Option three won the votes by a long shot (Now I'd better check back to make sure I didn't word it quite that way last time...ok, cool, I didn't, we can continue now) which is very nice of you all, 'cause that was also my favourite. Authors are so unfailingly cruel to their characters...
Ahem, anyway, here is your dreadfully-cliffhanger-ended-last-post-of-the-year-story. Read on!
Half a dozen men had appeared from behind the trees. “Surrender, or take the consequences,” one of the soldiers commanded sharply. My heart sank into the ground.
Four of the soldiers held crossbows and they were all pointed at us. The commander took a step forward. “Surrender!” he barked.
I raised my hands slowly, knowing resistance was pointless. Jack followed my lead.
The soldier gestured at us with his sword. “Take them,” he said shortly.
Three of the men stepped forward, one grabbed my arms roughly, twisting them behind my back, the other two went for Jack. He started struggling, but two grown men were too strong.
“Just go with them, Jack,” I said, hopelessness filling my heart.
The leader of the soldiers regarded me with interest. “What is your name?” he asked.
I raised my chin defiantly. “Lady Louise De Corlette,” I said.
Jack jerked backwards but the soldiers prevented any more movement. His wide brown eyes fixed on me were filled with shock. My mouth formed and ‘o’ as I remembered that to Jack I was supposedly Louise Conwell, some nobody of no importance. I shrugged inwardly, he was going to find out sometime.
“I see,” the soldier murmured, rubbing his chin. “Very interesting.”
“Shall we take them to the castle, Captain?” the man holding me asked.
The Captain nodded briskly. “Yes,” he sheathed his sword. “You two go behind in case one of these kids try make a break for it,” he instructed the remaining soldiers, then glanced at me. “I recommend they don’t try anything silly.”
My mind dulled with despair as we were marched through the ancient trees, the ground sloping upwards as we climbed the hills. Everything was going wrong, Adventures weren’t supposed to work like this. I sighed.
Before we moved off the soldiers had bound my hands tightly with a thin cord, and I could barely feel my fingers. I wiggled them just to make sure they were still there.
After tramping through the forest for what seemed like hours the Captain of the soldiers paused and turned back to us. “I’ll go first,” he said. “Send the girl next, then you—” he gestured to the man behind me. “Then the boy can come, followed by the rest of you.”
The soldiers saluted and the Captain disappeared through a narrow gap. I was shoved forward and I gasped as I realised just how narrow the passage was. It was basically a crack between two massive boulders, only just wide enough for a man to pass through without his shoulders touching either side.
I calmed my heart, trying to blank my mind. Forget the fear, my thoughts became a mantra, keep going, forget the fear. I stumbled out the other side, almost tripping as my foot caught on a stone. A hand grabbed my arm and steadied me. I looked up into the deep eyes of the Captain. Then I looked past him and caught my breath sharply.
A castle loomed ahead, seeming to glare down on everyone in the hidden vale. It was even bigger than the De Corlette Manor, and that was saying something, as far as I’d been aware only the King’s palace could claim that.
“Welcome to the Stronghold of Hacaz,” the Captain said.
I looked up at the distaste in his voice, but his expression revealed nothing.
Soon all the other soldiers and Jack had entered the valley, and the Captain formed us up again and led the way to the castle gates.
I shivered as the gates swung open for us, revealing the dark courtyard inside. Keep going, forget the fear, my mind chanted. The Captain halted us with a wave of his hand.
“Inform the Garrison Commander that we have two new prisoners,’ he commanded three of the soldiers.
They saluted and turned away, jogging to a low building to the side. The Captain nodded at the remaining men. “Let’s get these kids into the prison.”
I stumbled along behind the Captain, wishing Maree was here. She’d know what to do to escape. I crashed right into the leading soldier when he stopped suddenly.
He steadied me and drew his knife. I cringed back but he gripped my arm firmly, turning me around. The knife sliced through the rope around my wrists. I looked up, dazed, what was going on?
The Captain gestured at the other two soldiers and they grinned, releasing Jack likewise.
“Listen,” the Captain said. “I have a daughter at home, about your age, and a son. I’m not going to be responsible for your capture.”
I stared. “You’re...you’re going to let us escape?”
The Captain shook his head. “No,” he said, and the small hope I felt instantly flickered out. “You are going to be rescued by a giant of a man and he is going to knock out us soldiers and we’ll never stand a chance.”
A smile crept onto my lips. “So when is this giant going to come?” I asked.
“Any time now,” the Captain said.
One of the soldiers behind Jack coughed. “Captain, we will be punished.”
“That is inevitable, Felix,” he replied. “What would you say to your wife if you had just locked up two young children? Or more, what would she say to you?”
The guard, Felix, shook his head. “I agree. I can already feel the folds of unconsciousness approaching.” With that the two soldiers collapsed to the floor.
Jack looked down and nudged one with his toe. “Wow, they’re good,” he murmured.
“You have to get away, there’s a door just down this corridor, first on the left. Hide in there until sundown and then leave through the servant’s staircase,” the Captain said, pointing the way. “Now go!”
The steady, even footsteps of a soldier echoed along the corridor behind us and Jack jumped into action, running down the hall. I sprinted after him, ducking into the side room right behind him. He closed the door quickly, leaning against it heavily.
“Phew,” he gasped. “That was interesting.”
“We’ve got to hide,” I panted, looking around the room desperately. “So they don’t find us before nightfall.”
“The bed!” Jack exclaimed, scrambling over to it. He glanced under it then looked up grimacing, “There’s only room for one, you hide there.”
I hesitated, but a commotion out in the corridor decided me, I ran lightly to the bed, dropping to my stomach and squeezing under it. I saw Jack’s feet disappear as he stepped into a large wardrobe.
The voices and shouting outside continued, and I hugged my arms around me, trying to stop my heart from jumping right out of my chest.
The door was thrown open, and a pair of gleaming boots came into view followed by several more. “We need to search the whole castle,” a voice said. “We can’t afford to lose prisoners, especially just before Lord Hacaz comes back.”
The boots came closer to my hiding place. I bit my lip and held my breath, forcing myself to remain dead still. The rustle of fabric sounded and I found myself staring into the eyes of a soldier.
My heart froze, and our gaze locked. Then the soldier straightened. “I don’t think anyone’s in here, Sir,” his voice came from right above me.
The reply came as a grunt and the soldiers walked out of the room. I released a shaking breath, there was another soldier who had some conscience, if this truly was the stronghold of Hacaz he obviously didn’t realise just how ‘loyal’ his troops were.
Hours passed slowly, soldiers hurried along the corridor, and loud voices called all through the castle, but no one came into the room again. Eventually the light began to grow dimmer and a door creaked softly. Jack’s shoes appeared, and I figured I could come out.
My cramped muscles protested to the movement and it was all I could do to keep silent as I struggled to my feet. Jack smiled tightly, his face showing the strain. I wondered if I looked as bad.
“C’mon,” he whispered, padding over to a nondescript door on the far side of the room. “Servants door.”
I nodded, slipping through the open door. Jack closed it behind him and then frowned at the dark corridor. “What way?”
I pointed. “That way,” I said, glad to know something useful. “There’ll be stairs going down to a kitchen just along there somewhere.”
“Well, lead on, m’lady,” Jack said, bowing slightly.
I sighed. “Just call me Louise,” I told him. “It doesn’t really matter.”
He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and I headed off down the hall, listening carefully for any sign of other people.
The cold night air blew my hair back as we slipped out of the hot kitchen. There’d been so many servants, maids and cooks inside that no one had noticed our presence.
“Let’s get to the stables,” Jack breathed into my ear.
I nodded and we shadowed along the wall, reaching the stables after a few minutes of tense sneaking. Jack pointed silently at the window and knelt, gesturing for me to use his leg as a step to climb inside.
I heaved myself into the musty dark of the stable, dropping onto the soft hay. Jack was beside me in a moment, peering into the darkness.
I caught sight of a ladder. “We could try the...loft,” I said quietly, remembering the correct word just in time.
Jack nodded. “Ladies first,” his whispered, holding the ladder steady.
I mounted up the rungs, feeling the rough wood under my hands. Hay dust stirred as I reached the top, stepping from the ladder to the wooden boards of the loft floor. Jack coughed below me and I heard the nervous whicker of a horse somewhere in the stables.
The ladder quivered as Jack started climbing and I collapsed onto a pile of hay, instantly it ceased being so soft and turned scratchy. I was so tired I hardly cared. I was asleep before Jack reached the top of the ladder.
Sunlight streamed through a crack in the roof, right into my eyes. I blinked and sat up, wondering where I was. Memory returned and I almost slumped right back down again. A loud sound stopped me. Hammering and yelling came from just outside the stable.
Jack’s face appeared from the other side of a stack of hay. “Morning!” he said, his voice low but cheerful.
“Why so happy?” I asked, scratching my neck.
He shrugged. “I just have a feeling that today is going to be a good day,” he replied.
“What is that sound?” I asked as more shouts came to my ears.
Jack frowned. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t want to climb down a look until you were up to agree that it was a good idea.”
‘Well, it’s not a good idea, but we’ll do it anyway,” I said, now thoroughly awake.
Jack peered carefully over the side of the ladder while I tried to get the hay out of my tangled hair. “I think it’s all clear,” he called softly before starting his descent.
I jumped down the last few rungs of the ladder, landing lightly on the hard floor. The nearest horse snorted curiously, tossing its head. I rubbed my hand along her neck, twisting my fingers in the flaxen mane. “You’re a pretty girl, aren’t you?” I murmured.
“Louise,” Jack’s voice was very different from the tone he’d used to say ‘good morning’. I spun around.
“What?” I asked, my heart quickening nervously.
He waved me to the window, his face grim. “I don’t think you’re going to like this,” he said.
I took a tentative look out the window and my eyes caught on the object in the middle of the courtyard that hadn’t been there the day before. A gallows. Crowds of soldiers and the castle’s inhabitants were milling around it, talking in loud voices.
A scuffle in the door of the castle caught my attention and I glanced that way. A group of soldiers were dragging someone towards the scaffold. As they drew closer I could see that the unfortunate person was struggling and kicking but to no avail.
I watching in horror as the prisoner was forced up the steps and onto the platform. A dark robed executioner stepped forward, but I wasn’t paying him much attention.
Now that the prisoner was standing still and raise above all the soldiers I could see them clearly. And what I saw was a small figure, dressed in a muddy wool tunic and pants. Even from that distance and without the oversized leather jacket I recognised her.
My friend was about to die.
1. “Okay,” I said numbly, my eyes still fixed on Maree. “You got a plan?”
2. A second figure climbed the stairs onto the platform, a taste of loathing rose to my mouth as I saw Hacaz again. Dead or given up, am I? I thought, you’re about to find out just how wrong you are.
3. Maree raised her bound hands, and waved them above her head. “I beleeve I have the preevilege of last words?”
I hope I haven't caused any deaths by ending there. It was kinda mean, but I did already admit to that. Looking forward to seeing your votes and opinion on the story! It was another long one...2,191 words...I think I'm starting to make them longer because I've been writing these paragraph sum-up of the fragment (so I know what's happening and don't have to moan and groan so much) and I keep including too much in them. :) Oh well, I don't think any of you mind. See you in two weeks and...
Merry Christmas everyone!