Some images to stir the imagination...
“You were supposed to be on a scouting mission to search out the lay of the land and to discover the strengths and weakness of our enemies. Instead, you have brought me back a woman!”
Olef pointed a grubby finger at the woman. “Not just any woman, Commander. The one we chased through the woods after she escaped.”
“I know who she is, worm!” Kelen shouted. He took a step towards the scouts.
Olef looked at his companion for support. But Gall, who was no fool, read the displeasure in Kelen's face and he only shrugged his shoulders. “It was not my idea,” was all he said.
They are young and inexperienced and probably only wanted to please me and their friends, Kelen thought. But it doesn't excuse that it was a stupid thing to do.
“Olef, have you lost your mind? Secrecy and stealth are our strongest weapons against our enemies. It means we take them by surprise, minimizing our losses and ensuring that our victory is swift and complete. Was she alone, at least?”
“Uh...no,” he answered, drawing out the last word. He shifted his feet, probably realizing where Kelen was taking the conversation. “There was another with her. She-she got away.”
In a flash, Kelen's fist was in the air and swinging in a wide arc before it connected with Olef's chin. “Idiot! Who knows how much time we have before her people come to claim her!”
Olef rubbed his chin. The blow had sent him back two steps, but he still stood on his feet.
“We don’t know that they will. She’s just a woman, after all.”
“She may be just a woman to you, but she may be more than that to someone else.” It was Olly who had spoken. He was seated amongst his brothers in arms and, until then, had remained silent. Though Olly had spoken in his favour, Kelen knew he was watching him, carefully.
“You two,” Kelen said, addressing the scouts, “take her to my tent upstream.”
“But that's almost an hour away,” Olef complained.
Kelen turned on him, his face flushed with anger. “You, in your stupidity, have brought potential calamity on us, so assume the punishment like a man. And if I find you have spoiled her in any way, this may be the last day you lay eyes on the sun. You have failed me once today. Do not fail me again.”
Kelen looked at the woman. Her hair was a tangled mess and her arms and legs scratched and bloody. She had looked similarly the night they had tracked her down in the woods. He blinked, surprised by a stab of remorse. Heat, like the burn of shame, tore through him, and the longer he considered the woman, the more he found he wanted to say he was sorry. He wanted to tell her he was not really the man who had done those terrible things to her and to those she loved. In fact, he even imagined they were in a safe, beautiful place where she was not bound, but sat beside him by her own will, listening to him as he told her of his hurts and regrets. He pictured her reaching out a hand, touching his scarred, ugly face, and telling him none of it mattered, that she understood a man could change. That in fact, she saw he had changed.
“My kin will come for me.” She had managed to work the cloth back from across her mouth again. Her eyes gleamed at him with angry tears. “And when they do, I hope with all my heart they kill you! All of you!” She spat at his feet.
The words were spoken in the rhythmic, soothing tones of the Water Clan language, but its beauty could not shield him from her venom. The force of her hatred washed over him, searing his skin like fire. Kelen's fingers tightened into fists.
“Olef. Take her now. And make sure she's properly bound. Especially that mouth of hers.”
The scouts obeyed. Once again, the woman was hefted onto Olef's shoulder, and the three of them headed into the woods. Kelen glanced at Olly who was still watching him. The second in command nodded curtly in return, indicating his agreement with how the situation had been handled. Kelen then excused himself and entered the trees in the opposite direction the trio had gone. As he walked, crushing the ferns and struggling saplings underfoot, his thoughts were filled with memory of the captured woman, pondering how strange it was that he felt so much for her, yet he did not even know her name.
A little while later, Kelen emerged from the stream, his body scrubbed clean and his mind partially at rest. Raised scars, morbid souvenirs from numerous battles, marked him, winding across his skin like pale snakes. He threw himself onto the grass, grateful that the ground had managed to retain some of the sun’s heat, though it had long passed the tops of the trees on its way west. He breathed slowly and deeply, letting the fresh air enter and leave his body in long, even streams while he rested by the water's edge.
A sudden scattering of some forest animals caught his attention. Immediately alert, Kelen rose to his knees while scanning the tree-line. His eyes still trained on his surroundings, he dressed quickly, but before he could secure his armour, the sound of a footstep reached his ears. He spun around.
There, about twenty feet in front of him, stood a man. His long, black hair was caught up at the nape of his neck, and his green eyes blazed at him like living chunks of emerald. He carried a short sword in each hand.
In the few seconds it took for Kelen to take up his axe, he had already assessed his foe. The man was strongly built and was as lithe as a panther. He stood with his weight balanced between his feet, and from the stance alone, Kelen gleaned he was trained in some form of the fighting arts. The man's breathing was steady, unhurried. He grasped his swords comfortably, ready to change grips at a moment's notice. For a moment, Kelen concluded that the coming fight would not be fair. He knew he outweighed the other by at least fifty pounds and that a good, solid blow to the chest or head would quickly end the contest. But as he assessed the look in the other man's eyes, Kelen checked himself. The clansman showed no fear. He is dangerous, either desperate and not caring about his life and is therefore ready to throw it away. Or he is a man that has something to fight for and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.
Kelen liked these new odds.
“Beast-man of the North,” the man said in an even tone. He raised his right hand, pointing a sword-tip at him. “I have come to reclaim what you have stolen from me.”
Kelen smiled to himself, satisfied that his hunch had proven correct. He had come for the woman. Was he her husband? Her lover?
Kelen took a moment and formed a response in his mind. He had always been amazed that he could understand the Southernland’s languages and dialects with an ease that surpassed his brethren. To him, accessing the skills needed to understand and to speak to them was like delving into a long-forgotten chest which had suddenly sprung open, revealing its secrets to him.
“What have I...stolen...from you?” he asked with only a little difficulty.
The man advanced a step. “A woman. She was taken from our woods. I want her back.”
Nonchalant, Kelen lifted and dropped his shoulders. Then he swept a hand in a semi-circle, indicating they were the only ones in the area. “There is no woman here.”
The black-haired man advanced a few steps more, his sword still pointed towards Kelen. “You are a liar. I know she was taken by your people. You will return her to me.”
“Ah, yes. I seem to remember the face of a pretty, new slave. I was thinking she might make a good wife.”
“Release her to me!”
The Rover laughed. “If you want her, you will have to go through me.”
A thin, mean smile carved itself across the clansman's face, and his eyes glittered. Green eyes, Kelen realized with some surprise. He did not have long to consider this, as the man flicked his wrists, propelling the swords into a series of arcs. The blades split the air with sharp sighs as they spun.
Kelen felt the thrill of the impending clash pulsing through his veins. He lifted his axe into position.
Yes, he liked these new odds very, very much.