Anima : After The Great Wars.

Anna-Bell sat by the fire warming her feet. It had been a long walk to the tavern and filled with danger. Now she could relax with her ale.

She felt the eyes of the men in that warm, smoky room linger on her. She knew that she was beautiful, but beautiful in an unconventional way. Her body was toned from long walks, riding and frequent combat. Her lustrous hair was washed and dried by the rain and wind.

Normally the attention would not bother her, but it had been a long day so she subtly shifted her hand to the hilt of her dagger and slowly turned her head to frown at the nearest man.

As their eyes met he frowned slightly and ran his hand through his long, greying hair in an awkward gesture.

‘You must think me very rude’, he said. ‘I didn’t mean to stare, but I had to be sure that it was really you.’

‘Now are you sure that I am I? ‘ She replied.

‘Definitely. ‘

‘Well, clearly we have something to discuss… so go buy me an ale and then come sit down here.’

He did so.

‘You may not remember me, we knew each other long ago,’ he said.

She looked him up and down. She had met so many people in her life and she was not great with faces. He seemed quite a bit older than her, but maybe he had lived a hard life. She searched for a clue, a tattoo or a scar. That was it, the scar on his right hand.

‘Alan! I ought not to have forgotten the fellow who gave me my first fencing lesson!’

He touched the scar on his hand defensively then smiled.

‘Come here!’ She exclaimed as she stood to embrace him.

The sword master was happy to once again hug his most challenging student.

“I’m afraid that you have caught me at a bad time and I must request your assistance…’ he began.

She nodded and he continued.

`It’s my brother, my twin, he has disappeared. I believe that he has been taken by the Bear-Slayers… he was last seen heading into their mountains. I was sat here considering the best course of action to take when in you strode like an avenging angel- the perfect person to assist me… that is, if you are willing.’

Anna-Bell took a moment to think. She remembered very little about the brother, but she had certainly heard of the Bear-Slayers- they were a brutal cult who were known to enslave anyone who passed through their territory. It would be a dangerous task, practically suicidal.

‘Ofcourse I am willing,’ she replied. ‘Tonight I sleep at this inn, meet me here after breakfast tomorrow, we will set off at once.’

‘Thank you Anna-Bell, I am in your debt.’

‘Well then, you can start by buying me another drink.’

As the dawn light brightened he returned and found her finishing her breakfast on the same table next to the fire. Beside her was a leather bag containing everything she owned in the world- a kilt for cold weather and sleeping rough in, her spare dress, her throwing axe, her eating knife, some dried meat, a tin flask of ale and a leather purse of gems.

Alan had brought 2 buffalo for riding and they set off at a steady trot.

That evening, after riding north-east all day, they stopped by a broad river. They made a fire and ate, then Alan pitched the canvas tent he had brought. When he was finished she lay down her kilt on the grass on the opposite side of the fire.

‘Would you not prefer to join me in my tent?’ he asked.

‘No thanks, you should remember that I prefer the company of ladies.’

‘That’s not what I meant,’ he was a little embarrassed.

‘It’s fine, I like to sleep under the stars, I’m used to it,’ she said,hugged him and then wrapped herself up in her kilt.

When he woke the next day her kilt was rolled up neatly and she was gone. After a minute he spotted her bathing in the river. He could not resist watching for a moment before turning his back and starting a fire. The buffalo munched the grass close by, the sun shone and birds sang in the trees. For a moment he forgot all his troubles and danger.

But only for a moment.

They rode north east along the banks of the river. At midday they reached a fishing village and paused to eat lunch by the pier. As they ate they looked at their map.

‘We must carry on along the river until we reach this tavern- The Swan Inn- there is a bridge nearby which is the only place to cross the river. We should stable the buffalo at the inn, they will be of little use on the difficult terrain that comes next. Then we must pass through Moose Forest, going east towards-’ Alan was saying.

“You would be fools to enter Moose Forest…’ a curious old fisherman interrupted them. ‘It is filled with dangerous beasts and they say that evil wizards make their home there. Only desperate and foolish men enter that forest and none return.,, My own wife was lost around there long ago’

‘There are no such things as evil wizards,’ said Anna-Bell.

‘Yes, all the wizards died in the last great war,’ Alan confirmed.

‘Maybe, maybe not, but why risk it?’ the old fisherman continued. “Even if there are no wizards there are still the bears and wolves and spiders and of course the gigantic moose.’

‘Such creatures are my sisters,’ Anna-Bell stated.

‘We have no choice but to pass through the forest, my brother’s life is in great danger,’ Alan explained.

‘Ah, I see how it is…’ said the old man. ‘In that case, I wish you luck. Here, take some of my salmon. I fish for the sport these days and have plenty to eat.’

‘Thank you sir,’ said Alan.

With that the old man walked away.

Soon after, they were finished with lunch and the map and rode onwards. Just after sunset they saw the lights of the inn ahead of them. It was a huge but run down building. The stables stank and the walls of the buildings leaned at odd angles. Paint flaked from the sign which portrayed two swans under a bridge.

‘They say it was once the finest inn in the land, but few people pass through this way anymore,’ said Alan.

‘I’d rather sleep outside,’ Anna-Bell said.

‘It’s our last chance for a solf bed and hot food, there is only wilderness for the rest of our journey.’

‘I’ve ran out of ale, so it will have to do,’ she said.

At the gate, a boy came out of the coach house to take their buffalo, and then they entered a yard filled with rotten straw. Outside the inn door two men were brawling. Anne-Bell easily pushed them aside and they entered the dank, smoky front hall.

Alan ordered meat and potato stew and a jug of ale at the bar whilst Anna-Bell selected a comfortable and not too dirty table near the fire. There were few patrons, only a couple of elderly fishermen and a few rough looking, drunken young men, so the large hall looked almost empty.

The young men began making lewd comments as soon as they saw her, but quietened down a bit when Alan joined her. This was clearly not the sort of respectable place where you handed over your weapons at the bar and the sight of Alan’s longsword at his belt gave them pause for thought.

However, by the time Anna-Bell and Alan were half way through their ale and stew one of the drunkards came over. He was a tall, broad shouldered man, and the dueling scar on his face and cutlass at his belt gave him a dashing appearance, but the effect was ruined by the poor hygiene of a perpetual drinker.

“You have beautiful hair,’ he said to her with a grin. ‘it would look even better on my pillow.’

With a feline swiftness, she reached up, grabbed his hair and slammed his face into the table, then flicked him back to collapse onto the floor, where he remained for a few moments before crawling back to his mocking companions.

No one else bothered them that evening.

‘Are you close with your brother?’ she asked him towards the end of the night.

“My twin? Not really, but blood is blood. He was always around, but not close,’ he had drunk lots of ale and his ideas were becoming a bit confused. ‘He was like a stranger who wore the same face… like a distorted reflection… I’m tired… we have a long day tomorrow, we should sleep.’

They set off walking soon after breakfast and came almost immediately to a massive stone bridge that spanned the river in three great arches.

‘This was built in the days of our Great Grandmothers, before the wars, men could not build such a thing these days,’ Alan commented.

They walked on, through a small hamlet then onto vast wild meadows.

When the sun was at its highest, the border of the forest loomed on the horizon. It was then that they saw a great moose herd for the first time. They stood breathless and watched in awe.

At its head came the huge yet graceful doe, the sun sparkling in their beautiful black eyes. Then the stags, thrice the height of a tall man, with their vast antlers atop their heads like crowns gifted by the gods themselves. And at the stags hooves trotted the adorable fawns

‘It is an honour to be with you on this day,” he told her.

The moose froloced on the meadow for a while before returning to the forest. Then Alan and Anna-Bell continued walking until they too entered the woods.

At first the woodland was bright and open. The trees were mostly oak and Elm and there was plenty of space between the many saplings and giant old trees. The land sloped gently uphill and after a while they came to a stream.

‘We should follow this stream as far as we can, it may lead us all the way to the mountains,’ Alan suggested.

Anna-Bell agreed and they followed the stream until late in the afternoon. Then the oak and elm gave way to Yew, Ivy and other trees that neither of them knew. These trees were more densely packed and often trees were linked by vines or massive dusty spider webs which had to be hacked away with sword or axe. Long shadows fell between the trunks and although the sun had not quite set all was dark ahead.

“We would be fools to go any further in the darkness,’ said Anna-Bell.

‘I agree entirely, let’s make camp in that glade over there.’

‘The old man was not exaggerating about the dangers here. We should sleep in shifts and keep up a large fire all night.’

She gathered firewood whilst he pitched his tent, cooked the salmon and ate. Then he slept early while she kept the first watch. She sat by the fire chewing burnt fish and sipping ale, occasionally adding more firewood. Despite the constant rustling in the darkness outside the circle of fire light, no beasts threatened them. When she was utterly exhausted she woke him and slept herself.

Alan took the next watch. He was less used to spending nights in the wild, but he was brave enough to remain calm despite the constant rustling and howling that surrounded them. He focused on feeding the fire and keeping his eyes open. Occasionally he stood to walk laps around the camp and look around in all directions. When he too was exhausted he woke Anna- Bell and then slept sound in the knowledge that he was well guarded.

When he woke at dawn and emerged from his tent he was greeted by a shocking sight.

A gigantic red furred bear stood only a few yards away and between him and the bear Anna-Bell lay prone on the floor.

The bear reared up on its hind legs, twice his height.

Instinctively, he reached for his sword.

‘Lye down on your belly and stay down,’ she hissed at him.

He obeyed as the bear roared.

‘If you must look at the bear, then smile- but don’t show your teeth,’ she continued to hiss as she crawled towards him.

The bear roared again, then dropped down to all fours.

It sniffed the air.

Alan lay terrified. Trying not to look at the bear. Trying to smile. Trying not to think about how easily it could rip him in two.

It took a step forward, then sniffed the air again and growled. It stepped closer to Anna- Bell until its nose touched her hair. She lay still, unflinching, until the bear finally turned around and slowly walked away.

At that moment Alan realised that he had been too scared to even breath and caught his breath.

‘What?” was all he managed to say.

‘The Red Bear is a gentle creature, unless it feels provoked,’ she explained.

After breakfast, they continued walking deeper into the forest. They followed the stream eastward, although in some places it almost dried up entirely. Soon the massive spider webs became thicker and fresher.

‘Do you know much of these spiders?’ she asked him.

‘Now, I’m afraid I don’t. ‘

‘Then listen, they are large, bodies the size of a fist. Their bite is not fatal, a single bite will only sting, but if you are bitten many times you will fall into a deep sleep, then you will be as good as dead. You must kill them if they come close to you.’

She put away her axe and held her eating knife. She also wrapped her gorgeous hair into a bun to avoid being entangled. He sheathed his sword and picked up a stout stick.

Moments later, one of the spiders dropped onto her shoulder from an overhead branch. It was a fat, hairy creature with legs the size of fingers. She flicked it away with her knife then stamped on it.

They walked on. It was impossible to avoid the countless webs and they often caught sight of the creatures, dangling from their threads, waiting to pounce.

Without knowing it, they soon found themselves in the midst of a nest of the creatures, which fell upon them like hail.

Anna-Bell slashed, swatted and stamped at the spiders, receiving only one painful bite before she was rid of them.

However, when she turned to Alan he was on his knees, weakly flailing at the creatures as they bit him. She killed them quickly and tried to pull him to his feet.

‘My legs… don’t work… ‘ he managed to say before collapsing.

‘Damn it!’ she cursed as she lifted him up over her shoulder and attempted to carry him.

She stumbled forward, smashing her way out of the nest and taking another bite in the process. She walked in the stream’s water as that offered the clearest path. The water was up to her ankles and she constantly had to push through webs and vines.

‘Stay awake Alan! Gods damn you! You’re lucky you’re not fat or I would have had to leave you to die… I can’t keep this up much longer!’

Fortunately, she did not have to. Soon the webs were behind them and the trees and vines thinned out. She collapsed on the bank of the stream with him half asleep beside her.

“Wake up!’ She shouted as she slapped his face. ‘Wake up! I can’t carry you any further! If you fall asleep you’ll never wake again!’

She splashed stream water on his face then slapped him again. He could barely keep his eyes open. She took her flask of ale and poured some down his throat.

He coughed weakly, blinked then coughed again.

‘I’m awfully tired,’ he said.

She slapped him again, hard that time.

He flinched, then looked up into her eyes and smiled.

‘Let’s get out of this terrible place,’ he managed to say.

She picked up him and put one of his arms around her shoulder and one of her arms round his. In that way he was able to walk slowly. They stopped to rest and eat at midday, after that he was able to walk by himself, but slowly and with a dreamy look on his face.

In the afternoon the Yew and vines were replaced by pine trees. Occasionally they came across stumps of trunks where trees had been felled. A moose stag harmlessly crossed their path.

After a while they found the stump of a young pine which had been cut down at shoulder height. A bear’s skull had been placed at the top.

‘We enter the territory of our enemy, we must proceed carefully,’ Alan remarked.

Eventually they were out of the forest and saw a range of jagged mountains ahead. Halfway up the nearest mountain stood a tall stone watchtower and many cave mouths.

‘I say we stay out of sight at the edge of the forest until nightfall. We cannot risk the Bear Slayers seeing us before we attack,’ Anna-Bell stated.

‘I agree, let us return to the trees and plan our next move,’ Alan said.

When darkness fell, they crept towards the watchtower. When they were a stone’s throw away they paused. As they expected, the guards were relaxing and they heard the loud voices of three or four men. Anna-Bell used her knife to cut tears into her dress in order to make it look both more ragged and more seductive than usual, then concealed her knife. Next Alan crept silently to the door, standing so he would be hidden when it opened. She then walked up to the door with her axe behind her back and knocked on the door.

It was opened by a huge man in a bearskin kilt. She took a step back when she saw him, pretending to be afraid.

‘Please help me… my family were attacked by bandits in the forest…’ she said timidly.

‘You’ll get the help you need…’ he said hungrily.

She staggered back a few steps as he advanced. He reached out for her and at the same time a second guard with a spear came out to investigate. Alan leapt out and expertly stabbed the second guard in the liver with his sword, putting him down instantly. As the huge guard was distracted, Anna-Bell swung up with her axe and slashed him across the face, he stumbled and she finished him off with a blow across the forehead. A third guard ran to the door with a long knife in his hand but Alan was ready for him. Alan parried the knife, then reversed his cut to swing round and slash his left shoulder. Alan then dodged back as the man thrust his knife savagely forward, leaving himself off guard and making it easy for Alan to cut his throat open. As this was happening, she cut the throat of the guard with the torn liver and took a bunch of keys from his belt.

They entered a round, fire lit room. There were chairs and tables and a ladder leading up to the next floor. A teenage girl was chained up at the far side of the room, where she sat on a pile of dirty hay. Her face was badly bruised and her clothes were in tatters.

‘Are there any more guards here?’ Anna-Bell asked her.

‘No… and no more will come until long after dawn,’ the girl replied.

‘Are you sure?” Anna-Bell checked.

‘Yes… I have been kept here for weeks as a slave to these pigs… they do the same thing every damn day… I am sure… Get these damn chains off me!’

As soon as Anna-Bell opened her manacles the girl fell into a frenzy, she stormed outside picked up the spear and proceeded to mutilate the dead guards. In a silent rage, she stabbed at their faces and groins untill she was exhausted. Then she came inside and collapsed on a chair. Alan located the guard’s food store and gave her wine and cheese which she consumed silently.

When the girl seemed calm, Anna-Bell questioned her.

‘Where do they keep the other slaves?’ she asked.

‘The Slave Pit is in a huge cave, not far up the mountain from here.’ the girl replied.

‘Now you have two choices. You may escape alone, if you run south you will reach the river before dawn then follow it east to the next village. Or you can help us to free the other slaves, it will be dangerous and you must-’

‘I come with you, after what those pigs have done to me I would rather die fighting them than live with the shame of what has been done to me.’

It was decided.

They hid the three corpses in nearby bushes then made themselves comfortable in the tower. At dawn they would attack the Slave Pit while their enemies were dozing.

They slept in shifts to ensure that they were all up at the very break of dawn, then they ran and scrambled up the mountain. Soon they reached a boulder from which they could safely view the mouth of the Slave Pit.

As expected, the Bear Slayer guards and slaves were asleep or beginning to wake. Two guards were seen still in blankets at the cave mouth and several more were stirring inside, some stood yawning and some sitting.. The slaves, eight in total, were chained up at the bottom of the cave. A man who was unmistakably Alan’s twin was standing and stretching.

“Damn it! He is mine!’ Alan roared out and charged forward.

That was because his brother was dressed in bear furs and brandishing a whip.

Anna-Bell and the girl were right behind him.

Anna-Bell ran towards the slaves, hacking at any Bear Slayer in her path. As soon as she was close enough, she threw the keys towards the slaves, then turned to inspect the scene. The girl was fighting with her spear against a guard with a sword, just about keeping him at bay. Alan was dueling with his brother. Sword against axe and whip. As evenly matched as shadow boxing. More Bear Slayers emerged from a dark corner of the cave.

She ran to aid the girl, quickly killing her opponent.

The cave was a place of carnage.There were many dead or wounded guards, mostly those who had got in Anna-Bell’s way. Some of the slaves had freed themselves and attacked the guards with tools or rocks; two of those slaves were already dead.

The two women ran down to join the fight between slaves and slavers.

The girl charged the nearest Bear Slayer, stabbing at him with her spear, but he jumped aside and stabbed her arm with his short sword. She ignored the wound and successfully stabbed his leg. However, he bashed her spear aside and slashed across her face. A moment later he stabbed her in the guts and left her for dead.

By that time, Anna-Bell had killed a man and taken a flesh wound to her left shoulder. She was badly outnumbered. All she could do was hold three attackers at bay with her axe. Then more slaves joined the fight. An old man, a middle aged woman and three teenage boys. All the slaves had gathered weapons from the dead and fought with grim determination.

After a few moments of bitter fighting the Bear Slayers were defeated.

Anna- Bell took a moment to catch her breath, then checked on Alan.

The two brothers still fought bitterly, both covered in cuts.

Anna-Bell moved close enough for a clear shot, then threw her axe. As she intended, she hit him in the thigh, putting him out of the fight but not killing him.

The traitor twin fell to his knees.

‘Now is your chance brother, kill me,’ he grunted at Alan.

Alan paused to catch both breath and balance.

‘No brother, I will leave you here. Maybe you will die of your wounds, or maybe you will live as a cripple with the scum who are your family now… The gods will decide,’ Alan said, then turned his back on his shadow and walked away.

Anna-Bell noticed the girl lying half dead, choking on her own blood. She rushed over and knelt beside her.

‘Thank you,’ the girl whispered as she died.

They quickly bandaged their wounds and cut the throats of any half dead Bear slayers. They were keen to escape the pit before any reinforcements arrived. Whilst bandaging the worst of his cuts (most were superficial whipping which hurt terribly but would soon heal) Alan noticed an old slave huddling in the corner, still in her chains.

He walked over and saw an old woman, sat stoically in her chains and rags. They keys to her freedom were at her feet.

‘Time to go madam, you are free now, but we must leave before more of the enemy come,’ he said gently.

‘No… leave me here… go quickly because there are many more Bear Slayers,’ she replied.

‘Forgive me, but that is madness, we will rescue you. The keys are here. You look strong enough to walk with us.’

‘No, I stay, there is nothing for me out there, I have lived here for many years, very many, I have no children and my husband must have died of old age by now, there is nothing…’

‘Madam, was your husband a fisherman?’ asked Alan.

‘Yes.’

‘And was he a kind and generous man, but intolerant of fools?’ Alan continued.

‘You describe him exactly… how…’

‘He is alive and well, I ate salmon from his own hand mere days ago.’

The old woman nodded, unlocked her chains and walked silently out of the pit.

The rest followed her, some striding proudly, others leaning on the shoulders of comrades. Anna-Bell walked at the rear, ensuring that none was left behind. Alan was close beside her.

‘Did you suspect your brother was with the enemy?’ she asked him.

‘Yes, indeed I suspected, yet I hoped… I had to know for sure, do you understand?’

She nodded

As they went down the mountain, Alan’s twin crawled out of the cave to watch them walking to the forest, to new dangers and to freedom.

THE YEAR 95 AFTER THE GREAT WAR.

Anna-Bell woke to the sound of cockerels crowing and the gentle light of dawn.

It was a good morning. The buxom body of a barmaid was wrapped around her and she was not too hungover.

It had been many moons since she and Alan had freed the slaves from the Bear-Slayers and many weeks since she had led a troop of stout warriors to cleanse the mountains of that cult. Her only concern was what to have for breakfast.

She kissed the sleeping barmaid on the forehead and began to dress.

A few moments later, two large men burst into the room.

She took a second to analyse the situation. Neither man seemed to be wearing any armour or uniform, or to bear the tattoos or jewelry of a cult. Both were armed with clubs. One had a coil of robe at his belt. They were not professionals and intended to surprise her and take her alive.

She grabbed her axe from beside the bed and buried it in the first man’s face. As he fell back, the second man tried to hit her head with his club, but missed and battered her shoulder. She jabbed him in the face with her left hand, then grabbed his hair with both hands and pulled his face down into her knee. At this point the barmaid was fully awake and screaming. Anna-Bell pushed the second man away as he collapsed, removed her axe from the first man’s face and stuck it in the second man’s neck.

As he died, she returned to bed to comfort the girl.

Then the landlord ran into the room, looked around and retched. He leaned against the wardrobe to support himself.

‘Help me drag these two to the pigsty round the back, and tell someone to brew a pot of tea,’ Anna-Bell instructed him.

Later, she, the landlord and the girl, who was his daughter, were sat finishing breakfast. The barmaid was still pale and shaking slightly. The girl, whose name was Molly-Chen, had hardly eaten, so Anna-Bell made sure she drank plenty of tea.

‘Any idea who sent those men?’ the landlord asked.

‘I have a lot of enemies,” Anna-Bell replied. “But I’m sure they were employed by someone to capture me, and that whoever sent them will send more soon… For that reason, I must leave here soon and go alone to the woodland in the south. You may not see me again for a long time.’

‘No, please….” cried Molly-Chen, ‘let me go with you.’

“Impossible, to take you with me would be to kill you. Even at the best of times it is very unhealthy to be my friend.’

“Let me help you…’ the maid continued.

‘’You would try to help me, and in doing so you kill us both…’ Anna-Bell knew she had to be gentler with the girl, ‘listen Molly-Chen, I care about you alot, I don’t want to see you cold and half starving in the woods with me, and I really don’t want to see you attacked by hired thugs. I will not have your blood on my hands.’

‘Then I will wait for you,’ the girl said bravely.

‘And I for you… now the best thing that you can do is let me depart quickly, and then tell everyone you know that I have gone to hide in the southern woods, that way my enemies will be drawn away from you and into my trap.’

The landlord and his daughter lent Anna-Bell their fastest buffalo and plenty of ale and dried meat for her journey. Anna-bell set off at a quick trot and Molly-Chen watched until she had disappeared beyond the horizon.

It took almost two days to arrive. As soon she reached the trees, Anna-Bell dismounted, tuned the buffalo round and slapped it’s rump to send it home.

The Southern woods were a far milder and gentler place than the Moose Forest. Instead of one vast, almost impenetrable forest, there were countless clumps of trees spread out over rolling hills. It was home to wolves and red bear, but also hare, rabbits, squirrel, goats and dozens of different songbirds. There were many ponds in the lowlands between hills which were populated by frogs, toads and herons. Instead of the deadly spiders there were an array of dragonflies and butterflies.

However, Anna-Bell had only a couple of days to enjoy the peace and beauty of the place before her enemies caught up with her.

As she was relaxing by the campfire in the evening, she saw a shadow where a shadow ought not to be, moving as a shadow ought not to move.

“Come forward into the firelight, slowly, with your hands where I can see them,” She demanded, “or you’ll get my axe in your brain. You move quietly for a big fellow, but you’d have to be a bit smarter to take me by surprise.”

However, Anna-Bell was a little surprised when a tall, lean woman stepped forward. The woman was sparsely dressed in furs and had covered all her skin and her knee length hair in soot as camouflage. In her belt she wore two daggers, a quiver of arrows and manacles. A short-bow was across her broad shoulders. In her left hand was a stout club. She walked like a stalking wolf, and her proud face was like an eagle.

“Well, you can sit down and have a chat, or we can fight, but seeing as you just lost the element of surprise, I think you should sit down,” Anna-Bell suggested firmly.

“If I return without you as a prisoner, my master will punish me severely,” the powerful woman spoke in a voice without passion or conviction.

“Sounds like a shit master. I’d recommend you don’t return.”

A smile flashed for a moment on the woman’s predatory face, but only for a moment. She sat down on the opposite side of the fire, her club still in hand.

“You’re a lot smarter than the last two lads your master sent,” Anna-Bell continued, trying to sound friendly in face of the fearsome woman.”You’re a professional right?”

“I learnt to hunt before I learnt to speak. “

“Yes, I see talking is not your strong point,”

“All of my people learnt to hunt and fight as soon as we could stand, we were a strong people…”

“… before the master came,” Anna-Bell said what was left unsaid.

Rage flashed across the woman’s face, she almost stood, then thought better of it.

“We are still a strong people, but now the master leads us,” the woman growled.

“What’s so great about “the master”?”

“He is the last wizard. He has all knowledge and all power.”

Anna-Bell thought for a moment.

“Take me to your “master”, in chains if you want. I would like to meet the last wizard.”

“I could take you by force,” she replied.

“Don’t you even know who you are talking to?”Anna-Bell asked.

“I know. You are Anna-Bell, trained by Alan Sword Master, sister of the wolf, Slayer of the Bear-Slayers, greatest warrior under the sun and most desirable woman under the moon. I know. But you have not yet fought me.”

“And maybe I never will,” Anna-Bell defused the situation. “Have meat and ale, tomorrow we will go see your “master”, I will even wear those manacles if you enjoy that sort of thing. “

They set off together after breakfast the next day. The woman did not push for Anna-Bell to wear manacles, but she did insist on taking her axe from her. Anna-Bell considered this sensible.

They walked south, out of the woods and into open grassland. There were many wild buffalo as well as wolves and feral dogs. The sun beat down but they marched rapidly until midday when they stopped under the shade of a thorny tree.

“I never asked your name,” Anna-Bell said as they ate.

“Maria-Louise Seff-Daughter.”

“I’ll call you Mary.”

“Hmm. Do you see the wolves that watch us from the long grass?”

“Yes.”

“They do not bother you?”

“No. They are just watching to see if we leave scraps.”

“Is it true that you can talk to wolves?”

“Yes. I can talk to them, but they don’t reply much.”

The woman grunted, and Anna-Bell knew that was the closest thing to a laugh that she would hear today. There were three wolves in the grass ahead of them. One adult and two cubs that were almost fully grown. All three looked hungry. The adult had mismatched green and blue eyes.

Moments later, the largest of the wolves began crawling cautiously towards them.

Maria-Louise reached for one of her daggers, but Anna-Bell gave her a sharp look and shook her head. Anna-Bell then stood up holding a large piece of dried meat. She walked slowly towards the wolf, which stood up and growled at her. Anna-Bell growled back and the big wolf sat down like a trained dog. Next, Anna-Bell ripped the meat into three pieces. The first piece she presented to the big wolf, who took it gently from her hand. Then she threw the other pieces of meat to the pups. The wolf with the blue and green eyes gulped down the meat then lay on its back and let Anna-Bell stroke it’s belly.

“By the gods!” Maria-Louise exclaimed. “They told me you were a fearsome woman, but just a human who could be broken like any other… Now I do not know what you are!”

“Mary, this is ‘Rainbow Eyes’, we have known each other for a long time, but this is the first time I have ever seen her so far south,” Anna-Bell said, as though it explained everything.

Soon after the wolves trotted away and the two women marched further south.

They stopped at dusk, made camp and ate. The sunset was like a vast purple bruise against the enormous savannah sky. Dogs and wolves howled in the distance and birds sang in the sparse trees.

“This is the last of the dried meat, tomorrow we must hunt,” said Anna-Bell.

“Forget about that, I will have hunted meat before you wake tomorrow,” growled Maria-Louise.

They ate in silence for a while.

“Tell me Mary, do you have a husband or a lover back home?” asked Anna-Bell.

“No. When I was younger all the men were scared of me. Now all the beautiful women marry the master and the… the other women serve him as hunters and warriors, all the men serve him also.”

“Sounds like slavery to me.”

“It is devotion, and I do not care for your opinions… Listen, there is something important I must tell you. We are being followed. One man, maybe more, is stalking us. He is clever, staying low in the grass on the horizon behind us, but I noticed him this afternoon.”

“I know.”

“If it is one of your friends, I will kill him as soon as he shows his face.”

“Don’t worry about that, if it is one of my friends you will not see his face until it is far too late.”

“Whatever! Tonight you must wear the manacles and surrender your blade.”

“It will not be the first time I have gone to bed in chains.”

The next morning, Maria-Louise was true to her word. When Anna-Bell woke there was a rabbit cooking on the fire. As soon as she finished cooking, Maria-Louise unlocked the manacles, but did not return the weapons.

“Eat quickly. Today we march fast and will be with my people by nightfall.”

When the sun began to set and they were utterly exhausted from marching, a missive campsite came into view. One huge tent of yellow silk was surrounded by hundreds of small tents made of leather or furs. Buffalo, goats and children wandered between the tents and dozens of men and women, sparsely dressed in furs and armed with spears and bows, stood guard around the perimeter.

Two of the guards, a young man and an elderly woman came forward to meet them.

“Why isn’t she in chains?” the old woman growled when she reached Anna-Bell.

“She comes freely to meet the master,” replied Maria-Louise.

“Ofcourse, all will wish to serve the master,” said the old woman.

“I wouldn’t serve your master a glass of water if his balls were on fire,” Anna-Bell scoffed.

The older woman slapped her face and the manacles were again placed on her hands. Anna-Bell tolerated the abuse because her curiosity outweighed her pride. She wanted to meet this ‘wizard’, and did not want to massacre those deluded people unless she had to.

So she allowed herself to be led to a small, grimy tent where she was given some fruit and milk and guarded by the old woman and three men.

When it was fully dark she was led out of the village to a large open space where a bonfire had been lit. A tall wooden throne was set up behind the fire and all the people sat in rows on the grass facing the throne. As she was roughly escorted towards the throne, she could see the man sat upon it. He was medium height, a little fat and had a bald head that shone in the fire light. Overall, he was a disappointingly unremarkable looking man. As she came closer, he looked down on her with disdain.

Maria-Louise was sitting close to the throne, she still held Anna-Bell’s weapons.

“Finally, you have caused me some inconvenience,” he greeted her in a surprisingly high pitched voice.

“You could have just written me an invitation,” she replied.

“Would you have come?”

“No.”

“Exactly. “

“What do you want from me?”

“Cooperation. I am giving you the opportunity to serve me, in exchange you can have anything you want. Let me explain… I have vast powers, but so far lack a great reputation, you on the other hand have an epic reputation. In a tiny northern fishing village an old woman and her husband built a statue of you. In every inn and tavern in the land people sing ballads about you. Men and women alike dream about you…”

“Stop the flattery,” she was genuinely embarrassed.

“So modest! You would make a fine bride. Together we would rule this land.”

“It seems that you have been misinformed about me. I’m not interested in ruling anyone, or being anyone’s bride. Let’s get to the point here. I was told that you were a wizard, you don’t look like a wizard to me.”

“My powers are many fold. I have the knowledge to predict the movement of the sun, moon and stars. I can heal the sick with my bare hands, I know the use of every herb and how to combine them to increase their power. Furthermore I have magical artefacts of great power; a tube that allows me to see great distances, a stick that allows me to kill a man with a twitch of my finger, a box that instantly produces fire, a device which turns night into day, and greatest of all-”

Suddenly he was interrupted by a booming voice from the outer darkness.

“Science!” shouted the voice. “Not magic, but science! You are no wizard, but a scavenger who has pulled together scraps of information from the dark days before the Great Wars! Clearly you have been looting in the dust of the ruined cities where no decent people go!”

“Alan!” Anna-Bell exclaimed, for it was he who came striding towards them out of the darkness.

“Did you think I would leave you alone with these fools?” he told her gently, then he turned to the man on the throne and spoke wrathfully, “You have tricked these people and bound them to your will. You have manipulated them with scraps of old knowledge and trinkets from a time that is best forgotten. If you had your way you would drag the world back to those terrible days before the Great Wars!”

“Lies and nonsense! Soon you will witness my immense power! Drag these two away! Drag them away in chains!”

None of the people moved. They remained sitting, their faces expressionless. Only Maria-Louise stood and approached them.

Anna-Bell braced herself for a fight. But instead the fearsome woman embraced her, then returned her axe to her.

“This is the greatest woman I have ever met!” she told the crowd. “I came to her as an enemy, but she treated me as a friend. As far as I can see, she is incapable of fear or malice. Today she could have slain dozens of us, but she tolerated our rudeness because she wanted to learn about us. Now I stand beside her,” Maria-Louise said.

“Enough! I am the master here! Drag them away! Throw them on the fire!” he screamed.

“Be quiet,” Anna-Bell told him. You are no wizards and no master. You could have used your knowledge to help humanity, instead you have subjugated these once proud people. I will give you one chance to repent. Go back to the dust of the gods forsaken city and never return.”

“I am the master and I will be obeyed!” he bellowed.

Anna-bell threw her axe at his head, splitting his skull and killing him instantly.

“Come on Alan, let’s go, there is a barmaid waiting for me in the north.”

THE YEAR 112 AFTER THE GREAT WAR.

Tears flowed freely down her face as she watched the flaming torch ignite the huge pile of oil soaked logs. Within a few moments the pyre was ablaze. Flames lit up the sky and smoke towered upwards. Soon the musky smell of burning wood was mixed with a richer smell, like roasting pork.

With his last breath, Alan had requested a large pyre, something that would be seen across the land and spoken of for generations. He wanted to be remembered, and he had earned that.

As the tears completely obscured Anna-Bell’s vision, her mind drifted away to a time long ago. She saw herself (as a girl, not yet becoming a woman) and her sword master practising. They fought with bamboo canes because she was not ready to advance to blunt steel. The rules were simple, they could hit (only with the canes) with their full strength but not on the hands or head. The exercise was designed not only to improve fencing skills but also to be painful enough to build the survival instinct- but without causing permanent damage. She was losing. She struggled to parry and had no opportunity to attack. She was being forced to fall back, steadily retreating as painful blows fell on her legs and arms. She remembered how she had retreated until her back was against a tree, she remembered how she had felt utterly dominated and how that had thrown her into a rage. She had kicked him savagely in the knee and when he stepped back in surprise she snapped her cane over her knee and used one of the sharp ends to slash his sword hand. Blood erupted from the wound, but instead of reacting to the pain, Alan had taken a pace backwards, dropped his cane then stood to attention as he did when lectoring groups of students on combat theory.

This brought Anna-Bell out of her rage. She looked down at her own shaking hands in disgust. She dropped the two broken bits of bamboo, one of which was sticky with blood.

“You have done badly,” Alan told her calmly. “Not only have you fought unsportingly and without honour, you have also disrespected your teacher. You are expelled from my academy…”

“No, please master… Alan…” she had begged, overwhelmed with guilt.

“Silence. Let me finish. You are expelled from my academy until you can perform a great deed to redress the balance of the bad deed you have just done. Go out into the world and do good, when the balance is restored you may return.”

He had been a very fair man. Now he was dead.

The flames were dying down and she had to step back from the heat of the vast embers. She whipped the tears from her eyes. Looking around she saw that most of the people were moving off to the funeral feast. She looked up at the smoke drifting to block out the stars and moon. They were atop a hill and the fire would have been seen not only from the village below but all the villages for three days march in each direction. Then she noticed a girl stood alone by the fire. Instinctively, she went over to her and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. The girl looked to be in her early teens. Her build was petite yet Anna-Bell felt powerful shoulders under the black cloak which the girl wore. That cloak also hid her hair and face, until the girl tilted her head.

“You must be Anna-Bell,” the girl said in a sweet voice that was made even genteler by grief.

“And you… “Anna-Bell began, then she looked into the girl’s bright eyes, the same steely eyes that had looked at her so many times down the blade of a sword. “By the gods! You must be Alan’s daughter.”

“Yes. Father did not tell you he had a daughter?” really it was a statement rather than a question.

“No, he did not talk much. Not about himself, only about the lesson, or the mission, whatever needed to be done.”

“Yes, he is like that, he was like that…”

What sort of monster am I? Not to know something so important about my best friend? Anna-Bell thought to herself. There were so many things we never talked about and now he is dead.

“We should go join the others at the feast, little sister,” Anna-Bell said.

“I don’t feel like eating,” the girl replied.

“But we must. We must feast and drink like the mighty queens of old, that is how we show our respect for Alan. That is how we celebrate your dad’s life.”

Anna-Bell gently led the girl by the hand towards the huge tent that had been pitched at the bottom of the hill.

“What is your name?” Anna-Bell asked.

“Charlotte-Fey.”

“That’s a good name.”

“No, it is an unlucky name, it was my mother’s name,” then the girl started to cry.

The next morning, as they ate breakfast together, Charlotte-Fey explained how her mother had died during childbirth. Anna-Bell realised that this was why Alan had not talked about his family. Alan had taken care of her as best he could, and when he was away on missions one of his older students would take care of her.

“What will you do now?” Anna-Bell asked the girl.

“I want to stay with you,” she replied.

“That would be very dangerous.”

“My father trained me well.”

“Normally I would say no, but you are no average girl and your dad was the closest thing to family I’ve ever had… All of my life I wanted to have a sister, now you have turned up, so we will be sisters. I have no urgent missions at the moment, we can go anywhere you like.”

“Thank you so much. Father said that you have been everywhere and done everything, I want to ask you… have you ever seen a unicorn?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Do you think people ate all the unicorns in The Great Wars, like we ate all the horses?”

Anna.Bell thought about this carefully, then she said, “No, I don’t think we ate the unicorns… Once I saw a rhinoceros. “

“What’s that?”

“It is like a very fat unicorn.”

Charlotte-Fey smiled for the first time since her father’s death, almost laughed, and then said, “I would very much like to see a fat unicorn.”

“Then we will go across the sea to the endless grassland in the south west and look for a rhinoceros.”

Their plan was simple, they would go to the nearest port, then hire themselves out as bodyguards to earn passage on a ship.

For three uneventful days they followed the nearest river down to the coast. The port consisted of a pier on a stoney beach, a rundown tavern, some huts used for storage, a market and a dozen simple houses. A few fishing boats were moored at the pier and a single tall sailing ship was anchored a little way out to sea.

It didn’t take long to find the ship’s captain in the tavern.

He was a tall, lean man with grey hair in a top-knot. Fortunately he was heading south west, not as far as they wanted to travel, but to a large island where they would meet more ships.

“I’ll be glad of two more pairs of hands, the waves are not safe these days… but no pirate in his right mind would board me if they knew you two were on board. Gods no! Anna-Bell and Alan Swordmaster’s daughter. I never thought I’d see the day…” the old captain liked to talk, as men often do when they have spent a lot of time alone. “Those pirates would rather kiss a shark that board me now! Mind you, you will have to work, not just sitting around looking beautiful and deadly all day… Everyone has to work on my ship…”

It was the first time that Charlotte-Fey had been on a sailing ship and she was fascinated by it, but Anna-Bell was less impressed.

The paint had faded from the dragon figurehead on the forecastle (which served as kitchen and food store) and the triangular sail that flew there was threadbare. The sail which hung on the main mast appeared to have been made from four smaller sails stitched together. There was a sterncastle which housed a cabin for all the crew (only six people in total) to sleep together in hammocks and a second tiny cabin for the captain. Above that, on the quarterdeck, a huge wheel, which stood at an odd angle, controlled the rudder. Two thirds of the space below deck controlled trading goods, mostly furs and skins which stank, and the remaining third was the bilge which stank far worse.

Despite the gentle waves, the ship sat low in the water and rocked a great deal.

The rest of the crew consisted of an old man who was the cook, an old woman who was the carpenter, and two lads (barely fully grown) who were deckhands. There was also a massive, scruffy cat.

“Is that a tiger cub?” Charlotte-Fey asked when she first saw it.

“No lady,” said John, the younger of the two lads, who was petting it, “it’s called a cat. They used to live everywhere, even the far north. Now there are just a few left in the western desert. We traded him for a dozen pairs of buffalo horns and a moose pelt. They are the best thing for keeping rats off a ship and…”

“Get back to work lad, stop showing off in front of the ladies,” cried the captain. “ He never stops talking, that lad. This dad was a wealthy trader, so he thinks he’s something special. I cannot stand a man who talks too much, I’m a man of few words myself, always have been always will be… A quiet sort of a fellow, that’s me…”

“The cat’s name is Charlie,” John said as he walked off to help the cook.

They were kept busy for the first two days of the voyage. The spare sails needed mending, the deck always needed scrubbing dry and the old cook needed help with every meal.

On the third day it started to rain.

Then they were even busier. The deck was always wet and the hold needed bailing out. It kept raining. The cabin rooms leaked in a dozen places, so they were never dry, the only time they were close to being warm was at mealtimes when they crowded round the stove in the forecastle.

“I can’t remember how it felt to be dry,” Charlotte-Fey complained on the evening of the fifth day.

They lay in damp hammocks. The wind nipped through cracks in the wooden cabin walls and huge drops of rain fell amongst them.

“Two or three more days and we will be on dry land, then in another week we will be in the hottest, driest place you have ever seen,” replied Anna-Bell.

On the afternoon of the sixth day, the storm started. The wind and rain steadily increased and lightning flashed on the northern horizon.

In the evening, as they huddled in their hammocks and fell in and out of fitful sleep, they heard a crack like the stamp of a giant’s boot.

They rushed outside, had a moment to stare in horror at the stump where the main mast used to be, then were thrown overboard by a vast wave.

Charlotte-Fey remembered little of what happened next. Just a nightmare eternity of being thrown about on the waves. Endless chaos of wet, cold, pain, exhaustion, salt, lightning, darkness. Trying to keep her numb limbs flailing and her head above water… then nothingness.

Charlotte-Fey woke on a beach of grey sand and pebbles. Everything hurt. Everything was wet. Everything was cold.

But she was breathing.

Slowly, she crawled out of the surf and sat up. Next she coughed out foul salt water. A warm wind was blowing. She took off her tattered cloak and was less terribly cold. Suddenly she was thirsty, very thirsty.

Looking around she saw only the beach and shrubs. There had to be a village, or a river… something.

She stood, put her cloak over one shoulder and started walking along the shore. There was a faint noise. A gentle sneeze, then a cry like a baby. In front of her was what looked like a bundle of wet rags.

The bundle rolled over, stood and shook itself.

“Charlie!” she picked up the cat and hugged it close to her chest. “If you survived, then there must be others… There might be others somewhere.”

She walked on, still holding the cat, which began to purr.

After a great deal of exhausted stumbling, of desperately placing one foot ahead of the other, she saw a patch of bright trees. Rushing towards them, she found unfamiliar fruit hanging from the branches. She gently placed Charlie on the ground. Greedy she peed away the sour smelling skin and bit into the sweet, wet fruit.

It was the best thing she had ever tasted.

She hung her soaking cloud from a branch and finished the fruit.

Moments later, she noticed the cat wandering off and followed him to a tiny stream which he was lapping from. She drank from it, cupping her shaking hands. The terrible weakness was lifted from her, like mist from a mountain in a strong wind. The salt and sand was washed from her throat and strength dripped back into her blood.

After satisfying her thirst, she sat with her back against a tree and ate another of the bright, sweet fruits. Before she knew it, she was dreaming.

She fell from the burning sky into a vast river which carried her round in circles. Above the roar of the water, she heard men’s voices shouting her name. Giant hands dragged her down under the water. Down into freezing darkness. She was pulled to the bed of the river- or maybe it was the seabed- through the sand and rocks to the centre of the earth- or maybe the end of the earth. It was dark, and hot and dry, very dry. A burning wind blew and it carried voices who called her name. Faceless vices from the past.

A strong hand touched her chest, then her neck, then her face. A powerful, familiar voice spoke her name.

“Father…” Charlotte-Fey gasped, as she woke.

“No, it is your sister,” Anna-Bell told her.

“You are alive! We are alive! Is this real… we are not alone?”

“We are no longer alone, we have survived,” said Anna-Bell. “The gods are drunk and mad, but they are not cruel, they would not separate us for too long, not after we waited so long to meet.”

“How did you find me?”

“I was flung upon this shore soon after dawn, I wandered alone for a long time, then I saw your footprints.”

“We are lucky.”

“Yes, we are.”

They embraced tightly.

“Do you think anyone else survived?” Charlotte Fey asked.

“Some of them were very old… the lads might have made it. I guess the Captain went down with his ship.”

“Yes, we shall tell people he bravely went down with his ship… when we got off this island.”

“How do you know we are on an island?”

“It’s so quiet, and I have seen no smoke from fires or any other sign of life, and no clouds stay above us. I think it is quite a small island.”

“You are very clever, now the difficult question is, how do we get away?”

“We could attract attention to get help, but that might attract the wrong sort of attention, the Captain was always talking about pirates. So I guess the best thing would be to build a raft. There are trees, and there is driftwood, but we have no tools.”

“Agreed. Wish I had not lost my axe, at least I still have my dagger, that’s a good start.”

Anna-Bell ventured inland to explore and look for fruit, vines and bamboo whilst Charlotte-Fey searched the beach for large driftwood. It was getting dark as Charlotte-Fey dragged a huge plank of wood towards the stream. Anna-Bell was sat on the root of a tree, next to a pile of fruit.

“Good work sister,” Anna-Bell greeted her.

“Could you give me a hand with it?”

She helped her carry the plank to the fruit tree.

“Did you find much?” Charlotte-Fey asked.

“Most of the interior is rocks and stunted trees, we can explore it together tomorrow. I found this fruit. It’s been years since I had any southern fruit, but I think these are safe to eat.”

There were round, purple fruits with green spikes and yellow star shaped fruit.

“They look amazing, now I just want to eat and sleep,” Charlotte-Fey yawned.

“Then that is what we will do.”

There was a girl with hair like starlight and eyes like a river at dawn, and she wrapped her legs around Anna-Bell. They kissed passionately and with great hunger. Then as the girl gasped for breath, Anna-Bell nibbled her neck and ran her fingers through her hair.

“Never leave me,” the girl gasped, ”never, never, never…”

“Anna-Bell! Wake up sister! Wake up!” Charlotte-Fey shouted.

“Rose-Han?” with grinding harshness, Anna-Bell’s mind snapped away from the dream and back to the grim reality of the situation. “Sister? What is it?”

“A boat… a boat and a ship, we are rescued.”

A long rowing boat was fast approaching and further out was a ship with sails like bats wings. The ship sat high in the water, the figurehead was a bull’s head and round shields hung from the forecastle.

“Grab the most dangerous stick you can find and be ready to attack when I give the order,” Anna-Bell commanded.

Charlotte-Fey grabbed a stout stick just as eight short, stocky men jumped out of the boat. Six 0f them stalked up the beach while two secured the boat, they all had daggers or axes in their belts and they looked very pleased to see the ladies.

“Those two will fetch a fine price at the market,”said one of the pirates.

“The young one will, the other is a bit past her best,”said another.

Anna-Bell picked up a large pebble and then threw it in the face of the man who had just spoken. His teeth were smashed as he fell on his back. She then drew her dagger as the other seven rushed her. The first pirate to reach her was stabbed in the hand as he tried to reach her, he staggered backwards, clenching his wounded hand, this gave the other pirates pause for thought. They kept their distance, drew their weapons and encircled the women. The two men who had been securing the boat came strolling towards them.

“What’s taking so long?”demanded one of the newcomers, who was better dressed than the others and carried a curved short sword.

“Sorry boss, they’re not bloody well cooperating!” shouted the man with the wounded hand.

The boss slapped his face. Then he noticed the unconscious man with the broken teeth, who he kicked.

“It’s just two girls! Disarm them and get them in chains! And try not to break their faces! I need them looking pretty for the market.”

It was seven against two. If she had been armed with her sword, Charlotte-Fey would have been confident that she could have killed enough to scare off the rest, but with only a branch she was not so sure.

“Don’t you know who she is?” Charlotte -Fey shouted at the boss.

“All I see are a couple of pasty skinned, straw haired Northern girls. Now are you going to surrender or is this going to get messy?”

“We are a long way from home,” Anna-Bell said. “Personally, I’d rather die than surrender to these bastards. But you’ve got your whole life ahead of you…”

“Let’s give them a beating to remember!” shouted Charlotte -Fey.

One of the pirates advanced, wielding an axe. Anna-Bell darted forward, kicked it out of his hand and darted back again.

“Right! I’m sick of this, someone go get the blood nets!”roared the boss.

In the dark, damp, stinking hold of the ship, the ladies lay on the floor. They both had one of their ankles in manacles which were chained to the bulkhead. Their bodies were covered in scratches and bruises.

The waves could be heard against the hull. A rat squeaked in a corner.

“We’re going to get out of here, aren’t we?” Charlotte-Fey said, her voice dry and weak.

“Yes, just as soon as the gods give us a fighting chance,” Anna-Bell replied.

They were quiet for a long time. Then Charlotte-Fey started to cry, softly at first, then louder and louder.

“I just wanted to see the fat unicorns… “ she sobbed.

“The rhinoceros? Yes… We will… you can ride one if you want, would you like that?” Anna-Bell replied.

“I would like that very much… Thank you sister… I wish my dad was here to help us.”

“Me too. But we have each other… I’ve been alone so often in this life. So many comrades and lovers are all dead or lost…so much time alone. I’m glad I found you before the end.”

They hugged silently and eventually fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Time passed slowly.

Day after day of darkness, hunger, thirst and soul crushing boredom.

Once or twice a day, as far as they could tell, they would be given water and ship’s biscuits. Occasionally, they would be taken above deck for fresh air and exercise. From the deck all they could see was an endless ocean and a bright, clear sky.

It seemed that it was going to be a long voyage, and the boss did not want his merchandise to be damaged.

It was the turn of the pirate who Anna-Bell had stabbed in the hand to feed them. His wound had gone rotten and caused him no end of trouble.

“If it was up to me, you’d be thrown overboard,” he said as he dumped a jug of stale water and a basket of biscuits next to them. “You ruined my hand, killed my mate Ali and crippled my mate Hamza.”

“You’re lucky to be alive, enjoy it while you can,” Anna-Bell told him.

He stood up and clenched his fist, but then winced painfully and backed away.

“Eat up fast, the boss wants you on deck,” he grunted.

Soon a second pirate came and they were taken up on deck. The chains stayed on their ankles and were held by the pirates who led them like dogs on leads.

“They look like shit and smell worse,” the boss declared. “How am I supposed to sell them like this? There are only a few days until landfall! Fetch water and brushes.”

The women strode stoically as buckets of sea water were thrown on them and then their hair was roughly brushed.

“Now get some bloody exercise!” shouted the boss.

Hand in hand, they paced up and down the deck with their chains trailing behind them.

There were three armed pirates guarding them. They held their weapons but were relaxed,

the girls were too exhausted to fight and there was nowhere for them to go.

“I hope Charlie is doing better than us,” Charlotte-Fey said.

“He’ll be alright, there were mice and lizards for him to eat on the island,” Anna-Bell replied, she tried to stay calm, but things were getting desperate.

She had no idea where they were and only a vague idea of where they were going, but she was sure that when they reached land they would be even more outnumbered and heading to a far worse situation.

They kept pacing the deck. The sun was bright, but there was a cool breeze which slowly dried their hair and tattered clothes. The sea stretched out infinitely in every direction. No birds flew in the turquoise sky.

Then they heard strange noises- high pitched whistling and clicking.

“Sister, look,” Anna-Bell whispered.

Charlotte-Fey looked out to sea and gasped. They rushed to the starboard side and gazed at the huge, majestic animals that were swimming towards the ship.

“They are so beautiful,”Charlotte-Fey rubbed her eyes in disbelief.

“What’s the matter, never seen a narwhal before?”scoffed the pirate boss.

The narwhals swam beside the ship. The waves danced against their silvery hides and the sunlight sparkled from their vast horns.

“Do you want to ride the fat unicorns with me?” Anna-Bell asked her sister.

“Yes, very much so.”

Hand in hand, the two heroines jumped overboard, taking their chances with the open sea and the majesty of nature.

THE END.

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Writer, poet, teacher

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