Chapter 1: The Turn of a Coin
The morning air was crisp with the scent of the forest. The world was beginning to wake, and a ray of sunlight broke through the trees and landed on Dawn Rentradie’s cheek.
She had been laying on a patch of grass with her riding clothes neatly folded beside her and her mare, Lily, tied to a nearby tree. She thought back to her family, her sister, and her betrothed who would be waiting for her. She had promised that her journey to town would only take a day, but the weather was not on her side and a day’s journey became a three-day trek. Ryder, her betrothed, had offered to come along but since they were not yet wed this would have caused an uproar in the village.
Yet that was not why she had declined Ryder’s offer to accompany her. She wanted to attend to this errand alone. To bask in the independence her unmarried status still allowed her. Once she said her vows to Ryder she would be expected to stay to their cottage and attend to his land. Her days of riding in the forest, jumping over fallen logs, would be behind her. Although Ryder had not banned her from carrying on as she did, the weight of responsibility would soon be on her. And then the children would come. She shuddered at the thought of raising a family. Unlike the other young girls in her village she did not dream of sitting at home and tending to crying babes. And so when he father asked her to meet an old friend in Eastmaw, she sprung at the chance to do something more.
So she had packed her bags and bushed down Lily. Waving a goodbye to her mother and her sister Jane, she had trotted out of her village and down the dirt road to the neighbouring town. The loose road had lead to a paved path that continued through the way station town of Eastmaw. Sounds of travellers had greeted her as she eased Lily into a gentle stride, looking for the man her father had told her to meet.
A man in a grey cloak.
“Once you see him, tell him ‘for the crescent moon’ and take what he give you.” Her father had been firm in his instructions, urging her to only stop if necessary and to not linger in Eastmaw. She hadn’t and when she finally found the grey cloaked figure standing by the well, she had said the words her father told her and extended her hand.
The man had given her a tome the size of her forearm. Safely depositing the book in her satchel, Dawn had set out for her village.
Rising from the grass, Dawn pulled on her tunic and riding leathers over her linen clothes. She slipped her feet into her boots and made her way to her mare. Lilly huffed and stomped her feet, her signal to Dawn for a treat. Smiling, she retrieved her final apple and held it out for Lilly.
After packing up, Dawn mounted her mare and began the last leg of her trek to the village. The forest was quiet, and it was only her and Lilly on the dirt road that morning. There weren’t any merchants or farmers on their way into Eastmaw and the Royal Guards were not making their morning rounds either.
The world was at peace.
Coming closer to her village, Dawn began hearing the familiar buzz of her home. She could practically see her neighbours children running around, their mother calling out to them to eat breakfast before they ran off for the day. But as she neared, she heard shouting and the gallop of several horses. Emerging from the trees that blocked her view of her home she halted as the sight in front of her shook her to her core.
The quaint village she had lived in her entire life was up flames. Women and children ran in fear as five men, dressed in black armour pointed their weapons at her people. She heard their laughs above the sounds of terror and crackling flame, but one voice broke through the rest.
“Please have mercy! We will do anything—give anything!”
One of the men, sitting on his large horse, pointed the end of his sword at Ryder.
The horseman laughed, balancing his on Ryder’s throat.“Give us the book.”
Dawn stood frozen as his words registered in her mind. The tome her father had sent her to retrieve. That was the reason these men had destroyed her village.
“I don’t know what book you are looking for! I don’t know anything! Please! I beg of you!”
Ryder was shaking like a leaf and a dark stain had appeared on his trousers. The horsemen laughed and circled Ryder. One kicked him from behind sending him face first into the mud. Crackling with laughter, the horsemen rode through the village, throwing open doors and lighting the homes on fire.
One called out to a black-haired one. He steered his horse deeper into the village, approaching the voice that had called for him. Dawn unmounted and crept along the tree line. Lilly could sense the severity of what unfolded in front of them and stayed silently hidden among the trees. The horsemen had collected around a familiar cabin. Dawn’s day dresses were still blowing in the wind where her mother had probably washed and hung them to dry.
Now they were filthy and covered in sooth.
Her breath hitched when she saw the men drag out her family. Her mother was sobbing and clutching onto her father. Jane was trying to put on a brave face, but Dawn could see her shoulders shake in fear. They were pushed to their knees as three separate gleaming swords rested on their necks.
“Now, old man, tell me where the book is.”
Tears were running down Dawn’s face as she saw her father look up to the black-haired horseman and defiantly answer, “You will never get the book. I will die protecting it.”
The horsemen smiled and crouched down to her father.
“Are you sure, old man? You are willing to die for a book?”
Dawn clutched the satchel in her hands. She had never noticed the weight of the tome. But now, watching her father knocking at death’s door, it felt as is the tome weighed a ton. Her father held his head high and grabbed her mother’s and sister’s hand. They all remained silent.
The black-haired horseman turned, and the three swords came sweeping down, beheading her loving mother, courageous father, and darling sister. Their heads landing on the ground with a deafening thud and before she could stop herself, she let out a cry of her own. The horsemen turned and found her standing at the tree line.
The world had stopped. The three bodies that lay in front of her home were all she could see. The voices of her family, that she would never hear again echoed in mind. It felt like a lifetime had passed before Dawn realized that Ryder was running towards her.
“Go! Run! Dawn!”
Lilly had reached her side as well. She huffed and stomped on the ground, but it wasn’t a treat she wanted this time.
The horsemen had spotted her and were now galloping toward her.“Get her! Don’t let her escape!”
The voices of the men made their way through the ringing in her ears. Swinging onto Lilly, Dawn nudged her mare into a gallop. She could hear Ryder yelling at her to run and with a final look back she saw the black-haired horseman run his sword through Ryder before following her deep into the forest.
His open mouth, forever frozen in his efforts to save her was the last sight she saw before plunging back into the forest.
She could hear arrows hitting the trees around her. The dirt road was still clear but if she was to escape them, she had to use the cover of the trees to her advantage.
Veering right she guided Lilly deeper into the trees, but the horsemen followed suit. They were closing in on her and a force of an arrow propelled her forward. She let out a pained sound as the shaft of the black arrow jutted out from her left shoulder, rendering her arm limp. Dawn gritted her teeth and nudged Lilly to go faster.
She had to escape. She had to survive.
Lilly jumped over a fallen log, just as she had always done. But the horsemen were skilled and as Lily’s hind legs touched the ground an arrow grazed her leg. Lily neighed as she fought against the pain and Dawn begged for her to continue. She gripped to keep her from falling off the saddle.
“Come on girl! We can make it!”
Lilly continued at breakneck speed, but she knew her mare could not outrun five trained horsemen.
She had to outsmart them.
Seeing a fork in the path, Dawn guided Lilly back onto the dirt road. Dropping the reins, Dawn reached behind and broke the shaft of the arrow lodged in her left shoulder. The adrenaline coursing through her dulled the pain but the damage the arrow head had done would soon begin to show. Pulling her tunic over her head and crying out as the movement moved the arrow head deeper into her muscle, she propped the fabric up against the saddle. Satisfied with her decoy, Dawn leapt from the moving horse and tumbled into the foliage around the path.
From a far, the arrow’s shaft held her tunic up as if a rider was crouched forward on the saddle.
Dawn covered herself in dirt and clutched the satchel, the tome weighing against her rapidly rising and falling chest. She prayed to the Gods that the horsemen would fall for her trick. She prayed that Lilly would be safe and begged for forgiveness for abandoning her.
The arrowhead in her left shoulder was beginning to throb but as she heard the horsemen approach the fork in the road, she held her breath. She bit her lip, the fear of making any sounds gripping her.
“Where did that bitch go!” The horsemen yelled.
Tears fell down the side of her temple, the pain of the arrowhead and the grief of losing her family was beginning to set in. But she pressed her hand to her mouth and clenched her jaw. “There! Her mare! And I see her too!”
The horsemen steered their mounts and raced down to where Lilly was galloping away with Dawn’s tunic propped up on her saddle.
Even after the horsemen were gone, Dawn kept her hand firmly pressed to her mouth. She was shaking as the faces of her family and the look on Ryder’s face when the horsemen thrust his sword through his back flashed before her eyes.
And when the forest fell back to its familiar silence, only then did Dawn allow a sob to escape her lips.