As Leda is progressing on Wattpad, here’s a sample chapter which shows Hal doing what she does best. You can catch up with the story here: https://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy
“I’m accounted a fine singer amongst my people.” Roc swayed side to side in his saddle and closed his eyes, humming under his breath. “I’ll give you a demonstration, Hannac, if you care for one.”
Hal cringed inwardly. “My Lord, as much as I would love that…”
Roc opened his mouth and puffed out his chest.
“…if Castor’s men are in the area, we should not risk being overheard.”
He opened his eyes, favouring her with a sage nod. Jools winked at Hal as she rode past.
“You know, Hannac,” Roc said then in an exaggerated whisper, “I knew your father.”
“So did I…eventually.”
His massive head wagged like a great pendulum when he laughed. “Well yes, he did what he could to keep you a secret. Although having also met your mother, I can’t blame him.”
‘You were doubly blessed, then.”
“You’d never have thought it – the pair of them. He was a dark horse, Franc Hannac. But an honourable man, deep down.”
“He was, my Lord.”
“He would have made short work of Castor. He’d have taken an army to the gates of Colvé, if necessary.” He threw her a long, steady look.
Hal knew immediately where the conversation was leading. “My Lord, it may have escaped your attention, but I don’t have an army.”
Roc chuckled. “Not yet, lass. Not yet, you don’t.” He nodded at the mountains which now loomed closer with every passing day, the forest thinning at their base to mere scrub and thorn. Hal tipped back her head to take in the soaring grey mass of rock which rose into countless peaks, some of them already crested with snow. The wild mountain ranges of the West had been little more of a faint silhouette from the ramparts of Hannac. Now they seemed like crouching giants. She felt their power, their threat and beauty.
“But just wait until we’re on the other side of The Tooth,” Roc continued.
“What’s The Tooth?” she asked nervously.
“That fellow there.” He pointed at a peak which jutted high above the others – a ragged fang of rock.
Hal shivered. “We’re going over that?”
He stared at her. “Well there’s no other way, woman. And on the other side, in the valleys below…” he closed his eyes again, lost to his daydreams. “In the green valleys below lie my lands, my fort. Home, Hannac! Think of that. Home. And a thousand men waiting for my word – to rally against Castor and kick his vicious little arse off the throne. Just think of it – the houses of Roc and Hannac allied at last. It’s what your father would have wanted.”
“I’m sure,” she murmured. So that had been Jools’ plan all along. All that talk of evading Castor by heading west. Why else had she stored those weapons at the rocks? What other tricks did the little thief have up her sleeve? She observed her old friend as she rode ahead, laughing and joking with Salvesté. There would be words, Hal decided. There would definitely be words.
The last fringes of deep woodland gave way to sparser undergrowth and windswept, lonely rowans. They had passed the occasional woodsman’s hut or cottage on their journey through the forest – their movements tracked by eyes half-mad from isolation, peering out at them through a window. She’d witnessed a poacher wearing an old fur hat and little else skinning a rabbit. Now, however, for the first time since they left Colvé, there were signs of community – of sorts. An uneven array of wooden shacks nestled at the foot of the mountains, sweetly scented wood smoke wisping up through the makeshift chimneys on their roofs. A few half-naked children ran about, splashing in a stream, impervious to the cold. Outside their cottages sat two old women washing clothes in barrels, pipes dangling from their mouths. They observed the travellers wordlessly. And then, one by one, more men and women emerged from their huts, squinting into the daylight – some old, some young, although in many cases it was hard to tell their years, as their faces were so weather beaten and wrinkled, tanned by wind and sun.
“Who are they?” Hal whispered to Roc.
“Everything and nothing,” he said, observing the villagers. “They search for gold here amongst the streams and rocks. They poach, they drink, they fight. They’ll guide people like ourselves over the mountains. For a fee.”
“But we don’t have any money.”
“Not that kind of a fee,” Roc said with a grin.
“Lord Roc!” One man stepped from the group – lean, angular, his long, greying hair tied back from his face, his eyes wise and cunning. He was dressed, like Hal, in shirtsleeves and trousers, although unlike Hal he seemed oblivious to the cold. “Long time since your Lordship’s graced these parts.”
“Been entertaining the Emperor, Master Gorec.”
“That so?” Gorec spat. “His men were here not long ago now. Demanding their tribute.” A few angry mutterings and curses followed. “Won’t give us any peace, that Castor,” said Gorec. “Like his Uncle before him.”
“Believe me, this one’s worse than Diodiné,” Roc replied.
“Well, he certainly seems to have taken a dislike to you, Lord Roc.” Gorec grinned suddenly. “Enough at least to have had your portrait commissioned.” He nodded to a small, scrawny boy who ran inside a hut, re-emerging with a pile of scrolls. “This’d be you, I suppose?”
Gorec unrolled the parchment to reveal a grotesque caricature of Roc. The artist had given the western lord the appearance of a debauched old sot, with the heavy rings of a drinker around his eyes and a bulbous nose. Jools laughed out loud, and Roc scowled.
“I believe they’ve caught your very essence, my Lord,” Jools observed.
“You were amongst the artist’s subjects too, Mistress Jools, if I’m not mistaken.”
If the artist had given Jools a pair of horns, he could hardly have made her look more devilish. Now it was Roc’s turn to laugh.
“In fact,” said Gorec, “I do believe we have the whole collection. In the event of your capture, they’ll raise us quite a fortune.”
“We don’t intend to be captured, Master Gorec,” said Hal, reaching down to receive her own likeness. A scowling fugitive with murderous eyes stared back at her from the parchment. “Is that me?” she asked.
Salvesté peered over her shoulder. “It looks miserable enough to be you.”
She shook her head, rolled up the scroll and handed it back to Gorec. “Keep it, Sir. Although I shouldn’t hope to get rich from it anytime soon.”
“We’ll see,” Gorec said, studying her. She gazed back at him. There was no doubt that this man would sell them to the highest bidder, given the chance. But the fact that Castor’s men had already passed through the village left her with a vague sense of security.
“Looks like you could do with a place to rest your heads. And some warm clothing – if you’re to cross the mountains,” Gorec said, turning back to Jools.
“We can’t pay you, Gorec.”
“Money isn’t as much use to us as the horses you’re riding. And you won’t be taking them over The Tooth, I’m sure.”
“They’re yours,” said Salvesté. “We’ve some weapons spare too, if you wish them.”
Gorec grinned. “Weapons are welcome. This place gets wilder by the minute with folks such as yourselves stalking the land free. So…your horses, your weapons…and I’m sure, Lord Roc, you know us well enough to indulge our traditions?”
“What’s he talking about?” Hal whispered.
“One of you must fight, Mistress Hannac,” said Gorec, who evidently had sharp ears. “It’s an old custom amongst us. A symbol, if you like – that we’ll only give our hospitality to those worthy of it.”
“The mountain people’s trust is soon won and easily lost, Hannac,” Roc added.
“I see.” She felt the others eyes on her, and knew that trouble was brewing. “What?”
“Well we didn’t just save you for the sake of your pretty face, Hal,” Jools said with a vicious grin.
She looked at them in turn, and they met her gaze with smiles, shrugs and expectant eyes.
“Why me? Why not Magda?”
“You seem to have been spoiling for a fight of late, Hal.” Magda raised an eyebrow. “What’s changed?”
‘Well if that’s how it’s to be…” groaning she lowered herself from the saddle, unsheathing her sabre. “Master Gorec? Shall we?”
He shook his head and spread his hands. “It’s not me you’ll fight, Halanya.”
The villagers had walled themselves behind Gorec, exchanging brisk, high words in a dialect that Hal didn’t recognise. And then a figure stooped below the crossbeam of one of the huts and stepped out into the centre of the village: a man so tall, so hard and so wide that he put Hal in mind of a human oak tree.
She had once heard stories of strange beasts that lived in the mountains – half man, half wolf – and she was now inclined to believe them. The messy black thatch of curls which framed his massive head extended down across his face and chest. Clearly he was oblivious to the cold, dressed as he was in mere breeches and boots, the muscles of his chest and arms fused and knotted as thick as tree roots. She was aware of her head swimming, of the others jumping from their horses, wide-eyed and open mouthed, of Roc clamping a consolatory hand around her shoulder.
“We don’t like to lose,” said Gorec.
“So I see.”
Her opponent sized her up with open contempt. “I’ll not fight this…scarecrow.”
Hal swallowed hard. Use his size against him, Beric would have told her. But then Beric had always pitted her against flesh and blood, not bark and sap.
“As scarecrows go, Sir, I’m accounted swift with a sword.”
The wolf man shook his head. “I’ll not fight that,” he growled. “It’s an insult.”
“I never knew your feelings could be so easily wounded, Fælc,” said Gorec.
Fælc shook his monstrous head. “Not today,” he said, and turning his back on them all wandered back in the direction of his hut. “Wasn’t worth my getting out of bed.”
Hal turned and looked for support to her fellow travellers. “Now what?”
“Well go on!” Jools urged, waving frantically.
“But he doesn’t want to.”
“Hannac…” Roc gazed at her solemnly. “Not to fight is to insult them.”
“Right.” She turned around. Fælc had almost reached his hut. “Right,” she said again, and ran at him, leaping onto his back.
Some of the villagers clapped and cheered, others yelled at Fælc to fight. She clung on as hard as she could, one hand wrapped around his head, her legs knotted across his waist while she fumbled with her sword. Fælc flailed and swatted at her as if she were an insect, then grabbed her sword hand. Pain shot up her arm – she felt bones crush, dropping the sabre as he whirled her around in a few dizzying spirals before flinging her to the ground. She lay for a moment, unable to breath, gazing up at the weave of clouds high above – and then his shadow loomed, her sword dangling from his fist, clearly now as mad as a hungry bear. With a yelp, Hal rolled over, launching herself back onto her feet. “A sword, for the sake of all the spirits!” she gasped.
Magda threw her another sabre. She caught it by the hilt, ignoring the way the bones in her hand now seemed to grind together. Then the two of them stood, facing each other.
“You’ve got courage – for a scarecrow,” Fælc conceded.
“Well we scarecrows are noted for our tenacity.”
“What?” he frowned. The sabre resembled a knitting needle in his meaty hands.
She shook her head. “Never mind.” They circled for a few moments, eyeing each other, swords swaying, until Fælc – evidently not a patient man – raised his blade, arcing it down towards Hal’s chest.
“I’m too old for this,” she thought, tipping backwards into a half somersault. And she was – landing once again on her back, rolling from his strike just in time. But this, she realised, staggering to her feet, was the kind of display the villagers sought, for now they cheered her on as much as Fælc. Infuriated, he ran at her again. She leaped to one side, bringing the flat of her blade down hard on the small of his back, causing him to gasp and arch in pain.
Hal caught Magda’s eye and grinned, memories of the Circle resurfacing – the roar of the crowds, Beric’s threats, the ring of steel blades. As Fælc recovered, he brought his sword back down and she blocked, sensing his sheer power. Now it was his turn to smile, peering down at her as she forced him back, the strength sapped from her arms, sweat coursing down her forehead. She broke, exhausted, ignoring the catcalls of the villages, their fickle allegiances easily swayed.
“Poor form, scarecrow,” he taunted.
She watched him with wary eyes. She could never match his raw power. And he was, she realised, a man who could fight all day, his stamina bred from the harsh, unforgiving mountain conditions in which he lived. In such events, Beric had always advised her, wit and cunning were all she could rely on. And there’s little enough of that knocking around in that empty head of yours, girl, so don’t expect too much. She recalled his words, and grinned. And then, as Fælc ran towards her, she dropped her sword and rolled across the ground, straight at him. Her head rang with the impact; the world suddenly condensed into a confusion of arms, legs, clouds, grass – she could no longer tell which way was up or down.
She freed herself from the mess of limbs in time to see Fælc still kneeling in the dirt, his hair and beard speckled with grass. As he tried to peel himself off the ground, she picked up her sword and ran at him, leaping onto his back once again. He crumpled beneath her with a groan and she straddled his waist, pulled his head back by the hair, and slid her blade beneath his chin. “Yield?”
“Ugh,” said Fælc.
“Is that a yes?”
“So was it worth getting out of bed for the fight?”
“Alright.” She threw her own sword back onto the grass and wiped a streak of blood from her mouth, dimly aware of the villagers laughing at Fælc, pouring each other tankards of what might have been ale. Her own companions crowded around to congratulate her, passing her amongst them until she was dizzy. Heat spread through her body – a curious joy which she hadn’t known in months, perhaps in years.
Fælc was on his feet, staggering towards her. She stiffened, observing him, preparing to run. And then he wrapped his arms around her, encircling her in a hug which almost cracked her ribs.
“Not bad, scarecrow.”
“My name is Hal.”
Fælc grinned down at her. “Hal,” he said. “Now the real contest. Bring us both a drink!”
“What?” She groaned as one of the washerwomen handed them both mugs of smoky dark ale. “Oh no!”