This shows a bit of Holm’s younger years. It’s a mostly complete story, unlike the rest.
The Lady of Frogs
The woman tied to the pole was slender, young, and not unpleasant to look at. Curly waves of inky black hair cascaded nearly to her narrow waist, her skin pale in the flickering torchlight, but her expression remained sternly disapproving. Exotic amber eyes took in every detail, and found them each and every one to be lacking.
It made no difference to the red painted swamp men. They danced wildly to the thundering drums, leaping high and slamming down their broad feet with cracks that shook the platform. The trills and hoarse, croaking shouts of the onlookers urged them on, over and over, until they fell to the ground, writhing in savage ecstasy. Females of the painted tribe milled about as the drums muttered themselves to silence, and the gathering fell once more to feasting.
It would be high irony, she thought, to die here. Sacrificed upon an altar of alien gods, eaten alive, or married to their fat, crazy eyed chieftan- death would follow that, soon enough. If not before. She suppressed a shudder. A barbaric people such as these was ill-suited to join with the kingdoms in alliance. They would be as like to eat the messenger as treat with them.
Someday, a withered old historian would put pen to page, perhaps with a dry chuckle on his lips, on how Amitha, Lady of Frogs, was eaten by the Frog People.
That wasn’t her official title, of course. It was only the one that stuck, hung on an awkard, skittish child adopted into Duke Thornblood’s household. Last in line to inherit she may be, but the adoption was legitimate. The Duchess’ last child had died before his fifth birthday. The Duke had brought her home and presented the little girl to his wife after picking her up by the side of the road. Amitha’s real parents were a mystery even to her.
Growing up the odd one out hadn’t won her any friends, but even the tannery they’d locked her in hadn’t smelled quite as bad as this. Or perhaps it had, and her memory was protecting her. A slight shift in the breeze brought the smell of the cookpots her. She gagged, and tried to breathe through her mouth. It didn’t help much.
She tried to shift around, but her bad leg wouldn’t suffer her weight. She pitched to the side, and her shoulders burned as she puller herself back up with a pained gasp. This drew attention to her, something she had been avoiding for most of the night.
Like all of his race, the swamp man was short and fat, but with thick legs. She had seen them spring from the muck to great heights, pulling men from horseback wrestling them down to drown in the mud. None of the escort had survived. The giggling savages had only spared the women to carry them back to this wretched place. The tribesman peered up at her, picking his nose. She scowled back at him. He reached out to touch the material of her dress, and she attempted to kick his hand away.
A larger version of the one before her walked by and slammed his club into the back of the first one’s head. It fell with a thud, and was dragged away by two of the females that followed the big one. Apparently it wasn’t time for whatever they were doing with her.
Amitha could see the other girls from the caravan across the way. Nobles and serving girls, all with faces streaked with tears and exhausted by their emotion. They’d screamed the whole way. The serving girls at least had fought back with frenzied strength for all the good it had done them. Outnumbered and woefully ill-equipped to defend themselves on their own, they’d been tied up and hauled away just the same, over the shoulder of some sweaty savage who screamed his own triumph all the way back.
Her own prison was a simple pole driven hard into a gap in the platform, and her own hands tied up tight over her head. It was effective enough for a cripple. They’d run out of pre-prepared prisons, it seemed, but weren’t willing to just butcher her and drop her in a pot. Small blessings.
She smelled smoke now. The slight wind had shifted again, blowing from the west side of the camp. Not the stinking reek of whatever weak wood these primitives burned, this was different. It reminded her of oil lamps and chilly evenings in the study at home, bundled up against the winter cold. She wondered who would next find that tiny room in the north tower, with its old books and high windows. Perhaps another little girl would-
Amitha suddenly found herself with her cheek against the rough boards of the swamp platform. A wash of heat penetrated the tent that had fallen on her, and she kicked and twisted to free herself from its clinging folds. As it her face came free, she twisted frantically away. The ruined tent was on fire. Everything was on fire.
Her hands were still bound tight, but the pole was now broken, shorter than before. The sharp end at least gave her some sort of weapon, she thought. Little good it would do her, but she would not go meekly if the swamp men came for her again.
Only her end of the platform was aflame, and she shuffled as best she could away from the worst bits. As wet as everything was, it surprised her how well it burned. Perhaps it was like those oily snapdragon flowers that the gholmen grew in the far east. Amitha leaned on her pole as a crutch as best she could, but it was hard going sometimes her bad leg supported her, sometimes it had no strength at all. It was maddening.
Further down towards the water, a battle raged. Tall figures in bright mail were hacking and stabbing in a furious melee. She saw a painted tribesman leap high, undoubtedly attempting to bear down one of the armored figures, but was caught by an upraised pike and tossed aside. Another wielded a massive blade, cleaving a tribesman nigh in two before he could leap. More and more savages joined the attack, and she saw one knight get pulled down, only to rise again a brief moment later covered in blood and muddy water. Smaller than the rest, which was probably why he got knocked down in the first place, he stepped back into the line of battle immediately, unsheathing another blade. He and the man with the giant sword led the knights forward, inch by bloody inch.
She tore her eyes away from the fight. The platform was still burning, and the other captives needed to be freed, lest they burn to death after all that had happened already. But the terrain had changed with the blast, and she could not see the others wherever she looked. They had been on the east side before. Opposite where the blast that freed her originated from. Grimly, Amitha hobbled slowly forward.
The smoke now bore the smell of roasting meat. Corpses, most like. She tried to cover her nose and mouth with her sleeve, with partial success. It did not help much. The smell was everywhere, mingling with the musty, dank smell of the swamp.
The debris of blown down tents and the bits and bobs that had been within them littered her path. The occasional body lay here and there, none moving, thank goodness. Armed she may be, but Amitha held no illusions where her ability to defend herself lay. The dropped clubs here and there would be no improvement.
Here and there were some sort of structure. Ill-fitted trunks propped up sagging roofs, but they must be sturdy, for they stood when all else had fallen. She peeked into the first one, but the smell inside nearly overwhelmed the smoke. It was dark, besides. She ignored the next two, dark as the first. The smoke, as sickeningly like cook-fires as it was, stood as improvement.
At last she saw the cages. Women and girls huddled low in them, some finding the strength for more tears but they were weary sobs, not the dramatic things of court. The doors were secured with simple crossbars. Their inhabitants had no way to reach them for themselves, and were constantly watched- save now. Amitha managed to get the first one loose through a combination of luck and her bad leg giving out on her. Between her own weight and the weight of the bar, it came loose and twisted out of her hands, falling to the platform with a muffled thud.
“Hst. Come out, quickly. We’ve got to get the others before we all burn alive.” The maids gathered themselves first, and led Lady Gina and her sister out with them.
“Thank you, thank you young lady. I don’t know how you escaped those brutes, and I shall not ask. Best we escape this place quickly, while we can.” Amitha’s expression blanked. The implication was an ugly one, but Lady Gina had always been ugly- on the inside. Her perfumed bosom had lured more than a few lord’s sons- briefly. It was once she opened her mouth that they usually ran away.
“We will all be escaping shortly. There is a force of knights down by the water engaging the tribesman at the moment. Right now we need to rescue the rest of our party.” Lady Gina attempted to look down her nose at the younger woman. The effect was somewhat spoiled by having to first look up.
“I am not entertaining debate, Lady Gina.” She turned to the maids. “Ali, Setty, Bianca, come with me. Your ladies are nearby, I believe.” Amitha turned and hobbled away as best she could. Ali and Setty stuck close to her, while Bianca’s broad back led the way. She didn’t know any of them very well, but Bianca’s lady had struck her as an earthy, pragmatic sort from the Border lands. That attitude seemed to be reflected in her lady’s maid.
The second cage went much easier, with the three common women managing the locking mechanism without her help. What little help she could offer, she reflected bitterly. Nobody asked for help from a cripple. The ladies inside proved to be as she suspected, and then some. No less than five noble ladies and six maids were freed, and still there was a third cage to open. It proved to be no difficulty, and the last of the captives wept for joy as she was freed. Lady Saev was even younger than Amita, and much prettier, in an innocent, waif-like way. At least on the outside. One of the few noble ladies that would talk to her, at least in private, she’d proved to have the most amazing knowledge of dirty jokes, and a wicked sense of humor. For her own protection, she avoided the ‘Lady of Frogs’ in public, but Amita didn’t care. Much.
A scream from behind them proved to be Lady Gina, scrambling back to the main group in a most un-ladylike sprint, holding her skirts up as she ran. Behind her, through a gap between two dilapidated shacks came more of the painted tribe. They slowed as they approached the escaped captives. One turned to his companions and grunted something in their crude language, gesturing at women. The others smiled appreciatively. Their sniggering laughter and lewd expressions left little to the imagination. There were five of them, but their hands were empty. They didn’t seem to think they’d need a weapon to handle what were, after all, merely women.
She didn’t know where it came from, but all of a sudden she was heartily sick of this. Sick of bing the ‘Frog Lady.’ Sick of being slow and crippled. Sick of being looked down on. Sick of being captured. Sick of being helpless. Sick of Lady my-chamber-pot-doesn’t stink Gina. Sick to death of bullies.
“With me, Ladies!” Amita shouted, and stabbed the first one in his protruding gut. She leaned on the pole, jerking it from side to side to get it back out. Then she stabbed him again. And one more time in the neck, just to be sure. Beside her, Bianca was beating one with the cage’s heavy locking bar. Lady Saeve had a burning brand in her hand, and was stabbing it forward at the faces of two others, while her maid pelted them with pots and bits of wood. Another was down on the ground, two women holding the makeshift garrote that was strangling him to death. The last had Lady Gina by the ankle, who was shrieking and kicking frantically at has head while two of the maids stabbed him in the back with thick splinters of wood. Apparently she hadn’t been the only one sick of being captured, she thought.
More tribesman passed the little alleyway, headed away from the water. Amita leaned on her pole and gestured the others to pull the bodies out of view. They hid themselves as well, but it wasn’t long before more tribesman came their way. In ones and twos, tribesmen entered the little area by the cages. None left.
They did not manage this unscathed. One girl had a large bite on her leg. They tried to stanch the bleeding, but only managed to slow it. The girl fainted, and was being tended as best they could manage, but if they didn’t get some help soon she would likely perish. All the women had some bruises and cuts by now. Even the noble ladies’ makeup was a hopeless mess, their dresses nearly rags. How thin this layer of civilization appears on us, she thought. Steeling herself for the next ambush, Amita peered out of their little corner. So far she’d been the only one brave enough to do so. The others hid deeper in.
Twelve, this time. She sighed quietly. It had been good while it lasted. There was nowhere to go but the way they came in. Which was now blocked. She peeked out again. They were turning around, backing down the little space between the shacks. Why would they…?
One tribesman’s head exploded in a shower of gore. Another pitched forward, trying to stuff his guts back in, as if that would help. The knights were here. As the first one backed even with her hiding place, Amita stabbed him in the throat. That seemed to be the best spot for her stick to go in, they went down and stayed down faster that way. Stab them in the gut, sometimes they kept going for what seemed like hours. Bianca with her trusty bar slammed it down on another’s head. She stabbed at another, and missed, but a flaming brand struck that one in the face. She stuck at a third one, but he ducked. Her pole went in this one’s eye, and wouldn’t come back out no matter how hard she pulled.
She was still trying to get her pole back when she realized things had quieted down again. The lead knight cleared his throat. It echoed strangely in his helm.
“Ah. Are you ladies the, ah, members of the caravan? The Lord Gint’s expedition, I mean?” For such a large man, he seemed strangely hesitant. Amita stood, putting her hand out to lean on the shack in case her bad leg chose this moment to betray her. Before she could respond, he spoke again.
“Of, of course you are. My deepest apologies, my lady. Ah. I believe it is, I mean it should be, shouldn’t it Holm?” The smaller man reached up and clapped the larger on the shoulder. He and the rest of the men went back out, kicking the bodies to the side as they went. They didn’t need to hide anything, Amita thought with a sudden bit of mirth. A low whistle sounded from the platform outside.
“Um. If you will, I mean it would be my honor to-” His words stumbled to a halt as Amita took his outstretched gauntlet. This would work. She could lean on a shoulder like an invalid with the best of them. Amita smiled.
Outside on the platform, she saw piles upon piles of bodies. “Cannibals,” the large knight said. He seemed to be getting over his earlier awkwardness. “Or predators, at any rate. I don’t know if these qualify as a race of Man.” Amita scrunched her eyebrows together in thought.
“A race of man, most likely. They have not the pointed ears of the Fey Folk, nor the tusks of the Unghols of the East. From what I’ve read, they could be a more primitive form of man that never gained civilization.” She paused, hesitant. “At least, if you believe Saint Cistercia’s text on the forms of Man over the Ages, that is.” He laughed, and it was not the booming, braying laugh she expected of him. It was a boyish laugh of pure enjoyment, and it made him seem much younger than she’d first suspected when she saw him hewing down foes like a lumberjack.
“As a matter of fact… I have read Saint Cistercia, and I’d not have suspected more than ten others in the kingdoms had. Wherever did you find a text, if I may be so bold? Saint Michaels has one of the few remaining copies, and to the best of my knowledge there aren’t but a handful left today.” Amita stumbled, leaning hard on the man’s arm for a moment before she caught her balance. Damn leg again. Bloody annoyance is what it was.
“In my father’s house, of course. Duke Thornblood, that is. We’ve quite a collection of books. It’s nowhere near the size of the royal library at Tynning of course.” She sighed. “Someday I’d like to see it. Well, not just see it mind you, I want to browse through their shelves for as long as they’ll let me. If not for my duties, I would apply to the royal librarian- but of course I can’t.” She smiled again. Amita couldn’t say why she was babbling her heart’s fondest desire just now. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of simply being alive. They continued walking slowly down to the water.
She could see a barge out there, lit by torches and held fast against the slight current. A large vessel, it would have to back out into the main waterway. There appeared to be a mechanism for the rudder at both ends. She wondered if there was only one, and they carried it back and forth, or if both had its own.
“Ah. This won’t do at all,” the knight said as they approached the water. As ruined as her dress was, soaked in blood and gore and soot, a little water would do it naught but good. But he swept her up into his arms and carried her out to the barge, where most of their party was already waiting. Only the smaller man called Holm and a small force of men stayed behind. Just in case. Probably a wise precaution, she thought, remembering the poor men who had guarded their caravan. How they had fought, and fought beyond the strength of what she thought mortal men could bear- but the numbers were too great.
“Oh. Um. I am Kreigen. I should’ve, ah, said so before. But well. Ah.” She fought down a laugh. It wouldn’t do to discourage him at this point, he’d take forever to nerve himself back up to it. He lifted her up onto the deck. She sat, her eyes level with his. Standing, he was a good few inches taller- not many men were. For all the trouble her bad leg caused her, she didn’t lack in height when she could stand.
“Amita, of Thornblood.” She stopped, then went on. Might as well pluck that thorn out rather than worrying at it. “ ‘Lady of Frogs,’ that’s what they used to call me,” she added softly. He snorted derisively as he clambered onto the barge. He took off his helm, and a bushy black beard flowed out. His high forehead showed a receding hairline, as if all the hair on his head were fleeing to his chin. Twinkling blue eyes smiled down at her, but it was a fragile sort of smile. I bet he thinks he’s not handsome at all, she thought.
“If they say that, they are fools, m’lady. Someone who reads as widely, with as much native intelligence as yourself will always be looked at with some jealousy by those who find themselves lacking. Ah. If you don’t mind me saying so.”
The warmth of those words stayed with her, as she washed, her clothes and herself, behind a screen on the barge with the other women. Lady Gina had taken herself straight to bed with all her stink. The rest of them had set to their own task with soap and a frenzied sort of will to be, well, normal again, she supposed. Clean skin and hair, clean clothes, if a bit damp. For a wonder, some of their luggage had survived.
That night- she found out later that the ladies’ quarters were hastily requisitioned from the knights and men-at-arms, she laid her head down on the pillow, feeling warm and safe. She’d caught sight of the trunks her pallet rested on in the dim light. ‘K.’ His pillow. It smelled of soap and leather. Good smells, she thought. Like home.