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The flash of pain stripped all colour from Talena’s vision as the ripple of force twisted her head. She felt her ears pop as the ringing chimed like bells. Falling, her knees met with mud and gravel. The sharp stones bit through her dress like thousands of tiny teeth gnawing at her flesh.
The splash of mud left spatterings of brown sludge mingling with her own crimson blood. She forced her hands out to stop toppling over and slid on the slimy stones. A sharp pain above her right eye forced a scream from her lips as she left more blood on the rocky ground.
Looking up her vision cleared for a split second. Only long enough to catch a glimpse of the shadowed figure towering above her, pulling back his hand to smack her again.
It was swift and reddened her cheeks still further, till it burned with hot fury. Another followed another, and another, until Talena lay face down in a deep puddle she thought might become her grave. The rain slammed down on her welts like needles as consciousness came and went in feverish patterns. She could hear the two bastards rifling through her pack. All her belongings, the sum of her eighteen years of life, were strewn across the road as the men picked what to steel. What little money she had was already gone, swallowed by grimy pockets to be counted and leered at later, as she lay coughing and spluttering, soaked from head to foot, beaten half senseless, on the ground. She prayed to the Gods it was only her belongings they took.
‘Is this all she’s got?’
Talena heard the thin man’s gruff voice through the symphony of rain and buzzing in her head.
‘It’s not such a bad haul Milner.’
‘Don’t mention my bloody name!’ The old man seemed like he was made of sinew; stringy and stretched. Yet he hit like a hammer. ‘I’ve told you before! Don’t make me tell you again.’ His companion mouthed a wordless apology while clutching his chest after receiving a thump for his troubles. ‘Fill the bag with everything worthwhile, I’m not carrying torn dresses and moth eaten blankets into Theron. We need to travel light and fast across the border. Just grab what we can sell.’
The other man just simply nodded and pulled a shoe from the girl to inspect it, before throwing it back at her with a sigh. Talena flinched, hiding her face whit a grubby hand. Milner knelt by her and brushed her hand from her eyes. She recoiled and scrabbled in the mud, kicking her legs wildly to gain traction. ‘Leave me alone!’ she howled as the wretch chuckled, wiping his face of rain.
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that sweetheart. My friend here, and his big gob, has sealed your fate. You know my name, and that won’t do. Don’t want the Haven Guard to find out where I am, now do I?’ he chuckled again.
Milner looked as if he weighed less than a painting of himself yet he gripped Talena’s ankles like a set of jailer’s cuffs.
‘Get off me!’ Her wails and tears only seemed to stir the devilish glint in his eyes. ‘You’ve got everything I have.’
He yanked her across the grit and stones towards him and clasped a vice-like hand around her neck. ‘Not quite everything.’ He whispered.
She gasped for breath as his hand closed tighter and tighter. What focus she had disappeared into a blurry mess of that mans ugly face, then further into a flash of light; a glint from steel that shone as if it were a spark of lightning erupting from the shadows. It slashed down as Milner howled, scratching across the ground as Talena gasped for breath.
It was then, with another flurry of sparks, she thought she was dead. Yet her eyes opened, just as another flash flickered as the sword crashed down upon a skull, where it bit in deeply with a satisfying crunch. The skull caved in and a chunk of bone and gristle flew across the road. The man fell to his knees in silence.
Talena stared on in a strange mix of amazement and horror as the man stared back. Not a single inch separated their faces and she began to quiver and his dark pupils grew larger. They were dead eyes, full of hate perhaps. Yet to Talena’s view they looked just as scarred as her own probably did.
With a swift knee to his side she forced the corpse over into a pile, face down in a puddle. Shaking she let her eyes move up to the stranger stood before her, fearing the point of his blade.
His padded blue jacket shone even in the shadows. It was old and torn in a multitude of places. Fresh patches covered what looked like the largest holes. The dye had faded and was streaked with the brown of dull, dried blood, half washed out by the rain. His long hair was lashed by the icy wind blowing down the road. It was half tied back with a ribbon yet the wind had yanked the rest out into the night. His face was still much of a blur as he turned away. The snarl his face was contorted into however, was plain to see; as plain as day in the darkest night.
She glanced past as he swung again. Milner scrabbled away across the road, rolling and scratching at the gravel. Another swing sent him leaping into the long grass clutching his arm, cursing and screaming as he disappeared into the night. Looking across the ground she could see why he was howling like a kicked dog; his severed hand lay lifeless a few feet from her. ‘Thats right, run you bastard!’ she shouted after him. ‘Run off and die!’
The man in the blue jacket turned back to her and held out a hand, covered in rust and blood. She looked at it hesitantly, desperately trying to cool her blood and stop her heart from pounding through her chest.
‘Don’t worry, we won’t see him again. You alright?’ came a soft yet powerful voice from behind his lips.
She continued to stare at him, saying nothing. She had the breath, just not the words. Her mind was empty.
‘Give me your hand then!’ he shouted, numbing her ears with a roar. ‘Unless you like it in that puddle.’
Talena hesitantly raised her mud covered hand into his. It was warm, unlike her own and seemed to effortlessly raise her to her feet. ‘I’m Kaelin.’ He said softly. ‘A Friend.’
She whipped her hand away and peeled the sodden hair from her face. ‘Friend!’ she snapped. ‘Those are hard to come by. As you can see, I don’t have the coin for friends. I suppose you want a reward. Well those two didn’t get under my dress, and neither will you!’
She smoothed her skirts as best she could but the mud just smeared and the grit clung to it fiercely. ‘If your breeches are unbuttoned I swear, I’ll bite if off!’ she barked.
‘Hadn’t crossed my mind.’ Kaelin sniggered, moving his eyes from the mud covered princess.
‘Good, make sure it stays that way.’
Bending over to grab her bag her vision blurred again and she began to topple. Without hesitation Kaelin caught hold of her as she feebly tried to push him away. Then all her strength left her, but she didn’t fall. Kaelin gripped her tighter to his chest and surveyed the life he had just saved.
The girl looked a mess. He was sure there was a woman beneath all the dirt and bruises, but in the silver moonlight it was hard to tell. If he squinted he could get a glimpse of a womanly shape, topped by golden hair beneath all the grime and blood. Yet in the hard light of day, he thought a pig in a dress would still be a pig.
Gently he sat her down against a tree trunk, as much out of the rain as possible. Though a bath might have revealed some beauty at least, and would have definitely got rid of the smell.
‘You smell like a farm.’ He coughed quietly to himself. Yet he soldiered on, putting her hands delicately on her lap. Her arm was cut and bleeding a little. It wasn’t deep, but then it didn’t have to be. Any infection could cost her the arm or the life he had just saved.
So reaching under his jacket he ripped off a shirt tail and tied it around the wound. He gave the rest of her a quick check over for more cuts, but she was thankfully still whole.
Gathering her saturated possessions into the bag he propped himself next to her, slinging it under her head like a pillow.
Miles from anywhere, and with the sun soon to be up, he decided a few hours sleep wouldn’t go amiss. Rummaging in a pocket his fingers felt the cold of a small tin. Once it has contained a horrid mix of snuff he couldn’t abide, but now it held the power of fire; a chink of flint the size of a man’s thumb, a steel ingot perhaps twice as big and some cotton to ignite with the spark. The rain had soaked all the fallen wood and trying to burn green wood was a novice mistake. Yet he needed the warmth of a fire. Sleep was precious, but cold sleep was worthless. With a swift glance to the girl he rose to find his pack.
Inside was a pack of dry kindling and a few odds and sods he had collected through the years. Not much of it worth anything, but to him. Skimming the steel over the flint the shadowed tree flickered with tiny lightning. Split seconds of light as he angled the sparks onto the cotton. Soon the yellow glow of fire burst into life and the sodden clearing was bathed in its radiance. Well, that was how it should have felt. The wind tore most of the heat away. So tugging the unconscious girl to the fire, he pushed fallen leaves together with his boot in a vain attempt at a dry bed. Wind bit through the whole in his shirt and his half numb fingers fiddled endlessly to secure the buttons of his jacket.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night.
Another shirt ruined.