Claiming an Ally Ch. 05bytitania123©
As always, thank you for your comments. They are usually the highlight of my day to read how you've enjoyed the story. Also thanks for the suggestions, I take what you say to heart and use it to continually improve. This chapter sets us up for the end (hopefully). I'd like to finish it in the next chapter and have it posted within two weeks. Thank you again, and please, leave comments on what you liked and how I could improve in my writing
The cool, damp morning air rushed harshly into her lungs; her heart slammed ferociously, sending the potent blood to her aching limbs. Her hair had fallen from its braid once more and streamed in violent torrents behind her, flying like a tattered banner. She dodged as gracefully as her fatigued legs allowed around trees, under branches, over fallen logs. Her cloak tangled her, slowing her escape.
The rising sun continually provided more and more soft, gray light to filter into the woods as she ran for her escape. A soft rumbling that had accompanied her through the night warned of coming rain. Morning birds fluttered and fought over their breakfast. The wind picked up, rustling the tops of trees, dipping down to shake the ferns. She neither heard nor saw any of it as the blood rushed in her ears, like waves slamming into shore. Only the clamor of straining feet and labored breaths close behind her cut through her terror to send her raging onward.
Once in the night Emera had stopped to eat part of the food Robert had wrapped for her. She leant against a tree along the road, her tired and eviscerated mind shutting down, sending splintered and shattered thoughts of pain out to deaden her spirit. Given her physical and emotional state, it was a feat she had eaten the five bites she did, even more so that she kept the contents of her stomach in place.
She trudged on through the empty darkness. The obsidian sky glittered with sharp lights vibrating indiscernibly. The air hung with portents; animals called from their safe homes. None of these filled her soul. She was a void, her sleep-deprived mind only able to form heavy thoughts that slipped like sludge from her consciousness. She had been robbed. He had viciously stolen from her and left a ragged, hollowed-out carcass. Though she was moving toward home, her journey felt purposeless.
As dawn approached, she decided the safest avenue of travel would be just off the road in the woods. Emera's deadened mind stirred to life when the smell of smoke wafted by her. Its scent was comforting, filling her with feelings she found in the warmth and comfort of a fireside meal with her father. Her mind scrambled to place the scene in the current context she found herself. Her head shot up as she quickly searched for a fire. She stopped walking when she spotted a group men sitting around the dancing flames. Invisible. Be invisible. Don't see me, she commanded with her mind. But they had.
One shouted and pointed at her. "Who goes there?" a gruffed and unrefined voice yelled. He sounded like a fierce wolf defending his territory. The campfire's orange glow illuminated the figures as they rose to standing.
Emera's stomach fell out with an uncomfortable surge of nerves. Mindlessly, she backed up. They moved towards her. "It's a woman," she heard a voice mutter. Their speed picked up as they approached. Turning, she bolted from them, praying the forest would hide her from their evil eyes.
She ran for as long as her strength would carry her. But the men gave no hint of giving up their pursuit; they would run her until she dropped. After she stumbled a third time, she knew she could not hold out much longer; her body was failing to obey her commanding mind.
Emera broke free of the trees to run into a clearing with short, green grass and emerging crocus. This is as good of place as any, she thought. With all the bravery she could muster, she turned, allowing the sharp focus of a warrior to pour down her, calming her nerves and training her eyes onto the four approaching men.
She drew her short sword and positioned herself, ready to fight. Emera did not notice the dirt that covered their unshaven faces or tattered clothing. She didn't see the missing teeth or the dull blue eyes of the nearest man. She only saw what she needed to.
Almost ten men of similar dress and demeanor began to slowly encircle her. She quickly thought back to Edich's admonishment at her plucky claim she was capable of traveling alone. She shook herself free of his memory. Focus.
She noted which ones had visible weapons, which had limps, which had more strength than the others. The man in front, apparently the leader, was over six feet and well muscled. He held his sword like a soldier. His eyes full of confidence in his movement. The rest hung in the back, waiting for the strike. One ruffian with a knife held it as any common dolt might, and not as though he could throw it with accuracy or strike with strength and precision.
She could tell by their various approaches and attitudes they would not fight well as a unit and she would have the best chance taking them out one by one. Start with the leader. The others might flee if he goes down. She fastened her attention on the tall brute. He's stronger; fight with finesse. Quick, fluid motions.
"And just what are you staring at? Think you can take us all out?" he mocked. The men chuckled. When Emera made no reply but eyed him calmly, his cruel smirk lost its humor, leaving it just cruel. "Thane," his coarse voice snipped.
Despite her planning, the man to her right attacked instead. His lunge was sloppy. She dodged quickly, making a small sweep to the back off his leg, cutting the tendons at his knee. He turned as he buckled to the ground. Without thought or hesitation, Emera's sword flew again, slicing dully across the fatty throat.
The large man was at her back before she could reposition herself. He grabbed her, spinning her around. He struck her cheek with a quiet thud, her head exploding in nauseating pain. She was on the ground, her vision blurred, unable to focus on the feet approaching. She heard his laugh.
She concentrated on breathing deep and slow, stabilizing her nausea. Her vision normalized, thoughts began to take shape in the form of words again. Get up! she screamed at herself. Vulnerable, don't be vulnerable! Her hand clasped the sword again as her body clenched in defense. She slowly raised herself to her knees. She was about to stand to her feet when her wild hair was grasped with great force, holding her in place. He stepped on the blade, effectively stripping it from her hand.
"Wait a minute. I think I like you in this position," he sneered lecherously. She vaguely heard the men behind her laugh at the insinuation.
Emera's hands were on his, attempting to refrain him from pulling too hard. She looked up at him, her eyes having found the daggers her hand had lost. He huffed amused at her spirit. It would be beautiful to strip it from her.
He opened his mouth to give a command, but was stopped when a shrill whistle cut through the morning air. He spun around. "Hault! Lay down your weapons!" Emera knew that voice.
Edrich traveled in the growing light with an intense urgency burning in him. When he had found her gone, a fear he had never before felt invaded the deepest part of his soul, freezing it to its shattering point. His mind tried to unravel her mysterious disappearance.
Obviously she had been freed even though the key still hung on the little hook in the stairwell. But the door stood open without force and therefore must have been unlocked from the outside. While he felt betrayed by whoever had let her out, he knew she had been viciously wronged. Therefore, to free her, in some way, must have been right. Someone betrayed him by doing the right thing. That stabbed him in the chest causing his heart to clench painfully. He was wrong, in everything.
He had put off the search for a few hours, waiting for the approaching dawn. In the early hours of the morning, the sun still hours away, he could wait no longer. Calling for his best hunting hound, he held the sheet she had wrapped her luscious body in until the dog was able to pick up her lingering scent in the courtyard. She couldn't have traveled too far.
The dog lead Edrich for nearly three hours before the trees in the valley thickened, forming the great forest. The only peace Edrich felt came from the fact his hound was on her trail and he had never failed to lead him to his quarry. The dog left the road, charging up an embankment and out of sight.
Edrich spurred his steed onward, climbing the steep face of the slippery hill into the sparse forest. Leaves of last fall still coated the ground. Moisture-laden, they stuck in thick clumps to the stallions black hooves, flying chaotically as the horse picked up speed at the top of the climb. She had left the road, and was weaving through the greening forest.
The hound called to him, bound to her scent, pulling him rushing forward. Soon she would be in his arms. Soon the end would begin. The dog's aggressive and assured hunt told him he was getting closer. They raced in tandem until they passed a smoldering fire. The dog sniffed the ground in circles several times. Edrich immediately knew she would not have built the fire, drawing as little attention to herself as possible; the fact that her scent did not go to the fire pit but stayed several yards away confirmed it. His eyes shot wide; there were others on her trail. Perhaps they've already captured her?!
The dog bounded off again, its mournful bay ringing out through the trees. Edrich followed until at last they came upon a soft ridge that eased down into a small clearing. He called for his dog to heal. The ever restless dog stood and pranced around the horse, eager to continue the chase, his prey within sight.
Edrich's heart froze as he watched the gang of men slowly encircle Em. She took the first down with such velocity and skill he had little time to react before the leader grabbed her and hit her, sending her to the ground. The man will die.
Edrich shouted his orders, effectively stopping them from further attacking her, even if momentarily.
"And who commands it so?" the ruffian returned.
"The king! Step away from the woman!"
"And if I don't?"
"Your life is forfeit." The man at last moved to the side, allowing Emera a view of her savior and destroyer. He held her gaze for a moment, her apprehension both simultaneously suspended and ignited anew. She breathed once, then twice. She then quickly regained her wits; he was distracted, his back to her. Snatching her sword, she stood and, in one powerful lunge, bathed her blade in his blood. He fell slowly, dragging the sword from her hands.
Shaking, she looked down at the dead man and then up at the on rushing storm of terror. Edrich charged at them, sword brandished high. The men dashed forward as well, as though the thunderous hooves would not carry him to them fast enough. Weapons in hand, they threw all their might into dismounting him. He fought back with a fearsome offense. One, two, and then three of the men had fallen, their blood pouring from their fatal wounds. The criminals were able to land a few blows of their own, slicing him on his thigh and in his side.
As he was turned to his left attacking, a large man on his right grabbed his clothing and pulled him violently to the ground. Instantly, the remaining men were upon him, fists and metal railing against his felled body in chaotic fury. His hound charged into the fray, effectively tearing a man off his master. Edrich managed to get to his knees, but the large man kicked him in the stomach, sending him sprawling once more.
Emera stood dazed. She was overtaken suddenly with great fear. Not for her life, but for his. She charged forward, slicing one man across the back. A second turned, but was unable to stop her from running him through. He collapsed to his knees, his startled eyes slowly fading into nothingness.
The last man, the large one that had thrown Edrich from his horse had turned his attention to her. He picked up a sword and took a challenging step towards Emera. His strike was quick and powerful. Emera's sword flew up in defense. The force of the blow vibrated down the blade, tearing painfully through her hands and up her arms. The second was even more skilled and it caused her to step to the side to dodge it, throwing her off balance. His last approach was even more violent than the first and knocked her completely off her feet.
As Emera struggled to sit upright, his mammoth frame shadowed over her. His sword was raised for the finishing slice when he was kicked from behind. He immediately turned to face Edrich, who had regained his feet and his sword. Though he was badly damaged, he engaged the man, striking with skill that far eclipsed his opponent. Edrich's attack was relentless as he lunged and struck with the precision refined from years of disciplined practice. The man, tired and frustrated at failing to land a blow, became overly eager with a lunge. Edrich quickly blocked and turned round so he faced the attacker's back. Before the man could position himself to defend, the king drove his sword into his back, stopping only when the hilt made contact.
Emera watched in nauseating horror at the sight of Edrich's blade impaling the supposed strong man. Her greatest enemy had so easily and powerfully dispatched her pursuers, she was torn from fear and relief. Edrich kicked him, prying him off his sword. The man fell face forward onto the ground in front of her. Emera looked up into Edrich's bloody face, unaware her heart had stopped beating.
Her insides were a tangle of warring emotions. She had run from him, escaped his castle and therefore flouting his authority. She knew her punishment would be severe. On the other hand, he had just saved her from a torture worse than death. She felt oddly saved by him. A short moment of warmth washed over her. She wanted to hug him, to let him hold her safely. But she remained where she was.
Edrich, however, was not so passive. He stepped over the dead body in unsteady gait, on wobbly legs, his head sloshing about in pain. A shaking, bloody hand reached out to stroke her brow.
"Are you harmed in any way?" His voice was hoarse and his breathing labored.
She saw the worry in his eyes, even through the blood that poured down from his brow. He had several welts over his face that foretold of bruises to come. Part of his hair was messed by blood and dirt. His clothes were also dirty. She cringed at the sight of the dark crimson pouring from the gashes and cuts along his body. He had stood between her and danger. For what purpose? To take her back? To keep her his slaver forever?
She quickly stepped back and clutched her sword in her hands, her knuckles turning white. She had her freedom; she only now realized she would have to fight to keep it. After the melee she just witnessed, she knew she could not defeat the man who had slain the six or so men single-handedly. Still, she would rather die than go back, rather end than continue bound to him by her perfidious body. Perhaps he was too tired and weak to chase her.
His face grew serious, though softened by confusion at her reaction to him. Before he understood her intent, she turned and sprinted away. His body gave his mind no time to contemplate a course of action. Instead, he sprung after her like a wolf chasing his prey. The searing pain in his legs shot to his mind, but only for the first step and then was quickly forgotten. She was faster than him at that moment, but seeing the distance grow between them, he surged forward. As she clamored to race up a hill, he jumped and wrapped his arms around her. The two fell and softly rolled down.
His hound was at his side immediately, snarling at the girl. She was railing against him with her hands. "No! Let me go! I'm not going back! I'd rather die!" she shouted over and over at him.
To still her fight, he pinned her struggling hands above her head and used the weight of his body to overcome her thrashing about. "Emera, stop fighting me and listen!" The position only inflamed her further. Was he planning to force himself on her again!
But then she stopped, realizing what he said. Emera. He knew her name, her real name. He knew who she was? "What? Edrich, what did you call me?"
He sighed in relief as she settled, her attention now under his control. "Emera. You are Emera, the princess of Adalynd, are you not?"
"How-how do you know that? How long have you known?" The endless possibilities flew through her mind.
He paused momentarily, gathering his thoughts. He did not think he had the energy to proceed fully. However, he knew she wouldn't leave him be, leave the topic unfinished. She would question him until she knew everything he did. "Since last night. My scouts found Glenna and brought her to me." Her eyes widened in fear. He quickly relieved them. "She is fine. No harm came to her and no harm will. She explained everything." He took a moment to judge her reaction.
Emera stared up at him. "Would you mind getting off me?"
Edrich was beginning to think loosing contact with her body was painful, but he knew she needed space apart from him to feel safe. He felt desperately saddened that he did not bring her comfort or a feeling of protection.
She regarded him, with his knees bent up and arms laid overtop. His head was bent. She thought she had seen anguish mar his face before moving. He was a mystery. He had pursued her for physical pleasure while they travelled. But he obviously had no feelings for her since he so easily believed Jenner's lies and allowed him to abuse her. But then he let his anger bleed away by consoling himself with her body. Now, upon knowing her true identity, he fought for her, bled for her, and seemed somewhat pained by her apparent rejection of him. She didn't understand him in the least.
They remained in silence, neither knowing what to say. When Edrich could bear it no longer, he began attempting to repair what he had so brutally damaged. "Emera, I was wrong. I was wrong to not trust my instincts that you weren't what Jenner accused you of being. You aren't an evil person, you aren't a manipulator. I felt that, but...I was scared and hurt at the possibility, it made me angry. And he knew that. Jenner knew my pride would be pricked if I felt betrayed or manipulated by someone I desired."
Though he never looked at her, she could see he was crushed by his weakness that Jenner had exploited to harm her. She sighed. "Yes, I fear he did the same to me." He looked up at her questioning. She gave a small, reluctant smile. "You see, when he came to bring me to your tent, he told me you wanted me beaten badly. He said you had laughed at my fighting skills and that I annoyed you. You only tolerated me because you wanted to..." she left the statement unfinished as she scowled in pain and looked away. "He knew his words would enrage me. He played me for a fool, too."
"I'm sorry." A lump had lodged itself, blocking the passage of air, disabling him from swallowing. He had wronged her, and the regret, guilt, and grief overwhelmed him. He wanted to apologize, wanted things righted. But he knew it would not erase the abuse and hurt of mistrust. It would not heal her heart, would not bring her closer to him.
Though it was completely against his capable, controlling nature, he knew only one way to proceed. With vulnerable need, just as Emera had approached him. "Emera, I was wrong, at every turn," his confession breaking in his voice. "I foolishly believed lies without seeking the truth. I treated you disgustingly, my own arrogance justifying my repugnant behavior." He watched her reaction, seeking words to explain his position. "I will not make war on your country. I am at your disposal to see you safely home. I-I will submit to any sanctions you decide on for my behavior." Though his words were meant to kindle forgiveness and understanding, the only served to fan the flame of indignant anger buried in her heart.