Protection

Title: Protection
Time Period: January 1, 135 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Cordelia converses with one of her kidnappers.

Cordelia has never been this high up in the mountains before. Neither has her Uncle Duncan; she knows because, if he had, then he surely would have discovered the small settlement built around the ruins of an old, crumbling church nestled in the trees at the edge of a frozen plateau. She might even be able to see Dornie from the precepice if community wasn't covered in a perpetual blanket of cloud and fog, but this is probably the way its inhabitants prefer things: hidden.

Apart from a few horses and a herd of bearded goats with antlers longer than any Cordelia has ever seen, the settlement's people keep very few domesticated animals, probably because they lack the space for them. Even the goats have to forage for greenery on the steep, rocky slopes, shepherded by men and women dressed in heavy wool, leather and assorted furs.

There aren't many children here, either, or so she was told by the apologetic old woman who sitting at her bedside when she first awoke. The mountains are no place for babes, and the mortality rate here is very high even among the adults, of which there are maybe fifty-some.

That was this morning. Now, as darkness settles over the village with no moonlight to soften it, she finds herself in the hollow chamber of the church after a hard day's work learning how to milk goats, but no explanation for why she was taken from her home.

She expects to receive that shortly. Her instructions were to wait by the old pipe organ.

Cordie paces back and forth for some time — not so much for impatience but for want of heat. Even with her arms wrapped around herself in the borrowed clothing, she's cold, without electricity and heat to warm the interior of the church. The tears she spent early on are long gone, though her eyes are still red-rimmed from this morning's sobbing. She's a practical soul, most of the time, though her mother might disagree, and Cordie stopped crying after realizing she wouldn't be hurt — at least not immediately — and that there was work to be done. Crying is a waste of energy, and here there isn't any energy to spare when struggling to survive.

God knows how long she might have to do that, so she stopped crying.

After a several minutes of pacing, though, she finally finds a seat on the pew closest to the organ. She's exhausted from the rough night and day of fear and hard work, and like crying, pacing is a waste of energy. Not for the first time does Cordelia wish she was a mage — she'd have a familiar who could tell her family where she is, or even help her escape. But it's just her — for the first time in her life, she feels utterly alone.

She won't be for very much longer. The sound of footsteps descending a stone staircase echoes through the church, and a moment later a shadow appears in the candlelit corridor opposite the organ. At first, it appears unnaturally tall and skinny, but when its owner steps out into the chamber, Cordelia sees that these proportions are only a trick of the light; the woman walking towards her is small, lean, and wears the same combination of textures as the other villagers, but with wolfskin instead of lynx or deer.

There's something vaguely familiar about the way she carries herself, though it isn't until she opens her mouth that Cordelia recognizes Jorn's mysterious dance partner. "Little Ross," she says, not smiling. "Hello."

The girl stands immediately, drawing herself to her full height (which isn't very much). Her chin lifts and her dark eyes narrow as she surveys her kidnapper and host.

Cordie can't help but swallow in some fear, despite the polite greeting and the fact she hasn't been harmed today. "Why am I here?" she demands, arms uncrossing so that she can push a wayward strand of hair from her face — her always messy hair is a riot of wisps today without her comb or mother to help smooth it into a braid or ponytail. "You know that you won't get away with this, don't you?" she follows fiercely.

"With what?" the woman asks, raising both her dark eyebrows. "Welcoming you into my home? Feeding you my rations so you don't go to bed tonight with a bellyache?

"Sit back down." That isn't a question, or a request. Indoors, she wears her coat open, and Cordelia can see that she's unarmed but for a dagger in its sheath. She presumably knows how to use it, or she wouldn't be carrying it. Around her neck hangs a thin leather cord to which the skull of a small bird is attached, and as she speaks she reaches up to curve her thumb along its beak. "Your family has supplies that mine needs. I would have traded for them, but until now we had nothing worth trading. Do you understand?"

The command sees Cordelia sitting and swiftly, almost as if slapped back down into place. Her brows draw together and she looks afraid for the first time in hours — taking care of creatures in need had shoved away most of her concerns for herself, but now all that uncertainty returns.

"I understand," she whispers, looking down at her hands in her lap, before her dark eyes lift again. "But you don't have to live up here like this. You could live in Dornie like others do, farm or something…" she suggests, voice hoarse from the crying and the cold but insistent in her pleading.

"What value does land have when Duncan Rowntree's militia has the right to set foot on it whenever they please and take what they will? Whether that's grain, or meat, or women—" The woman's lips peel back around a thin, mirthless smile. Her voice, like the raven she dressed as, is rasping and harsh. "His men burn settlements like mine to the ground and piss on the ash. Rapists and murderers, all."

Cordelia's cheeks grow pink when the woman speaks of things she's sheltered from, though her kinsman being named specifically makes her shake her head in angry argument. "My uncle is not a rapist or a murderer," she whispers, eyes narrowed but hands twisting together nervously.

The truth is, she wouldn't know if he is or isn't, and she knows it.

Still, she pushes on.

"If you lived in Dornie, you'd be protected," she begins, tone starting strong before it fades and decrescendos with uncertainty, "Were you… you had a settlement? Did they take it from you?"

"No." The woman packs as much finality into that single syllable as it can hold. "But there are those here who have had more taken from them than their homes, and by the man you call your uncle. When you see him again, ask him what he would do if he knew we were here — only then will you understand."

She turns to twist a look over her shoulder at one of the church's empty windows, one side of her face illuminated by the flickering candlelight, the other as black as the sky outside. A raven perches in the space where stained glass once glowed, a silver band attached to one of its legs. "I need more than tooth and claw to defend this place from the Rowntrees and people who are like them. Your parents will deliver, I am sure."

That her parents will do all they can to get her back, Cordelia has no doubt. She doesn't argue the fact but instead stares down at the floor, angry at herself for being caught in this situation.

"If you get what you ask for, you should go far away from here," the girl offers, unsolicited advice.

"If you get what you ask for… it won't be long that they'll find this place, even without me telling them, and you should know that they have the manpower — and the skills and powers — to take out such a small group. I know you're just trying to survive, but you have to know they'll retaliate, even if I am returned safely. It might not be tomorrow, but it will happen," she says earnestly and not without sympathy or compassion. Her ears begin to well up with tears, again, though this time not for fear for herself.

"As far as your parents know," the woman says, "your kidnapping is the work of one or two. I've given them no reason to think otherwise unless you tell them, which you won't — if you want to keep your tongue." She raises an arm and the raven in the window clears the distance between them with two powerful thrusts of its wings, gliding down the rest of the way with a sound like rushing wind. Claws hook into the soft leather of her gloves and she hefts the bird onto her shoulder.

"You'll sleep in my room tonight," she tells Cordelia. "Tomorrow you spend another day with the goats. Now go."

Cordelia's mouth closes, and she frowns at the bird and then the woman, before standing. "I won't tell them about this place, because there are good people here I don't want to see harmed," she says, perhaps a little loftily, and the implication is that her present company isn't one of the good people.

"But you should know you're not the only one with creatures that can follow and spy from the clouds. My parents will do whatever it takes to get me back, but what happens with the Rowntrees is out of their control. My mother does not have that much pull," the teen says as she moves toward the doorway to do as asked.

"Goodnight," she says politely and she ducks her head, letting her hair fall forward to veil the tears that have started to flow again, the tears that will leach the remaining energy from her tired body and make her that much more exhausted for the restless sleep to come.