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Last refuge

By Jill Harper-JuddPublished 5 months ago 5 min read
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Chapter 1. Lullaby

The baying of the hounds carried faintly up the mountain, spiralling into the canyon where the woman – more of a girl, really – and her companion had paused. Both were scratched, cut and bruised from passing through the thick forests leading into the wash, but there was no time to tend these small wounds. She carried a child in her arms – a baby so small that it couldn’t possibly have been a burden – and the child needed feeding. While it nursed, she cast her exhausted gaze around the dry wash where they sheltered, taking in heavy, rounded boulders and walls carved smooth by the movement of water over millenia.

“We can’t keep ahead of them, Gregor,” she said. “They’ve been gaining steadily and we’ll have to make a stand.”

Gregor glanced at his mistress. He had guarded her since her childhood, and he’d be damned if he was giving her up now. The brutal invading armies might have taken the bridge, and the town, and, finally, the castle, but they would NOT take his queen. He’d die before he let that happen, although he too recognized that their escape had been all too easily thwarted. His brain had considered and rejected dozens of possible escape routes and hiding places. The army scouts were too fast, too well trained and too well-supplied for a pair of soft, peacetime palace-dwellers to evade them for long.

Giselle sighed and shifted the baby. The shock of the invasion and their desperate, last-hour attempt to flee had affected her milk supply…but there was nothing for it. There were no wet-nurses handy in the high mountains. No nurses or servants at all. No clean clothes or warm baths or soft beds for sleep. This was a nightmare come to life, fulfilling a prophecy so old it had become a myth and a child’s tale.

When it became clear the castle would fall, Gregor had found horses, somewhere, and managed to sneak her and the babe out and around the bridge and into the northern woods. Her husband and brother had not been so lucky. Her husband had been betrayed - murdered by one of his inner circle as he strode from the throne room towards the castle gate. Her brother, likewise, had been one of the first casualties at the bridge that, like the castle gates, had been inexplicably left unguarded. So it was down to her and Gregor to save the baby, whose single, tiny life was more important than the lives of all of the people in every lost town. Their horses had given out the night before, but she and Gregor had continued to scramble as well as they could by half-clouded moonlight. The goal itself was simple enough: go up. Keep going up. If they could reach the mountain peak ahead of the hounds there was a hidden cave that held an ancient passageway – a space that would give them a place to hide, and rest, and eventually to escape into a safer realm.

But there would be no escape. Not now. There wasn’t enough time. The hounds were getting louder and the cliffs were too steep for the exhausted pair to climb. Going around the wash would leave them exposed on the mountainside...and they would be ripped to pieces within minutes by the dogs.

Giselle, like Gregor, was fully aware of this. Rising from her place on a flat boulder, she said “We stand here. And we’ll have to do the spell.” Looking down, she took a thick, braided rope from around her waist and tied one end to a twisted log pinned in place by a pile of boulders. She looped the other end around a gnarled tree trunk, then returned the rope to its starting point. She then turned to Gregor, who had started shaking his head and backing away from her in horror. “There is no other choice, you know that!” she said, her own face pale beneath the dust and sweat of travel. Gregor still shook his head, his hand grasping the sword until his knuckles showed white. “Gregor, we must. YOU must”. She tilted her head, the baying of the hounds no longer faint but closer, in the trees. “It must be done NOW!” As a royal, she would let neither her panic nor her fear show in her face, and instead turned from him to expose her silver wings, at once as fragile and as strong as those of a butterfly. Gregor’s own dark wings dipped lower as he swallowed twice, three times, still hesitating even as the dogs could be heard in the trees. He knew the spell she had chosen, knew it was ancient, simple and effective. It would also kill her. But there were no more than a few minutes left. “Gregor, it is an ORDER” she said, then, more softly “If you love me, do this for me.” Gregor, tears streaming down his cheeks, raised the sword high and then brought it down at the base of her left wing. Giselle screamed in spite of herself, but cut the cry short and managed to steady herself for the next blow. When Gregor severed the right wing, she collapsed without a sound, bleeding heavily onto the sand.

Gregor, anguished, dropped his sword into the sand beside her and gently gathered the blood spattered wings from the ground, placing them side by side on the rope to create a rough hammock. He helped Giselle to stand and tenderly placed the now-sleeping baby back in her arms, then supported her as she unsteadily made her way to the hammock. The ropes securing the hammock were already beginning to shine with strands of silver as the magic in her severed wings seeped into the rough hemp. Once there she used the last of her strength to tuck the baby securely between the two wings, pressing a final kiss on its downy cheek. Now trembling from exhaustion and blood loss, she brushed her bloodied fingers across the baby’s forehead, marking the child while she whispered the words that would ensure its protection and refuge until the mountains themselves came down. Then, her lifeforce spent, Giselle collapsed into death. As the spell took effect, the baby and hammock shimmered and then vanished. And Gregor, his face etched with anger and sorrow and loss, stepped ten paces forward and gave himself to the hounds.


About the Creator

Jill Harper-Judd

I've been writing poetry and short stories since childhood....but my life has often been chaotic so (mental) space to write can be hard to find. I am a lover of words and the worlds we can create with them. I seek beauty in all things.

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