Chapter 6

Chapter 5
November 16, 2018
Chapter 4
November 16, 2018

Chapter 6

Claire woke feeling anything but rested.  Her body hurt from tossing and turning all night.  Nightmares had plagued her and they had seemed so real and intense she shuddered at the memory of them.  I hope I never have dreams like that again.  Flipping over she attempted to stretch and work out some kinks in her back.  “OUCH!”  She cried out, startled by the sharp rock stabbing her ribs, she jolted up.  “What the heck, where am I?”  She looked around the small rocky cavern, confused and slightly disoriented.

“’Hey, Claire-Bear, you’re ok sweetie.”  Mark instantly came to her side.  His arms wrapped around her and he began to speak in a calm and reassuring voice.  “I have you, you’re safe.  Nothing will ever hurt you.  I promise.  Everything will be okay.”  He rocked her back and forth in a comforting manner.  She pushed against him, but his hold on her remained firm.

Confused by his sudden concern she attempted to shake her sleep brain into waking up.  One moment she didn’t have a clear thought in her mind and the next…

“It wasn’t a dream.  Oh. My. Gosh. It wasn’t a dream!”  Reality snuck in to steal away the peace and serenity of her simple life.  Her lungs constricted and she began to pant.  Flash backs of the night before began whirling across her mind in vivid detail.

Her mind spun as sounds and images caught up with her.  She jumped as a loud explosion echoed in her memory.  Men shouted all around her, but the cave remained empty of anyone but her and Mark.  It all came rushing back: explosions, men had broken into their home, the tunnel, emerging into the night and running until exhaustion overtook her.  She reached for the small pendant hanging from her neck.

The necklace had been her mother’s and since childhood it had comforted her in ways her brothers could not.  She believed her mother’s spirit dwelled within the immaculate carvings and watched over her.  For this reason, she never took it off.  She traced small circles over the smooth wood to draw strength and comfort.   She looked, unseeing, around the cave as panic welled inside her.

Never panic.

Her brothers’ words screamed in her mind and she took several calming breaths.  Finally she was able to meet her Mark’s worried eyes.

“What happened?”  She demanded, pushing him back.  The last thing she remembered Keith had lifted her off her feet and cradled her like a child.  She vaguely remembered her brothers speaking gibberish for several minutes until their voices faded and sleep destroyed her resolve to stay awake and find answers to the horrors that has become her life.  Her stomach grumbled.

“Let’s get you something to eat, Bear.”  Mark offered.  Claire glared at him, knowing he only stalled for time.

“NO!  I want to know what happened!  Mark, you and Keith have to tell me before I lose my mind.  I heard you talking when you thought I was asleep.  I know there is something you haven’t been telling me.”  She looked around the small cave, “Where’s Keith?”

“He’s hunting. Claire, Baby girl, listen to me.”  He cupped her face with his hands, forcing her look at him. He flinched from the large tears gathering in her violet eyes.  His words caught and he was unable to continue before she started questioning him.

“Who were they? Why did they try to hurt us?”  Her voice turned from a forceful demanding manner to a weak and drawn tone she did not recognize.  She stood and began to pace before Mark.  “Why won’t you answer me?”  She felt her spunk drain from her body.  She always believed she was strong woman, but this whole situation was becoming more than she could bear.  Without her brother answering her questions, she was forced to use her own imagination to draw conclusions.

Her brothers were not who they appeared to be.  They had kidnapped her as a child.  The people who attacked her home were sent to rescue her and return her to her family.

No.

Her blood had an immunity factor for some disease, but to discover how to use her blood to save millions of lives she would be forced to endure torturous studies that could potentially cost her life.  Her brother’s fought against it and now the head scientists of Tyrell have decided to take her by force.

No.

A dozen other possibilities were quickly discarded as her mind swirled.  It was no use.  She had no answers.  She could not comprehend why anyone would choose to attack her home or why they would want her. She pressed her hands against her eyes and Claire dropped to her knees.

“Claire, sweetie, Keith should be part of this conversation and we need to wait for him to get back.” Mark moved to her side once more, using their brother’s absence to excuse his reluctance to give her answers.  He hooked a finger under her chin and lifted her face so he could meet her eyes. “I promise, when he returns we will explain everything.”

Hysteria threatened.  She felt like her world had shattered and she would never feel whole again.  She wanted answers now, not later.  She threw her arms around Mark and cried.  He remained quiet not knowing how to react to her tears.  She had never acted this way.

Mark held Claire close, trying to provide what comfort he could.  Finally, after an eternity of minutes she quieted.  “Claire-Bear?”  She let out a small weak sigh as he pulled back from her, searching her face to confirm her tears were spent.

“You know, when you called me that the other night, I thought I would tear your head off,” She said looking up at him.  “Today I’m just glad you’re here to say it.  It sounds wonderful.”  Mark chuckled and placed a soft kiss on her forehead.  Claire continued, “I’m so confused; I don’t understand what happened.  One minute we are watching a stupid horror flick with Mike the next……Oh Mark,” she grabbed onto Mark’s shoulders and shook him, “Mike!  He didn’t leave with us.  You said something about him last night.  I fell asleep before I heard what happened to him.”  She struggled to search her memory for clues; focusing on the cool grey rock beneath her she hoped the veins of color snaking through the stone would aid her.

“Bear, look at me.”  He gently shook her shoulders, but she did not look up.  “Claire.”  He lightly pinched her chin, forcing her to look away from the stone.  “He told Keith to get you out safely.  He said he had a way out.  I am sure he is just fine.”  She looked at him, speculating.  Her brothers had never before lied to her.  At least that’s what she had believed.  Maybe they had a reason for lying to her, but she was sure he would not lie about this.

“Really?” The innocent, trusting look in her eyes, combined with the tear streaked face and pouty lip made Mark chuckle.  He hugged her close and kissed the top of her head.

“Yes, Baby Girl, I know he is alive.”  She accepted his answer with a small smile.  “Listen Bear, we kept some things from you to protect you and I need you to trust me now.  When Keith returns we will explain everything.”   A tear streaked down her cheek and Mark lifted his thumb to clear it away.

“Claire-Bear, you’re leaking.”  Keith called from the mouth of the cave.  “I thought you hated to leak.”  He teased lightly, but the worry in his eyes was evident.  He stepped further into the cave, carrying a handful of robin eggs and wood for a fire.

“Keith.”  Claire called while pulling away from Mark.  She jumped up and ran to him, throwing herself at him and smashing the eggs between them.  “Keith, I am so glad you’re ok.”  Keith looked over her shoulder to Mark.  His mirror image shrugged and gave a meaningful look, but Claire did not see it.  Keith nodded, dropped the wood and egg shells, and wrapped his soggy arms around her.  After a moment he cleared his throat.

“I’m fine sweetie…but I think my shirt has had it.”  Claire pulled back to look at the egg yolk dripping from his shirt; she gave him a half smile.

“Guess I didn’t think that all the way through did I?”  She looked guiltily at his slimy shirt.  Her eyes lightened with mirth.  She burst into laughter.  The stress of the last couple days half melted into hysterical laughter over the smashed egg yolk.  Mark and Keith shared another worried glance.

“I’m sorry,” Claire stated.  “I just can’t stop laughing at this.”  She gestured to the yolk dripping from both of their shirts.

“It’s fine,” Keith’s said cautiously.  “I know where to find more eggs and the shirt will wash.  Mark, I have a skinned rabbit outside just waiting to be roasted.  If you’ll grab it, I’ll get a fire going and we’ll start breakfast.”  Keith bent to retrieve the wood while glancing between Claire and Mark.

“I want answers.” Claire instantly sobered before Mark could take more than two steps.  Keith nodded and took her hand to lead her further into the cave.  She watched him build a fire in silent seething while Mark prepared the rabbit to cook.  Claire waited impatiently until the meal was cooking before giving Mark a meaningful glare.

“Let’s have a little talk, shall we?”  Mark offered while positioning himself more comfortably beside the fire.

“It’s about time!”  Claire stated under her breath.  Keith changed his shirt and sat beside her, offering her a clean shirt as well.  Both brothers averted their eyes while she changed.  When she finished she propped her elbows on her knees and rested her chin in her hands, eager to hear the explanation.

“Claire,” Ok it was serious.  Keith never used that tone unless it was serious.  She lifted her head and looked at him.  “Oh, how do I begin?”  Claire felt alarmed as she looked from one identical face to the next.  Never in her life had seen them look so…intimidated.  She gulped.

“From the beginning would be nice.”  She offered, feeling unsteady and suddenly unsure if she wanted to hear what they had to say.  “Why was our home attacked and raided?”  She tried to sound calm, but the question came out in a weak squeak.  Keith took a deep breath and met her eyes.

“That was not the beginning.”  She was afraid of that.

“The world of Danyon is a simple place,” Mark began.  Claire glared, her unease instantly replaced with annoyance.  She threw her hands in the air in frustration before glaring up at her brother.

“You can’t be serious!  If you are about to tell me another child’s tale so help me I will belt you one!”  She threatened, shaking a fist at her brother.

“No interruptions,” He commanded raising his free hand to hold a finger inches from her face to still any arguments.  “Danyon is a simple land; a newer world, undeveloped and unsophisticated compared to Tyrell, but the people lived happy lives and worked hard.  At one time they loved and they laughed, but soon all that changed.”

“One day a handsome stranger came to the land.”  Claire interrupted, taking charge of her favorite bedtime story.  “He desired the love of a maiden.  Not just any maiden, but a maiden of beauty and grace.  One he could proudly present to his family and friends.  He traveled from village to village, until finally he found the woman he could claim as his own.  She was the daughter of a sacred family; a family of witches.

“Upon seeing this handsome stranger, the young woman fell deeply in love with him and agreed to become his wife.  He took her back to his land and built her a castle worthy of housing her beauty within its walls.”  Keith chuckled at the quick summary.

“Her love soon grew cold when she learned of his deception and treachery.”  Claire’s eyes grew large with Mark’s blunt statement.  That was not part of the tale.  How could he get it wrong, he’s the one that made it up?  She opened her mouth to correct him, but he stayed her words with a raised finger and pleading look.  “Let us finish.”  He gestured for Keith to continue.

“The maiden learned her husband had betrayed her in the worst possible way.  While she lay in her labor bed, delivering their first child, her sister labored with her own first born.  A daughter.  Both the son and daughter were fathered by the same man, but only the daughter survived the night.”  Claire gasped.

“He slept with her sister?”  Claire could not hide her revulsion.  “I would have killed the man!”  Both brothers glared at her.  She covered her mouth and vowed to herself to remain silent for the remainder of their tale.

“The maiden’s disgust with her husband was strong.  She locked herself away from him, hoping she would never have to feel his hands on her again, but he did not take her refusal well.  He raped her before her healing time ended.  Months later his actions rewarded him with a healthy baby boy.”  Keith’s voice hardened as the tale unfolded, then he looked to Mark to take over.

“That day he decided to make a legacy to leave to his son.  For years the man spent his energy building an empire.  It wasn’t long before he had forced those in his territory into slavery.  He grew rich, but he was not satisfied.   I believe he had a void in his life which he tried to fill with power.”  Mark shrugged and continued.  “He made threats to other realms.  Warning them to serve him or suffer.  A short time later his wife delivered their third child.  The child was stillborn.”  Mark stopped, breathing deeply.

Claire had never heard this version of the story.  In the past her brothers had always told it as though it were some romantic tale.  “I always thought this was a beautiful story.”

“It should have been!  With any other man but him, it would have been.  We spared you the gory details because of your youth.”  Mark explained.  She nodded her understanding.

“So what happened?”  She asked.  This twist in the childhood tale intrigued her.

“He killed her!”  Keith answered.  Claire gasped.  “Her rejection must have been too much for him.  After her death he took their only living child and began building an army.  Their son must have been around five or six at the time, we’re not sure.”  He ran his hand over his head and rubbed the back of his neck.  “We were still in our mother’s womb when it happened.”  Claire looked at him slightly confused.

This fairy tale was of a different world, a different time, yet her brother just made it sound like he had been part of that world.  Keith looked intently into Claire’s eyes.  “We were born in the woodlands.  We were only two when Leishmann’s army attacked our home and killed everyone.”  Had Keith lost his mind and who was Leishmann?

“An old man in our village hid us away when the attack came.  He gave us a potion that made us sleep for days while our people were tortured and killed.”  Claire looked at Mark.  “Your parents found us there.  They took us away and raised us as their own.”  He gestured to Keith so Claire turned her attention to her other brother.

“We were found with this.”  He opened his bag and pulled out a tattered old book.  The leather binding looked worn and ancient.  Keith rubbed his hand gently over the smooth cover.  “There is a passage in here about you.”  She flinched.  Had her brothers lost their minds?  Maybe they were suffering from shock.  What had she read about shock in her first aide class?

“Are you guys okay?”  She looked from one identical face to another.  “You’re speaking nonsense.”  She was starting to worry about their sanity.

“Claire.  Read.”  Keith opened the book to a marked page and handed it to her.  He pointed to a passage and sat back on his haunches, waiting.  Claire looked to Mark but he too pointed at the book.  She rolled her eyes and with a sigh, bent her head and read.

Moments later she put down the old tattered tome and took a deep breath.  “A child of white will save the world?  It sounds a little…unorthodox to me.  What does any of it have to do with me?  With us?”

“The day you were born Mother died during delivery.  Father he…”  Mark took a deep calming breath.  “Leishmann came to attack the village.  Father went to fight.  We don’t know what happened to him.  Marcel, the village Witch, took us away before we could learn his fate.  She took us to a cave in the woods and there cast a spell that sent us here.”

“She sent us away to save your life, and ours.  We raised you here in Tyrell, but we are not from this land.  We are from the world Danyon and it is your destiny to return home and save it from Leishmann.”

“I’m a child of white?”  She asked suspiciously.  Her brothers nodded.  “Tyrell is the other land, outside of time?”  She attempted to clarify

“We are still unsure how that part plays out, but best we can tell, time passes slower in Danyon.”  Mark provided.  Yep, they have officially lost their minds.  Her brothers were insane!

“This is crazy.”

“We moved around to protect your identity in case Leishmann and his men discovered the cave.  We kept you from making attachments here so it would be easier for you to return home before your eighteenth birthday.”  Keith stated.

They’re nuts!  Her brothers have been interfering with her life because of some messed up belief they come from the world of their own imagination.  Isn’t there a name for that?  She’d have to look it up later.

“I am not sure where we went wrong.  We have always been so careful.  I don’t know how we missed the signs.  How we got so careless.  Leishmann was there under our very noses and we had no idea.  They got so close.  You could have been  and hurt we almost allowed it to happen.”  Her thoughts turned to the events that put them in their current situation.  No.  There is no way this is real, it couldn’t be.  She gulped.

“It was Leishmann’s men who attacked our home?”  Her brothers confirmed with identical nods.   “They were after me?”  Again with the nodding.  “They want to kill me?”  They had the decency to look guilty this time.  “Because I’m a child in a book?  A child of white?”  She shook her head, mostly in disbelief.  This all sounded surreal.  “What am I supposed to be?  A great warrior sent here from another world, how?”

“Marcel took us to a cave after you were born.”  Mark reiterated, “She spoke some kind of spell and poof here we are, in Tyrell the world of insane people!”  Keith chuckled at Mark’s quick description of the people of Tyrell.  Claire rolled her eyes.  Her brothers had always summed up the inhabitants of Tyrell in one word, Crazy.  They claimed the people lacked respect for the beauties around them.  Everything was rushed and nothing appreciated.  Until now she had never understood why they talked about others as though they were from a different world.  All along they had been comparing Tyrell to…Danyon?

“Fortunately, we can return now and escape the tortures of living in this horrific place.”  Mark teased.  Claire didn’t even crack a smile at his attempt to lighten the strained surroundings.

“We have to return before you turn eighteen.”  Keith explained in a gentle voice, he seemed annoyed with Mark’s blunt remarks about leaving a world their little sister was very much a part of.

“Why are you so sure I am the ‘child of white’?  It could be anyone.”  She didn’t want to think about leaving Tyrell.  The idea of being from another world scared her.  How could she be what they expected her to be?

“You have white hair, you were raised in this world, but you are from another world.   Fits into the prophecy,” Mark stated matter of fact with a light lift to one shoulder.

“We’ve been slowly making our way back to the original cave over the last couple years.  We were planning on returning to it within a few days of your birthday, but I’m afraid we will need to return a little sooner.”  Keith further explained after glaring at his brother.

“So let me get everything straight.  Those men wanted to kill me all because some psycho from a different world thinks that I am going to put an end to his rule?  I have until my eighteenth birthday to return to that world to overtake this man and his massive army.  Do you realize how crazy this sounds?  Have you seen me?  I am not what you would consider ‘Olga the Warrior Princess’ type.  How am I supposed to defeat some evil lord’s son?”  She was mad.  More than mad, she was mad and scared.

“The father, not the son!”  Mark corrected.

“That doesn’t make sense.  We have been gone for almost eighteen years!  Is it realistic to assume the son has not taken over for his father?  I mean he had to be around twenty three when we were sent here, right?”  Both brothers looked at each other.  Apparently they hadn’t thought about that.

“Rumors said Leishmann’s boy had been put in charge of a division of the army at a young age, but it was always Leishmann who led his men.  The son was rarely seen.  When we came to Tyrell, Leishmann was still quite strong and very capable of leading his army.  There is no reason to doubt Leishmann will still be in charge.  Besides not much time has passed in Danyon.”

“How would you know that for sure?”  She crossed her arms and lifted a brow in challenge.

“It’s just speculation.  We can’t know for sure.”  Mark offered, eyeing Keith again.  Claire rolled her eyes.  Her brothers were getting too good at making things up.  “We should get going.  It will take about a week to get back to the cave.”  Mark stated, effectively changing the subject.

“And then what?”  Claire asked, resigning herself to believe her brothers.

“Not sure.  Marcel spoke a spell that kind of just sent us here.  We are hoping we’ll automatically transport back once we reach the cave.”  Claire’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped.

“Keith, are you telling me you have no idea how to get back?  What about the spell?”  Keith suddenly looked guilty.

“We used the first letter of each word in the spell to come up with your name.  We thought it would help us remember the words.”  He looked at Mark so her eyes followed, expectantly.

“And?”

“We don’t remember the spell.”  Mark offered.

“What?  You are dragging me out in the middle of nowhere while an army of men- intent on killing me-is breathing down our necks and you have no idea how to get back?  Great parenting!”  She seethed.

“Hold on a sec before you get your temper up.”  Keith jumped in to defend his brother.  “We’ve had eighteen years to study that.”  He pointed at the open book still sitting on Claire’s lap.  “We believe there is a portal in the cave.  Once opened it stays open for a number of years.  Marcel told us to be back before you turned eighteen.  We think that’s when the portal will close.”

“So you think we will walk in and whoosh the cave will suck us back to Danyon?”

“Yes!”  Her brothers said in unison.  She took a deep, calming breath.  She definitely had her doubts, but it did her no good to dwell on them at this point.

“This is a lot to take.  I need some time.”  Claire stated.  Getting to her feet abruptly, she gently shut the book and tucked it under her arm.  She took several steps towards the cave entrance before Keith’s words stopped her.

“Bear, we don’t have time.  We need to be headed out in a few minutes.”  She turned and looked at him with her ‘just try to stop me’ look.  “I’m truly sorry.”

“You guys have known about this my whole life and never once thought to prepare me for it.  Now you think I can’t take a minute to wrap my brain around what you have just thrown at my feet?” She shifted the book to her other arm.  “You never once thought you should at least mention it to me.  Not even so much as a ‘Hey, Claire-Bear, you are a warrior woman destined to take down the most powerful evil lord in the world you were born in but know nothing about.  Here have a peanut!’”

“Bear, you don’t like peanuts!”  Mark joked.

“Oh Ha Ha, Mark, you are sooooo funny.”  She turned to Keith.  “Ok, clarify a couple things for me?”  He nodded.  “Were all the fairy-tales you told me growing up true?”

“Mostly.  We changed the stories to protect you from the harshness, but gave you the basics so it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.”  She shook her head.  She could stomach that explanation.

“Ok.  I can accept that.”  She breathing deeply, “And all the training in martial arts, fencing and archery…”

“Were the only way we could train you to fight without telling you why.  The training in archery and fencing were especially important because Danyon is a new world with none of the luxuries of Tyrell.” Mark interrupted.

“Are you my real brothers?”  The words escaped her before she could stop them.  “You said that father found you.”  She accused.  Mark moved closer to her.

“Claire in everything but blood we are your brothers.  Nothing in this world or Danyon could change that.  You are our little sister.”  Tears spilled over and she wept.  Of everything they had told her, this was the biggest blow.  To learn her only family was not really her family hurt more than learning there were people who wanted to kill her.  A painful silence hung between the three until Keith finally spoke.

“Claire-bear, I know we didn’t handle this as well as you would have wanted us to, but I promise, Mark and I thought we were doing what was best for you,” Keith said, rubbing his hand over his bare scalp. “We didn’t tell you because we wanted you to feel safe for as long as possible. Knowing you are being hunted is a very hard thing to accept, and as a child you didn’t need that fear.  We protected your childhood.  We protected your happiness.  We did the best we could; even knowing someday we would destroy it.  We love you and to be honest I would do it again if only to watch you smile every day.”  She looked at him wondering how she would ever feel normal again?  “But through all the lies one thing has always been real; our love for our parents and for you.  They adopted us as their own, just as we adopted you as ours.  Claire, we are family.”  Keith moved closer to her and held his arms out, offering her his comfort, yet not wanting to force it.  Claire didn’t hesitate to move and allow him to give what comfort he could.

“I’m the target for some egotistical, control freak and I am somehow supposed to destroy him.  I have been shot at, torn from my home, and now I have to return to a world that I know absolutely nothing about.”  She hiccupped, holding Keith tighter as her fear grew.  “All these facts are hard to deal with- doable, but difficult- but I could never lose my brothers.”

“Bear, do you believe we are family?”  She nodded.  “Then that is what we are and will always be.  People don’t have to share blood to be a family.  Family is made by love and acceptance.  You are my sister in every sense.”  She smiled weakly and allowed Mark to take her from Keith and enjoyed feeling her brother hold her like he had when she was little.  She felt it then.  Blood or not they were stuck with each other for life.

“I’m okay now.”  She pulled back and wiped her tears and put her brave face on.  She would be strong.  “Just promise to stay with me.  I’m going to need you both.”  She took both of their hands.  “If you are always with me, I know I will be just fine.”  She took another deep breath then put a mischievous smile on her face, “So does the Prophecy say I can kick both your butts too?  Cuz let’s be honest, I have wanted to do that since I was eight years old, and you know you have deserved it on several occasions.”  They all laughed.

“Nope, just Mark’s.”  Keith laughed, ducking the swing from Mark.  “We will travel as quickly and quietly as possible for the next several days.  We need to be careful!  I have no doubt Leishmann will have spies all over the area watching for us and will do everything in his power to stop us from returning.  We have to be prepared for anything he throws at us.  Are you ready?”  She nodded, not feeling ready in the least.  “Ok, let’s get going.”

***

“There it is.  Are you ready for this?”  Claire looked in the direction Mark pointed.  She felt nervous.  Over the last few days they had been dodging more and more of Leishmann’s men.  Her anxiety was growing with every passing hour.  Now as they looked out across the last large meadow between them and the last pass before reaching the cave, she was scared out of her mind.  It was one thing to talk about and prepare for the worst, and quite another to have the worst staring you in the face.

“There are so many!”  Claire stated, growing paler the longer she looked at the meadow.  Absentmindedly she reached up to hold the charm around her neck and she stared at the large army camped right in their path.  After a few minutes nausea overtook her and she lost her lunch.

“What the…. Claire, are you ok?”  Keith jumped to hold back her hair as Mark patted her back.  She felt mortified.  She was stronger than this.  With a new resolve to be braver and stop stressing out, she raised her head.  She was going to beat the fear.  From this moment on she would be her old self, confident and strong.  She mentally said goodbye to the whiny child she had been in the cave and the weakling barfing fool.  She had trained for years to be a fighter.  Now, she needed to fight.

“I know it looks bad, but really there can’t be more than maybe fifty, or so, men.  We can sneak past them easily.  Look.”  Mark pointed at a run of steep red cliffs west of the meadow.  “We will make our way to those cliffs, climb down them and sneak around the meadow.  Once we are past them we have one or two days before we reach the cave.  The meadow is only a mile marker; we’ll just travel around it.  Leishmann’s will never know we were there.”

“Marks right, Bear, we’ve been sneaking past these guys for days.  If they haven’t found us yet they’re not going to and besides they have no idea we are here.  That works to our advantage.  In three days we could be back home and Leishmann’s men will still be here searching in vain.” Keith added.

“Hell yeah!”  Mark claimed, then turned a repentant look on Claire after she punched his arm.  “Sorry.  Sometimes a man just needs to cuss.”

“Well, you still have to watch it! Mortal peril is not an acceptable excuse for breaking the ‘no cussing around Claire’ rule!”  Claire half joked making her feel a little more herself until Mark looked into the forest surrounding them, alarmed.

“What do you see?”  Keith’s eyes searched the forest behind him.  Claire felt uneasy and followed her brothers in surveying the woods.  Her skin began to feel prickly.  Were they being watched?

“I didn’t really see anything; it’s more a feeling.”  That didn’t help Claire feel any better!  Mark stood and picked up his bag.  “Let’s start working our way to the cliffs, it will be sundown before we reach them as it is and I really don’t want to be stumbling around them at night.  We’ll rest there tonight then get an early start.  With luck we will be past the meadow by tomorrow evening.

“Is there another way to the cave?  I don’t want to be anywhere near Leishmann’s camp.”  Claire continued to search the forest hoping none of the Lord’s men hid in the dark shadows.

“I think skirting around the camp is the best option we have.  Unfortunately we have to make it past a large collection of cliffs to get to the cave.  Just beyond that meadow there is a small break in them which allows safe passage down the incline.”  Mark explained, but Claire only heard, ‘walking through the men that has set out to kill us is the only way to go.’

“There doesn’t seem to be many men patrolling by the cliffs we are headed to tonight.  I don’t think they expect us to go over the ledge with you, Bear.”  Keith added.

“So what is the difference between climbing down those cliffs versus the other cliffs?  Why don’t we avoid the meadow all together and climb down them?”  It made perfect sense; after all she had been cliff climbing with her brothers many times.  She looked at the small set of cliffs they would be climbing down in the morning.  They didn’t look too tedious.  “I think we could handle climbing down those in the morning and another set tomorrow evening.”

“Claire, those cliffs are about sixty feet shorter than their friends.  We don’t have the equipment to shimmy down a hundred foot cliff.”  She sighed.  Apparently they would be forced to sneak past the camp.  Claire’s anxiety grew at the prospect, but she was determined she would face any new challenge between them and Danyon with grit!

 

Chapter  6

“Seriously, how long is he going to take?”  Claire grumbled, as she stared at the forest before her.  Mark had gone into the woods to have a personal moment, but had not returned in over fifteen minutes- at least.  How she wished he’d hurry.  She felt nervous sitting on the edge of the same cliffs that had been brightly illuminated the day before.  She looked to the east, worried that the sun would rise to cast its telling rays upon them before they had a chance to scale the rocky edges.

Keith had assured her many times they would keep to the shadows of the rocks, making it harder for others to detect their movements, but if they didn’t start their descent soon even the shadows would be brightened by the sun’s revealing light.  She looked at Keith pacing before her and knew was just as anxious as she.

After they had reached the cliffs the night before they had camped just inside the tree line, now their bags were packed and ready, but she and Keith were forced to wait while Mark did heaven knows what in the hidden shell of trees.

She had listened carefully to the noises surrounding her, each one expressing their freedom and reassuring her that Mark had yet to be attacked by their foes.  It would seem it was only his uncompromising bowels that held him within its clutches.  She rubbed her drooping eyes and attempted to concentrate on something other than the large hole in the forest where Mark had disappeared.

During the night she had slept very little, knowing that a small army of men waited, intent on putting her head on a spike.  She feared at any minute Leishmann’s men would be upon them and their lives would be forfeit and their souls sent into the fiery depths of purgatory.  She looked back at the dark forest.

 Maybe focusing on Mark’s extended absence wasn’t quite as bad as she originally thought.  At least it prevented more tedious ideas from wreaking havoc on her imagination.

She listened once more to the awakening woods, but again no warning call came, thus Mark’s absence continued to taunt her nerves and mock her confidence.  She said a quick prayer to Maikel, God of Tyrell, that she and the twins would remain safe once they began their climb and…She paused in her prayer.  Who should she be praying to now, she wondered?  She looked at Keith and decided she should ask him- if they survived the day.

“Pack up, let’s go.” Mark announced as he stepped through the trees, Claire pulled herself away from her thoughts and lifted her bag from the ground.  Sneering at the way Mark sauntered out of the trees as though he hadn’t a care in the world.

“About time!  We are sitting ducks on this cliff.  The sun is beginning to rise and we should have been climbing down the cliff half an hour ago.”  Keith stated through gritted teeth.

“Relax we have plenty of time.”  Keith threw Marks bag, causing him to grunt when the force of it collided with his midsection.  “Hey buddy….need a hug?” Mark spread his arms wide with sarcastic sympathy, his bag dropping carelessly to the ground.

Keith ignored his brother’s smart mouth and fitted his own bag over his shoulder before dropping over the ledge and disappearing down the cliff.  Claire took a deep breath, accepted the reassuring smile from Mark and walked to the cliffs edge.

“Well, here goes.”  She stated as she dropped to the ground and swung her legs over the rim; all frustrations with Mark forgotten as she concentrated on inching her way down the rough stone wall.  She felt instant relief the moment Mark joined her and Keith moments later. One obstacle down!

Hours later the tension had returned to rest deep in Claire’s shoulders and a prickling sensation now tortured her neck.  She hated feeling like a million eyes danced over her skin.  She forced herself to remain quiet, remain still; though all she wanted to do was jump up and run screaming from the forest that surrounded her.

Claire took a deep calming breath and struggled to remain attentive to the world around her.  Though they had left the cliffs behind them, they still needed to face their next challenge.  Getting past Leishmann’s camp!

She knew they were getting close by the way her brothers held their shoulders.  Currently they stood several feet from her speaking in low tones and plotting their next move.  She strained to hear them, but their words were lost in a flurry of soft spoken whispers and muted mumblings.  She cursed nature for pulling her away at such a critical time.  The tingling feeling on the back of her neck intensified and she turned her head to study the dark pines.

Moments later she joined the twins; rushing towards the security they provided.  “Here.”  Mark bounced his hand in front of her causing her to focus her gaze to what he held.

“Another knife?”  She already had one tied at her hip, one in her bag and one in her sweater pocket- although that was crumpled up in her bag, so it would do her little good if she needed it.

“Take it, Bear.”  She accepted the small blade and tested its sharpness with the tip of her finger.  “Tie it to your ankle.”  When she finished, Mark grabbed her hand to lead her into the woods.  She rolled her eyes at his protective gesture; after all she had never contemplated the idea of not following.

“We’re close to their camp.  It’s been awhile since we were in this area and forgot how close this meadow is to the canyon we need to travel through.   They don’t know our location at this time, so that is to our advantage.  We may be able to sneak by without them even knowing we were here at all.”  Mark whispered.  “Stay near me and whatever you do, stay quiet.  It is critical that you remain alert and focused as we move through those trees.”  She nodded her understanding.

They moved painfully slow, cautious about their footing and barely making a sound.  After a short distance male voices seemed to sneak through the brush to attack Claire with horrific thoughts of being seized during their escape.  Claire startled, but graciously kept from crying out.

“Stay here!” She nodded at Mark’s hushed command and froze.  She watched him move warily through the trees in careful progression until she lost sight of him.  It only took a moment for her curiosity to grab hold of her and soon she found herself edging towards the place Mark had disappeared.  Soon she moved in beside Mark and stared at the brush before her.  She dared herself to dig deep within herself and find the courage to look at the men who craved her death.

Mark glared when she inched her hand forward.  A restraining hand caught her wrist and prevented her from pulling back the small branch obstructing her view.  She sent Mark a pleading look and with a silent sigh he pulled back and allowed her to sate her need for answers.  He said nothing as she quietly repositioned a branch and gazed at the blokes on the other side.  Mark flinched when she gasped.

“Mike.” she whispered.  Mike sat among a group of rugged men.  Though she could only see his profile she instantly recognized the firm outline of his jaw and solid composure he always radiated.  He was covered in dirt with hints of blood splattered across the back of his clothes.  Claire placed her hand on Mark’s arm and gave him an urgent shake.

“He’s alive, Mark, we have to save him!”  She whispered desperately.

Mark looked at her as though she had escaped from the nut house.  “You have got to be kidding me!  Let’s go!”  He whispered.  He turned and gestured for her to follow.

Claire found herself torn between obeying her brother and saving her friend.  She ventured a quick glance at her brother then looked back at Mike.  Her decision was made when a noise on the other side of camp attracted several of the men. Most jumped to their feet and ran to investigate.  Mike watched the commotion with disinterest before returning his attention to the dancing flames before him.

“Come on!”  Mark tugged on her pants.

“What about Mike?”  She kicked his hand away, irritated he would show so little compassion for her friend.

“Come, NOW!” he ordered in a harsh whisper, reaching for her again.

“NO!”  She hissed with frustration.  “I’m going to help Mike!”  Before he could stop her, she jumped to her feet and ran to a bunch of trees closer to the meadow, and Mike.  She looked around for a rock to throw at one of the remaining guards.

Seeing the perfect stone she closed her fingers over it and stepped from the safety of the tree to take aim.  The stone went sailing across the air and connected with the back of a dark head.  The watchman swore when the rock connected.  Mike jumped to his feet and swung around to fully face her.  When he locked eyes with Claire a smile spread across his face before a sudden look of panic replaced it.

“Mike, let’s go I’m here to save you.”  She moved towards him, intending to grab his hand and pull him into the safety of the trees before his guards had time to trap them both.

At first he looked stunned, but then it seemed to dawn on him what she wanted.  He rushed towards her.  Instantly Mark was at her side pulling her arm and forcing her into a run.  She looked back and smiled with satisfaction to see Mike right behind them.  However, so were the men that had stayed with Mike when the commotion in camp had started.

“Never listen to a damn thing anyone says.  Pretty boy is not worth a bucket of spit.  You’re risking everything for that scumbag,” Mark seethed as he pulled her along.  She feared he would rip her arm from her socket as she struggled to keep up with him.

“Over here!” Keith yelled.  Mark changed course pulling Claire into a faster run.  They dodged a couple trees and jumped over bushes trying to keep out of reach of Leishmann’s men.  Claire wanted to look behind her to be sure Mike still followed, but it took all her concentration to remain on her feet.  “Duck,” Keith ordered and hurled a knife.  It zinged past Claire’s head just as Mark pulled her to the ground.

Mark didn’t give her time to catch her breath before yanking her to her feet and forcing her to sprint.  Claire quickly sneaked a peek over her shoulder.  Several men gathered around Mike, forcing him to his feet, while another man picked himself up off the ground.  Claire looked into Mike’s eyes and he sent her an unspoken command, turn and run.  The knowledge that they had recaptured him caused her to stumble.

Mark’s hand tightened on her arm and propelled her forward.  “Watch your footing!”  He commanded harshly.  How could he expect her to concentrate on where her feet landed when all she could think about was that Mike had been recaptured?  She knew he could be severely punished for attempting to escape.

It took several minutes, but eventually she was able to clear her mind enough to hear the heavy beating on the ground behind her.  She ventured another look over her shoulder.  Two men still pursued them.

“Mark, they are still coming.”  She stated; her voice shrill with panic.

“Stop looking back, it slows us down.”  He ordered and gave a sharp tug on her arm to pull her closer.  He wrapped an arm around her waist and propelled her into speeds she had never before accomplished. Her feet only touched the ground once to his three steps and she felt disoriented being half dragged across the forest floor.  She watched the forest speed past her and noticed Keith veer to the right.  She expected to follow, but when Mark continued his straight path through the foliage she stumbled again.  Mark tightened his hold on her.

“Wait!  Keith went that way.”  She exclaimed.

“Up ahead there will be a small break in the trees.  I want you to cross it without stopping.  Find a tree to climb and stay put until Keith or I come for you.”  She didn’t answer, but waited until she saw the light twinkling through the trees.

Once the glow began to outline the forest around them, she prepared herself to dart across the clearing.  However, she was not as prepared as she should have been.

Mark and Claire broke through the trees at a dead run.  Mark assisted her halfway across the small meadow before letting go of her.  Without Marks support- and the sudden decrease in speed- Claire stumbled.  She was forced to scramble across the tall grass, struggling the whole way to get her feet under her.  Finally she pulled herself up and ran for the safety of the woods.  A few steps into the encompassing forest she heard angry shouts vibrate off the green pines.  Instantly Marks orders were forgotten and Claire turned back to the meadow.

Her eyes widened in shock.  Mark fought against two soldiers with a skill Claire had never seen before.  Her whole life her brothers had gotten into fist fights, but she now realized their fights had only been games and tomfoolery compared to what they were truly capable of.

Mark fought energetically against his competitors.  His fist sure and they found their mark time and time again in a violent onslaught of stealth and superior skill.  But when one of the soldiers produced a knife and sliced a large gash across Mark’s shoulder, Claire felt a rage she didn’t recognize grow within her.  She quickly found a rock, ran closer, and sent it soaring across the meadow.

The stone hit its target and the knife fell to the ground, its owner crying out in pain.  Claire quickly sent another nugget flying into the man’s side.  The man turned on her, his anger reminding her of the dangerous situation she now found herself in.  She faced, for the first time in her life, a true killer.

Claire desperately searched for another rock, but the meadow had few to offer and without the added protection the distance between her and the soldier offered, she knew she would be forced to fend against the man charging after her.  She sent a worried look towards Mark, but he was still occupied with the other soldier.  Determined to make Leishmann’s minion work for a victory over her, she moved into a defensive stance and prepared herself for battle.

Claire focused her mind on all her training, pulling from her memory the skills she had been taught since childhood.  She had never actually used her abilities in a real attack and prayed she would be able to fight off a person intent on harming her.

When the man closed in on her, she allowed her instincts to control her movements.  With one governed shift, she swept his legs out from under him and watched with satisfaction as he landed hard on the ground.  His eye’s widened in surprise when Claire stood over him.

A strange sense of power filled her.  She felt exulted by the adrenaline rushing through her body and pulsing through her veins.  She kicked the man-testing her strength and trying on a cloak of aggression- and with sudden clarity her mind accepted what needed to be done.

Claire looked down at her own surprise, anxiety, and anger reflected in the face before her.  Her mirrored emotions stared back at her with an intensity equaling her growing rage.  She had once heard that a person sees red when their emotions become uncontrolled, but all she saw was brown.  Big brown eyes implanted in the face of a man with thick shaggy brown hair and brown whiskers cluttering his chin.  It was the anger in his eyes that encouraged her to overcome the unwanted fears that had been forced upon her the day her home was attacked.

Each time she slammed a fist or foot down on her unwanted feelings, she felt invigorated and soon all her stressors drained from her shoulders and transmitted to the man cowering beneath her.

She lost herself in the haze of combat and continued to beat her opponent with superior skills and unforgiving vigor.  Somewhere in the depths of her mind she knew she should stop, but she could not find the strength to walk away.

Her mind had taken away the ability to recognize the bloody man as a person and instead saw him as every one of the personal insecurities she had fought against for days.  To her, she was not fighting a man, she was combating her circumstances.  Claire was unsure how long she introduced the man to her fist, but when a strong arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her free from her path of destruction she recognized her neglect in being aware of her surroundings.  Now she needed to escape the man attempting to subdue her.  She struggled; determined to send her new attacker to purgatory and free herself from whatever horrible fate he had in store for her.

“Claire!”  Mark called her name three more times before she realized it was his strong hold that held her captive.  She stopped struggling.

“It’s okay.”  He said softly.  “It’s okay.  You’re safe now.  I have you.”  Mark turned her in his arms and cradled her head against his chest, guarding her from viewing the man she had just beaten.  She allowed him to hold her for several minutes as she struggled to regain her composure.  Finally she pulled back.

“I’m okay now.”  She took a deep breath before summoning the courage to look at what she had done.  The soldier lay on the ground unmoving, his blood pooling around his head.  He had not been overly large, and had underestimated her, making him an easier victim than he should have been.  His face visibly showed signs of swelling and she knew that soon he would be barely recognizable.  She held her breath, waiting for the rise and fall of his chest.  When it finally moved, she shuttered; relief rushing through her.

“I can’t believe I did that.”  She said quietly, wrapping her arms around her middle in an attempt to ward off the sudden wave of nausea.  Tears stung her eyes as she looked up at Mark.  “I could have killed him and not thought twice about it.”  Marks eyes were filled with combating emotions.  Pride and sorrow.

“I would have let you if we were in Danyon, but no man can die in a world that is not his own without the universe suffering.”  Her eyes reflected her confusion.  “I’ll explain another time.  Right now we need to dump these two someplace where their friends can find them.”  She looked from the soldier she had beaten to the other who lay unconscious several feet away.

“Where’s Keith?”  She asked as she allowed Mark to take her backpack and fish out some pieces of twine to tie the two men.

“Not sure if you noticed there was something going on back at the camp.  He went back to investigate.  Here help me tie this one.”  Claire bent to tie the string around the man’s hands and feet while Mark bound his partner. When they finished Mark picked the smaller man up and deposited him beside his friend.

“How do you know he returned to the camp?”  She watched him check then tighten the twine.

“It’s a twin thing.”  He tapped his head indicating he knew his brothers thoughts.

“Is it safe for him to go back to the camp?”  An uneasy feeling began to creep through her.  What if he was hurt?  Or captured?

“If it looks too risky he won’t go.”  Mark shrugged as he finished with his task.

“Looks like you two had fun.”  Keith announced from the far side of the clearing.  Claire let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding and allowed relief to wash through her.  She turned a giant smile of welcome on her older brother.

“Yeah, Claire is a bit feistier than we gave her credit.”  Mark teased, but Claire didn’t appreciate the joke and gave him a pained look.  She felt sick by what she had done to the man.  Mark noticed the distress in her eyes and stood to wrap a comforting arm around her shoulder.  “What did you learn?”  He asked Keith to change the subject.

“Not much.  There seems to be a great commotion in the middle of the camp, but I couldn’t get close enough to discover what it was.  I think it calls for further investigating, but it will require your skills.”  Claire looked from one twin to the other hoping for an explanation.  “Mark can make himself disappear anywhere.  It’s a skill that he has had since childhood.”  Keith shrugged it off like it was no big deal, but for Claire, that tid bit explained a lot.  Mark could always sneak up on people without them knowing he was even around.

“It won’t take long for these men to be found if we leave them here.  I’ll go back to Leishmann’s camp and see what I can discover.  You take Claire to the small bunch of cliffs just before the drop off and wait for me there.  I’ll come as soon as I can and we will figure out what to do from that point.”

Mark moved off towards the camp and Keith led her into the woods.

“What’s the drop off?”  Claire asked.

“It’s where the land separates and drops about a hundred feet to the most beautiful valley that is completely surrounded by cliffs.  It’s called “The Bowl of Maikel” by some.  The only way in or out is through the one canyon, unless you choose to repel down the cliffs.

“And the cave is inside the bowl?”  He nodded.

“There are hundreds of caves and the bowl would take a good month to cross.  If we had time I am sure we could find another way to get inside, but we don’t have the time, and we don’t have the equipment.

“I see.”  They reached a set of rocks that could be considered a small cliff, if you used your imagination.

“Here I’ll help you up.”  Keith offered his linked fingers.  She stepped on and he boosted her up and over.  Once on top she looked around.  The rocks looked cozier.  They were covered with a soft moss instead of the sharp pine needles that littered the rocks they had slept on the night before.

“Why didn’t we sleep here last night?”  She asked when Keith joined her.

“These cliffs are too close to the camp, plus we would have had to pass the camp in the dark.  It would have been too risky.  And it’s too hard to gauge what is happening when you can’t watch the camp.”  She nodded and looked towards Leishmann’s camp as though to confirm his words.  He was right it would make it difficult to know whether a group of men left the camp to search for them.  That realization alone gave credit to Keith’s words. He led her to a small cavern that would provide some protection from discovery.

“So now we wait?”  She sat on the ground and folded her legs beneath her.

“No, now I chew your butt for your foolishness back there.  What were you thinking?”  He attempted to stay calm, but Claire could sense a hurricane of pent up anger lingering below the surface.

“I don’t know.  I guess I thought ‘Hey there’s my good friend who has been captured by a gang of merciless thugs who have probably tortured him only because he was at my home at the wrong time.’  I wasn’t about to let him suffer because of me!”  Keith opened his mouth to retort but closed it.  Claire did not miss the sudden alarm in his eyes, nor the way his mouth formed a silent cuss word.

***

Leishmann’s men gathered together like ants at a picnic, each scrambling for their piece of whatever lay in the middle of the group.  Mark moved closer, hoping he too could see what the fuss was all about.  Once he reached the outskirts of their camp another fifteen men emerged from the mountains and quickly joined the assembly to see what was happening.  What are they doing?  

Mark observed the mixture of homely dressed men and hoped something would give him a hint of the proceedings, but nothing told him what the excitement was for.  He knew he would have to get closer to gain the knowledge he wanted.

Mark slinked into the trees to search for a better angle, but voices stilled his movements.  He plastered himself against a tree just in time to watch three men emerge from a large tent.  Two men appeared to be of the same make and model of every other man in the camp.  Shaggy hair and thick beards, their clothes tattered and worn giving off the impression of back woodsmen, but the man in the middle was clean shaved, hair trimmed, and despite the stains on his clothing, well dressed.  Mark grimaced as he watched the two men half carry Mike to the accumulation of people.

Mike looked pale, weak, and he had a large blood stain on his left shoulder with several additional stains on his light blue shirt he looked as though his stay in the camp had not been pleasant.  Mark scrutinized the younger man attempting to find his worth.  Claire had risked everything for him, but he didn’t look exceptionally special to Mark.

Mark watched as the trio approached the gathering termites-Mark’s new name for the small army- and was surprised when the group instantly parted to allow passage, thus allowing him to see what now stood in the middle of the group.  Few men stepped back into their original places making it easy for Mark to watch the proceedings.  Mike was brought forward and presented to a tall man whose presence demanded his full attention.

The man stood straight and confident.  His strong build and stern look making several people fidget with discomfort as his gaze moved past them and fell on Mike.  His black leathers draped his broad shoulders and caused him to stand out amongst the others who were dressed more simply.  His face had no whiskers and his salted, dark, hair slicked away from his forehead.  His appearance gloated of power and wealth.  Mark knew instantly this was the man in charge.

Mark inched closer when the gentleman raised his hand.  Instantly, complete silence fell among his grungy, unkempt, followers. Mark marveled at the amount of authority and the immediate response from such a simple hand gesture.

“Are you close to the girl?”  The man inquired of Mike, his voice deep and demanding.

“We only knew each other for a short time.  Her brothers were a bit over-protective so we didn’t get to see each other much.  We were becoming friends until she disappeared the day your men attacked.”  Mike’s voice held as much authority as the elder man and-although weakened- he attempted to straighten and stand on his own.  The confidence and poise he presented impressed Mark.  In fact, the hum running through the crowd of men told Mark he was not the only one stunned by Mike’s boldness.

“She showed up earlier and attempted to rescue me.  No doubt she feels guilty and blames herself for my capture.”  Mike maintained eye contact until finally a small hint of amusement tugged at the older man’s expression.

“She tried to rescue you?”  A sudden burst of laughter rang through the meadow bouncing off the trees.  All the men surrounding him broke into boisterous mirth in response to the man’s amusement.  Mark doubted any of them understood the reason for the laughter, but were accustomed to following the man in every way.  Again the man raised his hand again, demanding silence.

“Brave, I’ll give her that.  It gives me a thing or two to think about.  Now…”  He continued to scrutinize Mike, but his voice rose to address all of his men.  “If they were here but a short time ago they couldn’t have gotten far.  I want groups heading out in every direction within half an hour.  Make lines.  I expect her to be found within the hour.”  He continued to regard Mike, then added, “I want that girl alive, but the brothers…take them back to Danyon and kill them!”

A Termite stepped forward, he too was slightly better dressed than the others.  His hair- grey, long, and shaggy- was tied back with a leather thong and his whiskers were trimmed, but still bushy.  He was visibly older than the man before him, but when the younger man scowled at him his confidence quickly wavered.

“Sir, I don’t want to seem disrespecting, but the men and I would like to…  Well sir, the one brother got Cal with a knife and we kinda got a personal anger against him.  Some of us talked and we think that Cal should get to kill the brothers.  Slow like.”  He stumbled over his words and quickly bowed his head respectfully to the man in black.

A slow knowing smile crossed the younger man’s face.  “Whatever suits you, old friend.”  He clapped the older soldier on the shoulder then smirked at Mike’s glare.  “The brothers are a gift to my son….let him decide their fates.  I will speak with you in my tent.”  He stated to Mike.  It was an obvious dismissal to his men when he no longer acknowledged their presence.  The Termites instantly began to fan out in preparation for their search.

The older man gestured to two men to assist Mike then turned and stalked away.  They grabbed Mike, but he shrugged them off.  Instead he followed the older man across the camp to a large tent, his gait slow and labored, but he proceeded on his own despite his obvious pain and weariness.

The older man paused long enough to hold open the flap.  Mike ducked through and the man in black waved off the guards before following Mike inside.  The flap fell back into place, closing off any visual Mark might have established.  The two termites made their way across the camp to a smaller tent bordering the tree line.  Mark quickly made his next decision and moved closer to the two men, hoping he could learn more from their conversation.

“You think his boy’s in trouble?”  One guard asked the other.

“Who?  Cal?”  Mark knew that name too well.  His insides knotted at the sound of Leishmann’s son’s name.

“Yeah.”  The soldier responded as the two ducked into their tent.

“Possibly.  After all, he did let her escape, twice.”  Mark heard some rustling in the tent and knew they were searching for something.  The sound of a blade settling into a sheath told him they found it.

“It’s those brothers of hers.  Cal misjudged them.  Now his father may have all our hides for messing it all up.”  A loud thud made Mark wonder what they had knocked over and if it could aid him in his escape with his brother and sister.

“Don’t say that Miryl.  You’ll jinx us for sure.  It’s Cal who messed up not us.”

“I’d hate to be wearin his shoes right now.  Leishmann looks calm enough, but I’m sure his temper’s gunna break free any moment.  I bet he beats that boy black and blue.”  Mark’s lungs constricted.  So the man in the middle of the crowd was Leishmann?

“Na.  I don’t think Leishmann would go that far.  He may be upset, but I don’t think he’d start a fight right now.  Not in Tyrell.”

“Well. That be a fight I’d like to see.  Cal’s the best fighter in Danyon and his father is getting older.  I’d wager Cal would win!”

“Maybe so.”  For several moments the only sounds coming from the tent were those of the men rustling through their belongings.  Then one man revealed his thoughts.

“If you asks me, Leishmann should have stayed home and left Cal to take care of that girl.”  The men exited the tent, both armed with more weapons than before.  “Cal has always pulled through before and there ain’t nothin Leishmann can do different than what Cal’s been doing.”

“I’m thinkin he’s real mad Cal let the girl slip through his fingers and with that witch escaping it makes more troubles.  Bet he came here because he likes control and things ain’t in his control right now.”

“Hey, do you think after we catch the girl and her brothers we’ll finally get to go home?”

“I cannot wait to be getting home.  Can you just imagine what it’s going to be like after all these years? The first thing I’m going to do is…..”  The two soldiers progressed towards a small group gathering at the edge of the meadow.  Mark hunkered deeper in the bushes to keep from being seen as the guards passed him and moved out of earshot.

Leishmann is here!  I got to get back to Claire, but first… He needed to reach Keith and Claire and get moving before the Termites could find them, but now he knew they needed to take an alternative route around the camp.  They’d have to climb down the steep cliffs.  Mark checked his surroundings then slowly, carefully, slipped into the tent the two men had just exited to search for what he needed.

Mark made a quick survey of the contents the men had just rummaged through.  Quickly he searched the meager belongings packed into rough leather bags.  His frustration built.  There had to be a rope somewhere.  He kicked a bedroll aside and cringed at his foolishness.  The sound, although soft, could alert someone outside to his presence within the shelter.  He paused to listen.

After several moments nothing stirred.  He relaxed and moved to a medium sized box that looked like it could possibly hold a rope big enough to assist in scaling the large cliffs.  When he lifted the lid a smile spread across his face.  Perfect.  He lifted the thick braided cord and threw it across his shoulder.   From the corner of his eye he noticed a large sack and moved to it.  Inside there was food and what looked like a couple of potions from Danyon. He hoped there was a healing potion just in case something went wrong on the cliffs. He lifted the bag and did a quick survey to be sure there was nothing else he needed. Satisfied he prepared to leave.

Mark turned to the door knowing he needed to be fast if he were going to make it back to the protection of the forest, but instead of progressing through the flap, he froze.  Angry sounds moved outside the tent and several voices grew closer.  He swore under his breath, angry with himself for his stupidity in trapping himself in the rugged shelter.  He said a quick prayer that his brother and sister would go on when they realized he would not be coming back to them.

Mark quietly dropped the rope and bag and quickly drew his knife.  He moved into a fighter’s stance; planning to take as many men down as he could before they captured him.  He may not be able to kill them, but if he could wound enough of them it may give Keith and Claire the time they needed to get to the cave.

To Mark’s surprise the angry voice passed by the tent and moved away.  He let out a strangled breath of relief.

The angry voices grew to an alarming degree, but the sounds soon came from the center of the camp.  Mark slowly made his way to the door and peered outside to see what the commotion was about.

Several men tore through the camp, while others joined the rally.  The growing group made its way to Leishmann’s tent.  Just as they arrived in front of the large shelter, the flap was thrown open and Leishmann stepped out, a look of irritation on his face.

“What is the meaning of this?”  He roared.  The group instantly quieted and shrank from the apparent anger in the man’s voice.  After a few awkward moments of watching the men, Leishmann began to turn, but was stalled when the soldiers parted and pushed a small figure down before the Lord.  It looked like a child dressed in a t-shirt- five times too large- and a ball cap.

A timid man stepped from the group and ripped the cap from the small head.   Mark instantly looked to the tall man glaring down to gauge his reaction.  Leishmann’s eyes widened then narrowed as a mocking smile spread across his face.  “Well, my dear, I am so glad you could join us.”  His voice softened so his words caressed the ears.  It sent shivers down Mark’s spine.

Mike appeared in the entrance behind Leishmann, “Wh…..Claire?”  Mark felt his heart leap into his throat.  A fear like nothing he had ever felt before welled inside him.  The shock of seeing his sister only inches from the very man he should be protecting her from threatened to immobilize him.  How did they find her?  Did it matter?  All that mattered now was getting her out of that camp alive.  That resolve had Mark moving before he realized it.

Mark left the safety of the tent and slipped into the surrounding pines.  He circled the meadow in an attempt to get closer to Leishmann’s tent.  That bastard.  If he hurts her I’ll kill him.  What the Hell happened?  Where is Keith?  He should never have allowed them close to her!

It took all of two seconds to realize that if Claire stood in Leishmann’s camp without their brother… The awareness felt like a blunt force plowed into the depths of his chest, leaving him breathless.  Several thoughts of what could have happened raced through his mind, but the most probable was that Keith had been seriously injured and either left on a cliff as a trap for Mark or taken back to Danyon for an immediate execution.

Mark had never lived a single day of his life without his brother at his side.  Even though they fought nonstop, Keith was his twin and his best friend.  He wanted to mourn the loss he felt inside for he knew he could not go to his brother’s aid.  His head hung in grief. If a trap had been set it was only a matter of time before Leishmann’s men would realize Mark was not coming and Keith would be taken to Danyon and killed.

Without Keith he had to protect his sister on his own and he needed to start by getting her away from Leishmann.  In his mind he began plotting different ways to sneak deeper into Leishmann’s camp, unseen, before Leishmann could hurt her.

Moving quickly, Mark inched closer to the group of men.  He noticed a small break in the trees and quickly calculated the distance.  If he could make it across and into the next stretch of trees he would be out of sight from the army.  He surveyed the area.

A set of canvas shelters lined the trees and scattered in a type of criss-crossed pattern.  He could use them to reach Leishmann’s tent.  He smiled knowing he could make this work.  He shifted into position but before he had time to bolt, a twig snapped.  He swung around, raising his knife defensively.

Mark studied the woods, looking for any movement.  A small acorn soared through the air and landed at his feet.  He picked up the small nut and observed it.  His eyes darted to the forest once more, but nothing moved.  “Damn chipmunks!”  He whispered and took a deep calming breath.  He turned once more to face the camp, waiting for his opportunity to run.  The acorn in his hand vibrated.  Confused, he studied it intensely.  It moved several times before finally, it cracked open.  Within seconds a sweet aroma filled his nostrils.

Mark heard another twig snap, but his eyes blurred and his head began to swim.  A great sea of blackness beckoned him closer and threatened to consume him.  A shadow moved towards him, but the figure became fuzzy the closer it got.  Before the stalker reached him, his eyes drifted closed and he drowned in the depths unforgiving darkness.

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