This is the ninth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “I”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “I” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)
(3,990 words – approx. reading time: about 15 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Corrina’s forearms felt the strain of wielding the two short swords. The daily workout was nearly at the end, having already practiced with the saber and the rapier and knives, as evident by the mangled wooden manikin in front of her.
She mounted the attack pattern, combining thrusts with one sword while the other sword slashed and parried in a semicircle around the point of attack.
“Your arms are dropping,” Devere said.
Corrina found the extra energy to maintain a better form for the remaining set of thrusts and slashes.
“Better,” Devere said while walking over to the cleaning and honing bench. “You do better with actual swords than when we practice with the wooden swords. Are you holding back when we spar?”
“I’m either faster than I used to be, or you’re getting slower, uncle Devere,” she replied. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Perhaps both,” he answered without smiling in return.
“Corrina, there’s something I need to tell you . . .”
She listened, and tears formed as he spoke. Devere, her uncle Devere, was dying. She had noticed the change in him but had assumed it was but old age. But no; something was happening to his once healthy body.
Devere was all Corrina had left of her family, her parents having perished at the hand of a small band of marauders less than a year ago. While they had prevailed and none of the marauders survived, both her parents suffered fatal wounds. Devere and Corrina had sustained superficial wounds, but her parents had borne the brunt of the attack until she and her uncle could get to their weapons.
That was the last time that either of them went anywhere or did anything without wearing their swords and knives or having them close at hand.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Devere’s condition deteriorated at a rapid pace, and it hurt to see him barely able to stand.
On one of his better moments, they had walked to the bench overlooking the valley below, Corrina offering a shoulder for support in addition to Devere using his cane.
They sat in silence, watching the sun slowly sink toward the horizon.
“You can’t remain here,” Devere said.
Corrina looked at her uncle, but he was looking at the mountains flanking the east side of the valley.
“They will eventually come from there,” he said, pointing at the far peaks.
“Who?” she asked.
“Those marauders we fought? It wasn’t a random attack, and they weren’t marauders. They came looking for your parents . . . and you.”
At a loss for words, Corrina waited.
“I had promised your parents never to tell you, but you deserve to know, and the knowledge might help save your life.” Devere turned toward her and took her hand and placed a ring in her palm. “Let me tell you a story,” he began.
The shadows lengthening, the birds heading for their roosts, the evening breeze stilling, Corrina learned about her parents from before she was born until they moved out here.
She was of the Ayres Clan, birthright rulers of the territory known as the Southern Province. Her mother had been in line for the throne when she’d met Corrina’s father, who was visiting on a diplomatic mission. They fell in love, and her mother gave up the throne to marry, moving to the outer portion of the province with her father. Her mother’s sister took the throne instead, bearing two sons before a daughter was born. Her daughter would be the next heir to the throne . . . were it not for Corrina standing in the line of succession by virtue of being older.
Addiena, Corrina’s aunt and current ruler, sought to eliminate the competition and secure the throne for her daughter. Corrina’s mother and father gave assurances that Corrina would never challenge the throne, but Addiena didn’t trust that Corrina might not, later, come to claim what was hers by birthright.
And so, Corrina’s parents, aided by Devere, escaped north. They traveled outside the province and through the Badlands and settled in these mountains. They knew Addiena would never stop looking, but hoped the distance and isolation would be enough. Through interactions with traders, rumors of their settlement must have traveled far enough for someone to make a connection regarding their identity. Once the attacking party didn’t return, Devere thought they would send more.
“That ring,” Devere said, “bears the sigil of the House of Soller. They are mercenaries, and both your father and I at one time served under their banner. You should go find them.”
“Mercenaries?” Corrina distaste for the word came through. “You want me to seek mercenaries?”
“They are honorable, only taking up arms to fight for the weak and to right injustice,” he said. “But, yes, getting paid for it.”
“Is this why Mother, Father, and you wanted me to train all these years? So I could join them?”
“No. The training was so you can take care of yourself. But Soller accepts refugees from wars and persecution. You’ll at least have a chance there.”
Corrina sat in silence, absorbing all she had learned. Devere broke the silence and interrupted her thoughts.
“Promise me you will seek them out and find a fresh life far from here.”
Corrina looked out at the valley and then turned toward her uncle.
“I promise,” she said.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Two months later, having buried her uncle, Corrina found and joined a caravan traveling through the Badlands. It was the best way to make it through the Badlands, but she was skeptical this caravan would offer more than token resistance to all but a small group of bandits. Still, joining cost only doing a few chores in return.
On the fourth day, Corrina saw riders pacing the caravan. Two groups, one to their left and one to their right, and she surmised they were heading into an ambush.
“Ylenia, we might have trouble,” Corrina said.
“I noticed them. We’ll be fine,” the woman in charge of the caravan replied.
“They will either ambush us or attack at night,” Corrina pressed.
The woman stopped and looked at the riders, first left, and then right.
“We can handle them,” she said, “and no one will get past our sentries at night.”
“Sentries?” Corrina hadn’t noticed sentries being deployed when they camped.
“Yes. They would be fools to attack us at night.” She put her hand on Corrina’s shoulder and added, “Don’t worry, you can sleep secure.”
Before Corrina could answer, the woman resumed walking, catching up to her wagon.
Shaking her head, Corrina hurried to her post next to the supplies wagon. She adjusted her short swords and checked her fellow travelers. A few sported edged weapons, but most appeared unarmed.
When they made camp, Corrina was more alert, trying to spot the deployment of sentries. There were a few seemingly capable men traveling with them, but most were women. And women were all she noticed leaving the caravan at dusk. She’d failed to notice it before because they looked so casual and unorganized . . . other than they all, four of them, went in different directions and carried a stout staff.
That night, she slept poorly, and the next night as well.
In the morning, she saw four different women return to the caravan. So, at least nine women protecting the caravan and confident in their ability to handle more than twice their number of bandits.
On the third day after spotting the riders, they entered the eroded and narrow passageways of the Badlands. Passages that rose and fell in elevation with the hardness of the rocks, with the softer sediments resulting in deeper canyons.
It was mid day when the lead wagon stopped, and the caravan, in turn, came to a halt. Corrina was only one wagon back and ran toward the front and the older woman leading the team of oxen. Ahead of them, four men on horseback blocked the way.
Corrina ran past the woman and stopped between her and the men. As she did, she risked a look at the top of the canyon to the left and right. The riders were there and had chosen positions next to slopes that would lead them to the side and back of the caravan. Ambushed, as she had feared.
“And who have we got here?” one man said as he pushed his horse closer.
Corrina looked at the man, judging his skill. He carried his sword carelessly and the sword itself looked as if it would be more useful as a blunt instrument than a fine weapon.
“You should let us pass,” she said.
The man laughed and looked back at the others as he pointed to Corrina. Turning to face her, he spoke.
“And what will you do about it if we don’t?” he asked.
In response, Corrina drew her short swords.
The man looked at her for a moment and then laughed even harder.
Corrina adjusted her stance and raised her swords, points crossing in front of her, one arm held chest-high, and the other arm shoulder-high with the blade at a downward angle.
The men stopped laughing and stared. A few heartbeats later, the speaker gave a signal and all the riders turned and rode off. Corrina looked up at the canyon tops . . . those riders also gone.
Surprised, but pleased, she relaxed her stance and turned toward the caravan as she sheathed her swords. That’s when she realized the men hadn’t run because of her.
In front of the lead wagon stood the two of the sentry women, each carrying their staff, and, in the middle stood Ylenia, also holding a staff, this one with a small flag.
“You are brave, and you have skills,” Ylenia said. “Who taught you?”
But Corrina didn’t answer. She was staring at the flag; the flag with the same sigil as the ring she carried on a chain around her neck.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
They sat by the campfire, the seven women she now knew were the security detail for the caravan, and Corrina. Each examined the ring as Ylenia asked questions. Corrina answered but omitted her identity and the reason for running. She gave the names of her father and uncle and noticed the women exchange looks.
“Do you know my father and his brother?” she asked.
One woman looked at Ylenia, who nodded.
“We might, but we need to confirm some details and check records,” the woman said. “We’ll get the caravan to their destination and then travel to Soller Hall.”
“If you will join us,” Ylenia added.
“Yes,” Corrina answered. “I promised my uncle.”
Ylenia looked at her, considering her next words before speaking.
“I should warn you,” she said, “If you are lying to us, it will not go well for you. Do you still want to come? If not, we still ask that you relinquish the ring.”
Corrina involuntarily tensed. She assumed she was no match for the women, but she didn’t like threats and didn’t like the idea they would not return the ring. She too considered her next words before speaking.
“It would seem I have no choice since I’m not leaving without that ring,” she said. “My uncle said the House of Soller was honor-bound; do I have your word that I will not be killed in my sleep and the ring returned to me once you confirm what I’ve told you?”
One woman rose in response, drawing her knife, and coming at Corrina, fast. Corrina was faster; parrying the knife with the guard on her short sword, she brought her other sword up and held it at the neck of the woman, stopping short of drawing blood because the woman’s other hand came up with another knife and held it under Corrina’s chin.
The woman smiled and relaxed. Dropping her hands, she stepped back.
“I, for one, believe you,” she said, “and I give you my word you can sleep safely under my protection.”
Her heart racing, Corrina heard the others answer in near unison.
“Our word is our bond.”
Ylenia stood and walked up to Corrina, using her hands to push the blades of the short swords aside.
“That was a test. You have techniques we don’t share outside our inner ranks. That’s a good sign, but what I said holds. We won’t harm you, but they shall make the final judgment at Soller Hall.”
It took ten days for the caravan to arrive at the settlement they were traveling to, and each night the same routine was repeated; one of the women would spar with Corrina using wooden swords, then instruct her in the staff’s use and techniques, and then they all sat around the fire and exchanged questions and answers.
It turned out all these women were widows with grown sons and daughters. They took these escort jobs because there were no substantial gangs roaming the Badlands and casual marauders were no match for trained fighters, which these women were. All the House of Soller boys and girls started their weapons training early in life and followed the same training to adulthood. Corrina was particularly interested in the use of the staff.
“So men also train with the staff?” Corrina asked.
“They do, but its use is situational,” Ylenia replied. “Swords are easier to carry; you can’t go about your day with a staff strapped to your side or back. However, if you notice, many guards carry spears because it requires less basic training to use. That said, in the hands of a trained fighter they can be formidable, especially if you have multiple guards all armed with pikes and lances.”
“So, it comes down to the task at hand?”
“Correct. We have swords and know how to use them, but for this duty, the staff is a good weapon.”
“I wonder why my uncle didn’t teach me the staff?”
“You’re not likely to encounter many adversaries with a staff and, as I said, everyday living is easier while carrying smaller weapons. But I agree; you should have been taught.”
After safely seeing the caravan to their destination and on their way to Soller Hal, they had a likely answer.
A particular training exercise Corrina normally did on her own had Ylenia curious and ask if she could join in with her staff. It turned out the movements and parries with two short swords, or saber and knife, countered the advantages of the staff and, combined with stepping into the attack, brought Corrina in range of the staff wielder. It wasn’t a guaranteed outcome, and it wouldn’t work on multiple attackers, but it provided a fighting chance. Ylenia was impressed, and perhaps mildly concerned.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Corrina stood at the center of a room in Soller Hall. Before her, people sitting behind a semicircular table, their features difficult to make out because of the bright light from the window behind them.
Ylenia stood by her side, and the other eight traveling companions were a few paces behind her. It occurred to Corrina the arrangement was calculated to put her at a tactical disadvantage. Not that she had a chance of prevailing, but even if she did, the other fifty or so mercenaries in the room made any tactical concern irrelevant.
Ylenia summarized the events leading to the current assembly, produced the ring, and handed it to a woman that took it to the end of the table. From there, each person of the thirteen persons examined the ring before passing it to the next person. The last person to hold it then took it to the person sitting at the center, an older woman.
“What was your father’s name?” the woman asked, her voice strong and carrying the width and breadth of the room.
“Sayres Bram, brother of Devere Bram, my uncle,” Corrina answered.
“And your mother’s name?”
“What was her last name?” the woman pressed.
“She took my father’s name, and that is how I’ve always known her,” she answered. True, if not the entire truth.
The woman took a fresh approach.
“You said you lived in the mountains at the end of the Long Valley; where did you live before?”
“I only ever remember living there,” Corrina replied.
The woman looked down at the ring in her hand.
“How did you come by this ring?” the woman asked.
“My uncle gave it to me before he died. He told me to seek the House of Soller and seek refuge there.”
“And you say his brother, your father, also died?” she asked. Corrina wasn’t sure, but she thought she heard the woman’s voice crack at the last word.
“Yes,” Corrina’s voice dropped as she answered. “A small band of marauders attacked and both my father and mother died from wounds suffered in the attack.”
“You lie!” the woman stood and practically yelled the accusation, startling Corrina.
Walking swiftly around the table, the woman came to stand in front of Corrina, repeating her accusation.
“You lie! No small band of marauders would have succeeded in killing Sayers,” she yelled. “Who killed them? And who killed Devere? Was it you? Did you kill him?”
Corrina was speechless, but not because of the accusations. She could now see the woman’s face . . .
“. . . you’re their sister . . .” she blurted out, noting the strong resemblance to her uncle Devere.
The woman drew a knife and pressed against Corrina’s neck.
“My name is Dera Bram, twin sister to Devere Bram, sister to Sayres Bram,” she said. “You will tell me who killed my brothers or I will cut your throat right here.”
Despite the knife pressed against her neck, a calm came over Corrina.
“I spoke only the truth, and cannot say anything different,” she replied as she held Dera’s stare.
Dera pressed the knife, and the sharp point drew a drop of blood.
“But you will tell me more. Tell me who you are, and tell me your mother’s name, and tell me how my brothers died,” she said. “I won’t ask again.”
“My name is Corrina Bram, daughter of Sayres and Lora Bram,” Corrina replied with a calm voice that carried in the silence of the room. “My mother maiden name was Lora Ayres. My parents died for wounds suffered while fighting what I was then told were marauders. But my uncle, Devere, just before he passed from an illness, revealed those were scouts, trained soldiers, sent by Addiena Ayres to kill me, the rightful heir of the Ayres Clan. He gave me the ring and said I should seek refuge with the House of Soller.”
No one spoke, no one moved.
Dera dropped the knife and seemed to deflate in stature right in front of Corrina’s eyes. Dera reached out and hugged Corrina as she let out a sob. Corrina instinctively hugged her back and felt Dera, grief-stricken, lean on her for support.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~0 ~
Corrina and Dera sat on a balcony overlooking the busy streets below and with a view of the surrounding farmland.
“It depends on what you want to do,” Dera answered in response to Corrina’s question.
“You are the rightful heir of the Ayres Clan and next in line to replace Addiena when she dies or gives up the throne, and you will soon have an army that will help you facilitate either or both those events.”
“I don’t understand,” Corrina replied. “I’ll have an army?”
Dera pointed to Corrina’s left hand, to the ring made specifically for Corrina; a ring with the sigil of the House of Soller. Devere’s ring still hung from a chain on her neck.
“You are next in line to rule Soller after me,” Dera answered. “Your father, like your mother, gave up his right to rule in favor of marrying an outsider. However, you retain your birthright.”
“I don’t want to rule anyone!” Corrina said, her voice rising in distress.
“The only good rulers I’ve ever met are those who weren’t looking to rule. All others have ambitions that don’t align with the welfare of the people.
“Addiena has made the Southern Province a place with unhappy subjects, where corruption and fear rule the lives of people who can’t fight back. Our spies tell me most of the army would back your quest for the throne.”
“What about her daughter?” Corrina asked. “Is she as bad as her mother?”
“Worse,” Dera replied.
“And Soller? No one knows me here, and I know next to nothing about ruling anything, let alone Soller,” Corrina said. “Would they follow me, trusting me to do what’s best for them?”
“I stepped into this role with little or no training after my brothers left. But I surrounded myself with people I trusted to be better than I am in everything, and I listened, and I heeded their advice, and combined it with what I thought was right. For that, I have my parents to thank, just as you have your parents to thank for your morals, integrity, and honor,” Dera said.
“What if I want none of it?”
“There may be other capable individuals who would step up to the challenge . . . but remember what I said about good rulers. We don’t have a procedure for choosing rulers; we trust those who are called will answer the call out of a sense of duty and honor,” Dera said. “Besides, I’ll stick around at least a few more years; long enough for you to learn.
“I won’t lie; the burden is heavy, and the mantle takes its toll,” Dera continued, “but you can also do a lot of good, and that counts for a lot.”
Corrina looked out to the far mountain, imagining the person who caused her parents’ death sitting as a tyrant on a throne, abusing the power that had been handed to her. But was it Corrina’s duty to set things right and take up the sword of justice and the mantle of ruler?
She then remembered the many lessons imparted by her father, mother, and uncle. Would she let them go to waste? She wasn’t sure what they would want for her, but she knew they sacrificed everything to give her the opportunity to make this choice.
“Suppose I accept the burden,” Corrina said, “what next? I don’t want to start a war and see thousands die.”
“It doesn’t have to come to war. Let me get things in motion,” Dera said as she stood. “You enjoy these few days of peace and quiet.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
One month later, Addiena Ayres was awakened by the touch of cold steel against her throat.
“Here’s how things are, and here’s what you will do,” a voice said, and then gave instructions. Addiena listened attentively, both because of the knife, but also because it was the captain of her personal bodyguards holding the knife to her throat.
Eighteen days later, on the summer solstice, had Addiena Ayres not abruptly abdicated and left the Southern Province with her daughter and a substantial amount of wealth, she would have seen the spectacle of a thousand Soller mercenaries escorting the new ruler of the Southern Province through the streets of the capital. Streets lined with cheering crowds.
They were cheering because most corrupt officials and military commanders had left shortly after Addiena once Corrina had let it be known a Citizen’s Council would have a voice in the affairs of the province and that a similar Council would help facilitate resolutions of past grievances.
Corrina never married but set up a lottery system for selecting future leaders on a four-year rotating system. A lottery no one wanted to win . . . but that’s what was good about it.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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