Stories

Corstan (part one)

by Alyssa D., Age 13 , Grade 8, Tomslake, BC CANADA

Corstan

Part One

Eoin Vellinroe sighed and turned her head toward the large group of men in deep discussion by the large fire, the rumble of there voices drifting through the night.  The quiet whispers of the men standing guard around the large camp could just barely be heard.  Other than that, the forest was silent and still… almost too still for her liking.  But then she had always felt uneasy ever since she and many other fellow countrymen had fled the harsh rule of King Joran.  She rose on one elbow and looked at her sweet sister sleeping beside her.  The young girl’s yellow curls tumbled out from beneath the woolen blanket and her long dark lashes dusted her cheek.  Eoin wished with all her heart that things were not as they were so that she and her family could have a normal quiet life.  When she had been younger, she had dreamed of adventure, but now when it had finally come, all she wanted was the quiet life that she had led.  A tear formed in her eye and threatened to spill over.

“No,” she whispered harshly to herself.  “I will not cry.”

Rising from the ground, she slowly moved toward the group of men by the fire so as to hear what they were saying.

“That’s impossible!” scoffed one of the men, answering a question Eoin hadn’t heard.

“But we have nowhere to go,” retorted another.  “It is our only hope.  We can travel to other kingdoms and rally as many men as we can to fight the king.  It is our only hope,” he repeated.

“Not our only hope,” came a quiet voice that Eoin knew well.  “We can start somewhere new.”

“We’ve already been over this, Kesh,” said the first.  “There’s nowhere to settle.”

“Perhaps you have not thought of every possibility,” replied Eoin’s older brother, Keshler.

“Like what?” retorted another man.

“The hills of Corstan.”

At this a loud rumble of exclamations rippled through the group.  “Putting yourself at the mercy of Corstan is suicide!” cried one man.  “We’d never survive.”

“Have you been there?” asked Kesh patiently.  Silence was his only answer.  “That is what I though.  Just because you have heard stories about the place, doesn’t mean they are true.  If no one else has any suggestions, I say we shall consider it carefully.”

Silence reigned and so the group of men dispersed, leaving the fire deserted.  Rising from her place of hiding, she quietly made her way to the edge of the dying flames and sat on a log, deep in thought.  She was so absorbed in her own thoughts, that she did not even notice Keshler who still sat on the other side of the fire. 

He stood and sat down beside her.  “I guess you heard that,” he said, making her jump.

She glanced at him and nodded her head slowly.  “Yeah.”

Kesh shook his head and sighed.  “I’m sorry, Eoin,” he said sadly.  “Sorry for everything that had to happen.”

“It’s not your fault, Kesh,” she said, managing a weak smile.  “It was none of our fault.  You couldn’t have done a thing to stop it.”

“So,” said Kesh, changing the subject, “what do you think of my idea?”

Eoin opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself.  The truth was that she had no idea what she thought about it.  Yes, it was the only place they were able to settle, but it was Corstan and that was that.  It was one of the most dangerous places, known for its natural disasters and lack of food.  It was not that there were no animals, but these animals were not just ordinary deer and bear and wild boar.  The forest was ravaged by huge wildcats such as cougars and black panther and many other types that Eoin could not name.  Besides this, there are the marauders.  They set up camp wherever they might be, making it hard for those who try and catch them to find them.  But they are not just the ordinary bandit, they are blood thirsty crazy men who will kill anyone and everyone even if it profits them nothing.

“I- I don’t know,” she said uncertainly.  “You do realise how dangerous it is, don’t you?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed.  “But where else do we go?  There is no other place to settle where we won’t get kicked off the minute they find out we’re there.  It’s our only hope.”

“But…” Eoin’s voice trailed away.  She could think of nothing to say.  Rising from her seat, she said, “I think I will sleep on in and maybe I will have a better answer by morning.”

****

Since there was so many people traveling, they could not all make camp in one huge group, so they divided the group into three groups so that each group could have their own camp.  So, in the morning, after everything had been packed up, the three groups met each other and talked over the suggestions of where they should go that had been made the night before.  There was much murmuring and whispering over Kesh’s suggestion, but, despite everyone’s dislike of it, it seemed the best choice.  Many had suggested that they gather an army and fight the king, but this was quickly overruled by many others.  They finally decided that they would journey in the direction of Corstan and decide on the way whether they should actually go there.  Then questions rose up that if the land was indeed good, others might try and conquer their land.  After much murmuring and arguing, someone said that since the land had such a bad reputation, it would take a while for people to realise that this land was good.  And in the meantime, they could rase an army to protect themselves against anyone who dared try and take the land from them. 
After a day’s journey, they set up camp again, and, over a long conversation about Corstan by the leaders of each camp, they decided that Corstan was there best choice.  Whatever trials they met there would be vanquished until the land was free from harm.  Then they would begin to build the place of refuge that they desired.

****

Eoin still felt uneasy about the whole thing, but it had been decided and the only thing to do was go along with it.  After many days of traveling under cover of the forests, they reached the Cie valley where they had to cross the open planes at the bottom of the valley in order to get to get to the Kelnrey forest.  At the far end of the valley lay the city of Tamar, a bustling trade city.  Since Eoin’s people did not want other people know that they were in the region, they would have to cross the valley by night.  Many suggested that they go around the valley, but it led deep inland away from the sea and, further that way, was lined by the tall Roner mountains.  There was no going around.

The day before they planned to cross the Cie valley, they made everything ready and then waited for dusk to fall upon them.  Eoin sat at the edge of the trees while she waited and watched the dark slowly creep into the wide valley.  She felt listless and unsettled but tried her best to stay still.  The soft sound of someone approaching came from behind her and she turned her head to see Riana, her little sister.

“I’m scared,” she said in a hushed, trembling voice.

Eoin held out her arms to comfort Riana, but it was hard since she herself felt as scared as her sister did.  She drew a deep breath, trying to push away the fear but it would not leave her.  Struggling, she hugged her sister tighter, trying desperately to fight the feeling of dread that filled her soul.

“Eoin,” came a small voice.  “Your squishing me.”

Eoin snapped back to reality and quickly ceased to strangle her sister.  “I’m sorry,” she half giggled, mostly to help her downcast mood.  “I just feel so unsettled.”

Riana smiled.  “Me too,” she chirped.  She glanced down into the valley and her look of worry returned.  “Do you think we’ll make it?”

“Of course!” she said, reassuring herself as well as her sister.  “Whatever we put our mind to, we can do.”  She repeated the words her mother and father had spoken to them before they had died many years ago.

Relief filled Riana’s face as the words brought her hope.  If only it would do the same thing to Eoin, for at the back of her mind she still felt that nagging dread that would not go away.

****

Despite the nagging feeling at the back if Eoin’s mind, the journey across the planes was uneventful and they reached the other side safely.  They continued their journey by night and set up camp near dawn to catch some rest.  They would arrive in Corstan for the first time in about a few weeks time. 

One day, while traveling along on foot, she happened to glance into the forest and thought she caught movement among the leafy branches.  She stopped in her tracks and stared into the trees, trying to find what she had seen.  All was silent and still except the moving people to her left.  Then she saw it again.  Something light brown moved behind a tree.  It was definitely not a human for it was long and slunk along the ground rather like a cat.  At this thought her heart suddenly leapt into her throat.  Cougar!  ‘It can’t be!’ she nearly cried out loud.  ‘We’re not even in Corstan yet!’ 

“What are you staring at?” asked a voice behind Eoin, making her jump and whirl about.

“Oh,” she said shyly.  “Hello.  I was just umm… looking at a deer.  It’s gone now.”

The woman she was talking to, tilted her head and searched her eyes.  “I see,” she said, making it clear that she didn’t believe her.  Her face then brightening, she held out her hand and said, “I am Kadriel.  What is your name?”

“Eoin,” she said, giving the stranger a small smile.

“Come,” said the other.  “Let us catch up or we will be left behind.”  Kadriel laughed and grabbed Eoin’s hand, pulling her away from the cougar in the bushes that still sat watching them.

They journeyed on and on, through forests, over brooks and rivers, across open planes, and over hills.  The land seemed to go on forever.  After a week of traveling, they reached the sea.  Eoin had never seen the sea, and she and everyone else was free to enjoy it because the northern part of the land was mostly uninhabited by people.  After a night camped by the sea, they kept going along the ever-curving shoreline, closer and closer to Corstan and closer to there unknown fate.

****

“Eoin?” asked Riana as the two walked side by side down the winding trail beside the vast sea.  “Why did we have to leave?”

Eoin was silent for a moment, wondering what she should say.  “Well…  You remember King Joran?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, when King Joran took his fathers place as king, he didn’t do a very good job governing his people.  His harsh rule caused us to flee the kingdom.  Do you understand?”

“Sort of…  Why wasn’t he a very good king?” she asked.

“Because some men, when they are born into power, they get spoiled and this causes them to be discontent with what they have even though they have much more that we do.  This makes them greedy and mean, and they often take it out on the people.  King Joran taxed us very high and often beat and worked his people like slaves.  We then had to flee.” 

Riana was silent for a moment.  “Why does it have to be that way?” she asked, lifting her big brown eyes up to Eoin’s in a sort of plea.

“I truly don’t know, Riana,” Eoin answered truthfully, wrapping an arm around her sister’s shoulders.

“Do you think that Corstan will be as it is said to be?”

Eoin huffed playfully.  “I don’t know everything.”

Riana laughed.  “Really?  I though you did.”

“I wish.  Actually… no.  I take that back,” Eoin said.

“Why?” Riana asked, somewhat shocked that her sister wouldn’t want such a great ability.

Eoin shrugged, her shoulder length curly brown hair bouncing as she jumped off a large rock and onto the ground.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “There is just something about it that I wouldn’t like.  Not sure what, though.”

Riana looked at her sister for a moment and then skipped ahead.  “Race ya to the front!” she called and bounded away, her yellow curls bouncing in the wind.

Eoin smiled and joined in the run, glad to feel the breeze in her face.

That night they camped beside the sea once again and moved on toward their destination in the morning.  After a few more days of travel a strange hush of waiting settled upon the people as they drew closer to Corstan.  Far ahead wooded hills rose up and even further, the mountains.  The land was indeed vast, but not so much desolate.  Most of the land was covered in forests and small lakes were spread across the forest.  Deep lush valleys, high hills, and good farmland was abundant.  Yes, it was a good land, but the most lovely places can often hold the greatest dangers.

After another few days of travel, they reach the edge of the wild hills of Corstan.  The people were pleased with what they had chosen and ready to begin building their refuge at once.  But even so, good fortune cannot last too long.  Their first night in Corstan was spent with celebration and relief… for most.  Eoin still felt uneasy but tried her best to look and feel celebratory.  After the night was well upon them, one of the leaders stood to speak.

“For many days we have traveled and searched for a place of refuge to rest our weary heads.  And now we have come!” the man cried.  Many shouts and applause ran through the crowd.  “This does not mean that we will not find adversity, for we surely will.  But we will rise up and build an army against it!  We will build a kingdom of our very own!  We will beat down those who would dare appose us.  It is a new beginning!  A time to build and love and fight!”

Riotous applause burst forth from the crowd of people as they embraced the hope of their new kingdom. 

****

After a few days of traveling further into Corstan, they finally decided on a place where they would start.  Everyone was in high spirits until…

“Eoin!” Kesh shouted, coming upon her in a rush as she was carrying a bucket of water to the fire for the evening meal.  “Have you heard?”

Eoin set the bucket down and turned to Kesh with hands on her hips.  “Heard what?”

“Guthran has disappeared!” he gushed.  “As ya know, he is one of the leaders.  Well, when one of the men went to call him for a meeting, he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.  He just completely disappeared!  Gone just like that!”

Eoin’s mouth dropped open as she stared at her brother.  Fear crept into her heart.  “Are ya sure?” she asked.  “I mean, have you looked everywhere?  Maybe he went to the brook.”

Kesh shook his head.  “We’ve searched everywhere.  He just disappeared.  Just gone.”

Eoin swallowed her fear and forced a smile to her lips.  “I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

But he did not.  They searched the entire night but could not find him anywhere.  Finally they gave up there search and tried to get some rest, planning on searching more in the morning.

The next morning, after breakfast had been cleaned up, Eoin took a bucket and set off into the woods, planning on finding if there were any other streams other than the brook.  She wandered far into the trees, perhaps farther than she had intended, until it became apparent that she was not going to find another water source.  Tired from her walk, she set her bucket down by a small pond and sat down against an oak tree, her thoughts eventually wandering to the disappearance of Guthran.  She had always felt that there was something strange about this man.  He was quiet and polite, but there seemed to be something sinister beneath it.  Almost as if the politeness was a sort of skin covering something he didn’t want anyone to find.  She sat there struggling with her thoughts.  Who was he really?  He didn’t act normal.  And then with his sudden disappearance, she could not hide the feeling that this was no ordinary man.  Then it struck her.  This man must be a spy from the king!  That was why it had been so easy to flee!  It was because the king knew that they were going to flee and wanted it to happen so that he could kill them all with ease when his spy told him where they were encamped!  Her thoughts were running so wild that she did not even see the dark figure step in front of her before it was too late.

****

Eoin tried to swallow, but the knife pressed to her throat would not allow it.  She tried kicking the man that held her, but the attempt was futile.  The man that held her was not Guthran as she would have expected, but a tall, brawny man with no shirt and leather trousers.  The knife he held was made of antler and one could tell that the blade was homemade.  Long, dark, stringy hair fell from his head, partly covering a dark face filled with anger.

“Who are you?” the man asked in a dark accent filled with loathing.

Eoin opened her mouth to speak, but the knife once again refused her attempts.  All she could choke out was a small gasp.

Suddenly another man dressed in the same attire stepped into view and said, “Ya ain’t gonna git anything outa her with yer knife like thet, Brack.”

The man named Brack growled and pulled the knife away.  Eoin collapsed to her hands and knees, drawing in gasping breaths that hurt her starved lungs.

“Who are you?” Brack repeated in the same loathing voice.

Eoin tried once again to speak, but her lungs hurt so much that she could not.  Gathering her strength, she pulled herself into a kneeling position and raised her head, her eyes steely but they still held faintly the look of fear.  “I am Eoin,” she said, her voice becoming stronger.  “And you have no right to hold a woman in such a way.”

Brack’s companion raised an eyebrow at the courage of the young woman before him.  He smirked and watched the frustration mount on Brack’s face with delight.

“Why are you here?” Brack asked angrily.

“Because,” Eoin said, surprised at her own courage.  “Would you want a new homeland if you were forced to flee your own kingdom for your life?”

Brack’s eyes widened for a moment but then he laughed.  “You’re just making up a story to save your own sorry be-hind.”

Eoin began to panic.  How would she convince these men that she was telling the truth?  “I’m telling the truth!” she pleaded.

Brack searched her eyes.  Something clicked and he grabbed her roughly by the arm.  “Your coming with us,” he said.

Eoin screamed and struggled to get free, but her attempts were for not and they led her deeper into the forest.

****

The damp ground Eoin lay upon felt cold and hard.  Her head was spinning and a thick, gooey liquid was dripping down her left cheek.  She reached up to wipe it away, but the jingle of chain told her that she was chained.  She coughed and struggled to her hands and knees, searching the blackness.  The air was cold and damp and yet she was sweating which made her even colder.  As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she was just able to make out the outline of the bars of her earthen cell.  She moved into a sitting position and traced the chains about her wrists to the wall where they were attached.  She sighed and leaned her head against the wall as she thought about what had happened.  Who were these men?  Why did they find it necessary to capture her?  Suddenly she knew.  They were the marauders!  All of a sudden the air felt even colder as the realisation became clear.  Would they kill her?  She held her head a moment to slow it down and then closed her eyes, wondering if this would be her end.

She awoke later to the sound of heavy boots pounding on the ground and the jingle of keys.  Eoin’s eyelids fluttered open and she could just make out the outline of two men by the light of a candle that one of them held.  The door swung open on creaky hinges and the two menacing men entered the dark cell, the light of there candle casting strange shadows on the walls.  Rough hands unlocked the chains at her wrists, pulled her to her feet, and dragged her out the door.  The long dark halls were lined with flaming orange torches that let off little light and the two burly men kept dragging her along corridor after corridor.  Finally they reached a set of stairs that led steeply upward.  Reaching the top, they turned and dragged her down a long dark corridor and to a set of large oaken doors.  As if by magic, the doors open before them (it was only servants opening them) into a large square room lined with the same torches that had been in the dungeon.  At the other end of the room was a highbacked intricately carved wooden chair that held the resemblance of a throne and sitting in the chair was a man.  The man looked rather lanky, and, when Eoin looked closer, she realised that he was maybe only a few years older than herself.  He wore the same leather trousers as his men, but instead of his chest being bare, he wore a long calle fringed with red fur.  His black hair hung just above his shoulders and was done up in a half up which Eoin thought quite ridiculous.

“So, who is she?” asked the man, directing the question to Brack who stood on the right side of the man.

“She claims that she and her people are fleeing their kingdom and just happened upon our land,” replied Brack, a twisted smile on his face.

“I see,” murmured the man, rising from his seat and stepping closer to get a better look at his prisoner.  “What is your name, Lass?” 

Eoin was repulsed that he could call a girl his own age a lass!  She stiffened and said coldly, “My name is Eoin and do not ever again call me a lass!”  Her eyes flashed darkly.

The corner of the man’s mouth turned upward slightly.  “Alright… Eoin,” he said with an edge of sarcasm.  “I shall not call you ‘lass’.”

Eoin continued to stare darkly at the man before her, her heart burning with anger.  “Why do you find in necessary to capture an innocent person?” she asked.

The man looked at her thoughtfully.  “Say the roles were reversed,” he said slowly.  “Say if I walked into your camp unannounced and you thought that perhaps I was a spy.  What would you do?  As you know, our land is highly disliked by all kingdoms and we had every right to interrogate you.”

Eoin stood still for a moment, pondering the man’s words.  Perhaps all those other people in the other kingdoms were wrong.  Perhaps these men were the said marauders, but they were only trying to protect themselves.  “And may I ask a question of you?” she asked cautiously.

“Yes?” the man said.

“Who are you?”

“I am, I guess, a native of this land,” he said.  “As for my name, I am Audric.”

Eoin smiled, but there was one more thing she must ask.  “Will you let me go?”

Audric’s eyes narrowed.  “Perhaps.  I will think on it,” he said and then winked.  “Better safe than sorry.”

Eoin huffed and allowed herself to be led away.

****

Eoin sat idly on the hard packed ground of her cell, wondering why in the world it was taking Lord Audric so long to decide whether he would release her.  She sighed and scratched at the iron chain that bound her, her thoughts restless.  She wasn’t sure why, but uneasiness had settled upon her and she could not push it away.  She jumped as the sound of pounding boots reached her ears. 

They had come.

The iron door creaked as Brack and another burly man entered Eoin’s dim cell and unlocked the fetters about her wrists.  As Brack pulled her to her feet, she looked into his eyes and saw a strange distrust and dislike that matched his rough actions toward her.  She wondered at this as they proceeded down the corridor.  She guessed that is was expected, but there was something different about this.  Almost as if he- hated her.  But she quickly dismissed the thought.  There was no reason to, so why should he?

They entered the same room as before to find Audric alone and without his calle, standing before his throne.  But there was something different about him this time.  He seemed sterner than before.  He dark eyes flashed as they stared at each other in silence.

“I have decided,” he said coldly.  “But before I release you, I must have a promise.  You must swear on your life that you will bring no sort of treachery upon us.”

Relief flooded Eoin’s heart at the words.  “I swear on my life that I will bring no sort of treachery upon you or your people,” she said, feeling the need to be solemn.

Audric stared at her for a moment as if questioning her sincerity.  Then a slight smile lightened his face and his body relaxed.  “Then you are free to go.  But,” he said, his face becoming serious again, “if you break your promise, I will hunt you down and kill you myself.  I so swear.”

Eoin nodded, knowing that this man would not say such a thing unless he meant it.  “Thank you, Sir.  Thank you.”

****

As Eoin left Audric’s fortress, she found herself thinking about him and how he had shown such kindness to her.  Maybe he- but she quickly crushed the thought as though it terrified her.

“Such silliness!” she scoffed.  “That’s impossible!”

But was it…?

Lord Audric had given her directions on how to get back to her camp and so she set out, so absorbed in her own thoughts that she didn’t even see the huge cat that stepped out from the shadows of the forest.

“Hello, Eoin,” came an unnaturally deep voice from behind her.

Eoin screamed and whirled about to behold the picture of fear.  Ten paces away stood a huge cougar, its long tail curled and muscle rippling across its body.  Terror enveloped her and threatened to crush her with its icy claws.  Suddenly there came faintly the sound of galloping hooves upon the forest floor.

****

Audric could feel the pounding of Kobalt’s hooves from beneath him as he galloped through the forest.  Desperation held him firmly in its grip, making him sweat. 

“I should’ve told her!” he muttered angrily.

She would be frightened out of her wits before Rivion had a chance to explain himself.  He’d been told that people from other kingdoms had a special fear for cougars.  Suddenly he broke into a clearing to reveal what he’d come to prevent.  He could tell that Rivion was trying to calm Eoin by talking to her and walking forward, but only making it worse.  Audric shook his in frustration.  Didn’t Rivion know anything?  As for Eoin, she was pressed up against a tree, her face was white, and she held a stick in her hand.  As if that would daunt Rivion.

At this moment Rivion turned to see Audric and gave a little sigh.  “Perfect timing, Sire,” he said.  “Perhaps you will have a better time of trying to convince her I’m not a monster.”  He stepped aside for Audric to take his place.

A look of confusion crossed Eoin’s face as Audric stepped forward.  “Audric?” she asked, her voice still filled with fear.

Audric quickly proceeded to put Eoin’s fears at rest and she quickly felt more secure, especially now that he was there. 

“I always heard that the animals here were vicious,” she said, glancing at the large cougar that stood next to Audric.

“They were,” he said.  “But the actual bad ones were killed off many years ago.  This is the last cougar in the area.”

Eoin gave a sigh and smiled softly.  “That make makes me feel better.  Thank you for coming.  How did you know to come?”

“Well… knowing girls,” he said sheepishly, “I knew you wouldn’t take easily to a confrontation with Rivion.  I forgot to tell you about him.”

Eoin laughed, a very pretty laugh, Audric thought.  He then watched her leave with a sense of disappointment.  But why?  He shook his head.  “What is with me?” he wondered.

****

When Eoin finally entered her camp, everyone was in a flurry of some kind.  When Kesh finally saw her, he dropped what he was doing and ran toward her.

“Eoin!” he shouted, plowing into her with one of his over enthusiastic hugs.  “I thought you were dead!  Everyone did.”

Eoin grinned, just realising how much she’d missed everyone.  “Not quite so dead,” she said, returning the hug.

By now many other people from the camp had gathered about her and Kesh and she was soon holding her little sister.  After many hugs, she heard a question that surprised her somewhat, though she knew not why.

“How did you escape?”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you obviously escaped somehow.”

Eoin opened her mouth to reply, but Kesh quickly interrupted.  “But no time for more questions now.  We need to get back to preparing.”

Eoin stopped at the words.  “Preparing for what?” she asked, grabbing Kesh by the arm.

“Battle, of course!” he replied a little too cheerfully.

“Against whom?”

“The people that captured you and Guthran.  Haven’t you connected the dots?”

“But-” she cried.

“I’m sorry Eoin, but I gotta go.”  With that, he was off with a flash.

Eoin stood dumbfounded in the middle of the camp as the people around her quickly dispersed.  They were going to attack Audric?  Suddenly panic jumped at her like an angry animal.  If they did end up attacking them, Audric would think that she had betrayed him!  Audric would kill her!  He’d said he would!  Then she remembered Kesh’s other words.  He’d said that they had captured Guthran, but they didn’t, or they would have released him too.  Her head began to spin as she realised what would happen if Kesh and the others succeeded in attacking Audric and his men.  She needed to get the attention of someone and tell them what would happen and that Audric really wasn’t like the stories had portrayed.  Suddenly she leapt into action.  Running toward the fire where the women were cooking, she tapped one of the girls on the shoulder.

“Can I speak to you?” she asked urgently.

“I’m sorry, but I was about to call the others for lunch,” she said.  “Maybe later when I have the time.”

She tried getting Kesh’s attention, but he was so deep in conversation with the other men that she couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  It seemed everyone was too busy to hear her words.  She tried time after time to get some ones attention, but her attempts were for not.  The day of the attack drew closer and closer until there was only one thing to do to prevent her own demise.  She had to warn Audric before it was too late.

The next day in the thick of preparation, Eoin threw on a woolen calle, for the fall weather was starting to get cold, saddled a black stallion named Rowan, and bolted in the direction of Audric’s fortress.  Branches slapped her face and arms, but desperation for her life held her in its grip.  The hood of her calle fell back from the wind, letting her hair come loose from her half up.  But suddenly she felt the presence of someone who was not supposed to be there.  She slowed her horse and looked about just in time to see something black slam into her head, sending her from her seat.  She hit the ground with stars in her head, just faintly hearing the terrified whinnies of Rowan.  And then everything was black…

****

~A few days later~

“You must kill her,” Audric’s mentor, Guthlac, persisted.  “You must not break your word.  She is a traitor and traitors deserve death.  You must.”

Audric paced the floor with angry vehemence, his mind running wild.  How could she do such a thing?  She swore on her life that she would not betray him!  He wanted to believe that maybe it hadn’t been her fault, but all logic ran against it.  His mentor’s words echoed in his mind.  ‘You must kill her.’  He clenched his jaw.  He could not do it, and yet he must.  “Why?  Why would she break her promise?” he asked, looking up with eyes full of anguish.

Guthlac shook his head slowly.  “I do not know, Audric.  But you must do it.”

He growled and strode away.  “I can not.”

“Audric.  Do not let the fact that she is pretty, and a woman stop you from being a man of your word and doing what is right.”

“It is not because of that!” Audric spat, turning once again upon his mentor, his face red with rage. 

“Then what is it?” Guthlac said patiently.

Silence was his only answer as Audric again began pacing.  He knew that he must, but deep down he felt a warning for something he did not know.  Guthlac continued to stare at him with his steady gaze, letting the pressure work on the young man.  Finally, Audric groaned and threw up his hands.

“Alright!” he gasped.  “I will do it.”

Guthlac hid a smile and whispered, “One down.”

****

Something flickered in Eoin’s mind as she lay in complete and utter darkness.  It felt like she was lying on nothing at all, but slowly she began to feel something hard beneath her.  And slowly but surely the throbbing in her head returned, bringing her senses back to her.  Her hand twitched as she tried to make sense of where she was.  Then came the pain, avalanches of pain crashed down upon her, trying to push her back in the black hole of unconsciousness.  Fighting to stay awake, she tried opening her eyes, but they felt like they weighed pounds.  Above the pain, she could just barely feel something sticky flowing freely down her arm, making her ever more uncomfortable.  Her breathing turned short and raspy as she lay in the darkness, fighting for the very breath of life.  Her thoughts felt all jumbled in a tangle that would never come out.  A vision of a man standing over her with a whip in his hand flashed across her mind, and then a vision of… Audric standing before her whispering.  ‘If you break your promise, I will hunt you down and kill you myself.  I so swear.’  The words sounded distant and hollow in her mind.  Her body convulsed and she coughed, forcing her eyelids to lift.  The room she lay in was dark and dank and smelled of something she did not know nor did she want to.  Forcing her eyes to stay open, she attempted to sit up, but the movement brought more pain upon her bruised and battered body.  She gasped for air as she collapsed into a fetal position.

“Must get up,” she murmured.

As she lay there in the dark, her memory began to come back.  Trying to reach Audric to tell him of her peoples plans.  Getting knocked off Rowan in the forest.  Where was she?  Glancing up, she was able to make out the bars that enclosed her in the cell and sighed.  Now this was the second time she’d woken up in a cell.

“Goodness,” she muttered.  “Where am I now?”

Suddenly there came a muffled cough from the cell beside hers.  Struggling once more into a sitting position, she slid over and peered into the next cell.  A man sat on the floor against the wall with his head back and his eyes closed.  Pushing her pain down once more, she raised her arm and knocked on the bars, causing the man to abruptly rase his head.  What she saw astonished her.  There in the next cell sat Guthran, King Joran’s spy.  Eoin gasped when she saw him, her face turning white.

“You!” was all she could cry.

A flicker of confusion crossed his face.  “You sound as though you are not glad to see me,” he said in his usual quiet, polite way that covered what he truly was.

“You scoundrel!” she gasped, appalled.

“What do you mean?” he said, but this time his voice held something dark.

Eoin just sat there staring at the man speechless.  Her face twisted into one of anger.  “You’re a traitor!” she spat.  “We trusted you enough to make you a leader, and you betrayed us!”  Her words and eyes spewed fire, all pain that she had felt was no longer there, replaced by anger.

“Wh- what do you mean?”

“You know what I mean, Guthran, spy of King Joran!”

Hatred and anger rose and bubbled over, showing his true self.  With a sudden impulse, he reached through the bars for Eoin’s exposed neck.  Seeing the blow coming, Eoin threw herself away from the side of the cell bars and onto the ground.  Stars exploded in her already throbbing head as she crashed into the ground.  But there was no time for just lying there.  She scrambled up and as far away from Guthran as she possibly could.  Spots swam in her eyes, her vision was hazy, and the sound of Guthran’s ranting could not be heard.  After a bit, when the throbbing and pain had subsided and Guthran had quieted, she sat up slowly and leaned against the bars with her eyes closed.

“I will kill you,” came Guthran’s steely voice.  “One day I will.”

“Too bad,” she said slowly.  “There’s already someone else in line.”

****

“You know where they are?” Audric asked, somewhat surprised.  “How did you find out?”

“Yes,” replied Guthlac as the two of them stood on the wall surrounding Audric’s fortress, gazing at the village that lay at the bottom of the hill that the fortress sat upon.  “The marauders are planning to take Eoin to their main fortress in the heart of Corstan.”

“But how do you know this?”

“Yesterday I went into the forest and happened upon two men, marauders by the look of it, and overheard them talking.  We could follow them and take them by surprise on the road.  Then you can make good your promise,” Guthlac concluded with an air of satisfaction.

Audric bowed his head as he contemplated his mentors plan.  He wished the day that he must kill Eoin would never come, but he knew it must.  One day he would have to do it.  “When?” he asked abruptly.

“A fortnight.”

Audric sighed and leaned against the railing, sense and what he wanted warring with each other.  He drew in a deep breath and stood straight.  If he must do it, he might as well get it over.  “Alright,” he finally said, his face as hard as rock.  “We’ll begin planning at once.  But,” Audric turned to Guthlac fiercely, “if this causes another attack from her people, I put the blame on you.”

“Come,” replied Guthlac, waving the problem aside with his hand.  “We’re saving them from the real enemy-”

“We’re killing one of their people!” Audric shouted angrily and stalked away, his boots thundering down the wall.

Guthlac sighed.  It was true, but such was the cost.

****

Raith lolled against the wall in the guard room, his mind fuzzed with too much ale.  The two jugs beside him testified of what he’d been passing the time with the past while.  His helmet sagged and his head was tilted to one side as though he were sleeping while standing.  A sudden wack on the head sent him spinning across the room and crashing against the other wall.  Objects danced in his blurry vision as he wobbled too and fro across the floor, trying to maintain his balance and dignity, which he was very far from doing.  Another slap and he stood still, somewhat stunned.  Before him stood “the boss” in all his glory.

“You stinkin’ pig!” shouted the man, his round face red with rage.  “How many times have I gotta tell you to stop drinkin on duty!”

“Sorry, Sir,” Raith mumbled.

“Sorry ain’t gonna cut it, cause you’ll never learn t’ stop despite it!  Now git yerself together.  I want you sober by noon.”

“But Sir,” Raith called, stumbling out of the guard room and after the man.

“Enough!  Get back there or I’ll whip yer sorry behind!” 

Raith stopped and shuffled back to the guard room where he continued to snooze.  When he woke later, he was sober but sorely behind schedule.  Pushing his helmet back in place, he hurried out and into the courtyard to find the others getting ready for a trip to the base. 

When the boss caught notice of him, he hurried over, turned him around, and pushed him back in the direction of the guard room saying, “Go find cell five and bring the scallywag inside out here.  Got it?”

Raith nodded dumbly and stumbled back the way he’d come.  Entering the guard room once more, he found the key to cell five and hurried into the dungeon, fearing what the boss would do lest he should fail in some way, though it would be very hard to fail.  He found cell five and peered into the dark, cold room, expecting to see a man, but instead, to his great surprise, he saw the slender form of a girl pacing the hard ground.  She wore a dirty brown dress, her feet were bare, and her short, curly brown hair was loose and tangled.  He coughed to get the girl’s attention and she jumped and raised her head, her eyes worried but they also held courage.

“I uhh…” Raith mumbled.

“I’ll thank you to shush and get it over with,” she said in a voice that was surprisingly hard.

Raith cleared his throat noisily and unlocked the door.  He stepped inside and put shackles about her wrists.  When he was done, he led her out the door, feeling somewhat guilty of treating a woman in such a way.  But it was his orders and there was nothing he could do but be gentle if he wanted to gain more of what little favor he had with his superiors.

Arriving back in the yard, the girl was quickly whisked away and forced onto one of the many horses that were scattered about the yard.  He watched her with some sort of pity as he and many others moved out and toward the base in the center of Corstan.  He wondered how she had gotten into such a sorry state and why she was in Corstan in the first place.  He shrugged his shoulders as he moved out of sight of her and into his place at the back of the procession.  There was nothing he could do, so he let the matter go.

****

A small amount of relief filled Eoin that she was not going to be killed… yet.  As she was forced upon one of the marauders horses, she looked back at the young man who had brought her from the dungeons and thought she saw pity his face.  She shook her head.  ‘I probably only imagined it,’ she thought wistfully.  After a moment of flurry about her, she and an entourage of men on horses left the fortress and moved into the forest.  Apprehension rose within her as she watched the trees go by, wondering where they were taking her and why they did not just kill her.  Hours passed as they continued through the forest.  They stopped a few times to water their beasts and get a bite to eat themselves, but of course they did not offer her anything.  Her mouth began to dry, and she wondered when the last time she drank was. 

At one point, they stopped for the last time at a wide, shallow stream.  Her horse was positioned in the direct sunlight and she sat there baking under the heat, her attempts to wet her mouth with her saliva doing nothing for her.  She was about to ask one of the men if she could have a drink, when she felt a tap on her arm.  She looked over to see the same man who had brought her from the dungeon standing beside her horse with a dipper of water in his had and offering it to her!  After meeting her gaze for a moment, he diverted it away and thrust the dipper forward.

“Thought you might be thirsty,” he mumbled.

Eoin stared uncertainly at him, wondering if she should trust him.  Oh, but that water looked so refreshing!  Finally she yielded and took the dipper from the man’s outstretched arm.  After taking a deep drink, she handed the dipper back to him.  “Thank you,” she said, allowing a small smile to lighten her face.  The man nodded hastily and turned to go, but Eoin called back to him.  “Wait!  What is your name?”

The man stared at her as if she were crazy and then finally gave his answer.  “Raith,” he said with a little more strength to his tone.  “Yours?”

She sighed.  “I am Eoin,” she said, and then turned her gaze from him and settled down to wait.

After a moment, she slipped a glance back at him to see that he was gone.  ‘Why did he do that?’ she wondered.  She sighed again, but this time with satisfaction, and was just glad that she had gotten a drink.

They continued through the forest until it began to get dark, but still they rode on, seeming tireless.  Then, as they entered a thick part of the forest, things began to go bad all at once.  Suddenly dozens of arrows flew through the air from the bushes surrounding the path!  Eoin was instantly knocked off her horse and to the ground and left to keep out of the way of men and the panicked horses.  She had no idea what went on, but as soon as it had started, it was gone, leaving the faint cries of men who had escaped.  The air was thick with dust as she struggled to her hands and knees, searching the forest for any sign of what had happened.  And then ten dark figures stepped out from the trees.  One of them seemed to be in command and spoke quietly to his men who obeyed him immediately.  The one man that was left stepped forward to where Eoin was then standing.  The man pulled back the hood of his calle to reveal Lord Audric!  His face was full of anger as he stared at her, walking slowly forward, his sword in hand.  Then Eoin knew.  It was over and she would die.

“You betrayed me!” he said with a mix of anger and disappointment.  “You swore that you would bring no treachery upon me and then you went and told your people to attack us!  Why?”

“I didn’t do anything!” she pleaded. 

“Then you did nothing to stop it,” Audric retorted.

“But I did!  They wouldn’t listen to me!  When it was too late I tried to go and warn you, but I was attacked by,” Eoin gestured in the direction that the others had gone, “the marauders.  Please believe me!”

But Audric’s face remained hard.  “Why would your people think to attack us if you told them nothing?”

Trying to calm her racing heart, she paused and then said, “We had a man named Guthran with us when we fled.  The day before you captured me, he went missing.  The next day I went into the forest in search of another water source and had just thought that maybe Guthran was a spy when your men took me.  My people had every right to think that you took me and Guthran.  But the real marauders were the ones who actually took Guthran.  Please don’t kill me!  I did everything I could to warn them, but I could not.”

Audric stood there, regarding her fiercely.  “How do I know that this is true?”

Tears started in Eoin’s eyes.  “I swear that I am telling the truth.  Please.”

Audric’s eyes softened and he looked into her eyes, searching for her sincerity.  Finally, he nodded.  “I believe you,” he said.  “I will spare your life.”

Relief flooded Eoin’s heart and she smiled, unbidden tears rising up.  “Thank you.”

Audric smirked.  “There is no need to cry,” he laughed. 

Eoin rolled her eyes, swallowed her tears, and grinned.  “I think I’m ready to go home,” she said.

“Ah, yes.  That might be a good idea.  And when I have seen you safely home, I am going to deal with these wretched marauders once and for all.”

The End

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