This is another post not specifically called for by the 25 days of writing challenge. I started writing this, long hand, while out hunting with my Dad in Utah. My handwriting is awful, though, so I figured I’d better type it up! N*Joy!
Hanna cautiously approached the table where Jason and Trey were seated and knelt. “That guy gives me the creeps, my Lords,” she said softly. Trey looked sourly at her. It was a breach of proper conduct for a woman to speak like this without invitation of her Lords, and this grated upon his nerves. Trey looked at Jason, who returned his gaze with a confused look. Trey found equally annoying this woman’s persistence in saying things using idioms he did not understand. Jason shrugged, and Trey turned back to Hanna, scowling. “What?” he snapped.
“I don’t trust that guy,” said Hanna, gesturing over her shoulder in the direction that the man that Jason and Trey had been talking to had gone. “He was grinning like a fool – like he’d just gotten away with something,” she continued.
“Ah,” said Trey.
“Aye, he did seem rather insincere to me as well, my Lord,” said Jason. “He was distracted.”
“Well, the look I just saw on his face made me want to bolt from this place,” added Hanna.
Trey cast her a stern glare, and Hanna bowed her head and looked away. This was not the first time she’d spoken without proper permission. Trey sighed and looked back to Jason. “Aye. I felt that too. I trust not a man who will not look me in the eye.”
Trey turned back to Hanna, who still knelt beside the table, eyes downcast. He frowned. After a moment’s pause, he addressed her. “Woman, collect our horses and bring them around front.” He reached into his purse and pulled out a coin, which he held out to her. “Give this to the stable keeper in payment.” She took the coin and regarded it carefully, flipping it over in her hand.
Trey leaned into her face. “Give that to the stable keeper and tell him we’ll take our horses now. Tell him nothing more.” He closed her hand around the coin. Their eyes met, faces only a few inches apart. He gaze softened slightly from its usual glare, filled with encouragement. “Now go,” he commanded softly.
She stared raptly back into his eyes, frozen by his gaze. Finally, she spoke again. “Yes, my Lord,” she said as she pulled away from him, rising to her feet. Trey’s eyes followed her as she turned and quickly left the room. He continued to stare after her, even after she was long out of sight.
Trey turned to Jason, leaning back heavily into his chair, thinking about the bad feeling they’d all gotten from the behavior of Tarin, the man they’d met this day. “Oh!” he spoke suddenly as he remembered something important. He dug into his coin purse again and drew out another coin. “Put this at her table, Jason, lest the keep think she dodged payment.” Trey handed the coin to Jason, who rose and place in on the table where she had sat. Trey had not permitted her to join them in the discussion with Tarin, but had allowed her to enjoy a pint of ale and a bit of food while she waited.
Trey had met with Tarin to discuss game meat for the upcoming Solstice Festival that would be held at Herongarde castle. Tarin claimed he would provide sufficient meat to support the entire festival, and could do so with only three weeks notice. Herongarde had had dealings with Tarin before for such events, but Trey himself had never met the man. Tarin’s strange behavior did not sit will with Trey.
Trey sipped on his tankard of ale, pondering an appropriate course of action, and waiting for the woman to bring up the horses. Jason finally nodded toward the window behind Trey. “She has the horses, my Lord,” he said.
Trey lifted his tankard to his mouth for one last drink. “Let’s go, then,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
As Trey and Jason left the tavern together, Tarin shouted at them from across the road. Tarin stood between two buildings – shacks really – and was enthusiastically waving at them. “Aye! Come have an ale with my brothers and me!” he called. Tarin eagerly motioned them to come closer. “Aye! Come join us!” Tarin yelled again. The scene struck Trey as peculiar. Why would Tarin be inviting them to drinks between buildings?
“Aye, thank you good sir,” called back Trey, “Alas, we must return to Herongarde with haste!” Trey waved at Tarin and strode to where Hanna held their horses.
“Aye, my Lords,” returned Tarin in a less friendly tone. “I insist!”
Trey did not turn. He took up Garnog’s reins from Hanna. “Mount up now,” he ordered. Jason was already astride his horse. Trey held Hanna’s horse as she pulled herself into the saddle. As soon as she was seated, Trey leapt onto Garnog.
Garnog, sensing Trey’s tension, immediately broke into a trot. Jason and Hanna spurred their mounts quickly to keep up. As Trey drew alongside where Tarin stood, he gave a wave. “Thank you, sir,” shouted Trey.
Tarin looked bitterly angry. “Aye,” he grumbled.
Trey noticed that in the gap between the buildings where Tarin stood were two horses, mounted by unknown riders. He knew an ambush when he saw one. “Aye! Run!” he called back to Jason and Hanna. As the party from Herongarde began to gallop out of the small village, the two horsemen took up a rapid pursuit.
They raced along the forested road, the pursuers close behind. Trey was confident in the speed and endurance of his and Jason’s horses, but was concerned about the mount of Hanna. The mare was old and slow, and the woman was a novice rider. He feared what might happen if the pursuers caught up with her. This was no time to hold back and check on her, alas. The pursuers clearly meant to attack he himself, and thus his escape was most vital. He prayed silently that the riders would simply ignore the woman as irrelevant.
The forest closed in around Trey and Jason. Escape off the side of the road was not possible. Trey rounded a sharp corner to find his path blocked by several freshly fallen trees. A trap. Trey wheeled Garnog about as Jason rounded the corner and slowed his own horse. “Damn!” he yelled. Jason turned his horse about as both men drew their swords. Battle was unavoidable.
Hoof beats closed in. One of the enemy riders raced alongside Hanna as they rounded the corner to the blocked road. The pursuer paid the woman no mind; his intention was to kill Trey. Hanna pulled up her horse when she recognized the trap, and was passed by the second pursuer.
The lead rider drew his sword and charged at Trey, but was blocked by Jason. Their swords clashed. The second rider raced past Jason and his attacker to charge directly at Trey. Swords clashed again. The only sounds in the forest were those of swords crashing, hooves stomping, and the grunts of the men’s exertion.
Hanna glanced about desperately, trying to discover what she might do. She, like Jason, was sworn to protect Trey, but she had no weapon and no armor. She feared that the man Tarin may come along soon and that she may be called into action. She needed some manner of weapon, or to assist Trey or Jason to defeat their own opponents so that they themselves could defend against a potential third enemy. She chose to attempt the latter.
Hanna walked her horse carefully toward the melee of swords and sweat, looking for an opportunity to do something helpful. The fight between Jason and his opponent blocked her access to Trey. She guided her horse toward the edge of the road, hoping to dodge the fighting pair. As she drew even with the fight, the enemy rider has his back to the woman, and she tried to slip past on his right. Jason took a swing and the enemy backed his horse into her own. The enemy returned with a glancing blow that knocked Jason off balance.
The enemy drew his arm back to deliver a finishing blow, unaware that Hanna was directly beside him. His sword-bearing fist flew back directly into Hanna’s face, crushing her nose. Instinctively, she reached up and grabbed at his arm. In his surprise at finding his arm restrained, his grip loosened, and she swept the sword from his fingers and held it in her own grip. The rider turned to her in astonishment, reaching for his second sword for further defense.
By then it was too late for him.
Hanna righted the sword and thrust it deeply into the rider’s mid-section, fearing for her own life. At that same moment, Jason connected a blow from the opposite side that nearly took off the man’s left arm.
The man stared in shock at the horrified face of Hanna as he accepted his own death. He fell off his horse awkwardly, slipping off the sword still held by Hanna, and lay dead on the ground. Hanna stared at his crumpled body. Silence buzzed in her head.
Trey had by then knocked his own opponent to the ground and had directed Garnog to finish his enemy with a well-placed hoof to the head. He glanced up to see the last moments of the fight of Jason, Hanna, and the unknown rider.
Hanna gazed at the bloodied sword in her hand. She shuddered. Blood dripped onto her hands, and she realized that this was not the blood of the man she had killed, but her own blood. She touched her face with her empty hand and found it painful and slick with blood. She grimaced and rolled her eyes back from the pain and shock of what she had just experienced. Her eyes fell again upon the sword in her hand. She felt the urge to cast it aside in horror, but instead froze when she heard Trey ride up.
“Don’t,” he cooed quietly. “Keep that sword. You may need it.” She slowly looked at him, feeling tears welling in her eyes. He winced. Her nose was clearly broken. Hopefully, that was all. “You’ll be all right,” he said softly. Her pain was obvious, and he did not want to upset her. He needed her strong.
Jason removed the saddlebags from the horses of their enemies, and flung them over the shoulders of his own horse. Trey nodded approval to Jason then looked back to the road. He knew they’d have to backtrack some to escape from these thick woods. He was concerned about additional riders or hidden assailants, and prayed that it was only these two men – now dead – that were sent to attack.
He turned back to Hanna, who was looking dazedly at the dead man lying on the ground in front of her horse. “Woman,” he said. She did not respond. “Woman,” he repeated, a little louder. She still did not react. He guided Garnog a little closer to her. “Hanna,” he said softly. She looked up blankly. “We must ride on or we will surely die.” She nodded and looked back to the dead man. Trey saw that she was shaking. “Can you ride, aye? Shall we lead your mare?”
She looked back to Trey, trying to clear the fog from her head. All her senses felt dull. “I-. I-,” she stuttered. “Yes. Yes, I can ride,” she said softly. “I think,” she added at a whisper that Trey did not hear. Trey looked at Jason and saw that the younger man shared his concerns. He returned his attention to Hanna.
“Good,” encouraged Trey. “We’ll ride a little slower and get off this road. Just follow.”
She nodded glumly at him.
“And don’t drop that sword,” he added.
“Aye,” she whispered, and they set off.
Trey and Jason exchanged a glance, to which Jason nodded his silent agreement. Trey lead on as they trotted first backtracking along the road, then cutting through the forest to avoid contact with other riders. Hanna followed Trey and Jason rode behind, watching the woman carefully. The blow to her face was severe, and both men shared concern that she may at any moment drop from her horse. Her pace slowed as they moved through the forest, which Jason attributed not only to the woman’s injury, but also to an exhausted horse. The old mare was lathered in her efforts to keep up with Garnog.
They had trekked more than a mile through the woods when they approached a small but steep ravine with a tiny stream. Trey paused at the rim and searched for a path for a safe crossing as Jason rode up beside hm. Trey looked at the younger man expectantly.
“Rest, my Lord. Rest would be a good idea now,” said Jason, nodding in the direction of the woman and the mare.
“How fares she?” asked Trey.
“I fear neither woman nor mare has much left in them this day,” replied Jason.
Trey looked toward the woman. Her horse, usually a soft bay, was covered with patches of white lather. The woman was equally soaked with sweat, and blood. One side of her face was puffed with swelling, with only one eye fully open. Her cheeks were streaked with tears. She looked barely conscious. She still held the sword in her grasp, with such a tight grip that her knuckles were white from the effort.
“Aye, Jason,” he agreed. “We’ll find shelter on the other side of this.” He indicated the ravine in front of them.
Trey guided Garnog to stand beside Hanna. “We’ll rest soon,” he said to her.
She nodded without looking up. “Aye, my Lord,” she whispered.
“We’ll cross this and find a defensible shelter.” He leaned toward her, trying to catch her attention. “Hmm?” He leaned closer.
She shut her eyes and hung her head. “Aye, rest,” she whispered.
Trey reached out and touched her shoulder. She jumped at his touch, but still did not look up. He frowned. “You’ll be fine with rest, aye. It has been a difficult day, I know.”
Hanna looked up at him. Trey saw the distortion of her nose through the swelling of her face. Yes, her nose was clearly broken, a most painful injury. Furrows from her tears striped her cheeks. His frown deepened.
“Aye, hand me that sword,” he said gently. She looked at her hand, seemingly surprised to see that the sword was still there. She handed it over to him. “A fine instrument this is,” he said as he examined it. “That man was no peasant fighter, but a skilled warrior. I am impressed.” He looked back to her to see her look away quickly. Clearly, his words offered no comfort to her.
“Aye, woman,” he cooed. “Later you will feel better of this. We’ll rest soon.” She nodded weakly and Trey slid the sword into a scabbard attached to his saddle.
Jason rode up. “There’s easy passage up there,” he said indicating further upstream.
“On then,” said Trey, and Jason began to move toward the path he had found. Trey paused, waiting for Hanna to look up again. She finally raised her eyes to meet Trey’s soft gaze. It startled her. “Follow Jason,” he directed her softly.
“Aye,” she agreed, and turned her horse toward Jason.
They rode on for another half mile or so, until Trey selected what he felt was an adequate place to camp for the night. He leapt from Garnog and approached Hanna as she clumsily attempted to dismount her horse. Her foot caught in the stirrup as she tried to step down. She fell backward into the waiting arms of Trey. She was shocked by how his touch comforted her, and quickly regained her footing.
“Thanks,” she whispered, feeling her cheeks burn. She dared not look him in the face.
“Um-hmm,” responded Trey, feeling equally awkward.Trey glanced around quickly and spotted a clear, flat spot under a tree. “Here, woman,” he said, and guided her to sit on the soft loam covering the tree’s roots.
Trey leaned close to her face, studying her bruised nose. “Ooh, aye. That’s broken,” he muttered.
Hanna looked at him through puffy eyes. “Bad?” she asked.
Trey noted the concern on her face. She was already in pain, and he didn’t want to make it worse. But he didn’t want to see this woman’s face permanently disfigured, especially when he was fairly sure he could straighten things out. This he had done before many times on the battle field for other men. A woman should be no different. Right? he thought.
“Oh, no,” he smiled. “Not too bad at all.” He ran his fingers over the bridge of her nose. “No, no problem,” he smiled again. Then he squeezed his fingers around her nose to reshape it.
A cry escaped from Hanna’s mouth, which was promptly covered by Trey’s massive hand. She silenced her voice quickly, but was wracked with sobs, as blood once again poured out of her nose. Trey frowned. “I’m sorry, woman. That had to be done,” he apologized. She nodded through her tears, her hands over her face. But the tears weren’t because of the physical pain. The tears came with the crystal clear memory of what had happened earlier that day. She could not erase the image of the face of the dying man, who stared at her as he died, knowing that she had killed him.
Trey sat beside her, not knowing what to do. He looked to Jason, who returned the same look of confusion. Trey felt helpless – he did not want her to suffer alone, but he could not think of how to offer comfort. He felt an ache in his chest. When had he felt that before? He hesitantly placed an arm around her and pulled her close. She pressed into him, grateful for the human contact. His arms closed around her, and he relaxed. This seemed to be helping her, and he didn’t mind so much. He supposed there was some time for this. He was glad to see Jason cooling out the horses and arranging the campsite for the three of them.
Jason walked over to Trey and Hanna after the horses were cared for and provisions for dinner were laid out. Hanna was silent by then, but still awake. Trey still held her, but now that she had stopped weeping, he had his mind on other things. Jason laid the saddlebags of the attacker on the ground in front of Trey.
“Shall I bring your blankets and bedding, my Lord?” asked Jason.
“Aye,” said Trey. “Bring her’s as well, will you?”
Hanna lurched, trying to pull away from Trey. “I can get my own-,” she started. Trey held her tightly.
“Rest, rest,” said Trey to her, and nodded to Jason to continue as commanded.
Hanna tried to pull away again. “But my Lord, I can -.”
“I’m quite sure you can, but rest,” he soothed. “Here. Let us see what our enemy carries, aye?”
She looked at him, feeling a fleeting sense of panic.
“Hmm?” he inquired.
“Aye, my Lord,” she agreed, meekly.
“Good,” smiled Trey, releasing her from his arms. He pulled the bags toward them, and began to withdraw items. Enclosed were the typical pieces that a traveling warrior might carry: a water bladder, a sharpening stone, a small knife. Flint and tinder. A blanket. A hood. An awl and leather laces for repairs. And a letter.
Trey looked closely at the letter. The broken seal was clearly that of Falgarth. He unrolled it to expose two pieces of parchment. One was a map with many points marked and labeled, with arrows showing movements between points of interest; the other was mostly text, with the stamp of Falgarth beside the signature. These seemed to be orders.
Trey handed the letter to Hanna as Jason returned with their bedding. “Read this to me,” Trey ordered.
Hanna regarded the letter. The script common to Herongarde and Falgarth always troubled her. With her eyes swelling, she found it even more difficult to read than usual. She rotated the paper, thinking she held it upside down, then rotated it back when her eyes finally made sense of the lettering. She rubbed her eyes and brought the letter closer to her face.
“Captain,” she began. “Herongarde falls at mid-summer -. ” She massaged her eyes again. “…mid-summer fest,” she continued. “We gain entrance with Tarin of Maldok dead. Gather men of Karon at Sere and enter as Maldok. Attack from within at dawn.
She squinted closely at the paper in the failing light of evening. “I can’t make out the signature.” She looked up at Trey.
“Read it again,” he commanded.
Hanna looked at Jason, and noticed he looked very pale. She read the letter aloud again. “The signature is something like ‘Norad’ or ‘Normal.’ I think it’s an ‘N’ anyway.”
“Northal!” exclaimed Trey and Jason simultaneously.
“Damn,” breathed Trey. He turned to Jason. “No hope to return tonight, aye?”
“Nay, my Lord,” he replied. “At least not together. The horses are tired and her injury…”
“Aye,” agreed Trey. “She must rest and her mare is spent.”
“Aye, and I dare not travel alone or have you travel alone this night, my Lord.”
“And night is upon us,” sighed Trey. “Nay, we rest here this night and ride at first light.” He turned his gaze to Hanna.
She bowed her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Huh? Feel not guilt, woman,” Trey responded, confused by her reaction. “We will be fine. Tonight or tomorrow, it makes little difference.” He took the letter from her and returned it to their fallen enemy’s bag.
“Jason,” said Trey as he rose, “We must secure this site. Gather the horses close. We will take turns to watch tonight.”
Trey turned to Hanna, still sitting on the ground. “you will rest, ” he commanded. “Fashion yourself a bed over there.” He pointed to a flat, sheltered place tucked into a cluster of trees. “Take these over there as well,” he said, indicating the bags and blankets on the ground in front of her. “I will walk the perimeter.” They each moved off to their tasks.
Hanna spread out the thinner of her two blankets on the ground where Trey had told her to make her bed for the night. She grunted in pain each time she bent forward, feeling the uncomfortable pressure from her broken nose. She carried on, however, knowing that the work had to be done. She set down her own saddlebag to use as a pillow and laid down miserably under her other blanket. She was cold and everything hurt. There was no comfortable way to lay, and she felt tears welling in her eyes. She was in for a long, long night. Her thoughts drifted again to the face of the man she had killed and a wave of sobbing overwhelmed her. She tried to stifle the tears, but was failing. This made her weep all the more. She tried deep breaths with some success, only to find herself coughing. Oh, how she hated this!
The sound of Trey and Jason speaking nearby caused the sobs and her breath to catch in her throat. She felt a wave of panic. Would Trey be angry at her for all the noise she was making?
“Aye, needs must we make haste at first light.” Trey’s voice.
“Shall one of us ride ahead, my Lord?”
“Nay, Jason. We ride together for safety.”
Silence. Hanna felt her teeth chatter. She felt awful.
“She is not well, my Lord,” Jason said softly.
“Aye.” A sigh, then a long pause. “And how feel you, Jason?”
“I am weary but well, my Lord.”
Hanna coughed then groaned, as the act caused her face to hurt.
“Maintain first watch, Jason. I have much to think about and may sleep a bit myself.”
“Aye, my Lord,” replied Jason. He moved off.