SNAGGING THORNS RIPPED at Elowen’s dress as she clambered through the tangled thickets. If she knew she would be running through the forest in a bitter gale with someone pursuing her escape, she would have bolted her door shut and never had gone outside.
Branches enslaved by the wind’s rage lashed at her, leaving bloody welts over her already battered skin. Everything about the dusk was wrong and unjust. She didn’t know the men and believed them when they said they were lost. That they wanted nothing more from her than directions.
Tender bruises throbbed along her cheekbone and jaw. Even her teeth felt bruised. One whole side of her cheek was swelling from a fist connecting with it and her head still ached from the way her brain jarred against her skull from the force.
The consequence of her naiveté and refusing their advances.
The men were stronger than her and thirsting for the blood of the innocent. To deny them her violation had given them a reason to bring forward what they were planning to do to her once they were done.
A bloody undeserved end of a girl of seventeen years.
Elowen wouldn’t let them have that satisfaction. Breaking free from the forest’s claws, she scrambled towards a staggered slope. The rain had only stopped at dawn after pouring for two days straight. As she slipped and stumbled to reach the top, stagnant moss and mottled bark stuck to her like ivy to stone.
As she got back on her feet, cries from deep hollows screeched into the dark. She whipped around, scanning the forest. Her heart pounded painfully against her ribs, pumping cold fear through her veins.
Where am I? She’d been running for so long, changing directions so many times, now night had almost descended. The forest would be too shadowed to see soon, but the only route ahead led deeper into the forest’s depths and its darkness. It was death by a blade or at the bottom of a ditch if she kept running blind like this.
‘Come on, think!’ she growled to herself. She knew she had to get to safety before the woodland became her tomb. ‘Which way is safe?’
Snap! A twig broke underfoot from somewhere behind her.
Had they caught up to her?
She slowed to listen. Every knock and rustle darted her head around like an owl seeking a wounded vole.
‘Where are you?’ the roughness of a man’s voice called out.
Her muscles tensed. She wasn’t alone.
Frantically, she raced forward, searching for somewhere to hide. There had to be somewhere. Anywhere.
Spotting a rotten stump strangled with ivy, she scurried behind it and ducked down, clasping her hands over her mouth.
How near is he? How determined is he to bleed me dry?
Too scared to move or even breathe, she waited, praying the stump was large enough to hide her silhouette. Her aching bruises proved she couldn’t defend herself against one of these men, let alone if his other two companions were with him.
None of this was fair. She should’ve been sitting by her hearth with only the cares of what seeds to sow in the garden during her father’s absence, not running for her life through the dark. Her beaten cottage farther back in the woodland had been her home since birth. The forest surrounding it held safety with her father, hiding them away from the chaos of the distant village life.
Now she saw only the rotting boughs of centuries-old trees sprawling their limbs towards her like shadows reaching for their prey. She wanted to go home, but how could she? Its safety was forever gone.
For several minutes she waited. After not hearing any footsteps approaching her hiding spot, she nervously peered over the stump.
No one was there.
The wind howled as if angered by her insolence to hide at all.
She intently listened for any hints of the gale carrying his voice from far back in the maze of twisted copses. Maybe he wasn’t close at all.
Slowly, she removed her hands from her mouth.
If he was lost as well, all she could do was hope he’d meet his end wandering the endless reaches of this forsaken woodland. There were no arms she could run to. No walls she knew of within distance to keep her safe. Her mother had passed away two winters ago, and the forest was too vast to know of any other life within it.
How could she find refuge when she didn’t even know where refuge was? If his singular voice meant he was alone, there were still two other men out here desiring to watch her bleed.
The wind whistled. Its frenzied flight made her dress billow around her legs and sent an icy shiver skittering over her chilled skin. She clenched her fists, trying to rid them of the cold.
She knew she couldn’t stay hiding behind the stump. If she remained, exposure would take her before a blade even came near. A better alternative to what the men had planned, but she’s a fighter. Her father had always said so with every argument she’d won.
She peered over her shoulder at the way she’d come.
Someone was out there. She could feel him watching, waiting to see what she’d do. She was fooling herself to believe the distant voice of one of her pursuers meant he may have lost his way.
Taking a steady breath, she jumped to her feet and broke into a sprint. She had to survive. It’s all she understood as the shadows of the forest swallowed her. It was her life, not theirs. If she was to die, it would be on her terms and her decision to fade away.
Every direction bearing an easy route she diverted and took the hardest in the hope it would slow them down. Fallen trees lay across ditches. She went around them and forced herself through matted weaves. If nothing else, she had to make any attempt for these men to bleed her as difficult as she could.
The farther she ventured, the more her speed began to dwindle like she was wading through a thick swampland. The terrain evened out making it hard to choose a challenging route. Trying to keep herself alert, she shook her head and staggered towards the edge of a ravine. Gingerly, she peered over the edge with her teeth chattering uncontrollably in the icy gale.
A wave of black showed the forest continued below. She could see the rippling shadows of the treetops.
There was something familiar about this. Something she couldn’t see, but remembered.
A secret. A memory from her childhood when she’d play in the forest, undisturbed and alone.
Have I been here before?
She stumbled along the length of the drop and stopped at some bracken. If her memories were correct, the forest lagoon below could be the key to surviving the night. The men wouldn’t be able to find her and it would shelter her from the gale.
Carefully, she leant over the edge to inspect the side of the ravine. It’d been at least ten years since she chased a dancing light through the forest and found the muddy ledges descending into the dark. There wasn’t any dancing light this time and no carefree curiosity to find out where it had gone. The ledges were now time-worn and overgrown with nettles sprouting out from the ravine’s face, but it relieved her to find they were still intact.
She climbed down onto a ledge.
It broke. Time erosion had made it brittle. She gripped onto the next ledge and hissed as nettles stung into her fingers.
Pushing herself flat against the wall of the ravine, she looked down into the dark and swallowed. Nearly every ledge she could see strong enough to take her was drowning in the stinging weeds but there was no other way to get down. It was brave the ledges or die at the hands of those men.
She continued to descend. Every holding she took into the nettles made her hands lumpy and sore with their pinpricking hairs sticking into the soft pads of her fingers. She grimaced, wincing at the pain twinning with the swelling on her face.
‘I should’ve gone with father,’ she chastised herself. The journey to the market took days, not hours. She should’ve listened to his concerns about leaving her alone.
“A young woman alone lures those who desire their own pleasure.”
She didn’t go with him to sell the herbs they’d grown because she needed to show him she was a woman now. That she could look after herself.
Reaching for the next ledge, she tensed, bracing herself for the nettles strike. ‘Just keep going,’ she muttered and slid her foot to the next hardened clump of mud. She had to pull herself together. She would get nowhere if she didn’t keep a level head.
‘You can’t think of regrets when you’re nearly there. Listen…’
A torrent of water was starting to sing in her ears as if it was mimicking the sway of distant pine trees.
She glanced over her shoulder to the uneven ground below. There were only a few feet to go.
‘You can do this,’ she told herself. ‘You…’
She silenced as a scattering of leaves swept passed her from above.
She looked up to the top of the ravine and gasped. A figure distorted by the shadows stood over the ridge, watching her descent.
One of the men had found her!
She set to move quicker and grabbed for the next holding. Thorns growing amongst the weeds stabbed deep into her grip. She yelped, jerking her hand back and her footing slipped from the ledge. Her arms flailed for something to stop her from falling. Her hands latched around the nettles. They uprooted and sent her straight down.
A shout of pain left her lips as she landed hard on her back at the base of the ravine and smacked her head on the uneven ground. She blinked slowly. Her vision blurred the forest above like water was rippling over her eyes.
If I closed my eyes, will I wake to find my father at my side?
A thud returned her to her icy reality.
The dark figure had leapt to the ground from the lower ledges.
She groaned, forcing herself to turn over and drag herself along the dirt to get away.
A pair of hands shoved her onto her back and tightly grabbed her arms. A cloaked greying man, more than a decade older than her father, stood over her with fresh blood splattered over his face.
‘No!’ she gasped and struggled against his hold.
He pushed his weight down on her, pinning her to the ground.
Unable to move, her body shook in terror. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t ready. If her only crime was to inquire if the men had lost their way when they approached her home, then she’d done nothing to warrant her death.
‘Please…’ she slurred. Black spots danced around the edges of her vision, darkening her sight. ‘You don’t have to do this. I won’t tell anyone… what the three… of you… tried… to … do…’
Her head throbbed with each wave of pain blurring her sight more. Mercy was her only escape now. She plunged into darkness with a desperate fading plea leaving her lips. ‘Please… don’t kill… me…’
* * *
A CRACKLE OF EMBERS lured Elowen to open her eyes. A constant spinning blur matched her every blink to clear her vision. She re-closed her sight and waited for the blur to ease.
‘Father?’ she whispered.
She felt a light blanket being pulled over her. The scent of resin filled her nose as something soft gently dabbed her swollen cheek. She lay still, allowing it to wake her senses.
Tears tracked down her cheeks. ‘I should’ve gone with you. They tried to… they wanted to…’
The attention to her cheek slowed.
She took a shaky breath knowing she didn’t have to run anymore. She was finally safe and protected with arms she could trust.
‘I didn’t truly believe men like that existed,’ she admitted. ‘I didn’t understand why you always shadowed me when anyone approached our stall at the market.’
‘Then I hope you will heed to what your father tells you next time,’ a gruff voice replied. ‘Men worse than that exist.’
Her calm shattered and her eyes shot open, locking onto the greying man who’d pinned her, now holding a cloth and kneeling less than a foot away beside a campfire.
She ripped off the blanket and scrambled backwards, only to hit the wall of an entwined hide. She was blocked in!
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ he snapped as she scrambled past him on all fours. He got up and threw the cloth into the flames. ‘Get back here!’
Elowen’s fear returned in all its strength. Ignoring his demand, she stumbled to her feet and ran clear from the hide.
What the…? Her pace slowed to stop.
The night had settled its rage above the treetops, allowing a gazing glow of scattered moonlight to push through from above. Its shimmer touched a cascading waterfall spilling into a forest lagoon ahead of her. Smooth boulders glistened from the spray misting a thin cloud over pale bubbling lather. The falls were older than time itself, encased from view outside the ravine by moss-drenched rocks and elder boughs gnarled with age.
The corners of her eyes creased
This was the sanctuary she’d been trying to escape to. In her childhood, she often returned, curious to know if the dancing light she’d followed before it disappeared into the waterfall would reappear.
How could he have known of this place?
No one knew.
‘Don’t you ever do what you’re told?’ the man spat as he stepped out of the hide behind her.
She spun around to him, raising her hands at his approach.
A glint from the campfire drew her eyes to a leather bag on the ground just outside the hide. A dagger was poking out.
She had to stop him from pursuing her again. She darted for the bag, grabbing the blade and pointing it in his direction. ‘You will back away and allow my leave.’
‘Give that back!’ he glowered, closing in on her.
Her hand shook. He would have to kill her first before that would happen and she jabbed the blade in the air towards him.
He stopped and looked between her and the blade. ‘If you’re trying to threaten me, I recommend you think twice. The consequences of such actions won’t be to your liking.’
‘You’ll do as I say!’ she insisted.
‘I’ll do nothing of the sort until your brain returns to your head and remembers what happened, so put that down.’
‘Oh, I remember exactly. You stood in front of the door of my home, stopping me from going back inside. And then there were your two companions laughing at my tries to escape after you told me the three of you would use me as your whore before slitting my throat. Are you so stupid to think I wouldn’t run after you struck me?’
He raised a thick grey brow and rubbed his hands over his stubbled face. ‘The only stupid one I can see, then and now, is you.’
‘Insults will do you no favours, sir. It’s I who holds your blade.’
‘Enough of this,’ he growled and rushed forward quicker than a serpent’s tongue. With no time for her to react, he’d gotten behind her and ripped the dagger from her hand, holding it to her throat.
‘As I said,’ he said steadily in her ear. ‘Stupid.’
She swallowed. ‘Stupid because I’m not as quick as you?’
He removed the blade and put it back in his bag. ‘No, because you didn’t do as I said. When you scream for help and a stranger comes to your aid whilst—I might add—striking one of your attackers in the process and telling you to run behind him. What would you think the logical thing to do is? Hmm?’
Was that what happened? She studied his face. The man who hit her had green eyes not brown like his. After she was struck, her senses blurred, but there was someone. A dark figure. He sped out of the tree line ready to defend her.
She vaguely recalled the hood of his cloak slipping down as he swung his sword at her attacker and the blood from the impact that had splattered his face.
It was him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she apologised. ‘All I knew was to run.’
‘Well, you’re fast, Elowen. I’ll give you that. But there’s no reward when you’re air-headed. It surprised me you didn’t break your neck when you fell from those ledges.’
‘You know my name?’ Her brow rose in surprise. He stared at her with a cryptic expression. His weary brown eyes told her nothing. ‘How do you know my name? Tell me!’
‘I was passing through the forest by your home earlier. I heard your father speaking to you before he left.’
‘You were passing through?’ she repeated, unconvinced. ‘Passing from where? This forest runs for leagues.’
‘Does that matter compared to your reckless behaviour? Your father told you if you refused to journey with him, you weren’t to go outside when dusk fell. Your foolish defiance nearly got you killed. And don’t think I didn’t hear how long he will be away. He said at least two days. I hope you realise I’ve better things to do than minding his disobedient daughter.’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Then go. I’m not stopping you. Leave.’
He quirked a brow. ‘For him to return to find you dead? You want that for him, do you?’
‘Why should you care what happens to me?’
His eyes gave her a once-over, determining her worth. ‘Maybe I’m stupid too,’ he muttered, re-entering the hide and plopping down by the fire.
Was he? How could an old bag of bones like him move so fast? She examined him closely. Her eyes landed on the sword sheathed at his waist. It was plain, bearing no remarkable features at all, but so were the ones she’d seen in a picture of a storybook about the past King’s knights.
Could he be one of Arthur’s?
‘If you ran after me straight away after that man struck me, you would’ve caught up in no time,’ she remarked. He glanced at her and reached for a stick beside him to stoke the embers. ‘Did you kill all three of the men?’
His silence was all the answer she needed to know. He’d taken their death as a priority. She peered in disbelief at him. ‘You killed all three?’
‘They didn’t deserve to live,’ he muttered. ‘Now plant yourself out of the chill before your stupidity tries to prove my efforts were worthless.’
She moved back into the hide and sat down on the other side of the fire, opposite of him. ‘Have you killed others?’
A disregarded throw of the blanket towards her was his reply. She wrapped it around herself as he cast the stick into the flames and watched the fire’s dance, licking at the cold night air.
She looked around at the hide, wrinkling her nose at the musty smell coming from the branches. ‘So, we’re to stay here then?’ His complete lack of response frustrated her. ‘Well, you can at least tell me your name, can’t you?’
‘David,’ he uttered quietly to the flames. ‘My name is David.’
Her sight cast back to his sword. Her father had always disapproved of her reading about the past King and the knights under his reign. He’d always said the past was the past, so she’d read the fraying books he’d hid behind his clothing chest in secret. Tales she’d play out in her childhood beside these very falls.
This man’s skill showed he could fight well, and his age fell within Arthur’s reign, but not once had she come across the name David under the past King’s rule. Between the thick dirt under his nails and the last copper strands of his youth pulled back into a tangled ponytail with his matted grey locks, he looked more like a creature of the forest than a man of honour.
‘Are you a knight of the sword, David?’ she asked intrigued.
He stiffened. She thought he may not answer again.
‘A long time ago I was,’ he revealed to the embers.
A real knight. She’d never in her life thought she’d come across one. Not out here.
‘A trained warrior.’ She smiled with excitement. ‘I knew it. No one could be as fast as you if they weren’t. I’ve read so much about what happened back then. Did you go on quests with the King?’
He snorted. ‘Saving villages, rescuing maidens, that sort of thing?’
‘Yes. The stories say that—’
‘Fairy tales,’ he bitterly spat. ‘Veils with only a glimmer of truth. No such tales would tell of the constant watch of slaughter, the cold pain of losing a fight, and your clothes permanently stained in blood. The stories you’ve read have placed your head in the clouds. Fabricated and ridiculous.’
‘So, Arthur wasn’t real?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘He was real but I wasn’t from his court. I stood with the Phoenix Order. We denied a monarch.’
‘You denied a monarch?’ Her back stiffened with caution. Maybe he wasn’t the hero she’d believed. ‘That’s treason, isn’t it?’
‘Not for the Orders in the Pact. It was accepted for us alone.’
‘What Orders? Are they still formed?’
‘There are small factions of the others, but…’ He closed his eyes, rubbing the lines in his forehead. ‘It’s complicated, alright.’ He let out a rumbling growl. ‘Look, just accept the tales you’ve read and be done with this.’
He pulled his cloak tight and stared at the fire.
‘But you just said…’ She could’ve growled just as well as him at his refusal to say. Ever since she was a child, the knights of old fascinated her but the only stories she’d read were those from Arthur’s court.
She surveyed him in his silence. ‘A tale is only complicated if it has no beginning. If you believe I place my head in the clouds, then correct me.’
He stirred his sight over to her and curiously studied her face.
‘I will listen.’ She smiled. ‘I want to know.’
‘You want to know?’ His mouth opened in shock and his eyes even wider as if she was made from the richest of jewels.
Why was he staring at her like that? It was making her feel uncomfortable.
‘Well?’ Her patience dulled. ‘Are you going to tell me what happened to the Orders or not?’
‘If it stops your constant questions, then yes,’ he snipped. ‘But to understand fully, you must be prepared to understand it all.’
‘Understand all of what?’
He shook his head with a quiet angered sigh at yet another question. She pursed her lips. Remarkably, it calmed his tone. ‘For others, what happened to the Orders began greater than the age I bear now. For me, what happened began when I was a child.’
His eyes travelled over her face, pausing on her bruises. Something shifted in his expression, softened. ‘In the vast forests towards the north of Britannia, not far from where the dividing wall separates the land of Caledonia, nestled a flourishing village. As a young boy, I lived on the outskirts with my father.’
He took a deep breath and moved his sight to the flames.
‘His name was Lughus…’
COPYRIGHT S.L. BRIDEN