2. A Knight to Remember
North Larska River
Alanis opened her eyes slowly then jumped, startled from her slumber. Though she was exhausted, she couldn’t believe she was so careless to fall asleep in such a dangerous place.
Her small hands scoured the tall grass at her feet in search of the stick she had plucked earlier for protection. She found it quickly and held it near her chest in a death grip. With night quickly approaching she feared danger would find her if she didn’t keep alert.
How the hell did I get here, she found herself asking the same question over in her head as the forest grew dark.
There wasn’t much to go on. She remembered talking to Justin, her Official, the night before. From what she could recall their talk was heated, she was upset with him regarding something, but she couldn’t remember why. All she could remember was feeling unwell and going to bed soon after, and perhaps, even that was wrong. She wasn’t sure.
Where the hell was this place, was the next question she grappled with until the sound of underbrush crackling caught her attention.
Panic was brief as she threw herself down into the tall grass. It was already dark enough so nothing would notice her there. She would remain still until they left. It was a good plan.
The sounds grew louder as the thing drew near. Alanis kept her ground, hoping that whatever it was would pass by without notice. She held her breath and could see light bouncing through the dark reeds ahead of her. Their shadows danced on her pale skin.
Un mani rehiri (on my way)
Un mani rehiri (on my way)
Faild’glur reu un mani rehiri (on my way to glory field)
The song of the traveller made it to Alanis’ ears as the torchlight passed her by. Though she couldn’t understand the singers words, she could tell he was just as nervous about wandering the forest alone as she was, by the way he repeated the lyrics over and over again.
As the stranger passed, Alanis stood up, letting her stick pave the way while she silently followed. Occasionally, the crunching of underbrush beneath her feet, or the random sting of thorny vines would stifle her walk.
What the hell am I doing, Alanis silently scolded herself. She had no idea if this person was friendly or not. And having never left Larska’s protective walls, she wasn’t sure what types of dangers awaited her. But still, this was a person as scared of the dark as her, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow him a bit longer. And perhaps, they were on their way to Larska or could show her how to get back.
After a while, the torch stopped along with the singing. Alanis crouched behind a tree and watched for movement. Whoever he was, had stopped for a long time. Perhaps they were setting up camp and turning in for the night, Alanis thought.
“You,” a low voice pierced from behind, spurring her heart to jump into her throat. “How long have you been following me?”
Alanis nearly dropped her stick as she spun around to meet the stranger, but regained it in a juggling motion as she backed into the tree. She was still, but he, unfortunately, was not. His shadow moved forward forcing the bark, at her back, to bite into her exposed flesh.
"Huh,” Alanis said, her voice shook.
“Be still,” he ordered and fired up a torch. She obliged and kept her pose against the tree. Once the growing flame became strong enough to light their surroundings he laughed, his eyes on the stick that so daringly shook between the pair.
“Why are you wandering in the middle of nowhere, alone?” he asked in a peculiar accent. Alanis had never heard someone speak as he did, but could gather by his tone that he wouldn’t be harming her, not yet at least.
“I’m s-sorry,” Alanis stuttered. The stick dropped from her hands as she caught a glimpse of the armor he wore. It was beautiful, like the metal-suits brave knights wore to battle in the fairytales she had read as a child. Stricken into the center of his breastplate was a symbol, an eagle grasping a circle, or the sun perhaps.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to follow you.” She hoped he would believe the simple lie that was given.
His arm lowered along with his gaze, studying the many cuts and scrapes that dressed her lower legs. “Oh, you don’t say,” he retorted, his strange accent only accentuated his mocking words. “You must have been following me a long while to get cuts like that. My question still stands unanswered. Why were you walking around in the middle of the night, alone, and dressed like a damned fool?”
Alanis’ eyes were fixed on the stranger’s face that had grown stern by his question. She was still, for a moment, his statement reminded her of something Justin would say, and his arrogant tone didn’t help matters.
“Well, you mute girl?” he barked with a impatient stare.
"Y-Yes, I was following you... I am sorry. I have no idea where I am and thought that following you would lead me home or at least someplace safe.” As she confessed she noticed the tension between them had tapered. The strangers eyes grew softer, and his scowl, though cautious, was more pleasant than it had been.
“Follow me.” He motioned for her to walk to his camp with his torch. The fire flared with his sudden shift, causing the burning wood to crackle. Again, her heart raced, but nonetheless she followed behind him hesitantly.
In the distance, Alanis could hear a faint snorting sound. It was soft at first and grew louder, into a whinny the closer they moved to his camp. She found her feet pushing her quicker behind the young man who was leading them. And hissed each time a branch nicked the wounds on her legs.
He laughed while looking back at her. “It’s okay... Watch yourself and take your time. I won’t leave you behind.”
Ahead at his camp, Alanis could see a very large animal standing near another torch. It had a rich brown coat that shone even in little light. She kept my distance from the animal, examining its size and beauty.
“See, it’s just Ellah. You seemed startled by her disgruntled noises.” He walked up to the animal and brushed his hand across her snout. Her tail swatted the air it. “Roughing it doesn’t quite suit her.”
Alanis joined them. Her eyes were glued to on the animal.
Is that a horse? Wow, it’s so big...
She could only guess, not having seen one ever. In Larska, she was told stories about some of the animals that lived outside the settlement, and only ever seen crude illustrations of them in books. She was far more beautiful in person.
The man gave her a puzzled stare. “You act like you’ve never seen a horse before,” he said, grabbing a bag that was attached to the saddle.
Alanis scratched one of the wounds on her legs nervously. It was obvious she was an outsider, but for some reason he wasn’t picking up on it.
“You look parched.” He handed her a clear bottle. “Here, take this, it’s water.”
He picked through the bag again and pulled out a small glass jar filled with ointment along with some torn cloth.
“And this should help with those cuts.”
Alanis tended to her wounds while he made a fire. She watched him, the newly added light brought out more of his features. He was young, he had to be around the same age as herself, she supposed. He was staring into the fire with wonder, just as she would have if she wasn’t so nervous and scared. His blue eyes glimmered brightly with the fire’s reflection. Alanis looked away nervously when he caught her stare. The ointment he gave her was starting to take effect, the burning on her legs ceased.
“You still haven’t answered my earlier question,” he spoke up, their eyes met, and the dancing fire in his eyes caught her attention again. “Why are you out here alone?”
She wrapped her arms around her legs and pulled them to her chest, breaking their eye contact.
“I’m not sure how I got here. The night before is a blur.” She stared again at the fire.
“Must have been some night,” he said with a snort, amused at his little joke.
“The last thing I remember was lying in my bed. I was ill, I think... But I can’t remember what happened after that,” she replied.
"Hmmm,” he hummed. “So where’s home? You from a northern or southern territory?”
She hesitated with her answer then stated lowly, ”Larska...”
His eyes widened. “You’re from Larska?” He gawked then said with a half-smile and a chuckle, “Is that supposed to be some sort of joke? Did Cassandra set you up to this?”
Cassandra, who the hell was that, a friend of his?
Alanis looked at him, confused at what he was asking. She had no idea why he was questioning her answer, why he thought it was so funny.
“If you’re really from Larska, they would have tagged you,” he scoffed. “Where did they tag you?”
The tag he was talking about was the tattoo that all the infected were given for identification. It was a failsafe if Larska servers went down to return them to their proper holdings.
“See for yourself,” she replied, allowing him to scoot closer to to view the tattoo.
Alanis tilted her head and folded her ear over, on the back of her neck was inked LS3 Elis, short for Larska Sector 3, Elis was the grouping name for the year she was born, it was also used as a surname in her settlement. He pulled her head close to the fire so he could read the tattoo.
He released his grip on her head and just as suddenly and sat back. “Yeah, it’s official.” He sounded worried. What for?
“That mean you believe me, then.” Alanis felt a little relief as she made herself comfortable. “So... are we near Larska, can you take me back?”
His eyebrow rose. “Well as far as I know Larska is south of here, and you are north... Way north of Larska. It’s a small miracle you’ve made it as far as you have alone. It’s a three or four day trip by foot, I’d guess. And to answer your question—No, there is no way in hell I would go near that place. Why the hell would you want to go back there anyway, you crazy or something?”
Three or four day trip, there’s was no way she got there on her own, she though knowing he had to be mistaken.
He poked at the fire with the stick she was carrying earlier for protection, the fire flared and his stare wandered from her to the fire and back quickly.
“I never heard of anyone escaping from Larska, they usually run a tight ship there. You should count yourself lucky you got away from that hellhole before—”
Alanis glared at him. “Hellhole, what are you talking about? Just who the hell do you think you are anyway?”
He chuckled to himself and apologized to me. “I’m James and you already know Ellah,” he replied sarcastically.
She paused, his name brought on a fleeting feeling that she could not grasp. Was it a clue from the previous night? It was probably nothing though, as James had shared the same name as Justin’s older brother. And that was likely the reason why she thought of Justin, and the night before in that instant.
Was Justin looking for me, was he somewhere out there looking for me, she wondered but caught James’ stare.
He watched her, likely waiting on her introduction.
“My name is Alanis,” she replied nervously.
He smiled. “Alanis, what a lovely name. I don’t believe I’ve heard that name before.”
The young man went on to tell her that there were others, like her, who had left other settlements, just like Larska. He also said it was forbidden for his people to cross into those territories, that they each had an agreement to stay out of each other’s affairs.
He told her about Berthold, his home, the kingdom he was from. The more he went on about everything, the more it all sounded like a fairy-tale. Their kingdoms were run by Kings and councils and they had guards and servants. He went on to tell her that he had just been accepted into the Lahre of Berthold, that they were a special class of knights that protected the kingdom of Berthold. He was on a mission of some sort, but was separated from his group after they faced some sort of disturbance.
The way they lived seemed backwards compared to the way of life Alanis was used to. She found his story curious, but at times it overwhelmed her. It was clear that it was going to take a long time for her to grasp what was going on.
Later, James offered her his cloak to lie on, it was soft, and the inside was lined with a thin layer of velvety fur. Alanis curled up on it and watched the fire, not allowing her eyes to rest.
“James,” she spoke up finally, “What did you mean, when you said nobody escapes Larska?”
“Well... You’re the first that I know of who has left Larska. But there are others, like you, who have managed to break free from the other settlements.” He combed his fingers through his sandy blond hair as he noticed her nervousness. “If you say it’s not like that, it must be true... It’s just, some of the others that have left have claimed otherwise, so that’s why I assumed.” He leaned back, his pack cushioned his head.
She observed him as he settled against the large tree trunk. Something didn’t sit right with the answer he had just given her, it almost felt like he was holding back his hatred for the place she called home.
“Go to sleep,” he spoke up noticing her uneasiness. “Nothing will happen to you, you have my word. After all, you have a knight watching over you.”
Alanis rolled her eyes, knowing he had been just as nervous as she was, having heard him singing out into the darkness like a scared child.
He laughed abruptly, which made her glance over her shoulder. “I can’t believe you never saw a horse before,” he scoffed while closing his eyes.
His comment stirred a negative emotion within her that wouldn’t let up. While she turned her body away from him, her eyes began to fill with tears. The events of the day had finally caught up with her.
He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Alanis reassured herself several times. There was no way Justin would have kept this from me if he knew. We grew up together.
There was never a secret between them. Yes, he was an asshole, at times, but he’d never hide something like this from her.
Justin served the Larksa government as an Official, part of his job was to monitor her symptoms since she was infected with The Burn.It was also his job to analyze and report his findings to Central, the headquarters of their government.
He was working on a cure for me and the others...
Her heart tightened and she began to feel uneasy again, as she recalled that some of those duties had him coming and going from the settlement regularly. He would travel to Central once or twice monthly, to report his research on the deadly genetic disease in person. It was then she realized—
He knew this entire time.