This is a short chapter, and it’s entirely too passive for my tastes. Otherwise it’s ready to go, but it deserves the time to be fully rewritten. In spite of that it inspires some wicked thoughts for the future – thoughts and a direction the original story never took but one I might very well add to it. Originally Betrayal’s Hands was going to be a trilogy but the interest was lost in it and now, rather than continue it over multiple segments, I think I’ll just end up making this longer and tie up the loose ends that I left for another day.
In the north Anna showed signs of returning to who she’d once been, but she grew more and more ill as the season changed. Within a few months it became impossible for her to deny, she carried Makan’s child in her womb.
Anna was devastated by the realization and fought to hide it. She also considered trying to void the babe from her body, but it was too late by the time she’d accepted the truth. Killing it could kill her as well. And so she lived, hating herself and hating the baby within her each day more and more. She was determined to destroy it with her own hands as soon as it was born.
As time passed and her belly grew she was forced to retire from her command, if only temporarily. She wouldn’t have her soldiers knowing what it was that she carried within her. How tainted she’d become. She sought out her sister and arranged for her to go into hiding to bear the child in secret. Shar created a special assignment for her, as far as her soldiers were concerned. A secret mission to strike fear into the hearts of the Aradmathians. None but the two women knew the truth.
Winter was longer than usual, and by the time it was over Anna was nearly ready to bear the bastard child. Shar had her cloistered with a midwife that visited daily in a small homestead a week’s ride from the army, out of the way of the supply routes to further conceal her condition.
Anna had also put in a request to see Corillius. She’d thought long and hard on her behavior towards him and knew she must put it right. Her attitude towards men had grown somewhat rougher than it was before; it was the only way she found herself able to deal with them. Gone was the camaraderie she’d once felt. In its place was the uneasiness of a cat that knew only that the dog wouldn’t snap at it so long as the dog knew the cat would attack it at a moment’s notice.
But Cor she’d treated wrongly, and she knew it even if she didn’t feel it. Having sent for him, she waited impatiently. She was anxious to see him and afraid to see him. Cor was the only one who’d seen her at her worst, when she had been Baron Makan’s plaything. She spat at the thought of it, dredging up considerable anger. Yet at the same time a part of her quailed in terror at the memory.
Her sister, Sharlotta, had arrived instead of Corillius. Shar told her of their cousin’s fate, how he’d ridden back into Aradmath to exact the vengeance upon Makan that Anna herself had called down upon him. She also told her how intelligence had learned that Makan’s two daughters had disappeared, one slain and another missing. No more news had come of it, and after many months had since passed, the worse was assumed. Corillius Argondiir, one of the army’s greatest single warriors, had fallen.
Anna’s mood grew sullen at the news and she took ill for many days. The rest of her pregnancy was plagued with troubles of one sort or another. It was only the end of it, one cool late spring night, that brought Anna and her midwife any relief.
Several hours enduring the pains of labor finally produced a large baby boy. Anna stared at him, sweat and tears running down her face from the agony of the ordeal. She was in a state of shock, unbelieving that such a thing had come from within her. She stared and she reached for him, her lips trembling. The midwife finished tying the child’s cord and dried him off, then wrapped him in a blanket before handing him to Anna.
Anna took the child, then remembered her silent vow to herself. Her hand rubbed down his cheek then settled around his throat. Still trembling, she tried to make her hand squeeze, but she couldn’t do it as she stared into the innocent babe’s eyes. She looked away, fresh tears running from her eyes.
“Take him!” Anna commanded, thrusting the boy back to the midwife. Confused, she did as she was ordered, then helped Anna finish her ordeal while the babe rested in a cradle, strangely silent for one just introduced to the world.
While finishing her delivery, Anna’s mind wandered. She still sought the death of the child. It represented her slavery and imprisonment to her enemyl. But now she had hatched a better way of making it happen. Instead of slaying the boy herself, she wanted to take up the quest that Corillius had failed. She would take her bastard son and confront Makan himself with him Before his very eyes she would spill the boy’s blood and then Makan’s as well. His whore of a wife had only born him daughters, she knew, and the one he had sired would die in front of him, with him helpless to intervene.
The midwife looked up, alarmed, at the strange laughter that kept coming from her charge while she pushed out the last of the remnants of the pregnancy with her final contractions.
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.
Here’s chapter 9 of Betrayal’s Hands, for your reading pleasure. Already a dark book it takes an even darker tone near the end. Darker than I’d intended but my editor when this was written called for a harsher treatment. I actually argued with her and ended up working out a compromise. What am I talking about? Read it and find out!
Teri was cold. Her feet were ragged, bloody and numb. Krev had run for what seemed like hours before stopping to set her down.
“You’ll run, girl. Like your life depends on it.” Krev grinned, “It does.”
She stared at him dumbly until he had reached out to push her onto the twisted trail. She’d stumbled and started to run with Krev behind her every step. They’d pushed through bush too dense for armored men on horseback, hoping to delay pursuit. To throw off the pursuer’s hounds, Krev made her run through an icy stream for what seemed like an eternity. She’d emerged dripping and shivering, only to be pushed on again by her captor.
“Please…” Teri whimpered, shaking, “I can’t run anymore.”
Looking at her, the half-ogre noticed the bluish tinge to her skin. She wouldn’t last long unless he got her warmed up. Nodding brusquely, Krev pulled her off of the path into the bush. He found a sheltered spot in the lee of a fallen tree and pointed to it.
“We’ll sleep there tonight. Take off your clothes.”
Teri stared at him, uncomprehendingly. “What?” she whispered weakly.
“Get them off!” he snapped at her, having very little patience left. “You don’t want me to have to do it.”
Tears formed in her eyes as Teri slipped the shoulder of her tattered dress off and dropped the remaining fabric to the ground, crossing her arms over her small breasts.
“You’re not my type.” Krev growled at her fear, although he could feel himself hardening at the sight of her smooth pale flesh revealed. Tossing his short cape into the log, he gestured to Teri. “Get in there. I can’t have you freezing to death.”
He watched as she scrambled onto the cloak, laying down to fit into the tight space. Sighing, he picked up the remnants of the dress, throwing them over a branch to dry. He moved to her side, watching her tense and shiver with his nearness. Opening his leather vest, he lay beside her, wrapping her in his arms against his chest, sharing his body heat with her fragile form.
The exhaustion of the day soon overpowered her discomfort with his nearness. In moments she drifted off into a black sleep.
* * * *
“The brute got away it seems,” Darleth said from his horse. Makan grunted, his mount stamping its foot impatiently in response to its owner’s mood.
They stood upon the shore of the stream, with scouts scouring up and down the length of it looking for tracks.
“Let us be off for the cave the bandit mentioned,” Makan said, turning to him. “We can make it there before they do.”
Darleth nodded, “Yes, but that bandit is unconscious and the priest said he’d be so for a day or more, and we’ve no idea where it is.”
“Wake him!” Makan snapped. “I don’t care if he lives or dies, damn you, I just want it found!”
Darleth’s eyes narrowed at Makan’s tone and words, but he kept his tongue in check. “Aye, My Lord Baron, let us see what we can do.”
They turned their horses and headed back towards the makeshift camp that had been set up. Darleth intended to make sure the bandit lived, he had uses for the ruffian. Makan’s needs were short term. Darleth had grander ambitions in mind.
* * * *
Nearly a week had elapsed and Teri was getting used to the life of an outlaw. She wore some badly sized peasant clothes that Krev had stolen for her. They were rags to her, but Krev had said that they’d once belonged to a woman who might have spent a month’s worth of wages on them. It was a lesson in humility, but she kept her head high and marched on with him in spite of it.
Her feet were beginning to heal, though they were still cracked and sore. He hadn’t acquired shoes for her, and after complaining enough to draw a slap from him to shut her up, she hadn’t mentioned it again. His slap, while slow and soft in his opinion, was powerful enough to send her stumbling. She shivered every time she remembered it and the strength he possessed.
Krev returned to their cold camp, returning from a scouting mission. He untied her from the tree he had bound her too, as he always did when he went out on his own, and sat down with a chuckle.
“They made one of my boys talk, it seems,” Krev said, digging into a pouch and pulling out some salted meat. “They’ve set up an ambush at our old hideout. Fools!”
Krev spat and used his large teeth to tear off some of the meat. He chewed on it and thought for a moment. “I’ve other holes to winter in, don’t you worry. And I’d not go to that one for a while anyhow. I thought my boys knew better than that though.”
Teri looked up at him and said, softly, “Sven.”
Krev looked at her and then chuckled. He handed her a piece of meat, which she greedily took and shoved into her mouth, drawing another chuckle from him. “He’s dead, snapped upon a tree. I heard the bones crack and break, no man can survive that.”
“So where are we going then? It’s getting really cold,” Teri said, hoping he wouldn’t slap her again.
“You’ll know when we get there. It’s in the Darkwood, that much I’ll tell you now.”
Teri’s eyes widened. The Darkwood was a dark and frightening forest. Its northern borders touched the Fens that separated the Kingdom from the savage lands to the north. The Kingdom claimed it, but they didn’t log it nor have anyone who lived within it. It was said that dark creatures lived within it, and many who entered its edges did not return, or were mad if they did.
Krev chuckled again, seeing her expression. “Look at me, pretty, where do you think I came from? Not one of your civilized towns! Ha! My mother was raped by an ogre from a raiding party from there. She nearly died giving birth to me, and hated me for what I reminded her of.”
He stared off into the distance. “The villagers took care of me when she finally died, five years later. I was strong and they needed me to tend their forge and do their work for them, but they ridiculed me and beat me. Never gave me a chance to be… Bah!”
Krev stood up, glaring at her. “Mind your own business, wench,” he spat out, forgetting that nothing she’d said had caused him to recall his youth. He tied her back to the tree and muttered something about scouting, then loped off into the darkening twilight.
As darkness fell, Teri grew more and more frightened. Krev hadn’t returned and she felt at that moment that even his ugly face would be welcome. She tugged again on the rope tying her to the tree, accomplishing little but pain in her raw wrists. An owl hooted in a nearby tree, making her cry out in terror. Tears flowed down her face unheeded.
“Lady, if you let me survive this…” she moaned.
Huddled there against the tree, she heard what sounded like footsteps approaching. “Krev?” she whispered, her voice hoarse with panic. “Please…”
The footsteps came closer, followed by a harsh chuckle.
“Glad to see me pretty?” Teri nearly fainted with relief at the big man’s voice. He reached out and untied her wrists from the tree. “So far we’ve eluded pursuit, we start in the morning for my wintering hole.”
“Don’t think I’m stupid, Pretty.” Krev warned, “You know who’s chasing us, and I will find out why you’d rather be my slave than return to them.”
Teri gasped, for he chose that moment to haul her to her feet. Her mind raced with the words he had just uttered. His slave? What did that mean for her? What would he want from her?
Krev chuckled again, “It will be a very comfortable winter for me.” He emphasized the word ‘me’.
And so it was that Krev led a weary and terrified Teri into the depths of the Darkwood. The very air seemed heavy and filled with dark and foreboding things to her. Animals larger than any she’d ever seen flitted about the forest at the edges of her vision, teasing and taunting her. Krev showed no concern for them, but instead led her a day’s walk within the wood to a rundown cabin.
Teri couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a simple cabin. A house, in a remote and frightening location, but the mundane nature of it buoyed her spirits. Krev led her to it, holding her behind him as he stalked in and looked around. Several small creatures, no taller than her thigh, squeaked at their entrance and tried to escape. Krev showed them no mercy, swinging a wooden branch as a club and crushing as many as he could. A few escaped out the door or the unshuttered windows.
“Lousy tree elves,” Krev muttered, looking at the mess of the place. “Thieves and scoundrels, the lot of them!”
“Those weren’t elves!” Teri protested. “I’ve seen elves, they’re much taller and more noble!”
Krev glared at her. “Them was tree elves, slave,” he said brusquely. “Not the high and mighty kind, true. Those were the savage cousins your elves don’t like to admit to being related to.”
Teri blanched at his tone and his labeling her a slave. Still, she held her ground as she faced him. “Who are you to vilify them for being thieves?”
Krev glared at her and then chuckled. “That’s fair. I suppose you’d like to take them clothes off so I can return them?”
Teri blushed and looked down, realizing she was as much a thief as he was. She shook her head, looking back up at last. Krev had turned and was already setting things right in the cottage. She sighed and moved to help clean things up, not knowing what else to do.
Teri spent the winter with Krev. She learned to cook and to clean and to do his laundry. It was hard work, but she learned not to protest. On rare occasions they had visitors. Some which Krev spoke with in a strange tongue she didn’t understand and at other times they were creatures that the half-ogre fought off with his great strength and amazing speed.
Teri was immersed in a world that frightened her. Over time her understanding of her captor led to a strange companionship. She could get him talking at times about topics and concepts a simple creature as cruel and as savage as he was had no right to know about. He would catch himself before too long and stop talking, behaving even more gruffly towards her for days afterwards. She began to want to know more about her complex captor.
Snow fell outside the cabin, piling up against the walls and sifting in through the cracks. Sitting next to the fire, Teri shivered. Krev had gone out this morning hunting. Teri sat quietly, mending his spare clothing. Lately she had begun to feel strange, missing him when he went out for the day, yet dreading his return. Her cheek was still tender from where he had struck her two days ago, she could hardly remember what provoked him. Setting down her sewing, she moved to the fire, stirring the stew in the cauldron. One thing she could always predict was his appetite. Soon he would return, and she hoped that his hunt had been successful. He was far more likely to be decent company after a successful hunt and a ready meal.
As she stirred the stew, the door banged open and Krev stomped through, slamming it closed behind him. The fresh blood on his jerkin answered her questions about the successfulness of his hunt. Brushing snow from his shoulders, he clumped over to the fire, sitting in the only chair.
“Where’s my meal, slave?” He growled. Teri hurried to fill his bowl and place it in his open hands. Sitting on the floor by his feet, Teri ate her own meal. When he finished, Krev tossed his bowl to Teri and sat back, relaxed for the moment. He began telling her a story about his childhood, very rare for him.
The story lasted for nearly an hour, in which Teri sat, enraptured. She relaxed, resting her head against his knee and closing her eyes. She missed the look he gave her and was nearly drowsing until his big hand touched her hair.
“I think I should teach you some things, my little slave. You’ve learned well to please me in domestic matters, but I believe you can still use a little education.” She looked up, startled by his tone. She watched in growing horror as Krev’s other hand loosened the ties on his pants. The hand on her head tightened in her hair, pulling her towards him.
When he was finished, Teri coughed and wiped the remnants rom her chin. She dashed the tears from her face with the back of her hand and hurried to their sleeping pallet, where she lay down and pulled the pelts up to her chin.
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.
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!
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.
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Here’s chapter 5 for Betrayal’s Hands. The entire thing, not some cheesy mid-chapter split like I did over the last couple of weeks. Enjoy it, things are starting to move fast and become a lot of fun!
Corillius looked over at Anna. She was slumped over the saddle on the horse he’d stolen for her. He weighed the options, deciding quickly that Anna’s health was worth the added risk of stopping early for the night. She hadn’t spoken a word since he’d removed her from Makan’s brothel. He was becoming increasingly worried that her spirit had been irrevocably broken.
He reached out and touched her knee. She looked up and jerked her leg away from him.
“Anna, honey, we’re going to stop for the night.” Cor said softly, trying his best not to feel hurt that she rejected his touch. She stared through him and then turned her head away.
He led the horse into the woods by the side of the road, going in far enough so that their fire wouldn’t be seen by any patrols. He found a tiny clearing that backed into a huge evergreen tree which would provide them with natural shelter.
Cor reached up to pull Anna from the saddle. She whimpered and pulled away from him violently as soon as her feet hit the ground. She stumbled into the hip of her horse, gripping the back of the saddle for stability. Cor sighed and backed away, allowing her space.
He moved off to begin building the fire and gathering wood to keep it going through the night. Brushing up the leaves and supplementing them with pine boughs, he built a nest for their bed, spreading it with his cloak and the blanket he’d stolen with the horse.
Anna leaned against the horse, fighting for control. Somewhere, deep inside her mind, she realized that Cor wasn’t going to hurt her, that he’d never consider doing the things that Makan and his friends had done to her. It didn’t matter. Her reactions to him were uncontrollable.
“Come and sit over here Anna, I’ve made a place for you.” Cor motioned to the bed he had prepared, relieved when she took his direction. She lay down on the softness, rolling herself up in the blanket. “I’ll watch your sleep,” he said softly, knowing that for her, the night would likely be filled with nightmares. He moved over to the fireside and wished that he knew what to do for her.
‘I hope that the People’s healers will be able to help her.’ He thought to himself as he sat staring into the flames.
Several hours later he heard her whimper in her sleep. He longed to go to her and comfort her, as they’d once done for each other as children. Simply to hold her and assure her that everything would be okay. He almost got up, but then realized that it could go horribly wrong.
Cor stood up instead and moved off into the night, telling himself that he was keeping a proactive watch against pursuit. In reality he needed to put distance between himself and her fearful cries that he couldn’t help.
“You will suffer for this, Makan,” Corillius vowed quietly as he leaned against a tree. “I will avenge Anna and deliver more unto you for the pain you have caused my nation with your inhumanity!”
* * * *
Night was falling quickly as T’leren walked barefoot down the road to Halburg. The nighttime noises were frightening to the girl who’d never spent a night outside of her own bed, never mind outside in the wild. As she followed the road, she began to hear the hoof beats of a horse coming up the road behind her. She listened as they approached, and realized there were a number of horses approaching. The jingling she heard indicated that they were armored war-mounts. Panicked that her father had found out where she’d gone and come after her, she turned and ran blindly into the woods.
She ran, crashing through the underbrush, running into branches that tore at her skin and her clothes. Her panic caused her to run blindly, stopping only when she fell to her knees after tripping on a large root. With tears of pain in her eyes, she looked up only to see a fire in the near distance. Her instincts warred with her fear of the forest at night, and making a decision, she approached the fire quietly, glancing around for anyone who might belong to it.
“Well what have we here?”
T’lerin gasped, turning around and trying to see where the gruff voice had come from. Something heavy dropped to the ground behind her, making her spin again. She stepped into a thorny bush and yelped in pain. Trying to back away from it only landed her on the ground.
The man leaned over her, his features hidden by the forest green cloak he wore and the growing darkness of the night. She did see the cruel looking dagger he held in his hand, however.
“On your feet, dearie,” he barked, gesturing at her menacingly.
T’lerin stood up slowly, cringing both in pain and in fear. All sorts of horrible possibilities raced through her mind.
“That’s a good girl,” the man said. “Now where’s your guards? Who rides with you… er, well, where’s your horse or carriage?”
“I’m alone,” she said, terrified by the man and also terrified that he might find out who she really was.
He laughed. “If that’s true, then you’re a fool, girl!”
“Now walk towards the fire, I’ll be right behind you so don’t you think of trying nothing!”
T’lerin nodded and moved past him, limping heavily from the abuse her feet had taken. In one of her falls she had lost her shoes as well, promising her no reprieve. In a matter of moments she walked, captive, into a small clearing where several men were lounging around a campfire. Some were drinking, others were eating venison from a small deer that was roasting on a spit over the fire. Others still were working on their equipment or playing dice. They all were rough, shoddily dressed, in varying levels of personal hygiene, and all very interested in her appearance.
“What’d you find, Sven?”
A few other less savory things were called out upon her entrance, but Sven, the man that had her at knife point, just grinned at them all for a long minute. “She just ran into the camp like something was after her, says she’s all alone, she does!”
There were some bawdy cheers and a few suggestions as to what to do with her. A few of the men stood up and moved closer, making T’lerin shrink back. She backed into Sven, and felt the point of his knife against her back.
“Careful there lass, there’s no need for you to be getting yourself hurt,” he said, chuckling.
“What can you do for us?” A man with a scar running across his cheek and chin asked. The skin around it gave his expression a permanently leering affect.
“Aye, what skills have ye?” Said another man who was missing some teeth and had breath that a dog would find upsetting.
“Who cares!” Another man said, earning some laughter from a few of the others. He had a nose that had been broken a few times too many. “She’s got all I want hidden under that fancy dress of hers!”
“And she’ll learn right quick the skills to use ‘em too!” Another man hopped to his feet beside the broken-nosed man.
“I found her, I get her first!” Sven said behind her, putting his knife away excitedly.
T’lerin’s eyes were wide and she was gasping for breath. She was terrified. It was as if every bad thing she could have imagined had come true at one time, in one place. She swooned and fell to the ground, passing out from her fright.
“Well where’s the fun in that,” broken-nose said.
“She’s still breathin’, that’s enough for me!” Sven said, kneeling down beside her and putting his hand on her leg to tear her dress.
The bellowing voice caused them all to turn and clear a path. A giant of a man walked through the aisle, looking down at the woman and frowning.
“She’s a noble, you fools!” He snapped, turning to look at them all. Sven, the closest backed away quickly.
“Boss, she said she was alone and she walked into our camp,” he said, hoping to get his prize back.
“Then she is a fool,” he said, repeating Sven’s earlier words. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll harm her.”
“Boss, what else are we going to do with her?” Sven said, nearly whining now.
“Wake her up… gently,” he ordered.
T’lerin was repositioned on the ground and lightly slapped across the face, bringing her around. She looked up at all the staring faces and realized her nightmare had been the truth, she truly was doomed.
Then she saw the largest and perhaps the ugliest face she’d ever seen. He towered over the tallest of the other bandits by at least a foot. His eyes were sharp but he had teeth that were yellow stained, large, and in the case of his canine teeth, pointed and reminiscent of tusks. The firelight flickered in his eyes, reflecting their pale yellow color. T’lerin whimpered in fright and nearly passed out again.
He knelt down next to her and looked at her, amazing her more with his size. He was surely strong enough to break a tree in half with his bare hands! He sniffed a couple of times and then stared at her face. Finally he spoke in a voice that was as deep as she had expected it would be, yet the rumble of it still made her gasp.
“What’s your name?”
“T-” she started. She realized she did not want them knowing who she was or even that she was noble. T’lerin was a noble name, and letting them know it would give them power over her. “Teri,” she said, hoping he would mistake her hesitancy as a frightened stutter. It wasn’t far from the truth.
He frowned. “You wear a fine dress and fine jewelry, Teri, whose daughter are you?”
T’lerin knew he didn’t believe her. Terrified, she knew that she could only plunge deeper into the deceit. “No one important… I’m a servant.”
“Ha!” He barked, laughing scornfully. “You don’t wear the clothing of a servant. Your hands and your feet wouldn’t be so soft either. You’re a noble.”
She shook her head, tears of fright spilling from her eyes.
“Tell me who to send the ransom note to and you’ll be spared the affections of my men,” he said, encouraging her. Then he grinned, terrifying her with his sharp toothed smile. “Sven here seems to have a crush on you.”
T’lerin could not stop the trembling of her chin, the tears continued to flow and she sobbed as she struggled to bring in breath enough to speak. The giant scowled at her, scaring her further.
“Crying won’t do you any good, my pretty. Sven here likes it when his women cry… but some of the others prefer to hear them scream.”
She gasped, closing her eyes and shaking her head, hoping to make it all go away. His hand, a meaty fist as big as her face, grabbed her jaw and pinched it mercilessly to silence her. “Speak, wench!”
Her mouth opened and she muttered the first thing that came to her mind, “tutor!”
His hand fell away and he leaned back some. “Go on,” he urged her.
She took a ragged breath, pulling herself back from the precipice of madness, and continued with her lie. “I tutored children, I taught them numbers and how to read.”
The man chuckled. “Well boys, we’ve got ourselves a smart woman on our hands!”
Many of them grumbled in return, a few chuckled nervously, not knowing what their leader had in mind. He laughed sharply before saying, “Here I thought no such thing existed!”
That brought laughter and cheering from the rest of the bandits, even Sven. “Can I have her now, boss? She’s worth nothing if that’s all she is.”
“She’s mine, Sven. I’m taking her. I don’t believe her, yet, but we’ll see. Until I’m sure I don’t want any of your filthy paws on her, you hear me!” He said, turning his malefic stare upon them all.
“But boss, I found her!” Sven whined, pushing the issue when he knew he should not.
The large man grabbed T’lerin’s hand and yanked one of her rings free. He stared at it, noting the small colored gemstones set in the gold, and then tossed it to Sven. “That’s for your troubles, now get back on watch!”
Sven stared at T’lerin for a minute longer, his gaze promising her what would happen if he ever had the chance, then he turned and skulked back into the woods.
The leader reached down and picked Teri up. He threw her over his shoulder easily, frightening her with his raw strength and size, then turned and walked out of the firelight and over to where he had his bedroll set up beneath a crudely constructed lean-to made of pine boughs.
He dumped her unceremoniously on the ground and knelt next to her, tying a rope around her wrists and then around a tree. For safekeeping he tied another rope around her ankles, hobbling her.
“Now tell me about yourself, Teri,” he said, picking up a large chunk of venison from the ground and flicking some dirt off of it before biting in. Juice ran down his chin, making Teri squeamish but also reminding her of how hungry she was getting.
Teri had no choice but to sink deeper into her lie, inventing and struggling to remember everything she created about the person that she pretended to be.
* * * *
“My Lords, our scouts have returned and found few signs,” a worried soldier said to Barons Makan and Darleth.
The two Barons stood in the morning air that was beginning to grow chilled with the onset of fall. Makan was staring at the lands that unfolded before him, looking to the north as though if he looked hard enough he could pierce the distance to find his quarry. Yet, in truth, he didn’t know for certain if they even went to the north. His instinct told him that was right, and seldom was his instinct wrong, but in this matter there could be no mistakes.
“Few signs are not no signs. Tell us what they discovered,” Darleth said. Makan remained staring to the north, his bones chilled beyond the morning air.
“He brought this back, My Lord.”
Makan turned and nearly choked when he saw the broken and torn slipper. It was his daughter’s, he had no doubt of it. He’d never noticed it before, but it was clearly of quality fitting a noble lady.
“Where was this found?” Darleth asked, his voice growing cold.
Makan ignored the look Darleth sent his way, desperately hoping that the baron would not understand the link.
“Near Halburg, My Lord, a few hours ride away. They found it in the woods but could find nothing else save a campfire that was abandoned. Whoever left it covered their tracks well, but the scouts think there were many of them.”
“Then look again, fool!” Makan snapped. “Move the men that way, clearly they must not have gotten far.”
The soldier saluted and hurried away. Darleth turned to Makan and studied him for a moment, searching for some telling sign. Makan shook his head slightly in disbelief of the unfolding events, then turned to stare hatefully to the north again.
“Why would the soldier find T’leren’s sandal near Halburg, Makan?” Darleth asked quietly, although intently.
“I’ve no idea whose sandal that is,” Makan said, not bothering to look at him.
“But I do,” Darleth persisted. “It is one of her favorites, she wears it often. I ask again, My Lord, why would T’leren’s sandal be found so remotely?”
Makan turned, his expression one of an exhausted man. “She took her,” he said. He shook his head and looked anywhere but at Darleth. “The northland bitch told me that if I didn’t kill her and every one of her so-called warriors that they would be back to hunt down my family and destroy every last one of them, leaving me for the last.”
“That’s why I found you trussed up like a pig,” Darleth said, nodding thoughtfully. “It seems they mean to make good on their promise.”
“And my daughter is already gone. I have another, Darleth, and she’ll be glad to have someone as powerful and wise as you, don’t worry!” Makan said, trying to sound convincing and to keep Darleth his ally. He needed all the help he could get to bring T’lerin home, but he dared not show his weakness. It was a fine line he walked and one he was certain the young Baron would use to his advantage in the future. Fear reminded him he had no other choice.
“They’ve yet to find a body,” Darleth said. “We must assume they mean to use her as a hostage until they can escape the Kingdom.”
“We’ll find them,” Makan said, suddenly filled with hope and conviction. “I’ll not let my daughter suffer in the hands of such barbarians!”
“Indeed,” Darleth said, seeing opportunities opening for him before his very eyes.