Character List Sharlayna – Main character Jeff and James – twin brothers, Sharlayna’s best friends Sam – Jeff

and James’ younger brother Puton – village smith Laurence – village guard

Sharlayna Laughing and calling, we chased each other through the marshes that were our home, winding in and out between the various structures located wherever land was stable. We slid in the mud, dirtying our ragged play clothes but we didn’t mind and pushed on. I felt someone shove me from behind and I crashed headlong into someone’s sack of carefully picked marsh fruit, sending the whole sack tumbling into the muddy water. “Jeff!” I screamed, knowing that it was him. The two twins grinned at each other and ran as I chased after them. Jeff and James were twins and they were my best friends in the world, though they sometimes drove me crazy. They were identical down to the last brown hair on their heads and so everyone got them mixed up all the time – even me, who have known the twins for my whole life – because they were so perfectly alike that it was hard to tell who was who. But before I could reach either of the twins, a rough hand grabbed the back of my shirt, hauling me into the air. “Sharlayna!” Puton, a bear of a man, roared in my face. “You will go get me back my fruits and you will scrub every single one of them until they were as clean as they were before!” He dropped me on my rump in the mud and pointed a large finger at the direction of his house, which I realized, was the one with the sack of fruit in front of it. Meekly, I obeyed. I lowered myself into the muddy water, shuddering as the water filled my boots up, soaking into my socks and my pants. Mother’s going to have a fit when she sees me, I thought with a sigh as I reached down into the water and grabbed the first fruit and dumped it into the sack on the shore that Puton was holding up. Eventually, when the sack could sit on the bank by itself without tipping over, he left me to my work and disappeared back into his hut. I could hear metal banging against metal inside and knew that Puton, our village smith, had returned to work. “Layna?” a voice called curiously. I looked up to see Laurence, one of the young men trained to defend our village against any attacks, looking down at me curiously, leaning against the railing. “What are you doing?” I flushed a deep red. Of all the other young men, Laurence was the most handsome one. It made me embarrassed to have him see me like I was – soaked in mud and in ragged clothes. “I accidentally knocked Puton’s marsh fruit into the water and he made me pick them up,” I replied, leaning down to grab another fruit. He sat down on the path next to the sack, his booted

feet dangling over the water and took the fruit from me as it came up. He examined it as I went to grab another one. “You mean, someone accidentally shoved you into the sack, causing it to tumble down into the water so you have to pick them up,” he commented calmly. I had to smile at that. Laurence knew me way too well. “Yes.” He smiled back and set the fruit back into the sack. “Why do you spend your time with the village brats? You’re almost a woman now, and you should be preparing for it, instead of running around in dirty clothes, picking up after your friends,” he asked me. Then he pushed himself off the edge and splashed next to me in the mucky water. My throat tightened as I saw the mud splash up his clean boots, dirtying his neat and spotless clothes. He removed his gloves and tucked them into his belt and reached down into the mud. His fingers held up another fruit and he tossed it into the sack. “No, let me do this,” I protested, trying to push him away and back up to the shore again. “It’s my job.” He smiled at me and held me at bay with a gentle hand, another fruit in his other one. “Answer me first,” he told me. I sighed. “They’re my friends,” I said simply. “Hmm,” he said, letting me go. “I see.” “Now, will you get out of the mud now?” “Afraid to see me dirty, Layna?” he teased me. I knew that he knew how much I liked him, but he never really brought it up much. After all, almost all of the village girls liked him – leaving no doubt that when it was time for him to marry, there would be no shortage of girls for him to choose as his wife from. But strangely, he spent the most time with me – the most ragged one of the girls and probably the dirtiest. I spent my days with the village “brats”, as Laurence put it, running across the village, slipping around in the mud. I also spent some time with an old retired knight named Sir Darius who had once been in service to the king before he retired here. The old man was as close to a father as I could get, seeing as my own father drowned in the marsh bog when I was really little. He trained me in swordplay, only because he wanted me to be able to fight back if I was ever attacked. But he never really saw me as one of his own warriors – the same warriors that he trained to defend the village, like Laurence. Maybe it was because he only saw me as a project and a test – an amusement to spend the rest of his life working on and perfecting.

I didn’t care because I liked the lessons he gave me and I liked spending and studying with the old man because he was patient and kind to me. Losing myself in my thoughts, I didn’t see that Laurence had already moved back up to his seat next to the sack of fruit, which I was pleased to see was almost half full. I plucked another one up from the bottom of the marsh and threw it into the sack. Then, as my fingers brushed another one, a horn blew, loud and urgent, across the village. Without hesitation, Laurence jumped to his feet as the horn blew again. “Layna, go home,” he shouted at me before he disappeared into a crowd of his fellow guards rushing to the direction where the horn blow had sounded. “Layna, go home”? I shook my head, dropping the fruit back into the mud. I hauled myself up onto bank where Laurence had just been sitting a moment again and ran for Sir Darius’s house in the center of the village. I wasn’t about to go home – was going to fight next the warriors, as I’ve always done. “Here, Layna,” Sir Darius said the moment I entered. He handed me my gear and I made my way to the back, apologizing for the mud. I saw him, out of the corner of my eye, hide a smile at my apology. “It is quite all right, Layna, just get geared up. They will be expecting everyone at the gate soon.” “Any idea what it is this time?” I asked him. Sir Darius always seemed to know before the others what they were going to face because the old man, despite his years, was still wary and alert and often took walks in the forests around our marsh. Often on these walks, he would spot prints in the dirt and he would tell our village guards what to watch out for – and we were always prepared whenever an attack occurred mostly because of Sir Darius’s numerous walks outside. But he was the only one to walk outside because it was said that the forest was cursed and our ancestors had forbidden us to enter it. Sir Darius had come from outside of the forest, even beyond them, so our people believe that he would not be harmed by the beasts of the forests because he was not one of our people by blood. But this time, he shook his head. “I have not seen any tracks recently,” he commented as I changed behind a screen into the clean clothes of the village guard. I quickly donned the armor and my sword and securely strapped on my boots around my feet. Leather gloves and armguards were the next to go on and then came my belt with its sword.

But unlike Laurence, I also bore an elegant long bow that Sir Darius had given me for my tenth birthday and had taught me how to use it. The bow was white and naturally so, and it was so flawlessly made that I didn’t believe in his story about the bow – that he had found it on one of his journeys when he was younger. “Then what could be attacking us this time?” I asked him. He turned to his stew pot and stirred it a little. “You will just have to see for yourself this time, Layna,” he told me, tasting the soup a little. I saw him smile as I pulled the screen back. “And you must return after the battle for some soup. I am afraid that this soup is too delicious for one to drink by oneself.” I grinned at him. “I will, sir, thank you,” I told him as I fitted my helm onto my head, over my hair which I had swiftly pinned up onto my head. Sir Darius helped me strap on my greaves and my metal-backed gloves over my thin leather ones and hooked the clasp of my cloak together. With a pat on my shoulder, he nodded and I left after giving him a squeeze in return. I ran as fast as light armor would let me and soon, I arrived at the gate as one of the last ones in the back. I was glad, because the person standing at the very front next to the guard Captain was Laurence and he was scanning each and every one of the men’s faces intently. “Movement has been seen in the forest and scouts have reported that it is a regiment of foot soldiers,” the captain called out to his men. “Yes, sir!” everyone cried. I had to smile and I tugged my hood down a little to make sure my whole face was covered – even though I was wearing a full helm that everyone else would be wearing later. “Good then. Ten men to the forest – we’re going to chase them towards our walls and pin them down with the archers on the walls. It’s a simple line drive, understand?” the captain shouted. “Yes, sir!” the men roared. I had been watching Laurence the whole time and now, I watched as his gaze was set on me. He started forward. Time to vanish, I thought with a small smile to myself. I slipped out in between two men who let me pass without hesitation – they were too busy listening to the rest of the captain’s speech to bother with me. Behind me, I heard a movement and began to move faster. “Wait,” Laurence’s voice called. I slowed and then stopped, my cloak swirling around my feet gently. Behind me, I heard him stop too as soon as I did. “I know you,” Laurence said softly behind me. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”

I smiled underneath the cloak. “Yes,” I replied. He seemed startled at the sound of my voice but muffled by the cloak and the full helm, I knew he wouldn’t recognize it, only that it sounded female. In the distance, the sound of the battle started. Behind me, I heard him turn slightly. “We both must go,” I pointed out. Then he was gone, his footsteps fading away into the distance. I followed him for a ways. Then, grabbing the lowest branch of the nearest tree, I swung up into the tree and began to climb. As soon as I was high enough, I leaped to the next tree and the next, often using my hands to swing myself over because the branch wouldn’t be wide enough for me to stand on. I reached the wall and moved onward, towards the direction of the battle. By the sound of the fighting, I knew that the plan did not go as planned. Locking myself upside down underneath a branch with my legs, I twisted, at the same time, the quiver on my back, drawing my bow at the same time, so that the arrows wouldn’t fall down. I drew three arrows and without aiming, I fired. My white arrows, as white as my bow, screamed through the air and buried themselves into the chests of enemy men below. More arrows followed the first volley. I stopped only when the enemy men realized that they had to reposition themselves. Putting away my bow and drawing my sword, I twisted the quiver back into position, swinging myself back upright again. I waited until the right moment to leap from the tree with a battle cry. Men from both sides looked up as I flew towards them. With a jarring thud, I landed on them and cut down at least five men before they realized that they were in danger. Then, they came to life again, attacking me from all sides. I managed to keep them at bay for a short while but before they could overwhelm me, someone joined me at my side and I looked up into Laurence’s blue eyes. He grinned wolfishly at me. We fought together against the enemy, standing with our backs together. Laurence was a good fighter, and I matched in skill, though not in strength. One of his blows could send an enemy soldier sprawling, though mine only made the enemy become more aware of me despite my small size. But I was quick too and that gave me the advantage. “We’re outnumbered!” Laurence bellowed into my ear over the din of the battle. I looked around and saw that he was right – almost half of the men

that the captain had sent to start the line drive were down. Our small numbers had barely diminished those of the regiment. “Retreat back to the gates – the enemy will probably follow you there,” I shouted back, cutting down a man wielding a heavy battle axe and had been about to charge us. “What about you?” Laurence shouted back. I snarled and kicked down a man on the ground who I had thought had been dead before and had just tried to spear me on his sword. “Don’t worry about me, just go!” I shouted at him. He nodded and clapped me on the shoulder. “Retreat!” he bellowed at our remaining men. “Fall back to the gate!” I fought my way out of a throng of enemy men who had surged forward into the empty gap that Laurence’s absence had left. I glanced up into Laurence’s eyes and nodded. He was far away now but he saw my nod and saluted me with his sword. The last thing I saw was his mud covered clothes before he turned and disappeared into the crowd of his fellow soldiers. I fought harder and harder, trying to hit as many as I could to buy Laurence and his men some time to retreat to the gate. I was getting more and more tired with every blow and my opponents knew it. Then pain exploded at the back of my skull and I felt my body crumple and fall. With a sigh, I slipped into the darkness.

Laurence Whoever that warrior had been, he was buying us time to get away. “Retreat!” I hollered as I ran after my men. One of the men stumbled and I hauled him up to his feet again, dragging him as I went. However, I was still very mystified by the voice of the warrior and the way he dressed. He had the voice of a young boy and by his size and height, he could have easily been a young boy, but the way he moved and fought with determination told me that he was very well trained. Not only that, but he also wore the uniform of the guards of the Marshland Village, even though his armor was differently crafted than ours. Shaking my head, I looked up to see the gate ahead of us. “Fire as they come out of the woods!” I shouted at the archers at the top. “Don’t hesitate! Just fire! There are still a lot of them left!” The leader of the archers saluted me to show that he had heard and he gave a shout. The archers brought up their longbows, aiming it towards the woods. My men never stopped running until they reached the gates which some of the stronger villagers had opened for us. They closed it the moment we entered, putting up the huge bolt across the gates. With a roar, the enemy surged out of the woods. I ran to the nearest stairs that led to the top of the wall to watch as arrows rained down on the enemy. There were screams and the army halted where they were and tried to back up into the cover of the trees and was unsuccessful because their fellows at the back had charged right into them. During the last few volley of arrows, I glimpsed through a gap in the trees a rider riding quickly away, something slung over the back of his horse. He vanished behind the cover of the outspread branches of a tree but then appeared again. This time, I glimpsed the curved of a white bow.

Sharlayna I woke up to a constant rhythm under me, rocking my head from side to side. Startled, I straightened up, only to find an arm, strong as steel, locked around my middle, keeping me upright. It was then that I realized that I was mounted on a horse with a stranger. “You got a nasty bump on the back of your head,” he observed quietly. I struggled against him and he sighed and let his arm loose a little. “It’s no use struggling or escaping – you wouldn’t get far anyway. These woods we’ve been riding through for a day now isn’t anywhere near your Marshland home.” I gave up struggling and instead, sagged back against the man who rearranged his grip. “What happened?” I finally asked as pain from the back of my head began to throb again. “One of the men hit you rather hard across the head with the sharp side of his axe. It was a good thing you were wearing your helm otherwise you wouldn’t have a head right now,” he told me. “He would have finished you off hadn’t your helm rolled off.” I frowned and he glanced down at me and saw the frown. With a small smile, he fixed his gaze down the path again. “So just because I’m a girl, he didn’t finish me off. Instead, he gave me to you and –” I started to say but he shook his head. “No, he didn’t finish you off because we were told not to,” he corrected me. I was confused. “What? Why?” “Well, we were actually sent here to catch the legendary Warrior that all of the men sent to bombard your village have seen come to the rescue of the Marshland people whenever they were attacked, leading them to victory every single time,” he said with a smile. “The Warrior is said to dress in the uniform of the Marshland Guards in order to blend in with them and not be recognized and carries the White Bow of Queen Arwyn and a blade forged by the elves – never breaking, never dulling.” I snorted. “If my blade were forged by the elves, then why do I have to sharpen it all the time?” I asked quietly with amusement. He just shrugged. “It’s just a saying and a rumor – none of these things are true, of course – they’re just what survivors of the battles fought with your people say, always delusional through weariness and of course, ale,” he told me.

“But what’s that part about my bow?” He glanced down at me. “The White Bow of Queen Arwyn is a legendary elven weapon used by the elf Queen Arwyn who once used the bow itself to fire the arrow that speared the heart of a wild dragon who attacked the elves at one point in their history. It was well known among the elves, and the humans, that she gave the bow away almost a hundred years ago, two years before the elves vanished from the land, never to be seen or heard from again,” he explained. “Oh.” “You didn’t know this?” I scowled at him. “No – our people have better things to do than learn about stories like this. It doesn’t help either that your people have been constantly attacking us. We are a peaceful people but you’ve forced us into war,” I snapped at him, my temper returning. He seemed to realize this too because he moved off the path we were on, slowing down his horse as he did so. “I’m sorry for what my people have done, really, I am, but yelling at me for it now won’t do your head any good,” he pointed out, turning into a clearing. He stopped his horse and helped me off. I tried to stand on my own but instead, I grew dizzy and with his help, I sat down against a nearby tree. He brought out several rawhide cords and began to tie me up with them. “Is that really necessary?” I asked him, amused. “I can barely stand, let alone walk.” He shrugged as he finished. “I personally don’t think so, but I’ve been ordered to tie you up every time we stop and I must follow orders,” he explained to me as he went to unload his horse. Very soon, he had a fire going and he served me my meal and his. Sitting down beside me, he began to eat after placing my bowl in my lap. I handled the spoon rather awkwardly with my bound hands, nearly dropping it twice, and after a moment, I heard a sigh, and gentle hands took the spoon from me and fed me the delicious stew. “You still haven’t told me your name,” I pointed out after a moment. His spoon scraped the wooden bottom of his bowl for a moment and then stopped. “And you haven’t told me yours either,” he said reply. He stood up and took my bowl from me, stacking it on top of his and after cleaning it out with a bit of sand from his pack, he stored it back into the saddlebags on the ground.

Then he came over and scooped me up easily into his arms and set me down by the fire. Reaching over, he untied my hands and feet and tucked the strips back into a pouch on his belt. “Why did you do that?” I asked him curiously, rolling onto my back to watch him. In the flickering light of the fire, I saw him smile and he lay back on the thick grass. “Because I know that if you escape, you wouldn’t get far before I would find you again,” he said quietly. “And also, I know your features well enough now that if you do escape and somehow manage to find your way to a town or a village, I could draw out your image and put a ransom on your head.” I smiled in the dark, turning my back on the fire. He’s smart, I realized, my smile widening in the dark. It’ll take more than just a few tricks up my sleeve to escape from him. I thought to myself for a moment. But maybe it doesn’t have to be elaborate. He’s expecting an elaborate one. So…. I sat up and he watched me. “I need to go relieve myself,” I announced. He made to sit up and I grinned at him. “You actually have to come with me?” In the firelight, I saw him turn slightly red. And then, I took a chance to really look at him because during the whole day, all I saw of him was the shadow of his helm or his hood or the back of his head. Now I saw his face. He was a young man, from what his face showed, with dark intelligent eyes and equally dark hair. But of course, in the dim light like this one, it was hard to tell what color his eyes were. “No, I’ll stand a ways off,” he replied. “And what about your words of my escape?” I asked him cheerfully. He stretched a little, almost too casually, but he didn’t reply as if he didn’t hear me. Instead, he turned his back to me. “Go do your business,” he said to me briskly. I grinned. “All right then.” I took one step forward and stumbled. He caught me by an elbow and pulled me back to my feet again. “You need someone to hold you up?” he asked me with a grin. I scowled at him. “No,” I snapped, snatching my elbow back. He grinned again and beckoned for me to keep going.

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