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.

The wandering way

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A quick author’s note – a fit man can walk up to 96 miles in a twenty four hour period and elves in this world only need four hours of sleep, so keep that in mind when you see the numbers in this.

Sheridan sighed as he sat down on one of the many large white rocks along the edge of the path. He rubbed his calves. His traveling companion looked at him. “You grow tired, human. I thought you had the energy of an elf.”

It was the same joke as always. Sheridan rolled his eyes. “Your body outdoes mine every time, Rauvelore. You know that. Besides, we’ve also gone, what, forty miles already?”

Rauvelore chuckled. “Fifty three. Only seven more before we reach our destination. Surely you can last that long.”

Sheridan glanced at the sky. It was getting dark. “Let’s go. The sooner we get there the more sleep I get.” They set off again.

The last seven miles seemed to take an eternity, but finally they reached their next camping spot. Rauvelore got a fire going and Sheridan helped put up the tent. He filled his water bottle with the clear, fresh water.

Their meal was simple, and accompanied by a drink Rauvelore gave him that restored everything he’d lost during the day. It was both bitter and salty, so Sheridan chased it with water.

“You should go get some sleep, Sheridan. I will give you an extra hour since it is close to midnight,” Rauvelore said.

“Sounds good to me,” Sheridan said. “Good dreaming.”

Sheridan crawled into his tent and wrapped up in his sleeping bag. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. His dreams were haunted by the face of the woman he’d loved, the woman he’d killed by his own stupidity.

Emmi was everything Sheridan wanted in life. She wasn’t that pretty physically, but her soul was so vibrant it didn’t matter. It had been her laugh that attracted him to her in the first place. That and her high intelligence. The two of them met at a party and hit it off. She’d given him her number just before the night ended and he’d called her the next day and set up their first official date.

They’d been together three years when he proposed on Midsummer, a holiday the elves had taught the humans about when they emerged from their isolation. She accepted happily, jumping into his arms and kissing him quite thoroughly. They were so happy. She started planning the wedding, which was set for the following Midsummer.

The only blot on their happiness was his alcoholism. He’d started drinking when he was sixteen, a defense against his parents’ fights. It helped him go to sleep regardless of how loud they were. Then it helped him cope with the depression after his mother killed his father and went to jail for it. He was eighteen and didn’t need to go into foster care, but his two younger sisters did since the courts considered him an unfit guardian for them because of his age and financial status.

He continued drinking heavily as he got a job in the finance department of a local bank, went to college on their dime, and graduated with honors – all while drunk off his ass. He’d risen rapidly until – at twenty four – was named the youngest bank manager for a small, newly opened branch in West Virginia, which was where he met Emmi.

Emmi was forever trying to get him to quit drinking. He would try for her, but he kept going back to it when he had a rough time. Finally, one night, he was driving drunk though Emmi didn’t know. His reflexes were greatly reduced and when a car stopped suddenly in front of him he couldn’t stop in time. They slammed into the back of it at full speed. Emmi died instantly while Sheridan escaped with a few facial scars and a load of guilt that still weighed him down. He hadn’t taken a drop of alcohol since.

Rauvelore woke him the next morning, ignoring the dark circles and the haunted look in Sheridan’s eyes. They packed up and got back on the road. Four hours later, they reached a steep hill. “What I want you to see is at the top of this. It is not an easy climb,” Rauvelore said. “No human I have brought here has been able to get more than halfway up. Do you think you can get all the way to the top?”

Sheridan assessed the grade of the path. “I won’t know until I try.” They started climbing.

Sheridan reached the halfway point and wanted to stop. But he also didn’t want to be another failure for Rauvelore. So he kept quiet and continued to climb.

It took three hours to reach the top. By then, Sheridan was exhausted. Rauvelore waited for him to catch his breath before he gently took Sheridan’s shoulders and turned him. Sheridan stood straight and looked out over the countryside.

His jaw dropped. What he saw was a beautiful, hilly land with a long, white, curvy road winding between each hill. “What is this place?” Sheridan asked in a soft voice.

“This is the Long Road, something every Wanderer follows at least once in his life,” Rauvelore said, his voice equally as quiet. “He does not do it alone, though. He goes with a companion, a friend to keep him from feeling the weight of loneliness.” He paused. “I have tried to bring other elves here with me, but none of them have felt right. I am unique among my kind because I am more comfortable around humans. So I started bringing your kind with me. You are the first to reach this place.”

It took Sheridan a minute to process everything. “You consider me a friend?”

Rauvelore nodded. “I know your grief, Sheridan. I too lost a loved one to a terrible mistake.” He paused, his eyes the color of the ocean meeting Sheridan’s. “Will you walk the Long Road with me? To see what’s on the other end?”

Sheridan closed his eyes, thinking of everything held left behind to take up the life of a vagabond, following Rauvelore all over the world. They’d been together for the past three years, and the connection between them was very strong. Sheridan opened his eyes. “Yes, my friend. I will walk the Long Road with you.” Rauvelore smiled and the two of them took their first steps on a brand new adventure.

Racing the Wind, Part 6

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Photo via Visual Hunt

The skies were gray, but Angharad didn’t care. It had taken three long months but the day had finally come. Her mother fastened the lace covered gown and ran a brush through her daughter’s golden curls.

“You look beautiful, Angharad,” Lady Moirea said. “I think this is the first time I have seen you in anything so fine.”

“Yes, and unless my husband insists I go to court I won’t wear anything like this again,” Angharad said. “This is too easily damaged.”

“You are too rough and wild,” Lady Moirea said. “Your father did you no favors by letting you run free.”

“Mother, you’ve been saying that for years. Nothing will change the past, and I now have a husband who loves me for my spirit and will let me be who I am,” Angharad said. She turned and smiled at her mother. “You’re a wonderful chatelaine and absolutely brilliant when it comes to solving problems for the tenant farmers. I can only hope that, when the time comes, Eridan and I will be able to do half as good as you and father.”

Lady Moirea laughed and hugged her daughter, keeping an eye on the dress. “You two will rule in your own way, and do a good job. You work well together and know how to compromise, though sometimes you don’t right now.”

Angharad smiled ruefully. She and Eridan had their fair share of arguments over the past few months, mostly because both were equally as stubborn and when one got an idea in their head they didn’t want to give it up.

There was a knock on the door. Lord Idwal poked his head in. “Moirea, I need Angharad. She has one last custom she must fulfill before the ceremony. Eridan is already outside.”

“What does she have to do?” Moirea asked, puzzled.

“The Heir’s Climb,” Angharad said.

“Not the pyre,” Moirea said, her face aghast. “She’ll destroy her dress and injure herself. She could die.”

“If I’m careful I won’t,” Angharad said. “I can do this, Mother.” Lady Moirea still looked doubtful but followed when Idwal led his daughter out of the room.

Eridan stood not far from the huge pile of wood. “Your father told me about the custom. Are you sure you can do this?” he asked.

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” Angharad said. “I’ve scaled this thing dozens of times, even though I wasn’t supposed to. I knew my day would come and I wanted to be prepared.”

“Yes, but you weren’t constricted by a gown with a long, flowing skirt,” Eridan said. He gripped Angharad’s shoulders. “Please don’t make me watch another person I care about burn to death.” This was whispered in her ear.

“I won’t,” Angharad promised.

Angharad joined her father at the edge of the towering pile of wood. “Are you ready for this?” Lord Idwal asked in a low voice. Angharad just shrugged. Lord Idwal cleared his throat. “Angharad, daughter of Idwal, granddaughter of Oran, it is time to take your place as the inheritor of these lands.” He handed her a lit torch. “Climb as high as you can and light the fire.”

Angharad stared at the oil soaked wood. She looked down at her skirt and train. She reached down and looped the delicate lace over the arm that wasn’t on the side with the torch and began to climb.

Eridan had been right. It was much harder with the dress than her usual outfit. She didn’t get very far up before she realized if she went any higher she would tear something. She paused and then dropped her skirt. She let everything flow around her. “I am Angharad, daughter of Idwal, granddaughter of Oran. I claim Heir’s Rights as proclaimed by the ancient Laws of Blood.” She took a deep breath and hurled the torch as high as she could. It struck the wood and lit it immediately.

Angharad grabbed her skirt again and started climbing down. She moved as fast as she could, but between her gown and her more fragile shoes she was slowed more than she’d expected. She felt the heat as it got closer. She looked up and saw the flames were crawling closer to her outstretched hand.

She increased her speed, trying not to tangle herself in her skirt. Though she hadn’t climbed as high as she’d planned, the branches snagged at the fabric and she had to work it loose. It was slowing her descent just enough that the fire was catching up to her. The roar was drowning out everything below her.

She paused to untangle her skirt for the hundredth time when her upper hand erupted in pain. She screamed and yanked it down, forgetting her skirt in an attempt to brace herself. Her hand was badly burned. It wouldn’t hold her weight anymore.

She looked up. The flames were coming for her like an eager monster seeking to devour her. She glanced down, saw Eridan’s stricken face, the horror on her mother’s, the glee on her brother’s, the pain on her father’s. She gauged the distance to the ground. Taking a deep breath she let go of the wood and jumped.

She struck the ground and rolled. Eridan was at her side in a moment. “Angharad, Angharad, answer me,” he said.

Angharad dragged herself to her feet. “I’m alive,” she said, holding her hand against her chest. She took a moment to assess the rest of the damage to her body. “I’ve been burned badly, and I’ll be a lovely shade of purple in several places, but that’s it,” she said, leaning against Eridan as he held her.

“Let me see the hand,” the house mage said. Angharad held it out while Eridan only shifted his position enough to let her do it. The mage held his hands over it and muttered some strange words under his breath. The pain faded and as she watched the angry red color vanished. The blisters sank back into her skin, though they left behind terrible scarring. When the mage pulled his hands back, the only sign of the burn was the severe scars. “I can’t get rid of the scars. You’re stuck with them for life. But now the wedding can continue as planned.”

“After that fall? Angharad needs to rest. We have to postpone the ceremony until tomorrow,” Lady Moirea protested.

“If we do that, she’ll have to do this again,” Lord Idwal said. “She might not survive.”

“I’m fine, Mother,” Angharad said. “I want to go through with this.”

“All right,” Lady Moirea said.

Eridan wrapped one arm around her waist and held out his other so she could brace herself on it. “You’re hurt worse than you’re saying,” he whispered.

“I am, but as father says, I’d have to do this tomorrow and I don’t want to risk my life two days in a row,” Angharad said.

“Then let’s get this over with so I can get you to the healers,” Eridan said.

“That sounds like a great idea,” Angharad said. She rested most of her weight on her almost-husband and smiled. The gods had finally answered her prayers, though they’d tried to claim her life as their payment. Life with her beloved would be interesting, but it would definitely be worth every moment.

 

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 1

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Angharad laughed as Pirion tried to keep up with her. “You won’t win my hand that way,” she taunted, golden curls trailing behind her as she ran.

“How are you so gods cursed fast?” Pirion asked, panting from the exertion.

“I do not choose to spend my time caged by the conventions that govern most women,” Angharad said. “And my father approves.”

Pirion swore as she pulled even farther ahead. “If you keep this up the fae will come claim you as their own.”

Angharad smirked. She had heard that threat so many times in the past three years it no longer bothered her. She was the swiftest runner on the Verdant Isles, and many were the suitors who’d fallen in her wake. She wanted no man who couldn’t keep up with her in any challenge she gave him, and this was only the first of three.

Angharad reached her father’s keep before Pirion. She leaned against the apple tree that was the finish line, happily eating one of the ripe fruits dangling from it. Pirion finally stumbled up to her, gasping for breath. “You are not fit to be my husband,” she said, tossing the core into the bushes. “I will so tell my father.” She turned on her heel, ignoring his spluttering, and went inside.

“Could you not give him a chance, daughter?” Lady Moirea asked, giving her eldest child an exasperated look.

“No. He is a sniveling coward who can’t hold his own against a woman,” Angharad said, sipping the mead in her mug.

Lord Idwal sighed. “Angharad, I may have to take away your right of choice if you don’t pick soon. You have four years before you pass the age of inheritance. If you aren’t married by then, the estate goes to your younger brother.”

All three of them shared a sour look. Angharad’s younger brother was a drunk and a womanizer. He would ruin the family’s name and fortune if he got hold of the property.

“Very well, father,” Angharad said with a sigh. “I’ll remove the footrace from my requirements. But my other two challenges still stand.”

“That will have to do,” Lord Idwal said.

“Angharad, the archery challenge is just as difficult as the running challenge,” Lady Moirea said. “You are the best archer in your father’s lands.”

“Yes, but I must know my husband will be physically able to protect me and our children. I will not put a lord with no military skill in charge of our lands,” Angharad said. “Father knows what happened when his great-grandfather chose that fate for his own daughter.”

Lord Idwal nodded. “Moirea, it is only by the grace of the gods that my family still holds these lands because of that mistake. Angharad has the right of it.” Lady Moirea sighed and bowed her head in acquiescence. Angharad finished her drink and left her parents to discuss the business of the lord’s demesne.

Pirion left the next day, glaring at Angharad and her father as he went. Angharad sighed. Pirion was a good looking young man. If only his wits were as sharp as his tongue. She turned to go inside when her father put a hand on her arm. “It appears we have another guest, daughter. You will wait and greet them.”

Angharad turned back to the front gate. Three riders approached her father. They stopped their horses at the prescribed spot. One rode a midnight black horse. The other two rode a pair of matched silvery gray ones. The two guards – for that is who the ones on the gray horses were – dismounted and went to the lead horse. One held the reins while the other put his hand on the hilt of his sword as his master dismounted.

The man on the black horse, who also was clad in black, approached Lord Idwal. “Lord Idwal, I have come to claim the hand of your daughter Angharad,” he said. His voice was deep but melodious.

“I will not consider any man who does not show his face,” Lord Idwal said.

The man pushed back his hood. Lord Idwal paled but Angharad was intrigued. The man bore many scars, showing he’d been in several fights. “You are a warrior, my lord?” Angharad asked.

The man smiled, the scar on the left side of his lips puckering. “I have fought in every war the Mad King has called. My liege lord saw to that. But now he has died in one of those battles, and those who were sworn to his service are free.”

“Why did you choose to come here?” Lord Idwal asked.

“I have heard that Lady Angharad is a strong willed woman, whose skill as a warrior would match my own,” the man said. “I will wed no woman who cannot at the very least defend herself and our children should I be called away to battle once more.”

“I am pleased with the way you have presented yourself,” Lord Idwal said. “What is your name, good sir?”

“I am Eridan.”

“Be welcome, Eridan, and enter,” Lord Idwal said.

“My two companions – they are the only reason I yet live – are weary from our journey. Might they take rest with your guards?” Eridan asked. “They will cause no problems. They know they owe their freedom to me.”

“My captain will see to their comfort, for it’s obvious they are veterans as you are,” Lord Idwal said. The relief on the two men’s faces made Angharad smile. One of Lord Idwal’s guards called for the stablehands, and the guard captain escorted the other two soldiers away as Angharad and her father led Eridan into the manor.

 

To be continued…………..

A gift of freedom

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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.

Ancient drums of war

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Photo via VisualHunt.com

Eran Brant stared straight ahead with his whole body rigid. He’d been ordered to stand at attention and that was what he was doing. He was getting very good at following orders. Others around him were whispering or looking around, still rebellious, still angry. But not Eran. He’d learned his lesson after the last attempt at defying the commanding officers. He wasn’t going to do it again.

Lieutenant Nikolic glared at the recruits. “I said be silent and stand at attention. If I hear one more sound or see one more movement, those who are in defiance of my orders will be placed in the chamber.”

Eran shuddered. The chamber was the worst torture imaginable. These recruits who didn’t understand that were in for a horrifying experience. Most of the others fell quiet but there were a few who continued in spite of the threat. These were also the most outspoken against the new law forcing enlistment in the military for all men and women between the ages of twenty and twenty five.

Eran understood in theory. They were at war and it wasn’t going well. The kitathi were more numerous than the humans and their technology was more advanced. They were pounding the hell out of the beleaguered Terran League. People were too scared to join up, not wanting to die. Or worse. The kitathi were fond of taking prisoners and doing horrible things to them. What they returned to the Terran League when they were finished with the prisoners was too horrifying to think about.

“Cadets Lichtenberg, Lacy, Cartwright, and Grosso, step forward,” Lieutenant Nikolic barked.

“Make us,” Cadet Lichtenberg said. Nea Lichtenberg came from one of the most influential families in the Terran League and as such was utterly shocked that the recruitment order included her. She expected to be excluded, as the elite usually were. But the Senate made it clear no one was exempt from this order, which enraged the elite but they couldn’t do anything without running the risk of losing their positions and their wealth.

Lieutenant Nikolic grinned, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. “With pleasure.” He turned to the two stone faced soldiers behind him. “Sergeant Aleshire, Sergeant Ebner, bring those cadets up here. If they resist, use acceptable force.”

“Yes sir.” The two sergeants headed down into the mass of yellow shirted cadets. The rebellious cadets shifted their positions, ready for a fight. Unfortunately for them, the sergeants weren’t going to fight fair.

When the cadets showed they were going to be aggressive, Sergeant Aleshire pulled out a small pistol and shot all three of them. They went down screaming. Eran knew from personal experience that it didn’t shoot regular bullets. What hit you was a condensed electrical charge that momentarily fired off every nerve in your body. It left you paralyzed, barely able to breathe, for a few minutes. More than enough time for the sergeants to drag you to the front.

Which is what the grim faced soldiers did to the limp cadets. Once the three of them recovered enough to be able to stand, Lieutenant Nikolic looked at them coldly. “I think it’s time you three were introduced to the chamber.” He gestured and six other seasoned soldiers stepped forward. These men and women bore the scars of having been on the receiving end of kitathi attentions, though not to the extent of the POWs. They half carried the weakened cadets away. “Now, am I going to have any other insubordination here?” No one moved or spoke. “Good. It’s chow time, cadets. Fall in.”

Eran took up his usual position in the assigned line and waited for the command to march. Following orders was much less painful than being a rebel, and as long as he didn’t get captured by the kitathi his death would be clean and quick. Even if he had to end it himself before they took him. The order was given and he set out at a specific pace, his boots striking the metal floor in a particular rhythm. It matched everyone else’s, echoing through the room like ancient war drums.