My name is Honor: Chapter 7
Though the thick brogue of his voice suggested my attacker was of fine lineage, likely an apostle of The Council, his smell suggested nothing of the like. Musty, earthy, something like the horses back at home in their stalls. Apostles were known for their cleanliness, the sweet smell of their soaps and oils, how stark white they managed to keep their robes....this man was no apostle. But with such a strong accent, he was no villager either, and that left only one logical identity for my attacker.
"Please.. my name is Honor..Orin is with me, are you Rafter?"
I was dropped roughly on the cavern floor immediately, and explosion of curses the like of which I'd never heard erupting behind me.
"..Fool boy! I didn't want to believe it, but here ye are! Where is he, then!?" The fur-clad beast of a man roared as I turned to face him.
I clamored to my feet, snatching the hunting knife Orin had left with me in case he felt the need to attack again. Much to my shock and dismay, his rage transformed into hearty, rolling laughter which bounced off the stone around us, echoing mockingly in my ears. Reaching out one hand to support himself against the stone, apparently simply unable to stand under the hilarity of it all, he held the other out at me, waving me off.
"Alright...alright lass, I surrender." He took several deep breaths and stood again to his full, towering height. Instantly, his face was grave again. "Where's Orin?"
"H-he went out to hunt, we ran out of food...."
"Hmpf! Would've been better supplied if he'd waited till I told him to go." he paused, looking me over with scrutiny. "So, you're murdering little minx who's got a hundred men after us, instead of the handful who would've half searched for a single missing boy." He stepped closer, lowering his face closer to mine, eyes narrowed, boring into mine, as he regarded me with...contempt? suspicion? Just when I thought I had found my words, he spoke again.
"I told him to leave you." His eyes flickered to the bandage around my throat and met my gaze again. "Always been hardheaded, that boy."
"Aye, Meantóir" came Orin's voice from just beyond the alcove.
I had never been more grateful to see him, though he seemed to hardly notice me. Dropping the two fat young rabbits he clutched by their ears, he shook Rafter's hand heartily, face lit by a beaming smile.
"Ah, good te see ye alive and well, lad." Rafter appeared to be attempting to return a smile, though his version came across somewhere between a snarl and grimace. "If just as foolish as ever.." he mumbled the last bit, eyes shifting to me.
Orin, seeming to just recall I was present, turned to me brightly. "I see you two've met, then?"
"You could say that." I grumbled sourly. "Your Meantóir' caught me napping."
Orin's smiled faded slightly, as if he knew full well how that greeting would have gone. "Are you alright?"
"Bah! Alright!? Don't coddle her, boy! She's alive, yeah? Well enough, I say! Now. What about those rabbits?" Rafter eyed the poor little corpses hungrily.
Orin winked at me and bent to pick up his catch. "I'll have a look at that in a moment."
Rafter scoffed and gathered his things. "Lets move outside, they'll not be near here just yet. "
We settled just outside the mouth of the cave, and after Orin returned from a brief search for fire wood while I cleaned the rabbit carcasses (and Rafter lounged lazily against a mossy boulder), we each sat around the small fire, holding a skewer of meat over the flames.
Rafter told us how the Council had swooped down with a vengeance when Kaya's murder was reported. He had been selling furs in the marketplace in Orin's home village when the news reached his ears. It had spread like wildfire, and it was barely two hours later that two apostles appeared at his cart. He'd been packing up to go home for the day, and turned to find them, draped in the simple white robes of the Priest Apostles, standing patiently behind him.
"Good afternoon Brother Lorcan" Rafter spit vehemently in the dirt as he mimicked them.
They had questioned him at length, about Orin's training, where he might have gone, had Rafter seen him? As he was genuinely confused as to how Orin might be mixed up in something so serious as to cause an inquiry, it had been easy to convince them he knew nothing. He of course suspected, though the Apostles told him nothing, that it must have something to do with the news of murder buzzing through the villages. It wasn't until the Ghosts, skilled hunters and trackers who served the Council, came to his door the very next day, that he knew very certainly what had happened. The Ghosts were only usually dispatched in pairs, and they were no mild-mannered priests. True, they served the council, but they were highly skilled, trained hunters, specializing in the tracking of men. They were also taught, because of the nature of their main quarry, to be formidable combatants and had the reputation of ruthless, brutal killers. According to Rafter, there had been twelve sent to my village.
"Yep. The Council wants you something terrible, m'dear" Rafter winked at me over the fire.
"What of my parents?" Orin pressed, pulling a sizable chunk of meat from his skewer.
"Ah. Well, your mother is beside herself of course, your father, well, you know how he is, boy. You knew how he'd take it."
Orin nodded solemnly.
"What is your plan, then, Rafter?" I cut in,impatient, pressing him back toward the more important matters.
"Ha!" The old hunter's laugh came out more as a bark. "My plan? My plan was out the window, lass, the moment you were brought into it."
"Rafter.." Orin said his teacher's name softly, voiced edged with warning.
The older man tore the last bit of rabbit meat off his skewer ravenously, drips of grease running into his thick beard. He held up his hands in surrender.
"Alright, boy, I'll leave her be, but I'll tell you this, you'd better whip her into shape because as she is now I doubt she'll survive a week."
The familiar, warm anger flared within me, sending me shooting abruptly to my feet. I glared at the infuriating woodsman, wanted nothing more than to strike him.
"You have no idea what I have endured! If you think me weak-"
Rafter barked again, his laughter cutting my words short. My heart pounded furiously as I stared him down.
"Ah, yer a killer, right right, I almost forgot." He continued chuckling quietly to himself. "Let's just hope ye have more grit than it takes to overpower a housewife!"
My fists, clenched, I found myself moving toward the enormous man, infuriated by his mocking. Orin caught me, chiding his mentor.
"Rafter, will you stop winding her up!? We are in this together now, like it or not. Now please, you two. Enough!" His voice rose from his usual placid tone, wavering in frustration.
"Just havin' a bit of fun, eh? See how much fire she's got hiding in there." Rafter said, shrugging, but he finally fell silent.
"Honor, come with me, we'll fill the water vessels so we can leave once Rafter's had a rest." Orin took me gently by the arm. Still fuming, I followed him out into the cool, still evening.
Orin pointed up the steep hill just outside the cavern.
"We'll climb up right here, a bit more difficult but the shortest route."
"Orin, why can't we just fill them here?" I gestured toward the swirling river.
"I told you; the dead."
"What dead?" I planted my feet, tired of his cryptic way of eluding to the truth without saying it, though I knew full well this was not the moment for questions.
Orin, reading my intentions plainly, sighed in defeat.
"This is an unholy place, Honor, or a holy one depending on how you look at it. That's why no one will come here. The bed this river flows through is littered with the bones of The Council's many victims. From the top of this waterfall, the sickly children, the deformed, unfit, are cast off, without ceremony, those that don't die from the fall, lie broken in the water and drown."
I had always carried the notion the Council practiced brutal tactics against those they deemed heretics or corrupters, but somehow this went beyond anything I had imagined. For a mother and father who had given birth to an unfit child, the act of giving their baby up to the Council was considered a noble thing. The child was said to be released back to the Gods to become whole and that the spirit would return to it's parents when they conceived again. Though Orin told it without batting an eye, the cold truth of the thing turned my stomach.
Orin laughed bitterly. "yes, well, it's not the kind of thing they tell you about in church, is it? Now you know. Come on." He turned without another word and began climbing the steep incline.
Once Rafter had rested, we set out at a pace I was not prepared for, Rafter in front, Orin and I close behind. At intervals, Orin and Rafter spoke in fervent whispers, though I was not included in their discussion. Finally, when I thought my legs might finally just give out on me, the faint glow of torches came into view. Rafter froze in his tracks and crouched in the brush. Orin immediately followed suit, pulling me down with him, even Archu lay flat in the dirt. An acrid smell wafted through the trees, nearly bringing me to sneezing, while Orin and Rafter instinctively pinched their noses.
"Bitter herbs.." Orin breathed, leaning close.
"Like they use in church?" I hissed back, drawing a sharp backward look from Rafter as he peered through the underbrush.
"Yes. Could be a hunting party, sure to be Apostles with them, they'd purify their camp at night."
From somewhere in the camp , a hound brayed.
Rafter and Orin exchanged, within a single glance, an entire conversation. Orin turned to me urgently, his voice barely a whisper.
"We've got to get out of here fast, Honor. If the hounds pick up our scent they'll be on us in minutes. There are probably sentries in the area as well. Just stay with me."
Rafter led the way, moving out without a word and with impossible speed for his age and size. Orin kept a tight hold on my hand as if he thought I might lose my way otherwise. It had not occurred to me this would be more than momentary sprint out of danger. On the contrary, Rafter kept the pace for another hour. If I thought my legs had ached before, this cured it. When we at last came to a stop, I could not feel them at all. I promptly vomited what little substance I held in my stomach, dropping to my knees miserably under the weight of my pack.
"Ye..see...what I mean... boy? Soft." Rafter panted, leaning heavily against a tree, pointing at me.
"Not now." Orin grunted at him, kneeling next to me. "Slow your breathing, Honor, focus on it."
"I'm fine." I managed, more snappishly than intended, pushing away the water vessel Orin offered me.
"Drink some." Orin urged.
"Hmpf!" Rafter scoffed. "Fine, are ye? Well then no need to rest! Get up! We get across this river we've got ten more miles to the Cathedral."
In spite of Orin's insistence that I ignore Rafter and rest a moment, my dislike of the older man and irrational need to prove him wrong were all I could think about. White-hot anger returned strength to my aching limbs and lungs, and though my legs shook and the world around me would not quite hold steady, I rose to my feet, shrugging Orin's comforting hand from my shoulder and roughly jostling Rafter as I brushed past him making my way down the embankment.
Rafter chortled mockingly as he and Orin trailed me down the hill, where I had frozen at the river's banks at the sight of the fast moving water. Until I stood at it's edge and saw the true depth and current of the river, it had not occurred to me that I had no idea how to cross it. In fact I had never been in any water except in the wash basin in my life. Rafter produced an oilskin bag, tossing it at Orin and I
"Put yer shoes in there. Should stay dry." he grunted, shedding the patchwork fur he'd been clad in. Even without the bulk of his once-living coat, he was a giant, his long red hair seeming to grow right into the thick ginger beard.
"Alright?" Orin queried, already unlacing his boots.
I nodded rigidly, not wanting to admit I had no idea how to swim. "Yes. lets go." I pulled off my own boots, stuffing them into the oilskin, and without waiting plunged into the icy river, confident once I was in, instinct would take over. It did not. Instantly the current took hold of me, ripping at me viciously, pulling me under. I kicked and flailed my arms wildly as a wretched cackle sounded somewhere nearby, sure to be Rafter taking great pleasure in my failure. The water washed over my head and into my lungs as I gulped for air, rocks that lined the rivers bottom striking painfully against my limbs as I fought against the current. Then, as if the Gods themselves had reached down and plucked me from the water, I was being hauled up, sweet air greeting my lungs, the pull of the current, the freezing water, all gone. I found myself lying on something soft, vomiting river water, Orin's voice echoing in my ears.
"Honor what were you thinking!?! why didn't you say you couldn't swim!?" Orin scolded harshly.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I scrambled to my feet, trying to shake off the panic I'd felt only moments before.
"I would have figured it out if you hadn't rushed in after me." I spat back, knowing full well I was being unreasonable and ungrateful.
"Ha!" Rafter cawed, dumping the contents of his oilskin onto the banks. "Figure it out, she says!" he guffawed as I glared at him hatefully.
We travelled through the night, until I thought I could not take another step. I had never thought of myself as pampered or soft, I had worked hard in Carrick's home, but the last few days, this night especially, had shown me a great deal about my physical limitations and I knew I would have to better myself and become stronger if I truly was to survive.
"Cathedral is close, I promise." Orin whispered, taking note of my fatigue.
"What is this Cathedral, then?"
"It's another safe place, a relic from the old days, undisturbed. Exiles and runaways have used it for years, the Council's Ghosts have never breached it's walls. It is protected."
"Protected? By the Gods?"
"Ha!" Rafter's barking laugh reminded me he was with us and listening. "The Gods! Lass, the sooner you get this the better, the Gods abandoned man long ago."
I had never been terribly devout in my religion, but had never doubted the fact that the Gods did indeed exist and were actively involved in human life. Rafter's words brought a sinking feeling to my stomach, just like when Seamus had explained to me as a child that the wood-nymphs in our stories were not real and I would never find one. Orin scowled at Rafter's back as the elder man kept ahead of us, setting the pace.
"Nonsense." He countered "They are with us and smiling right this moment, at three of their children free from the tyranny of charlatans!"
"Bah!" Rafter sounded off, hair swinging as he shook his head.
A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth, listening to the two of them banter. I could see Orin was provoking his mentor intentionally, though he did truly believe in the gods, that much was clear, it was also apparent that he enjoyed winding the older man up. Rafter was taking the bait. The two argued amicable for the next hour, me interjecting where I could but the more I listening, the more ignorant I felt. Orin and Rafter had travelled across The Land many times, apparently, while I had been like a shut-in on Carrick's farm, only going very rarely perhaps once a year to a festival or, when I was older, with Carrick and Kaya to visit Orin and his family. Other than that I spent my days within the boundaries of Carrick's property, usually in the house. How would I ever keep up with them? I had the will, but no knowledge of the wilderness, or the strength that the two of them had. My mind drifted back to the river, how humiliated I had been having Orin rescue me from my own stupidity. I was so lost in scolding myself, that I hardly realized Rafter had finally stopped. Just before I walked into his broad back, Orin, noticing my mind elsewhere, caught me by the arm and pulled me back. Rafter, without a word, drew from a sling across his back a blade the likes of which I had only ever seem on the end of a scythe. The curvature was much less, only a slight bend toward the tip, but it was just as wide and ever longer.
"Shh." He put a finger up to his lips and drew his hunting knife from it's sheath slowly.
Rafter moved back a few paces toward us, shoving me roughly between himself and Orin.
"Stay behind me, girl." he hissed as they both turned their backs to me and faced the darkness around us, positioning themselves for an attack. Archu, planted firmly beside his master, staring out into the darkness, his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. Panic set my heart to fluttering in my chest. Had the Council caught up with us so quickly? Our mad dash had been for nought? Am I to just cower behind them in the dark and hope for the best?
"What is it?" I whispered.
"Don't know, but someone's out there. Shut it." Rafter whispered curtly.
Seconds ticked by, my own pounding heart the only sound to my ears, a cold sweat creeping down my back. Then the bray of a hound. And another. And another. Rafter, snatching Orin by his shirt collar, put his face close to the younger man's
"Run. Ye take her and go, boy. Now!" He shoved us both roughly away from himself. "Go to the marshes, I'll meet ye there!" With that, Rafter sprinted toward the sounding dogs.