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Authors: Stephanie Weiford

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BOOK: Runaway
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Golden Heart: Chapter One

The weather was getting colder. While the earth still held on to the warmth left over from the sun during the day, the night was dropping in temperature as the weeks passed. The sun was slipping lower, making its rays cast out between the forest trees like inviting fingers. The forest was calm; the wind wasn’t strong enough to blow the leaves. I would have to look for other signs of passing animals since scent wouldn’t carry without the wind. The sun hadn’t yet faded from the day, but was slowly slipping away from the sky. I made my way over sticks, rocks, and small plants, listening to my heart beat in my ears; dropping my toes first to keep the whole of my weight from crashing down on the noisy underbrush. I made my way beside a large oak tree; there I found what I had been looking for, caught in the bark was a small wad of fur. Rolling it between my fingers, I could tell the deer was close by; feeling the heat of the animal still. Slowly, I lifted one of the arrows from the quiver. Drawing back my arm, I jammed the point of the arrow into the trunk. Using this as leverage, I was able to pull myself up high enough to reach out with my other hand and grab onto a low branch. I repeated this until I had a hawk’s view of the area.

A few minutes passed as I scanned the area and allowed my eyes to adjust. Up here, the air was colder and my breath floated like a ghostly fog in front me. It took some time, but at last, I had spotted what I was hunting for. Several yards off in the distance a fully grown male buck had moved into my line of sight. The wind blew around me and I let it lift my arm as I took the bow out from behind me and pulled another arrow from the quiver in the same motion.

A vision of my mother, graceful arms outstretched, acted like a memory to my muscles as I mimicked the way she caressed an arrow across the bowstring. In time with the vision of my mother, we closed one eye tracing the path the arrow would take and its place on the target, then, letting the arrow soar as we let out a breath. The memory of my mother disappeared behind the vanishing haze of my breath. The arrow had found its target and the animal staggered out of sight.

Taking the branches a few at a time, I was able to make my way quickly back to the ground. A quick jog later, I found the beast slumped over in a large honeydew bush. It was a very large buck; there was no way I would be able to pull it back to camp on my own. I took out the knife I kept at my belt and cut loose some branches to cover the animal. Finished, I marked the spot with a few stones in a pile so that the boys would know which brush to search. Beyond satisfied with my days work, I started the trek back to camp.

I was thoroughly thrilled with myself now that the hunt was over, not feeling the need to stalk through the woods.  I felt lightweight on my feet and almost skipped, where footing would allow. The air was cooling around me now, busting through the last pockets of heat as night fell. Wrapped up in my heavy hunting cloak, I was comfortable with the cold nipping at my cheeks.

Back home, I would be able to enjoy a nice hot mug of tea after taking a quick wash in the nearby river. Our home was encamped by Keys River, just northwest of Lynn Lake, where the majority of people chose to reside. It was the largest lake in our territory and also the place of the towering Crystal Castle, which had once been home to the Priestess and her family. It now served as a monument to better days, since the royal family had been killed in a demon attack long ago. The resulting fallout had led to the forming of the rebel cause. I couldn’t remember the better days, having been just a baby at the time, but my mother had made a life in these woods with the rebels just I did now.

A life with a purpose makes it all worth it in the end. I hope you can find yours Marleah.
The words of my mother when I had asked about why we sided with the rebels, found its way to the surface of my mind as I walked. Fighting with the rebels in hopes that some glory could be restored to the land had been her purpose, and now it was mine. A purpose which would be greatly improved with some deer meat at hand!

More food and other supplies would be needed to sustain the rebel camp for the winter. When the snow starts to fall, the animals would vanish from the lands in fear. The invisible barrier that seemed to stand between the dark place and along the south boarder of Locklynn would be at its weakest. It was the reason Crystal Castle stood where it did, Locklynn was the gate that stood between the human world and the demons.  Crystal Castle had always had a Priestess that was believed to have been blessed by the Angels, and she alone could command the strength to keep the demons at bay. The Angels, knowing how corrupt people could be, allowed only one loyal bloodline to receive their blessing. The women of the Dashiell family had been that bloodline. This was until nearly twenty years earlier, when the gate weakened and an overwhelming demon force had attacked the castle; killing every member of the Dashiell family. The Priestess Dawn and her husband Thomas were both killed along with their two children; a young boy and a new born girl. The birth of the new born girl was believed to be the reason the Priestess was too weak to maintain the gate and so, the Dashiell family line had been snuffed out.

A yawn bubbled up, and I stopped to stretch my back. The weight of the weapons strapped to me lifted slightly and I rolled my shoulders, setting them back into place. I’d been lost in thought too long, feeling relaxed with my fresh victory in mind. I had almost reached Keys River and could smell the crisp water churning not far off. I kept walking, but a warning feeling started to nag at my mind; keeping it focused now in the present. I felt something like a shadow pass overhead, just as I neared a large boulder near the water’s edge; I was so close to home. Something brushed close to the side of my face, years of practice caused a bone deep reaction as I dropped and rolled to the side of the large rock. It gave me some shelter while my eyes scanned the area for the assailant. Laughter rang out from the tree canopy and looking up I spotted him. Perched on a branch was Trent Fletcher, his pet hawk he fondly called Sir circled around and landed on his shoulder.

“I’d keep a better grip on that chicken of yours Trent, before I hunt him down for my supper!” I called out angrily, but it was halfhearted and held no real malice. I stood up and dusted the dirt from my clothes; I noticed just how in need of a good wash I was. Like most of the rebels, I wore a light tan, long basic hunting tunic with tight, dark brown leggings, and pulled together at the waist with a leather belt. At each of my wrists was a leather cuff that kept the loose sleeves back from my hands so I could hunt. My boots were made of leather; but of better quality then most of the others, and reached almost to my knees. I removed my hunting pack from my back to check for damage on the well-worn bow and quiver of arrows. The bow had belonged to my mother and the arrows I had made myself. Moving the pack caught the tie holding back my hair and a curtain of dark brownish-red hair swept across my face. The price to pay for wearing it longer then common sense dictated, but I couldn’t bear to cut is as short as the other rebel women did.

Trent hopped down from the tree branches; Sir fluttered down and resumed his spot on his shoulder. “Not like you to come home empty handed. It’s fine though, the Hanson boys brought in enough squirrels to feed the pack for a while,” Trent spoke as he came closer.

“Those boys will give me a run for my money yet,” I laughed, hair and pack secured, we started walking towards the river side by side. “I took down a big buck; there was no way for me to haul it back on my own. I covered him up near the honeydew grove. I figured I could send a couple of men back for him.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, I’ll send Jacob and Erin with a horse and cart, they should have him back in no time.” Trent paused and raised a hand to shield his eyes as he scanned the area, he could see a bit further then I could being a taller man then most. I couldn’t help but study his face in the fading light. He was lightly tanned from years of outside living spent under the shady forest trees. His clothes were similar to mine and his weapon of choice was an incredibility huge sword kept strapped to his back. He was only a couple of years older than me, but the strain of being the leader of the rebel group, since his father William Fletcher had passed away, wore heavily around his eyes.

William had been a member of the royal guard at Crystal Castle and after the Dashiell family had been killed, he fled into the forest with other members of the guard that opposed Clayton taking over as ruler. Sadly, William had been injected with poison from a demon bite in that fight. It had kept him ill for the rest of his living days until he finally passed away just before Trent had reached a real man’s age.

We started walking again and hopped together over flat stones in the shallow part of the river. Just pass the tree line, on the other side was the rebel camp. Trent was unusually quiet as we walked, something was pressing on his mind and I could see it in the shadows behind his eyes. I was debating on asking what the matter was. Trent may be loved by everyone in the camp as he was a strong and compassionate leader, but there was a lot of weight on his shoulders, which he kept close to himself. I couldn’t help but noticed the bags under his blue eyes; his dark brown hair was a mess like he had been running his fingers through it in frustration. He had a hard set to his jaw where moments before he had been smiling.

“What’s the matter Trent?” I stopped him with a hand to his arm; we were just outside of the camp boundary line now.

He paused for a long moment before turning to face me, “I could hide a lie from the devil himself but not you. It’s Henry Miller’s wife Betty, she gave birth just after sunrise this morning but I don’t think she will live to see tomorrows.”

I felt my heart deflate, “The Millers are good people, they don’t deserve this.” It wasn’t uncommon for women to die in childbirth these days, along with farmers’ crops not producing and rancher’s animals being sick. It was dark times all across the land, as the people of Locklynn suffered the loss of their Priestess.

“They’ve asked for us to leave them be for the day, so they could spend time as a whole family for as long as possible.” Trent’s voice was deeply troubled; Henry was a good friend of his.

“I will take some of the buck to them tomorrow, it’s not much, but we will all pull together to keep our own well.” I moved my hand up to the shoulder not occupied by Sir and fixed him with the most reassuring look I could manage. The large hawk looked bleak, as if he understood our conversation. For all my teasing, Sir was a smart and cunning bird. He listened to Trent’s commands as well as any of the rebel soldiers.

“Thank you Marleah, you’re right we have good people with us here” he gave me a sad smile, bringing our conversation to an end and we walked into the camp together. 

The rebel camp was larger than it first appeared. The trees in this part of the forest were massive and the huge branches were used as guard towers and storage. Large baskets tied to ropes on pulleys, would raise fabric, weapons, food, and just every kind of odds and ends needed to keep the camp running smoothly, to the tree tops where it would be stored away in hollowed-out crevasses in the trucks of the giant trees.

On the ground, small log cabins with one or two rooms were spaced around the area; every building could be seen from one or two others at least. This way, everyone was safely within eye sight of everyone else. In between them, were a few tents that the single men or new members stayed in because they didn’t have a family yet or were waiting on cabin to be freed up or built. Overlooking the camp to the north, were the Cold Mountains. They were snowed covered year round, and at the base of the closest mountain was the rebel cemetery. It was here they lay to rest their members, and it was there Betty Miller would take her place alongside them when she passed. Every member of the rebel camp had a purpose and they all were respected, no matter their age or gender. In the new royal army I would never have been allowed to join, nevertheless become second-in-command. In the rebel camp, Trent was the leader and he had named me as his second just a year earlier.

As second-in-command, I was afforded a cabin of my own across from Trent’s in the center of the camp. Between the two was a large space that was used for gathering, training, keeping bonds fires and trading. It was the very heart of the camp. I had only taken the cabin out of respect for the position, but still preferred to be on my own. It had taken a while for me to adjust to life inside the camp, but I was glad for the oasis of privacy the little cabin offered. Before my mother had passed away we had held a small home outside of Locklynns main city. It doubled as both home and shop where my mother worked for living. Something unheard of inside the city limits for a woman.

“There’s Jacob and Erin, I’ll send them after your deer.” We hadn’t made it far into the camp before Trent spotted the two men working near the horse barn. It looked as if they had just come back into camp after a hard ride. He made his way towards the men; they looked up at the same time spotting him and eagerly waved him over. I just continued towards my cabin feeling anxious to shed the weight of my pack for the evening. I was more tired than I had first realized having been up long before the sun rose to head out to hunt.

Now it was just after dark and I could allowed myself to feel the pull of exhaustion. Normally, a day like today would not have been so draining, but I was being troubled at night by dreams I couldn’t recall. I had almost made it to the door when a familiar voice called out, stopping me in my tracks.

“Marleah!” it was Spencer Caldwell; I sighed and pulled on a smile while turning to face him. He had jogged over from wherever he had appeared from. He had a real talent for just appearing out of thin air at unwanted moments.

BOOK: Runaway
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