Unsettled

Just a quick note about this short story: it was written by Brianna G. Ransom, an up-and-coming writer in her own right. She has been a fan of my Pentallia Archives series (of which I am currently writing the first book) for a long time, and I asked her to write this short story about her favorite (girl) character, Marleina Cole. Please enjoy!

 

Marleina Cole stood in the Rooster Inn, taking in her surroundings from the shadows of her hooded cloak.  The tavern was a beautiful building with intricate designs carved into the pillars and soft wooden colors decorating the interior.  The temperature was pleasant and cozy, perfect for the lovely aura the Roost gave off.

Though the tavern was cozy-appearing, Marleina couldn’t find comfort.  Shivers raced up and down her spine that had nothing to do with chill.  The Rooster Inn held no place in her mind, but its location in the fallen kingdom of Darksway was home to many of the nightmares that still plagued her sleep on occasion.  She gulped, grateful for the hood that disguised her unease.  She knew she had no reason to fear with Wilhelm Reinhardt at her side, but that did not stop her nerves from screaming at her every time a chair scraped against the stone floor.

Wil wove his way between the tables of chattering people sharing the latest gossips and made his way to the bar.  Marleina followed at his heels, her eyes constantly dancing back and forth as new possible threats entered her vision.  Wil stopped at the bar’s counter, and Marleina stayed a step behind him, not in the mood to talk to the friendly, handsome Evart Hahn, the proprietor of the establishment, who stood behind the bar.

“My friends!” Evart greeted them warmly with a wide smile.

“Good to see you again,” Wil returned the warmth with a handshake.

Evart and Marleina exchanged a quick nod, and he gestured to a small boy who appeared at their side, “If you give your bags to the lad, he’ll take them to your rooms while we discuss things.”

Marleina and Wil surrendered their bags to the boy, and she pressed a few coins into his hand before he scampered off to do his job.

Evart’s eyes turned serious.  “Things must be getting worse if Father Amory sent you both,” his voice had dropped in tone and volume so no one in earshot could hear his words.

Marleina stared down at her boots, wondering why Amory had sent her and Wil on the simple task.  She was sixteen and had been running errands and missions for Amory for nearly a year now, many times alone; and Wil had been working for Amory longer than she.

So why would this be any different?

She tucked her thoughts away as Evart opened a door behind the bar and gestured for them to go inside.  Marleina stepped in behind Wil, and Evart quietly closed the door behind them.  In the room there was a small desk with a simple chair behind it and two matching chairs in front of it.  Marleina and Wil took a seat as Evart settled behind his desk.

“What news have you for me?” Evart asked, all business now.

Wil dug a large envelope from the folds of his cloak and slid it across the table.  Evart looked at it gravely before scooping it up and tearing it open.  He read the contents voraciously as the other two sat motionless.

Evart sighed when he finished.  “It will take me a little bit to put the news I have into words, but I will have it ready by the end of the night, so you can be on your way early tomorrow.  There are two rooms upstairs if you’d like to rest after your journey.  I suspect you will stay the night.”  He pushed two keys across the table.

“Thank you,” Marleina nodded her head.

Wil glanced down at her, “I’ll finish up here if you’d like to rest.”

“Thank you,” she whispered, grateful for the opportunity to clean up and get some sleep.  She had only just returned to the Light from retrieving correspondence from some contacts at Kildari Manor when Amory had decreed she and Wil should be on their way to the Rooster Inn.

She delicately selected a key and stood to her feet.

“Go all the way down the hall to the last door on the left,” Evart mumbled as he dug through a desk drawer for writing utensils.

Wil began to rise to escort her, and she internally moaned.  She appreciated his spirit of gentlemanliness, but she had handled herself in much worse situations than this, and she needed time to herself to sort her thoughts of returning to her original kingdom before they went riding again tomorrow.

“I’ll be alright,” she squeezed his shoulder.

“I know,” he assured her, but a quiet sigh escaped his lips before he settled back down into the chair.

She left the room and re-entered the noisy tavern.  She traveled across the stone floor quickly and made her way up the creaking wooden stairs to the second floor.  She paused at the top when she saw a group of rough looking men standing fifteen feet down the hall.  She knew Wil would escort her if she retreated and asked, but she also knew she was quite able to defend herself.  She settled a hand on the knife at her hip and confidently strode forward.

She slowed when she was within earshot of the men, knowing she needed to be careful around men who had intoxicated themselves with foul drink.  She passed them and quickened her steps again when one of their voices stopped her.

“Come on, darling.  Just one little dance for me,” the maliciousness of the man’s voice sickened and angered Marleina simultaneously.

She spun around on her heels, irked that they dared ask her to do such a thing.  Her face paled in horror when she realized the men weren’t talking to her.  A girl, maybe a year younger than Marleina, was trapped against the wall and surrounded by five men much larger than either girls.

“No thank you,” the poor girl’s voice squeaked as she attempted to hold her head high and stand her ground.

One of the men nudged her and nearly knocked the terrified girl over.  “We’re only asking-”

“She said, ‘No.’” Marleina’s voice rang clear and filled with rage.

All eyes turned on her.

“And what are you going to do about it?”

Marleina’s heart nearly stopped, and she found she was unable to move even as the man lunged for her and grabbed her wrist, whipping her against the wall.  Pain spiked up her side, but she didn’t wince.  She didn’t dare show any sign of pain as she stared into Darren Cole’s eyes.  His facial features softened into the father she thought he’d always be for a split second as he recognized her, and then the alcoholic monster took over.

“You!” he screamed, slamming her back into the wall again.

Pain racked up her spine as her heart shattered for the second time in her life.

“Where were you when I needed you?”  he yelled as rage reddened his face.

She stared at her feet, tears threatening to spill out.  She found her courage and held his gaze.  “And where were you when a little girl lost her mother?” her voice broke, and she couldn’t continue the verbal assault on her father.

He pulled his fist back to hit her, but she had learned to be quick a long time ago.  Before he could hit her, she lashed out with her leg and connected with the side of his knee.  He fumbled back from her and howled, nearly toppling over.  She spun her right leg around and her foot connected with his chest, sending him reeling back into another man.

“Murderous wench!” Tavan Marr’s voice sent shivers through her whole body as she ducked under his extended fist.

She cringed as memories of the night she had been forced to kill his older brother flooded her mind.  She gritted her teeth and forced the thoughts away as she dropped to the ground and swept her leg under both of his.  He slammed his head into the wood floor hard, his head bouncing once before his eyes unwillingly shut.

She shook her head, trying to stay focused on the fight as the other two men sprung to the defense of their drinking buddies.  She drew her pistol with an owl carved into the handle, leveling it on them.

“I suggest you leave before I lose my self-control,” she spoke through clenched teeth, fighting the urge to scream.

The man on the left dropped his hand to his belt while the other reached for the shaking girl.  Marleina stepped forward and clicked the safety off.

“Let her go,” her voice wavered the tiniest bit, but the man obeyed with a glare sent in Marleina’s direction.  The shaking girl fled downstairs to the tavern.

Marleina pointed her pistol at the man drawing his gun.  He nearly had the shiny silver aimed at her when she squeezed her trigger lightly.  The loud bang rang through the tavern, silencing those below on the first floor.  The man dropped his weapon and cried out as he gripped his bleeding shoulder.

“That was a warning, next time I will not hesitate to center my shot,” she threatened, her pistol still aimed at the men before her.

The three cowards she had never met before began their descent, dragging Darren Cole and Tavan Marr with them as Evart and Wil reached the second floor with weapons drawn.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hahn, I didn’t mean to cause trouble.”  Marleina holstered her weapon.

“It seems you stopped the trouble,” he grinned as he too holstered his slender pistol.

Marleina couldn’t see Wil’s face hidden beneath his hood, but she could feel his intense gaze pinned on her.  She could bear it no longer, knowing she was only moments away from tears.

“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I’m going to clean up.”  She spun around and found the door Evart had told her about earlier.  She fumbled the key into the door, locked it behind her, and sank against it.

She covered her mouth as her shoulders heaved, and tears ran down her cheeks.  She hadn’t imagined she would ever meet her father again, but deep inside, she had always hoped if it ever happened it would be on happy terms.  It seemed her father had no interest in caring for his daughter ever again.

She pushed off the door and tried to focus her mind elsewhere, shoving all thoughts of her father and the night she loathed most aside.  There was a time and place for everything, and this wasn’t the time nor the place.  She went straight into the small bathroom and pumped the facet on the small, very basic tub and filled it with steaming water.  Pain bit into her side whenever she bent over, and when she undressed she found some large bruises were forming.

She scanned the room and found her cloth bag on her bed and unbuttoned it to find her necessities and a fresh change of clothes.  She slid into the hot water and soaped up, scrubbing the grime that laced her skin.  She took her time, allowing the hot water to bring comfort to her sore back before toweling off and redressing.

She dumped her dirty clothes into the bag, knowing she wouldn’t have time to have them washed and dried before they left next morning.  She sank onto her bed, though not luxurious it was still comfortable, and sleep beckoned her.

A knock on the door had her on her feet, scrambling for her pistol.  She unlocked the door and opened it a crack, relieved to find Wil standing patiently outside.  She swung the door open wide and stepped aside, giving him room to enter her temporary quarters.

He reached over and squeezed her hand.  “Are you alright?  The girl those ruffians were messing with told Evart you took some nasty hits.”  His voice was steely, and his eyes flashed when he spoke.

Marleina shrugged her shoulders.  “I have some bruises, but she overexaggerates.”

He pushed his hood back off his head after she closed the door behind him, and his thick blonde hair dripped on his cloak from being recently washed.  “I’m sorry you had to face that alone.  I should’ve escorted you.  Amory sent us together for a reason, and-”

“No, Wil, there’s nothing to apologize for.  I told you I’d be fine alone, and it worked out,” she wrapped her arms around herself, trying to ward off a sudden chill.

“Fair enough,” he gave her a lopsided grin before his tone became more serious.  “Are you sure you’re alright?  Something seems to be upsetting you.”

She nodded her head, “I’m alright, I think, just very tired.”

Wil’s eyes told her that he knew something else was going on, but he didn’t press the matter further.  “Let’s grab something to eat, then you can rest.”

She nodded and stooped to the ground to pick up her belt with her weapons holstered in them without thinking.  She bit her lip as the annoying pain pricked her side.  She felt foolish she even had the deep bruises, knowing she shouldn’t have let her father get that close to her.

“Mar?” Wil reached out to steady her.

“Just the bruises acting up,” she told him as she clipped her belt on and slid her cloak over her shoulders.  She tugged her hood up, desiring to protect her privacy from prying eyes.

They ate a quick meal downstairs and exchanged few words as both were exhausted.  Wil escorted her to her room and made sure she knew his room was straight across the hall before bidding her good night.  She heard him waiting out in the hall to ensure her door was locked before his boots creaked across the hall to his room.

As soon as her head hit the pillow, she fell into a dreadful sleep filled with monsters that didn’t hide.

She and Wil were on the road bright and early, riding their crag ponies home to the Light at Stormsurge.  They had quite the journey ahead of them, and Marleina hoped it would give her time to process everything before Amory sent her on another mission, most likely separate from Wil.

Wil slowed his mount down next to her, and she matched his speed, giving him a worried look.

“Is everything alright?” she asked.

“You tell me,” he said gently as he looked at her with concerned eyes.  “You haven’t been yourself since we arrived at the Inn last night.”

She glanced down at Bix’s mane.  She missed her regular pony, Valido, but he had been tuckered out from the terrible weather conditions of their last adventure, and she had wanted him to regain his strength before she returned to the Light.

“Mar?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and stiffened as the memories of the night before and the worst nights of her life came swirling back through her mind.  She shook her head and finally managed to say, “I can’t talk about it here.”

“That’s alright,” he spoke softly.

They didn’t talk much for the rest of the day, and they followed Hale Road deep into the night before turning off and finding a safe place to set up camp for the night.  They discovered a grove of trees a good distance from the major road and decided it was as good a place as any to stay for the night.

Marleina tied Bix to a tree branch, and Wil tied his mount next to hers.  Both ponies had plenty of room to walk around and find sweet grass to nibble on.  She rubbed Bix’s ears, telling him how well he had performed and reminding him that he had a wonderful treat waiting for him back at the Light before kissing his forehead and telling him good night.

She found Wil next to a small fire he had started on the ground.  She sat down across from him and dug through her sack to find some dried fruits and a few potatoes for dinner.  They ate in silence and stared at the fire for a bit.  The chilly wind gently blew her hair out of her face, but she knew it wasn’t the cause of her trembling as terrible memories assaulted her unchecked.  She couldn’t stop them anymore, and they ran rampant through her mind.

Wil settled next to her and wrapped his arm around her, sharing a part of his cloak with her, attempting to keep her warm.  She tucked herself into his side, finding some comfort there.

             If only he knew.

She bit her lip.  He had proved himself trustworthy countless times and had confided in her about the family drama that had led to him being deposed from his kingdom and nearly resulted in his death.  He deserved the truth, and she needed to share her nasty past with someone.  She glanced up to see Wil staring forward, deep in thought.  The firelight danced on his face, but he didn’t seem to notice its playfulness.

She sat up straighter and took a deep breath.  She was glad Wil’s arm fell from her shoulder, giving her much needed space from him for her to talk about what had happened to her all those years ago.  He snapped to attention, patiently waiting for what she had to say.

“What happened last night was a bit of a continuation of an old family drama,” she started, rubbing the back of her neck and staring into the fire, unable to meet Wil’s gaze while she talked about her demons.  “Not to give you my whole life’s story, but I had a fairly stellar childhood up until a point.  I had loving parents who took care of me and taught me how to take care of myself.”

Her voice broke, “My mother died when I was eleven, and I met Father Amory for the first time at her funeral.”  Tears sprang to her eyes as everything flowed before her eyes as if it were happening all over again.  “My Father couldn’t shake the loss and started drinking.  As he got in with a rougher and rougher crowd, I got less and less love.  He, uh, confused me for a while because he’d take good care of me during the day, but when he came home drunk, he came home a monster.  And I paid the price.  We sank into poverty as he spent all our money on the dreadful drink.”

She squeezed her hands together and closed her eyes, remembering every detail much too vividly.  “Things got worse when he started bringing some of his drinking buddies home, and they’d all take their frustrations out on me physically if I didn’t find a good place to hide fast enough.”  She couldn’t stop the tears now as the shame and pain of old wounds bled fresh again.  Her voice shook as her insides trembled, re-feeling her past fear and fearing what Wil would think when he knew where she’d come from.

“One night when I was fourteen, one of his buddies, Roman Marr, decided I was desirable and forced himself onto me.  I tried to fight him off, but I couldn’t.  Without other options, I used my knife to defend my honor because no one else would.”  She hung her head in defeat.  “He was killed in the incident, and I fled to the Light knowing my father wouldn’t protect me from the man’s younger brother, Tavan Marr.”

She took a deep breath, attempting to calm the shaking.  “I didn’t know three of the men last night, but the one who bruised me up was my father, Darren Cole, and one of the other men was Tavan.”

She trembled, wrapping her arms around herself and shuddering from the hands that had touched her and the lives she had helplessly watched self-destruct.

“Oh Mar,” Wil’s voice was painfilled as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against him.

She sobbed into his chest, unable to hold back the emotions she had held within for so long.  She had never told anyone her whole story, the pain being too much to bring up.  Facing her past last night had given her a dire need to tell someone, and she didn’t trust anyone more than she trusted Wil.

He held her tightly and rested his cheek on top of her head.  She slowly calmed down as some of the pain ebbed away.  Her eyelids grew heavy, and she succumbed to a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

She awoke next morning before dawn with her head cushioned on Wil’s thigh and his cloak draped over her body.  She glanced up and saw he was leaning against a tree in a very uncomfortable position.  She sat up carefully, but he stirred from his slumber nonetheless.  She felt bad for waking him so early.

“Good morning,” he stretched his arms out and scratched his neck.

“Good morning,” she handed him his cloak back.  “You shouldn’t have given it to me, weren’t you cold?”

He shook his head as he stood and took his cloak from her and slid it over his broad shoulders.  Mar glanced around, mentally running through a checklist of things they needed to have done so they could begin riding in the next half hour at the latest.

“Mar?”

She met his gaze, and he embraced her gently.  She sank into his strong arms and rested her head on his chest a moment, relishing the feeling of protection she found there.

“Thank you for telling me last night, I know it was difficult for you,” he tightened his hold and then released her.

They set to work at breaking up their small camp and eating a quick breakfast before they mounted their ponies.  They still had a long journey ahead of them, but Marleina’s heart hadn’t felt as light as it did then for quite some time.

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