We’d made it to the outskirts of the clan just before nightfall. The temperature had dropped drastically, causing many unprepared men to risk the beginnings of frost bite. I crouched behind a fallen log, staring through the thick underbrush into the clearing. An intuitive feeling of dread settled into my gut. Something wasn’t quite right about this place; no firelight flickered in the windows of the cottages, no tents glowed with warm fires inside. It was much too cold to risk illness in such a way. This strange anomaly could only mean one thing; they knew we were coming, and they were prepared. I held my breath, my eyes scanning the darkness, the night cloudy.
I settled upon a small tent furthest away from the middle of the clearing, wondering if I’d be forced to protect myself and kill anyone. If clan Macdara was full of renowned warriors, then surely their companions to the northwest had some skill as well. My heart clenched as Emmelyne’s face skirted past my eyelids. I pushed her image away, refusing to spiral and end up defeated because of it. She needed me. I drew my dagger, tensed to spring into action as soon as the signal sounded. I didn’t have to wait long.
My frozen legs propelled me forward as Agnar whistled, as the Brotherhood hollered and screeched, running full-force into the clan’s main hub. Everything was arranged in close quarters, a long, vertical clearing surrounded by trees and homes. I knew where the advantage would lie; they knew their land better than us. I could hear steel on steel as I sprinted for my target, knowing then that my intuition had been correct; their men were prepared, and they were going to fight. I chanced a pause, hiding behind a tent, glancing into the clearing. For once, it wasn’t a massacre. For once, it was an equal battle. The men of the clan were as ruthless and skilled as the Brotherhood, giving me hope; hope that perhaps they’d be defeated, that I could make a circuitous route home and bring Emmelyne back. But there numbers were no match for ours.
I pressed on, avoiding the fray, changing my course last second and bursting through a door into a quaint wooden cottage. It was dark, and I could hear the rapid breathing of its few inhabitants, could feel the air change as a sword was brought down upon me with a tenuous force. I brought my dagger up, the metal clanging and sparking in the blackness, lighting up the face of a young boy for a brief moment. In one swift move, I disarmed him, discarding my weapon and pinning him to me.
“If ye want to live, lad, best keep quiet,” I threatened as he thrashed in my grasp.
“Go to hell, ye barbarian!” He yelled. I smirked at his tenacity but faltered when I heard a small, feminine cry.
“If ye shut yer trap, I’ll save yer sister,” I said quietly in his ear. He stilled immediately, my gamble paying off. I let him go, listening as he stumbled away a few paces.
“Light a fire,” I commanded, reaching for my dagger. “And hide yerself until this is over.”
The boy didn’t move at first, but he was spurred into action as screams met his ears. As brave as his people were, they were losing. My heart sank. Flint struck rock rather shakily, a fire roaring to life in the hearth, bathing us in its glow. The lad stood before me, shielding his two siblings. The fighting outside was edging closer to us.
He was thin and wiry, with brown hair that stuck up in messy spikes all about his head, his light brown eyes fearful and defeated. He was maybe fifteen years old, the man of his household at this moment. His sister stood behind him, long, wavy blond hair and thick lips, her cheeks stained with tears. She was closer in age to Emmelyne, the thought making me grit my teeth. She clutched at the third child, another boy of six or so, his eyes wide.
“Where is yer father, yer mother?” I asked, keeping myself in front of the door. I knew the Brotherhood would still be too busy sacking the clan to begin pillaging its homes, but I was worried all the same. The boy spoke up, albeit tremulously.
“T-they perished, this year past.” He said. I chewed my cheek, nodding.
“Do ye know who we—they—are?” I said, jerking my head to indicate the Brotherhood. He nodded quickly.
“Aye, yer vile men, ye steal riches and women—”
I stepped forward, staring him down. He shook, but held fast, shielding his frightened family. I admired the boy’s bravery. I crossed my arms.
“I’m no’ like those men.” I said simply. His brow furrowed. “I’ll make ye a deal, lad,” I said, leaning forward to stare into his young, innocent eyes.
“Ye tell me what information ye know of clan Macdara, and I’ll see to it that ye are all saved, hmm?” I asked. His lips parted as confusion crossed his features. The screams of the dying and molested wound its way through the cracks in the walls. His face paled. I stood straight.
“Hide yerself and yer brother, I’ll protect her,” I said, nodding to his sister. They exchanged a frightened glance, her face full of distrust.
“No, I canna—”
“Lad, ye don’ ha’ much time.” I growled, stepping forward. “Go.” I urged, forming a plan on the spot. If it had worked once, it could work again. He grasped his little brother, pulling him from his sister’s clutching hands. I reached for her, gripping her forearm.
“No, Jakon,” she cried as I pulled her to me.
“’Tis alright, lass, I’ll no’ hurt ye, I promise.”
Her brother, Jakon, stared with wide eyes, measuring his decision. The screams drew ever closer. I gave him a look of warning.
“It’s alright, Alice,” he said, nodding to his sister. She wept, shaking her head. I could hear footsteps thundering our way. The two boys disappeared, leaving me and the young, frightened girl alone. I wasted no time. I brought my dagger up, slicing a clean cut on my forearm. Alice’s eyes bulged.
“Come here,” I said. She took a shaky step forward. “I’m sorry, but…” I trailed off, gripping her skirts, smearing my forearm across the area between her hips. Her hazel eyes locked onto mine as she shook. I spun her around, making it appear convincing enough to the roving eye. I rolled my sleeve back down, staunching the flow of blood, as I handed her the dagger, curling her cold fingers around the hilt.
“Cut yerself, just a small knick, on yer thigh,” I pointed on myself where she should mar her milky skin. She nodded, trembling in a state of shock, and obeyed. I turned away, knowing she was finished when my dagger clattered to the floor. I picked it up, sheathing it, pulling her to me.
“Remember what I promised ye, eh?” I said, locking eyes with her. Still weeping, she nodded. My heart ached for her, seeing within her the same fear Emmelyne held the moment we’d met. I smiled briefly, attempting to soothe her.
“Now scream.” I said. She wasted no time on that command, letting out and earsplitting shriek, her face reddening deeply. I peered out the window, watching as Agnar and Rollo came our way.
“I’ve a woman, back home. I’m…tryin’ to save her. Will ye help me, by playin’ this part?” I asked. Her face flushed but she nodded. I leaned in close in a conspiratorial manner.
“Thank ye, lass.”
I pulled us outside, spinning her so she was facing me. Agnar approached, his face smeared with dirt and blood. He glared down at the bloodied angel in my arms. I held her close, cradling her head to my chest, praying she’d keep her eyes shut. I felt her fight against her rapid breaths, could feel her shake with enough force to rattle my own body.
“Another?” He grinned. I smirked.
“Aye.” I said. Rollo glared before stomping off to another cottage and wrenching the door open. He reached out, gripping a fistful of her thick hair, forcing her to turn her tragic gaze onto him. Her eyes slowly crept up to his face, her hands clutching at me.
“A beaut, but yer woman is still…” he trailed off, growling as he let her go.
“Go on, then,” he said before moving away, clearly overcome with lust that needed quenching. I let out a shaky breath as he stomped away, pulling the girl back inside and bolting the door.
Jakon sat across from me, his eyes pained every time a scream met his ears. His sister and brother had fallen asleep some hours before dawn. The boy clutched at my flask of whisky, staring intently at me.
“I swear I didna’ hurt her.” I said huskily. His eyes roamed to the bed where Alice and the younger lad, Fin, lay peacefully. He returned his gaze to me and nodded.
“Aye, thank ye.” He said quietly. I leaned back, crossing my arms as I conjured up my questions.
“So, what do ye know of Macdara?” I asked. He smiled briefly.
“I’ve never been there, but their numbers are…weel, huge.”
I nodded, mulling over his words.
“Their leader was a man named Thran, but he was murdered on his weddin’ night. Now ’tis his younger brother, Jon. People say he married that mountain bitch.” He spat. I narrowed my eyes at his derogatory language. He shrank back a bit.
“What do ye mean, about that woman?” I asked.
“Some princess from Mount Tier,” he shrugged. I drummed my fingers along the rough wooden tabletop, considering what this might mean. I’d never paid any mind to politics before now.
“What about their clan, are they revered?”
His eyes bulged as he puffed out his cheeks.
“They are the largest clan ’round here, and their people are kind but tough. We’ve heard that Jon is a renowned fighter. He was captured once, tortured at an encampment at the base of the mountain.”
I nodded, stroking my chin, feeling my scratchy stubble. I sighed, sitting forward.
“I’ll see to it that ye are all taken there, taken care of, alright?” I asked. His face brightened as he nodded.
I gave the lad a small smile, for once feeling I’d done something the right way.