Loryn: The Forbidden Knight.

*Entry for the Young Movellist Competition*
[Blurb]: Loryn, a young girl with a mysterious upbringing, must journey into the unknown when an attack on her home leaves her with nothing. But she hides a deadly secret... She is a knight - And women cannot, by law, be knights.
Engulfed in this new world, Loryn must find a way to become who she is destined to be. To reveal her secret is to invite death. But when the life of the Prince of Armortus rests on her shoulders alone, can she find the courage to become the Forbidden Knight?

(This is my entry for the Young Movellist competition. (: Please leave a comment, all feedback is appreciated.)

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1. Begun In Fire.

Fire consumes all in its path. It razes and ravishes, leaps from one place to another with greater swiftness than any other beast. Its hunger is insatiable, it cannot be tamed. And when released into the world, it is utterly unstoppable – Like a shadow cannot be swept from the floor, it cannot be hindered. Once free, it burns wherever, whatever and whoever it desires. I hadn’t known terror until that night; hadn’t felt the icy teeth of raw fear sink into my stomach as I did when the fire started.

 

A long time ago, I had gone hunting in the forest alone. Foolish – But I had been determined to prove I could do it, whether to myself or to the world I can never remember. The wood between Fordingdale and Talysvale was thick and treacherous, but I had been raised beneath the boughs of those trees. I knew where I was going. With homemade longbow in hand and quiver slung over my back, I had crept through the forest with eyes alert and hands ready. The forest floor was blanketed with dainty bluebells, and sunlight pierced the emerald canopy – The very image of peace and tranquillity. A pheasant came shooting out of nowhere, croaking in alarm. I let fly an arrow, which sped past its mark and into the depths of the forest – Whilst the panicked bird flapped frantically out of range. I’d sighed and gone to retrieve the arrow, as I had always been taught to do. But I hadn’t been careful enough, hadn’t watched where I was going. The arrow had flown over a steep ditch and stuck in the bark of a tree. I didn’t care to look for any danger. I just leapt. When I landed on the other side of the bank I saw, too late, the tell-tale signs of a trip-wire. Then the world jerked out from underneath me, and I was hauled by my left foot into the air by the cleverly disguised noose. I dangled beneath the tree hopelessly, struggling to free myself from the hunter’s trap. It had no doubt been set up for deer – The counterweight was heavy enough to hold me high above the ground, where my fingers couldn’t even brush the bluebells. I tried reaching for my foot, but it was no use.

 Think, Loryn. Think.

That was when the fear claimed me, and made me cold inside. What if I couldn’t escape? Would the hunters come and free me, or would they look unkindly on a young and foolish girl? Or would they come too late for me to find out? I know now that the fright I had felt then was nothing in comparison to the desperation and panic of pure terror. I’d hung mid-air for some time, before my head had begun to clear.

You know how these traps are set up. A perfectly rational voice told me. You’ve set enough of them yourself. So cut yourself down. My quiver was empty – All the arrows had gone tumbling to the ground the moment I was tipped upside-down. I felt myself going red in the face, felt my foot aching with the tightness of the cord. There was just one sharp implement within reach. I began to swing myself backwards and forwards, arm outstretched toward the trunk of the tree. There, the arrow I had fired was embedded in the rough bark. My fingers touched the feathers, and I growled in frustration. One last heave and I caught the end – Tugging on it with all my might. The arrow came free with a jolt, and I strained for my foot. It was almost, almost, too difficult for me to reach. But with sheer will, I had sawn at the string and, with a tremendous snap, I went plummeting back down to earth. The impact knocked the breath out of me, and I lay amongst the purple and green of the flowers, wheezing. As I trudged home that day, I had learnt a valuable lesson. And from that day on I was more careful where I put my feet, and always looked for signs of danger. But more importantly, perhaps, I had tasted fear. Though nothing could have prepared me for the fire.

 

I woke with a start, and the wonderful image of sunlight on lilac flowers faded from my grasp. In its place came the image of a dark, silent world where no light and no flowers existed – The real world. I didn’t want to move. I wanted time to cease where it was. But time was slipping through my fingers like sand, and I had to move. I sat up slowly, and my head swam sickeningly. Flashes of bright flames tore at my mind, images of burning timbers and thick, choking black smoke. When I opened my eyes again, the same dark forest was watching me. The tall pines and spruces loomed overhead – Stealing light from the ground. Not a whisper of wind stirred their branches. Instead, they leaned in expectantly... As if waiting for something to happen.

The rasp of laboured breath made me wince, and when I turned around my heart sank. He had gotten much worse. I got up, pushing the meagre cloth I had used as a blanket onto the pine-needles. As I approached, the sound of his breathing rattled through me. I crouched down, and lay my hand tenderly on his shoulder.

“Gahlberis.” I murmured, and he stirred. He had never let me call him Father, or any such thing. He was always Gahlberis to me – Though he was as much my Father as I was his daughter.

Not right. He’d say. Your Father was a good man, and I’ll not take his place. Then I’d ask him who my Father was, and what he was like, but he would suddenly close up and I would hear no more. He’d never told me who my Mother was, either, but I imagined her to be someone very kind and loving. That was all I knew of what Mothers were supposed to be like, and I had never had one. It was just me and Gahlberis – The way it had always been. But now when he turned over to half smile and half scowl up at me, a deep dread told me it might not be that way for long.

“Ah, Loryn.” His voice chafed, and he began coughing instantly after he’d spoken. It was a terrible, grating cough and it shot fear into me like an arrowhead. I went to fetch my waterskin, which was worryingly light, and brought it to him.

“No,” He wheezed amidst bouts of hacking coughs. “You’ll need it. Bring me my own.” I did as he said wordlessly. From his pack, I drew out the rawhide sac – Less than half full with water. I handed it to him, as he struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. It went without saying that he wanted no help. No fuss. He’d always been like that. He took the waterskin gratefully, and tipped back his head with the nozzle to his lips. The liquid went down his throat painfully, and I could see him grimace. When he gave it back to me, it was considerably lighter. I stowed it away in his pack, and went to sit cross-legged opposite him. He was still fighting to recover his breath, though he did his best to hide it. The stubborn old fool would sooner chop his own hand off than let himself appear weak to anyone – Particularly me. He was always strong for me.

“We have to reach Armortus by nightfall.” He said, and his voice was the very sound of doom in itself. He didn’t have to tell me why.

“Fordingdale is closer. Surely-” It was as though I had struck him the moment I’d said the name of that place. His expression went from grim to livid.

Not there.” He hissed with such intensity that I said no more. His hate for Fordingdale was a mystery. He had always steered clear of the large river-side town, and whenever we needed supplies we made an extra day and a half’s trek through the woods to Talysvale – A place he liked only marginally better. But this wasn’t a matter of supplies anymore. He was dying. I knew it, he knew it. But neither of us said it. So I simply sat next to him as he lay with his eyes toward the sky, the sky he couldn’t see, until he said something.

“My fault.” He muttered, so quiet it could almost have been to himself. “Stupid to linger there in that damned forest.” I watched his face as he gazed upwards, willing myself not to relive the horrible images. But they came of their own accord; raging flames consuming the house, the trees, the grass, everything. Black figures rippling like living shadows amidst the blaze, melting into view.

“They could have attacked anyone.” I said quickly, shoving the picture from my mind.

“Not likely.” He mumbled in reply, echoing my own doubts.

“How so?” I forced myself to ask, knowing all too well how much Gahlberis hated taxing questions. The ache of losing our home was fresh in my mind, as no doubt it was in his. And try as he might to convince me he was never sentimental, I knew that the loss pained him greatly. It was a while before he answered. So long, in fact, that I thought I would get no answer at all. I looked down at my hands, which bore the mark of our escape. My palms were blackened with soot, my fingers raw with burns. Yet Gahlberis had suffered much more than me. Then:

“Saw their faces. Weren’t no ordinary brigands, I can tell you.” His voice was that of one whose worst fears had come to pass. Fears he had hoped would never come to light. Fears I thought him never capable of harbouring, just as I had feared that day in the sun all those long years ago.

“My fault.” He repeated, and his gaze went from the sky to look at nothing.

No more was said after that.

 

The likelihood of us reaching Armortus, the grand capital of the kingdom, before nightfall was slim at best. Injured and on horseback, Gahlberis may have stood a better chance. But we had no horses. Bala, my little white pony with whom I had learnt to ride and care for, had burned with the house. Gahlberis bought her for me on my thirteenth birthnight, from the markets in Talysvale. He had taught me how to grip a sword and ride at the same time, and how to shoot an arrow at a target in canter. Now Bala was gone, and it left an empty hole in my being.

But now we faced a much larger issue. The forest was deep and mysterious, and we had never ventured so far north of it. It had never been our intent to travel to Armortus... But with no home, almost no supplies and no hope of treating Gahlberis’s wound, we had to go. But before we did, I forced Gahlberis to let me examine his wound.

“I may not be a physician, but I know enough about cuts and scrapes to at least take a look at you.” I insisted sternly. He grumbled ignominiously, and waved me away. But for all his pride he did let me roll up his shirt, and what I saw appalled me.

I had seen it all happen – Had stood watching helplessly as flames washed over the house and collapsed it. Then the men had come – The bandits, the assailants who had so cruelly set fire to our home. Gahlberis had fought them off, for he was no amateur with the sword. He had told me his story countless times, even the hardest parts. He had once been a knight of Armortus, the very same place we were headed now, and was held in high regard by all others. But then his wife had died in childbirth, and he had abandoned Armortus and his knighthood. Beyond that, he was devious in his telling. But there was no one I looked up to more, growing up, than Gahlberis himself. So when the sword-stroke fell, I’d been shocked. I watched in horror as he stumbled and fell, as red soaked his shirt and the men closed in. But he had not been called a most adept swordsman for nothing, and in one rapid flurry of steel-on-steel the marauders lay dead at his feet and our home had continued to burn for the good of no one. Looking at the wound now, I was dismayed. The slash had cut deep, but it was the burns that worried me most. Charred, blackened skin had peeled away to reveal angry raw flesh. The mottled colour and nauseating smell told me it was bad. Really bad. I covered it back up again, forcing a smile onto my face.

“I’ve seen worse on a deer.” I lied cheerfully, but Gahlberis’s face was bleak and beaded with sweat as he grunted. I got up, brushing my leggings off.

“Did your deer survive?” He rumbled, and I turned gradually to him. I saw it in his grey eyes; the knowledge of death looming on the horizon, the palpable pain and fear of the unknown. I grinned waveringly.

“Yes. I think he did.” Then I paced away from him quickly, biting my knuckles lest I let a sob escape me. I would not show my despair. I must not. Gahlberis said no more, and I busied myself with gathering up the few things we had been able to bring with us. Our blankets I rolled up and fastened to our packs, the remnants of the fire I’d lit during the night I scattered. There was almost no ash, for as soon as the flame sputtered into life I’d panicked and had hurriedly stamped it out. Such was the lingering fear of the fire that had taken everything from us the same night.

When I returned to our brief campsite, Gahlberis was standing. I noticed he was breathing hard with the effort, but pretended not to see. I hoisted my bag onto my shoulder and looked around me.

What have we done to deserve this? My mind mourned. If there are Gods, they cared nothing for us yesterday.

Gahlberis moved to take his pack, but I took his arm firmly.

“Don’t be absurd,” I said. “I’ll carry that.” But he shrugged me off, ignoring my demand, and further burdened himself. I scowled, not that he was looking. If the wound didn’t kill him first, he’d die of his stubborness. I looked at him in wonder as he shouldered the bag, grimacing with the pain only briefly. Was he seriously prepared to make it harder for himself, just to protect his pride?

“Come on then,” He huffed. “Day’s wasting.” And he strode off in front.

Yes. Yes, he was.

 

“So, why Armortus?” I asked after we had walked a while. I didn’t bother asking how he knew we were headed in the right direction. There was never any use in asking him those sort of stupid questions. Gahlberis’s stride was awkward, hindered, and I saw it took him a great deal of strength to do what he did. I could hear him breathing hard and fast.

“When I was a knight, I knew a good many people there. One person in particular made up the heart of Armortus. Trianna was her name.” Here he chuckled hoarsely. “No idea whether she’s still there. She was good to me all those long years ago. Kind lass. Brilliant physician.” Hope flared up in me. A physician? Could this Trianna save Gahlberis?

“If anyone can help us, she can.” He said, silence resuming its place among us. I tried to imagine what Armortus looked like. I had grown up in the forest, surrounded by trees and the great Fording River. The capital city was near the coast – A very different landscape to what I was used to. And, according to what Gahlberis had told me about the enormous castle, it was teeming with people. We had spent our lives more or less away from people. Now we were plunging head-long into the largest settlement in the kingdom. It made me nervous to think about it, but I was excited too.

All those knights... And I was going to be one of them.

Gahlberis had raised me a knight. From the moment I could walk, I was swinging wooden swords. He had trained me in every art a warrior could be trained in. Sword, bow, staff, and knife – I was taught to wield them all. I could fight on foot or on horseback. But most importantly, Gahlberis had taught me the complete and utter importance of chivalry. Whilst he might have forsaken the duty of the knight, he was every inch the respectable warrior. I heeded every word he told me, drank in every detail. It had been my sole ambition to become a knight, since before I could remember.

There was only one problem. I was a woman. And women could not, by law, be knights.

I’ll do it. I promised myself. I will be a knight. A knight of Armortus.

But there was yet another issue we faced before we even got there. And that was getting Gahlberis out of the woods and through the castle gates, alive.

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