Authors: Andrew Wood
After spending the night cold and hungry, Hope and Arran slowly continued their journey down the Ulga Mountain pass. They had barely eaten anything in the last day or so, and as a result Hope felt weak and tired. The fire they had lit the previous night had been small and rather sorry looking. With so little to burn, it had been a long cold night. Only the fact they had found cover behind some rocks, had kept them from the biting winds that blew across the pass.
With a helping arm from Arran, and the persistence he showed in pushing onwards, they continued to make progress. The pass they travelled at least sloped down a little, though it continually twisted one way then the other as it followed the natural contours of the land. The only thing they had plenty of was fresh water, and Arran made sure Hope at least drank her fill. "The lower we get, the more likely I will find us another rabbit. Just keep that thought in your mind Hope," he said trying to encourage her along. He knew she was struggling, he was finding it difficult himself, but he would keep them going.
As they travelled around yet another bend with the wind howling into their faces, they came to a sudden stop. Just a hundred paces further down the track stood a squad of mounted soldiers. Hope looked up and recognised the colours immediately. These were Corlan troops. Hope could feel her last reserves of energy come to the fore, as she quickly closed the gap. Arran had little choice but to increase his pace to keep up with her.
They looked up at the man at the front of the squad. A soldier, probably in his mid-twenties with pointy features stared back at them. "Now what might two Darekians be doing travelling into Corlan?" the man asked in a nasally tone. Hope was just about to tell him who she was when Arran spoke up first. "I am from Darekia Sir. I am returning this young lady back to her home." The soldier scoffed at Arran, "I doubt this is a young lady. Now turn about and return to your own lands, before I have you arrested."
Hope could not believe what she was hearing, and almost shoved Arran over as she barged in front of him to speak to this rude soldier. She stared at the squad leader, recognisable by a half stripe on the man's sleeve. Firmly planting her hands on her sides, she took a deep breath. "Excuse me. You will escort us to Lanber now. I am Lady Hope, niece of the king. I will not have you talk to us in such a way."
The soldier laughed, clearly trying to impress his squad of twelve men behind him. "Oh I do apologise my Lady," he said in a mocking tone, and faking a bow of his head. Hope continued her glaring at the sheer rudeness of the man. She looked beyond him to a few of the faces in the squad. It was clear there was uncertainty there. Perhaps some did believe who she was, or at the very least did have doubts over their squad leader.
Hope decided to push a little further. "You are a rude obnoxious little twerp. I shall see to it that you are left mucking out the stables for the next month. It is quite apparent an idiot such as you is not fit to be put in charge of anything." The man looked at her with utter distain, and Hope could see his face getting redder. To her surprise, he got down off his horse, and stood face to face with Hope. "I will make you eat those words you little tramp," he spat. With the situation already getting out of hand, Arran made it worse by barging the man to the floor, in her defence.
The soldier pulled his sword as he got to his feet, "Now you will both pay," he said waving his sword in their direction. Hope thought what she would like to have done now, had she still got the ring. With her heart beating faster and the adrenaline pumping, she braced herself. "Perhaps we should do this by the book Sir," one of the other soldiers shouted from behind. "You know how General Corley is a stickler for doing things right," said another. The squad leader turned briefly to face his men, and then quickly back at Arran and Hope. Forcing his sword back into its scabbard, he spat on the floor. "Arrest them both. I think charges of assault should do for starters. I will enjoy watching you squeal Darekian," he said, aiming the remark at Arran.
After just a few minutes, both Hope and Arran were bound by their hands, and on horseback. Sharing the saddles of two of the soldiers in the squad, they set off down the hillside. In a strange sort of way, Hope thought that being arrested could prove to be a blessing. Firstly, she did not have to walk anymore, and more importantly, that meant getting to Lanber much quicker. At their current speed, they could well be there in the next few hours. The squad-leader was clearly angry and wanting to enact some sort of punishment, as a result he was pushing the horses harder than he probably should. As they travelled, the soldier who had been ordered to have her share his horse passed his hand back to her. "Here you go My Lady," he said passing over an apple. "I believe you," he whispered back to her. Hope lifted her bound hands to her mouth. It was certainly difficult trying to eat whilst riding on the back of a horse with your hands tied together.
With her hunger pains all but forgotten about for now, Hope felt a smug satisfaction as the walls of Lanber came into view. It was early afternoon, they had barely stopped to rest since being arrested on the mountain pass, but she was almost back to civilization, as she knew it. She looked over to Arran, who was on the horse to the left of her, and could see the Darekian was in awe at the size of the town.
Lanber had been one of the border towns that had been completely destroyed by the Darekian invasion in the last war. As far as it was known, only one person had survived that attack. A young lad known as Levin, had escaped that fateful day thanks to the selfless bravery of his father. That very same youngster had become a close friend and advisor to the king. Levin had for the last few years, been Governor of Lanber. His adoptive father was General Jak Corley who was commander of the town's large garrison.
The town was now completely encircled by a thirty-foot defensive wall. As it was close to the Darekian border, it was deemed that the place needed to be rebuilt with defence in mind. Lanber now had a large Garrison of over five hundred soldiers. Their job was to patrol and defend the border with Besemia, and more importantly the one with Darekia.
Since the king had asked all the country's garrison towns to be on a state of alert, soldiers from Lanber made daily patrols along the Ulga Mountain passes. It had been one of these patrols that had found Hope and Arran, and now carried them through the town gates.
The guards on the gate let the group ride through without stopping. Along a cobbled main street, they turned into a large yard, and pulled to a stop. "Get them down, and take them to the jail," snapped the Squad Leader as he slipped down from his horse. As he walked past Hope, he gave her an evil smirk. The soldier who had ridden with Hope helped her gently down from the horse. "Thank you," she mouthed before turning to watch the squad-leader disappear into one of the buildings.
Arran was not treated quite so well, as he was dragged to the ground. "Please tell me you really are the Lady Hope, niece of the King," the soldier with her whispered quietly in her ear. She looked him in the eye. He was quite young, with short fair hair and a rounded friendly looking face. Hope nodded, "I am she. What I said is the truth." She grabbed his sleeve with her bound hands, "I need you to find General Corley for me, before this idiot Squad-leader of yours has me flogged. Can you do that for me?" The soldier nodded, before bowing his head slightly, "Yes my Lady," he replied before running off to an impressive looking building.
Hope had put her trust in a young man to get her back to Corlan. She was now relying on another she had just met, to get her out of these jumped up charges. In the meantime, both she and Arran were escorted across a very busy garrison yard, towards another building. The two guards on the doorway looked down on them as they were shoved inside. "Will you stop pushing me," Hope turned scowling at one of the guards escorting her. The man just grinned a toothless smile, before shoving her forward again.
A metal barred door was opened, and both Arran and Hope were ushered through it. The door was then slammed behind them, and she looked on as a soldier turned the key to lock them in. "Won't be long before you get your punishment. Assault on one of the Kings Officers isn't taken lightly you Darekian scum," the man spat as he spoke. Hope was just about to remind the fool that she was from Corlan, but felt all her weakness and tiredness come back. The will to argue vanished, and she just slumped to the straw covered floor instead.
She now knew it was a race between the Squad Leader getting his charges heard, and the young soldier who had agreed to help getting to Jak Corley. She had barely time to think of the consequences of the former when she heard shouting. She stood and looked towards the doorway of the building but could not see who was making the ruckus.
Hope afforded a smile as a senior looking gent in full military uniform stood outside her cell. "Hello Jak," she said casually, as if meeting him under these circumstances were somewhat of an everyday occurrence. General Corley turned to one of the guards, "Open this bloody cell door...Now!" he bellowed. The soldier in question fumbled nervously with the set of keys, made all the worse by Jak tapping his foot impatiently.
Hope burst through the doorway, and wrapped her arms around the General. "Am I ever pleased to see a friendly face," she said squeezing him tightly. Arran walked out behind her, and waited for the two to finish their greeting. "I am sure you have much to tell me My Lady," Jak said with a smile. The General looked beyond Hope to the young Darekian stood behind her. Hope, noticing the uncertainty on Jak's face, told him that Arran was with her, and introduced the two to each other.
Once outside, Hope noticed the entire squad who had picked her up were lined up. There was one who she wanted to say thank you to, and so she walked over toward them. "Jak, that young man there was the only one who believed me. He fed me and helped get you to me before he," she said pointing to the Squad Leader, "Could have me flogged."
If looks could have killed then the squirming figure of the squad leader would have been dead the moment Jak Corley laid eyes on him. The man that had helped was thanked by both the General and Hope, before being told to report back to duty. The others were then severely reprimanded, and told they would all be mucking out the stables everyday for the next week. The squad leader however was not going to get off so lightly. With rank came responsibility, and it was quite clear this man had shown none. "You, will report to my office and wait for me to return," Jak shouted at him, clearly angry at the way he had treated Hope.
The man slowly trudged off in the direction of the main building rather crest fallen, to await his punishment. Hope turned to Jak, "Can we have some food Jak, aside from the little given to me by the soldier, neither I nor Arran has eaten for some time." The General looked down at her, his weathered aged face smiling as he held out an arm so he may lead her to the mess hall.
It was still quite clear that the General was not sure what to make of Arran. The youngster was Darekian after all, and trusting one as such was not something one did lightly. Jak sat opposite the pair as two bowls of stew were placed before them, along with several slices of thick bread and butter. "Eat up," the General said getting to his feet. "I will be back in a little while after I've dealt with that snivelling little weasel." Hope was about to say not to go too hard on the man, but thought better of it; he deserved to get whatever was coming his way.
In his office, Jak Corley sat behind his desk looking up at the nervous looking figure before him. "What is your name?" he asked. "Squad Leader Amson Sir," came the reply. A silence followed as Jak thought about what to do. "Well you are now private Amson," Jak said calmly. "Did you not think for one second that what the girl told you was truth," he added raising his voice. "Do you realise that had one of your men not shown initiative to come and find me, you would have just flogged the Kings niece. Had I not arrived when I did you would most likely be finding yourself swinging from a noose now," he bellowed, making the man step back. The man grimaced as Jak walked around his desk to stand in front of him. "Get out of my office and thank the lucky stars I'm not having you charged for treasonous acts." Private Amson nodded and quickly shuffled out of the doorway.
In the mess hall, Hope used a piece of bread to mop up the last of her stew. "Don't go to mad Hope, or you'll make yourself sick," Arran said having already finished eating. Hope just smiled at him, and then shoved another chunk of bread in her mouth. The two looked up to see Jak Corley walking towards them. Behind him was a younger man whose face Hope also knew. "Levin," she shouted jumping to her feet excitedly.
Hope and Levin quickly closed the gap between them, and with arms held open, embraced each other with the biggest of hugs. The two chuckled as they parted, "Thank the gods you are safe. I barely believed it when Jak came and told me you were here. Look how you've grown...Listen to me prattling on..." Levin took a step back, and looked at the young lady before him. Now in his thirties, married with children of his own, he had always thought of Taylor, Hope and Luca as family. Although when he and Jak had moved to take over at Lanber, it had meant not seeing them so often.
After Hope introduced Arran, all four of them left the garrison and headed for a large walled house in the centre of town. The guards on the gate saluted Jak as the group passed through. The large brick house was home to Levin, who was Governor of Lanber. "You will of course stay with me," Levin said opening the front door for them to enter. Once inside, he asked one of the maids to bring drinks to the lounge. "Come," he said still clearly excited by having visitors.