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My Name Is Honor: Chapter 14
I am running blind for too long before panic gives way to clear thought. I focus on the sound of my own heart pounding in my ears, and slowly the image of the maze of tunnels before me forms in my mind. I realize two things. I have already, in my haste, missed a turn to the exit I intend to use and must go back, and there is the sound of breathing not my own. Heavy panting.I reach out to the sound, graze the course fur with my fingertips. Archu. How? I try to recall when he had appeared at my side. I don't remember seeing him before...before I abandoned everyone to whatever horrifying thing had brough on such shrieks. I feel a pang of guilt at the thought. Still, I am glad the hound is with me.
Little more than a foxhole, this particular exit, I hope is unknown to our enemies. When the tuneel shrinks around me and I am finally forced to crawl, I know I am close. I hesitate at the shaft of moonlight breaking through the thick grasses which grow on the other side of the hole. I listen, blocking out the frantic screams of Sister Cara and her ladies which have been echoing in my mind every step of the way. I am greeted with silence and dare to poke my head up, hand grpping my knife.
Outside, the night has fallen quickly, as if aiding my escape, or perhaps their attack...I'm noy sure who really has the advantage here. I pull myself up through the hole, force myself to focus as Archu crawls out behind me on his belly. Alright. What had Phelan said? Run from danger before fighting.
I shake my head, keeping low to the ground as I desperately try to sort out my thoughts. I had done as Phelan asked and ran. Now I try to recall the exact route to the ravine, and how I can get there from where the tunnels have deposited me in the forest. I am farther away than I would like, it will take at least half an hour to reach the cliff and hopefully the way down has not been destroyed already behind the others as they made good their escape. I consider for a moment going a different route, as I am close to the edge of the marshlands here. I wonder if, with their men raiding the Cathedral, the Council will suspect anyone has escaped. Perhaps I can just slip by them... and yet as I consider it, I know it won't work. There are sure to be men waiting on the other side of the marsh to take care of anyone who might slip away. Ravine it is. I adjust my pack and move as quickly and quietly as I can through the forest, eye and ears alert for any movement other than my own.
The moon casts just enough light to make my way easily enough. I hear a distant echo of shouts as I go, but they are far off and bounce off the trees so I can't tell from which direction. I am nearly at the cliff when I see the torchlight. Then the voice, a foreign voice I have never heard is speaking just ahead. I drop to the ground as low as I can go, clutching the fur on Archu's neck as he drops down next to me.
"I am certain he said it was here." The voice says sullenly.
"If you are certain, YOU show me the way down!" A second voice demands shrilly.
I thank the Gods they have not found the way down, while also cursing because as long as they linger here, none of us can escape. I wonder how many have survived to even make it this far. My hand finds the knife strapped to my side, fingers trace the carvings in it as I try to suss out what to do next. I know I must get to the ravine, but how many more of the Council's men lurk nearby? I could be being watched this very moment. It is Archu who makes the first move, as if he'd known all along what he must do. The great hound bursts from the underbrush, his snarl growing until it is nearly a a roar, and he is on one of them before they can even register the beast coming at him. I am momentarily frozen as I watch the struck man fall, his hand landing hard on the ground with a sickening thud. He made no move to get up and Archu, seeming to realize he was unconscious, swiftly spins to face the other who has come ot his senses and loaded an arrow into his bow. It is loosed just as I gain my own wits and rush to help him. Horrified, I watch as Archu leaps at the man's throat and the arrow find's it's mark, landing in the hound's flank. He does not stop, or even flinch, but brings his full weight down the enemy, knocking him to the ground before he can pull another arrow. And then I am there, my blade to his throat, my heart drumming in my ears.
"How many of you are there!" I demand, digging the knife into his skin.
A trickle of blood begins to flow as he smiles cruelly at me,
"It's you...the abomination."
The word rang in my ears. Abomination. Is that what they called me? Cold fury took hold of me as I repeated my question through gritted teeth.
"More than you could imagine, hellspawn. More than even you and your savage uncle can overcome. You may kill me, but we will catch you and you will meet the end of a traitor. None of you will leave this forsaken place alive." He sneers and pushes his neck against the blade.
So they knew, then. That Carrick had disobeyed the Council. Had kept me alive. That alone should have resulted in the severest punishment, maybe even death. I wonder how they had reacted when he finally came out with the truth of it. I can only hope it was as gruesome as what he had done to my parents. It is as if I leave myself for a moment and when I return, the body beneath me lie lifeless, eyes staring into nothing, his blood draining into the dirt from his open throat. I wipe the blade on my pants, sheath it, and tell myself to focus, tear my gaze from the empty, dead eyes, scan the treeline. Archu begins to snarl as I pat down the corpse, relieving him of a dagger, coiled whip, length of rope, and his bow and quiver. I run for the nearest cover, a recent treefall, still clinging to it's foliage. I pull Archu down next to me within the branches only seconds before they burst through the trees. I can see from this distance they are gruesomely bloodied.
"Honor!" One of them bellows, and I hardly recognize Orin's voice.
The group with him is too small, there were so many more. I dread the thought that we have lost them all to the Council's men, but find my feet and come out of my hiding place, Archu on my heels. Orin, to my surprise, runs to me, grabbing me by the shoulders, looking me all over.
"Are you all right? Were you hurt!?" His voice is nearly frantic.
I push him away gently.
The Phelan is there, relieving me of the bow and arrows, slinging them over his shoulder.
"Lets move." He says curtly, motioning to the smaal contingent behind him, among them I see most of Phelan's men, a few of the Sentinals, The Althair, Brother Quinn and Tahgd.
"Wait! What about the others? The other sentinals, Sister Carra and the other women... We have to help them!"
Phelan's face is stone when he turns back to face my questions.
"They're gone. Let's go." He waits for me to move, but I am frozen in the horror of so much death so quickly.
I see a nod pass between Phelan and Orin and next I am being taken by the arm, Orin leading me with the men to our escape. I can hear the rapid snapping of deafall in the forest. Something is approaching fast. Phelan hears it too and motions for Brother Quinn to bring the Althair forward, but the old man waves him off and points at me. I am to go first. Why?, I wonder.
"When you get in the tunnel, you do not wait. Just go. Fast." Phelan tells me curtly just before I climb down.
I do as he says, when my feet find the ledge, I run into the tunnel without hesitation. For a moment I worry that I don't have a torch as the darkness closes around me, but as before, I am able to navigate t perfectly, not a step misplaced. Behind me I can hear the others entering the tunnel, rapid footfalls and then a bellowing above them.
"GO! GO! GO!" I recognize Phelan's voice and am propelled by it, my lungs and legs burning as I push myself faster, truly terrified of whatever he is urging us from. I can hear the men behind me, catching me. There is a a defending noise followed by a deep rumbling all around me, I am lifted off my feet by someone, and then the air is so thick, choking me, making my eyes tear and burn so that I can't see anything. It is as if the entire cliffside is shaking and then silence and sweet, clear air. We are out. I rub my eyes until my own tears clear them and look around, the faint sounds of calamity above and the cool, still night of the valley all around us, separated by the collapsed tunnel. Phelan's voice again.
"If we're all able, there is no time to rest."
Orin is at me side, taking me firmly by the shoulders.
"Are you hurt?"
I shake my head, reeling from the blast.
Looking around for the Althair, I see him just as I had imagined, on Brother Quinn's broad back, somehow still dignified. We are on the move again, and Phelan sets a soldier's pace, to the far end of the ravine. We stop briefly downstream of the waterfall to top off our drinking skins and carry on, the only sounds now are of the night, insects and owls, and the low, furvent talk between Phelan and two of his men as we go along. We reached the end of the valley in nearly two hours, coming to the edge of a thick, dark forest. The moon is full and offers just enough light filtering through the trees to go by thus far, but these trees allow no light through. I wonder if they will even allow us through. From the darkness comes the low nicker of a horse, so out of place in the rhythm of the night's song. It is answered by another, and another. Suddenly there is a flash as Phelan lights a torch, illuminating a small herd, all saddled and tethered in a makeshift lean-to, contentedly munching on hay skattered around them.
"How.." I wonder allowed.
Orin grins, looking to Phelan.
"We have many, resources, my dear." He says, then motions for us all to mount up. When we have, he takes the lead and we are off again. I am reminded of Orin and myself, riding madly through the night as we fled our villages. And now here we were again, tearing through the night, running for our lives.
Just when I thought the stocky little mare on which I rode might buckle under me, her thick black coat lathered in sweat and her body steaming in the cold morning air, Phelan pulls his horse to a stop. The forest around is still and silent as the first rays of morning sun begin tof ilter through the trees. From somewhere ahead of us comes a whistle, a short dissonant tune, unlike any bird I've ever heard. Phelan whistles a few notes in answer and all around us people appear from the trees. Men and women, all with bows drawn and trained on us, none looking welcoming in the least. Then comes a booming voice from behind the others.
"May you always walk in sunshine!"
Phelan smiles and answers; "May you never want for more!"
Weapons are lowered as a surprisingly small man, who in no way matches his voice, comes forward. Phelan dismounts and the men embrace, clapping each other on the back.
"Good to see you, brother." The stranger says.
"And you, brother." Phelan replies.
His men are dismounting as well, greeting the others as friends, but it isn't until Orin comes to my horse's head that I slide from the saddle.
"That is Adamnan. He leads this clan, and he is Phelan's oldest friend. We are safe here." he tells me softly.
"Is this the Otherlands?"
Orin smiles and shakes his head.
"We have a ways to go before we get there. But for tonight, we can rest easy."
Phelan's men and Adamnan's clan begin to make their way through the trees, down a narrow path through the trees. The Althair remains on his horse, brother Quinn leading it and his own on foot. Orin and I follow, bringing up the rear. We have gone nearly a quarter mile when suddenly torches burst to life all around us, revealing a well-concealed and humble village. Women come out of simple huts to greet their men, a large fire in the center of the village is lit, and all at once a celebration commences. Food appears, laid out on blankets on the ground, a whole boar is loaded onto a spit over the great fire, the smell nothing short of intoxicating. I excuse myself from the festivities to tend to my tired mare, rubbing her down with a rag from my saddlebag until a boy, no more than ten, comes to my side.
"I'll take it from here, miss." He squeaks
"Oh no, that's alright. I've got her."
He looks bewildered, but shrugs and moves on to the next horse tied along with the others on a long line strung between the trees. When I finally leave the little mare, who I have dubbed Storm, she is dry and munching happily on dried grasses the boy has spread before her. I hesitate to head back to the din in the center of the village, enjoying the quiet moment alone away from the fray. I have too many questions on my mind to stay away, however, and head back to where everyone is feasting on wild pig and various other dishes. Through the crowd I find Orin, huddled with Phelan, Rafter and Adamnan, talking quietly over a small fire off away from the merriment. As I make my way across the village center, a hush seems to fall over the festivities. The women, loading long plank tables with the bounty of the forest around us stop in their tracks, children dashing through the legs of adults halt their play, even the fire seems to crackle a bit softer. I nod, a tight smile on my face, and make my way through them, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes piercing through me. When I reach Orin, I sit quickly, hoping to hide myself behind him.
Adamnan stands at once, going through the crowd, speaking softly to the people. They each smile good naturedly and nod at whatever he says to them. When he returns to the small circle, seats himself, and looks at me as if he's studying me.
"So it's you." he says, an odd note of awe in his voice.
I look to Phelan questioningly as the celebration slowly regains it's gusto behind us.
"You'll have to forgive them, Honor. They've all been waiting a long time for you."