Today’s story is a bit special because it’s a gift for @shewhoshipsCS aka @thegreatshipcaptainswan aka Jeannie who is having a Hatchday today. So since I can’t be there, please enjoy this wonderful story written for you.
His father’s old rocking chair moved gently back and forth and the motion had put her to sleep. She was safe in his arms. She was safe in the dilapidated house they’d made their own. Safe from the outside world and the wicked people who walked it.
But the gentle rocking and the comforting arms could not keep her mind from finding danger.
Zena cried out and twitched in her sleep.
“We have to go back.”
The two men reined in their horses and looked back down the road the way they had come, down beyond the wagons that remained and the people that still lived. Charles and Matthew had to lead their people to safety now; their father was among the dead. Everything had changed and it had changed so fast.
The two brothers had been fighting when the first arrows had whistled through the air. Had it not been for Matthew’s good hearing, an arrow might have ended up in Charles’s back. They had been trying to beat each other senseless, trying to hurt each other over a young woman whom they were both in love with.
A young woman who had been left behind. One life to save many. And she had been the one brave enough to make the sacrifice. She had been the one to urge them all to go, to save themselves. She had been crying but resolute as they rode away.
“We have to get our people to safety first. Our duty comes before our hearts.”
“How can you say that!” Matthew snarled at his brother, ready to restart the earlier fight. “She is back there and in danger.”
“And what of these people? What of the children? What of Louisa’s Grandmama? Would Louisa forgive us if we left them to fend for themselves and returned to her?”
Matthew opened his mouth to argue but then he saw the pain in his brother’s face. This was eating Charles up as much as it was him.
“But what if they…”
Charles gritted his teeth and looked at the ground. He could not answer his brother’s question. He could not bear the thought. But he knew what was required of them, and what Louisa had begged them to do. He would not dishonour her bravery by breaking their promises to her.
“We need to keep moving, the sooner we reach the city and safety, the sooner we can go back,” Charles replied after the silence had stretched out.
“But you said…” Matthew looked sideways at his brother.
“I said we have to do our duty first, I said we had to get our people to safety first.”
“Oh,” Matthew grinned at his brother and then spurred his horse on, a wild excitement taking him to be done with duty and rescue their girl. “Well, come on, brother. Get a move on.”
Louisa had never thought herself to be a very brave person. She screamed at spiders and needed to light a candle before she could move her feet out from under the covers at night. Today she had found a bravery that she had not known, she had stood up to outlaws and negotiated freedom for her people.
Just two hours ago she had been sitting in the back of a wagon loaded with fabric, negotiating with David and Lea for some maroon lace for a dress she wished to make before the next moon festival. She wanted a pretty dress to wear in hopes that someone might finally find enough courage to make his intentions clear.
Now David and Lea were dead, their wagon emptied of all the expensive fabric they had planned to sell. The wagon had left filled with people. Many of the horses remaining with the outlaws, as Louisa did.
The brothers had not wanted to ride away and leave her behind. She had not wanted to be left behind but she had made the bargain and made them promise. In tears, she had made the two men promise to ride to safety with their people and leave her to her fate.
Because of it, Louisa had found out she was brave. She had found out that she could be a hero like in the stories. Without sword or shield, she had stood up and become a hero. People lived because of her courage.
She would have been proud of herself if she had not been so terrified.
There were at least a dozen men in this gang of criminals. They were not the outlaws of noble heart, robbing the rich to give to the poor. These were terrible men, scar covered and violent, and each looked at her in such a way that her skin crawled. There was violence in their hunger, and Louisa had heard stories…
She knew what was to come and her mind raced as to how she could avoid it, or at least buy time. Not for rescue, she had sent the two men that might do so away. She hoped to buy time for her escape. Hours had passed already and there had been no chance to escape. The men squabbled over the spoils of their attack. They seemed to fight over everything.
That gave Louisa an idea.
A hand rubbed over her back and Louisa jumped, turning she found a gap-toothed man leering at her.
“Are you the leader of these men?” Louisa asked.
“Ha! He wishes!” Another man laughed loudly.
“So,” Louisa said turning to the laughing man. He reminded her of a rat with his long, thin nose. “Does that mean you are?”
“There are no leaders, we are all equal,” another man said. He looked at the others with an expression that made Louisa think that he thought he should be the leader.
“But if there is no leader, then who will I give myself to.”
“All of us!” Another of the men yelled with great enthusiasm and made a lewd gesture. The others all laughed.
“Oh, that won’t work. I want to give myself to the strongest of you, the leader. Only to the strongest will I give myself to willingly and with great passion. So, which one of you is the strongest?” Louisa moved to a tree stump that was clearly often used as a seat by the gang; the wood was smooth. She crossed her leg up over the other, her torn dress flashing her legs.
“I am the strongest!”
“No, it’s me!”
All the men began to yell each other down. Louisa pretended to be unconvinced by their words. Maybe even a little bored. Inside she was terrified and it was all she could do not to shake in her seat.
The yelling turned to pushing and shoving. Punches were thrown.
Louisa watched the men descend into their darker nature. Knives came out and Louisa nearly screamed as one man stabbed another.
They were trying to kill each other, and it was over her! It was insanity. Louisa took no pleasure in the fact nor in the way they were hurting each other. It was awful. But fewer men meant her chance of survival, of escape, increased.
“Whoever is left standing gets me. And to find out what I can do with my tongue.” Louisa called out the words and smiled, gesturing for the men to keep fighting. She had no trick with her tongue but she had heard one of the women say similar in the last town they had visited. The woman had been trying to get Matthew or Charles to purchase her services. Louisa had thrown an apple at the back of Charles’s head, as he was turned away from her. It had served to ruin any moment that might have been happening.
It was that woman that Louisa now pretended herself to be as she waited for a chance to run.
And then the moment came. There were no eyes on her. Four men lay dead and still the others fought on. Louisa slipped from the tree stump and around the trees, she found a horse. One of her own people’s horse. It knew her and knelt for her to get on. She straddled the horse easily in her torn skirt.
The men did not take long to realise she was gone.
Louisa had been born to people that rode, she had been riding since she was tiny and this stallion was young and strong. He moved swiftly taking them back to the road and hopefully to safety. Louisa rode as hard as she could, never looking back.
Perhaps she should have, she heard a rider approach suddenly. How he had appeared so quickly beside her she did not know. She glanced at him and did not recognise his face from the camp and the fight. They must have had others still out on the road waiting for new travellers. Louisa had not thought about that possibility.
The rider leapt from his horse and knocked Louisa from hers. They fell hard to the ground and rolled. The rough ground damaged clothing and skin. Louisa hurt everywhere. She felt as though all the breath had been knocked from her body and she could not draw more. She rolled around on the hard ground clutching her knees up to her chest as she tried to breathe.
More horses approached and Louisa knew her gamble had failed. Now they would not fight over her. Now they would not leave her free to escape. At least Louisa had tried.
Louisa rolled to her knees and tried to crawl away. The man from the horse grabbed her by the hair and pulled her backwards. He tugged her back beside her before striking her in the face. Louisa scratched his face in retaliation and punched him in the throat. He let go of her.
“Leave her alone!”
Louisa looked up and was surprised to see that two of the horsemen bearing down on them were coming from the wrong direction. She was more surprised to recognise them both. It had been Charles that had yelled out. He was in front of Matthew and he leapt from his horse while it was still moving.
A sound behind Louise made her turn back to her attacker. She found a pistol aimed at her face. She had never seen one up close before. None of their people were allowed to carry one.
The man pulled something back on the weapon that Louisa could not see and then fired. A figure moved and the figure hit Louisa instead of the bullet.
Charles was struck in the shoulder and he lay against Louisa on the ground, bleeding. Matthew yelled as he leapt from his horse, and his blade ended the other man’s life before he could reload.
Louisa cried out. She did not know what she was saying. She cried out over and over, her arms flailing around…
“Zena, Zena, wake up, wake up. It was just a dream.”
She opened her eyes, she was back at their sanctuary, no horses, no bad men. Just them. Zena snuggled in against his chest and sighed. “Charles will find us again, Matthew. I know he will.”
Her best friend looked at her strangely. He shook his head and cuddled her tightly. “You’re safe now, Zena. You’re safe.”
And she felt safe. The dream was fading away and there was nothing else but the rocking chair, the sound of the rain and his arms around her. She was safe now, she was always safe with him.