THE STAGS WAR: CHAPTER ONE


Run. The woods are moist and damp with the dew of the morning. Run. Mud squishes between her toes as her bare-feet stomp upon the ground. Run. Run is all she can whisper to herself. The pounding of hooves is the beat she sprints to. Nothing else is heard, but the ground and hooves that now trample upon it. Her legs are drenched in the mucus of the earth, and her throat is dry and bleeding from exhaustion. Her brown locks sway faster than a whip can crack. Run. She pounds into a wall, her breath is lost, her head dizzy with confusion. She passes out, but before she does, her last faded sight is of a soldier on a horse, the wall she hit.
Light, and the breeze of the cool wind is felt on her face. It tickles the fuss on her cheeks. Aelfay slouches over, only to find an assembly of women watching her as she picks her body up from the bed. She doesn’t turn towards them at first. She feels clean. Her hair untangled and soft. She stares out the window for a moment before turning towards her captors. In her glimpse of the outside, Aelfay makes note of the woods hugging the horizon. She touches the strange clothing now delicately positioned over her body. The gown she wears was of linen originating in the hills of Kaelshire. Gold threads weave beautiful designs that fade into the green hue of the fabric. Her hair is even covered in blue and purple wild flowers. She can smell the scent of them. Aelfay feels naked in her cleanliness. Her eyes catch sight of a glimmer of armor outside the door. Two guards wait outside in the finest silver. Their muscles are outlined with gold paint and their chests bare the Elk of the Torks. The armor is art in itself. Mesmerizing to the eye. The Elk is surrounded in a circle of intricate gold designs and stands tall and wide.

Aelfay finally touches her feet to the floor and a woman, soft and stunted, sets gold and green slippers on the cold stone. Their simplicity is stunning. They slip on her feet like silk gloves and then she looks up waiting for the silence to be broken. Although beautiful in appearance Aelfay feels as though she was beaten to a pulp by a herd of Muskox. She is festering with irritation. 

The Tork lands are well-known for their quality of game, and variety of fish that swim their streams. Aelfay does not know the land well, but she took the risk of coming here in search of her old friend. 

Aelfay hears the sound of an old door opening. One old man now stands before the great arches and with him comes two younger shadows of him, his sons. The younger gentlemen stay near the door as the elder moves close to Aelfay. With her arms crossed she looks at the three men before her. She moves to observe the older man, obviously the head of this house. He is almost as tall and wide as the door he entered through. Built like an ox.  Although older than most men live, he appears to be young in strength and health. He wears a robe over his threads and it is just as exquisite as Aelfay’s dress. Purple with threading of gold, detailed, and impressive. Aelfay’s eyes follow the embroidered jumping stags and roaming lions, until finally her eyes move to the back of the room, where one of the sons leans against the solid stone walls. A shadow crosses over his face, but she sees his eyes in the light coming from the window. His shaggy auburn hair almost covers those eyes. Aelfay locks onto his eyes, and then she realizes she's been holding her breath, and without notice to her, the women that surrounded her earlier have now left the room. It’s just her and the men now. 

“You look so fine now. You were found in such an ugly state. Barefooted, lost…” says the old ox. Offended by this comment, Aelfay does not respond. The ox is fool in her eyes. Aelfay tries not to show her blatant anger towards her captor, but fails. Her presence in his land was meant to go unnoticed. To put the discussion to rest she decides to reply. 

“Not lost, sire, I was simply traveling through your lands.” Then with a dimple to her cheek “Tell me, do you always capture those traveling through your borders?” 

The older man looks at her speaking through his teeth. “Atop one of my trees, you were spotted skulking about!” Aelfay is surprised to hear someone spotted her in the trees. She had been stealthy and camouflaged like always. It wasn’t enough that a man had knocked her off her feet, no, now she knows she was spotted by someone, that she herself was unable to see. She scoured the trees and woods for anyone and anything and saw nothing. Her thoughts now fuming with even more anger. “If not lost, then what where you looking for up there?” the old ox asks. Aelfay sways closer towards him. 

“Why is my climbing of trees of such interest to the head of the Tork family?” Aelfay speaks with little politeness. The old man raises his bristling black and white eyebrows.

“So you know whose lands you stumbled upon, and you refuse to grant me an answer to my question”. Aelfay takes joy and pride in the ability to insult this man, when she herself has already been attacked. Realizing her obvious disdain for these men, she releases the tension in her shoulders and after a deep and silent breath, apologizes for her rudeness. 

“Aldawin head of Tork please forgive my coarseness, my head seems to be reeling from my fall, and it appears I am still weak from my time in the woods.”

Aldawin observes her face and posture, and slightly tweaks his left mouth before saying, “Of course, it was abrupt to approach you when you have just awoken. We will talk more after you have had a meal. Come with me and my sons to the Hounds Hall. There we will eat.” 

She follows the three men down the hall and takes notice of the guards that still shadow her. She is captured. A prisoner. To escape would provoke search of her, but to not escape would prevent her from finding her old friend, Daetywyn. As they move steadily through the cold halls, Aelfay looks down each crossing path. She only observes more stone and windows. They enter a tall open door. The room’s walls hold tapestries of hounds on a bear hunt. Centered in the room is a large wooden table and next to that table, a young woman. 

Bodies begin covering the table with food and wine. The smell of fresh bread is absorbed in every inhale. The coolness of the stone is masked by a fire that rests behind the head of the table. Aldawin sits centered in front of the flames, while the two sons position themselves on either. The mannerisms between the two young Torks are so different. The one to the right is straight and strong, and the one to the left is casual, but not lacking in strength. Aelfay sits next to the young woman who was awaiting their arrival. She has deep red hair, and soft freckles. Her dress is more beautiful and intricate than the linens Aelfay wears. She is gorgeous. Honestly. Aelfay had no reason to be envious of such a face. But the young woman is a lady with every move she makes. Aelfay has never seen such a woman of grace, and observes her elegant movements, as if it were a science.
Pork, potatoes, and legumes rest upon their plates. Three hounds are bedded down beneath the table awaiting scraps that are sure to fall. Other than the crackles of the fire, it is silent. Aelfay is almost afraid to swallow, in fear everyone at the table will hear her. Although starving, she eats as though she is full from a five course feast. She can feel the old ox observing her every move, trying to figure out who she is and why she is there. It’s strange to her, why the head of a house, a great house like Tork, takes the time to interrogate a “lost” young woman. This question makes Aelfay even more nervous and cautious of her movements. She becomes tense and her swallows begin to grow in volume, although no one seems to notice. 

Finally, the young woman to her right speaks. “My name is Fuella Tork”. Aelfay gulps down her red wine, while simultaneously holding in some reflux. 

“Aelfay” she whispers as she lets out bubbling air. 

The young girl nearly jumps in excitement by her answer. 

“Do you live around our lands?” Fuella asks. 

Aelfay quickly responds “No”. It is better Fuella is asking the questions, Aelfay feels a bit more comfortable being interrogated by a person she knows can’t prevent her from leaving. 

Fuella bubbles with joy, “So you traveled far to get here! How exciting! You must have an entourage looking for you? Your company must be curious to where you’ve gone.” Aelfay is almost tempted to lie and state she did in fact have people looking for her. But instead the truth came bursting out. 

“I came alone.” Silence erupts again. She assumes it must be strange to the Torks. A woman to be alone, traveling through unknown lands, climbing trees. Aelfay no longer feels the eyes of the old ox, for more piercing eyes are on her. She is afraid to look up now. Afraid to once again lock eyes with that man. Her hands now begin to sweat and her eagerness to leave begins to engulf her mind.

Aldawin sits up with pride to ask Aelfay a question. “So you know who I am, let me introduce you to my sons”. 

Aldawin sits even taller and gives robust introductions, “Aeron and Huxley Tork. Grandsons to Roderick Tork the Stag of Sorshe’s Hollow.” Aelfay is now forced to acknowledge both men. Again her eyes become locked with Huxley Tork’s. Her concentration is broken by the sound of doors opening. A dark, thin, greasy man appears and takes a seat next to Huxley. Aldawin looks pleased to see this slinky man. 

“Ahh Guttwilder please meet our guest…Aelfay.” The ox spits venom as he says her name. 

He is a scrawny, dark haired fellow who looks at her with some kind of pleasure and curiosity. It frightens Aelfay. It appears as though her secrets are known to him. He helps himself to the table. He bites into a violet berry and lets its juices squish between his teeth. He spits the pit onto the floor. One of the hounds gives it a sniff and then they move on.

“Your surprise appearance is an honor, and what a pleasure to now have two beautiful ladies of Tork share our dinner.” The weasels words are tainted with lust. 

“She is not of Tork”, Fuella spouts back to him. Again the man looks intrigued. 

“No? Where Aelfay are you from? Perhaps the frosted beaches of Everyulde? Or maybe somewhere more gritty like the Grizzly Woods of Baekworth?” 

Aelfay is fearful of her next words, but manages to utter “No… No…”. The doors open once again to save Aelfay from further conversing. Two guards stand with a message for Aldawin. He rises from his seat like a mountain piercing the sky, while Seid Guttwilder slithers out of his chair without breaking eye contact with Aelfay. Uneasy, she wonders when this bizarre and irritating meal will finally be over. After one glance at the parchment, the old ox, the weasel, and the sons leave the table. Aelfay harldy acknowledges their exit. 

Fuella politely converses with Aelfay. She discusses simple things like, her mother’s flowers in their garden, the exciting marriage of a close relative, and last months bulging olive harvest. Once the food disappears, Fuella insists on a tour of the grounds. She shows Aelfay nearly the whole fortress. In one the libraries a large tapestry nearly absorbs the giant wall it rests against. It’s colors and terror grasp Aelfay’s mind. It’s the Varg’s Battle. It was the battle that ended the Old World, and like all battles there are costs. Aelfay glides her hand gently across the fabric, as if she expected it to touch her back.

Guards shadow them the whole afternoon. They finally end up back to the chamber Aelfay awoke in. Fuella dismisses herself in a kind and soft manner, then shuts the doors behind her. Aelfay is finally alone. Kicking off her soft shoes, she looks out and down the window. The stones look well enough to provide an easy scale downward and the ground below is covered by foliage. Her former clothes rest upon a bench on the far side of the room. Aelfay gently takes off her gown and places it as delicately as possible on the bed beside her. She then slips on her pants, tucks in her shirt, and pulls back her hair. Excitement and impatience thrust her out the window and quickly down the wall. It’s taking her quite a long time to reach the bottom. The barks of Tork hounds, the whispers of the the grass, everything raises Aelfay’s senses.

Once the cool grass is felt beneath her bare-feet, she quietly hastens towards the woods. There are a few guards lurking about, but the guards aren’t looking to the trees. Aelfay uses the forest as cover. She has little to worry about, for it would be a strange day if any man heard her in the shadows. She was as quiet as a mature doe strutting through the Meadows of Mohr. 

The Tork borders are almost reached. She gives out a sigh of relief and is obligated to smile. Cautiously she moves forward. Happy to never see that family again. As she makes her way through the brush, she sees men racing their horses in the distance. They do not worry her. She keeps moving.

The night continues on, and the moon now rests at the top of the earth. Aelfay nearly reaches the Northern border of the Tork lands. She finds her boots right where she left them. Her bow and quiver are also stashed beneath an open log just to the left of her boots. As she places one boot on after the other, she can now finally continue her search. 

She presumed Daetywyn was here, the rumors of the Tork’s wild game gave her hope he’d be within these woods. But now that the soldiers of Tork will be searching for her in the morning, she is forced to move out of their lands and into other territories. Disappointed in her lack of success, Aelfay decides to head North-West into Dunfoul. That territory remains unclaimed by any old family, and one of the last places left to search. Aelfay never believed Daetywyn would venture into such a place, but her options are now fewer than before. She has been searching for ten new moons now, and time is running out. 

The sounds of a nearby stream calms Aelfay’s thoughts, and for a moment she takes appreciation for the land and its beauty. The moon is almost full, and the trees and hills are just as beautiful as they were in daylight. Aelfay gently hops onto a stone poking out of the banks of the water. She makes her way across the stream. As she places her foot on the final rock, the sound of someone clearing their throat is heard. 

Heart stopped. Aelfay almost losses her footing, but she catches her balance. She turns to see who made the sound. Huxley Tork. He sits leaned forward with both knees up and even now he is consumed with shadows, except his eyes. His eyes and wisps of his beard are viciously visible by moonlight. He gets up, and makes his way off the boulder he perches on. Aelfay frozen in her tracks, painfully turns to face his direction. She climbs out of the stream’s muddy bank. He stares at her with a smile, as though he's amused at her. Aelfay stares back, this time able to catch her own breath. Again, snuck up on. She is too jilted to focus on the apparent lack of stealth on her part. Disappointed in herself, she realizes this man is now a threat to her. He could try to force her back to his keep, or perhaps he has others hidden in the woods unseen, waiting to take her back. She puffs out air and says his name. 

“Huxley Tork”. 

“Aelfay…” He throws down the piece of wheat he was chewing on, and looks back at her still slightly smiling. Aelfay quickly notices his bow and sword plastered to his body.

“You know the tree I spotted you in is just over… that way.” Huxley says it with his grin still well intact. 

“Yes. I know.” Shocked and trying her best not to show it. Finally meeting the man that seems to have hidden from her sight twice now. 

Aelfay addresses him in an accusing tone, “You sent men after me. Why?” He’s still smiling like he knows something. It only fuels the anger already brewing in Aelfay. 

A quick silence. Aelfay cares little of this conversation and decides to move past the young man without another word.

Huxley observes the path he suspects she’ll take. “Careful, if you go too far down that path you’ll run into The Dunfoul Forest. ” She looks down that way, and gives a nod in thanks for the information. As she begins to walk, he follows. Aelfay notices. 

“Sir, thank you for your concern, but please make your way back to your home. I’m happy to continue alone.” She says. 

Huxley apologetically speaks, “See… I’m afraid you’ve stumbled into something.” And then she hears them. Men deeper in the woods. She’s surrounded. Aelfay takes off in a sprint. The air is colder than before and more piercing to her throat. She whips out her bow desperate to escape all men that confront her.

Pull back. Release. A shadow of a man is hit and falls to the ground. She can hear hooves coming for her, but suddenly one set of hooves is heard over all others. She turns to face the rider. Gripping the wooden bow, she places another arrow on her string. Pull back… no release.  She is tackled to the ground and leaves fill her mouth with moss and dirt.  She tastes every grit of earth now stuck in her teeth, along with the warm taste of blood from biting her lip in the fall. The hot taste of metal and mud, forces her to spit.  Wrestling to break free of the soldier, he overpowers her and forces her on her back. Hands and legs pinned. It’s him, Huxley Tork, ridiculous beard and all. She sees her bow close to ]her left hand. After a solid few seconds, she realizes it’s hopeless. He has her. She lets out a defeated scream, and finally begins to slowly not resist his strength.

“Now that’s the second time I’ve knocked you off your feet” Huxley arrogantly huffs out the words. Aelfay looses all tenseness in her muscles and sinks into the ground beneath her. For a moment, she feels fully defeated. He is the only man quicker and stealthier than she ever was, and he has defeated her four times now. Finally his men catch up to him. Just three very odd looking fellows. Huxley asks for some rope from a man named Lax. He then binds her hands. As he pulls her up, he brushes off the leaves and dirt from his body. Aelfay dizzy and bruised looks upon her captors. Lax’s blonde hair almost blinds her as the moon’s light glimmers on top of it. Aelfay then notices the thick sword he carries, for it is broad and engraved in language she did not recognize.

“What do we do with her?” Lax addresses his friend. 

A man called Murph yelps back to them, “Take her back to Tork Hill for fucks sake.” Murph’s large belly rumbles from the hoarseness of this voice. Huxley takes note of Aelfay’s reaction to this suggestion. 

“We move forward.” Huxley commands. 

“But Hux, what are we suppose to do with her while we’re out here? Leave her here bound?” Murph asks with sincerity. 

“That whore shot me, leave her here for the everaucks to get her, we are close enough to Dunfoul for them to come and feed on her flesh.” A coarse man, Veter, pulls out the arrow jammed into his shoulder. He scolds Aelfay with looks of vengeance. 

“We’ll take her with us.” The men turn to one another curious and estranged to Huxley’s plan. Lax helps Aelfay onto his horse. They then make their way further West towards Dunfoul. 

Hux leads the company of men. Aelfay watches him, as he sits causally with one hand on the reins. He appears to be fully relaxed. Aelfay tries to hold onto the saddle she is forced to sit behind. Every lift of the horse’s hind legs provokes Aelfay’s anger and loss. She makes note of what she’ll do next, but for now she is on an uncomfortable ride towards her destination, and takes advantage of it. Finally, they arrive close enough to see the edges of The Dunfoul Forest. 

Aelfay slowly reaches for her bow and quiver placed in the satchel that rests on the horse’s body. She is able to grip it, without notice from the Tork men. Once she has them fully in her possession, she drives the heels of her boots into the horse’s upper thighs. Aelfay slides briskly off its ass. The horse bucks back and Lax struggles to control the beast. She bolts for Dunfoul. Running proves to be more of a challenge than expected. Her hands are still bound and her right chest is bruised from her previous tackle. Aelfay feels her breath fading quickly, but she’s so close. She suspects the men would fail to follow her to such a place, figuring she wasn’t worth the trouble. She doesn’t hear hooves or men chasing her. Confident in her thoughts, her strides grow longer and faster. Then, the sound of a whistling arrow assures her of her fate. The arrow cuts threw her leather and securely pins her shoulder to a tree. The abrupt stop sends her whole body forward only to swing her back in place. She was running down a slight hill when the arrow struck, so now she seems to be slightly hanging from the tree. Her feet can barely touch the tips of the grass. Fully embarrassed Aelfay struggles to break the arrow. Her hands are bound, but she is able to get hold of the feathers. It’s strong, strangely strong. It must be made of dragon hair. It’s black tint and thin structure are embellished with golden brown feathers. Realizing the impossible, she begins to try to take off her jacket only to hear once again the whips of an arrow coming for her. Now both of her shoulders are immobilized. Frozen. Even with the full weight of her body the jacket’s leather will not break and she is now paralyzed and unable to relieve herself of the arrows. She looks up and sees him with his bow, but now chooses to look directly into his eyes. She locks onto to him. Panting. Spitting blood. She never breaks her focus.

-Kaelan McGinnis