My first attempt at writing short fiction, so I welcome comments. This story was inspired by a mini role-play session I had with my 7-year-old daughter. Needless to say I'm sure she would have imagined the ending rather differently...
A Bond of Blood
The camp was empty. With an audible sigh of exasperation, Britt hurled her arm-load of firewood to the ground, and strode into the small clearing.
Three times she called the name into the trees, but the trees did not reply save to whisper their secret thoughts to each other with a gentle rustling of leaves. Perhaps they knew where her younger sister had gone. Perhaps they were laughing at her, mocking her for expecting that her naive, sickly city-bred sister would do as she was told and stay put.
Britt had expected to have to deal with this kind of annoyance eventually, but had hoped to make it through at least the first day and night without incident. Now the twilight was upon her, and by the time she found her truant fool of a sister and returned to camp she would not have time to prepare a fire before the darkness fell. For a kid that was supposed to be so clever, the simple lecture of this morning had obviously not sunken in. Evidently they didn't teach them common sense at the magic academy. It probably wouldn't matter this time, Britt thought, but Janne had better get the message before they got deeper into the forest, where carelessness could cost you more than the inconvenience of a cold meal.
With a quick glance around the camp, Britt was at least relieved to see that Janne had left her satchel behind, so she can’t have planned to wander too far. And yet, undisturbed as the camp was, something wasn't quite right. As her alertness instinctively increased, all her senses came into play, and Britt concentrated on the many dimensions of the scene around her. Almost instantly, a distinctive scent struck her like a slap in the face – kobolds!
Without a conscious thought Britt had an arrow nocked into her bow in the blink of an eye. All thoughts of frustration dissolved as she quickly scanned the gloomy depths of the forest around her, searching for any hint of sound or movement. Bending into a half crouch, Britt sprang forward and started a running circuit of the clearing, searching for signs. A scuff in the bare earth, a broken twig, an impression in the fallen leaves, a bent sapling. Within a few scant moments Britt’s practiced eye had formed a rough image of what had befallen only a short time earlier. Naturally there had been no struggle – Janne couldn't fight her way out of a wet paper bag. About a half dozen of the short lizard-like creatures must have chanced across the campsite, grabbed the hapless girl, and fled toward the valley in the east.
For a brief moment a tempting thought crossed Britt’s mind. This was her opportunity to be free of an unwelcome responsibility. Britt had never been close to her bookish little sister, had never understood her fascination with the arcane, preferring the company of nature and the lessons of the earth. She and had not expected or even hoped to see Janne again when she had gone north to study at the academy. But only four years into her study and Janne had been sent home and given over to Britt to look after. Her aging father had even made Britt promise to take care of her. But as tantalising as the thought of regaining her freedom was, Britt knew she couldn't neglect to pursue the attackers. As much as she resented the imposition, her word was her bond. And besides, a ranger’s task was to protect and rescue those who traveled the wilderness, and she couldn't very well abandon her duty, particularly for her own kin.
Her mind made up, Britt hurriedly gathered her things. Janne’s satchel would have to stay behind – it would only slow Britt down, and if it was lost, then too bad for Janne: books could be replaced. As she buckled her small sword to her waist and jogged back into the shadow of the trees, Britt reflected on the situation. What were kobolds doing so far west? And why had they not simply slain the defenseless Janne and raided her supplies. Once this rescue was completed Britt would have to investigate whether this reflected a change in kobold activity patterns and report it to the other rangers.
Mile after mile Britt laboured through the night, deeper into the forest. Years of experience in woodcraft and familiarity with the terrain allowed her to move steadily through the darkness, uninhibited by root, branch and stone. Despite the urgency of the chase, Britt relished the moment, accepting the caress of the mountain breeze blowing down from the heights before her, and inhaling deeply the warm, pine-scented, summer air. Here she was alone again, sooner than expected, alone with her own thoughts, free...
Free. That’s what it really amounted to, Britt realised. It wasn't that she didn't care for her sister at all. Surely she wasn't that hard-hearted. It wasn't even that she couldn't perform her duties with her sister in tow – in fact Janne would probably only slow her down a little, and not too often. It was having to give up her freedom, to be shackled to someone else. That was what Britt treasured the most – her own freedom, and what she resented losing when she promised against her will to be her sister’s guardian. Now that freedom had to be curtailed in consideration of someone else’s needs. Britt had never had to consider anyone’s needs but her own. Maybe it would be good for her, to learn a bit of selflessness. She’d never actually tried to get close to her sister after all. Britt couldn't say she even knew why Janne had to leave the academy. Had she flunked out? Was it because she was too sick to study?
Hours later, Britt arrived in the valley. The nights were short at this time of year, and already the sky had turned to pale grey. Following the visible signs now as well as the trail of the kobolds’ smell, Britt picked her way through the thinning trees up the rocky slopes. Here and there barren outcrops deepened into yawning cave mouths, and Britt cautiously approached each entrance for signs of kobold guards. The party had split up, and Britt was just considering how she would commence a systematic search of the area when something caught her eye. Lying on the stony ground just within the mouth of a nearby cave was a ring. Janne’s ring. Had it fallen by accident, or had Janne actually had the sense to drop it? Well, Britt thought with a wry smirk, evidently Janne had not doubted that I would come after her.
Taking her bow from her shoulder, Britt moved gingerly into the cave mouth. She had barely gone ten paces however, when from behind her she heard of a voice speak a single unintelligible word, and an eerie tingle shot up her spine. Before she had time to turn around she felt herself falling, her eyes misted over, and her mind went blank.
Darkness. Distant inhuman voices. Pain. Slowly Britt began to regain her sensibilities.
The sound of dripping water. A dull ache in her shoulders. That searing pain!
Dizziness. The touch of metal on her wrists. The dripping sound. Pain! Excruciating pain in her legs, her abdomen, her neck.
Gradually Britt’s eyes opened and she looked around her. She was in a large cave. The dripping sound was coming from somewhere below her. It was a few moments before she realised that she was stripped of her garments, that her hands were bound over her head, and that she was suspended from the roof of the cavern by a chain. That explained the ache in her neck and shoulders. Britt was confused. It wasn't like kobolds to keep prisoners like this. Their ways were much more primitive.
As her awareness slowly returned, Britt became more conscious of the intense pain she felt. Her neck felt almost too stiff to move, but she looked down to the source of the throbbing in her belly. She was bleeding. There was a large gash just under her rib cage, and blood was leaking from it. No, it was almost gushing out. With horror she realised that she was bleeding profusely from multiple cuts, the arteries in her neck, abdomen and legs brutally severed. And as the blood ran down her body, it was dripping steadily into a large wooden bucket under her feet!
Frantically, Britt looked around her, at her shackled wrists, at the chain in the ceiling above, at the pail of blood below. She had to get free, and quickly or she would bleed to death. In vain she struggled against the bonds, all the time searching the room for a means of escape. Then she heard footsteps. Not the scurrying scratching of kobold claws, but the steady pace of human feet. A small, thin figure entered the cave from a passage to her left.
It was Janne.
Fighting the dizziness in her head, Britt opened her mouth to speak. She realised her mouth was dry, and she had to try several times before she found her voice.
“Janne. Help me”.
Janne’s only reply was a silent glance, and she walked closer to inspect the gruesome contents of the bucket at Britt’s feet. Again Britt croaked out her plea, but less certain this time, confused at the lack of response or concern from her sister. This time Janne spoke.
“I see you found my ring. I had feared that some avaricious kobold would forget my simple instructions and retrieve it for themselves.”
Britt’s mind whirled. The loss of blood was taking its toll, and she couldn't think clearly. What was Janne talking about? Why wasn't she looking for a way to get her down? Where were the kobolds now? For the third time she uttered her request for aid, but this time only Janne’s name escaped her parched, raspy throat.
“Help? Alas, it is I that need your help.” Janne replied.
Britt had no more strength to speak, and instead simply looked imploringly into her sister’s eyes for the explanation that still eluded her. Sensing the question in her expression, Janne expounded.
“I’m afraid you've been deceived, my simple-minded sister. And not once alone. I wasn't sent home from the academy. I left voluntarily, having advanced as far as I could with tutelage, but with my craving for arcane power unsated. Only a dark ritual can take me beyond my current capacity, and for that I require something only you can give.”
Finally, desperately, comprehension fought its way through the fogginess of Britt’s remaining consciousness. As she listened to her sister’s final dialogue, punctuated by the constant echo of her own blood falling drop by drop, understanding followed tardily behind the distant words.
“I admit I was concerned whether I could trust a pack of witless kobolds to effect a convincing show of abduction, but perhaps it only needed to be sufficiently ingenious to fool you.“
If Janne spoke any further, Britt did not hear it. As her consciousness slipped gradually away, her final thought was one of relief. At least she didn't fail in her promise to her parents. Her sister was safe after all. Safer than she had ever been, and no longer in need of aid from Britt or anyone else. As Britt’s eyes closed and her wrists went slack in the metal shackles, once more she could smell the soft aroma of the pines, and the morning summer breeze as she ran between the trees.
Free at last.