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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.

 

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.

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.

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 – Becoming a Monster

Here’s chapter 10 of Betrayal’s Hands. I have to admit, this one took a lot of editing to resemble something publishable. Very passive – but it does the job of telling the story. I hope to rework it more thoroughly down the road a bit, but I promised a chapter / week and I intend to come through on that!

 

Chapter 10

 

Leagues away, Cor slipped unnoticed over the terrain on his way to Duth Darek. By the time he reached the city again Teri and Krev were in the half-ogre’s cottage and Makan and Darleth were waiting in an empty cave for bandits that would never come.

Cor knew where to go this time. He scouted Makan’s estates, only to learn that the Baroness and her youngest daughter had left the week before for their home, the capital of Makan’s barony, Kahltop. He also learned that Makan was out hunting him and his escaped slaves still. This amused him, and gave him a moment of levity from his otherwise dark mission.

Then Cor was on his way, traveling east to Kahltop. It took him two more weeks, since he had no horse and had to play the part of a wandering mercenary. He arrived to find the town quiet. With the baron gone the residents seemed relaxed and the guards were lazy. He kept his disapproval to himself, but studied everything. Corillius felt confident that with a dozen men he could capture the castle.

He spent three days studying the manor house itself. He noted the guards, their shifts and rotations, and the comings and goings of the baroness and her daughter. The soldier within him studied with a keen eye, noting opportunities and weaknesses. The man that he was despaired at the deed he must commit. He hated himself for it, and he suspected he might never sleep a night through once his mission was complete.

He had his chance early on his fifth day. D’lariana, with a pair of guards nearby, was in the garden taking her breakfast. Cor’s subtle questions had found out that she was 11 years of age, and promised to be quite a beauty when she grew up. She’d given her mother and nannies a handful of trouble while younger, and was still known for impropriety unbefitting a noble lady. This earned many of the commoners an unusual warmth in their hearts for the cute and winsome girl.

D’lariana was chatting with one of the guards, drawing both their attention away from the innocuous flowers, stone statues, and burbling fountain. Cor slipped over the chest high mortared rock wall and slipped in behind a hedge before the guards noticed him. He crept silently along the hedge until it ran no more, then hefted up some pebbles from the ground and tossed them in a high arc to the other side of the garden.

He waited a few seconds, then slipped out from behind the hedge and lightly ran the short distance to a column, stopping abruptly and peering around it. The guards were looking, with curious expressions on their face, away from him. He slipped back a little so he was out of site and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He was all business now, but inside of him that part that despaired beat on the bars of the cage he had put it in.

Cor burst from around the pillar, throwing a hand axe and catching the further guard in the front of his shoulder. He grunted and fell back into the wall, stumbling and going down. The closer guard turned to see his partner fall, then turned back. The hilt of Cor’s sword crashed into his face, breaking his nose and knocking him unconscious.

Cor had D’lariana then. He slung the surprised girl over his shoulder and ran back to the wall. The guard he’d hit with his axe lifted himself up and cried out, making Cor curse. He threw the girl over the wall and vaulted up himself. He landed beside her and picked her up, hearing her breathing fast and seeing a brief glimpse of her eyes wide with fear and shock.

Tucking her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, he ran from the palace and ducked through a street and into an alley he’d scouted out earlier. The girl started to scream then, her fists beating on his back futilely. He kicked in a door to a nearby building and lunged through it.

He pulled D’lariana from his shoulder, his face a mask of rage. He’d built up his walls within himself to do what needed to be done, and now was the time. He had to be quick, before the people outside told the guards where he had gone.

Cor held her with one hand and drew his Kingdom sword with his other. He looked at her and drew the sword back. He’d meant to spill her blood in the garden, but for some reason he’d brought her there instead.

She stared at him, meeting his eyes, her mouth open in realization and horror of what was to happen. A tear leaked from her eye and then she did something that he could not have possibly been prepared for. She straightened up, nodded, and closed her eyes.

The rage drained out of him. He stood there and lowered his sword. He stared at her face, marveling at the innocence and maturity impossible for an 11 year old girl.

“What are you doing? Aren’t you afraid?” Cor whispered, unable to strike.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, spearing him with their green gaze. “Yes, I’m afraid. But there’s nothing I can do about it… my father’s upset someone, no doubt, and my death is to teach him a lesson. If it makes him a better man to my mother and sister, then maybe it will be worth it.”

“Wha.. how… Bah!” Cor said, slamming his sword back in his scabbard. “I’ve been bewitched, that must be it!”

He turned and looked out the door behind him. No one was readily evident but he wasn’t so naïve to think they’d escaped. He stuck his head out and saw a dozen guards at the end of the alley talking to some people. The commoners pointed down the alley.

Cor turned back and saw that the girl, his target, had tried to escape. She ran to a shuttered window and opened it. Already only her fluttering legs were visible as she tried to pull herself through the small opening. He cursed and rushed after her, grabbing her by the back of the dress and hauling her back in. She screamed for help, causing him to cuff her on the head.

“Be silent, wench, or you’ll force me to kill you!” Cor hissed.

“You’re going to do it anyway, you pig!” She spat at him, refusing to be intimidated by him.

“No, I’m not,” Cor said, realizing it was true. “I’ll not murder a child. But you must come with me.”

“What, so you can have your way with me? I think not!”

Cor cursed again, something involving a troll having intimate relations with the Kingdom’s Queen. D’lariana blanched a little at the strong language. “I’m no rapist, now shut up and do as I say!”

Her lip trembled but she nodded. Cor saw her eyes look past him and widen. He spun about and ducked when he saw the threat. Two crossbows twanged as they released their deadly bolts. Both missed the dodging Northman, but both made wet sounds of impact, followed by a soft cry.

Cor spun again and the crossbowmen dropped their weapons. D’lariana collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath that would not come. Blood stained her expensive yellow silk dress red. She hiccupped a few times and then lay still, shuddering as death took her.

Cor couldn’t believe his eyes. She was dead! He’d promised himself that he’d do the evil deed, but he’d changed his mind. Yet the result was the same. How could she die? He turned back to the guardsmen, who saw him and were furiously cranking their crossbows back to reload. He reached them first.

Once outside the storeroom barely registered the ten guards that surrounded him. He carried his momentum and seized the initiative, attacking them without pause. They reacted slowly, and by the time they understood that death was in their midst three had fallen. The remaining didn’t last long against the raging Northman. It took Cor longer to chase down the final guard that fled than it did to butcher the others.

Cor stood up, the blood of his enemies dripping from him, and looked around. The street was empty, unheard of at such an hour. A few people were hiding and peering at him, but they offered no threat. He glared at them all, breathing hard, and then turned and ran towards the gates of the city.

He looked down at one point and realized that his sword, a Kingdom long blade, had broken in the fight. He held only a portion of it in his hand. He let it fall from fingers gone cold and did his best to melt into the crowd. The cry of alarm had gone up but he escaped out the gate before the confusion could be settled.

He spent the night far from Kahltop, staring at his hands even though he had long since washed the blood from them. They were responsible for the girl’s death, he knew. He was responsible. It had been his order and intent to do it, even if he discovered he could not. He’d shifted tactics, intending only to capture her and take her back to his people to hold as a hostage. But no, she’d died and her blood was on his hands.

Killing the guards was a matter of course. He spared no time nor grief over them. The girl’s death was different. She was young and innocent and impossibly brave. She might have even grown up to be someone with the kind of strength Anna had once held. Save from everything but the demons within, Cor wept. Murder had been his agenda and what he’d achieved. Was that, then, what he’d become?

 

* * * *

 

Baroness N’meria held her satin robe closed with trembling fingers. With Makan gone, she’d invited Karoak to her bed each night. Some nights all she wanted from him was to be held, sheltered and warmed in his arms. Other nights she wanted him to sweep her away with passion so she could forget that their lovely child had been taken from her by the northlanders.

The first night, Karoak had turned red with anger when he beheld the darkening bruise on her cheek.

“He has dared strike you! One day very soon should the northlanders not finish it, I will kill him.” He had softened his words by pulling her into his arms and kissing her softly.

Tonight she needed him. Needed to be swept away from this world. She had no tears left. She had been weeping since the guards had brought her the body of her youngest child.

Karoak entered the room, closing it softly behind him. His strong face was haggard and drawn. “I have failed you, my Lady. This is my fault.” He dropped to his knees before her. “If I had only been more vigilant.” Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“There was nothing you could do. Makan has done this by angering someone with his scheming. It is he who has killed my children.” She dropped down beside him, leaning in to kiss the tears from his face. “Come to me now.” She smiled wanly, standing and drawing him back to her bed. “Let us forget together, if only for a moment.” With that she dropped the robe and reached for him.

 

* * * *

 

It had reached the second week since Darleth and Makan had been waiting in the bandits cave for the return of Krev and his captive. Makan despaired that they might never arrive. Sven, who had survived his questioning and was mobile again. The man’s full strength had yet to return and with the passage of days he grew nervous that his usefulness would end. Darleth chafed at the chance to return home. It was obvious no more was to be gained, but he waited impatiently for Makan to be finished with it. He need Makan’s good graces still, now more than ever if his eldest daughter was no more.

Winter came quickly to the northlands, and although less harshly, just as quickly to the Kingdom of Aradmath. Baron Makan returned to Duth Darek and learned by messenger of his daughter’s fate. In a fury he ordered every man in his service he could spare to search for the spy that had shot her and then killed his guards. He even posted rewards for the assassin’s capture or death. Later that same day, when finally alone, he collapsed in his office and for a moment let his fears and his grief overwhelm him. The northern bitch’s vow was coming true.

Makan stayed at the capital, unable and unwilling to face N’meria. D’lariana’s death was his fault, he felt. He should have taken better precautions to have her protected, especially since his other daughter had already been taken from him. He alternated between raging and weeping. His concern for N’meria showed itself at one point, but he felt reassured that Karoak was there to watch over her. He even sent a missive to his captain of arms to spend every waking moment in her company. Word had already spread of his children’s fate; if his wife were to be taken as well Makan would be publicly laughed at by the other nobles.

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 Sixth Betrayal

Early on the weekend, Betrayal’s Hands part 6! As a side note I did a lot of grimacing as I edited this chapter this morning. It was downright ugly in its rough draft form. I wrote this story years ago with some feedback from a friend for color and creative content. By and large I really like it, but seeing this chapter in its raw form served as a great example to me of how far I’ve come!

 

Chapter 6

 

Anna’s moaned and whimpered as dawn approached. She let out a shriek and sat up in her bedroll. She saw Cor sitting near the fire looking at her with eyes that were deep and troubled. She turned her face away from him.

‘I’m so weak. He should just leave me here to die.’ She thought to herself. She crawled out of the pine bedding and moved off into the woods to relieve herself. The whole time she was alone, she started at every little sound in the wilderness. She wondered when the attack would come. Mentally berating herself for her cowardice, she hurried back to the camp. She couldn’t bring herself to face Cor or let him touch her, but she felt better in his presence.

“Are you feeling any better today, Anna?” Cor asked. He worried that if Makan had escaped the search parties would be well on their way to catching them. Cor had led them west and taken a longer route to confuse any trackers.

Anna flinched when Cor spoke, not looking in his direction. She walked to a stump near the fire and sat huddled, as though she couldn’t get enough heat. As Cor moved closer, her shoulders began to tremble uncontrollably. He stopped a few paces away and set down a tin mug of tea and a chunk of bread with nuts, meat, and fruit baked into it.

“We have to get moving Anna. You know the risks if we stay.” Cor made an effort to avoid mentioning Makan’s name.

When he moved away, Anna snatched the travel ration, wolfing it down and washing it away with the tea. She moved to the hors Cor had saddled and resigned herself to another frustrating day of feeling helpless. She grabbed the saddle’s horn and leapt into the saddle, even more terrified that Cor might try to help her mount the beast.

“It’s OK Anna. We’ll get moving.” He took the horse’s lead rope and made his way back to the road. Setting as fast a pace as his legs would let him, he continued towards the west.

The following days were much the same. Anna seemed unable to come out of the protective shell she’d built around herself. Cor gave her the space she seemed to need, all the while growing increasingly angry at what had happened to her. They traveled long hours, tiring the horse as well as themselves, sleeping only when exhaustion loomed.

“The pack on your horse holds a Kingdom sword,” Cor informed Anna after they’d been traveling for over a week. Both were weary, but they were coming up on the fens that ran along much of the border between Aradmath and Nordlamar. The marshy lands were full of things best left undisturbed.

“We were harried by a tribe of trolls when we came through to rescue you and your warriors,” he explained, continuing because she showed no response to having heard him. “We must expect more of the same heading back through.”

Still Anna showed no response, but she did reach behind her to feel the sword in the rolled up bundle. Cor nodded and smiled faintly, it was good to know that some of the old Anna was still there.

Anna, for her part, was looking forward to a confrontation with something not human. She hated Makan with a passion, but she was also terrified of him. It made no sense to her, and she knew she needed to get over her fear, but the thought of him made her tremble at times. Maybe a troll would do her the favor of ending her miserable life.

The next day, at mid-morning, they entered the fens. A haze surrounded them, thickening the further in they went. Her horse whinnied, catching scents of things unfamiliar and entirely unwholesome. The sound of his hooves splashing into the growing puddles was muted by the thick air, yet both riders knew the sound carried far into the distance.

The ground fell away from them gradually, leaving the horse to wade through water nearly halfway up his legs. Cor gripped the stirrup so that the horse could help him through the bog. The horse snorted and shied often when a splash sounded somewhere in the distance. Then Anna was nearly unseated when the horse reared up under her. Directly ahead of it something large and sinuous swam beneath the surface of the water, rippling the water with its passing. Only Cor’s weight on the stirrup kept the animal from bolting.

“That’s why I’ll take a steady chariot or a ship any day,” Cor muttered, having settled the horse back down enough to continue. “They’re predictable and dependable, not skittish!”

Anna ignored him, peering into the depths and silently challenging something to attack them. More than challenging, begging.

An arrow whipped past Corillius startling him with how close it was. He cursed and ducked low beside the horse. “Anna, get down!” he hissed, moving forward into the mists.

By the hand of the Gods alone Anna was uninjured. Arrows flew around her, three striking her horse and making it scream in pain. Cor cursed and moved back, coming up alongside of his hesitating charge, and grabbing the reins from her.

“Ride, cousin!” He snapped, flipping the reins and urging the horse forward. Forced into action, Anna crouched low over the mane and let the horse surge forward, its pain and panic putting it into action. More arrows came at them, but they quickly fell behind. Then Anna’s horse collapsed under her, sending her sprawling in to knee deep water. She came up spitting and coughing out the tepid water.

Cor, following behind, catching up before Anna’d caught her breath. He patted the horse reassuringly, as he would a soldier. It was breathing hard, as though it could not get enough air, and the foam at its mouth was flecked with blood. Cor nodded to himself and pulled his sword, giving the horse a merciful death.

“Leave me,” Anna said, making Cor turn back to face her, surprise on his face.

“What?” He asked, elated that she’d spoken but concerned about what he had thought he heard her say.

“Leave me, I’m no use to you, I’ll only drag you down, get us both killed.”

Her defeated tone upset him more than her words did. He walked over to her and stared at her face, and felt even more rage when her head dipped down and her eyes stared at the muddy water.

“Men and women died for you, Captain,” he spat out, urged to slap her to knock some sense into her. The physical reminder wouldn’t bring her around, he knew, but throw her deeper into depression. “Don’t let their sacrifice be for nothing!”

He turned and pointed at the path into the fens “Get on that path and move, the People need you. Our people! If anyone stays behind it will be me, giving you time to return. Even if you’ve lost your nerve, they need you if we’re to fight this war!”

She sniffed and started walking towards the path, obeying him. Cor clenched his fists in anger. The old Anna would have yelled back at him. She would have fought him kicking and screaming for saying such things. He despaired that she might forever be broken.

Heavy splashing alerted him a moment before a lumbering figure emerged from the mists. Cor pulled out his sword and slashed out, cutting the crude spear that had been thrown at him in half. He couched low as the troll drew a club and charged. The troll was larger than he was by two heads, and more suited to fighting in the swamp. Anna could see more of them emerging from the mists as well.

“Run, fool woman! Get back to Nordlamar!” Cor cried, dodging the first powerful swing from the troll and using his longer Kingdom sword to cut into the triceps of the troll.

It howled in pain and dropped its club into the water. It tried to back away but Cor lunged forward, sword striking it in the belly and digging in deeply. He backed away as the other trolls slowed their approach.

Cor glanced behind him and saw Anna standing next to the path. “I can fight, you cannot! Run or I’ll kill you myself and save the trolls the bother!”

Anna shrank at his rebuke. He hated to say it to her, but it had the desired effect. She turned on the path and started running. Three trolls surrounded Cor and two more tried to reach her. She fled running as though possessed and escaping the lumbering creatures.

Cor circled slowly, waiting for an opening. The trolls were wide and possessed long stringy arms. As such only the three could surround him, though he expected that was more than enough. He dodged a spear thrust, then ducked under a club. The third troll grazed him with his spear, making Cor grit his teeth at the line of fire that flared across his lower back.

He spun and grabbed the spear behind the head with his free hand, pulling himself into the troll’s reach. He held his sword out as he turned, cursing the longer length of the Kingdom weapon. It cut a shallow wound in the trolls arm and chest, making the troll let go of the spear and back up a step to draw its club.

Cor turned rapidly and thrust the spear out, catching the other spear wielding troll in the stomach and stopping its advance instantly. He yanked the weapon free and thrust blindly out at the third troll, coming nowhere near him but buying him time.

Cor turned again in time to see a club swinging in at him. He tried to slip the blow but grunted in shock and pain when it crashed off of his shoulder. His arm went numb and he dropped the spear in the water from unfeeling fingers.

The man lunged forward, instead of falling back as a sane warrior might. He dropped his other shoulder into the troll’s midsection, rocking the larger creature back a step. He fell to his knees then in the water, feeling the wind whistle over him as the troll tried to grab him with its free hand. He thrust up with his sword and was rewarded with the hot and coppery splatter of blood upon him.

He yanked the sword free in a sawing motion and turned to face the remaining troll. The other two had given up their pursuit of Anna and were returning as well.

“Alright, let’s get this over with,” He muttered, not knowing if they could understand him or not. He pointed at the one with the club with his sword and nodded. “You die first!”

The troll sneered at him and spat out something in a guttural voice at him. The flowing language was beyond Corillius’ ability to understand, but the tone and gesture were not.

Cor heard the splashing from the other two trolls running towards him. He cursed and threw his sword at the troll he faced. It brought its arms up and tried to dodge the blade, which deflected harmlessly off its arms, and then felt Cor shoulder slam it in the torso as well.

This troll wasn’t off balance as the other had been. Cor was knocked back into the water, once again on his knees. He was where he wanted to be though. He reached down and his fingers gripped mud. A second grab and he found the spear he had dropped earlier. He grabbed it and waited for the troll to raise its club high above him.

Corillius lunged upwards, driving the spear from the water up and into the chin of the troll. His left shoulder ached but some of the feeling was returning to his arm, allowing him to steady the spear with that hand.

He turned to see the other two trolls come to an abrupt stop and then look at each other. The spoke to each other briefly then split up, each one coming from a separate direction towards him. Corillius cursed. The last two seemed smarter.

Cor heard the splashing in the distance again of something approaching. The trolls laughed and Corillius had a fresh reason to curse. He was running out of ideas and weapons, plus his shoulder was beginning to really ache with the return of feeling to it. Thinking about his injury he again felt the flare of the cut across his back as well.

Something came charging out of the mists, surprising Cor and one of the trolls. The other one could not see it, but it felt it when it bumped into it and sent it stumbling. Then it felt Anna leap onto it and latch onto its back, her hands going around its neck to hold on.

Anna bore the troll to the ground, keeping her head above water by driving its head under the surface. She put her hands on the back of its head and drove her knees into its lower back. The troll thrashed under her, trying to use its greater strength to knock her free. Ana’s repeated strikes to its spine and kidneys thwarted it.

Cor seized the initiative, stepping up to the other troll that was stunned by the turn of events and using his spear to send the troll’s spear into the water. He stabbed forward next, but the troll was on the defensive and ready. The troll knocked the lunge aside, and tried to close with Cor. He stepped back quickly; swinging the sharpened point across in front of the face of the troll and making it pull back. He thrust again, feinting and fooling the troll. He drove it home after the troll’s missed parry, making the creature howl as the six foot shaft of wood sank several inches into its thigh.

Cor pulled it out and the troll dropped to one knee in the water, his leg not supporting him. He whipped the spear about, cracking the shaft into the side of the troll’s head and dazing it. Another thrust, this one into its chest, and the fight was over.

He turned to help Anna and found her still pummeling the troll in the water, though it had long since stopped moving. He tossed the spear into the water and went over and gently grabbed onto her shoulder.

Anna spun more quickly than Cor remembered her being able to. Her hand came up inside of his guard and slashed across his cheek, her nails digging furrows in the skin. He staggered backwards, hands held up defensively.

Anna rose and took a step towards him, then stopped and took a shuddering breath. “Never threaten me again,” she said, her eyes dark and deadly.

The look of guilt, surprise, and pain on Corillius’ face made her look away quickly, hugging her arms about herself. In moments she was shaking and silently sobbing.

“Anna, it’s okay… you saved me,” Corillius said to her soothingly.

She nodded, then began walking up the path again. Cor reached up and felt the blood running down his face. He shook his head and shrugged. It seemed there was hope for her still. If he had to deal with a few scratches along the way, so be it.

“Come, let’s get out of here before more show up,” he said, searching in the water until he found the sword he’d thrown by cutting his leg upon the blade. He also retrieved the other sword from the dead horse and thrust it into the rolled up blankets in the pack he was making to carry the last of their things.

They moved on, traveling as quickly through the swamp as they could. With their first altercation out of the way, nothing else threatened them in the marshes. A few reptilian predators swam close as twilight descended on them many hours later, but they were left alone and finally regained solid ground a few hours before dawn.

Corillius spent some time examining his wounds at the camp they made. He scrubbed the shallow cut in his leg as best he could, hoping the exposure to the swamp water wouldn’t infect it. His shoulder was bruised and so sore he couldn’t move it fully, but nothing was broken. His back he couldn’t see, but he was able to get Anna to look at it and clean and dress the wound.

She tended to him without speaking. She hadn’t spoken another word since the swamp. Instead her mind was thinking about the battle. Cor had told her to flee because she was of no use in a fight. It had shamed her but it was true, she was a coward. Then something within her had risen up and fought back in denial. She’d been overcome by a rage so powerful it filled her with heat and tinged her vision red. Such intense feelings were stronger than any the previously temperamental woman had ever known, and they frightened her. At the same time they soothed her. Anna longed for their return because when she’d felt like that, she’d known no pity, no fear, and no weakness. She could live like that, she thought, at least until something stronger ended her misery.

With their wounds tended Anna slept. Cor kept both watches, though he drifted and fell asleep briefly after the many days of exhaustion. When the sun rose fully he stirred and noted they were on the borderlands of their nation now. Their spirits buoyed, it was only a few hours of walking before they spotted a patrol. They’d made it back physically, Cor hoped that Anna could make the return voyage mentally and emotionally as well.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Betrayal’s Hands: To Hunt or be Hunted

Here’s chapter 5 for Betrayal’s Hands. The entire thing, not some cheesy mid-chapter split like I did over the last couple of weeks. ;-)  Enjoy it, things are starting to move fast and become a lot of fun!

Chapter 5

Corillius looked over at Anna. She was slumped over the saddle on the horse he’d stolen for her. He weighed the options, deciding quickly that Anna’s health was worth the added risk of stopping early for the night. She hadn’t spoken a word since he’d removed her from Makan’s brothel. He was becoming increasingly worried that her spirit had been irrevocably broken.

He reached out and touched her knee. She looked up and jerked her leg away from him.

“Anna, honey, we’re going to stop for the night.” Cor said softly, trying his best not to feel hurt that she rejected his touch. She stared through him and then turned her head away.

He led the horse into the woods by the side of the road, going in far enough so that their fire wouldn’t be seen by any patrols. He found a tiny clearing that backed into a huge evergreen tree which would provide them with natural shelter.

Cor reached up to pull Anna from the saddle. She whimpered and pulled away from him violently as soon as her feet hit the ground. She stumbled into the hip of her horse, gripping the back of the saddle for stability. Cor sighed and backed away, allowing her space.

He moved off to begin building the fire and gathering wood to keep it going through the night. Brushing up the leaves and supplementing them with pine boughs, he built a nest for their bed, spreading it with his cloak and the blanket he’d stolen with the horse.

Anna leaned against the horse, fighting for control. Somewhere, deep inside her mind, she realized that Cor wasn’t going to hurt her, that he’d never consider doing the things that Makan and his friends had done to her. It didn’t matter. Her reactions to him were uncontrollable.

“Come and sit over here Anna, I’ve made a place for you.” Cor motioned to the bed he had prepared, relieved when she took his direction. She lay down on the softness, rolling herself up in the blanket. “I’ll watch your sleep,” he said softly, knowing that for her, the night would likely be filled with nightmares. He moved over to the fireside and wished that he knew what to do for her.

‘I hope that the People’s healers will be able to help her.’ He thought to himself as he sat staring into the flames.

Several hours later he heard her whimper in her sleep. He longed to go to her and comfort her, as they’d once done for each other as children. Simply to hold her and assure her that everything would be okay. He almost got up, but then realized that it could go horribly wrong.

Cor stood up instead and moved off into the night, telling himself that he was keeping a proactive watch against pursuit. In reality he needed to put distance between himself and her fearful cries that he couldn’t help.

“You will suffer for this, Makan,” Corillius vowed quietly as he leaned against a tree. “I will avenge Anna and deliver more unto you for the pain you have caused my nation with your inhumanity!”

 

* * * *

 

Night was falling quickly as T’leren walked barefoot down the road to Halburg. The nighttime noises were frightening to the girl who’d never spent a night outside of her own bed, never mind outside in the wild. As she followed the road, she began to hear the hoof beats of a horse coming up the road behind her. She listened as they approached, and realized there were a number of horses approaching. The jingling she heard indicated that they were armored war-mounts. Panicked that her father had found out where she’d gone and come after her, she turned and ran blindly into the woods.

She ran, crashing through the underbrush, running into branches that tore at her skin and her clothes. Her panic caused her to run blindly, stopping only when she fell to her knees after tripping on a large root. With tears of pain in her eyes, she looked up only to see a fire in the near distance. Her instincts warred with her fear of the forest at night, and making a decision, she approached the fire quietly, glancing around for anyone who might belong to it.

“Well what have we here?”

T’lerin gasped, turning around and trying to see where the gruff voice had come from. Something heavy dropped to the ground behind her, making her spin again. She stepped into a thorny bush and yelped in pain. Trying to back away from it only landed her on the ground.

The man leaned over her, his features hidden by the forest green cloak he wore and the growing darkness of the night. She did see the cruel looking dagger he held in his hand, however.

“On your feet, dearie,” he barked, gesturing at her menacingly.

T’lerin stood up slowly, cringing both in pain and in fear. All sorts of horrible possibilities raced through her mind.

“That’s a good girl,” the man said. “Now where’s your guards? Who rides with you… er, well, where’s your horse or carriage?”

“I’m alone,” she said, terrified by the man and also terrified that he might find out who she really was.

He laughed. “If that’s true, then you’re a fool, girl!”

“Now walk towards the fire, I’ll be right behind you so don’t you think of trying nothing!”

T’lerin nodded and moved past him, limping heavily from the abuse her feet had taken. In one of her falls she had lost her shoes as well, promising her no reprieve. In a matter of moments she walked, captive, into a small clearing where several men were lounging around a campfire. Some were drinking, others were eating venison from a small deer that was roasting on a spit over the fire. Others still were working on their equipment or playing dice. They all were rough, shoddily dressed, in varying levels of personal hygiene, and all very interested in her appearance.

“Who’s this?”

“What’d you find, Sven?”

“Entertainment!”

A few other less savory things were called out upon her entrance, but Sven, the man that had her at knife point, just grinned at them all for a long minute. “She just ran into the camp like something was after her, says she’s all alone, she does!”

There were some bawdy cheers and a few suggestions as to what to do with her. A few of the men stood up and moved closer, making T’lerin shrink back. She backed into Sven, and felt the point of his knife against her back.

“Careful there lass, there’s no need for you to be getting yourself hurt,” he said, chuckling.

“What can you do for us?” A man with a scar running across his cheek and chin asked. The skin around it gave his expression a permanently leering affect.

“Aye, what skills have ye?” Said another man who was missing some teeth and had breath that a dog would find upsetting.

“Who cares!” Another man said, earning some laughter from a few of the others. He had a nose that had been broken a few times too many. “She’s got all I want hidden under that fancy dress of hers!”

“And she’ll learn right quick the skills to use ‘em too!” Another man hopped to his feet beside the broken-nosed man.

“I found her, I get her first!” Sven said behind her, putting his knife away excitedly.

T’lerin’s eyes were wide and she was gasping for breath. She was terrified. It was as if every bad thing she could have imagined had come true at one time, in one place. She swooned and fell to the ground, passing out from her fright.

“Well where’s the fun in that,” broken-nose said.

“She’s still breathin’, that’s enough for me!” Sven said, kneeling down beside her and putting his hand on her leg to tear her dress.

“Stop!”

The bellowing voice caused them all to turn and clear a path. A giant of a man walked through the aisle, looking down at the woman and frowning.

“She’s a noble, you fools!” He snapped, turning to look at them all. Sven, the closest backed away quickly.

“Boss, she said she was alone and she walked into our camp,” he said, hoping to get his prize back.

“Then she is a fool,” he said, repeating Sven’s earlier words. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll harm her.”

“Boss, what else are we going to do with her?” Sven said, nearly whining now.

“Wake her up… gently,” he ordered.

T’lerin was repositioned on the ground and lightly slapped across the face, bringing her around. She looked up at all the staring faces and realized her nightmare had been the truth, she truly was doomed.

Then she saw the largest and perhaps the ugliest face she’d ever seen. He towered over the tallest of the other bandits by at least a foot. His eyes were sharp but he had teeth that were yellow stained, large, and in the case of his canine teeth, pointed and reminiscent of tusks. The firelight flickered in his eyes, reflecting their pale yellow color. T’lerin whimpered in fright and nearly passed out again.

He knelt down next to her and looked at her, amazing her more with his size. He was surely strong enough to break a tree in half with his bare hands! He sniffed a couple of times and then stared at her face. Finally he spoke in a voice that was as deep as she had expected it would be, yet the rumble of it still made her gasp.

“What’s your name?”

“T-” she started. She realized she did not want them knowing who she was or even that she was noble. T’lerin was a noble name, and letting them know it would give them power over her. “Teri,” she said, hoping he would mistake her hesitancy as a frightened stutter. It wasn’t far from the truth.

He frowned. “You wear a fine dress and fine jewelry, Teri, whose daughter are you?”

T’lerin knew he didn’t believe her. Terrified, she knew that she could only plunge deeper into the deceit. “No one important… I’m a servant.”

“Ha!” He barked, laughing scornfully. “You don’t wear the clothing of a servant. Your hands and your feet wouldn’t be so soft either. You’re a noble.”

She shook her head, tears of fright spilling from her eyes.

“Tell me who to send the ransom note to and you’ll be spared the affections of my men,” he said, encouraging her. Then he grinned, terrifying her with his sharp toothed smile. “Sven here seems to have a crush on you.”

T’lerin could not stop the trembling of her chin, the tears continued to flow and she sobbed as she struggled to bring in breath enough to speak. The giant scowled at her, scaring her further.

“Crying won’t do you any good, my pretty. Sven here likes it when his women cry… but some of the others prefer to hear them scream.”

She gasped, closing her eyes and shaking her head, hoping to make it all go away. His hand, a meaty fist as big as her face, grabbed her jaw and pinched it mercilessly to silence her. “Speak, wench!”

Her mouth opened and she muttered the first thing that came to her mind, “tutor!”

His hand fell away and he leaned back some. “Go on,” he urged her.

She took a ragged breath, pulling herself back from the precipice of madness, and continued with her lie. “I tutored children, I taught them numbers and how to read.”

The man chuckled. “Well boys, we’ve got ourselves a smart woman on our hands!”

Many of them grumbled in return, a few chuckled nervously, not knowing what their leader had in mind. He laughed sharply before saying, “Here I thought no such thing existed!”

That brought laughter and cheering from the rest of the bandits, even Sven. “Can I have her now, boss? She’s worth nothing if that’s all she is.”

“She’s mine, Sven. I’m taking her. I don’t believe her, yet, but we’ll see. Until I’m sure I don’t want any of your filthy paws on her, you hear me!” He said, turning his malefic stare upon them all.

“But boss, I found her!” Sven whined, pushing the issue when he knew he should not.

The large man grabbed T’lerin’s hand and yanked one of her rings free. He stared at it, noting the small colored gemstones set in the gold, and then tossed it to Sven. “That’s for your troubles, now get back on watch!”

Sven stared at T’lerin for a minute longer, his gaze promising her what would happen if he ever had the chance, then he turned and skulked back into the woods.

The leader reached down and picked Teri up. He threw her over his shoulder easily, frightening her with his raw strength and size, then turned and walked out of the firelight and over to where he had his bedroll set up beneath a crudely constructed lean-to made of pine boughs.

He dumped her unceremoniously on the ground and knelt next to her, tying a rope around her wrists and then around a tree. For safekeeping he tied another rope around her ankles, hobbling her.

“Now tell me about yourself, Teri,” he said, picking up a large chunk of venison from the ground and flicking some dirt off of it before biting in. Juice ran down his chin, making Teri squeamish but also reminding her of how hungry she was getting.

Teri had no choice but to sink deeper into her lie, inventing and struggling to remember everything she created about the person that she pretended to be.

 

* * * *

 

“My Lords, our scouts have returned and found few signs,” a worried soldier said to Barons Makan and Darleth.

The two Barons stood in the morning air that was beginning to grow chilled with the onset of fall. Makan was staring at the lands that unfolded before him, looking to the north as though if he looked hard enough he could pierce the distance to find his quarry. Yet, in truth, he didn’t know for certain if they even went to the north. His instinct told him that was right, and seldom was his instinct wrong, but in this matter there could be no mistakes.

“Few signs are not no signs. Tell us what they discovered,” Darleth said. Makan remained staring to the north, his bones chilled beyond the morning air.

“He brought this back, My Lord.”

Makan turned and nearly choked when he saw the broken and torn slipper. It was his daughter’s, he had no doubt of it. He’d never noticed it before, but it was clearly of quality fitting a noble lady.

“Where was this found?” Darleth asked, his voice growing cold.

Makan ignored the look Darleth sent his way, desperately hoping that the baron would not understand the link.

“Near Halburg, My Lord, a few hours ride away. They found it in the woods but could find nothing else save a campfire that was abandoned. Whoever left it covered their tracks well, but the scouts think there were many of them.”

“Then look again, fool!” Makan snapped. “Move the men that way, clearly they must not have gotten far.”

The soldier saluted and hurried away. Darleth turned to Makan and studied him for a moment, searching for some telling sign. Makan shook his head slightly in disbelief of the unfolding events, then turned to stare hatefully to the north again.

“Why would the soldier find T’leren’s sandal near Halburg, Makan?” Darleth asked quietly, although intently.

“I’ve no idea whose sandal that is,” Makan said, not bothering to look at him.

“But I do,” Darleth persisted. “It is one of her favorites, she wears it often. I ask again, My Lord, why would T’leren’s sandal be found so remotely?”

Makan turned, his expression one of an exhausted man. “She took her,” he said. He shook his head and looked anywhere but at Darleth. “The northland bitch told me that if I didn’t kill her and every one of her so-called warriors that they would be back to hunt down my family and destroy every last one of them, leaving me for the last.”

“That’s why I found you trussed up like a pig,” Darleth said, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems they mean to make good on their promise.”

“And my daughter is already gone. I have another, Darleth, and she’ll be glad to have someone as powerful and wise as you, don’t worry!” Makan said, trying to sound convincing and to keep Darleth his ally. He needed all the help he could get to bring T’lerin home, but he dared not show his weakness. It was a fine line he walked and one he was certain the young Baron would use to his advantage in the future. Fear reminded him he had no other choice.

“They’ve yet to find a body,” Darleth said. “We must assume they mean to use her as a hostage until they can escape the Kingdom.”

“We’ll find them,” Makan said, suddenly filled with hope and conviction. “I’ll not let my daughter suffer in the hands of such barbarians!”

“Indeed,” Darleth said, seeing opportunities opening for him before his very eyes.

 

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

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