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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.

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