The Knell

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Chapter Two: "Emergence of Legend"

Time seems to slow to a standstill, progressing in seconds that are extending into years and decades. All tunnels in on the downward diving sword, the path it is carving towards her older brother’s chest.

Kaethe screams, wrenching herself free. She launches across the feet that separate her from her only family, covering the distance in the blink of an eye. She throws herself between her brother and the blade, arms open wide, waiting for the inevitable pain even as she yells for everything to stop. With eyes squeezed shut, she gives up, prepared for death – welcoming it in some morbid form of penance – and whatever else happens beyond that.

There comes a whistle of air, a feather-light tickle against her cheek, and then the dull, hollow thwunk of two somethings connecting.

Time resumes at a steady pace.

Sound returns and she realizes that it had previously been faded behind the pulsing against her ears.

An indignant cry and a pained gasp clash together, forcing Kaethe’s eyes wide open as she stares in startled confusion at the scene unfolding.

The soldier that was preparing to kill her brother – and then her – is now crumbling backwards, an arrow wedged between his ribs. He falls, blood already flooding, dead long before he strikes the unforgiving ground. Beside him, just as surprised as Kaethe is, stumbles the man that she hates more than anything or anyone in this life. The man, once an entertaining, humorous distraction, is now shouting for his men to draw arms and protect him, to find the source of the arrow.

Another shot whispers through the trees, winging her enemy’s cheek, leaving a thin ruby trail before it strikes another soldier that was coming to take up position at his side. This one slams into the soldier’s throat, a precise and instant kill.

There are several consecutive whistles of air, each one downing one of the riders that lingers along the outskirts. The horses prance with worry, and then when their riders are knocked loose they disappear, screaming behind the tree line.

“Get down!” her brother yells, throwing his body on top of her as another arrow hisses by. He pins her to the ground, his weight to much more significant than hers. “Move, move, move,” he barks, fisting her shirt and pulling her away from the mayhem warfare that is occurring around – and over – them. “C’mon,” he says, even now not one for silence as he continues to mutter under his breath, words that used to get him a spanking when they were little and that had once upon a time startled her white.

Not anymore.

Now she is in complete agreement, something new for the rocky relationship that the two share.

They get to a tree, the trunk wide enough for the two to sit behind and be mostly hidden. From that place they watch as pandemonium continues, as their pursuers struggle to rein back control, to figure out where the attacking archer or archers are positioned out of sight.

“Where is he?” a man yells, so very close to where she and Rett are, just before he is struck in the spine. His arms are thrown wide, a jerking reaction, and then he is face-first in the leaves, sightless eyes staring directly at Kaethe.

Her blood runs cold and she has to move away unless she wants to vomit the berries she ate earlier.

“Don’t look,” Rett cautions.

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” she replies, turning back to the swarming mess.

There is something different this time around, though. A shadow is emerging, tall, large, carelessly walking out to lean almost casually against an oak tree – the stiff shoulders, however, give away the hulking, coiling muscles that are flexing beneath a thin shirt.

Who is that?” Rett wonders. She can hear the awe in his voice that even she is feeling.

It is something for a lone man to come into a company of enemy riders and appear as though he is in complete control of the situation. Kaethe can respect the flare for theatrics, while at the same time she thinks that whoever this mysterious man is, he is as dumb as a person can get.

With the man’s arrival the arrows cease firing and the riders regain control, turning to face the newcomer.

“Long way from home, gents?” the man asks, his voice young, pleasantly lilting as though there is a secret joke that only he is able to laugh at. He does not sound at all how Kaethe thinks he should, all hardened and threatening, gravelly and chilling, promising death and destruction because he is on his own, alone, against nine armored riders who appear very, very, very irritated. This man, strange as he is, does not hold the veneer one should at a time such as this.

“Who are you?” asks the Noble who will haunt Kaethe’s nightmares for years to come.

She still can’t wrap her thoughts around it, how he could be sweet and doting, so obviously infatuated with her at one moment, and then the next to be out for her blood should she refuse him. The split is terrifying still to think about, even after living through it. She doesn’t understand how everything went wrong. All she knows, for terrible certainty, is that, simply, it is all her doing. It is the only explanation.

And there is nothing she would not give to change it all; to go back, knowing what she realizes now, and make different choices – better choices. Things would be different. So very different.

Georgie wouldn’t be hunting her like he is now. Her . . . He . . .

Things would just be different, back to how they are supposed to be.

The stranger laughs lowly, deep but still holding a mirth that is escaping the rest – even her and Rett. “I’ll ask again. Are you gents lost?”

“No,” Georgie replies slowly.

“Well, you must be.”

“And why is that?”

The man smiles, widely, so apparently feral that it is actually captivating. Kaethe wonders at the reason behind this confidence of his that is entirely too unnerving.

“Well, it’s the only explanation for why a group of Eives, who are obviously packing,” he nods to the swords and the bows and the daggers that adorn each man, “are trespassing in Barrow’s mountains.”

At the declaration she can see that each of their pursuers turns pale white. While they knew that the mountain ranges were in Barren territory, none thought to consider patrols near the borders. In fact, Kaethe knows that none have even considered the Barrens to be real, just a myth that surrounded one of the darkest, eye-opening days in the history of Eiveyn. But to find out, in this way, that not only are the myths true, but also that the Barrens truly are fighters of legend . . . perhaps now would be a good time to run for it.

She whispers the suggestion to her brother who simply shakes his head. “Why not?”

“We don’t know where they’re hiding,” he answers, glancing nervously about where they sit. “If we try to run and they see then we’re likely to wind up with arrows in our own backs.”

“So it’s just better to wait until they pick them off?” she snaps with a nod to the riders.

Rett shrugs. “Better than running and getting shot or chased down again. Maybe they’re friendly?”

“They’re Barrens. The last thing Barrens would be is friendly to us. He called us Eives,” she hisses, the very name tasting so wrong and foul as she spits it out. ‘Eive’ is the most derogatory term anyone can use to name their nationality. It is something that she has only heard once or twice in her life, and it was always from the slurred tongues of drunks back at the wharf – those men were never seen or heard from again, so insulting is it.

“It’s our best bet,” he says sternly, pushing her towards another tree as they try to stay as close as possible but still out of sight.

“So one more time, gents. You lost?”

Georgie bristles in his saddle, tilting upright so that he appears tall, haughty – the Barren looks like he wants to turn into hysterics at the display. “We are hunting down felons that have fled into your lands. That is all. Perhaps we can strike an accord on this matter? If you help us then you will be greatly rewarded.”

This time the Barren does laugh. “Oh? What’s in it for me?”

“You get to keep your life,” the Noble returns as though this is more than generous.

“Nah. I don’t like it. How about you just run along now, back down to where you belong?”

“You are no threat,” Georgie growls.

The Barren does not look at all impressed. “And yet you’re down to almost half your number. Do you really think this,” he stares out over the remaining riders, “is intimidating to me? Mate, we’re Barrens. That’s not something you should take lightly.”

“And I do not, but you are alone, therefore—”

“What makes you think I’m alone?” the Barren interrupts, finding something amusing that is escaping everyone else. “Honestly, are you Eives as dumb as you look?”

Georgie bristles, as do the others in his company. Kaethe is likewise offended, but when she looks to her brother to see just how outraged he is by the insults she finds her assumptions to be wrong. Her brother is grinning madly, a beaming, appreciative smile as he fights back a laugh. When he sees her looking at him he turns and his smile only brightens.

“What is wrong with you?” she asks.

“I like this guy. I think we should stick with him.”

Her mouth drops open at the suggestion, but before she can berate him for it, an arrows snaps through the trees, hitting Georgie’s shoulder and painfully throwing him from his saddle. He hits hard, the breath whistling from his chest. He blinks up at the sky, disoriented from the fall, while his men look on in stunned shock, pressing closer and casting eyes along the trees.

“That’s your only warning,” the Barren says, playing around with the leather ties along his wrists. “If I were you I’d take it and leave. Next time and I guarantee you won’t be walking away from this.

Still winded, Georgie merely splutters while his second in command barks for the men to do as the Barren says. Two riders lift the Noble back onto his horse, and then, with one final look at the Barren, ride hard from the stunted clearing, making their way down the mountain side. Following their departure, all is quiet until a branch snaps entirely too close to where Kaethe and Rett are lingering, startling them both as they stumble to their feet to face the new threat.

“Found ‘em!” a boy, just barely younger than Kaethe is at seventeen, calls from five feet away. He grins boyishly at them while placing his bow across his back. “You two okay?”

She and Rett only stare.

The earlier Barren crosses the distance, standing enormously to Kaethe’s right, looming above her, threatening even with the easy smile that seems to be trying to tell her that he means no harm. She steps away, closer to her brother who understands her unease and shifts so that he is just behind his shoulder.

“We come in peace?” Rett offers when there is nothing else acceptable to say.

A silence follows, more awkward than it is tense, and then the bowman laughs, leaning to speak with the older, bigger Barren. “I like ‘em. Can we keep ‘em?”

The first Barren rolls his eyes. “No, we can’t keep them.”

“Boo,” the second mutters, glaring at his boots.

“You’re not going to kill us, are you?” Rett asks next, pressing back into her as he prepares for them to make a break for it should the answer not be at all in their favor.

“No. Why would we do that? We just went through all the effort of saving you,” the bowman replies, brow wrinkled as he puzzles this question. “Hale, were you going to kill them?”

“No, Louk,” the older answers.

Her brother visibly relaxes. “Oh. Good. That’s really good. You know, I knew I liked you . . . aside from the bad-assery of course.”

The bigger Barren, Hale, smiles and steps forward. He holds out his hand while saying, “My name’s Hale. And that’s my little brother, Louk.”

“Why must you always add the ‘little’?” the younger grumbles, loud enough for all to hear but quiet enough that it could pass as inner mumblings. “And who’re you . . . you know, aside from being Eives—er, Eivish?” he amends with a wince and an apologetic grin. “Sorry. Habit.”

“That’s fine,” her brother reassures. “I’m Garrett, but friends call me Rett. And this is Kaethe.”

“Siblings?” Hale wonders, obviously looking at their unnaturally pale hair.

“Yes,” she says, finally coming out from her brother’s shadow.

At the same time Rett says, “No relation.”

This time the pause is a little tense.

“Just kidding,” Rett finally mutters.

The air eases as Louk and then Hale smiles.

“Thanks for saving us back there,” Kaethe says quietly, feeling overwhelmingly nervous, which is a strange feeling for her. The last time she’d felt like this was when she was seven and had been caught trying to steal candy from a shop vendor. She’s been taken to the court house while her parents were contacted, and the entire half hour she waited had been filled with an annoying woman telling her that her parents would be so very disappointed. Which they were. But only because she had been caught with her hand in the candy jar. After that she’s learned her lesson and never been seen stealing again – although that didn’t stop people from knowing it was her, they just couldn’t prove it. “I . . . we . . . thanks,” she ends lamely.

“You’re welcome,” Hale says warmly. “Was there a reason you were running from them?”

She and Rett share a look, trying to decide whether or not they should share.

“You don’t need to tell us, but we could help you more if you did,” he offers upon seeing their reluctance.

Kaethe takes a breath, choosing to take the chance. “The Noble, Georgie—”

“Oh, so that’s his name!” Rett interrupts. “I thought it was Gregory or Jorge or Joe something.”

She glares over being cut off, but her brother is unaffected. “Georgie wanted . . . he wanted me to marry him. I refused. One . . . one thing led to another and . . . and he chased us here. There’s more to it, but . . . that’s the gist of it.”

Hale and Louk seem appeased by this, nodding together as they shift to stand shoulder to shoulder.

“I’m glad we could help,” Hale says sincerely. “We saw him, Georgie was it?—about to have your brother’s head cut off. It didn’t seem right.”

“Yeah, so we figured we’d offer our aide.” Louk turns to his brother, smiling and laughing. “I think he crap’ed his pants a little when you told him they were trespassing. Did you see his face? It was epic!” The two brothers high-five each other, thoroughly pleased and finding entertainment in the fear they have inspired.

Kaethe is simply shocked that this people of legend is so . . . so . . . so normal. She thought them to act superior, stern, constantly thinking of ways to kill as, back in the day, the Barrens had been known as assassins as well as an army for hire before they had relocated into seclusion in the mountains. Seeing the two brothers now, they’re nothing like the tales told to keep children in check.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” she says, making to go their separate ways. She looks to her brother but he isn’t paying attention, staring distantly to the side. “And thank you again for saving us. We would have been dead if you hadn’t shown up.”

“It’s no problem,” Louk is quick to assure.

“Yeah. We were bored anyways.”

“No, you were bored,” the younger brother retorts with a shove. “I was waiting. Very patiently, I might add.”

“Which is too weird since you’re usually all bouncing energy.”

“Hey, that’s not true.”

“Yeah, it is. You move in your sleep, too. It’s annoying.”

Louk makes a face. “Whatever.”

Hale grins, having won the argument that can only happen between siblings.

“LOOK OUT!”

The sudden scream from her brother is shocking. So is his body as he flies across the short space between himself and Hale. The two men collide painfully, just as the tell-tale whistle of a released arrow reaches Kaethe’s ears. Falling back, tripping off a bent branch and landing on her rear, she just barely catches the sight of the hissing bolt as it connects with the place Hale had only moments ago been standing at.

The very same place that her brother is now sprawling, an uncoordinated collapse that leaves her eyes widening in alarm.

Louk crouches down in the same second, his bow in his hands and an arrow notched to the string. In one breath he has drawn and fired, a distant, gurgling cry echoing up to them. He notches another arrow a moment later, pulled taut and trained in the same direction as his gaze swings about, searching out further threats.

“Louk?” Hale calls, slowly getting up from where he was shoved.

“I got him. You okay?”

“Yeah.”

“What about you two?”

Kaethe blinks at the question, finding that Hale is looking directly at her. She nods, and then drops her eyes to her brother who is still lying on the ground, looking suddenly ashen and wheezing for breath. Calling his name, horror in her veins, Kaethe crawls the distance to his side, ignoring the pulsing in her wrist as she bends over him, taking in the arrow that is lodged in his side, sticking up into his ribs.

No . . .

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