TEST OF COURAGE
By Hope Schmidt
Screams shatter the darkness like bolts of terror as I dash from the cottage, franticly buckling my sword to my side. Father is already outside, bow in one hand, sword in the other. He unwinds my younger sister’s arms from around his waist and gently pushes her toward me. “Take her, Edvard.” He yells so I can hear him above the nearing conflict. “Keep Janexia safe!” He turns and sprints toward the blazing cottages and clashing arms.
Waves of smoke weave though the fresh night air as Janexia and I dart through wavering shadows then dash for the woods. I glance back and catch a glimpse of horsemen pouring into the flaming village, cutting down all in their path.
Then I freeze as one of the raiders turns. His dark eyes glitter and his raised sword reflects the lured glow of the fires. With a wild yell he whirls it around his head then points it in my direction. I can clearly see the cruel mocking twist of his lip and a ragged cut down his left cheek.
Fear whispers in my ears and terror sinks his talons into my heart. I drop Janexia’s hand and run. Behind me her scream is drown out by a roar or mocking laughter. The sounds sheer themselves into my memory but for the moment panic overcomes me; I don’t stop; I don’t go back. Instead…I run.
“Janexia!” I sat up, panting. Across the dim room my fifteen-year-old sister stirred sleepily, muttering something intelligible. A moment later her breathing resumed its soft rhythm. I pressed my head into my cupped hands and groan. The events of last summer continued to haunt me. Janexia escaped, but that was purely due to the darkness and her own fleetness of foot. I’d failed her as a defender; I’d failed Father, who died to buy us time. I had fled and fear kept pace with me; a fear that never dissipated.
Even in the darkness the heat rose to my face and I rubbed my cheeks vigorously. Deep inside of me, deeper even then my shame, was a terror that never slept. A terror that I would fail again…fail, and lose the only thing left that I loved. Fail, and be a servant to fear my whole life.
I lay back on the bed and stared into nothingness. Slowly, ever so slowly, my heart returned to its normal tempo. Would fear never leave me? From the darkness of the thatched roof hovering over me wafted a crackle of mocking laughter and a single word. Never.
I shivered and pulled the woolen blanket up to my neck as I closed my eyes tight. Never…never…never…never…
Dawn’s first gleams rested on my eyelids when they fluttered open again. Memory of the nightmare had almost faded into nothingness…almost. I breathed in the morning’s freshness, tinged with smoke and a faint whiff of roses. Janexia’s lilting voice trilled along with thrushes and doves, mingling with the golden light and silvery smells drifting though the widow.
I stretched out my arms to the coolness, grinning as my muscles tightened, before leaping to my feet. My hand closed over the wide leather belt hanging on a peg and I swiftly clinched it around my waist, fastening my tunic. Keeping time with Janexia’s singing, my fingers wove through my sandals, strapping them securely to my feet. I grabbed my left leg with my right hand and pulled it upward towards my back.
Janexia’s singing shattered in a piercing scream, a scream I’d only heard once before.
I dropped my foot, and pivoted toward the door.
“Edva…” Janexia’s next cry was muffled.
My sword was already in my hand, and I yanked the scabbard off as I kicked the door open. “Janexia!”
I ducked as a sword sang over my head, wind from its blade ruffling my hair. I parried the next blow, then glared at my attacker. His black cloak half hid Janexia, who writhed beyond him in the grip of another raider. She half twisted and struck at him with the small dagger she always carried, but the man knocked it from her hand.
My own opponent’s blade was crashing down toward me again and I barely had time to leap out of its path. As I returned the blow I caught a glimpse of the other raider’s hand slap with full force over my sister’s face.
“Leave her alone,” I yelled as the man threw Janexia over the pommel of his horse’s saddle. I leapt forward but the dark raider threw me back and raised his sword yet again with a mocking grin. In his eyes I was only a dark haired youth, a slight one at that, a novice to the blade. He underestimated me horribly. My father had trained me well…and no one would stand between me and my sister. I assailed him with a yell of fury; driven by desperation. Within a minute his expression changed to one of realization, then to fear, a fear which froze on his face as he fell lifeless to the ground.
I was too late. The raider, with Janexia lying limply across his knees, turned his horse and laughed mockingly.
“No!” I leapt forward, but the raider’s horse danced to the side. My hands met nothing but air and I slipped, tumbling to the dewy grass. In spite of the jar echoing through my body I rolled to my knees and staggered to my feet.
Janexia? Where was…my hand clamped upon the sword’s hilt as I watched the shadows of the nearby forest swallowed up the raider and my sister. I couldn’t breathe; my throat burned and my arms hung numbly at my side. I turned and lead against the cottage’s rough door frame, gasping.
Why Janexia? Why? And I had tried this time…to no avail. Tried. Anger surged within me. I wasn’t finished yet. I dashed toward the stable without even bothering to glance down the dirt road to the village. No help would come from that quarter. Only a fool would chase a raider into the mountains.
Valiant, the undersized brown gelding, named by Janexia, not myself I might add, nickered softly and nibbled at hair.
“No; no time today,” my fingers fumbled under his bridle, the rope scraping my skin raw as I fought to untie the knot. “Maybe the raiders will feed you if we get captured…or I get killed. Sorry about the rush. I’m not eating myself you know.” I mumbled on breathlessly, hardly knowing what I spoke.
I pulled the rope from Valliant’s bridle ring and snatched the saddle blanket from the wall. My hands flew and a moment later I half led, half pulled, my mount into the sunny morning. I grabbed the pommel of the saddle, ready to vault onto Valliant’s back when something caught my eye. I hesitated, then leapt to the dead raider’s side and feverishly unbuckled his black cloak. At the last moment I grabbed the small pouch from the raider’s belt, a pouch that chinked when it moved. Perhaps the money inside would be good for something. The armor was too big, it would take too long to put on, and Janexia was carried farther away every moment I lingered. I pulled the detestable cloak about my shoulders, fastening it as I bounded back to my horse and sprang on his back.
Moments later, as the forest closed about me, I realized what I should have realized from the beginning. Short as it was, the raider’s lead was large enough I wouldn’t be able to follow him by sight. My visions of overtaking him before reaching the mountains evaporated. I would have to track him and good as I was, he’d make three leagues to Valliant’s one.
I almost turned back there, I must admit. No one could enter the mountains and survive. Then again, in my present state, I wasn’t sure I wanted to survive. I went on. The morning passed in a blur of trees and narrow plains, hoof prints and agonizing moments of finding the lost trail time after time.
Then came the time where the trail vanished and didn’t reappear. I sat back on my horse and raised my head, then slowly twisted in the saddle to stare behind me, stunned. Gray cliffs rose to my right while great boulders littered a rough ledge to my left that dropped into a gorge. Sparse knives of green grass sliced through the stone at irregular intervals, growing noticeable fewer ahead.
When I though back, I faintly remembered the grassy lowlands, then rough lower hills before the rugged gloominess of the mountains themselves, but all recollection of passing any kind of boundary was gone with the morning’s coolness.
“Look Valiant,” I slipped off the horse and traced my fingers along the rocks. “A path if I ever saw one.” The faint track was my only line to hope, and I remounted and urged my horse forward. I had to find Janexia, I would find her. The track wound on and the noon sun beat down on my head, burning away even the cliff’s slight shadow. I wiped my forehead, and for a moment my hand froze there as Valliant rounded a sharp bend.
I breathed in sharply through clenched teeth and my fingers tightened on the leather reins. Sheer cliffs rose on either side and directly ahead, a bowshot away the path ended abruptly in rugged gray rock. A dark jagged entrance marred, or perhaps added to, the severity of the scene before me. But it wasn’t the mountain, looming in and trapping me on every side, it wasn’t even the ominous cave drawing ever closer that burned my throat and constricted my chest. There were raiders behind me; I could see them standing watch on the cliffs at the entry of the gorge. There were others relaxing in the sun or caring for the horses tied outside their mountain refuge. Liquid fear surged through my veins and my mind screamed at me to pull on the reins and gallop back to safety. But for better or worse, my hands hung limply in my lap…and Valiant trotted confidently forward.
I struggled to keep my seat as sights spun around dizzily and strange lights danced before my eyes. How long would it take for the raiders to discover my disguise? It was too late to turn back; they would be upon me before I made it out of the gorge. Would I be beaten or enslaved? Or maybe they would just slip their swords through my ribs as I rode past. The thought made me shudder and I blinked, once more becoming aware of my surroundings.
It wasn’t until I dismounted that I dared look around, but none of the raiders favored me with so much as a glance. In spite of my racing heart, my lips curled as I realized that here in their stronghold, the last thing they expected was an enemy riding alone into their midst. But I wasn’t about to test my fortune and slipped into the cave, moving as quickly as I could without attracting attention.
Even in the dim light I could feel the huge size of the cavern. I wedged myself one of the many small niches in the rock, letting my stolen cape blend in with the shadows. For some reason I felt safer here, in the jaws of the raider’s fortress, then I had the whole journey into the mountains. I stifled a cough and covered the lower portion of my face with my cloak in a vain attempt to block out the smoke clogged air. I traced the torches lining the walls with my eyes, wondering if there was any ventilation in the cave at all.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the cavern’s size became apparent. An army could have fit between the rock walls but at that point its only occupants were a few men sprawled on the ground, asleep or drunk, while several others jested loudly in a corner. Five passages, one of them barred with an iron grate, opened into the cavern. I gazed at the bars for several minutes, letting my breathing settle down.
Muted shouts filter through the cave entrance and I froze as a man stomped in, passing so close I could smell the wine on his breath. He paused at the barred tunnel and pulled a key from his belt. I knew what I had to do and my breathing instantly sped back up, but I ignored, or tried to, as I strode out into the open; trying to act like I belong.
“Guard duty,” the man muttered to himself as he passed through the gate and began to swing it shut. “Of all the…”
I grabbed the bars, keeping the gate from latching.
“By the….What do you think you’re doing?” the raider demanded angrily.
“Perhaps I have something to share.” I lifted my cloak just enough so the man could catch a glimpse of the money pouch I’d taken earlier.
The raider raised his eyebrows then glanced pass me into the cavern. “Quickly then.” He relented his grip on the gate and I slipped through.
With a quick pace he hurried down the gloomy passage. “What do you want in return, a glimpse of the fair one, eh?”
“What else?” I could hardly believe I was doing this.
The man chuckled as the tunnel ended in a small room with several doors embedded into the wall. “In that cell there,” he motioned to the nearest door, “but you can’t go in. Now how much-”
My sword flew to his throat has he turned back to me and he stopped, confusion, fear, and anger sweeping across his face.
“Who are you?” His hand moved slowly toward his side.
“Keep your hand away from your sword,” I pressed my own blade closer. My heart pounded, but in anger this time, not fear. “I am Edvard, the maiden’s brother.”
With an inarticulate cry the raider leapt back beyond my reach and drew his sword.
Clash after clash echoed from the roof as we leapt back and forth, sparring and parrying. I gritted my teeth, my lips parted as I panted through them. This was one fight I would win. The raider aimed a blow at my head. I ducked easily and swept to the left before he had time to recover, striking his side. Once he was wounded he had no chance. Within moments he fell.
I turned, lowering my sword. Janexia’s eyes shone from behind the barred window of a door. I drew back the bolt and yanked it open.
“Did they hurt you?” I hugged her tightly then held her back at arm’s length, looking her over.
“It wasn’t that bad,” she smiled I could feel her trembling; “I knew you would come.”
“It will be harder getting out,” I admitted. “I’m not sure how to work that out. Maybe if you put this black cloak on-”
“How would a secret exit work?”
“What?” I stared at Janexia.
“A secret passage?” Janexia felt the wall by the tunnel. “I was brought in that way.”
“Don’t know, but I was.” Janexia pushed a bit of protruding rock. With a horrible grating, the rock slid back.
“Fascinating,” I heard footsteps along the passageway. “Get in! Hurry!”
I clambered up after Janexia and groped for a handle. A piece of rope met my hand and I pulled the door shut.
“Lead the way, Janexia,” I gasped, unhooking the black cloak and tossing off the helmet.
We ran almost bent double. The air was hot and stifling and the pitch blackness bore down as if to crush out life itself. Once or twice I thought I heard the sound of pursuit, but I wasn’t sure. There was nothing I could do but hurry forward.
After what seemed ages, but couldn’t have been more than several minutes, a dim light started to soak up the darkness. It grew stronger, then suddenly Janexia disappeared and I was pushing aside a mass of vines. The sun shone on the green hillside we were standing on and a fresh breeze blew across my face. Behind us not a trace of the tunnel was visible.
A wide meadow spread out at the foot of the hill leading up to the forest. I took a deep breath of cool air, then Janexia and I started for the cover of the trees. It was a sense more than a sound that caused me to spin around halfway across the meadow. A tall raider with long black hair was sprinting down the hill in pursuit.
“Run,” I shoved Janexia as we sprinted toward the looming shadows. A few more feet and I looked back. The raider’s long strides rapidly closed the distance between us. I glanced at the forest. It was close, but not close enough.
“Get to the woods,” I gasped, drawing my sword.
“Now!” I yelled.
She turned and fled as I swung around to face our pursuer.
The man slowed and came to a stop a few feet from where I stood.
“So you’re the one who took my prisoner.” He glanced at me contemptuously.
“She’s my sister,” I countered.
“I should run you through right now; you helped the other one escape earlier, didn’t you? But you have done well,” the man smiled scornfully, “so I will spare your life. Leave your sister and run home, little stripling.”
“A practical idea,” I backed up a step, “but I think I’ll stay all the same.”
The raider laughed mockingly. “Perhaps you don’t know who I am. No? I thought as much. I am Felzon, leader of the Mountain Raiders. You would have no chance.”
Felzon; the man who raided our village last summer; the man who killed Father; the man responsible kidnapping Janexia. I swallowed hard and tried to keep hand from trembling. He laughed again.
“Run home,” he mocked. “Tell your father to send a man to rescue his daughter, not a mere boy.”
In a flash I was back in a dark meadow, the village burning in the background. Father’s words echoed in my ears, “Keep Janexia safe!” I gritted my teeth as the same anger I’d felt earlier swept over me. With a yell I raised my sword and charged Felzon.
He raised his blade smoothly and deflected the blow.
After that I didn’t have time to be afraid. The sun beat down on my head and glittered on our clashing swords. Step by step Felzon beat me back, until we were fighting at the very edge of the forest. I used every grain of strength, every bit of skill. I went through every trick I’d learned, but Felzon took it all with fiendish delight. He could have killed me several times, but always he stopped, let me recover. It wasn’t from any sense of honor either.
I was exhausted but there was no rest. Then Felzon struck in earnest and I fell to my knees. The next blow knocked my sword clean out of my hand.
“You should have run, foolish boy,” Felzon chuckled, as he slowly raised his sword.
I waited, panting; hoping I could dodge the blow.
Something whizzed by my ear.
Felzon gasped and dropped his sword. A long arrow protruded from his chest. I threw myself to the side as Felzon fell forward, then leapt over and retrieved my sword before looking in the direction the arrow came from.
“Well done, Edvard.”
I looked at the pale disheveled man in front of Janexia, stunned, then bounded forward. His strong arms wrapped around me.
“Father,” I gasped, gazing at him in bewilderment, “but you were dead.”
Father laughed. “Several of the villagers were captured. I don’t know what happened to the others, but this morning I finally succeeded in making my escape.”
“It’s a good thing you showed up when you did.” I clasped Janexia’s hand in mine. “Tell us everything.”
Father raised his eyebrows. “I’m not the only one with a story.”
As we hurried though the woods, joy radiated through my body. Father was back, Janexia was safe, and I’d finally found an answer to that nagging question about fear.
I might not be able to get rid of fear, but I could act in spite of it. The future would hold challenges, but no longer would I let fear be a chain to hinder me. Its presence might be felt, but only felt, nothing more.