Running

With their homes in flames, and soldiers cutting a bloody swathe through their land, two best friend have only one option; to run. It soon becomes a race to get to the king before those black armies. As they run, they start to battle with other forces..this time emotional.

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4. Four

“This is perfect, thanks….” Jehan began, trailing off into an awkward silence.

“It’s Hugh,” the man gruffly answered. Jehan nodded.

“Hugh and I will sort out a fire. Start brewing up something, anything, so long as it’s edible.” The last part he addressed to the three women. They nodded, Haywise trying to push aside the exhausted screaming of her limbs and eyes. She wasn’t even hungry but they had to eat.

The men of the company parted the curtain of leaves and disappeared, although they could be traced by the dry crack of twigs and low murmurs.

“Stop loitering and help me find something worthy,” Celeste commanded as Haywise stood in one spot, rooted by fatigue. Slowly, she obeyed, feeling like she was wading through water or snow. Her body craved rest but right now, it had little option but to keep working.

She knelt down and started pulling unidentifiable lumps out of the bag. Her hand closed around something slightly soft but still firm enough not to dent with the compression of her fingers. An onion. It was dirty and withered but it was edible. Well, she hoped it was.

 

 

A while later, with hands still pulsing from the heat of the fire, the company slipped under their blankets. With mutters of goodnight, they settled themselves down to the cold night and the warm embrace of sleep. Due to the limited supply of blankets, Haywise and Jehan found themselves sharing. The thin blanket did little to keep out the harsh night but both were all too aware of the presence of the other beside them. Haywise snuggled herself against Jehan’s broad back contentedly and found the embrace of sleep within minutes.

Jehan lay awake, feeling her warm breath lift the hairs at the back of his neck and the all-encompassing arms around his waist. A slow smile spread across his features. His mind flashed back to the day’s events. More than once he had caught her looking sideways at him with deep, clear eyes. Perhaps she was beginning to understand that the feelings he had for her were more than that of a friend. 

 

Haywise jerked awake and instantly began shivering. Sometime in the night, Jehan had managed to snatch most of the blanket for himself, leaving her with one measly corner. Angrily, and still sleepy, she gave a huge tug. In a moment, it was she who had most of the blanket bunched around her.  Jehan gave a particularly loud snore, and then woke with a start. Haywise heard him wake and turned her body so that her face was inches from his own. His warm breath clouded around her.

“Morning,” she grinned. He smirked back.

“Hello.”

“Why were you muttering just then?”

“Because you nicked most of the blanket and I woke up because I was cold.”  She gave him a light punch on the arm.

Jehan watched those red lips break into a smile that lit up her whole face.  For a moment, they stared into each other’s eyes with a startling intensity. Haywise then broke away, her whole face colouring red. She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“We need to move Jehan. That army are a day and a night ahead of us.’

Jehan murmured in agreement, unsure whether his racing heart was somehow on show. He threw back the remaining blanket and stumbled to his feet. The cold air rushed to greet him in an icy embrace and he gasped at its severity. Offering the still seated Haywise a hand, he yanked her up.

“You wake the others, I’ll pack up,” he ordered, his voice unusually sharp. Haywise glanced at him. “Sorry, I’m just tired and cold,” he murmured in apology. Haywise knew he was lying. His eyes were avoiding hers and she saw the rapid twisting of his fingers. In that moment, she made the choice that had been gnawing at her since the day before. She grabbed his shoulder and turned her to face him. Then she kissed him. As their lips connected, each was aware of the proximity of the other, the heat uncurling between them, the sudden collapse of their limbs.  

It grew passionate, and then they both broke away, panting for breath. Silence. Then Jehan laughed. Haywise, feeling the tension lift from her, also giggled. They embraced.

“We’d better wake the others.”  Haywise nodded and started to head towards the still slumbering bundles. Jehan caught her hand and kissed it. She smiled a radiant smile and skipped away. Jehan watched her for a few minutes as she gently shook the bundles and muttered to the grouchy inhabitants. Averting his gaze, he swiftly set about burying the remains of last’s night’s fire, now a heap of warm ashes.  

 

Within the hour, the party were leaving. They had feasted on a stew with rabbit and some of the vegetables they had foraged from the village. Jehan thought it best to stick to the woods. The roads were too open and dangerous, and there was no point in exposing them all when he was capable of navigating the hidden route.

 Haywise and Jehan headed the small group. Behind them trudged Hugh, and bringing up the rear was Celeste and Almera.

 

And so their journey continued. For a week, they lived off the land, eating whatever they could find and slowly adapting to their new life.  The cold continued to be relentless, biting and nipping at exposed skin. Haywise was grateful for the warmth of Jehan’s hand over her own, and the warmth he provided as they leant together. Occasionally, they would catch that scent which every person was trying to forget and even hear faint cries and wails. But they couldn’t stop. They would make sure the survivors were found by the king when they reached him. Sometimes, they veered near the road and caught sight of the rear end of a column of knights in black armour that glistened with malice.

 

Their pace picked up. They would now walk for most of the night and snatch sleep in the afternoons. Nerves became frayed and Jehan and Hugh often fell into disputes over the direction they were taking. It was only thanks to the effort of Haywise and Celeste that a full feud was prevented.

 

On the seventh day, just as the sun was slipping behind the trees and casting long shadows, the protective cover of the woods began to thin out. Curious, the party quickened their pace.  The further they went, the fewer trees there were until they came out on top of a ridge. Below them was a huge, sprawling city, untouched by the hordes of soldiers. And there, sat on top of another slight hill, was a castle. From their position, they could see a flag rippling in the breeze but could not yet discern the image. But everyone knew they were safe. There was no other city that boasted such size, no other castle that rose so majestically.

They had finally reached the king.

 

They broke into a run. Hugh scooped Almera onto his back and went lolloping ungainly down the hill. Celeste jogged behind them, grinning back at Jehan and Haywise. Haywise waited until she turned, then took Jehan’s hand. So far, they had kept their romance a secret.

‘I’m so proud of you. Without you, none of us would have been here right now.’ Their lips met briefly and then they too were whooping and running down the hill. Halfway down, Jehan swung Hawyise onto his broad back. Laughing, they managed to catch up with the others.

As they approached the domineering gates, they all dismounted from each other and took a more sedate pace. Two gates atop the walls, bellowed.

“Halt, who goes there?”

Haywise stepped forward and spoke in strong tones. “We are survivors from villages that have been burnt down by another army, who heads this way as we speak. We need to speak to the king.”

“Wait there.”

Sensing a long wait, the group settled down under the watchful eye of another guard. Celeste and Almera set to making a small daisy chain and Hugh decided to clean his boots. Jehan lay down with Haywise beside him.

“What happens after we speak to the king Jehan? We haven’t even considered the future.”

“Simple. We will both be thanked for our loyalty  and get given a manor house to live in. We shall marry, be surrounded by a brood of children with your hair and my long legs and live to the grand old age of sixty.”

 Haywise grinned at the levity in Jehan’s tone. This was the most animated she had seen him in weeks. Her own soul felt light and airy also.

“Oy peasants!” The rough voice sent them scrambling to their feet. “Come in but the king can’t see you for two days.” Panic rose in Haywise, brushing away her happiness.

“But it will be too late! The hordes are only a day behind us!”

The soldier shrugged. “Can’t do anything about that. Get in here.”

With a shriek and a groan, the gates ground open. Haywise glared at the figure of the guard then marched in, head defiantly held up. Jehan scrambled after her, sensing the anger that was brewing. A guard was waiting. His face wrinkled in disgust as he saw the dirt and travel stains on them.                                                                                                          

“Follow me.”  They were guided through streets full of traders desperate to sell their wares of food, cloth, jewellery.  To their surprise, the atmosphere was gloomy and lulled, like the vitality of the place has been sucked away. Perhaps they had over- assumed? This was no king’s stronghold. Underfoot, old vegetables and mud squelched and the smell that rose from the small stream running down the street made nausea rise.  Silent looks passed between the group.

As soon as they were admitted into the castle, maids and servants separated the group. Jehan and Hugh were whisked away by a fierce looking man, Almera was hauled off screaming by a buxom maid and Celeste and Haywise meekly followed a grizzled, sour woman. She ushered the two women into a room where they were bathed in scalding water, dressed in clean clothes and then taken to eat in a small room. Only then were they allowed to have free roam. Haywise abandoned Celeste and ran wildly down corridors, bursting through open doors, trying to find Jehan. Little did she know, he was doing exactly the same. The two lovers failed to notice the dank smell, the stains that dripped from the walls and the crumbling stone that littered the corridors. Both reached a corner and crashed into each other, falling heavily onto the floor.

“Jehan!”  Haywise squealed. Kisses were rained on each other and then they stood up and composed their crumpled clothes.

“Come on, let’s try to see if we can meet the king sooner. We’ll all be dead if we don’t.” She nodded vigorously in agreement. Their arms were linked and they headed for the direction of the main hall. Two surly guards barred the entrance. Haywise, turning on all the feminine charm she could muster after having spent the last week in the woods, sauntered towards them. Jehan watched amused as the guard’s eyes fell on her. He had to admit, she did look lovely. Her wild, untameable russet hair had somehow been scraped into a thick plait. Her slim figure was garbed in a gown of vivid green.

“We wish to see the king. If you let us, I may give you something.”

“No one to see him today. Direct orders.”

“But this is important.”

“Not as important as his health. Now move.”  Haywise refused. Something was going on. Her mind began to suspect that the king was losing his power. Her voice faltered.

“No, there’s this army…it’s coming…” Jehan could see the guards getting edgy. He grabbed her arm and started walking away.

“Jehan, they need to listen!”

“We’ll try to find the officers of the garrison. They may listen.”

As it turned out, they already knew about the threat to villages of the east. When Jehan challenged them as to why they weren’t out there stopping the threat, the bored officer merely said “We don’t have the numbers or training.” They interrogated him further. Why was this? Where was the king?  Eventually he snarled at them. “The king is dying and there’s nothing anyone can do. His heir is away in France, fighting another battle. We have to lump it.”

So that was it. Since that black day over a week ago, they had encountered homelessness, hunger, fear, trudged miles to reach a king that they thought would help. It had all been in vain. They were no safer than they had been in that village which existed no more.

 Five

 

With hearts that sat like lead in their chests, Haywise and Jehan spent the next day wrapped in  misery. Whatever chances they once had were now gone. Inwards, Jehan cursed himself for not being fast enough. Haywise was just silent and sat staring into the distance, her thoughts whirling around her head.

The castle remained abjectly quiet and gloomy. Even the birds seemed to have sensed the change in the atmosphere. Whenever Haywise tried to talk to anyone, they would murmur an excuse and hurry away.

The afternoon came plodding along. Nothing changed apart from the slight increase in intensity of the wind. The flag cracked as the wind tugged and pulled, straining its seams.

Suddenly, a guard on the tower walk began gesturing wildly and shouting. “Over there, a black army! To arms, to arms!”  He was hopping about, gesticulating wildly with his arms. The message filtered through to the barracks and in an explosion of steel and men, the castle came alive. Jehan leapt to his feet and hauled Haywise upright. She saw his face was set with determination. Terror flooded through her as she realised what he might be about to do.

“No, don’t do it Jehan. Please…” she whispered, the tears pricking her eyes like thousands of malicious needles. His hands clutched at her sleeve.

“If I can help in protecting you, I will. Get everyone inside the main hall and bolt the doors. Any men able to fight have to do so. It’s our only chance.”

“No!” she screamed. “I will not let you do this!” Feebly she rained punches onto him. He gently extricated himself and stared into her eyes. No matter how much she wanted to break the eye contact between them, she couldn’t.

“Don’t stop me from doing this, please Haywise. I will make sure I don’t die. Okay?”

Miserably she nodded and he embraced her in a fierce hug. “Now go.” Stumbling out of his grip and half blinded by tears, she dived through the mass of people into the bowels of the castle, yelling as she did so.

Jehan let the tears fall silently now. He was lost in a kaleidoscope of colour of sounds. Losing all touch with reality he walked like a spirit to the armoury and snatched up any armour he could find. The sword was the only decent item he managed to collect, the rest was old and rusted but he still put it on. A bellowing sergeant began to direct men into lines. Jehan obeyed, his palms sweating and his throat tight with fear.  Above the shouting of the courtyard came another sound, that of tramping feet and harsh guttural chants. They were nearly here.

Haywise sprinted down corridors, herding people towards the hall. Relentlessly, she kicked open doors and dragged cowering people out. One door she came to was locked from the inside. With all her weight and strength she pushed against it, and hammered until at last she gave up.

Within a short space of time, she had gathered all she could and then went to stand amongst them. Men were being tapped gently by soldiers – youths, fathers, husbands were all called upon to bear arms to protect their families. Wails rent the air, women huddled in corners. Haywise couldn’t bear it. She ran to a corner and turned her back. Tears cascaded down her cheeks and her shoulders shuddered. Breath wouldn’t come, her head pounded into an almighty crescendo, and blackness rose up to take her.

The soldiers, now arranged into battle formation had fallen silent. Jehan was trapped in a mass of tense bodies, ready to uncoil instantly. His own hands shook and his stomach felt hollow. He glanced backwards, relieved to see the doors of the great hall barred. He had to survive for her.

A single crash that echoed around the walls signalled the start of the battle. They were battering down the city gates. Again, the chanting rose to a crescendo. “Where’s the king?” Jehan muttered. “Where’s that coward?”

The man next to him snorted in ironic disdain. “Dying in his bed. He has left us all, all to die.”

They fell silent. Then a roar, like the surge of the sea, followed by a shuddering, told them the gates had been breached. Murder was in the air. Screaming swiftly arose and the harsh stench of burning thatch accrued into great dirty columns of smoke. Within moments, the castle gates shook. This was it. Men shifted in fear. Weapons were raised, shields brought closer. Men began to pray.

It took four huge battering before the gates caved in. As the first enemy struggled through, an arrow embedded itself in his eye. He fell back screaming only to be replaced by two more vengeful knights. Black helmets complete with visors gave these soldiers a feel of evil and mystery. The way the swords glinted red from blood of innocents foretold no mercy. The first line of defenders sprang forward. Steel met steel with an almighty clang. Jehan was caught up in the wave and pitched into the arms of a bloodthirsty black knight. Roaring with defiance at the loss of his home, swinging with determination to stay alive for Haywise, he cut the knight down. He moved onto his next victim, the adrenaline rushing through his blood. He would live. He would live!

 

 

Inside, Haywise awoke, alone. For a moment she thought the bangs and screams were inside her head and then she realised that this were the sounds of battle. Struggling upwards, she listened. Jehan was out there somewhere. Oh god, oh god. The women and children inside the hall were totally silent, frozen into statues, their faces etched with total fear. By the door, a young girl was rocking backwards and forwards. Before anyone could stop her, she raced for the door and pulled it open, trying to peer out. The sounds of men in pain, men in anger barrelled through. A mother raced for the child and yanked her back, kicking the door shut . But it was too late. A hand heaved it open and a nightmare figure stood on the steps. Then he chuckled, an inhuman ghoulish sound and grabbed the woman by the wrist. She was pulled against him in a grasp. Her hands scrabbled furiously and he pushed her aside. Turning back to the door, he bellowed in a strange tongue and suddenly a wave of black helmeted knights came pouring in. The screaming began.

Haywise stood watching, her limbs unresponsive. One knight came in and his eyes instantly fell on her. Without preamble, he began shoving bodies out of the way, kicking, punching. His visor was lifted and with a jolt, Haywise saw the features of the man who had forced himself on her. Anger blinded her, her fear was borne away out of loathing. She raced towards him. They met with a thud. Instantly she snatched the sword out of his grip, turned it on him and stabbed him in the exposed neck. His eyes widened and he collapsed. Haywise kept running. Jehan was out there.

Jehan, with sweat stinging his eyes, saw the door open and a child’s face peep out. He also saw the soldier that made a beeline for her. Haywise was going to be trapped. Thrusting his sword into his opponent, he turned and ran forward. In that split second he lost focus and felt a burning pain slide through his side. Startled he looked down and saw blood darkening his tunic. Slightly turning, he saw eyes glinting through the slits in a black visor. It swam in and out of vision until it vanished. Vomit rose in his throat and he collapsed to his knees, throwing up. His vision came and went in throbs of red, black and blurs.

“Jehan!” a voice screamed, raw with pain. He saw a pair of feet then was staring into the face of Haywise. She had seen him fall and was now hysterical. She kissed him on the lips, on the eyelid on the nose and managed to hoarsely whisper,

“Get back inside you silly woman.”  Her lips curved in an affectionate smile.

“I’m not leaving you now. I have lost everything and I am not going to let you abandon me.”  It was true. Haywise realised that without Jehan, her life held nothing. She was trying to be brave for him but inside her soul was pounding against the walls of her skin, beating it black and blue. Her heart felt bruised.

Jehan now fell into a crumpled ball, clutching his stomach. His hands glistened with blood and he had begun to shake. Something snapped inside Haywise. Every emotion she had ever felt now came raging over her; happiness at the memories, pain at the thought she was losing him. Her hands trembled with the intensity of the moment. Tormented, she grabbed the sword that lay on the ground. Jehan watched her with bloodshot eyes,

“No!” he tried to cry but his voice was hoarse. He watched in disbelief as she plunged the sword into her own body. With a gasp, she let it fall and  then crawled over to join Jehan. Both of their eyes were glinting with tears.

“What have you done?” Jehan murmured. She now felt the lifeblood draining out of her and felt more connected to him than ever before.

“Didn’t want you to leave me on this god forsaken earth.”  They both shook as they tried to laugh and blood trickled from a corner of Jehan’s mouth. Haywise edged further forward until there wasn’t any gap between them. Feebly she reached for his hand. He grasped it with all the strength he could.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you,”  he croaked back.  Jehan began to feel an icy blackness creep over him. He knew death was claiming him. “I’ll see you in heaven.”

Haywise watched with blotched vision as the final breath flowed out of Jehan. His hand loosened on hers and his eyes closed. He was gone. Haywise rested her head against his shoulder and waited. It wasn’t long. Soon, death came to claim her.

In all the blood and sweat of the raging battle, no one noticed the air above the two still figures as it shimmered a pearly light. Then it was gone in a blink.

Jehan and Haywise were finally at peace.

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