The Wench’s Tale
The layer of smoke rose up as if it was fog in the early morning. It stung young Anaski’s eyes as soon as she walked through the door. The whistle of the regulars followed her as she made her way to the back room. Leania, another serving wench and her best friend, stood partially hidden in shadow. As Anaski moved closer she heard a faint whisper coupled with soft laughter. She knew Leania was saying her “good byes” to Behldar, an archer in the King’s force. They usually met each other outside behind the pub, but today was an exception.
A few minutes passed and the lovers parted ways. Leania smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress and shyly looked up to see Anaski trying to tame her mass of dark auburn hair into a thick braid.
“You should leave it flowing, you know. It will attract the customers and give you more coins in the pocket.”
Sea green eyes flashed an annoyed look Leania’s way for that remark. “I don’t need any of the customers you’re talking about, thank you very much.”
Leania just shrugged. She also mentioned the cut on Anaski’s cheek that matched her swollen lip. Leania caught every little bruise or love mark that marred her body. She could never keep secrets from her.
“So what happened now? Gadner need some chain mail to go along with his new tunic?”
Gadner was Anaski’s little brother. He was training to be a swordsman while apprenticing himself under Beorn, the smithy. He was the golden child of the family and she was the mistake–to her parents she was just another mouth to feed and someone to put coins on the table. Her father had decided long ago that she was no better than the beasts of burden he housed on the farm. So if she didn’t jump and obey, she paid the price with a fist or whatever was at hand at the time.
Anaski dryly replied, “No, I wasn’t up in time to break the fast so I got a backhand from Mother, which pushed me into the stove. Gadner laughed hysterically though. Father just said I was a stupid girl. I was lucky I didn’t get caught. I barely made it before sunrise.”
Leania’s eyebrow shot up questioningly, waiting for the details.
“Jardin and I shared the most wonderful night last night.” A smile spread across her blush as she sneaked a peek at Leania’s reaction to the news.
Her reaction was a look of excitement and astonishment with a barely squeaked out, “You two actually…you know!”
“Yes!” Just then Barstow, the owner of the inn, interrupted and ordered them to get to work.
The night was filled with the usual; handing out orders of ale and bowls of mush. Anaski had the unfortunate duty of serving the local beggar that night. She hated that wretched, putrid man.
The racket of the Troughwater Allotment was a constant string of curses and drunken men tipping over drinks and breaking chairs. The smith himself was in attendance, along with Ellisius, the Sergeant of the Guard, and a few of the soldiers. The night couldn’t end soon enough for her.
The next few days dragged on. The only interesting thing occurred when a regular, Mosquito, angered a few officers. But she didn’t know what happened because it was time for her break and Jardin had been waiting for her.
Jardin, one of the swordsmen her brother had been training under, had been regularly visiting her during her breaks. At night, she sneaked out to be with him. She was certain he returned her love and would someday ask for her hand.
She was working at one of the tables when the news reached her. The King and his army were going to battle. Her brother and his friends, hardly trained, would be marching with Jardin. While she worried about Gadner, she could not stop thinking of Jardin. The thought of him dying, of leaving her to this misery, was more than she could bear.
That night Gadner came home all excited. Beorn had made him magnificent armor and weapons. Anaski’s parents beamed with pride. She just wanted to burn the gifts.
Work had been a little tense that day. Behldar almost clobbered the brute, Jork, for grabbing Leania. Yet, there was another thing that made the night unique. She had been asked by Leania to serve a hunchback. She had before, but never saw his face or spoke to him directly. He left her feeling more than a little uncomfortable, especially when he preferred to order through Barstow. She took the order and served him his food in the corner where he had tucked himself away in the shadows.
* * *
Thoughts of the hunchback carried her into the darkness. She lay in bed, waiting for her family to sleep. When the silence became absolute, she arose from her bed and made her way to the window. Slipping outside, using the gnarled tree near her bedroom as a ladder, she soon joined Jardin behind the barn.
He kissed her. She kissed him back but would not allow him to remove her nightclothes.
“We need to talk, Jardin. Please.”
He frowned. “Do you really want to waste our time talking? There’s plenty of time for that later.”
The looming threat of battle stiffened her resolve. “Please, Jardin. I know there’s to be a great battle. I don’t want you to go.”
He frowned, “How did you hear about the battle?”
“I work in a tavern, Jardin. Did you think the local gossips wouldn’t be carrying the tale wide and far? I likely heard about it within an hour after you found out yourself!” She snapped, fear making her short-tempered. She wanted to hit him, hug him, save him.
His scowl deepened. “I have to go, Anaski.”
“No, you don’t. We could run away.”
He gently pushed her away from him, his face growing stony beneath the faint moonlight. “I would be dishonoring my family. I cannot do that.”
“I don’t care! If you go, Jardin, you will die. I just know it!”
She could tell he wanted to scoff at her but the fear he had been trying to hide from her could be seen in his eyes. He didn’t want this battle any more than she did. She could win if she persisted.
“Jardin, please, this is crazy! The djuhah are unstoppable. You will be like a defenseless babe against their skill and you know it!”
“Listen to me! You know I’m right. You are no match for those creatures. They’re likely not even human, Jardin. They’re demons, I’m sure of it! That’s why they move without sight.”
He shivered, his eyes haunted by some unseen vision.
“We can run, Jardin. We can. There’s my father’s horses…”
“You’d steal from your father?” This seemed to surprise him enough to draw him from the frightening visions her earlier words had evoked.
“Yes! For you, I would,” she vowed, flinging herself into his arms.
“Then let’s do it, my love. Let’s run while we can.”
She held him close as she wept tears of relief. “For you, I would do anything. Should we leave now? We could, you know, leave right now. It would be so easy…”
“No, there are things I must do first. But I promise, Anaski, tomorrow we shall leave this place.”
“You promise?” Through her tears she could see his nod.
* * *
The dark clouds were a bad omen but they failed to discourage her from leaving the farm. When Jardin had failed to meet her in the rear pasture, she had decided to seek him out. As she entered the town proper, Anaski watched the precession of soldiers going off to fight. Her heart skipped a beat at seeing her love in the ranks.
Why was he marching off when he was supposed to be fleeing with her? Had he lied to her? Was it possible? She dropped the ropes she had been holding, which were connected to the two horses she had stolen from her father’s barn. She went running toward him with the sole purpose of getting Jardin onto one of the horses. Explanations, she decided, could be had later when they were safely away from this madness.
He turned toward her when he heard her shouting his name. Misery shadowed his eyes until they fell on her. “I tried…”
All she had to do was grasp his hand and give a tug. Then he was running with her toward the horses. In the background she could hear the warning bellow of soldiers “Cut them down!”
Her eyes locked with his and in that moment she knew they truly loved each other. Suddenly, she felt a brush of soft hair on her arm and the sound of hooves right beside her. A cavalryman came out of nowhere. In a sickening slow motion she saw him draw his sword and plunge it into Jardin’s back. Jardin’s eyes widened and he fell, losing his grip on her hand.
She stopped, stared, shocked and filled with emotion.
There was a command for an archer; the closest archer was Behldar, who had been watching the action and recognized the girl. With a silent prayer for her, he pulled back the bowstring and let the arrow fly. She felt the hurt of the arrow and collapsed into her lover’s dying arms. Anaski’s last thought was of Jardin and how they would meet each other once again, in death.