Finish the Story contest 1- Escape by Moonlight
Beginning written by me
The black stallion’s hooves pounded the gravel track, sending stones flying up in showers as he galloped through the clear summer night. Clinging to his mane, Carlotta urged him onward, onward, faster and faster. She must get away from the peril she’d escaped in the last hour, she must!
The path led deeper into the wood, thick brambles clutching at the horse’s legs, and overhanging branches threatening to knock his rider unconscious if she didn’t stay alert.
At last they reached a clearing where Carlotta pulled up, allowing her faithful steed to rest, the breath snorting through his nostrils gradually slowing.
“We’ve done it, boy.” She patted his sweat covered neck, the ring on her third finger glistening in the moonlight. She wanted to rip it off but that would waste time. Instead, she climbed slowly off Arturo’s back and led him to a clear stream, tinkling over the rocks and he drank deeply.
Then he lifted his head, ears flicking. Carlotta strained her own ears. Was that the faint sound of barking dogs, getting closer? She leapt upon the stallion’s back and urged him into a trot, his tired legs moving stiffly.
They trotted into the trees again and she looked for a place to hide. Oh thanks be to God—a ruined stone farmhouse stood to the left. Most probably the scene of a battle between the loyalists and the rebels, but no time to think about the reasons why. She pushed Arturo into a canter and they rounded the corner of the wall.
There stood a man, a broad brimmed hat pulled low over his forehead and a shabby long coat buttoned tightly round him.
Carlotta pulled Arturo’s reins so sharply that he stumbled, and the man leapt forward and grabbed them.
“Easy boy,” he murmured, and glared at Carlotta. “You shouldn’t do that to a horse.”
“We have to hide.” She climbed down from her faithful stallion and led him to a doorway, then peered to see what was inside the room.
“Careful.” The man followed them silently. “The roof may fall on you.”
“Anything’s better than what I’ve escaped.” She led the horse into the dark, rubble filled room just as the baying of hounds grew very loud. “Come in if you’re a friend, don’t if you’re an enemy.”
“I’m neither, thank you.” The man followed her into the room and removed his hat, then the shard of moonlight streaming through the glassless window fell on his face. Carlotta gasped. How had she not recognised Javier, even after all these years?
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‘Javier!’ she exclaimed, as he lifted a warning finger to his lips and stepped suddenly towards her, extending his arm. From round the corner of the ruins, there came the braying, whining howl of a pack of dogs scenting their prey; and closing in, the gallop of pursuit thundering towards them.
There was an answering whicker from Carlotta’s horse, who pulled away and bolted before Zavier could secure his hold. Grasping Carlotta’s shoulder briefly, he whispered urgently, ‘Stay here!’ and slipped outside to face the pursuers. Silently he blessed the dark night, and hoped that the excitable bay would be running far off in the opposite direction. Anyone of the pursuers who noticed his distinctive blaze and fetlock would recognise Arturo immediately.
‘What ails thee, that thou must raise such a ruckus?’ he croaked, bending himself double and pulling his hood closer over his face. ‘I can’t be doing with visitors at this time. State your business, or be off with you!’
‘Beg a thousand pardons, old man. We are hunting – ‘
‘At this hour? You will need sharp sight for that, though I suppose since you are using dogs….’
‘We are hunting the Lady of Castle Lore, who is lately escaped from her hus – her household. We fear for her safety in this benighted country.’ The voice came from a heavy-set man at the fore of the group, shifting uneasily on his mount. ‘Have you seen a woman, tall? Hereabouts?’
‘Not I’ exclaimed Javier, scorning the suggestion.
‘But there is her horse, my Lord!’ A voice from the rear broke the uneasy silence. ‘It is Arturo, and can be none other. Look!’ All heads turned to where the horse stood, peacefully cropping grass at the other side of the nearby stream. Even in his rising panic, Zavier knew the water was shallow, and would have been easy to ford.
‘Now let us pass, in the name of the Lord of these lands!’ Javier was pushed roughly aside as men dismounted and entered the hovel. It was cold and more exposed than was at first apparent. No warmth cheered the dilapidated hearth. Only the wind howling down what remained of the chimney breast.
Furious at being outsmarted, the men interrogated Javier, pulling off his cloak and beating his cheeks. ‘Who are you?’ they demanded, ‘And where is she? What have you done with her?’
Javier cared little for the blows to his stomach and his groin. He made more of the pain than he felt, hoping that his attackers would leave, think him an old man whom they could abandon to die as he lay mute and still on the ground.
As the men spat at him, mounted and left the scene, he slowly pulled himself upright and leaned against the wall. If anyone was set to watch him, he did not want them thinking he would recover quickly from the assault.
He knew that somewhere in the forest Carlotta would be hoping and praying for deliverance from the nightmare of false imprisonment and marriage to a slovenly brute. For any amount of pain, he would protect her.
As morning broke, quietly he left the scene, inched towards the woods and waited. Moving carefully, he patiently soothed his pains, collecting herbs and listening carefully. His steps took him to the deepest part of the wood, where he waited the day out. Carlotta would be hungry, she would be alone until he found her, but surely, they would meet? For too long, they had been apart, torn adrift by the tide of the war. Using the call sign that they had learned as children, he moved cautiously, listening with every sinew, for the crack of twigs underfoot, for the sigh of a moving branch, that would signal her whereabouts.
Caught inside the breast of a huge oak, Carlotta waited, praying fervently to remain hidden and alone. The thought of pursuit turned her innards to water, and she ached for the certainty that only last night, had fortified her decision to leave. She had her wits, her small fortune. What more did she need? Now, she ached to know where Javier was – to know that he was safe.
Like a signal, she heard and recalled that familiar call, the rising line of the tune and the repeat, Caroo, caroo, caley… A bolt of recognition woke her, and she scrambled desperately out of her place of hiding, her legs shaking with the effort of moving after so long constrained in a narrow space. She ran, she staggered and stumbled towards that sound. She caught it in glimpses, heard the games of old, and moved faster.
Until she saw, blending with the forest cover, his tunic, bloodied and torn, through which his back was exposed in patches. She leapt towards him as he turned, his grimace of anger turning to a shout of joy. Reunited, after so many months apart, their questions were at first desperately questioning, until, soothed by the solidity of each other’s presence, ‘Is this really you? Are you real? Not a phantom, leaving me soon?’
The two chaste lovers escaped through the forest along a path that took them to the mountains. Beyond them, the remit of her erstwhile Lord ended. In time, Javier would seek to establish his kinship with the Lords of Larn, but for now, he and Carlotta were content to do honest work, found a family and make peace with the past.