2-Aiden’s War

Here’s a sample of the upcoming new Fantasy adventure, Aiden’s War, where all the fairy tales are real,  including the fairies.

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Chapter 1 – Jaelith

They met almost every day by the small rill of water that ran between two folds of a hill, dappled by trees and little yellow and blue flowers that ran along the edges. Maybe the elves lived here long ago, and put their magic on the land. The sun always seemed brighter, the air clean and crisp, the smell of green grass and the faint perfume of flowers giving the world a young, newly made sheen.

Aiden Quell didn’t know who lived here before him, having made the long, arduous journey up from the south of Tinstil with his family – his father and mother, and his four younger sisters – trying to get away from the wars. Avenden seemed a peaceful, tranquil place after Tinstil. There were open fields aplenty. Room to grow and graze the herds. A place to rebuild. A place to recover. Maybe. If recovery was even possible. He wasn’t sure of that. Change and grief made moving on more difficult than he ever imagined possible. Could these months of peace make a difference?

So far.

Maybe.

He missed his brothers, Calen and Forb. It was hard, knowing he’d never see them again. Harder that no one knew exactly what had happened to them, only that they were presumed dead. Sometimes, he hoped they would both turn up, walking over the hills that rolled out of the Daerling Wood. But they’d been sent to the killing fields, caught in one of the worst battles of the war, so there wasn’t much hope that they’d survived. There wasn’t any news of them for nearly a year now.

It was worse suddenly being thrust into the role of eldest son. It was so much harder for his parents, but it was a change of such large proportion and sudden responsibility, Aiden wasn’t sure he was up for the task. His younger sisters looked up to him in a kind of dazed uncertainty that made him want to go off and find the men who had so hurt his family, and then…

He pulled in a breath, pushing from his eyes a length of dark hair the wind blew over, though there were some who said he walked with his head down so much that his hair permanently grew over his face. He had to stop thinking such dark and terrible thoughts. His parents needed him home. They wouldn’t suffer the loss of another child. He adjusted the long bow he carried over one shoulder, and leaned against a tree as he watched her.

She was a reason for him to stay right where he was and never go any further. He saw her for the first time almost the same day they pulled the wagon into the yard. Surely she must have elven blood in her veins as beautiful as she was – long, silken white hair, dark velvet eyes. Elves hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years. They were rumors. If they were ever real, he scoffed. It was said the Duchess had elven blood, the wife of the Lord Duke Rothrin.

As far as Aiden knew, Jaelith was just as human as he, but like the elves of legend, she was exceptionally beautiful. At least, he thought so. Maybe there were some who thought the whiteness of her hair odd and the paleness of her skin unusual. Maybe they thought she wasn’t of the elves, but of the Fae. If that were so, he hadn’t noticed that she had the mark all Fae supposedly had, and she was definitely missing the wings. She didn’t strike him as being dangerous or evil, qualities the Fae certainly had in abundance if the myths were true. Still, he looked on her as if he’d been cast under a spell.

It had taken him more than a few days of spying on her as she picked cresses by the waterside to make his presence known, and longer still to do more than stare at her. She laughed at him, at his reticence, at the bumbling awkwardness, but she talked to him as if she had known him her whole life. She was a kind soul. It took only moments, it seemed, to fall in love with her.

He hadn’t yet crossed the rill, waiting patiently for her invitation to do so. He could wade the distance without much difficulty, except for getting wet up past his knees. He could take the log crossing up at the road to town, but instead, he spent the time, hours sometimes, walking along the banks, divided by a wide ribbon of water and talked of the day, of life, of family. She was an only child. She helped her mother with the collection and proper care of herbs and plants used in the cure of illness and pain. She knew how to set a broken bone so it would mend. She lived not far from the rill, but she never said where exactly. Aiden imagined a modest home like the others that dotted the countryside on the way to the town proper, attached perhaps to a small farm like the kind his family had.

He told her about moving here from the terror of the south and the horror of the war that now stretched from Tinstil to the far tip of the Daggerfells next to the sea. It was a land laid waste by years of fighting, the blood of the fallen soaked into the earth until it stayed a ruddy shade of red and grew nothing green.

“Do you think the wars will come here,” Jaelith said and brought him back from the sight of his home burning to the ground.

Aiden smiled and shook his head, twirling a reed he held between his fingers. It was brown and had a feathery top that hissed with the movement. “The Territory Guard is strong enough. They’ve fortified the bounds. I know. It was hard enough for me and my family to get through. They almost wouldn’t let us in. And the Northern Kingdoms are allied with Avenden. From what I hear, it’s a big army, and probably enough of a deterrent for the Formlanders.”

Jaelith nodded, stooping to the ground by the bank and tugging a green shoot from the soft mud. She wore a pair of brown pants for ease of movement, under a tunic of the same color, both made of cloth that had pockets sewn on to put things in. The tunic covered over a shirt with blousing sleeves the color of the forest, a dark green that made her blend in with her surroundings. As much as she could with the white hair streaming behind her. He was similarly attired, and though the colors were the same, his were made of leather, worn and supple from use.

Aiden didn’t know what plant she held or its purpose, but he watched as she carefully cleaned off the mud by trailing the roots in the water and then set it in her basket. That was a flat woven oval almost filled with other plants. A few of the yellow-tips peeped out from under the rest. He was about to ask what kind of plant it was; she told him on occasion the various purposes, but she interrupted.

“You seem far away today, Aiden,” she said as she straightened and looked across the water with her dark, violet eyes. For a moment, he was held still by the softness of her gaze as if a gentle breeze wrapped round him and kept him from moving. It was a warm breath on his neck, a caress of fingertips across his cheek.

He nodded and pushed his hair back again. His fingers brushed across the tops of his ears, feeling the rough edges, the malformed skin, and just as quickly pushed his hair back down over them to hide what had been done. An accident from his infancy, he’d been told once, that had clipped and mangled his ears.

“I’ve been thinking about my brothers. How it seems like it would be easier if we had bodies to go with the news. Something that would finalize their deaths, but we’ve nothing, and so it’s hard not to wonder.”

“And maybe think, what if?” she said, putting into words the thing that sometimes kept him awake at night. What if they weren’t dead? What if they needed help?

“Yes.”

“You’ve thought of going back.”

He nodded to that too. “I won’t though. I can’t with my mother the way she is. My father, too. They hardly let me out of their sight. If my father told me to go look for them, I would, but…I guess they need me here more.”

Jaelith nodded to that, sending the white tresses bobbing. She plucked another plant from the soft bank of the rill, her hands pale against the mud. She looked across the water at him as she bathed the roots, watching him while he leaned against a tree. “You have your bow today.”

“I have to hunt,” he said and she grimaced. It was nearly unfathomable to him that she didn’t eat meat of any kind. She’d chided him before on the killing of other animals, but the argument that he could live off green plants the whole of the day never swayed him. He didn’t believe her. She never gave up trying to talk him out of it though, the twice-weekly forays he took to provide meat for his family.

He didn’t mind hunting so much, and he was good at it, better than his brothers, whose job it used to be. Aiden remembered more than a few days of going without fresh food, or having to spend coin they couldn’t afford on meat when Caleb and Forb failed to make a kill. Once Aiden started hunting with them, they always found something, usually more than enough to feed them all. He smiled at the memory of how jealous they sometimes got, but that momentary joy slipped away under the reality of loss that ate away at the brightness of the day.

Jaelith was watching him when he looked up and offered him a sad, understanding smile. She nodded downstream. “Can you stay with me around the bend?” she ask, meaning the curve the rill took around the rock pile. It was tricky getting around the almost vertical cliff-face, and smart to have company when attempting it. Falling in was the worst thing that could happen, but she’d turned back more than a few times, unwilling to risk it.

“Sure.”

Saying so made her happy and making her happy made him smile. He pushed off the tree and strolled the well-worn track by the water while she clambered up the bank to the path on her side. The sun chose that moment to touch the ground where she walked and the air shimmered around her. Once again, he was captivated.

The tree he ran into from not paying attention almost knocked him down. Aiden hit it, even though it wasn’t the tree’s fault. He looked quickly to make sure Jaileth hadn’t seen him being an idiot. Confirmation that she had came in the form of a giggle she gave up trying to suppress.  She took off then, at a skipping run, still laughing as she looked back at him.  Of course, she didn’t run into a tree.

Aiden laughed and ran after her, tracking her along his side of the water. This time he concentrated on where he put his feet, jumping a few twisted roots and fallen limbs to keep pace with her. The track was flat and smoothed by the passage of beavers and other water creatures that made their home along the rill. As the course of the water shifted, curling around a gentle turn, the path veered off from the water’s edge through a tract of bluestars. He almost stopped to gather some for her, except he still didn’t have that invitation. He thought if he ever got one, he’d be the one to grow wings.

A shoulder of rock stopped them both, breathing hard and laughing over the race. She won, having a shorter arc to cover. The land rose sharply in two rocky outcroppings that stood sentry at the river bend. At the same time, they both saw that a tree had fallen just on the other side of the rock.

It was a massive river fen, its gray bark mottled until white overtook the arms. It had fallen, limbs to her side, from a raised perch that was just high enough that it didn’t dam the water, but stood above it. It made the perfect bridge.

They both made their way around the rock-face carefully, she more eagerly than him. The fen tree was in bloom and the blossoms, she said excitedly, were rarely available at this stage for collection. The young seeds were a treasure-trove for healing and even eating. She scrambled up the last slide of rock to the tree, basket still in hand, eyes alight as she examined how best to start the harvest. That involved climbing through the jumble of limbs to reach the platform the trunk had become. Aiden stood by the saucer of dirt the roots pulled up, a large round plate that towered over his head, waiting to see if today would be the day.

Jaelith was already climbing up another large limb to reach the leaves and the blossoms, exclaiming and talking as she went about the condition of the tree – it was still alive and the blooms still fresh. She plucked them off as she went, dropping the white string clusters into the basket. She hooked the woven handle onto a broken limb so she could use both hands. She climbed the tree as if it were a second home. He knew that feeling, having climbed a few trees of his own. When he touched the skin of it, there came a feeling of a living, breathing thing, and he wondered what could have happened to bring such a mighty tree down in such a way.

“Beautiful, isn’t it,” she said, gently plucking a flower and holding it under her nose. She took a deep breath, looking as if the sweetness had some property that quenched thirst or healed the soul. “You could come help, you know.”

And there it was. She looked at him in such a way that he thought surely she would guess every thought while he stood next to the tree pretending that he was breathing normally. He didn’t want it to seem like he’d been waiting for her to say those very words all this time and resisted the sudden desire to scale the trunk and run across the new bridge.

“Before it gets dark,” she said and laughed. Of course, she knew. It seemed she always did.

He didn’t wait, examining the tree roots that made a kind of circular ladder around the trunk still inside the dirt. It was simple to climb, as if it had been placed just so for him. A moment later, he stood atop the long, wide trunk, an easy bridge to cross, and he started over.

“Aiden!”

He froze in place, but he couldn’t stop the slump of his shoulders as the realization came. Jaelith shrank back into the tree boughs, all but disappearing into the green, sensing perhaps that he would get in trouble for being here with her when he should be off somewhere else.

He swore under his breath and turned to find his sister coming toward him along the track beside the rill. At eighteen, Krysta was just two years younger than he and a complete opposite in looks. To his nearly black hair, she had flaming dark red locks that framed her face in a tangle of curls when she didn’t have it all pinned back behind her head. Her eyes were green and he could see the glint in them, even at that distance. She was stubborn and annoying, and felt like she had to mind his business on more occasions than he thought he could tolerate. At the moment, she was coming to remind him that he had not yet caught dinner.

“Is that your sister?” Jaelith asked, coming out of hiding a little. The two girls saw each other. Krysta halted abruptly on the path. Some communication passed between them, leaving Aiden to look back and forth, one to the other, wondering what the looks meant.

“Yes,” he said, and rolled his eyes in annoyance again. He had very much wanted to avoid anyone from his family finding out why he spent so much time away from home down by the rill. Krysta would make sure everyone else knew and the teasing would be endless.

“You should go,” Jaelith said, but when she saw his disappointment and frustration, she nodded to the tree. “I’ll meet you here tomorrow – after midday, after we’ve finished our chores.”

It took him a moment to agree, when he would rather ignore obligation and his sister. He wanted to stay. He wanted only to walk across this tree bridge and stand next to her, maybe take her by the hand. She was right though. Looking to the waning light, he knew he ought to go, or he’d miss any opportunity to catch the evening meal. That would ensure a lengthy tirade from his father. He stood wavering between wanting to stay and having to go.

“Bring extra baskets,” Jaelith said, and glanced at Krysta again. “And your sister.” She laughed at his stricken look. “She can help.”

He went away groaning at the thought, but recognized an underlying reason for having another girl around. He wondered if Jaelith didn’t trust him, but shook his head at that. He was probably over-thinking everything, something he did whenever she was involved with his thought process. Besides, if Krysta wanted to find out what was what between them, and he knew she did, Jaelith had just given him the means to bribe her into silence.

“Tomorrow then,” he said after he jumped down off the tree.

He turned back to look at her, watching as she wound her way out of the tree limbs to the forest floor. She collected her basket, meaning to leave as well. She would take the path up and over the rocks this time, rather than around the base of them if he wasn’t there to watch her. He wondered if she couldn’t swim, except the water wasn’t deep enough. She waved a delicate hand at him, smiled again and turned for the hill.

Chapter 2 – the Hunt

“Don’t.”

Krysta laughed at him instead, taking one last look after Jaelith, her green eyes narrowing with curiosity, or maybe it was awareness of something. Aiden didn’t know, except to be angry that she was there, ruining his plans.

He stomped off back down the track before he cut across land to reach the hills where they would hunt. Krysta had her bow too. Not that she was all that good with it. Sometimes, he used her bad aim to flush out the quarry he was after. By the time they were clear of the woods, up and over and down into the long field that skirted their property line, his anger bled off. He slowed so Krysta could catch up to him without having to run to keep pace.

“Well that explains a few things,” she said as she fell into step beside him.

He decided he might as well admit it, so he nodded. He couldn’t stop the smile either and his sister laughed. “A few, yes. Don’t tell.”

“Too tempting.”

“Please? They’ll never let me see her again, or worse, demand I bring her home for dinner and that is not going to happen any time soon. Come on, Krysta. Don’t tell them.”

She shrugged, dashing ahead to get on the path through the field ahead of him. “What do I get in return?”

“I won’t beat you senseless.”

“Besides that? As if you could.”

“I’ll let you come with me next time I go.”

She turned in a circle to flash him a look, her hair flying all around. She kept it pinned most days with a sharpened dowel stuck through a piece of leather off the horse harness. They couldn’t afford a real hair clip, or didn’t buy such things. She’d cut a leaf design into the leather to make it nice. She wore her quiver of arrows lower than normal, skewed to reach them from the side, to avoid a big tangle.

“She’s pretty,” she said without telling him if he offered enough of a bargain to keep her mouth shut. “Isn’t she a bit…out of your league?”

“Out of my league? What’s that supposed to mean? And yes, she’s very pretty. She also happens to like me.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jaelith.”

“Jaelith what? Who’s her family?”

Aiden shook his head, frowning at the implication he didn’t know her well enough. “We never asked that. Not like it matters. She’s just a normal girl.”

Krysta shook her head at that. “She’s half Fae or I’m a dworkle.”

“Suit yourself, dworkle. I’ll be sure to treat you like one next time we need to pull the cart into town. There’s no such thing as Fae, just like there are no Elves. They’re legends, nothing more. And it’s insulting, so you better stop.”

“What’s insulting about it?”

“The Fae were monsters, Krysta, or so history say. They murder innocent children, or steal them from their cribs, for who knows what purpose. They started a war with the Elves that eradicated the race. They use magic for evil purpose and they fly.”

“Where do you get all this stuff from?”

Aiden shook his head and changed direction again, leading them toward another field where they would have a decent chance of catching dinner, and maybe breakfast and lunch for the next few days. They had dried meat stored, but their mother preferred to save those supplies for the winter months ahead. Summers were very short, they learned, in Avenden.

“I listen to the bards when I go into town and I can read,” he said, smirking at her since he knew she couldn’t. Before he was thrust into current circumstances, his mother had sent him to the bards to begin his education. This was back when they lived in Tinstil. They’d paid a few silver pieces for it too. Luckily, he took to it, finding the letters and sounds easy to figure. He could write as well as read. They thought to make him into a scribe maybe, get him off the farm to reduce the burden such a large number of people brought. His brothers would have married one day and started families of their own.

Krysta came to an abrupt halt, eyes blazing, and he realized he’d gone too far. She struggled with what came to him so easily. There wasn’t much use for a girl to learn her letters, not before she was married anyway, and Krysta was acutely aware her time at home was growing short. She’d begged him to teach her and he tried, but it was hard for her and he wasn’t the best instructor, lacking the kind of patience required to be a teacher.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, not wanting to fight with her. It used to be a favorite sport of his, prodding her into a fury. “It’s not your fault. I’ve said it before. I’d make a terrible bard.”

Krysta let it go, but pushed past him into the field. She would have kept going, but Aiden took her by the arm quickly. If she went much further, she’d disturb the game they were after. She jerked out of his grasp, but then she saw him reaching for his bow. He nodded to the field and she understood, pulling in a breath to quiet her anger with him. He smiled at her temper, wondering what poor man would end up having to deal with her. Krysta didn’t think it was funny.

He nodded her across the field, nocking an arrow as he eased along the line of the field that was marked by a row of berry bushes. Krysta followed suit, aiming already in hopes of spotting the first one to pop up. They were hunting warmagiles, a kind of rabbit. They were larger than regular rabbits. Just two would feed the whole family, and their soft pelts made excellent boot liners for the colder Avenden winters. They were burrowing animals and fast. They lived in holes they dug in the ground that had numerous entries. Smoking them out didn’t work, since they only popped out of one hole and into another. There was only one chance to hit them, and that was when they first stood up on their hind legs to see what danger approached.

That was why he sent Krysta into the field. The sound of her movements traveled through the ground. He waited, still as a rock, watching the field while she slowly made her way ahead. She always tried to hit the first one, but almost always missed it. He waited for the second, third and fourth. Sometimes, he could get the fifth, but not usually before they all disappeared.

The first popped up and sure enough Krysta took the shot and missed. The second appeared, along with a third almost simultaneously. Aiden didn’t miss, loosing the arrow with unfailing precision and killing speed. Another arrow followed, aiming for the last warmagile to show itself. Krysta aimed for the same one, but moments after he’d already taken the shot. Both arrows struck the animal, ensuring its death for certain.

“That one is mine,” she said and he laughed at her.

“All right.”

“I really hate you some days, Aiden Quell,” she said, tossing the mane of hair. “I really do.”

He rolled his eyes, took two arrows and shot them into the brush on the far side of the field. From the shrubs a flock of quail erupted into the air, along with a surprise pheasant. He was tempted to take the shot at the large bird himself, but Krysta had only to glare at him. They had dinner, so it didn’t matter so much. She didn’t miss this time, easily taking the pheasant, and so he picked off a few quail, and she managed to hit one before they were gone.

Dinner and then some.

They gathered the catch as quickly as they could. The pheasant gave them some difficulty, since it wasn’t a kill shot that hit it and it kept flying until the loss of blood dropped it to the forest floor. They tracked the noise it made. Krysta nodded him on to make the final kill, turning back into a girl and squeamish over the method. Aiden twisted its head until its neck snapped. He shook his head at her as he bound its legs and wings, and added it to the haul.

He noticed she hid her bow in the tool shed inside the barn when they arrived an hour later, back at home as the sun aimed for the western hills behind the property. He paused as the realization set in. “You didn’t tell them you were hunting with me, did you?”

“They told me I couldn’t anymore,” she said, and turned from him.

He knew it was probably more a case of the Broker, a woman who was paid to find a suitable mate, suggesting Krysta try to be more like a girl. She’d never fit that mold. It was horrifying to her to think of what life she would end up with, stuck with a stranger for a husband, forced to have children, locked into a role she wasn’t suited for. Aiden didn’t understand the necessity of it, since he was able to provide ample food. She wasn’t a burden as far he was concerned as often as she helped in the hunt.

“Why don’t you tell them how many times you’ve brought home food?” he asked.

“They don’t care. It’s not my place to do that sort of thing, and besides, it’s not like you need the help.”

“Calen, Forb and I always helped each other. Father knows it’s more easily managed when there are two. Just tell him…unless there’s something more you aren’t telling me.”

Her lips pursed together before she bit the lower one and he knew before she said it. “There’s a man coming for dinner tomorrow night. If he approves, I’m to leave with him the following morning. The Broker sent him.”

Aiden stared in shocked silence for a moment. He knew they’d contracted the Broker to make the arrangements, but he never thought it would happen this fast. It had only been a few weeks. He saw that Krysta was sickened by the prospect. He didn’t know what to say that would help.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” he stammered. “I mean, maybe he won’t be horrible.”

“He’s thirty. He already has five children. His first wife died when the last was born a few months ago. He wants me for bedding, frequent bedding, and to tend the babies, is what the Broker told Mother, I overheard them.”

He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe his parents would throw their daughter to a stranger like this. He couldn’t fathom a reason for it, unless there was something behind it they hadn’t shared with the family. He supposed that was possible, but he still couldn’t believe it.

“Krysta, what…” He shook his head to clear his thoughts, afraid he knew the answer to what he was about to ask. “What are you going to do?”

The words were on her lips when their father interrupted, stumping into the barn in the usual heavy work boots he wore. He was sweating from the day’s labor in the fields and dragged a cart with the plow slung onto it. One of the tines was broken. He was a large, weathered man. Krysta came by her red hair naturally, from both parents. Bruin Quell wore his unnaturally short, down to stubble that glinted more gray than anything else. His eyes matched his daughter’s. His temperament did too. Aiden spent most of his twenty years half afraid of him. His older brothers had stood in the way of some of that anger, caused by whatever trouble they all managed to get into, and now Aiden did the same. Still, Bruin never beat them, using the sharpness of his tongue, rather than brute force to keep them all in line. The verbal lashings were sometimes more effective.

To keep that she’d hunted with him unknown, Aiden started handing over the rest of the kill, acting as if she’d just met up with him. “I’ll be over to help with that in a minute,” he said, giving her a playful push toward the door. “You pluck, I skin.”

That made her groan as she went off. His father came up beside him, watching after her. “That’s a good haul.”

“Lucky,” Aiden said and turned for the cart with the broken plough. “What happened?”

“A pile of hard stone in the new field,” he said and joined him, looking down at the broken tine.

“Can you fix it?”

“Not that it’ll hold. Probably time for a new one anyway. Maybe Smithy can mend it or trade it for another.”

“I’ll take it in tomorrow morning,” Aiden said and started feeding the animals. The barn held a number of them. Pigs, the milk cows, and a couple of horses, one for riding, one for the carriage and two others for pulling. They were enormous chargers that ate an equally large amount of food. The smaller horses, Dancer and Flash, got a single sheaf of hay each compared to a bale between the two giants. “I might be able to barter. I can figure his books, maybe.”

“Did she tell you?” Bruin asked and stopped Aiden’s quest to save a few coins.

He wasn’t sure what to say, but he nodded. His father grimaced. He rubbed his face and heaved a sigh, stumping to a stall to check its contents with the pitch tine in hand.

“These are hard times, Aiden.”

“They aren’t that hard,” he said before he could stop himself, but Bruin only paused at that. “She does more around here than you think.”

“Did she hit anything today?” his father asked, moving to the next stall, and again Aiden hesitated, unsure of his response to her disobeying him. His father wasn’t reacting the way he normally did.

“The pheasant and a quail,” he admitted. “And she helped snare the rabbits. Having her with me makes it easier, and she’s getting better at it.”

“At something that’ll be of no use to her.”

“How do you know that? It might mean the difference between having food or not. How can that not matter? She’s never been normal, or the way other girls are.”

“The way that girl you run off to see every day is?” Bruin asked, casting him a knowing look.

Aiden froze, wondering how he found out.

“It’s on toward your time too,” his father said.

“I’ll make my own way there,” Aiden told him, trying to sound forceful. He got another look for his tone.

“Sooner rather than later would be better for everyone, including your sister. Your mother made the arrangements for her out of concern for you.”

“For me? Why?”

“To lessen the burden. There will come a time when the three little ones have only you to rely on. It’s a lot for one to manage without the added burden of the older sister. Time won’t stop for her any more than it’ll stop for you or any of us.”

“She’s not a burden.”

“Now, no. She helps you hunt, fine. But what then, years from now, when no one will have her for her age?”

“Then she’ll stay here, but really, do you think that’s going to happen? She’s pretty enough, I guess. She looks like mother. There are years yet to have this worry.”

“Your mother made the arrangements,” he said and there was something about the way he repeated those words that made Aiden pause and consider them again. It came to him then that maybe his father wasn’t so enthusiastic about the idea after all. “The man will be here tomorrow evening. I expect you’ll behave the way you should.”

He wasn’t sure the message was passed, or what his father really thought. But Aiden knew he couldn’t let his sister end up carried off by someone so much older and for no other reason than to be a house servant. He had to wonder what his mother was thinking, but recognized the seeds of fear in the whole plan. Maybe her fear of the future was justified, but he didn’t think so. It was a symptom of other things out of their control. He started wondering what he could do to keep that future from walking through the door.

~*~

Chapter 3 – the Broker

They didn’t speak of it again, and Aiden tried to put it out of mind. He had other anticipations to look forward to. Knowing that his father didn’t want Krysta unceremoniously put out of the house gave him a measure of relief and another measure of courage to do something about it. He wondered why his parents didn’t just talk to one another. Maybe they had. He didn’t know.

He slept thinking of Jaelith, and finally crossing the rill to spend a few blissful hours with her, collecting blossoms. It didn’t even matter that he was expected to have Krysta along with him. He could keep an eye on her that way. He thought she might run off rather than face the prospect of being married to someone she didn’t care for or even know. The day held the promise of a dream come true and he finally drifted off with that in mind.

Morning came with all the usual noises. The birds announced the morning first, and then the bugs started droning, followed by the animals from the barn and further afield. The roosters gave it their full voice. Sleeping through all that wasn’t possible, even though he tried for a few moments until he woke up enough to remember.

He threw off the covers, rushed to get dressed, and then hurried to get out of the house. He stuffed in a biscuit smeared with jam and was out the door. No one but Krysta understood the hurry. He had to get the plow into town to Smithy, who would repair the broken tine or not, but hopefully so, run another errand his mother asked of him and get back to the house before midday. He had to help his father in the fields for an hour or two, clean up, meet Jaelith and then somehow stop a much older man from taking his sister away.

“All in a day’s work,” he said to the draft horse as he finished connecting all the harness parts required to keep the cart attached to the animal. “Two days in one, more like.”

He led the horse out of the barn into growing sun, climbed onto the plank that doubled as a seat and started. The trip took quite some time, nearly an hour of jostling along on a rutted track that once it broke out of the shade of trees lining either side, turned into a warming, insect filled slog. The bugs flying every which way were locally known as silkas and they filled the morning air with a constant buzz. This year’s brood was especially prolific, he’d heard, and seeing the finger long insects flapping from one tree to the next, or occasionally diving down to get entangled in the horses swishing tail, he believed the stories of the nine year plague.

Smithy took the tine and repaired it, gratefully accepting Aiden’s assistance with the shop’s records. Tax time was coming. Lord Rothrin was a reasonable overlord, or at least most held him in high esteem. They said he was a fair enough manager, but still, the taxes had to be paid. Aiden had done a reasonable job of setting Smithy’s accounts in order the last time, a few months ago, and found them in fairly good standing. He got the tine mended for the trouble and his dagger sharpened, so it was a fair trade.

Aiden picked up a run of fabric from the dress shop, sliding a few coppers across the counter for the embroidered white cotton. He guessed it was for Krysta and the meeting with her supposed intended. He wasn’t comfortable helping with that endeavor in any way, but he took the fabric, stuffing it into a sack and threw it into the back of the wagon beside the fixed plow. He made Bucky, the horse, run at a plodding trot to make up some time.

The hours in the field plodded by too, like the horse. Bucky didn’t like being flicked on the rump with the plow strapped on, and Aiden’s father didn’t like it that Aiden was trying to rush the job. And so the sun rose high in the sky, tracking shadows on the dirt rows that horse and plow made into the earth. Finally, his father let him go, biting back a smile even as Aiden handed over the long rein and took off like an arrow.

“Don’t be late for dinner,” his father called after him.

Aiden didn’t answer, wishing he could skip the entire ordeal, concentrating instead on getting back to the house, cleaning up in the large trough of water behind the barn and then impatiently wait for Krysta to get unpinned from the white dress their mother was fitting. He made some excuse about getting her help picking berries down by the rill, snatched up two reed baskets and dragged her out of the house in a rush.

“Don’t be late for dinner.”

“We won’t be,” Aiden called back, nudging Krysta to move down the lane.

“You see that she’s home in time to change. Krysta, I’ll have the dress ready. It’s going to be…nice.”

Krysta snorted under her breath, but their mother didn’t hear it. Aiden watched her, noting the glowering frown and nudged her again. “They’re just trying to sort out what’s the best thing to do. They’re worried about us and how we’re going to manage, but I don’t think either of them really want this to happen.”

“It’s easy for you to say that, until you’re the one with all your belongings packed and ready to go – just in case. They seem serious enough to me.”

“Well, they aren’t. They’re frightened, and they’re getting old, Krysta. This is because of Calen and Forb, things we can’t change. Listen, I don’t want you to lose your temper tonight. That won’t help.”

“I’m not going back, Aiden.”

“Oh and where do you think you’re going to go? You have to come back. You’re going to pretend that you know nothing about how to do wifely things, like cook and clean, and I’m going to do my best to convince this man he really shouldn’t take you. If, after that, he still says he has to have you, then we’ll talk about getting you out of reach of him.”

“Do you really think that will work?” she asked, her eyes full of fear. He’d never seen her afraid before.

“I’m going to make sure of it,” he said and tried to sound certain.

She nodded finally as they neared the last hill that crested above the rill. She hugged her arms as she walked and shook her head. “I never thought of being a burden to them,” she said, glancing at him.

“You aren’t. Father knows about the hunting. He knows more than he lets on, about everything. They aren’t thinking clearly right now. Maybe they can’t. They never should have gone to the Broker, or maybe she was the one to go to them because she saw how many girls there are. They don’t know how to get out of it, so it’s up to us to help them. Play along tonight and you’ll see. We’ll drive this poor man away in terror of ever having you for a wife.”

She wanted to laugh, but fear had too strong a grip on her mind. She managed a nod. Aiden reached to stop her and tugged on a lock of red. “It’s just—”

“I’m not going to let this happen.”

He meant it to the core of his being. This was what being eldest meant. It was his responsibility to help his parents and keep their family whole. He knew if Calen or Forb were here they wouldn’t allow it, and so neither would he.

But then life changed again, with a kind of abrupt violence that stole breath and darkened light in one moment.

A flock of birds exploded from the treetops along the line of the rill. The clash and clang of metal against metal broke the peace of a day full of promise. The idea that a place free of war and strife existed in any of the Four Realms was forever shattered. The alarmed cry of a woman pierced the air and froze his heart.

“Jaelith.”

~*~

Chapter 4 – Taken

He charged the hilltop, cresting it in time to see her dragged across the back of an armored warhorse, lain across the saddle horn like a sack of wheat. For a heart stopping instant, Aiden thought she was dead, but he saw her fighting against the man who held her.

He was cloaked and hooded and the others with him were the same. Aiden counted six of them in the moment he had before Krysta dragged him to the ground.

“What are you doing? Let go!”

“Don’t let them see you,” she hissed in his ear.

“They’re taking her!”

“And you can’t stop them. They have bows. They’ll shoot you down if you try. You’re not even armed. They’re soldiers, Aiden.”

He jerked away from her, rolling to stand, but listened to her and stayed crouched down. He looked over the lip of the hill again and through the trees saw Jaelith, still clutched in the arms of a man, upright now, pressed into his chest, engulfed by thick, brutish arms that she stood no chance of escaping. Aiden dashed along the top of the hill, bent almost double to keep them in sight as the troop prepared to move. When he next looked, the horses were gathered and starting off along the waterside track. Just before they wheeled away, cutting into the wood, Jaelith looked back, white hair streaming around her face. She looked to the hill and saw Aiden, the fear in her face striking him cold.

And then she was gone. Taken just that fast. The horses pounded away, up over the hill on the opposite side of the rill. The sound of their passage dwindled. The moment they were out of sight, he leapt down the hill, almost falling he ran so fast. Krysta raced down beside him, calling to him to stop in a voice just above a whisper.

She grabbed him when he reached the tree line, before he could take the track by the water to the fallen tree where he meant to cross the rill and follow. “You can’t go after her. You’ll never catch them.”

Aiden turned on her and threw her off hard enough that it knocked her down. “I am going after her.”

“You can’t leave us!” she screamed, louder than she meant to. When he stopped and turned to her, hearing in her voice the edge of desperation, he knew she felt he was turning his back on his family.

The hard truth came in. He was. He’d only just told her that he would fix the nightmare her life was about to become, and now he was walking out on her. On them all. He was the only son. That reality bolted him to the ground and held him fast.

“Krysta, I love her. How can I—” He looked at the empty wood in the wake of the soldiers’ departure, feeling the silence enter his soul. “I can’t leave her to them.”

“But you can leave me, leave your family just the way Calen and Forb did? How do you think we’re going to manage without you? They’re sending me off tomorrow with a stranger. How are Mother and Father going to manage without you here? You can’t go after her.”

He nodded when he didn’t want to. He couldn’t accept either choice, frantically trying to sort out how to do both. He couldn’t. He would have to choose.

“Go back home,” he said finally, knowing he would regret for the rest of his life if he stayed and did nothing. He thought then he would regret it either way. “Get word to the Village Marshall that Jaelith has been taken. Tell them, Krysta. Tell Mother and Father I’m sorry. They won’t send you away now. You’re the only one who can hunt. Take my bow. I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

He turned from her and started down the track beside the rill. He didn’t look back. He didn’t tell her goodbye and felt his eyes sting from fear that he would never see her again. She didn’t try to stop him, but the last thing he heard from her was her tears as she wept.

He crossed the fallen tree. The basket was set on the ground, full of the blooms she could reach without climbing. Aiden paused as he jumped down, pushing down the flare of anger and desperation that sought to fill his mind. The day was supposed to have been so different. He didn’t understand why she had been taken like this. What was the purpose behind it? What possible reason could there be?

The answers that came back left him cold and certain he had to keep going. Jaelith was a woman and they meant to use her, maybe sell her into slavery when they’d had their fill of her. They were soldiers, their territory and allegiance unknown except that they weren’t from here. Avenden soldiers wore the green and brown uniform to match the standard that flew from the Rothrin estate on the big hill in town. The soldiers he saw might not have any honor in their veins.

He picked up a few of the blooms she had set with such care, smelling the delicate fragrance. He wore a small pack that he kept odds in, things he found that might be useful, some string, a needle, a feather, some pieces of shale to make an arrow with. He put a couple of the blooms into the pack after wrapping them in a spare piece of leather.

The ground around the tree was marred with hoof prints, the heavy mark of shod animals, more signs of the accoutrement of war. They led off from the rill, heading south.

Aiden searched the area, stilling his impatience to start after them, to look for any sign of who they might be or their true number. He found another mystery instead. A dead man lay some fifty paces from the rill, his sword drawn and bloodied, wearing the uniform of the territory guard, the green and brown. The Rothrin emblem stood out, a winged leaf, stitched into the uniform collar. The tree the leave came from, an Alder, no longer grew, extinct from some calamity from a hundred years prior, but the wood from it remained in some of the very old homes of Avenden.

He didn’t know what a guard was doing here to end up being killed by Jaelith’s kidnappers. Of course it was his duty to stop such a thing from happening. Maybe it was a coincidence. Aiden didn’t have an answer and couldn’t get one from the dead man. He hesitated a moment longer, looking after the track of hooves. Time wouldn’t wait, or allow him to properly tend to the burial of this man. That would be a task for others. Aiden took the man’s sword and the belt he wore with the sheath. He had arm bracers as well, but no bow or arrows. Aiden wasn’t trained at all in the art except for child’s play with wooden sticks and his older brothers chancing him around. They almost never caught him.

He took the weapon and the man’s purse, that had a good bit of silver in it, reasoning that the dead didn’t need that coin as much as the living and in Aiden’s case, might be necessary if he had any hope of succeeding. There might be supplies he had to buy.

“You failed of your purpose, sir,” he told the corpse, “but with a little luck and a little help, maybe I won’t fail of mine. I take this charge in your stead. May your soul rest with that knowledge. I will find her and I will bring her back home.”

The dead man didn’t answer. Aiden turned, his gaze tracking after the marks in the ground. He sprang away as if he were a galloping horse himself and began the long race.

~*~

Chapter 5 – Krysta’s Choice

Her father saw her and knew something was wrong by the tears left glistening on her face. She tried to rub them away, but belatedly, and then it was too late. There was another man with him in the barn, her supposed suitor, and her voice caught in her throat.

He wasn’t so horrible looking, not as awful as she imagined someone of thirty some years would look. He had brown hair cut short, a plain face that was broader above his eyes than below, a narrow nose, but a firm, square jaw and even a pleasant smile. He wasn’t the monster she expected. His eyes, also brown, took in her appearance with one sweep. She bristled at the appraisal, even though it seemed he approved.

He lowered his gaze then and stood back, allowing her father to get the answers she knew he wouldn’t be able to bear. She still couldn’t believe it was happening. All that came out in her voice as she explained, trembling and cracking from the strain to not start crying again. She was the eldest now, for it was certain that all her brothers were gone, if not dead already.

“He went after her?” Bruin said in a voice filled with confusion and disbelief.

He pondered the massive shift of reality for hardly more than a moment, but it was too long for Krysta to stand still. She moved to the stall where Flash and Dancer were housed and got first one out and then the other.

“Krysta—”

“I’m going after him,” she said in a tone of voice her father was unaccustomed to hearing. Her suitor smiled.

“You most certainly are—” Bruin said, but Krysta cut him off.

“I am, and you can’t stop me—”

“Don’t take that tone—”

“…unless you mean to lock me in a cell and in which case, I’ll escape and never come back. Father! I’m going after him. He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know because you’ve waited too long to tell him. He’s out there now and the moment he turns twenty you know what will happen. Everything we’ve ever known about him will start and he won’t know, so someone has to be there. I’m going after him.”

“Stop talking, girl,” Bruin said sharply, his teeth clenched so she wondered if they might crumble under the pressure. “You’ve no idea what you’re getting yourself into. We made commitments.”

“And I’ll keep them…once I’m back,” she said and turned to the man who was quietly watching them. “If you don’t give my family any difficulty, when I come back, I’ll go with you.”

The dread of those words filled her throat, locking her voice off. She pulled in a breath and tried to look un-terrified. He seemed mildly amused.

“Where are your children?” she asked when her voice came back.

He smiled and gestured toward the house. “I brought the whole unruly brood with me, to see if you could handle them, which I can see already you won’t have any difficulty with.”

“Do you have boys?”

“Four of them.”

“And the oldest?” she asked, glancing at her father. He was listening now.

“He’ll turn fifteen in a few days. The one after is fourteen.”

“Leave them here,” she said, and moved to tack-up the horses. Her father didn’t move to stop her.

“And the youngest,” he asked. “Other than the baby?”

“The youngest boy is 5”

“You’ve a wet nurse for the child?”

“Yes, but she won’t stay more than another month.” The man’s face scrunched in consternation. “You want them all?”

“If you’ll leave here without causing my family a problem,” Krysta said. “They’ll care for your children while I’m gone.”

“And in the mean time,” Bruin said, “if you find yourself another wife, I’ll release you from the contract, no questions or difficulties from us.”

The man couldn’t quite believe it, but when Bruin held out his hand to shake on the deal, he didn’t hesitate to take it. He seemed the kind of man who didn’t especially care about his own kin. They were a burden to him, one he meant to slough off on Krysta the moment he could. She wondered, if they gave him leave to go, if he’d ever come back. The burden for her family, for her father really, had just grown five-fold. But he saw like she did, that the older boys could be helpful and maybe, just maybe they’d grow and learn some skills and be grateful for the change in their life. She wouldn’t be around to find out.

Her father drew the man out of the barn and their voices were lost in the chaos of her thoughts, coupled with the noise and chink of metal bits from the tack. She slung first one saddle and then the other, making quicker work of cinching the girths. She turned for the shed and retrieved her bow, strapping it to her horse’s side and went back for Aiden’s. As she slid the weapon into the tube on the saddle, her father came back in. Her suitor had gone.

“Krysta,” he said and stopped her preparations. He seemed at a loss for words, holding her hands in one of his while he pushed a mass of curls from her face. He was looking at her in a way, his eyes worried and with a touch of fear that froze her cold. He was afraid he wouldn’t ever see her again. “If you haven’t found him in two days, turn around and come home. No, child. You listen. It isn’t safe for you to travel farther than that from home by yourself. We never told you the brutal realities of the world. Your mother and I. Maybe we should have. You stay away from towns. Away from men. You sleep with that dagger in your hand every night, and if you haven’t found Aiden by then, come back. It’ll mean you won’t ever find him. Promise me.”

“I promise. But I’m going to find him. He’s on foot. The tracks will be easy to follow. I’ll find him before dark tonight.”

“You tell him only if you have to,” he said, and she understood. “We were warned not to.” She nodded to all that and would have turned to go, but her father took her in his arms, swallowing her into a close embrace. “You be careful. And come back.”

She couldn’t speak this time, seeing the tears in his eyes. He held the horses while she mounted the roan. Feeling her nervous energy set Dancer, true to his name, sidestepping out of the barn. She pulled the lead line on the other and after a moment of jostling, they all set off in the same direction. Away from home and safety. She galloped off and didn’t look back.

~*~

Chapter 6 – A Race South

The tracks hugged the wood-line south. Numerous horse hooves, too many to distinguish their exact number, left sharp imprints in the soft ground. It had only just rained a few days ago and in the shade of the forest, the ground hadn’t dried yet. More than four, he thought. Less than ten.

Aiden raced on. Setting his pace at a little more than an easy jog. He would run until he couldn’t see the soft marks any longer when night came. The rill ran not too far off on his right. There were reeds and dried grasses. He could make a torch without too much difficulty. He had flint to strike a spark. Even without a torch, his night sight was almost as sharp as in daylight. They would stop, he felt sure. He would not.

He ran and didn’t pause or even slow, except a few times when he found the track running along the rill. He paused to drink, maybe as they had paused to water the horses, before he went on. He ignored the growing pain in his legs, the sweat that soon sheathed his body and dampened his clothes, the crick in his side that threatened to blossom into stabbing knives. He kept his breath as even as he could and kept going even after it felt like his lungs might burst.

The day started to dwindle as evening settled over the land and cast lengthening shadows into the wood. Overhead, a swoop and chitter of birds flew along with him. He realized he couldn’t hear them over the noise of him gasping for air. He pounded to a halt and leaned on his knees. That didn’t last as the ground caught him as he fell. Black spots swam before his eyes. His heart pounded in his chest, but he dragged to his feet and started walking. He forced slow, measured gasps of air in and out in an attempt to recover his senses.

He became aware of the sound of hooves striking the ground some distance behind him and off to his left. Someone was riding at the tree line, more than one it sounded like, coming on fairly fast. The trees were thin where he was now, few and not one of them large enough to hide behind. He had to find cover quickly. The bank of the rill was the only alternative. He grabbed a protruding root and slid down the muddy sides and stopped just shy of the water’s edge, trying hard to catch his breath. He needed to know who was following him and pulled himself up to peer over a clump of reeds.

He couldn’t believe it when he saw her, the flaming red hair leaving no doubt that his sister had come after him. Aiden turned around, his back pressed into the embankment, swearing as he stared at the sky in disbelief. He saw at a glance that she had both horses and had to wonder how she’d gotten off the farm with them.

He swore under his breath again. She was nearly abreast of his hiding place and would ride right by him if he let her. For a moment, he thought he should. Surely, after a day of not finding him, she’d give up. The risk that she might catch up to Jaelith’s captors and end up in trouble herself put a quick stop to that thought. He was still swearing when he called her name.

“Krysta!”

She pulled to a stop, reining her mount down by turning him in a tight circle. The animal danced around the other as she searched the wood. Her eyes closed in relief when she saw him.

“I can’t believe you!”

“Did you really think—”

“You’re not coming with me,” he said, grabbing Flash’s rein from her. “You can’t. It’s too dangerous. Mother and Father need you at home.”

“I talked to Father. He wanted me to—”

“I’m not going back,” Aiden said.

“Neither am I,” Krysta said and wouldn’t listen to reason from that moment forward.

Nothing his said changed her mind. The passage of the day beat against his thoughts. The delay she was causing him was infuriating. The longer he stood there arguing with her, the larger the gap grew between he and those he pursued. There wasn’t anything to do for it except go on. She wouldn’t go home. He couldn’t leave her. He pulled himself up onto Flash and with Krysta beside him, set off after the trail.

He made better time riding. The tracks in the soft ground soon showed signs of more recent passage, but still Jaelith’s kidnappers remained ahead of him. Hours later light left the sky. With the horses, it wasn’t possible to keep going and Aiden resented it, even though he had to admit that he couldn’t see the tracks left by the troop. If he kept going, he could miss it if they turned. He told himself that they had the same restrictions of movement. Their horses would tire and need the same rest.  Not that a pack of men capable of kidnapping an innocent woman would care so much.

A cold knot of dread centered in his chest over the choice he had to make. He reined to a halt, thinking over his options while Krysta drew up beside him.  She started looking around the area; dense forest surrounded them with cutting rocks strewn across the forest floor. Bramble weeds covered everything else. This wouldn’t make a comfortable campsite.

Or a safe one, Aiden thought, nodding to his sister. He turned his horse for the bank of the rill, careful to guide the animal across hard packed ground less likely to take marks. He didn’t want to be found. They crossed the rill and backtracked to a clearing where the horses could eat grass. Aiden strung a rope around the trees, making a pen. Before it was fully dark, they had the camp set and the horses tended.

Krysta solved another problem by pulling from her pack a ration of dried meat, along with a few carrots from the garden. None of it needed flame to be eaten, which was good, since Aiden didn’t intend to start a fire. They ate in silence. He was too preoccupied with what tomorrow might bring and too terrified of what Jaelith might be enduring at the hands of her captors.

“We’ll find her,” Krysta said.

He turned and saw through the dark the glint of her eyes as she watched him. She leaned against her saddle, one arm under her head. He wanted to believe her. “Why would anyone even take her?”

Krysta pulled in a breath as if to answer, but she looked away and shook her head, making him think for a moment that she knew something. “They probably mean to sell her.”

That was a common enough occurrence, as horrible as it was. That was the way of the world, but he didn’t think it was so in this case, even when he had nothing more than instinct to tell him differently. He supposed it didn’t matter why.

“Get some sleep,” he said. “As soon as it’s light, we’re moving.”

“You should do the same.”

“I will. In a little while.”

She didn’t answer to that and it was too dark to see anymore. Silence deepened. Even the night sounds of the forest were strangely quiet. There was on the air, the sense of a predator nearby, but the only danger that revealed itself was time and the pressing dark.

~*~ 

Chapter 7 – The Forest Road

They followed the rill for the better part of the next day. The path of Jaelith’s captors was easily identified. They found the camp they’d made, where they had penned their horses, boot tracks to the rill and back where they’d gone for water. Aiden spent a few precious moments examining the ground around the area and found what he hoped for. Caught in the bark of a tree, near the ground as if someone had sat there, a long strand of white blonde hair wafted in the breeze. A ring circled half the trunk in a line of cleared moss. The small fibers of a rope were snagged in the bark. She’d been tied there. Beside that telltale sign, lower down, was a section of moss plucked clean and dropped in a neat pile next to the root it came off of.

Krysta knelt down beside him and saw the same signs, even as he bent closer and found another. A tiny, string-like blossom from the fen tree, like a white blade of thin grass, lay bruised in the soil near the mound of moss. He saw her, collecting them from the fallen tree, explaining their uses in an excited rush. Eaten for food, she’d said, or used as medicine. A chill shook him. There was no way to know which use was needed here. He looked over the ground again, checking for bloodstains, only a little relieved he didn’t find any.

He took the blossom strand and put it in his tunic pocket, nodding to Krysta. “We’re a half day behind them.”

“Then let’s get moving and lessen their lead,” she said. “She’s leaving those signs for you, Aiden. You’re the only one who would understand them. She knows you’re following.”

“Maybe,” he said as he pulled himself into the saddle. He wanted to believe it, but there were too many other possibilities, other fears that kept hope from holding too long.

He kicked the sides of his horse and the animal jumped forward, moving to a canter at his urging. The forest moved by in a blur, punctuated by clarity only where he focused his gaze. That was mostly on the ground just ahead, where the trample of ground and grass still set a line before him. He followed it, running the animal beneath him for as long as it would run.

They came to a bend in the rill and found more signs of recent passage. The bank on the far side was still wet and clear hoof imprints led the way south. One of the horses had thrown a shoe and Aiden found its mark in the soft soil. He knew where they were going now. He’d feared it before, that they were taking her into Tinstil. Why remained a mystery, but they were certainly taking her into the war-torn land of his former home.

They stopped at the rill and let the horses drink and before they crossed, filled their water skins. Aiden took one of the saddlebags, hurriedly plucking the berries he found growing along the water. Before too much longer, he would have to take the time to hunt.

They mounted again and crossed the rill, following a track that widened enough to allow them to ride side by side. The trail was easy to follow. Aiden made sure there weren’t any departures, especially when they crossed places in the wood where other paths opened. The trees were dense on either side of them, rising on the right into the foothills of the mountains. They were deep into the Daerling Wood when they stopped once again for the night.

Aiden didn’t allow a fire again, afraid they’d be seen by the men they followed, or attract the attention of other creatures that lived in this wood. The ones he was worried about weren’t friendly. The further south they went, the greater the danger – from everything. Aiden watched Krysta as she rubbed the horses down, and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to protect her. He wanted to send her back home before they got too much farther away, but he knew she wouldn’t go.

The next day and the day after that took them along the same trail, the same wood and the same tracks leading them deeper and deeper south toward Tinstil. There was no change to the land, save the mountains grew taller. The track wound up into the hillsides, still covered in dense wood. It was hard on the horses, the up and down terrain, and delayed their progress because they had to slow to a walk. The signs of passage remained, so they knew they were still following Jaelith’s captors, but they didn’t seem to gain on them at all. Aiden worried they weren’t stopping with her at night anymore. Since finding that one sign from Jaelith, there hadn’t been others. The tracks didn’t deviate from the path. That was the only sign he could follow.

On the morning of the fifth day, they ate the last of the food for breakfast, another cold meal in the light before dawn. Aiden hadn’t slept well. Something kept the horses on edge most of the night, so he stayed up with them. There was a strange scent on the air. It was the smell of burned wood, as if a distant forest had been set ablaze, though there was no sign of fire anywhere. It came and went and he stopped the next time he smelled it wafting by on the breeze.

A wind grew around them, the air tossed and riffled the leaves all the way down to the ground. They blew upward in little whirlwinds and settled again. It came like the sound of hard seed poured into a burlap sack and then it was gone again.

His horse pranced and nickered. Aiden listened for other signs from the forest to tell him if there was danger, but he could still hear the birds singing. There were bugs too, making their bug noises, chirping, clicking and buzzing. Still, something kept alerting his senses, but he couldn’t place why. Every time he stopped to look and listen, there was nothing there.

He kept the animal to a walk going forward, giving it a rest and himself a chance to look around more carefully. He glanced at Krysta, who was doing the same thing. She shrugged at his questioning glance.

“I’m getting hungry,” she said, nodding to the sun that filtered down through the canopy, stabbing the ground in patches through the thick leaves. It was a little beyond midday.

So he hunted while Krysta stayed with horses well off the track. It was time he didn’t want to spend, but necessity dictated his actions. They had to eat to keep going. He had to hunt so they could eat. He found a nest of rabbits, the normal sized variety, and hit one before the rest scattered. He took two pheasants, which was lucky. The birds tasted better if left for a few days, hanging by the beak to age. He could tie them to the horses and they would keep. The rabbits they could cook and salt. He took a lucky two shots at some quail and had them for lunch.

They ate quickly, cooked the food that needed to be cooked and as soon as those tasks were complete, they hid signs of the fire and pushed on. After stopping for so long, they didn’t get too far before the sun started to set, and Aiden felt like they were falling farther and farther behind.

The men he pursued had the advantage of knowing where they were going. It was probable that they knew these woods well. They knew where they could take Jaelith without there being anyone to see the crime. They had to have come and scouted the area, to find out. The question why she’d been taken was one he couldn’t solve until he found her.

The horses tossed their heads as they left the track and moved into the wood to find a place to camp for the night. One of the animals nickered. Aiden jumped down and rushed to quiet the animal, holding its head against his chest and shoulder.

“Someone is coming,” he whispered, nodding that Krysta should dismount. “More than one.”

She sprang from her saddle, pulling the reins over the horse’s head so she could lead it and urged it around a thicket. They were far enough off the track they probably wouldn’t be seen, but if the horses made noise, they would be heard. Aiden hurried behind her, tying his horse off to a sapling.

“I’m going back to see. Keep them quiet if you can.”

The sound of hooves on the hard packed ground drew closer. These animals were being ridden hard and didn’t sound like they were slowing at all. Aiden eased behind a large tree not too far off the track and crouched down until he could peer out along the line of a moss-covered, fallen log. The first horse came into view not long later, with three others. The men who rode them wore the uniform of the Avenden guard. They were soldiers.

Aiden didn’t know why soldiers would be on this track, except to also be following Jaelith’s captors. Or they were going to the battlefront, perhaps, but usually the troops used a different road further away from the mountains. He knew the fighting was south of them and east. He hadn’t lived in Avenden long enough to know if the Lord Rothrin would send a troop of guards out after one of its citizens if there was trouble. These men seemed to come from the Lord’s castle, or at least were dressed like the soldiers he’d seen going toward the castle before.

They were by him then, moving at a measured canter. There were two extra horses trotting along behind. Spares, to give the others a rest when possible, making them able to keep going for longer stretches. So they wanted to catch up to the kidnappers and had the resources to do so. They all carried stuffed saddlebags and the extra horses had provisions as well.

Aiden watched after them, letting them move off until he couldn’t see them anymore before he returned to Krysta. He explained and she answered one question.

“Father sent word into town,” she said. “He must have.”

He nodded to that, still wondering other things. He decided they should stay where they were, rather than come up on the soldiers unexpectedly. The men who’d taken Jaelith had the bearing of soldiers too, if not the uniform of one. Until Aiden knew why they’d taken her, and why the new group followed, he didn’t mean to trust them. He didn’t know their intentions.

They slept another night of fitful sleep. Krysta tossed and muttered. The horses startled at normal night sounds and the occasional scent of smoke filtered in. The wind blew down off the mountains.

They went on the next day after a quick breakfast on the berries he’d picked the other day. The horses foraged for grass whenever they slowed and the rill was still close enough that they used it for watering. There were occasional smaller streams that ran down the mountainside and cut a path through ground and across rock. They ran the animals at every opportunity, stopped only when they had to and ate sparingly of the dried meat. Aiden knew Krysta was starting to feel the long ride, moving stiffly at night when they stopped. Her hands were blistered from holding the reins. She had places rubbed raw around her ankles from her boots and not being used to riding for days on end. She didn’t complain about it though. Aiden fared about the same.

They went on. The track edged over to animal trail more than a few times, becoming less and less passable the further south they went.

The jangle of a bridle came at them from a distance ahead and once again, they rushed into deeper woods. Aiden stayed back to watch and soon saw a horse coming at him at a trot. It didn’t have a rider. Aiden edged down closer to the track. The animal didn’t stop or slow, passing him by the time he neared. Its sides were heaving and as Aiden moved onto the track, it started running again.

The smell of smoke encroached again, stronger this time, on a wind that came with a roar. A shadow dimmed the sun overhead, flickering the yellow beams to darkness, winking off and on. Aiden looked up and stared, his throat closing over so he couldn’t make any sound, and fear filled him.

The beast came through the thinner branches at the canopy top, dropping down to the trail behind the horse. Its wings retracted to fold along its side, they were dirty brown and scaled on the top. It plummeted to the ground in a controlled rush and landed with a loud thud, squarely on two powerfully built legs. The feet of the thing were massive and clawed at the end of four toes. A fifth claw protruded from the back anklebone. A dragon.

Aiden froze where he was, gaping as the giant creature charged forward, chasing after the horse in a burst of incredible speed. He understood in a flash of cognizance, the smell of smoke and burned air that had followed them, realizing a number of things all at once. Dragons were no longer rumors. They were further down the side of the mountain than legend said they ever came. It was about to catch up to the horse it hunted and would eat it. And he knew he had to get to his sister and get them out of there without the beast seeing them. If it did, it would eat them too.

He turned and ran.

~*~

Chapter 8 – The Dragon’s Hunt

He crouched down to the level of the nearest shrubs and undergrowth, moving on his toes to avoid making any noise. Dragon senses were also legendary, according to the bards he listened to and learned from. The beasts could hear, see and smell with acute accuracy. They were indestructible, or had been. The only creatures that could kill them were those with the ability to use magic. Elves and Fae, the only creatures able to use magic, or so the myths ran. And Elves and Fae didn’t exist any more. Swords and arrows were useless, though many a man died in that misguided attempt. The weapons served only to make the creature mad.

Aiden had no desire to see a mad dragon.

He flitted from one tree to the next as fast as he could. Moments of silence passed, but was abruptly broken. The shrill squeal of the horse erupted over the hills, changing to a deeper cry of agony the instant before it was cut off. There wasn’t another sound in the forest.

Aiden rushed up the hill to where Krysta still hid, shaking his head at her wide-eyed stare. She had heard the horse’s death throes too.

“Don’t talk,” he said in a harsh whisper, and turned to the animals.

He stopped abruptly, one hand on the bridle of his horse, mind churning over the possibilities. He knew how he hunted. He killed for as long as he could find the prey and could carry it with him. One horse would not satisfy that dragon. He didn’t think it would stop to eat. It would keep killing. He wondered how many horses it could carry off…or how many people. He looked to the horses again, who were trembling from the noise of one of their brethren dying. There was no way they could get across the track and downwind of the dragon without it discovering them. He knew it without doubt. He knew what he had to do, which was let them go and hope the dragon followed them instead. The animals would attract the beast.

He didn’t tell Krysta.

He started taking everything off the animals, their saddles thrown on the ground, their bridles, which he kept, looping them over either arm. He pulled off saddlebags and bedrolls. By then, Krysta was helping without knowing why he was letting the horses go. The moment they were free, they took off running up the hill. They should have gone down.

Aiden grabbed all the supplies he could carry, the weapons taking precedent. Krysta followed his lead and rushed after him when he started back down the hill. He had his bow, quiver, the borrowed sword and a knife. One pack with the food was slung over his shoulder and the pouch he always wore remained fastened to his belt.

“Don’t make any noise,” he whispered, trying to listen.

He smelled it first.

He hauled Krysta down to the ground, shoved them up against fallen tree, and tucked under it as far as they could go. ‘Don’t breathe’ he mouthed at her and her eyes widened again.

They heard it then, clumping through the forest, sucking in draughts of air and snorting it back out again, sounding as if it had its snout pressed to the ground. It paused every few steps, sniffling as it went. The sound of its passage grew closer and closer. The smell of smoke and charred wood filled their nostrils.

A clawed arm dug into the side of the tree over Aiden. He was more exposed, doing his best to cover Krysta. For a moment, he thought they were both dead, except he knew he would get up and run, and draw the thing after him to give Krysta a chance to escape if he had to. She had her hands latched onto his back, two fistfuls of his tunic in a firm grasp. Maybe she knew what he intended. He turned his face into the wood, trying not to let air escape his lungs.

The log pressed down into the ground as it took the weight of the beast. It launched into the air for a moment. The barbed tail whipped by them and only just missed them. The dragon landed and charged on, spotting its next quarry.

Krysta gasped, looking over Aiden’s shoulder, aware that both horses were about to lose their lives. He waited only a moment longer to move, watching after the dragon as it chased his horse down. It caught it the next instant.

Aiden rolled out of the nook of the tree to his feet, grabbed his sister up and threw her onto the other side of the log. He jumped after her and started running down the slope of the mountain, no longer so concerned about making too much noise. The last horse was making enough sound for the dragon to follow after. Dancer found the track and started down it at a thundering gallop. Aiden hoped it would escape, but didn’t think it would.

He and Krysta raced down the hillside, through the dense wood, across the track and down further by several leaping bounds before he dragged her back to the ground, hiding this time next to a big rock. An instant later, the shadow of the dragon flew across the forest floor, covered them in darkness and then moved on. Through the distant canopy, they saw it, arcing away back down the path.

“It’ll be back for the corpses,” he said in a strangled whisper directly in her ear. “We have to make a run for it before it does. Right now.”

He stood, listened and heard the last horse squeal in fright. Krysta burst into tears, but Aiden pulled her up and pushed her toward the path. He followed and they ran as fast as they could and as quietly as they were able, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and the spot where the dragon would come back.

Off in the distance, Dancer’s last scream reached them. They ran faster, flying over the ground, down and up slopes of land until their lungs refused to allow another step. Krysta came to a halt first, collapsing to the forest floor, where she rolled from forward momentum.

Aiden dashed back to her, pulled her up and forced her off the path. If they couldn’t run, they had to hide from it. He found another log, a bigger one this time that was situated across an uneven patch of ground and provided a nice opening underneath it. He stuffed Krysta into the crevice and left her there, explaining in a rush that he would be right back and to not come out. He said that last part twice.

He needed something to help hide their scent, remembering a plant Jaelith told him about, stink weed that would disguise the smell of a person from almost any kind of animal. He could only hope it worked against a dragon.

He found some of the plant, it grew almost everywhere on the mountainside, and brought back an armful. Pausing to listen and trying to smell the air, he sought for signs of the beast’s return. He read the legends and tales. They were cunning creatures and when they were on the hunt, were known to disguise themselves, withholding the breath of fire and the smoldering smell of smoke so they could come unawares upon their prey.

Quickly, he spread the weeds around their hiding place, particularly the path they’d taken in. He rubbed the green parts over his clothes and on his hands, in his hair, on Krysta, and then, he jammed himself into the hole, in front of her once again, and together, they waited.

They heard it land, too close, and Aiden started worrying that it had seen them and no amount of trickery would stop it from coming right to their hiding place. He couldn’t see around the rock to tell. He heard it though, drawing closer, smelling the ground until it was on the other side of the boulder and he knew it was coming.

Krysta grabbed him when he started to move, but he shoved her back, using his strength to keep her still. “When it comes,” he said in hardly a whisper, turning his head to speak in her ear, “you have to run. Head down and cross the rill. Use the water to hide from it. Yes, Krysta. You have to. Otherwise, we’re both dead.”

“I’m not—”

“Promise me you’ll find her.”

“Aiden—”

That was all the time they had for the argument.

The dragon charged around the rock. Aiden rolled to his feet, sword drawn, and turned to face it. The beast snarled at him, showing its teeth, one of which was as long as his forearm. He tried not thinking about ending up between them, but it was useless. It took a moment of standing there to realize that he was still standing there. He expected to be eaten already.

A strange, charged current formed and spread outward from his heart, encompassing both arms, down to his fingers and into the hilt of the weapon he held. An odd out of place crackle filled the air. Suddenly, where he stood smelled like a lightning strike about to happen, only without the distant thunder as a forewarning.

The dragon hissed, swiveling its neck to the side to look around him at Krysta, who was still stuffed under the rock when she should have been running. “Get up, you idiot!” he ordered, sparing a side-glance at her. She shook her head, lips pressed tight and watching him with widened eyes. He didn’t know why, but moved to block the dragon’s view of her, which meant he had to take a step toward it.

He felt strange, like he stood out in one of the fields on a blazing hot day, with the sun beating through every fiber of being. The air around him seemed brighter than normal as if a hole had opened up in the canopy of trees above. For a moment, until he talked himself out of believing it, he thought his sword was glowing.

The dragon backed up a half step, sliding on its giant feet, the claws sinking into the ground as if to stop itself, almost as if something was pushing it away. It hissed again, a low guttural noise coming from behind the teeth. Abruptly it turned, and with one glance back at him, leapt into the air.

Away from them.

Aiden stood frozen from relief and confusion, until he felt his knees start to give out. The ground was soft, thankfully, and he missed landing on a rock. His legs buckled and he landed hard on his knees. He was still afraid the thing would come back and didn’t know why it left in the first place.

The light went back to normal. The sense that he was burning up eased. Maybe it was just a normal reaction to being scared out of his mind where everything seemed strange and felt different.

He put his head in his hand, still holding the sword in the other.

Krysta rushed out of the hole to his side, grabbed him and started yanking him back to the cover of the rock. Maybe she thought the dragon would come back too. He helped as best he could, which was just to dig his heels into the ground.

“Why didn’t you run?” he said as she got them back to the rock.

“I’m not leaving you, stupid,” she hissed, looking up to the sky and all around.

He felt better after getting a drink of water from the skin they’d saved. It was a tangle to get it out. His hands were shaking. “We have to move.”

The smell of smoke came and a shadow draped over them, but it passed swiftly as the dragon flew along the path.

Aiden watched it through the leaves, arcing around and dropping to the forest floor. When it rose again, it held the drooping body of a dead horse in one foot.

“Maybe we should wait until it takes them all,” Krysta said.

Aiden grunted as he straightened. He kept an eye on the sky above. “We need to get away from here. Right now.”

He started gathering everything he thought they would need and now had to carry, lashing the bedrolls to his back underneath the packs of food, making a crude rucksack out of the horse bridles and reins.

They didn’t talk about what happened or why the dragon suddenly backed off for no apparent reason. Except Aiden felt there had to be one. He couldn’t name the scathing sensation that had coursed through him. He didn’t understand it. He also knew there wasn’t an answer to be had out here in the middle of the woods. There were a lot of other answers he didn’t want making themselves readily apparent. Traveling on foot, he knew the chances had just turned to nearly impossible of ever catching up to Jaelith’s captors.

~*~

Aiden’s War will be released…when I finish writing it (but it is coming along). Please forgive any typos above as this work has not yet been fully edited. Please feel free to leave any comments. I love hearing from readers!

11 responses to “2-Aiden’s War

  1. Pingback: @JoleaB Interview with Author Jolea M. Harrison via @tdmiller820917 – TheNerdyGirlExpress

  2. Pingback: There be Dragons there – Aiden’s War | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  3. Pingback: Aiden’s War, Chapter Six – A Race South | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  4. Pingback: Aiden’s War, Chapter Five – Krysta’s Choice | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  5. Pingback: Aiden’s War – Chapter Two, The Hunt | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  6. Pingback: Aiden’s War – Chapter Three – The Broker | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  7. Pingback: Aiden’s War, Chapter Four – Taken | Author Jolea M. Harrison

  8. Patricia

    Just finished the Guardians series and this promises to be just as enthralling. Really looking forward to it!

  9. Valerie Rhodes

    Wow loved this excerpt!! You’ve got a fan now! The hop was amazing to see so many authors I hadn’t known of yet.

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