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Photo via Visual Hunt

Sadie shivered as the eerie hoot of an owl echoed around her. “Mark my words,” her grandfather said as he helped her gather the wood in the growing darkness. “Someone in this house will die tonight.”

Sadie didn’t argue with him, though her father would have. Merrick Stonehammer didn’t put up with such nonsense. In the city where he came from, such things were foolish superstitions, and were relegated to tavern talk. Just about every belief the simple country folk he lived amongst now was “tavern talk” or “superstition.” Sadie thought her father a fool, but chose not to say anything. Merrick was also free with his fist if you lived in his household and spoke against him, especially if you were his wife and daughter.

Sadie and her grandfather carried the wood back into the house. Sadie glanced at her mother. Kai Stonehammer was pale and gaunt, other than the swelling in her abdomen where Sadie’s new sibling grew. Merrick didn’t seem to notice his wife’s distress. Or if he did, he didn’t care.

Sadie set the wood down next to the fireplace and went to her mother’s side. “Mother, is there anything I can do for you?” she asked softly.

“No Sadie. Go to your father. See what else he wants you to do,” Kai said, smiling.

Sadie reluctantly walked over to where her father sat at the table, drinking from a tankard. His face was flushed and his eyes were dull. Her heart sank. He was drunk, which meant even more trouble for them all.

“Father, Grandfather and I have brought in the wood as you asked. Is there anything else you would like me to do?” she asked, trying to stand out of reach.

“Come closer you stupid chit,” he said, slurring his words. “I can’t talk to you properly when you’re so far away.”

Sadie got closer and allowed her body to go limp. It was a good thing she did. He leaned back and kicked her, aiming for her stomach. She shifted slightly and he only hit her hip, but she still went flying.

“Merrick,” Kai cried, struggling to stand. Her father put a hand on her shoulder and she sat back down.

“That’s for going to your mother first, you useless little whore,” Merrick snarled. He stood and loomed over her. Sadie tried to get up but her leg wouldn’t support her weight. “Get up.”

“I can’t. I think you broke my leg,” Sadie said.

Merrick kicked her again, this time slamming into her ribs. Sadie felt something break then and she screamed. “That’s what you get for defying me. Get up.”

“Merrick, you broke her leg and you just broke some of her ribs,” her grandfather said. “She won’t be able to get up at all now.”

“Then she deserves to die,” Merrick said, preparing to kick her again.

A rush of anger filled Sadie. Her life meant nothing to him. Her mother’s life meant nothing to him. No one’s life meant anything to him. He would kill them all and move on to another woman, where he’d do the same thing to her.

A strength she didn’t know she had filled her. In spite of her pain, in spite of her injuries, she rose to her feet. She heard the gasps of her mother and grandfather. “You are an evil, sadistic, cruel bastard,” she said through gritted teeth. Tears of pain filled her eyes as she stalked towards her father. “You don’t deserve to live.”

“My last wife told me the same thing,” Merrick said with a smirk. “I cut her open from naval to breast. You think you frighten me?”

Sadie cast around for a weapon. She saw the axe where it sat up against the wall. She lunged over and grabbed it just as he tried to seize her. She whirled around and swung it at him with all her might, ignoring the agony in her ribs as she did so.

Merrick screamed as it struck his shoulder. Sadie didn’t stop. She continued swinging the axe until he was nothing more than a bloody mass on the floor. She panted, soaked in blood, unable to catch her breath.

She glanced over at her mother and grandfather, expecting to see fear and horror. Her grandfather was smiling. Kai looked relieved. “Well done, Sadie,” Kai said.

“The owl spoke true,” her grandfather said.

Wolf sister

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Helena scratched behind Aso’s ears as her father continued yelling. It’s okay, Aso. He’s going to wind down soon. He always does, Helena told the wolf through their telepathic bond.

His scent is different today, Wolf Sister. I do not like it, Aso replied. Her hackle were up and she was growling softly.

“Helena, I have decided you must marry,” her father said, turning his attention on his youngest daughter.

“I’m a Wolf Sister, Father,” Helena said. “I’m not allowed to marry.”

“That’s easy enough to resolve,” her father said. He smiled a cruel smile. “Your little bitch will be sent to the village tanner and turned into a pelt. She’ll make a fine rug for your new house.”

“You can’t do that,” Helena said. “You’ll destroy my mind if you do.”

“So? You’ll still be alive. You don’t need a mind to produce children,” her father said. “I’ve already explained that to the man I’ve chosen. He’s perfectly happy to hire someone to care for you.” He moved towards them with a rope in his hands.

Run, Wolf Sister, Aso said. She lunged forward and tore at Helena’s father’s leg. He yelled in pain as the wolf tore the muscles in his leg. He went down.

Helena dashed out the door, followed swiftly by her wolf. The two of them ran out of the town and headed for the one place that no one would follow them – Wolf Peak. The wolf packs roamed freely there, and many Wolf Sisters lived in the dens with their wolf partners as they preferred separation from humans.

She could hear shouting behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Several of the Hunters had been mobilized along with the city guard. She recognized them because they were wearing the colors of the forest. We have to hurry, Aso. If they catch us, we both die.

The path is not far, and we two are the only ones who can find it, no matter how hard they seek, Aso said. She kept her stride even with Helena’s, even though she could easily outpace her human partner.

Helena ignored the stitch in her side. She wasn’t going to let anyone kill Aso. The two of them had been together since Helena was five. Wolves typically didn’t live long, but Wolf Sisters bestowed their lifespans on their partners. At twenty five, Helena was still fairly young by human standards and Aso was ancient by wolf standards.

The first arrow passed by her ear a few minutes later. It stuck in a tree at the edge of the forest as Helena and Aso entered it. Where is it, Aso? Where is the path? I can’t see it yet and they’re getting closer.

I can smell it, Wolf Sister, Aso said. Do not fear. We will be there soon. Helena cried out as an arrow pierced her left shoulder. She sobbed as she ripped it out, the barbed head doing more damage coming out than it had going in. Wolf Sister, we must stop. They cannot see your blood before the path or they will find it.

How much time before they are upon us? Helena asked as she stopped.

It will be several minutes. They have lost our trail, Aso said.

Helena’s hands were shaking, and her left hand was almost useless as she used her belt knife to cut several strips of fabric from her long tunic. She bound her shoulder as best as she could. Do you see any blood dripping from my shoulder? she asked.

Aso paced around her. No, but you cannot take the arrow with you. It will give us away.

I also can’t leave it here. If they have one of the Trackers among the Hunters, they’ll use their magic to find us. They’ll find the path that way as well, Helena said.

Keep running towards those large rocks and give me the arrow, Aso said. I will be with you again shortly. Helena did as she was told. Aso slipped deeper into the woods as Helena resumed her mad dash towards safety.

Aso caught up to her just before she hit the clearing where the rocks were. Where do we go from here? Helena asked.

Follow me and I will lead you to true freedom, Aso said. She surged ahead of her human sister. She ran into a gap between two very tall rocks and vanished.

Helena could still hear Aso inside her mind. The mountains were too far away, yet Wolf Sisters appeared in her town as if the mountain were only a short distance from it. She took a deep breath and plunged through the same gap.

She staggered a little as she passed through a magical gate. Cold air washed over her face. Hands caught her as her legs buckled under her. “Be easy, Wolf Sister. You are safe,” a gentle voice said.

Aso sat near her, panting from the exertion of running. She was surrounded by several other wolves. Helena looked up into the face of the woman who held her. Soft red curls fell over a badly scarred face. “Thank you,” Helena said.

She was taken to a cave where her wound was properly treated. She was given some clean clothes and food. Once she was feeling better, she and Aso began exploring their new home. They climbed to the top of one of the peaks and sat down. Helena stared out over the green forest below.

This is where we belong, Aso said. Not trapped in a cage.

I agree, Helena said, wrapping her arm around Aso. We are home.

Racing the Wind, Part 5

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Photo via VisualHunt.com

Angharad escaped her ecstatic mother, who was now in full planning mode for her daughter’s wedding. She made her way to the library. Eridan was waiting for her. “Your mother is very enthusiastic,” he said. He was staring out the window and didn’t turn around.

“Both my mother and father were worried about the Right of Inheritance. Without a husband, I can’t inherit,” Angharad. “And you’ve met my brother. He would be the one who took my place.”

“I can see why they wanted me to win,” Eridan said. He turned and settled into a chair, his face in shadow. “Angharad, what I’m going to tell you is not a pretty tale. There is a reason my servants and I left our former liege lord’s lands, and it isn’t entirely because we wished to be free of the memories.”

Angharad settled into the chair beside his. “Tell me,” she said softly.

“I am the Red Bull’s youngest son, but not by his lady wife,” Eridan said, his voice barely above a whisper. “My mother was one of the many maids in the keep. I don’t know how many bastards my father sired, but I was the only one who showed my true parentage. The Red Bull decided that if I was going to appear as his son, he was going to train me to be one.”

“I take it that didn’t go well?” Angharad asked.

Eridan shook his head. “My half brothers despised me. My stepmother had my mother murdered, and then tried to kill me on more than one occasion.” He lifted his shirt and gestured to a thin scar across his right rib cage. “This is one of the few scars I have that didn’t come from battle. It was an assassin’s knife that gave me this. When I killed him, my father decided it would be better for me to join the army. So that is where I was sent.”

“How brutal,” Angharad said.

Eridan nodded. “You must understand, Angharad. I was nearly as tall as I am now at the age of twelve. I was also as thin as a post. I had no strength to speak of. I was uncoordinated, couldn’t even lift a proper sword, and when I tried to draw back a bowstring I might get it back an inch or two and then I’d lose hold of it.”

“That is the truth for any beginner,” Angharad said. “Do you think I could shoot as well as I do now when I first started?”

“I was a lord’s son – bastard or not – and there was an expectation of a level of skill I didn’t have,” Eridan said. “I was beaten regularly, forced to work harder than anyone else, and given very little while others were rewarded with things such as finer food, extra blankets, and more comforts. I grew to hate my father, for it was on his orders that this was happening to me.”

He was shaking. Angharad hesitantly slipped her hand on top of his. He grabbed hold and squeezed it, looking at her with gratitude as she drew him back out of his memory. “You said you were an officer when you first came here,” she said.

“I was, though the Red Bull would have forbidden it if he’d been aware of it,” Eridan said. “He was never very good with my name and when I was out of his sight for a while he soon lost interest in me. When that happened, the harsh treatment lessened and I was rewarded as liberally as the others. In spite of everything, I was still a highly educated young man and I could do things most of the others couldn’t, such as read and write. I picked up on strategy, reading maps, and reckoning distances and time by the location of the stars and the position of the sun and moon.”

“Those are all very useful,” Angharad said.

Eridan nodded. “As I continued to excel, my physical strength increased almost as fast as my mental acuity. I was sixteen when I was placed in control of a small group of scouts who were primarily archers. We were the advance party. We had to see who was in front of us. We did our job well only lost two out of twenty in the two years I served as their commander. At eighteen I was given command of a group of cavalry and led them into so many battles I can no longer recall how many.”

“The Mad King lives up to his name,” Angharad said.

Eridan said. “The Red Bull never disbanded his army. He never let us go home. Even when the Mad King didn’t need him, my father used us to expand his borders. We must have seized the lands of seventeen minor lords from the time I took control of the cavalry to the time my father fell at the hands of the Mad King’s executioner.”

“I thought the Red Bull died in battle,” Angharad said.

“That’s the story my stepmother and half brothers spread as fast as they could, to preserve my father’s honor,” Eridan said. “Instead of having him known as a traitor to the kingdom. But when my father died, I took the opportunity to leave. No lord was confirmed in his place, and all soldiers enslaved by my father were freed. I considered myself as a slave to him so I took one of the Writs of Freedom and left.”

“Who are the men who travel with you?” Angharad said.

“The last two members of my original scouting squad,” Eridan said. “Poor judgment and even poorer tactics wiped out the rest of them. When they saw me seize the chance, they grabbed theirs and followed me out. It took them a bit to find me, but they caught me just as I was about to fall on my sword.”

“Why would you do that?” Angharad asked.

“Look at me, Angharad. You find no disgust with my scars, but you are a rare person in this,” Eridan said. “Others aren’t so enlightened. I was driven from every town and village, usually at the point of a weapon, after being there only for a few hours. I was a monster in their eyes. I was unable to buy food, medicine for the wounds that were festering, or fodder for my horse. We were both starving and dying. I was done. I let my horse rest in a field full of tall grass and went a short distance away. Driscoll and Comgan came up at just the right time.”

“How did they stop  you?” Angharad said.

“Comgan grabbed me and Driscoll took my sword from me,” Eridan said. “We’ve stayed together since.” He paused. “Angharad, I am not going to be an easy man to live with. I think I love you, though I’ve not had much of that in my life so I don’t know that I’d recognize the feeling. I’ll do my best, but I can’t guarantee I’ll always be kind to you.”

“My grandfather, who fought just as you have, didn’t always treat my grandmother and my father well,” Angharad said. “He didn’t always treat me with kindness either, and I was a small child. But he loved all of us and did all he could to make up for those days when his memories clouded his mind.”

Eridan lifted the hand he held to his lips, leaning forward. “You are an amazing woman, Angharad. Nothing like any I have ever met.”

“Here, I was encouraged to be different, and I thrived,” Angharad said.

Racing the Wind, Part 4

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Photo credit: 10b travelling via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The next day Angharad led Eridan to a large field behind the keep. Several small cylinders were set up in a row with four of them wrapped in red cloth. “What is this?” Eridan asked.

“Archery,” Angharad said. “The goal is to hit the red targets.”

Eridan looked grim. “I have never been an archer,” he said. “This may end our courtship.”

Angharad fought to hide her disappointment. “You’ll never know until you try. The gods may favor you.” She lowered her voice. “As I do.”

Eridan raised an eyebrow but said nothing. The two of them took their places at the firing line. “Eridan, as the suitor, you have the right to choose. Do you wish to go first? Or would you prefer to see Angharad go before you?” Lord Idwal asked.

Eridan was silent for a moment. “I’d like to see Angharad shoot. I want to know what I’m up against.”

“Very well,” Lord Idwal said. “Angharad, take your place.”

Angharad stepped into place in front of the targets, which had been placed 180 yards ahead. It was just short of the farthest limit any longbow could reach. She took a few deep breaths and then fired the first of three arrows. The first one went wide, striking one of the dust colored cylinders. Her next two struck the red covered ones.

“That’s two out of four,” Angharad said, a slight catch in her voice as she stepped back. “You’ll have to hit all three to beat me.”

“Eridan, take your place,” Lord Idwal said.

Eridan took the spot that Angharad had just vacated. One of his servants handed him an ebony bow. Angharad marveled at the beauty. “Idwal, that could be a magic bow,” Lady Moirea said. “I’ve not seen one of that color before.”

“My lady, it isn’t magical,” Eridan said. “But if you wish to have your house mage examine it, I will allow that.” He paused. “If he puts a spell on it, I will kill him.”

The house mage was summoned. “Angharad, you hold the bow. You’ll know if I try to cast anything on it,” he said. Angharad accepted the bow. The mage closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, they were pure white. Then they returned to normal. “It’s an ordinary bow, my lord. Nothing strange about it, other than the fact that the wood comes from an ebony tree. It’s one of the rarest trees in existence and whoever gave this to him must have held him in high regard because there’s no way he would have been able to buy this on his own.” The mage bowed and he headed back to the keep.

Lord Idwal gestured to the faint line drawn in the dirt. “Eridan, take your place.”

Eridan moved to the spot once more. He drew out his first arrow and sighted down it. Angharad watched him take several deep breaths. He adjusted his stance and his grip. A light breeze picked up. Eridan changed the position of the bow. His eyes closed for a moment before he opened them and released the arrow.

Angharad held her breath as the black and silver projectile sped towards the tiny targets. It slammed into one of the top red cylinders. She bit back a cheer. He still had to take down two more.

Eridan lifted his second arrow and repeated the process. thwack A second target went down. Angharad clutched her bow in both hands. She began praying, begging the gods to give him the accuracy to remove the third target.

Eridan lowered his bow and wiped his forehead. He wiped his hands on his pants and motioned for his servant to bring him a cup of water. His eyes were haunted and he was as pale as the shirt he wore.

He lifted his bow one last time. He slowly sighted down the arrow, holding himself rock steady. His breathing was slow and mostly steady, though every now and then there was a minor hitch. Angharad clenched her teeth together, willing him strength.

Eridan released the arrow. A sudden gust kicked up some dust and the arrow’s trajectory shifted. Angharad gasped, sure her chance of having the man of her choice as a husband was gone.

Eridan grabbed a fourth arrow and shot quickly, knocking it back towards the target. Surprisingly, the trick worked. His third arrow slammed into a third red cylinder and it toppled over.

“That’s cheating,” Colum said, his words slurred. He slurped from a pitcher of wine, ignoring the dark red liquid slopping all over his tunic. “He shot a fourth arrow.”

“I see no cheating,” Angharad said. “If the wind can alter the direction of the arrow, there’s no reason why we can’t fix that. I’ve done it too, though I’ve never been that successful.”

Lord Idwal nodded. “Angharad is right, Colum. I’ve allowed her to do it. I’m going to accept Eridan doing the same thing.” He paused, then smiled at Eridan. “Eridan, congratulations. You have done what no other man has. You have won my daughter’s hand.”

Angharad dropped her bow and flung herself into Eridan’s arms. He grabbed her and pressed his lips against hers. She felt the scar. It was rough on her face, but she didn’t care. This is what she’d been dreaming of since they’d gone to get the horses.

“It seems our daughter approves,” Lady Moirea said wryly.

Angharad stepped back, blushing. “I’m sorry, Mother.”

“Don’t be,” Lady Moirea said. “The light in both of your eyes proves you two were meant for each other.”

“Come,” Lord Idwal said. “Tonight we will have the normal dinner. Tomorrow we feast!” Angharad followed her father into the keep, her fingers intertwined with Eridan’s. His hands were trembling and he was still pale. The haunted look hadn’t left him, but there was definitely some happiness there too.

Eridan took her hand and pressed it to his lips. “Join me in the library this evening, after dinner,” he murmured. “I will tell you why I look more like a ghost than a man right now.” Startled that he recognized what she thought, she nodded. He kissed the top of her head and they took their seats at the table.

Racing the Wind, Part 3

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Angharad gave Eridan a few days to recover from his journey before approaching him. “Are you ready for the first challenge?” she asked.

“I am,” he said, smiling. She loved how his eyes lit up and the scar puckered at the corner of his mouth. It gave his face character. Her brother called him ugly. He wasn’t handsome, but his face was intriguing and proved he was more than just another nobleman trying to add to his holdings. “What is this challenge?”

“Catching and riding one of the wild horses that roam the lands around our keep,” Angharad said. “They are notoriously difficult to handle, and any man who can tame one can hold my wild heart in his.”

“I will endeavor to do well in this, to please you and win your hand,” Eridan said, bowing.

Angharad blushed. She’d never blushed with any of her other suitors. She’d despised them. “Follow me,” she said, turning her back on him to hide her face. She led him down and out of the keep.

Two horses were saddled and waiting for them, all of the tools they’d need strapped to their saddles. She admired his horse once again. It was a beautiful animal. The blackness of its hide was so intense it swallowed the light.

Eridan mounted and waited for her to do the same. “Where do we ride?” he asked.

“I cannot say, for the location of the valley they dwell in is a secret I must keep from everyone but my suitors,” Angharad said. “And you must swear on the gods that you won’t tell anyone no matter the outcome of the challenges.”

“I so swear,” Eridan said solemnly.

“Then follow me,” Angharad said. She nudged her horse with her heels and pulled the reins to the left. She led the horse out of the keep’s gate and down the road.

It took three hours to get to the valley. Eridan made no complaint. He was so much better than any of her other suitors. She prayed to the gods he would win the challenges. She’d never wanted someone as much as she wanted him.

“They’re beautiful,” he said, breaking into her musings as they reached the entrance to the valley. The horses were milling around in plain sight.

She took a moment to admire the gorgeous scene. “They are,” she agreed. “This has always been one of my favorite places to come, even when I’m not trying to wrangle them. My father brought me here as soon as I got to an age where I could choose one to train so I could ride it.” She patted her horse’s neck. “Sinowa came from here. She’s one of the horses I caught during the challenges.”

“What do you do with the horses we catch?” Eridan asked.

“We sell them, unless one of the suitors wants theirs,” Angharad said. She dismounted, tying and hobbling her. Eridan followed her example. She grabbed her gear and led Eridan into the valley. “You go to the right. I go to the left. You have until the sun reaches its zenith to succeed or fail at the challenge.” Eridan nodded and slipped off.

Angharad made her way around the edge of the valley, searching for the perfect horse. Her mother was in need of a new one. Lady Moirea’s little mare was older than Angharad and the poor thing needed to be put out to pasture.

She saw a flash of white and focused on it. She saw a mare with a dark gray hide and a white mane and tail. She was something to behold, and she thought her mother would love her.

She shook the rope loose from her shoulder and began spinning it in the air. She flipped her wrist and sent the loop winging through the air. It wrapped around the horse’s neck and she caught it on the first try.

Of course the mare protested violently and Angharad was pulled in several directions. She gritted her teeth, planted her feet, braced herself, and leaned back with all her weight.

The horse finally stopped moving, but Angharad didn’t trust her. She kept the rope taut as she moved closer. As she got within arm’s reach the mare struck out with her teeth, trying to bite whatever she could reach. Angharad smacked her nose, something that startled the young mare.

“You keep to yourself, young miss,” Angharad said in a soft voice. She moved closer and began rubbing the horse’s neck. “You’re a pretty girl, aren’t you? Just think how gorgeous you’d be decked out in my family’s colors.”

Angharad pulled the saddle blanket off her back and tossed it over the horse’s back. The mare shied away, shaking to rid herself of the blanket. Angharad went over, picked it up, and put it back on the mare. She shook it off again.

It took nearly an hour before the horse finally let her put the blanket on. She walked the mare around, letting her get used to the blanket and the rope around her neck. Next came one of the hard parts. She pulled out a hackamore and tried to slip it over the mare’s face.

The mare was having none of that. She tried to bite Angharad again. She got smacked in the nose for her efforts. “I told you that wasn’t going to get you anywhere,” Angharad said. “Now, this isn’t all that bad. At least it isn’t the regular bridle. I strongly doubt you’d appreciate the standard bit and bridle.”

She glanced at the sky. She didn’t have much time left. She continued trying and finally got the hackamore on. She cut the walk short, only going in circles for a few minutes before taking hold of the reins attached to the hackamore and climbing on the horse’s back.

The mare exploded into a flurry of kicks and bucking. Angharad held on for dear life. She waited until the horse wore herself out. She tugged on the right hand rein and nudged the horse with her right foot. The horse turned to the right and started walking back towards the mouth of the valley.

Angharad reached the rendezvous spot and saw Eridan sitting astride a dark brown mare with white patches on the rump. “She gave me a lot of trouble,” he said as she came up. There was a fresh cut on his face and he was leaning forward a little. “But I got her before the time was up.”

Angharad smiled. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “Let’s tie these two to the backs of our saddles and take them home.”

“That sounds perfect,” Eridan said. They put words into actions and headed back to the keep.

To be continued…….

Racing the Wind, Part 2

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Angharad smiled at Eridan and opened the door. “Here then is your room. I hope you find it satisfactory.”

Eridan looked inside. “This is more than I expected to be given, Lady Angharad. You and your lord father are very generous.”

“We may put my suitors through rigorous challenges, but we want them to be comfortable while we do. There is no reason to treat them cruelly,” Angharad said. “And you don’t have to call me ‘lady.’ I have no rank until my parents die and I inherit the lands.”

Eridan nodded. “Angharad, I hope you don’t find me rude,” he began.

Angharad laughed. “I’ll leave you to your rest. We’ll send a servant to wake you for lunch.”

“Thank you,” Eridan said. “Could you have them knock? If I don’t answer, send for one of my men to enter and wake me. I can be violent if I’m startled awake.”

“That is a trait of a soldier who has seen too much,” Angharad said softly.

“You know?” Eridan asked.

“My grandfather fought in the Mad King’s grandfather’s wars. He was like that for as long as I can remember,” Angharad said. “He took his own life when I was a wee child.

“I have long thought of doing that,” Eridan said. “My two guards have kept me living even as I have kept them alive.” He paused. “Do not let this influence you. I want a true challenge when we compete.”

“I don’t let anything get in my way when I fight,” Angharad said.

“That’s good,” Eridan said. He walked into the room, his saddle bags over his shoulder, and closed the door behind him. Angharad went downstairs to her father’s office.

Her mother was there, along with her father. “What did you learn?” Lord Idwal asked.

“He is very tired, and his guards have kept him from committing suicide,” Angharad said. “We aren’t to send a servant in to wake him for lunch. We’re supposed to have them knock on the door. If he doesn’t respond we’re supposed to send for one of his men and have them go in and wake him up.”

“Did he say where he was from?” Lady Moirea asked.

Angharad shook her head. “We need to learn that at lunch,” Lord Idwal said. “If he has run from his rightful liege lord, instead of him dying and the soldiers gaining their freedom, we’ll have to send him back.”

Angharad sighed. “I know it must be done, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“You already like him?” Lady Moirea asked. “He’s ugly.”

“His mind is sharp and his body is fit in spite of the scars,” Angharad said. “I can see beauty in that.”

“You have a strange idea of beauty then,” Lady Moirea said.

“I just thought of something,” Angharad said. “Colum.”

“Your brother will make a fool of himself, and possibly insult our guest beyond the measure of patience he has,” Lord Idwal said.

“We can’t refuse him entry to the dining hall,” Lady Moirea said.

“Forbid him to speak,” Angharad said.

“You know that doesn’t work,” Lord Idwal said.

“I don’t want him to drive off the first suitor I truly hope can beat me,” Angharad said.

“Will you let him win?” Lady Moirea asked.

“No. He wants as much of a fight as much as I do,” Angharad said.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” Lord Idwal said.

Angharad nodded. “It’s time for my history lesson. I’m off to annoy Master Ruairi.” Lord Idwal laughed as Angharad skipped out of the room.

Her lessons went well and lunch was served. The servant was able to wake Eridan and he joined them. He looked better than he had when he arrived and smiled at everyone. Just as the servants laid out the meal, Colum staggered in, already drunk.

“Colum, you’re a disgrace,” Lord Idwal said in disgust.

“So you keep saying,” Colum said, slurring his words. He flopped down in his chair and took a swig from his jug. His eye fell on Eridan. “Who’s the ugly bastard making eyes at Angharad?”

“This is Eridan, a warrior of great renown,” Lord Idwal said. “He is her newest suitor.”

“Well I hope you’ve got wings, Ugly,” Colum said. “Angharad will outrun you and you’ll be sent off after the first challenge.”

“That test has been removed from the list of challenges,” Lord Idwal said. “And you will address our guest by his name or you won’t say anything at all.” Colum rolled his eyes, but started eating. Lord Idwal turned to Eridan. “Eridan, I know this will most likely upset you.”

“You wish to know who my liege lord was,” Eridan said. “To be certain I told you the truth.”

“Yes,” Lord Idwal said.

“You can understand our concern,” Lady Moirea said.

“I do, my lady,” Eridan said. “My liege was Lord Brogan, called the Red Bull.”

Lord Idwal stared at him. “You were the Red Bull’s soldier?”

“I was an officer, my lord,” Eridan said.

“You would have to be a nobleman,” Colum said. “Or at the least a knight.”

Eridan looked between Lord Idwal and Angharad. He took a deep breath. “I’m not a common man, my lord. I am the Red Bull’s youngest son. Because he considered me expendable he threw me into the army and forced me to march with him whenever he went out.”

“Then you are more than welcome in my house, Eridan,” Lord Idwal said. “I know of the Red Bull’s death, and how his sons were thrown out of their lands by the Mad King as a punishment for their father’s failure to capture some important prisoners.”

“Yes, the Mad King doesn’t appreciate failure,” Eridan said bitterly.

“Take your ease here for as long as you like,” Angharad said. “No matter the results of the challenges. You may stay as my personal guest if need be.”

Eridan smiled, his deep blue eyes lighting up. “Thank you, Angharad.” Conversation died down as they all settled in to eat.

To be continued……

A gift of freedom

natural-horses-nature

Photo via VisualHunt

Aleesia flattened herself behind a small rise in the ground. The herd was still grazing, though the grass was limited. The branches and dead trees provided a hazard to Aleesia and her team as they prepared to attempt a capture. Her client had specified which horse they wanted. She’d already located it and her team had a plan how to separate it from the rest of the herd.

“Jessa, Liesel, are you ready?” she whispered.

The elven twins flashed her a gesture, indicating their readiness. They didn’t speak the human tongue though they understood it. They considered it too crude to even attempt. Aleesia found that opinion amusing and accepted their peculiarity with good grace. Few other wranglers would have done so. But the twins made capturing animals much easier so she dealt with all of their odd habits.

Breton squirmed closer to her. His dark skin was a blot on the terrain and he was keeping himself even farther down the hill. “Are you sure you know which one it is?” he whispered.

“Yeah. It’s pretty distinctive, considering it’s the darkest one there,” Aleesia said. “Are you ready?” He nodded. “Jessa, Liesel, go.”

The twins slipped over the hill and vanished, using their magic to turn invisible. They would be moving into place on either side of the dark mare. Aleesia called her magic to her hands. She took a deep breath and gestured at one of the dead trees. It shattered with a loud noise.

The horses screamed in terror and took off running. The dark horse lunged after her herd but suddenly found herself unable to move. She strained against the invisible bonds holding her but couldn’t break them.

“My turn,” Breton said. He scrambled over the hill, the halter and rope in his hand. He approached the horse. The twins’ magic held it in place as he slipped the enchanted leather over the mare’s head. He attached the lead and took a good hold of it. “Okay, I’ve got her.”

The twins shed their invisibility and released the mare. The horse tried to rear but Breton’s great strength held her down. She snorted and struggled but he stood fast. Aleesia climbed over the hill and joined the others. “She’s beautiful,” she said.

“She’s really spirited too,” Breton said.

Aleesia felt a pang. The client who’d demanded this horse was brutal when he broke them. They were truly broken when he was finished. She’d be utterly without spirit or personality. “I hate turning her over to him,” she said.

Liesel made a few hand gestures. “Liesel has a point,” Breton said. “If we don’t we’ll lose our reputation and we won’t have work.”

“I know,” Aleesia said. She put a hand on the proud beast’s neck. “I’m sorry sweet lady.”

Don’t be sorry. Don’t do this. The voice echoed in all of their minds. All four of the wranglers jerked back and stared at the horse.

“You can speak?” Breton asked.

Yes. All of my herd can. The horse snorted. Did you think we were the ordinary dumb creatures who roam the plains to the east? They could not survive in these lands.

Jessa looked at Liesel. They spoke in their own language for a moment. Then Jessa made a face before turning to Aleesia. “This is not a horse,” she said, her words heavily accented. “This is a sithana.”

“What’s a sithana?” Aleesia asked.

We are kin to the elves and fae, the sithana said. We have existed in this world for millennia. We can take many forms, from gentle creatures such as my herd to those beasts you call imaginary – dragons, gryphons, and chimera to name a few.

“We should let her go,” Liesel said. “We will lose reputation but we will save a life as precious as our own.”

“How will we eat if we don’t deliver?” Breton asked.

Should you release me you will be granted good fortune, the sithana said. That I swear.

“She has the power to do that,” Jessa said. “She has more magic than us. She can do what the fae do.”

Aleesia was silent, thinking hard. “Breton, take off the harness.”

“Aleesia, we’re going to lose out on a lot of money,” Breton said.

“I won’t enslave a sentient being,” Aleesia said. “Release her.”

Breton scowled but did as he was told. The sithana shook her head and reared up on her hind legs. Good fortune is yours, wranglers. You will find it as you pursue your future. Farewell. She took off chasing after her herd.

Aleesia sighed. “Let’s go tell our client we couldn’t catch his horse. At least if we lie we can save some face.” The other three nodded and the wranglers headed back to their own mounts, each lost in their thoughts of the beautiful being they’d just set free.