A Ransom in Crimson
A head of dark hair broke the glassy surface of the moon-bathed lake, followed shortly by a human figure, pulling itself hastily ashore. Though she moved quickly and quietly, the splash of exiting the water was louder than Cassandra would have liked. She was sufficiently downstream from the old wooden bridge that spanned this thin lake, but her years in the forest had instilled in her a heightened sensitivity to any disturbance of nature’s sounds.
The night air was cool, and Cassandra shivered as lake water dripped from her black hair and several drops inevitably found their way inside her cloth tunic, running down her back and making her grimace. She so hated that sensation. Even when her boots, trousers, and tunic were thoroughly soaked, that trickle of water down between her shoulder blades made her skin crawl.
The sheathed knife and short-sword on her belt were also drenched from the swim, but Cassandra was sure they’d hold up just fine. If a short submersion in water damaged her father’s old military blades, then they’d never withstand a true skirmish. They’d seen her father through his days in Malpria’s military service, so she was quite confident they would see her through this ordeal.
The tan-skinned huntress crept amongst the shadowy trees, her boot-clad feet naturally avoiding twigs, branches, and the patches of dry leaves, opting for patches of grass and dirt that would mask the sound of her passage. A fleet-footed shadow, she slipped from tree to tree, mindful of her surroundings but never lingering too long in a single location.
At just eighteen years of age, Cassandra had cultivated astonishing skills as a huntress and combatant, though the latter skill set had yet to be truly tested. But the talents of a huntress were what let her silently approach the lone human silhouette she spied amidst the trees.
The man was clad in baggy garments that stank of alcohol, pipe smoke, and poor bathing habits. He stood facing a tree, pissing against its trunk, though he was far too close to the tree to avoid the spray. Clearly the man was drunk. Cassandra could have blundered through the woods like a blood-crazed troll and he’d not have looked up from his less-than-careful proceedings. However, when Cassandra locked her right arm around his neck and jerked him back against her, he immediately took notice.
Her right hand rested on her left bicep, while her free hand reached back and pressed firmly on the back of his head, pushing his head forward against her right forearm to choke him. She could have just situated his neck in the crook of her elbow, flexed her arm, and cut off his blood flow, but this scissoring of his neck between her left hand and right forearm was far more satisfying.
“Reach for a blade and you die,” she hissed in his ear. “Lie to me, and you die. Squirm too much, and you die. Gurgle if you understand me.”
Unable to speak, though still able to draw breath, the captive man made an inarticulate noise of affirmation.
“Good boy,” Cassandra sneered, letting up the pressure of her choke-hold a bit more. “You’ll live to see the sun yet. Now, am I near your fort?”
“Wh-what fort?” the man gasped weakly.
“Do we have to play this game?” Cassandra groaned.
“No games,” he protested, his voice thick with an accent Cassandra had never heard, “I not know what fort you mean.”
In a flash, the man’s back was slammed against the piss-soaked tree trunk. Cassandra’s long-knife hovered at his throat, and her eyes blazed with terrific intensity as they stared into his. His face was flushed, his eyes bloodshot, and his breath was putrid with cheap wine. His thick beard looked wholly unattended.
“You don’t shave much, do you?” she asked in a hushed whisper that carried a dark laugh along with her words. “Let me give you a hand with that. I’m a bit clumsy, though.”
“What?” the man’s face showed no comprehension.
The blade traveled up and down his throat, shaving away hairs but scraping the skin painfully, drawing blood from several superficial cuts. He quickly understood what game his captress was playing.
“Okay okay, I talk,” he frantically blathered. “The fort is close, just south and west from here, not far.”
“Are you alone?” she pressed him.
“I not alone,” he admitted, “a few of us told to walk the woods, watch for sneaky types.”
“Like you,” he agreed.
“It’s a shame you passed out from the wine,” she informed him in a casual tone.
Before her words could register on his dulled mind, her left hand collided with his jawline and he slumped to the ground. A perfect strike, and not even with her dominant hand. Cassandra felt pride, and knew her father was smiling on her right now. She could practically feel his congratulatory pat on her head, smell his familiar scent, the scent of hard work and hearth fire, and hear him say, “That’s right, Cassandra. You’re growing into quite the fighter.” The memories were so vivid, Cassandra had to shake her head to fully clear them and return herself to her setting and the task at hand.
True to the word of the bandit guard, the fort lay a short walk southwest from where she’d found the drunkard. A path led from the fort directly east to the bridge she’d avoided. Too obvious a means of transit. Now she crouched beyond the fort’s spear-tipped palisade and watched a few men walk casual patrols within its keep. The fort itself was a broad, low-roofed building with an overgrown yard between its walls and the inside of the palisade. Two patrols passed near Cassandra, though they did not see her through the palisade. She’d added to the natural cover of night with a camouflage of mud splotches from the lake shore.
“Uneven splotches,” her father’s voice reminded her, “camouflage should mirror nature, and nature isn’t symmetrical.”
How easily his words came back to her. She’d thought getting away from home would make the memories go away, and to an extent it had worked, but his voice was still ever present. Cassandra was glad for that; she’d not wanted to lose that, too. Just the sadness, the pain of loss that ate at her every night she spent in that little cabin that had once been so full of love and life.
The conversation of the patrols within the fort’s yard drew Cassandra’s attention, and she listened intently from her concealment.
“I just don’t understand why we even need to pull guard duty,” grunted one of the two.
“The big guy can’t be everywhere at once,” explained the other, “and do you really want him roaming free? Best to keep him in the old shed, or do you want to go to sleep with a troll wandering about the yard?”
“Boss says he’s domesticated,” reminded the first bandit.
“I’ll believe that when the beast smokes a pipe and does a dance,” scoffed his companion. “Until then, he’s a last resort, and this whole business will go by quicker without your whining.”
A troll?! Cassandra cursed the notion. Skilled as she was in stealth, the idea that a small blunder on her part could result in one of those hulking brutes being set upon her was not a comforting thought to entertain. She would have to act with great care as she fulfilled her mission. That in mind, she began scanning the trees for one that would allow her safe passage over the fort’s defensive wall. Normally trees would be cut back from the walls, but so long had this fort been in disuse that the forest had reclaimed the land along the construct’s perimeter.
* * *
Cassandra’s mother died when Cassandra was only two years old. The night was a dark one that she cannot recall. It should have been happy, for her little brother Morgan was born that very same night. Their father never let Morgan know that his mother had died giving birth to him. Sweet and compassionate as the boy was, he’d have never forgiven himself. Cassandra kept the secret well once she learned of it. She so loved her fair-haired little brother that she could never tell him, even as she teased him about his scrawny build and short stature. There are some things even a tormenting sibling would not say.
Their father raised the children well. As soon as they could walk, he was teaching them to run fleet-footed amongst the trees. Cassandra ran everywhere barefoot as a child, following her father’s training but ignoring his insistence that she protect her feet from thorns and sharp rocks. To this day she could still run through the roughest terrain without shoes, but preferred the extra protection of footwear. One too many painful thorn removals in her younger days saw to that.
Once they could move through the forest, her father began teaching them to hunt. Small game, squirrels and rabbits. Her brother loved the woods, but hated hurting the animals. Even as Cassandra grew into a sun-tanned, aggressive, visibly strong young girl, her brother remained soft, calm, and gentle in every respect. He was more content picking berries and playfully chasing the birds than he was shooting squirrels with a small bow and learning to skin and gut them. Their father respected that.
“He’s like your mother in every way,” he said fondly one day, while Cassandra helped him clean a deer he’d brought down.
“Am I like you then?” she’d asked him.
“Just like me, only not so old and decrepit,” he replied, and they’d both laughed.
Moments like that would never leave Cassandra’s memory, and she clung to them like they were hanging vines and time was a stretch of rapids ready to whisk her away forever. But she also held onto the bad memories, how could she not? Her brother, sweet little Morgan, Morgan who wouldn’t harm a fly if it landed on his last piece of food, was only ten the day he was killed.
They’d strayed far from the house, farther than their father would have liked. Cassandra had hit a rabbit with a small throwing knife and was rather pleased with the kill. Morgan was carrying a large bag he’d filled with freshly plucked fruit. They were just turning to make the trip home when two men stalked out of the trees, pushing aside branches and crushing twigs under their boots.
“What you got in that sack, boy?” asked one of the two raggedly dressed men.
“Fruit,” Morgan replied with a smile. “I’m taking it home for dinner and to feed the bunnies.”
Despite the fact that rabbits were a major food source for them, Morgan had taken to feeding the creatures near their home with bits of fruit and various nuts. Respectfully, Cassandra and their father did not hunt within a small radius of the house, so Morgan could have his fun. But these men had no concern for Morgan’s fun.
“You hear that,” laughed the second man, whose nose looked like it had lost a hard fight with a stone wall, “it’s food for the bunnies. Now that ain’t right, feeding them vermin when men like us is starving.”
“Why don’t you give us that fruit, boy?” asked the first man, stepping closer.
Why Morgan picked now to stand his ground, when he was so often passive, Cassandra would never know. Maybe he was scared, maybe he wanted to impress her and stop her teasing, or maybe he just truly loved those bunnies. Whatever the reason, he jerked the bag away.
“See,” the second man urged, “they’ve got more than just fruit in there, look how he ain’t giving it up!”
“I see it,” confirmed the closer man. “Hand over whatever you got, both of you.”
“Leave us alone!” Cassandra shouted, hoping someone would hear their predicament even out in the forest.
“It’s for the bunnies,” insisted Morgan. “Leave us alone!”
He kicked at the man, weakly but angrily. The man was now close enough for Cassandra to smell the alcohol on his breath, and to see every gruesome detail as he whipped out a thin-bladed knife and sank it deep into Morgan’s neck. There was a disgusting, garbled, bubbling sound as the boy tried to speak, rubies of blood cascading down his fair flesh. Then there was the blur of trees as Cassandra ran like a spooked deer, the sound of footsteps behind her, her father’s concerned voice ahead, her own screaming, and then the clash of steel as her father leapt between her and the brigands.
That night, Cassandra’s father buried Morgan beside their mother in the land in front of the house. Cassandra couldn’t watch him lower that lifeless body into the grave, she couldn’t accept that the stiff, pallid thing he was submerging in dirt was her little brother, her best friend, the boy she loved to wrestle with because she’d always win, the boy who sang to the birds and fed the bunnies. Before her father started shoveling dirt in the hole, she hurried out to him, tears in her eyes, her throat hoarse from screaming and sobbing, a piece of fruit held in her hand, which she gave to her father to place inside the grave.
“So he can feed the bunnies,” she’d hoarsely whispered.
She was certain it was the only time she’d ever seen her father cry. It confused her and scared her, but how could she blame him? For days on end she couldn’t go more than an hour without remembering Morgan, his laughter, his songs, his high-pitched exclamations of joy, his whining when she would prod him with a stick or scare him by leaping from a tree branch and nearly landing on him. Nothing failed to drag a memory of her brother back to her, and as much as she hated it, she couldn’t make herself want to forget. To forget the good memories was to forget Morgan.
Her father’s sorrow turned into a burning determination that he’d never lose Cassandra as he had Morgan. But he did not shelter her, instead, he trained her. Her father had spent many years in the service of their kingdom’s army, retiring with honor, and retaining a profound skill in combat in all its forms. In addition to rigorous exercise in running, swimming, and climbing, Cassandra was treated to combat exercises. She was made to hold his sword at arm’s length, alternating hands when her arms grew too tired, and stand perfectly still as she did so. The blade, a short-sword, was still massive to her twelve year-old self. But in time it felt as light as it should to a proper swordsman.
Her father taught her to do battle. To block an enemy’s blows, to deceive him with false leads and broken attack patterns, to disarm or bypass a weapon and strike at the vitals. He taught her to fight with her hands, such that she could kill with or without the sword. Her hunting became a training exercise in stealth. She was instructed in getting as close to an animal as possible before killing it; an exercise that truly honed her attempts at silent movement. She trained rigorously, happily learning from her father until she was sixteen.
The winter of her sixteenth year was brutal. Cold drove the animals into a deep hiding and trade was poor. Her father took ill, so she had to fend for them both. He always insisted he was fine, always let her eat from his allotted portions of their stored foods when her own equal portion left her belly rumbling. She wished now that she’d never taken any food from him during those dark months, that she’d instead fed him her portion. Maybe then he’d have lived through that bitter winter.
No child so young should ever have to bury their parent. It is an abomination against all that is right, an affront to the very concept of mercy. Cassandra didn’t cry, she couldn’t let herself cry, until the last shovelful of hard, cold dirt was in place. He lay on Morgan’s right, while their mother was on the boy’s left. She imagined them holding hands together, high above her in the sky, their father telling a story, Morgan and their mother singing a song together. She cried then.
For the next two years, Cassandra dwelled in that loss-haunted house that had once been a home. Two long years of self-sufficiency and training out of sheer habit, habit that kept her functional. Finally, when she turned eighteen, she’d had enough of the drudgery, the repetition, the haunting memories that greeted her and joined her for every lonely night within those walls. Her family had never moved in all her life, so she decided to go out and see the world, to become a sell-sword, a mercenary, to live out her father’s training and see locations that would delight her brother and mother alike.
It was this ambition that drove her to a nearby village, where a family of moderate status, owners of a small estate, was quietly trying to commission a mercenary. Assuring them of her training, Cassandra took the job, all the more eagerly when she learned the task was to rescue the family’s young son, who was being held for ransom by a crew of ruthless bandits. She imagined Morgan, terrified and helpless in such a lair of thieves, and almost over-eagerly demanded the assignment to save the boy.
She’d stealthily arrived at the intended site of the ransom exchange, only to find a small group of the kidnappers and no boy. It was no matter though, her father’s training served her well. It was as if he was watching over her every swing of the sword, guiding her every evasive step. The lone survivor of her attack was eager to tell of their location once she’d relieved him of a few fingers. She’d thanked him with a quick death and set out on her journey westward to the old, reoccupied fort.
* * *
Cassandra hit the ground in a tight roll, letting her shoulder absorb the impact of her leap from a high branch over the spear-tipped palisade. The roll likewise served to cushion the sound of her landing, as the two patrols had only just vanished around the corner, and another two could be expected to come around shortly. Sure enough, a guard came strolling around the opposite corner, though he was alone. Cassandra flattened herself along the ground, keeping a hand ready at her knife’s hilt, trusting the darkness to conceal her prone figure. And conceal her it did, for the lone bandit moved within feet of her and never stopped to so much as glance in her direction.
Quietly, the huntress rose, padding along the ground with light footsteps that did not betray the tension in her muscles, which were tightly coiled, ready to unwind in an evasive leap or devastating strike. By the time the first two patrolling guards she’d seen made their full circuit, Cassandra was flat against the wooden wall of the fort, cloaked in its shadow and just as invisible to them as she’d been beyond the palisade.
The fort’s windows were not filled in with glass, but roughly hewn and then sealed with wooden shutters. Sliding along the wall, Cassandra lightly tried each shutter, edging her knife just slightly between the panels and trying to lever them open. She’d nearly given up the notion of a covert entry when a rear window yielded to her and swung open with a slight creak, which sounded to Cassandra like a banshee’s cry in the night’s stillness. If anyone else heard, they mistook the noise for the natural settling of the building, and paid it no mind.
A sputtering, dust-flecked lantern gave dim illumination to the rectangular room that spanned the rear of the fort. Long tables occupied the room’s center, cluttered with leavings from a recent dinner, empty bottles, stacks of cards, and the heads of a few sleeping bandits, who’d fallen asleep in their chairs. Others lay sprawled on the ground, snoring loudly or grumbling in their sleep. The air inside the room was hot and stank of alcohol and smoke.
Cassandra pulled the shutter closed behind her and made her way through the room, avoiding the bodies of those lying upon the dirt floor. This outpost was far from an elegant fortress, and bandit occupation had done it no favors. She looked through a wooden door into a dark hallway, where a solitary guard sat on a stool, half-asleep, his back toward Cassandra. These bandits were over-confident in the unassailable nature of their stronghold. Her knife bit quietly into the base of the unsuspecting guard’s skull, sliding in and up at an angle, paralyzing him and near-instantly killing him. Cassandra pulled the blade free and propped his back against the wall, still on his seat.
Taking a human life should not be so easy, she knew it shouldn’t. She should be thinking of these people as men with families, lives, hopes, and fears. But in every bandit face, she saw her brother’s killer, that angry, likely drunken brigand from the woods, and her thoughts of these people’s humanity evaporated. Maybe they had aspirations beyond thievery and brutality, but right now, a little boy was in danger, and Cassandra wouldn’t fail him. Not again.
He’s not Morgan. she silently reminded herself, but the reality did not cool her fervor.
Cassandra noticed a ring with two keys protruding from the slain guard’s pocket and retrieved it. Likely these would be useful. Sure enough, one of the keys fit neatly into a shiny new lock that had been secured to an age-worn door. Beyond the door was a dark staircase, with no handrail. Cassandra grimaced as she descended the stairs, each of them airing its own unique voice in the form of an ear-piercing, protesting screech. Someone had to have heard that descent. Cassandra urged herself to greater haste, lest she be detected and surrounded by her numerous foes.
The cellar into which she’d descended was dank, musty, and smelled of mildew. Old crates rotted in a pile near the stairs, their contents long since scavenged or ruined by time. A flimsy table housed a dying candle, its wax dripping and drying on the table’s grimy surface. Lying on the floor, hands and ankles bound by roughly textured rope, was the boy. Cassandra’s heart stopped.
She’d expected a young boy, of course, but this little one couldn’t be any older than ten. That blonde hair and light skin, even unwashed and streaked with dirt, so reminded her of Morgan. She wanted to hug him, to tousle his hair, to sing songs with him and tease him about being so tiny. But this boy was not Morgan, he never was and never would be. He was someone else’s little brother, someone else’s son, and Cassandra had to get him out of here.
“Wake up, Nolan,” she whispered, recalling the boy’s name. “Wake up, but don’t make a sound.”
The boy’s eyes snapped open sharply, adjusting to the darkness and widening when he saw Cassandra. What a sight she must look, covered in mud, blood on her hands, and a knife held at the ready. But he was a good listener and made no sound, even when she moved the knife toward him. Tears started in his eyes, and only then did Cassandra notice the bruises and cuts on his thin little arms. He’d been beaten.
“I will not hurt you,” she whispered. “Your parents sent me to bring you home safely. They miss you very much, do you miss them?”
“Then just hold very still and do as I say,” she urged, “and we’ll be home by morning. I promise.”
The keen, if bloody, edge of the knife bit through Nolan’s bindings. The boy sat up, lightly touching his wrists where the rope had rubbed the skin raw. He winced but did not make a noise. Cassandra was so proud. Morgan would have been just as good. Cassandra bid him stand and follow her, but stopped short the moment she heard the protesting groan of a stair.
Nolan’s reflexes saved her in that moment. The boy, either brilliant, panicked, or both, kicked over the flimsy table and its candle immediately went out on the floor, plunging the escapees and their would-be assailant into total darkness. Cassandra flattened herself to the ground, shielding the boy with her body as the air was cut by the blight of a square-tipped crossbow bolt. The bolt tore through space that Cassandra had only just vacated, its tip sinking into the earthen wall with a muffled thud.
Seizing the opportunity, Cassandra raced up the stairs, recalling their location in the blackness of the cellar. She heard a long-knife coming out of its sheath and halted her ascent. The swish of a blade cutting through the air inches from her chest was evidence that she’d stopped at exactly the right moment.
Thanks, dad. she thought to herself, imagining his calloused hand on her shoulder, bringing her to a halt to avoid the attack.
Her knife shot straight forward, its tip sticking in leather armor. She yanked the blade free as an uppercut from her foe sought her extended arm. Her quick withdrawal saved her arm, but the blade of her assailant scraped her knuckles painfully. He’d succeeded in angering her. Cassandra aimed higher with a second quick stab, reaching her left hand up to catch the knife-hand of her adversary by its wrist. A sharp squeeze and a twist sent his knife clattering down between the slats of the wooden stairs on which they fought. A sharp, upward angle of her knife sent it into his throat, just beneath the jaw. Cassandra jerked the blade free before sheathing it, drawing her short-sword, and sending the lifeless body tumbling over the edge of the stairs.
Nolan joined her on the stairs and they crept upward, but she could already hear stirring in that back room. The men were coming around. Cassandra cursed. She could fight, but numbers weren’t on her side. There had to be another way. She slammed the cellar door and bolted it from within. The door was old, it would cave in long before its bolt did, but at least it bought them time.
“Nolan,” she asked urgently, “is there a window in here?”
“I think so, but it’s always closed,” he answered. “I can try and feel for it on the wall if you can lift me up.”
“Smart boy,” she praised, hurrying back down the stairs to roughly the spot where she’d found Nolan.
Nolan clambered up onto Cassandra’s shoulders. She held him steady, standing still like a statue, her muscles locked in place, refusing to let him fall. His tiny frame was so light it was hardly an effort. Nolan’s hands explored the wall where earth met boards, and after a few passes and a bit of resituating their position, he found and released the catch on a window shutter. Already, though, the cellar door was under attack from hammering fists and kicking feet. It would not hold up for long, they had to leave now.
“Get out and run for the wall, hide in the yard,” Cassandra ordered.
“Where will you be?” he asked, voice quivering.
“Right behind you,” she promised. “No one is going to hurt you.”
She wanted to call him Morgan, to tell Morgan he was safe from harm.
“Okay,” Nolan agreed.
Harsh cracking emanated from the door and its frame, while Nolan jerked the shutter inward, the hinge fighting years of rust. He sprang out through the freshly opened window and disappeared into the night. All Cassandra could see was a moonlit square in the darkness, but she tensed her body and leapt upward, muscles uncoiling as she caught the window’s edge and hastily pulled herself out into the crisp night air. She heard angered shouts behind her and ran toward the spear-tipped fence, seeing little Nolan already huddled against it.
“Stop!” roared one of the outdoor patrols, charging toward her from the side.
They dropped to the dirt in a wild grapple, Cassandra’s sword useless in the close-quarters. The guard tried to pin her to the ground, but couldn’t overcome her powerful build. Cassandra held him back and sank her fist into his abdomen. The blow was deep and effective, knocking the wind from her attacker. A knee to the groin sent him into a groaning ball of misery on the ground, and a savage stomp to his head silenced the whining. Standing in a low crouch, left fist up, sword readied again, Cassandra awaited the other patrols and the men from within the fort, but none were forthcoming.
“Where are you?” she whispered tensely to the bandits she could not see, while backing toward Nolan.
A low, deep roar from the far side of the fort answered her.
“Damn!” she swore in exasperation and panic, knowing full well what was coming for her and why the yard was now so empty but for her and the boy.
Footsteps pounded loudly on the thick grass and dirt of the yard, and a tall figure of an inhumanly broad build loped into the moonlight. It was as tall as two men combined, and its long arms hung at its sides, thick with musculature and guarded by the natural armor of its rough hide. Its low slung head was hairless, its eyes black and beady. Each of its hands had four fingers ending in deadly claws, and its feet had three similarly clawed toes. A troll, wearing an iron collar that supposedly denoted its domestication at the hands of the bandits. Cassandra doubted any such claim. One could not look at such a primal, slavering beast, and ever imagine it serving a master with true loyalty and submission.
All that considered, it was only Cassandra in the monster’s sight. The troll let out a deep roar and lumbered at her, swinging a taloned fist at the huntress’ head. Cassandra dove aside, her sword glancing off the thick hide of its torso. A trickle of blood started from the wound, but it was small, and the troll didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he was entirely unconcerned, making another pass at Cassandra. One of its long nails swiped across her forehead and she had to grit her teeth against the pain as blood coursed down her face, stinging her eyes and further hindering her visibility in the darkness.
“Nolan, climb the fence and wait for me!” she cried. “Be careful of the spears.”
Blinking blood and sweat from her eyes, she leapt around the hulking brute of a creature, using its great size against it. Trolls could be worked into a frenzy and charge at a startling pace, but they were far from agile. Fighting against the pain of her facial laceration, and the burning of the still-open cuts along the knuckles of her knife hand, she struggled to keep herself behind the monster, out of its reach. With a savage cry, a war-whoop of pure adrenaline, rage, and fear, she threw herself upward onto the back of the towering creature.
The troll brought its arms up to swat at her, throwing her painfully from him and onto her back, but not before she rammed the pommel of her sword into its right eye. The wind rushed from her lungs in a loud gasp when she collided with the ground, but she willed herself to move away from her attacker as he roared in agony and stormed about in a half-blind rage. But he did not focus his wrath upon Cassandra this time, for his fury and dismay sent him blundering toward the fort. He stormed around the corner and out of Cassandra’s sight, but she clearly heard the shattering of the fort’s main door, and then the horrified screams of humans trapped with their own greatest weapon turned against them.
Cassandra returned to the palisade and carefully negotiated it, now having the time to carefully climb the structure, as her foes were otherwise occupied. She dropped down on the far side, next to a frightened, trembling Nolan. She embraced the boy and helped him to his feet, wiping dirt and tears from his light-skinned face. The young boy stared up at her, his eyes fixed upon her, awestruck. She was covered in mud, sweat, and the blood of her foes as well as her own, lacerated and panting with exertion, her clothes still wet from the swim across the lake, yet still in the eyes of the boy, she was beautiful. A warrior out of his wildest dreams, primal and fierce as the cold winter winds and the summer’s blazing sun.
“Thank you,” he stammered, offering her his hand in a timid gesture of thanks.
Cassandra could not help herself; she swept him into her arms and embraced him passionately. She gave him all the hugs, the hair tousling, the joy and love she could no longer give to Morgan but that she so longed to give. Nolan did not protest, did not push her away. He was a scared little boy, far from home, family, and here before him was the only semblance of safety he’d known in days. He clung to Cassandra and laughed, a beautiful, melodious sound. He laughed and hugged her, his arms around her neck, not caring that he was getting blood and dirt all over himself. He was happy, happy and free.
“We’ll take the bridge back,” she told him, setting him on his feet again. “I won’t make you swim across that cold lake. I’ll keep you safe, little one.”
“I trust you,” he assured her, and Cassandra could have asked for no greater reward.
* * *
The two figures stood in the dim glow of dawn, just beyond Nolan’s estate: Cassandra, tall and powerful, stoic and hardened by years of turmoil and bitter loss; Nolan, young and slender, small and wide-eyed, eager and alive with youthful energy as he looked between Cassandra and his home. He wanted at once to run to his familiar home, to sleep in his bed and play in his yard, yet also to stay here and not let go of Cassandra’s firm hand, which he’d held since their trek began at the bandit fort. Cassandra sensed his confusion and patted his head gently.
“You’re so strong, and brave, too,” she praised. “You will grow into a wonderful man, Nolan.”
“Will you come in?” he asked. “My parents will want to thank you.”
Cassandra thought on this for a moment.
“I will come back, tomorrow,” she assured him. “But today should be for you and your family to spend together, okay?”
“Are you sure you’ll come back?” he asked, gazing up at her with that face so much like Morgan’s.
“I promise I’ll come back,” she replied, leaning down and kissing his forehead. “Now you get inside and get some rest, okay?”
“Yes ma’am,” he blushed and smiled, before scurrying off toward his front door.
Cassandra stood like a sun-bronzed statue by the waist-high gate that marked the estate. There she waited until Nolan mounted the steps to the home’s wrap-around porch and knocked on the door. The door opened and an exhausted, middle-aged woman burst into tears as she swept her son into an embrace. Cassandra watched and smiled at the woman, who urged her son inside the house for a warm meal, a bath, and some much needed rest. The boy had been abducted and hurt, he’d seen bloodshed and death. He would need much time to recover, and he may never be himself as once he was, but he was alive.
Cassandra faded into the early day, moving off into the village. She was physically drained, aching and in dire need of rest and some form of first-aid. But her heart was warm, her lips up-turned in a contented smile, and she was certain that her mother, father, and Morgan were smiling as well, proud of the woman she had become. Harrowing as this night had been, it was but the first step on a long journey to distance herself from the painful memories of her all too grief-ridden youth. Yet though her legs were weary, she was eager for this journey to continue.