Armaila grimaced as she wiped blood from her hand. The cut was shallow, a jagged red line running down her index finger and stretching across the length of her palm. Mother will kill me.
She had stumbled over a pine bough and fell on the ground, cutting herself on the edge of a rock. Between household chores and her mother’s wary eye, hiding it would be no easy task.
A bow and quiver slung over Armaila’s back swung from side to side as she ran, assuring her of their companionship. It was a present from her father on her tenth birthday, six years ago, which her mother had all but forbidden her to use.
She would be married before the week was out, forever resigned to a life of wearing dresses and making small talk with the village women. Most girls would be thrilled—engaged to the Baron’s son—but Armaila dreaded the thought of marriage with every fiber of her being. The forest was her escape.
The sharp sound of metal against metal rang out in the distance, stopping her in her tracks. It was out of place so far from the village. Armaila hoisted herself into the study branches of the tree beside her, forgetting her injury. It’s needles were crimson, long dead, and she took caution grabbing the withered branches.
A figure in a dark cloak crested the hill. They stopped, slipping behind a tree with an unsheathed sword. Two more cloaked figures on horseback came into view, and even from a distance, Armaila saw sweaty lather on the horses’ coats.
The figure leaped from behind the tree and drove the weapon into a horse’s chests. The animal fell as its rider yelled a slew of curses, slashing wildly at the air before crashing into the ground. The third figure dismounted and together they encircled the first.
They were almost directly below Armaila now, and she worried the beating of her heart was loud enough to give her away. She crouched close to the branches, hiding herself among the bulk of red needles.
She had never seen a fight before.
A sudden flash of light filled the forest. It sent two of the figures flying several paces, and one landed against a tree with a wet crunch that made Armaila tremble. The first figure drew their dagger and crouched over the other body, stabbing its chest until it was impossible any life remained.
The figure that had hit the tree struggled to their feet and ran as best they could, half dragging their left leg. The uninjured horses had fled during the fight and the other lay in a pool of blood beside what remained of its rider.
How are they alive? Armaila wondered as she watched the figure struggling to escape. They crested the hill and disappeared among the branches.
She expected the other figure to pursue them, but they made no such motion. Instead, they wiped the bloody dagger on the body’s robes—it was a magnificent blade, with a ruby in the pommel that nearly matched the blood on it. They took a few strained steps forward and collapsed onto the damp soil.
Armaila waited several moments before climbing down.
She looked at the figure laying in front of her. She couldn’t leave without answers–Greenfields was a peaceful town, but there were rumors of war on the coast. With her father gone, it was up to her to protect her family.
“Who are you?” Armaila demanded, drawing her bow with shaking arms. She aimed it to the side a little, for fear of accidentally releasing it.
The figure turned their head, and Armaila was surprised to see a woman. Even in her weak state there was a sense of power about her that demanded respect.
“I mean you no harm.” The woman grimaced, clutching her stomach. Blood soaked her abdomen. She pulled a burlap sack out from under her cloak and tossed it at Armaila’s feet, saying, “This must be kept safe”.
Armaila took a step back. “What is that?”
“There will be more of them soon,” the woman said. “They cannot find this.”
She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. Her head rolled to the side, but her chest continued to rise and fall.
Armaila opened the sack gingerly using a branch. Inside, there was a smooth, gray object and a sword, different from the one used in the fight. If the woman was right, the figure that escaped would bring reinforcements, and dusk was coming within the hour.
Armaila considered her options. She was used to carrying large bags of grain, but hoisting the woman over her shoulder with such injuries could prove fatal, and dragging her would leave an obvious trail that could be followed.
An owl hooted from a tree above and Armaila painfully realized how close to dusk they were.
She placed the sack behind a thick bush and then carefully slipped her hands underneath the woman, lifting her up like a sleeping child. The woman was unnaturally light, especially for someone with such tall stature.
The weight was an advantage, and Armaila was able to move faster than she had initially expected. She placed the woman beside a small pond near her family’s house. It was sheltered by a ring of alders.
It would be impossible for Armaila to explain where she’d found the woman without admitting to her mother that she had gone into the forest, and that was a battle she was not ready to fight.
Before stepping inside the little cottage, she looked down at her dress.
Bloody fire! she cursed. A dark stain of crimson marred the bodice.
The front door was no longer an option. She slipped around to the back of the house and crawled into her bedroom window.
A fresh dress lay on her bed and she quickly exchanged the soiled one for it.
“Armaila, is that you?” her mother called.
The bedroom door swung open, and Armaila’s breath caught in her throat. She discreetly pushed the dirty dress underneath her bed with her foot, holding her injured palm behind her.
Her mother narrowed her eyes. It gave her face a sharper appearance than normal, enhanced by the tight bun her hair was pulled into.
“You know you are not to be out alone at dark,” she said.
“I’m sorry.” Armaila hung her head, feigning remorse. “I was reciting poetry to practise for the wedding and I didn’t realize how late it was.”
The words softened her mother somewhat.
“Dinner is cold,” she said, turning on her heel out the door.
Armaila sat quickly, mumbling an apology as she dished her plate, taking care to keep her injured hand out of view.
“Where were you?” her mother continued, raising an eyebrow at the amount of food on the plate.
“Outside,” Armaila answered, stuffing her face so she couldn’t speak.
“I swear,” her mother said with a sigh, “you’re growing more like your father every day.”
He had died two years ago. It was hard on everyone, but her mother especially. She refused to let Armaila out of her sight for the first few months, and became obsessed with making sure she would be well taken care of in the future.
“Finish your supper while I prepare the wagon,” she said. “The wedding rehearsal is in an hour and we will not be late this time.”
Armaila choked on a mouthful of bread. After finding the injured woman, she’d forgotten about it entirely, despite her mother’s constant fussing over it for weeks.
“I’ll get dressed,” Armaila said.
“You’ve hardly touched your dinner.”
“I’ve lost my appetite.”
Merci pour la lecture!