Untitled serial

↖ Stories

Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 2

The midday sun burned down on Rowena’s back, making her heavy cloak uncomfortably hot. Ruts and potholes impeded her progress as she made her way along the muddy track, keeping to the edges where cartwheels hadn’t churned everything into a slippery morass. At least the heat had dried some of the mud.

Somebody followed a little distance behind, but that was nothing to worry of; on the road, there were only two directions and it was hardly unusual that somebody chose the same as she. In any case the other traveller was a single figure, while bandits lurked in groups and hid in ambush. She glanced back; he’d caught up a little, enough that she could make out the young man. He carried a pack, and a shortsword hung from his belt. When she looked around, he waved.

She ignored the gesture, continued on. The track rose steeply, sloping up the hillside among untidy scrubland. A few minutes ago she had passed the last of the fields; here, people kept goats, but it remained otherwise wild. The town below seemed small and distant, its little river a mere line of reflected sky. Up here the sharp-edged wind seemed refreshing and clear; it cooled the sweat from her brow, and tasted of freedom.

When she crested the summit, open country spread out in a wide vista ahead. Rolling hills shone green with summer growth, grass and bushes and stands of trees that grew gradually thicker until they merged into forested valleys. Birds squawked and sang, or hovered silently far overheard. Occasionally she spotted a goat or rabbit or fox, hurrying about on whatever business they had.

She sat on a rock that jutted from the hillside beside a tiny spring, and guided its water into her bottle with cupped hands. When it had filled, she meant to resume her journey at once; but the warm stone beneath her made a comfortable seat and she was loathe to move.

Which was how the other traveller caught up. She heard him before he arrived, heavy steps and gasping breath. The briefest glance showed that no, he wasn’t charging at her weapons drawn, so she looked resolutely away and waited.

His steps slowed until, curse it, he stopped on the road a few yards from her perch. ‘Hello…’

She shrugged her shoulders, not turning.

‘Um… Are you travelling alone?’

Not one to take a hint, this. She turned to face him – a young man, as she’d thought, well-equipped for travel with a proper pack and solid boots. He remained out of breath, and damp with sweat.

‘No, I’m at the head of the column,’ she said lazily, so that he probably had to strain to hear. ‘Ten thousand men, awaiting me’ every word.’

He actually looked. Where did he think she’d hidden the army – her back pocket?

Flushing, he persisted. ‘I just meant… you look a little young…’

‘No more than yerself, I’d bet.’

He frowned. ‘I’m seventeen.’

She nodded, not bothering to explain further. ‘Haven’t ye somewhere to be going?’

‘I’m headed to Chaldon. How about you?’

She almost lied, but what was the point – it was the only place this road led. ‘Same.’

‘Then why don’t we travel together? It’ll be safer.’ He held out a hand, reaching down to help her up. ‘I’m Arras.’

Ignoring the proffered assistance, she sprang neatly to her feet. She still had to look up to him, of course. Tall bastard. At least he wasn’t as huge as Voss. ‘Me name’s Rowena. And I can take care of meself.’

‘Two’s still safer than one,’ Arras urged, ‘and there might be bandits in those forests… I’d appreciate the company…’

But he said it to her retreating back. Rowena hurried onward, setting a fast pace down the muddy track. She half-ran down the steeper parts, almost stumbled over the ruts where a cart had crossed wide of the path. At the bottom of the dip she jumped a thin stream that trickled across the road, landing lightly in welcome shade from a small stand of alder trees.

She must have covered half a mile by now, at quite some pace. Sweat trickled down her face from the exertion and she found herself slightly out of breath. She turned – only to see the exasperating man just a few paces behind.

‘I won’t hurt you or anything,’ Arras said earnestly. ‘Truly…’

‘Damn right ye won’t.’ Rowena fingered the newly-acquired dagger that hung from a loop on her belt. Its smooth metal, cool against her damp fingers, reassured her. She’d made a gain today, whatever else might occur. ‘Ah, to hell wi’ it. Walk beside me, if it keeps ye from chasing me tail.’

He looked a little shocked at her cursing. That was something, at least.

They walked now in the blessed cool of deep forest. Tall beeches spread their thick canopy above the path, leaving only occasional shafts of bright sunlight that dazzled the eye and shone on the deep-green leaves. The lightest of breezes hissed softly over the treetops and tickled at Rowena’s short-cropped locks. After the earlier heat, it was a delightful feeling. She shook her head lazily, settling hair back into its place around soft-pointed ears.

‘You’re an elf!’ Arras exclaimed in startlement.

Such a lovely peace, shattered by this imbecile. Damn. ‘Quick off yer mark, I’m seein’.’

‘I’ve never seen an elf before. But you don’t… well, you don’t sound like one.’

She sighed, and made it very obvious; a moment later he realised what he’d said, and flushed. ‘Well, I mean, in the stories… elves live in forests and sing sweet music. And…’

‘And steal yer children,’ Rowena said pointedly. ‘… We’re in a forest now, aren’t we? And I’ll sing, if ye like.’

‘Oh! Please.’

Could he be so dense? A certain glee took her as she launched whole-heartedly into the bawdiest drinking song she knew. By the time the barmaid’s third suitor had found out about the whips and the chains, Arras blushed so red he almost glowed in the forest shade. She giggled herself to a halt, no longer able to contain her amusement.

‘You… ah… you do sing well, but…’ Arras managed.

She kept silent, enjoying his discomfort.

‘Where… where did you learn that?’

‘In a tavern,’ Rowena said unhelpfully, as that much was perfectly obvious. He’d only go on with more questions, so she relented. ‘My birth-mother and father dumped me with humans to be brought up, being as there’s no elven towns for a thousand miles.’

‘Oh. Um… I’m sorry.’

‘Why? I don’t care.’

He looked shocked. Again. But he shut up and they continued in silence, trudging through still-damp mud. The track wound and twisted through the forest, avoiding taller, ancient trees that nobody had troubled to fell. It continued mild and pleasant, with summer’s scent of life thick in the air. All around, birds twittered and squawked, and occasionally a frightened squirrel ran up a trunk to avoid their passing.

It was silence then that alerted her, a gradual lessening of birdsong that you might barely notice if you weren’t paying attention. She stared ahead, heart suddenly pounding, and slowed. The trail reached yet another corner, twisting left around a thick growth of holly that choked an enormous, dead trunk. Trees crowded in on either side, greedily seizing the chance left by their grey, wizened ancestor. In all it made a wide protective screen, ideal for ambush.

Metal chinked, the tiniest sound behind that corner, and she was certain. She grabbed Arras by the arm, holding a finger to her lips, and led him rightwards off the trail. Walking among the beeches was reasonably easy, their high branches and deep shade keeping the area largely free of undergrowth, and she ducked swiftly between the trunks.

Arras glanced at her, confused, and she gestured silence once more. They were headed directly away from the intended attack, gaining distance by every pace, and she glanced back to see nothing moving. Maybe they’d get safely away…

Shouts rang out behind, men cursing. She gave up on secrecy and shifted into a sprint. Arras, wide-eyed with surprise, kept pace beside her. They crossed into the sudden light of a clearing, almost blinding in its intensity, and stumbled around the bushes that grew there in abundance. Bramble thorns tore painfully into her legs, but she ignored the distraction.

Ro–’ It was almost a squeak, but he grabbed at her shoulder and then she saw them; two of the outlaws come from somewhere else, heavy-set men charging around the clearing with swords drawn. The attackers were only yards distant and she saw the scene almost in slow motion, as Arras pulled his own weapon free. It came loose with a grinding ssssst and he turned to face the grizzled, hard-eyed attackers.

Fuck!’ Rowena froze, panicked. What the– how the–

Confused indecision seared through her mind and, with no other thought, she reached for her dagger.

Like that would help.