was gone into the darkness. She sighed longingly. “Why won’t you love me?” She asked softly of the night.

 

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Exiled from Exile, a New Form of Betrayal

Chapter 14 of Betrayal’s Hands wasn’t as bad as the last couple. Oh it still needs plenty of work – there’s too much passive vs. active – but it didn’t make my eyes bleed as much. :)

 

Chapter 14

 

The questions stopped. Not the small insignificant ones, but the probing questions into Cor’s past ceased. He didn’t realize exactly when it happened, but he noticed that she’d stopped digging into his history.

First one excuse, then another had arisen to keep Teri there. After the snows had finally abated Cor had delayed, making sure winter had loosed its hold. Then she’d come down with a stomach flux that forced him to care for her for a few days. Afterwards he wanted her to gain her strength back. Then he admitted that her help was handy with the garden she had planted behind the hut. He still planned on being rid of her, but it was looking more and more like it would not happen until the fall. Or at least that was what he would gruffly explain when the subject came up.

In the meantime he lashed together some branches to make a cot for her. Using pelts of animals he hunted she finished the cot and made extra blankets for herself. Life was far from easy or simple, but she found herself enjoying it for the first time in a long time. Gone, most of the time, was the fear she had come to live with constantly. In its place was a sense of warmth, familiarity, and security. Cor had saved her, after all, from Krev and from the others that had come for her. Cor had also cared for her when she was ill, something she had not been sure he would be capable of.

Now she knew, or at least suspected, his fondness for her. She knew she thought quite highly of him. Often silent, always capable, he was a rock in the turbulent storm that served as her life. Without Cor she had no idea what she would do, where she would go, or what might happen to her. It bothered her that he refused to admit to himself the things she suspected, and it scared her a little that she might be projecting her own feelings onto him.

Teri felt not only safe around him, she felt liberated. For the first time since she’d set foot on the road out of Duth Darek, she had a sense of freedom about her. She felt as though anything were possible, she had only to imagine it. She owed that feeling to Cor and she wished she could show her true gratitude to him in ways other than the simple ones that often went unnoticed.

She’d tried going out of her way to raise his interest in her, in ways that women knew best. She let him catch her partially clothed on occasion, whether washing or changing. She would offered to nurse the minor injuries he acquired; scrapes, scratches, and bruises though they were. She rubbed his shoulders once, in the hopes of relaxing him. While doing so she marveled at the strength she felt beneath the clothes he wore.

Somehow he always managed to wash himself or change when she was not around, adding to her sense of mystery. It was only a one room hut, she didn’t understand when, where, and how he managed it!

Teri wanted to help him as he’d helped her. It became her driving obsession. Before she could figure out a way to make it happen, however, fate intervened.

Cor sat at a table in Mung’s Place, listening to the latest snippets of conversation he could hear. He saw Mung from behind the bar, the troll shorter than average for his race but still massive compared to everyone other than an ogre or half-ogre. What concerned him was that Mung kept looking at him. Not at the crowd, so much, but at him.

Finally, at the point where Cor was past being uneasy and ready to leave, Mung made his way out from behind the bar and over to his table. He traded jokes with a few of the patrons on his way over, then finally stopped in front of Corillius.

“You should leave,” Mung said bluntly.

Cor looked at him, then shrugged. “Alright,” he said, pushing his chair back and standing up.

“Briam’s Crossing,” Mung continued. “Word’s spread that you’ve got the girl with the reward on her head.”

Cor looked at him, eyes narrowing. “What reward?”

Mung chuckled. “Took me a while but I put it together. You’re not so stupid. I don’t know how it came down, but there was a lot of guys after that girl, and you ended up with her. Asked around, I did. You killed some trolls up north of here.”

“So why warn me?” Cor asked him, confused by Mung’s behavior and his seemingly random thoughts.

Mung shrugged. “I like it quiet around here, good for business.”

Cor’s eyes narrowed. There was more to it, he was sure, but he was just as sure that he would not get it from the troll. “Alright,” Cor said again, tossing a few coins on the table for the ale he had drank and then turning to the door. He stopped and looked back. “What’s the reward for?”

Mung shrugged. “Word is a thousand gold for her safe return.”

Cor cursed. “Return to where?”

“Duth Derek’s all I know.”

Cor nodded. “Thanks,” he muttered.

Mung grinned. “Just keep it civil in the Crossing, that’s all I ask.”

Cor left the tavern and shook his head outside of it. A society minded troll, what next! Chuckling darkly, he turned and stomped off back towards his cabin, wondering with each passing step if he would be there in time.

 

* * * *

 

Teri was taking her time washing, hoping Cor would return early. She luxuriated in the feel of the warm rag against her skin, wiping away the sweat and dirt from working in her garden. She lingered as she washed her chest, feeling her breathing quicken at the sensations the washrag caused her stiffening nipples. She even moaned lightly, wishing that Cor was there and that he would help her with her problem.

The door slammed open, startling her. She dropped the rag into the pot filled with water and stared at the intrusion. Cor looked around the cabin, then his eyes fell on Teri. He paused, his eyes taking in her nudity like a dehydrated man drinking from a stream. He shook his head and growled, seemingly annoyed with himself. Averting his eyes he walked in and grabbed up the set of clothing she had made from the pelts of wolves he had slain when he caught them either in his snares or trying to steal the things he had caught in his snares.

“Put these on, it’s time,” he said.

“Time for what?” She asked, confused, excited, hopeful, and startled.

“Time to leave,” he said.

Her worst fears came crashing in on her. “You’re sending me away?” she asked, tears forming in her eyes.

He looked at her and sighed. “We are leaving,” he said again, emphasizing the word ‘we’.

“Where are we going?” Teri asked, her spirits buoyed slightly, but the sudden change still left more questions than answers.

Cor just shrugged and moved to another trapdoor in the floor. In this one he removed his mercenary garb he’d worn long ago, in what seemed like another life to him. He clenched his stomach muscles and took a deep breath as he stared at it, then began to gird it on.
Teri watched, surprised, as he fit the mismatched armor on. It looked to be patchwork, but his familiarity with it and the effectiveness with which it was worn made her certain that Cor was every bit as formidable as he looked. He glanced up at her as he stood up and cinched the belt around his waist with a hatchet at one end and a long sword at the other.

“Get dressed!” He snapped, not bothering to ogle her beauty this time.

Teri jumped, realizing she was brazenly displaying herself to him. She stepped into the patched together leggings and then pulled on the loose fitting top. She slid the supple moccasins she had made onto her feet and hurried over to her pile of belongings, which had grown in the months she’d stayed with Cor. She slipped the things she felt she would need into her pack and stood ready. She was amazed, in hindsight, at how differently she valued material possessions now compared to when she had first run away from her former life. Now she valued function over wealth. Utility over fashion.

“Here,” Cor said, tossing her a Nordlamarian short sword.

She caught it awkwardly, yelping slightly in surprise. She looked at it, tucked safely in its scabbard, and wondered at what she could ever hope to do with it.

“Just in case,” he offered, then slipped his own pack over his back and headed for the door. “Let’s go,” he said, walking out and into the Darkwood in the evening.

Teri swallowed nervously then tied the weapon around her waist. She looked longingly at the cabin, suspecting she would never know a time as peaceful and free as she had just known, and then turned and followed the man she had come to know as a protector instead of a captor.

 

****

 

As they moved through the darkening woods, Teri ran through her mind, trying vainly to figure out what could have spurred Cor to such strange action. He set a grueling pace and she was hard-pressed to keep up. Panting, she struggled along behind him, feeling a bead of sweat run down and curl under her breast. Finally she was nearly to her breaking point, and gasped, “Cor…Please…” and collapsed to the forest floor.

Cor looked back when he heard the plea, just in time to see the girl sink to the ground. He quickly made his way back to her side. “We can’t stop yet,” he said.

At her pained expression, he growled, “Come then, I’ll carry you.” He reached down and lifted her to her feet. “On my back.”

He crouched and she clambered up onto his broad back, locking her hands around his neck and her legs around his waist. He thought for a moment that he would certainly like to be between her legs, but this was neither the time nor the place. Once she was settled, he took off running again, a relentless pace, even with the extra weight. She sighed, settling her face against his back, concentrating on holding on.

As the sun began to rise over the horizon, seen only as a pale haze in the forest, Cor slowed his pace and finally stumbled to a halt near an enormous oak stump. Teri raised her head to see where they were, seeing still nothing but the forest. Cor dropped to one knee, releasing Teri’s legs, and she slowly slid to the ground. A tortured moan escaped her as her abused feet hit the ground.

“Will you tell me now what this is about?” she asked softly, moving around to look into his face. He still had not moved from where he had settled.

“Who wants you Teri?” He countered, his face tight and angry for a moment. She looked at him, confused, not knowing what he meant. He growled, “There is a thousand gold reward for your return to Duth Darek.” He spat the last like a curse. Teri paled, stepping back and away from him.

“You aren’t taking me back there…” she swallowed hard, “are you?”

Cor swore, wiping the sweat from his brow before replying. “We’ve been heading North all night.” He dragged himself to his feet and closed the distance between them. “Who wants you back so badly?” Suspicions lay heavy on his mind, and he hoped there was nothing to them.

“My betrothed…” She whispered in a tiny voice. “A monster.” Suddenly she began to shake so hard that her teeth chattered. “More than even Krev. His intentions, at least, I understood.” She looked at the growing dawn, “Krev kept me safe. Virgins bring a better price, he said.” A tiny hysterical laugh escaped her. “I know only a little of what awaits me if I am returned to Duth Darek. I will not go there.” For a moment, Cor could see the core of steel which had kept the girl alive through the winter.

“You were promised to another against your wishes?” Cor said, ignoring the strange feeling in his stomach.

Hugging her arms to herself self-consciously, Teri nodded. Cor grunted, his thoughts hard to pin down. “And you ran from him, how did you come to winter with the half-ogre?”

“Krev?” Teri asked, personalizing him. “I stumbled onto his bandits, he saved me from them.”

“He saved you from his bandits?” Cor asked, somewhat incredulous. “Then where are they all at?”

Teri’s answer fit in with the pet theory Cor had been working on… a theory that made him no less nervous. “We were attacked but soldier’s from Duth Darek that had tracked me. They killed most of the bandits and Krev saved me from them by taking me with him as he fled.”

Cor nodded, frowning slightly at her continuing association with the bandits. Bandits were little better than lawless scum that preyed upon the old, the young, the weak, and the helpless. Fresh from a noble home and skilled in little more than embroidery, he imagined Teri fell under the helpless category.

“Bandits,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain. Then he realized that he was little better than they were at many times. He chuckled, his self-deprecating tone sounding cruel.

“My fate amuses you?” Teri asked, her voice soft and her chin trembling at the thought that he was making fun of her.

“No,” Cor said, shaking his head and looking away. “My fate amuses me.”

“We’ll camp here for the night,” He said, changing the subject. “On the ‘morrow we’ll veer to the east and be free of the Darkwood.”

“Where then?” Teri asked, glad that he continued to speak of them as being together. She did not know what she would do if he abandoned her.

The Nordlamarian stared at the darkening limbs of the trees above them. He sighed. “I’ll not turn you in,” he said at last, drawing a exhalation of relief from her.

Cor turned and gave her a rare smile, which felt to her like a beam of sunshine. “Worry not, I may not have the honor of my ancestors, but some things I still hold dear.”

“You’ve always been honorable with me,” Teri said softly and consolingly, knowing that he spoke of a deep pain within him.

He shrugged. “My penance,” he said with an air of finality on the topic.

“Who are your people? Are you not from Aradmath?”

Cor looked at her for a long moment, then glanced away to the north, almost as if he expected merely thinking the name would bring its attention upon him. “I was born in Nordlamar,” he finally said.

Teri’s eyes widened. Cor, her protector, savior, and champion, was a barbarian from the north! She remembered the woman her father had captured and tortured and shivered in spite of herself. She was glad that Cor did not see her involuntary shudder.

“Is it true, what they say of them?” Teri asked cautiously.

“What do they say?” Cor asked.

“That they are barbarians. Heathens that treat their women as equals?”

Cor chuckled and looked at her. “You don’t consider yourself the equal of a man?”

“Well,” Teri stammered, realizing she had backed herself into a corner. “I don’t know… I mean, I think I could be, in some things. It depends upon the man…”

“Yes it does, and it depends upon the woman,” Cor answered her. “It is true that Nordlamarians let every person, be they man or woman, determine their own worth and choose their own fate. To do less would be slavery.”

“Then I think I would like to visit this place some day,” Teri said, her mind running wild with the possibilities.

“It is to the north. Once we are free I will show you the way,” Cor told her.

“You won’t come?” Teri asked, her excitement fading with the speed of a crashing wave.

“I…” Cor hesitated, then he shook his head. “No, I cannot.”

“But, Cor… why?”

Cor opened his mouth, then closed it as his throat rebelled against him with the rising memories. He shook his head and forced out in a tightly controlled voice, “I’ll show you the way, no more.”

Teri stared at him, tears gathering. A chance lay open before her to escape Aradmath once and for all. Even the long reach of her father and Baron Darleth could not have her in Nordlamar. But, apparently, the arms of Cor would never reach her either. It was something that troubled her greatly.

“Get some sleep,” Cor said, moving off silently into the woods to set a watch for them.

Teri watched him go and then let the first tears fall. She wiped them clear, knowing that crying accomplished nothing. Still, she had no idea what else to do. In the end she took Cor’s advice and cleared a spot on the ground free of sticks and rocks. Stuffing her pack under her head and wrapping her cloak about her as a blanket, she fought her anxiety and tried to find the peace of sleep. It was a long time in coming to her.

 

* * * *

 

 

Sleep was also Cor’s enemy. It would not come, and then when it did, it brought the nightmares. He lay huddled in his blanket trying to think of anything but the stricken look on the girl’s face when he had told her he would not travel back to Nordlamar.

He could not go back. Doing that would mean facing his family, most especially Anna, with the memory of how he had failed her. Facing Anna with what he had not done – could not do. He frowned, the child had had no part in Makan’s assault of Anna, it was not right that she had paid the price for it. His morbid introspection did not last long, however, as the clutching arms of sleep dragged him quickly into the dark abyss.

 

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.

Betrayal by Birth

This is a short chapter, and it’s entirely too passive for my tastes. Otherwise it’s ready to go, but it deserves the time to be fully rewritten. In spite of that it inspires some wicked thoughts for the future – thoughts and a direction the original story never took but one I might very well add to it. Originally Betrayal’s Hands was going to be a trilogy but the interest was lost in it and now, rather than continue it over multiple segments, I think I’ll just end up making this longer and tie up the loose ends that I left for another day.

 

Chapter 13

 

In the north Anna showed signs of returning to who she’d once been, but she grew more and more ill as the season changed. Within a few months it became impossible for her to deny, she carried Makan’s child in her womb.

Anna was devastated by the realization and fought to hide it. She also considered trying to void the babe from her body, but it was too late by the time she’d accepted the truth. Killing  it could kill her as well. And so she lived, hating herself and hating the baby within her each day more and more. She was determined to destroy it with her own hands as soon as it was born.

As time passed and her belly grew she was forced to retire from her command, if only temporarily. She wouldn’t have her soldiers knowing what it was that she carried within her. How tainted she’d become. She sought out her sister and arranged for her to go into hiding to bear the child in secret. Shar created a special assignment for her, as far as her soldiers were concerned. A secret mission to strike fear into the hearts of the Aradmathians. None but the two women knew the truth.

Winter was longer than usual, and by the time it was over Anna was nearly ready to bear the bastard child. Shar had her cloistered with a midwife that visited daily in a small homestead a week’s ride from the army, out of the way of the supply routes to further conceal her condition.

Anna had also put in a request to see Corillius. She’d thought long and hard on her behavior towards him and knew she must put it right. Her attitude towards men had grown somewhat rougher than it was before; it was the only way she found herself able to deal with them. Gone was the camaraderie she’d once felt. In its place was the uneasiness of a cat that knew only that the dog wouldn’t snap at it so long as the dog knew the cat would attack it at a moment’s notice.

But Cor she’d treated wrongly, and she knew it even if she didn’t feel it. Having sent for him, she waited impatiently. She was anxious to see him and afraid to see him. Cor was the only one who’d seen her at her worst, when she had been Baron Makan’s plaything. She spat at the thought of it, dredging up considerable anger. Yet at the same time a part of her quailed in terror at the memory.

Her sister, Sharlotta, had arrived instead of Corillius. Shar told her of their cousin’s fate, how he’d ridden back into Aradmath to exact the vengeance upon Makan that Anna herself had called down upon him. She also told her how intelligence had learned that Makan’s two daughters had disappeared, one slain and another missing. No more news had come of it, and after many months had since passed, the worse was assumed. Corillius Argondiir, one of the army’s greatest single warriors, had fallen.

Anna’s mood grew sullen at the news and she took ill for many days. The rest of her pregnancy was plagued with troubles of one sort or another. It was only the end of it, one cool late spring night, that brought Anna and her midwife any relief.

Several hours enduring the pains of labor finally produced a large baby boy. Anna stared at him, sweat and tears running down her face from the agony of the ordeal. She was in a state of shock, unbelieving that such a thing had come from within her. She stared and she reached for him, her lips trembling. The midwife finished tying the child’s cord and dried him off, then wrapped him in a blanket before handing him to Anna.

Anna took the child, then remembered her silent vow to herself. Her hand rubbed down his cheek then settled around his throat. Still trembling, she tried to make her hand squeeze, but she couldn’t do it as she stared into the innocent babe’s eyes. She looked away, fresh tears running from her eyes.

“Take him!” Anna commanded, thrusting the boy back to the midwife. Confused, she did as she was ordered, then helped Anna finish her ordeal while the babe rested in a cradle, strangely silent for one just introduced to the world.

While finishing her delivery, Anna’s mind wandered. She still sought the death of the child. It represented her slavery and imprisonment to her enemyl. But now she had hatched a better way of making it happen. Instead of slaying the boy herself, she wanted to take up the quest that Corillius had failed. She would take her bastard son and confront Makan himself with him Before his very eyes she would spill the boy’s blood and then Makan’s as well. His whore of a wife had only born him daughters, she knew, and the one he had sired would die in front of him, with him helpless to intervene.

The midwife looked up, alarmed, at the strange laughter that kept coming from her charge while she pushed out the last of the remnants of the pregnancy with her final contractions.

 

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.

Trapped in the Woods and Betrayed from Within

Here’s chapter 12! Only a few more chapters left…and that’s a good thing because it needs some serious heavy handed editing. I planned on doing it myself but it’s getting rough enough I’m starting to believe it’s going to need a third party editor to polish this into something I can be proud of. In spite of that, I keep posting it… what the heck?! It’s my way of showing my fellow writers and readers that a story can start out ugly but, with a lot of work, turn out good.

Then again, if I were to write this today from scratch I bet the rough draft would be a hell of a lot better. That’s because I’ve learned so much since this was put together many years ago. I wonder what it would look like if I revisited it in another five or ten years?

Enough babbling on with the story!

Chapter 12

 

Cor led Teri through the village until he reached the small hut he’d been staying in. He gestured her through the entrance and followed her inside, pulling the crude door shut. She whirled to face him, suddenly afraid that he’d take her up on the offer she’d made in the forest.  Cor sighed at her obvious terror.

“I’m not going to bite your arm off, girl.” He snapped, “You will stay inside here unless I’m with you. Others in this place aren’t as able to resist your charms.” He smiled and let his eyes roam over her body to make her feel as though she was naked. Teri flushed, still afraid, yet also feeling something else, something she didn’t understand. His gaze made her feel hot and cold from the tips of her muddy toes to the top of her head. She wanted him to stop, but somewhere inside, she wanted him to continue.

Cor realized with a start that he wasn’t immune to the scruffy waif standing before him. He growled and turned to leave the room. “I’ll bring in some water so you can wash,” he muttered on his way out. He left the flimsy door swaying in the breeze.

Outside Cor made his way to a nearby spring. He, at least, felt it was nearby. He walked over a mile to it, moving with his pace that ate up the ground in record time, and filled two skins he’d fashioned. While walking he tried to figure out what it was he was going to do with the girl. He couldn’t keep her around, that much was certain. He had no need of her help nor the trouble she’d bring.

On his way back he stopped focusing on the reason why he couldn’t keep her around. He was obsessing, something he’d done too much of since he’d ended up in Briam’s Crossing. He began to wonder what it was he could suggest to her that would make her realize she could have a better life elsewhere. She could have a family. A husband, children… perhaps a farm. He shook his head and scowled. The truth of it was that without him she wouldn’t make it out of the Darkwood.

“What’s your name, girl?” Cor barked when he reentered the cabin.

She yelped and dropped the crude utensils she’d been about to clean. “T…T…Teri,” she said. Her eyes fell to the tattered remains of the standard that lay on the table. She’d seen enough of it to recognize it, and that alone filled her with terror. It was the standard of the savage barbarians from the north. Those who’d rebelled from Aradmath and made pacts with dark powers to slink away in the night, where they consorted with demons. Their souls they traded for the power to fight against the nobility of Aradmath, even pressing the hellcats they called women into battle.

“I’m Cor,” he said, then mumbled, “or once was.”

He dropped the two sealed water skins on a makeshift table he’d made out of tree limbs and bent down to pick up the standard from the table. He folded it back up without saying a word and shoved it in a pack that lay against a wall.

“You owe me nothing, I’ve no need of your services,” he explained calmly. “On the morrow I’ll take you to the edge of the wood. You’ll be safe from there.”

She stared at him, tears forming in her eyes. Here, at long last, she’d met another human. More than that, one who hadn’t tried to hurt, rape, or insult her. She stared at him, her lip quivering, and fought to control herself. She nodded, dropping her head. “Thank you,” she said in a small voice that certainly didn’t feel the gratitude she claimed to profess.

Cor grunted, wondering why her reaction bothered him. He’d be rid of her and be back to living a simple life again. One uncluttered with the concerns of women and people. Free of the responsibilities of family, friends, and kin. He stalked past her, heading into the single roomed dwelling and grabbing up some wood off the floor to shove in the hearth in spite of the flames that already leapt from wood.

After staring at the fire for long moments lost in thoughts that wouldn’t materialize, Cor realized that the girl was probably hungry. If not, he was. He kicked a stump he sometimes used as a seat off of a section of the floor he had cut out and lifted it up. The small cellar he’d dug he’d packed with roots, herbs, and other foodstuffs. He checked what remained after the winter and then headed out to check his snares.

Ever curious, Teri found herself unable to stay away from the root cellar she’d seen Cor open. Excited by what she found within it, she removed several carrots, potatoes, and even some celery. Then she looked about and found a few dented pots that looked to have served well in the past. She planned to make further use of them.

When Cor returned he could smell the simmering stew before he opened the door. His stomach growled, which in turn caused him to growl. It smelled good, he had to admit, but that only angered him to realize that his body was betraying what he really wanted. What he needed. Scowling, he entered the hut and tossed the squirrel and the rabbit his snares had yielded to the ground beside where Teri looked up at him, a hopeful but fearful expression on her face.

The look in her eyes, that of a doe surprised by a hunter, made him hesitate. She opened her mouth but a moment passed before it took a long moment until words came out of it. “I made some stew.”

“There’s no need,” Cor responded, angry at himself and at her. He clenched his fists, wishing for a simpler life.

“I’m not helpless,” Teri said, tears threatening to build in her eyes again. “I can cook, clean, sew, and…other things.”

Cor wondered just what other things she was referring to. He saw what the half-ogre had in mind for her. He smirked and said, “I bet you can,” rather darkly before turning away. “Make the stew then. And use the skins to make something to cover your feet. It will be a long walk out of here and back to civilization for you.” He turned his back on her then and moved away to the narrow platform that served as his bed and the only seat in the small hut. He sat, swinging his long legs up onto the bunk and lacing his fingers behind his head. He closed his eyes, announcing clearly to the girl that he had no intention of entertaining her while she was in his care.

Teri watched as he stretched out and closed his eyes, wondering what to do next. After a moment’s pause, she gathered the animals and made quick work of skinning them and cubing the meat. Rummaging around again, she found a flat piece of metal, using it as a frying pan to quickly brown the pieces before dropping them into the stew. Once that was done, she felt at loose ends.

Cor’s nose nearly twitched at the scent of the meat cooking, it had been some time since he’d bothered with anything that smelled that good. He wondered to himself if perhaps she was as talented as she professed. His stomach rumbled and he mentally berated his body for betraying his interest.

Still sitting by the fire, Teri jumped at the sound, her head snapping around to regard the still supine man. After a few more moments passed and he still hadn’t opened his eyes, she decided that perhaps it was safe to take him up on his offer and wash herself. The events of this day had left her travel stained, and feeling as though the stains on her skin and on her soul would take some time to scrub away.

Leaning in, she used the iron hook from the wall to pull out a second, larger cauldron from deeper in the coals. While the tall man had been checking snares, Teri had been preparing water for bathing and to wash her garments. She pulled the cauldron farther into the room, adding some of the still cold water to bring the temperature down. Casting another searching glance at the man on the bed, she turned away from him, took a deep breath and dropped her rags to her feet. She used a scrap of cloth she had found to dip into the water, scrubbing the first and heaviest of the dirt and grime from her pale skin. She had stashed a coarse chunk of lye soap in her satchel when she had left the cabin, and this she now used, struggling to bring a lather from the bitter stuff.

Cor cracked his eyes open when he heard the splashing sounds coming from the fireside. He saw his guest standing naked with her back to him, bathing. His eyes followed her curves, noting that the rags she had arrived in had certainly concealed the slender perfection of her body. When she finished with her body, she knelt before the cauldron to dip her long hair in. As she did so, Cor got an unobstructed view of her smooth skin and perfectly rounded bottom. His breath caught somewhere in his chest as heat flooded to his groin. He told himself that it was simply the months since he’d been with a woman that caused the strong reaction. She was a wisp of a woman, a girl that had most likely spent the winter pleasuring a half-ogre. Somewhere in his mind a small voice was quickly silenced from saying that it was not that at all.

With much of her head immersed in the cauldron, Teri missed the small catch of breath that would have alerted her. As far as she was aware, Cor was asleep on the rude bench. She scrubbed at her hair, despairing that it would ever be clean again, until she finally decided it would have to do for now. She wrung it into the cauldron and then stood, gathering her now sodden garments and dropping them into the pot to soak. She picked up something from beyond Cor’s line of vision and put it on, effectively canceling his show. She sat on the hearthstones, stirring the stew and then attending to her tangled hair.

Cor frowned at what he saw. She was wearing one of his shirts. He knew from his viewing of her while she cleaned herself that she wore nothing else. Somehow the knowledge that beneath his shirt she had nothing on sent greater mystery through him and made him bite his tongue. He sighed and sat up, not looking at her purposefully. Teri looked at him, her eyes wide and lips parted. When he said and did nothing she began to relax, if only a little.

Dinner, as the smell forewarned him, was excellent. Cor knew the stew wasn’t really that good, it’d just been a while since he’d bothered with putting that much work into cooking something. Regardless of the cause, it left him in a surprisingly pleasant mood. Pleasant enough that he pretended to take no notice as Teri moved about the small hut and straightened things to her liking, as well as spreading out some of her things. Before long she sat down and started to work on the pelts he’d indicated, producing a set of a needles and some thread to work them into moccasins for herself.

Cor went back outside, intent upon cutting more wood for the fire. He had plenty stacked inside and the weather was turning warmer, but he needed some fresh air and to be away from the girl. Outside he realized that the few days of warmth they had might have been an early reprieve, since the air was chilled. His trained nose could smell snow on the air.

Too confused to do much of anything about his situation, he set about chopping some firewood to keep his body busy while his mind roamed.

 

* * * *

 

Teri awoke in the night, shaking violently from the cold. She was curled up near the hearth, but only embers remained. She was wrapped in a thin blanket which Cor had tossed to her. Her eyes adjusted slowly to the blackness inside the hut, but she could see only outlines. A sound caught her attention. On the narrow bunk, the big man moaned in his sleep.

“I didn’t mean for this to happen…” he whispered, nearly inaudibly, “I’m so sorry…” He thrashed about on the bunk, obviously caught in a nightmare. Teri got up carefully from the floor, grateful to be moving to get a little warmth. She approached him. He was so much less frightening in sleep as he wrestled his demons. He almost seemed like he might be as human on the inside as he looked on the outside.

With the little light from the window, she could see that his bearded cheek was wet with tears. This unconscious display of compassion finally broke the hold that fear had on her. She was sure that before her was a man who was certainly not the evil murderer or young children she’d feared.

Moving closer, she sat gingerly on the edge of the rough boards, reaching out to touch his face with soft fingertips. “Hush now,” she murmured, “may the Lady herself ease you.” She began to hum a child’s lullaby.

Teri smiled to herself as the big man took a deep breath and relaxed into dreamless sleep. She sat for a long while, humming and watching him, until finally sleep was too hard to resist. She added fuel to the fire and blew it back to life before curling up again with the blanket.

In the morning it was apparent that the spring thaw had come too soon. Several inches of snow had fallen overnight, forcing Cor to delay Teri’s departure. With her clothing cleaned and dried, she took to wearing it again.

The cabin became a prison for them over the days that followed. In spite of Teri’s attempts to get Cor to talk to her, he seldom had anything to say. She was afraid that she upset him, but he gave her no evidence to support her fears. With Krev she could at least usually get him talking about himself. Cor seemed reluctant even to do that. Teri began to suspect some great crime in his past, something he was hiding from or perhaps even ashamed of. Teri knew her own history was nothing she would be willing to share, so she respected his privacy even if her own curiosity was eating away at her.

What Teri could not know was that a growing part of Cor yearned to talk to her. He found himself increasingly captivated by her, and looked forward to the short discussions they did have. Always she seemed to ask the wrong questions though, questions that he would not – could not – answer.

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.

 

The Betrayal Within

Let me apologize ahead of time for the mess that is chapter 11 of Betrayal’s Hands. I did some quick edits to make it less painful, but the point of view shifts are embarrassing. I’ll clean it up someday, I promise! Until then, it’s still readable and even enjoyable. I hope. :)

Chapter 11

Cor slipped deeper into his personal darkness, abandoning himself for a time and living off the land as only a hardened savage could. His guilt overcame him, but instead of breaking him into a defenseless and helpless person, he became little more than a beast, stealing what he needed and attacking anyone that bothered him with a ferocity that sent survivors running.

Though rare, occasionally his reckless behavior worked against him. On those occasions he was the one routed. Once a group of villagers and twice an entire squad of soldiers closed in on him. As fierce and dangerous as he had become, he seemed to flee from danger more often that face it. It was another aspect of him turning from the man he had once been.

The Darkwood was home to many beings. While most were the type that shied away from humanity, some were not so distant. Among the varied denizens of the forest was a small community of more tolerant creatures, half breeds, many, but some pure of blood but unwelcome by their own kind.

Thus it was that Cor found himself pushed towards the Darkwood. Ere long he found himself in a makeshift cabin, patching it up with evergreen boughs to block the wind and the snow.

The small village of Briam’s Crossing was along some makeshift roads passing through the more southern reaches of the Darkwood. It had once been little more than a crossroads with a nearby stream of fresh water and ample fish. Such an idyllic setting proved a good place to settle. The inhabitants largely kept to themselves or among small groups. Word traveled quickly among them of newcomers, and Cor was not the first human to join the settlement, nor was he the first recluse that shunned contact. He was the only human there at the time, aside from an occasional brave merchant trying to find a market for his wares.

In short order Cor heard tell of a reward being offered for a half-ogre that had captured a woman from the Kingdom. Cor reacted strongly to this, at first thinking it was him, but upon further eavesdropping he learned that it was someone else they were after.

For the first time in months he began to visit a social establishment. He traveled to the village inn, known simply as Mung’s Place. Mung was the proprietor, an unusually intelligent troll. There he learned more, that the half-ogre in question was actually rumored to be staying in the Darkwood and that the girl was still with him. They wintered in the northeastern portion of the forest, and thus far every being that had gone to investigate had not returned.

Cor kept the information to himself, brooding on it and wondering. The coincidence was uncanny, and before long he found his curiosity getting the better of him. He thought about it more and more, and then one day found himself pushing beyond his normal hunting range, steering to the north and the east. He gave no particular thought to it, but he knew where he was going. He had to see for himself. It had been many weeks since he had seen another human, and though he felt undeserving of their society and was afraid, he also yearned for contact.

* * * *

Teri watched through the crack between the shutters on a window as Krev walked through the slowly melting snow. It was warmer, yes, but still cold enough that they needed firewood. If nothing else it was needed so that she could cook their dinner, whatever he was able to find and bring back from the woods. She never ventured outside of the cabin without him nearby. She assumed it was for her protection, but she also knew he was keeping an eye on her. He didn’t need to, as she had nowhere to go and no desire to do so.

Krev’s mind was busy, wondering what he should do. Always ambitious, he realized that with the spring thaw it was time to move on. What he wasn’t sure of was where to go. Should he take Teri somewhere and sell her, or should he keep her with him. He hated to admit it but she did came in handy. She was a poor servant at first, unable to cook the simplest of meals properly and having no idea how to clean and wash clothes. She’d learned over time, but was still only passably good at her duties.

She was a maiden, however, and that would bring a good price. With a surly growl Krev had to admit he’d grown fond of her company. Aside from the occasions where she frustrated and infuriated him. He’d decided to instruct her on how to please a man, but shied away from taking her virginity. After all, if he sold her she would be worth much more if she was unspoiled.

And so Krev stewed over his dilemma. He wondered about trying to start up another bandit company, or perhaps heading away from the Kingdom all together and signing on with a mercenary company. There would be no way he could take Teri with him then, it would be impossible to keep an eye on her.

Krev grunted at the impact of the large rock. He staggered forward and felt, or rather didn’t feel, the sensation in his arm. He spun around, growling loudly, his sword in his good hand to sweep aside the spear that would have pierced his chest. Two figures approached him, one a troll and one a half-ogre like himself, though a little smaller. He spit at them and snarled, wasting no breath on words.

They ran at him, the half-ogre with a crudely fashioned club and the troll with a large axe. A smaller stone bounced off his chest, just below his throat. He ignored the sting and saw a wild elf fitting another stone into his sling off to the side. He’d wandered blindly into an ambush. He cursed his stupidity and crouched low, presenting a smaller target.

The half-ogre reached him first, feinting with his club and drawing Krev off balance. The troll was there then, nearly severing his leg with a vicious chop. The blade glanced off the front of his thigh, cutting into him and spraying his blood onto the snow. Krev gritted his teeth and backed up, parrying a follow up strike from the club.

Another sling stone hurled past him, making him duck his head from the whistle of it. He parried the axe with his sword and accepted a hit from the club on his left arm, which was still numb from the rock strike. He grunted at the impact, but knew the bone hadn’t broken.

Krev circled, putting his opponents between him and the wild elf, protecting him from any further ranged attacks. He lashed out, landing a nasty cut on the shoulder of the half-ogre in retaliation for the club strike, and cursed as he had to put himself precariously off balance to avoid a swing from the troll’s axe.

The half-ogre dropped the axe, his other hand going to the gash in his shoulder. He stumbled back and tripped on a rock hidden by the snow. Krev saw stars explode in his eyes when the next sling stone was released and flew true, cracking into his forehead. He stumbled backwards, unable to press his advantage, and swung his sword blindly until the dizziness passed. Blood streamed down his face, but he ignored it and narrowly managed to deflect the next swing from the axe.

He lunged forward, throwing his shoulder into the troll’s chest. The troll was larger but his sudden attack caught it off guard. He was inside the reach of the axe and his own blade. He dropped his sword and grabbed the troll’s neck, squeezing with powerful fingers.

The troll gasped, eyes bulging, and dropped his own weapon so he could use his hands to pry Krev’s grip from his throat. Krev used his other arm, which felt clumsy and slow to respond, to drive his fist into the troll’s groin. The breath exploded out of the troll. Krev picked his opponent up, fighting through the difficulty of using his arm and hefted him over his head. He turned and threw the heavy creature as far as he could, stunning him further by landing in a melting snow bank upon hard ground. Another stone whistled past him, making him growl angrily. He glared at the wild elf and saw him undeterred as he put another stone in his sling’s pouch. The half-ogre was running away as Krev bent to retrieve his sword.

Krev caught the next stone as it streaked towards him. It bit into his palm but he ignored the pain. He turned to the troll who was trying to rise and kicked him in the side, hearing ribs break. He swung his sword and severed its head, freeing him from that particular threat.

The wild elf sent another stone hurtling at Krev, which he took on his forearm as he ducked his head behind it, and then he was running towards the short figure. The elf turned and fled, seeing he couldn’t bring his target down. His short legs were no match for Krev’s longer pounding stride though, in seconds Krev was standing atop his quivering corpse.

He looked around and realized that there weren’t enough adversaries here to bring him down, though they’d come close. He cursed as the true threat occurred to him: These three had been a diversion while the others went to the cabin! He turned and ran, feeling the jarring impact of each step on his still bleeding leg.

* * * *

Teri screamed when she heard the door being battered. Something heavy crashed into it twice more before it gave under the assault. She looked around and knew she had nowhere to hide in the small cabin. She tried to unlatch the shutters on a nearby window but already she heard footsteps behind her. She looked back and saw three wild elves grinning savagely at her, when the larger form of a half-ogre stepped into the cabin, crunching and breaking what remained of the door under his boots.

She screamed again, hoping to draw Krev back. She backed away until she ran out of room. The wild elves surrounded her, short spears in their hands. The half-ogre, easily half a head taller than Krev, reached beyond them and grabbed her roughly. She gasped and struggled in his grip. He leered at her and threw her on her pallet on the floor, then knelt over her and tore her shirt from her body. She screamed again, drawing a powerful slap. When she regained her senses she tasted blood.

Cor watched, hidden, as the door was kicked in. He’d seen the half-ogre a few times in Briam’s Crossing. Cor knew he was one of three thugs in a group of bandits and thieves that behaved themselves in Briam’s Crossing, but preyed upon anyone they could outside of the neutral village. The exiled Northman had no idea who was in charge of the group, they’d never seemed to defer to anyone in particular whenever he saw them.

The screams drew his attention and before he realized what he was doing, he was rushing towards the cabin. He saw a figure emerge into a small clearing on the other side of the cabin, blood on his face, running down his leg and coating his sword. The newcomer was also running towards the cottage. Given his size, Cor presumed he was the owner of the cabin, the half-ogre that had taken the girl hostage in the first place.

The longer strides of the half-ogre beat Cor to the door. The half-ogre was through, ignoring him and rushing inside. Cor heard a startled shout then saw one of the shutters explode outward, a wild elf hanging over the windowsill, either unconscious or dead. Cor stepped into the doorway and took in the chaotic scene.

Two wild elves stood facing Krev, while a larger half-ogre was pulling up his breeches and drawing a sword with one hand large enough to require Cor two hands to wield it. Krev kicked at one wild elf, sending the small demi-human stumbling into a wall. The other one stabbed him in the calf of his extended foot, making him growl in pain and rage. He cut that one down with his sword, easily blasting through the elf’s raised spear.

The half-ogre lashed out at Krev, the tip of his sword cutting through his hide jerkin and nicking into his upper chest and shoulder. Krev dropped low and tried to thrust with his sword, but his twice injured leg wouldn’t support his weight. He crumpled to the floor.

The attacking half-ogre grinned victoriously and raised his sword behind his head. He swung, forgetting where he was, and looked up in confusion when it imbedded itself into the ceiling. Krev rolled closer and drove his sword up, sending it deep into the viscera of the stranger.

Cor stepped forward, watching the attacker let go of his blade, which remained stuck in the timber overhead, and collapse to his knees before he rolled over and expired. Krev stumbled back to his own feet and turned around, seeing Cor there. Behind Krev, Cor could see the woman trying desperately to pull her torn clothing about herself in an attempt at modesty.

Cor thought about speaking but changed his mind. Badly wounded though he was, the half-ogre in front of him seemed of no mind to negotiate. Cor also decided not to turn and leave, Krev would be upon him instantly, bad leg or not.

A distant part within the Northlander rejoiced, urging him to take action. Here was a woman who was a prisoner… a hostage of an evil monster. His upbringing and old beliefs demanded he try to free her, even if his recent life had led him to different actions.

Krev lashed out, making him duck under the whistling sword. Cor let his instincts and reactions take over. He counter-attacked, finding his blade not quite long enough to get inside the half-ogre’s guard.

Teri stared at Cor, excited to see another human. He looked a mess, dirty, unshaven, and little better than the bandits that had served under Krev. Something seemed different about him, and somehow she knew he wasn’t one of the monsters who raided Krev’s cabin. Her lips parted, she wanted them to stop fighting, but no words came out. She was torn. Perhaps he was another bounty hunter sent to return her to her father? Krev was wounded, but she knew how strong he was… the man stood no chance against him.

Cor used his agility to keep Krev off balance, trying to force him to rely upon his wounded leg. The leg that, it seemed, was much stronger than his fight against the other half-ogre had indicated. Cor reevaluated his opponent, he was clearly a very intelligent and cunning swordsmen. That, combined with the strength Cor had felt on a few parries, let him know he was in a fight for his life.

Krev locked Cor’s sword up, his greater strength holding the man easily. He kicked out, using his wounded leg in an attempt to knock the skilled human off his feet. He couldn’t remember fighting a human as agile and skilled as this one was and he sought to end it before blood loss weakened him.

Cor thrust his sword upwards, burying the point in the same support beam that the larger sword was embedded in, and then slipped the kick. He tucked his shoulder and rolled under Krev’s leg, snatching up a short wooden spear from the hands of a dead wild elf and ramming it deeply into the half-ogre’s unwounded hamstring.

Krev howled in mixed agony and rage. He stumbled but caught himself, pain flaring up both legs now. He spun about and swung blindly, expecting Cor to be in a certain place. The dexterous human had rolled again, coming up on his flank and reaching up to grab the hilt of his sword. He yanked it from the ceiling and lashed out, cutting deeply into Krev’s left arm.

Krev tried to turn again, but his legs weren’t moving as fast as his upper body was. He stumbled to his knees, raising one leg and preparing to get back up while he thrust out towards Cor it keep him at bay. Cor spun away from the thrust and let his sword swing in a backhanded slice that crashed wetly into the side of Krev’s head. The half-ogre froze, his eyes losing focus. His hand reached up and then fell to his sides as he collapsed to floor, adding to the pile of corpses in the cabin.

Teri’s mouth was open. She stared in disbelief at seeing Krev defeated. He was so strong, so sure of himself, so invincible. She couldn’t believe he was dead! She looked up at the man, fear in her eyes, and hugged her torn clothing about herself. His eyes took her in, missing nothing. She felt the intensity of his gaze and felt naked in spite of her attempts at modesty.

He wiped the blood and brains off of his blade and sheathed it. He looked at her again and then around the cabin. He opened his mouth and closed it again, not knowing what to say. Teri stared at him, tears running down her cheeks.

“You’re free,” Cor croaked out finally. He coughed to clear his throat and then repeated himself. “He’s dead, you’re free. Go home.”

“Home?” Teri asked, not believing him. Then more bitterly she realized that the cabin had been her home. “Where is home? I can’t leave… where would I go? I’ll be dead in an hour… you’ve…you’ve killed me!”

The look on Cor’s face was far beyond Teri’s ability to understand. He blanched and showed terror and then agony and then rage. She had no idea why her words had sparked such a range of emotions in him. He turned away from her and blinked away tears, then turned back.

“You won’t be the first,” he growled, his voice low and taut with emotion.

Not understanding him Teri cried softly. She was helpless and alone. Krev hadn’t always been pleasant, and at times he had been terrifying, but it was stable and she knew what to expect of him. “Take me with you,” she gasped, all but begging him. “I can clean, and cook… please! I’ll even take care of you… in…other ways.”

Cor shook his head, he turned back to her and she saw the haunted look in his eyes. “I take care of myself,” he said flatly, “I’ve no need for a slave.”

“But I’ll die!” she said, desperation raising her voice.

Cor turned from her and stepped to the open doorway of the cabin. The sun was high and shining down upon the clearing, warming his face and hands with its radiance. He sighed and looked back at her. “Gather your things, and be quick about it! The forest will be upon this place quickly; buzzards ripe for scavenging.”

She knelt in disbelief, so quickly had he changed his mind. She was moving then, hurrying to gather up what little belongings she had. She thrust it into a rough burlap sack, a few needles, some thread, and some spare hides Krev had tanned from beasts he’d slain for their dinners. She took some knives as well, and a whetstone and flint and steel. She stood ready, one hand holding her torn shirt closed while the other clutched the bag.

Cor glanced at her, noting how comely she probably was under the dirt. He nodded at her in confirmation and set out, moving through the woods with a quickness and surety that reminded her of Krev. He avoided the trails for fear they might run into someone that might try to take her. Avoiding the trails nearly proved to be more dangerous when he nearly stepped into a darker area of the wood that had large cobwebs strung throughout the trees. He led her around it and moved on, heading for Briam’s Crossing.

Teri regarded her rescuer’s broad back as they moved through the brush. He was tall, much taller than either her father or Baron Darleth, and she could see that he carried none of the fat of her father. His hair was dark and straggly, though it had been cut not that long ago. She found him a strange study of contrasts. There were signs that he’d once been well groomed, yet now he appeared as one of the ruffians who were common soldiers in her father’s army. She looked down at herself, and realized that they had at least that much in common.

Watching his body language, Teri realized that the set of his shoulders told her very plainly that he was less than pleased. She knew he wasn’t happy with being forced into the role of her rescuer – or her captor. She wasn’t sure how to describe their current relationship. He’d said that he needed no slave, but had allowed her to follow him. She moved as quickly as her battered body would allow, telling herself that she wouldn’t allow him to leave her behind.

Again she stumbled over an exposed root, landing hard on bare knees and leaving bruises and dirt. She bit her lip trying not to cry out, she wouldn’t show him fear. She knew that she was only a burden to the tall stranger. All he needed was an excuse and she’d be left behind.

Having been left to her own thoughts, Teri also found that her demons began to encroach upon her. When she stopped thinking about the physical attributes of the man before her, the shadows in the woods became darker and more sinister, threatening her with their very existence. She found herself moving faster, her breath coming in mewling pants.

Cor sighed, stopping in his tracks and grunting softly as the little bit of a girl slammed into him from behind. When he turned to face her, he was alarmed at the paleness of her face, but what concerned him more was how wide her eyes were and how they darted to and fro.

When the big man turned to face her, reflexively, Teri ducked, ready to take a blow. She stood, shaking, waiting for a big hand to knock her down. After a long moment, she stopped cringing and peered up through a fringe of hair at him.

“I’m not going to hit you, girl.” Cor rasped, finding himself annoyed that she would have considered it. He was certain that her fears were well founded in history with the half-ogre. “The Crossing’s not far now, and we can rest there.” This last was said with an air of finality, as he again turned and started off through the brush.

That small amount of contact with her rescuer made the shadows recede into the woods. Teri could concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. She focused on that to the exclusion of all else until the brush melted away beneath her feet and she found herself facing the muddy track which led into Briam’s Crossing.

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.

Betrayal: Into the Ogres Den

Here’s chapter 9 of Betrayal’s Hands, for your reading pleasure. Already a dark book it takes an even darker tone near the end. Darker than I’d intended but my editor when this was written called for a harsher treatment. I actually argued with her and ended up working out a compromise. What am I talking about? Read it and find out!

Chapter 9

Teri was cold. Her feet were ragged, bloody and numb. Krev had run for what seemed like hours before stopping to set her down.

“You’ll run, girl. Like your life depends on it.” Krev grinned, “It does.”

She stared at him dumbly until he had reached out to push her onto the twisted trail. She’d stumbled and started to run with Krev behind her every step. They’d pushed through bush too dense for armored men on horseback, hoping to delay pursuit. To throw off the pursuer’s hounds, Krev made her run through an icy stream for what seemed like an eternity. She’d emerged dripping and shivering, only to be pushed on again by her captor.

“Please…” Teri whimpered, shaking, “I can’t run anymore.”

Looking at her, the half-ogre noticed the bluish tinge to her skin. She wouldn’t last long unless he got her warmed up. Nodding brusquely, Krev pulled her off of the path into the bush. He found a sheltered spot in the lee of a fallen tree and pointed to it.

“We’ll sleep there tonight. Take off your clothes.”

Teri stared at him, uncomprehendingly. “What?” she whispered weakly.

“Get them off!” he snapped at her, having very little patience left. “You don’t want me to have to do it.”

Tears formed in her eyes as Teri slipped the shoulder of her tattered dress off and dropped the remaining fabric to the ground, crossing her arms over her small breasts.

“You’re not my type.” Krev growled at her fear, although he could feel himself hardening at the sight of her smooth pale flesh revealed. Tossing his short cape into the log, he gestured to Teri. “Get in there. I can’t have you freezing to death.”

He watched as she scrambled onto the cloak, laying down to fit into the tight space. Sighing, he picked up the remnants of the dress, throwing them over a branch to dry. He moved to her side, watching her tense and shiver with his nearness. Opening his leather vest, he lay beside her, wrapping her in his arms against his chest, sharing his body heat with her fragile form.

The exhaustion of the day soon overpowered her discomfort with his nearness. In moments she drifted off into a black sleep.

* * * *

“The brute got away it seems,” Darleth said from his horse. Makan grunted, his mount stamping its foot impatiently in response to its owner’s mood.

They stood upon the shore of the stream, with scouts scouring up and down the length of it looking for tracks.

“Let us be off for the cave the bandit mentioned,” Makan said, turning to him. “We can make it there before they do.”

Darleth nodded, “Yes, but that bandit is unconscious and the priest said he’d be so for a day or more, and we’ve no idea where it is.”

“Wake him!” Makan snapped. “I don’t care if he lives or dies, damn you, I just want it found!”

Darleth’s eyes narrowed at Makan’s tone and words, but he kept his tongue in check. “Aye, My Lord Baron, let us see what we can do.”

They turned their horses and headed back towards the makeshift camp that had been set up. Darleth intended to make sure the bandit lived, he had uses for the ruffian. Makan’s needs were short term. Darleth had grander ambitions in mind.

* * * *

Nearly a week had elapsed and Teri was getting used to the life of an outlaw. She wore some badly sized peasant clothes that Krev had stolen for her. They were rags to her, but Krev had said that they’d once belonged to a woman who might have spent a month’s worth of wages on them. It was a lesson in humility, but she kept her head high and marched on with him in spite of it.

Her feet were beginning to heal, though they were still cracked and sore. He hadn’t acquired shoes for her, and after complaining enough to draw a slap from him to shut her up, she hadn’t mentioned it again. His slap, while slow and soft in his opinion, was powerful enough to send her stumbling. She shivered every time she remembered it and the strength he possessed.

Krev returned to their cold camp, returning from a scouting mission. He untied her from the tree he had bound her too, as he always did when he went out on his own, and sat down with a chuckle.

“They made one of my boys talk, it seems,” Krev said, digging into a pouch and pulling out some salted meat. “They’ve set up an ambush at our old hideout. Fools!”

Krev spat and used his large teeth to tear off some of the meat. He chewed on it and thought for a moment. “I’ve other holes to winter in, don’t you worry. And I’d not go to that one for a while anyhow. I thought my boys knew better than that though.”

Teri looked up at him and said, softly, “Sven.”

Krev looked at her and then chuckled. He handed her a piece of meat, which she greedily took and shoved into her mouth, drawing another chuckle from him. “He’s dead, snapped upon a tree. I heard the bones crack and break, no man can survive that.”

“So where are we going then? It’s getting really cold,” Teri said, hoping he wouldn’t slap her again.

“You’ll know when we get there. It’s in the Darkwood, that much I’ll tell you now.”

Teri’s eyes widened. The Darkwood was a dark and frightening forest. Its northern borders touched the Fens that separated the Kingdom from the savage lands to the north. The Kingdom claimed it, but they didn’t log it nor have anyone who lived within it. It was said that dark creatures lived within it, and many who entered its edges did not return, or were mad if they did.

Krev chuckled again, seeing her expression. “Look at me, pretty, where do you think I came from? Not one of your civilized towns! Ha! My mother was raped by an ogre from a raiding party from there. She nearly died giving birth to me, and hated me for what I reminded her of.”

He stared off into the distance. “The villagers took care of me when she finally died, five years later. I was strong and they needed me to tend their forge and do their work for them, but they ridiculed me and beat me. Never gave me a chance to be… Bah!”

Krev stood up, glaring at her. “Mind your own business, wench,” he spat out, forgetting that nothing she’d said had caused him to recall his youth. He tied her back to the tree and muttered something about scouting, then loped off into the darkening twilight.

As darkness fell, Teri grew more and more frightened. Krev hadn’t returned and she felt at that moment that even his ugly face would be welcome. She tugged again on the rope tying her to the tree, accomplishing little but pain in her raw wrists. An owl hooted in a nearby tree, making her cry out in terror. Tears flowed down her face unheeded.

“Lady, if you let me survive this…” she moaned.

Huddled there against the tree, she heard what sounded like footsteps approaching. “Krev?” she whispered, her voice hoarse with panic. “Please…”

The footsteps came closer, followed by a harsh chuckle.

“Glad to see me pretty?” Teri nearly fainted with relief at the big man’s voice. He reached out and untied her wrists from the tree. “So far we’ve eluded pursuit, we start in the morning for my wintering hole.”

“Don’t think I’m stupid, Pretty.” Krev warned, “You know who’s chasing us, and I will find out why you’d rather be my slave than return to them.”

Teri gasped, for he chose that moment to haul her to her feet. Her mind raced with the words he had just uttered. His slave? What did that mean for her? What would he want from her?

Krev chuckled again, “It will be a very comfortable winter for me.” He emphasized the word ‘me’.

And so it was that Krev led a weary and terrified Teri into the depths of the Darkwood. The very air seemed heavy and filled with dark and foreboding things to her. Animals larger than any she’d ever seen flitted about the forest at the edges of her vision, teasing and taunting her. Krev showed no concern for them, but instead led her a day’s walk within the wood to a rundown cabin.

Teri couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a simple cabin. A house, in a remote and frightening location, but the mundane nature of it buoyed her spirits. Krev led her to it, holding her behind him as he stalked in and looked around. Several small creatures, no taller than her thigh, squeaked at their entrance and tried to escape. Krev showed them no mercy, swinging a wooden branch as a club and crushing as many as he could. A few escaped out the door or the unshuttered windows.

“Lousy tree elves,” Krev muttered, looking at the mess of the place. “Thieves and scoundrels, the lot of them!”

“Those weren’t elves!” Teri protested. “I’ve seen elves, they’re much taller and more noble!”

Krev glared at her. “Them was tree elves, slave,” he said brusquely. “Not the high and mighty kind, true. Those were the savage cousins your elves don’t like to admit to being related to.”

Teri blanched at his tone and his labeling her a slave. Still, she held her ground as she faced him. “Who are you to vilify them for being thieves?”

Krev glared at her and then chuckled. “That’s fair. I suppose you’d like to take them clothes off so I can return them?”

Teri blushed and looked down, realizing she was as much a thief as he was. She shook her head, looking back up at last. Krev had turned and was already setting things right in the cottage. She sighed and moved to help clean things up, not knowing what else to do.

Teri spent the winter with Krev. She learned to cook and to clean and to do his laundry. It was hard work, but she learned not to protest. On rare occasions they had visitors. Some which Krev spoke with in a strange tongue she didn’t understand and at other times they were creatures that the half-ogre fought off with his great strength and amazing speed.

Teri was immersed in a world that frightened her. Over time her understanding of her captor led to a strange companionship. She could get him talking at times about topics and concepts a simple creature as cruel and as savage as he was had no right to know about. He would catch himself before too long and stop talking, behaving even more gruffly towards her for days afterwards. She began to want to know more about her complex captor.

Snow fell outside the cabin, piling up against the walls and sifting in through the cracks. Sitting next to the fire, Teri shivered. Krev had gone out this morning hunting. Teri sat quietly, mending his spare clothing. Lately she had begun to feel strange, missing him when he went out for the day, yet dreading his return. Her cheek was still tender from where he had struck her two days ago, she could hardly remember what provoked him. Setting down her sewing, she moved to the fire, stirring the stew in the cauldron. One thing she could always predict was his appetite. Soon he would return, and she hoped that his hunt had been successful. He was far more likely to be decent company after a successful hunt and a ready meal.

As she stirred the stew, the door banged open and Krev stomped through, slamming it closed behind him. The fresh blood on his jerkin answered her questions about the successfulness of his hunt. Brushing snow from his shoulders, he clumped over to the fire, sitting in the only chair.

“Where’s my meal, slave?” He growled. Teri hurried to fill his bowl and place it in his open hands. Sitting on the floor by his feet, Teri ate her own meal. When he finished, Krev tossed his bowl to Teri and sat back, relaxed for the moment. He began telling her a story about his childhood, very rare for him.

The story lasted for nearly an hour, in which Teri sat, enraptured. She relaxed, resting her head against his knee and closing her eyes. She missed the look he gave her and was nearly drowsing until his big hand touched her hair.

“I think I should teach you some things, my little slave. You’ve learned well to please me in domestic matters, but I believe you can still use a little education.” She looked up, startled by his tone. She watched in growing horror as Krev’s other hand loosened the ties on his pants. The hand on her head tightened in her hair, pulling her towards him.

When he was finished, Teri coughed and wiped the remnants rom her chin. She dashed the tears from her face with the back of her hand and hurried to their sleeping pallet, where she lay down and pulled the pelts up to her chin.

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.

Betrayal: War Crimes

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! Some people send flowers and cards, others do dinner or tend to a honey-do list. Heck, I’ve even done jewelry in the past. This time around here’s chapter 8 from Betrayal’s Hands as a freebie to all the mom’s out there. Okay, maybe it’s a little gruesome for Mother’s Day, but it’s the though the counts, right? :)

Chapter 8

Anna sat looking out the window of the healer’s hall wondering what the future would hold. A white clad woman came in with a steaming mug. She could only imagine the contents were something noxious. She shot the older woman a dirty look but drank the contents quickly. Her task finished, she returned mug and moved away to find a new spot to seclude herself.

‘The bars on the window ruin the view.’ Anna thought to herself.

A cough sounded behind her, and Anna turned to find the healer-woman standing in the doorway. Anna had made it clearly and violently known that she would accept no male healer, and no male had crossed her threshold again.

“There’s a man to see you, Milady Captain.” The woman stuttered, “He says you’ll see him, says he’s family.” The woman stood nervously with her hands clasped around the mug.

“Show him in.”

Startled, the healer bustled off to let Captain Corillius know that her recalcitrant patient would see him.

“The army is eager to see you again. Word had spread of your defiance of the Baron and what you did to try and protect your warriors,” Cor said to her back after he entered the room.

“They still died and it only served to get me raped and beaten,” Anna said, bitterly. “I learned only the folly of my actions.”

“No, damn it, Anna!” Corillius said, very nearly walking over to her and grabbing her by the shoulders. “It proved that you care! Or that you once cared,” he added angrily. “It showed that you would do anything for your people, for our people! It showed that no price was too great. No burden to heavy to bear!”

“I was wrong! I thought I knew what I was doing but look at me, just look at me!” She shrieked, turning to stare at him. Trails of tears streamed down her face. Her nails were bitten to the quick and her skin was pale and waxy. It had been only a week but she was obviously letting her health suffer.

“Your soldiers tell the tale of the swamp,” Cor said, his tone softening. “Of how you slew a troll with your bare hands. No one has ever done that before, and the tale grows with every telling.”

“Your story, not mine,” Anna said, turning back to the window.

“Your deed, Anna.”

“They should have killed me,” Anna muttered.

Cor threw his hands up in the air unseen behind her. He turned and walked to the door. His hand upon it, he stopped and spoke again. “Against the healers’ advice, your command is ready for you to resume. If you seek death so badly, then you can at least do it on the field of honor.”

Anna’s eyes closed and fresh tears ran from them when the door shut harshly behind her. She hung her head and let her forehead rest against the bars, then proceeded to wrap her skull against them increasingly hard until the pain made her dizzy. She backed away and fell to her bed, holding her head in her hands and sobbing.

“Why can’t I be me again?” She asked the air around her.

* * * *

Three days had passed and Anna had decided to try to rebuild what she could of her life. She walked in her boiled leather cuirass and greaves, her shield on her back and her short sword at her side. She was in charge of her soldiers again, every one that had survived their capture, plus several fresh ones that were eager to join her ranks. She held no words of wisdom for them, nor did she do anything to gain their love or their trust. Her troops had plenty of it spare, and with the stories of her capture, denial of torture, and then her barehanded assault in the swamp upon something that was twice her size, none was needed.

Now she walked to the prisoner camp and ground her teeth in frustration when a guard saluted her at the entrance. His quick movement snapping to attention had startled her and nearly made her cower.

“Captain Promus, I am honored to be at your service,” he said, hand against his breast respectfully.

Anna nodded, “Fetch me a prisoner… please.” She nearly cursed at her subservient tone, but the warrior made no notice of it. He disappeared inside the compound for a moment then returned a few moments later and told her that one would be brought along shortly.

A few minutes later the prisoner was led out, his hands and feet in chains. He studied the ground then saw her standing there and sneered.

“What is it with you barbarians trusting women to bear arms? They’ve no souls, you fools! They’ll gut you in your sleep and take what’s yours!”

The soldier out front punched the prisoner in the stomach, doubling him over. The man that brought him out kicked him in the rear, driving him to his knees.

“You kneel before the likes of Captain Promus, dog!” The guard growled. “She’s better than 10 of your nobles!”

Anna had paled before his cutting remarks, but now that he was on the ground she felt a little better, even if only because he wasn’t staring contemptuously at her.

“Captain, he’s all yours,” the prisoner’s escort said, handing her the rope that was around his neck.

Anna took the rope and studied it, then followed it up to the man’s neck. He caught his breath and stared up at her, looking at her angrily. “Do your worst, bitch!”

Anna took a step back, surprised at his animosity. The soldier raised a hand to backhand the prisoner but Anna stopped him. “Hold, warrior, if he thinks himself so mighty, let him prove it.”

Inside Anna was quaking. Sweat ran down her sides from the challenge she’d issued. The guard laughed at the idea. “Good idea, Captain!” He grabbed the dirty tunic the man wore and hauled him to his feet.

“Come with me, dog, and learn the strength of our women,” he said. “You’ll be sorry for your impudence. You face Captain Anna Promus, and she killed a troll with her bare hands!”

The man glanced back disbelievingly at Anna. She looked calm, if a bit pale. He looked away as the guard hauled him off to a nearby ring that was designed for stabling horses or livestock. Now it would serve as an arena for the two of them. The prisoner, like the others, had heard tales of Anna, but they all disbelieved that a women could be so brave, so strong, or so capable.

Anna’s stomach was churning. She felt her gorge rise at the prospect of fighting, and not just fighting, but fighting a man. She stopped outside the ring, her gorge rising too with too much force to be controlled any longer. The Captain turned and retched into the cold mud, doubling over as the spasms shook her body. The prisoner laughed mockingly at her.

“Captain Promus, are you alright?” The guard said, hurrying over to her.

Anna straightened slowly, deeply ashamed of herself. How was she to ever attempt to regain her sense of self if she got sick at the thought of combat? It wasn’t combat that frightened her; it was the fear of fighting a man.

“I took ill from the swamp water I drowned the troll in,” Anna lied. Her voice was rough. She wiped the back or her mouth off on the back of her hand then turned to face the prisoner.

“Do this another day, Captain. If you are ill there is no dishonor…”

“No,” Anna snapped. She must do it now. Either she would kill him or he would kill her. If the latter happened, her fight would be over and she would have what she deserved. If she were to win, then she would maybe win a little piece of herself back.

Anna left her sword with the guard, then handed him her shield as well. She stepped into the pen and let them shut the gate behind her. It was a simple fence of wood meant to hold in livestock. I wouldn’t stop a man bent on escape, but it would at slow them enough to allow the archers time to finish him.

“Come, pretty lady, and let me show you what a real man is like,” the prisoner said, gesturing to her.

Anna held her ground, eyeing him warily. Nervously. He shrugged when she made no move to attack and charged at her, surprising her with his speed and bearing her to the ground with his hands around her throat, clutching and squeezing.

Anna gasped, both in surprise and then for breath. He was heavy and his fetid breath gagged her as much as his grip did. She struggled under him, thinking that she deserved what was happening. The difference was that his attack was not sexual. Without that weapon to use against her, Anna overcame her paralyzing fear and to react.

She wiggled under him, suddenly furious for  his arrogance and his assault upon her. Her vision darkened and a red film seemed to cover her eyes. She writhed under him and lashed out, driving her fingers into pressure points in his armpits. He grunted and felt his arms stop responding.

Anna flipped him over then rotated upon him rapidly, showing more than a hint of her legendary speed and flexibility. One leg wrapped behind his head and the other provided a scissor against his neck. She flexed her legs and watched gleefully as his eyes bulged and his tongue stuck out. She flexed once again, twisting this time, and felt his neck snap. His body twitched beneath her, his legs and arms flailing, and she rose.

A small group of cheering warriors had gathered to watch. She rose, looking down at the dead Kingdom warrior and feeling her rage drain and leave her empty. She smelled his urine his body had voided from it at the moment of death and the strong scent of it in her nostrils nearly caused her to be sick again. She spat on him and turned away, heading out the open gate and taking her sword and shield.

She walked away in a hurry, wanting no one to see her if she needed to be sick again.

* * * *

Corillius heard of the incident with the prisoner. He was tempted to seek Anna out. He wasn’t proud of her, as the others were. He knew too well what had happened. She’d lashed out in anger, wanting to kill a Kingdom man. Perhaps in the hopes of venting some rage at what had happened to her. He wondered if Makan’s leering face had been what she had seen when she snapped the prisoner’s neck. Cor hoped so, if only so that Anna could become herself again.

He had more important matters to attend to, however. Cor finished throwing the last of his equipment into his pack and lashed it tight. He looked at his tent a final time, then slung the pack over his shoulders and slipped a shield over it. He grabbed up his spear and emerged from the flap of the tent, stopping to let his eyes adjust to the receding sunlight. He wore the clothing and leather harness of a mercenary. It was studded with bits of metall. He wore a cured fur cape from a Kodiak, dented metal grieves, and bracers of Kingdom design.

He looked about, nodding to a few nearby warriors, then set off, walking to the edge of the Nordlamar camp and then beyond. He spoke with the sentries when he reached them, warning them of his presence, then moved on into the disputed lands between the Kingdom and Nordlamar.

Cor’s mission was simple. He was to avenge Anna and teach the Aradmathians that such inhumane treatment of prisoners was unacceptable. He refused to consider Anna’s own treatment of a prisoner, for it would only make him grind his teeth in frustration. Cor was a soldier, first and foremost, and he had made a vow on top of that. His mission was merciless and he would have the blood of innocents upon his hands when he was done, but the fate of his soul was not as important as the fate of his nation.

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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