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. 🙂
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.
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