Disclaimer: I own nothing but my own characters (Kate, Otri, Pavi, etc.)
It is the sound of hooves against the ground that I remember the most about that day. It was like a rolling thunder, sounding first from within the deepest crevices of the stomach and moving to the ears. The people of my village paused in their work at the sound of it, looking up curiously, almost all in unison. I had been among them that day, my basket filled almost to the brim with precious herbs and flowers I had picked. The others were unconcerned by the sound of approaching horses, but I felt my stomach twist uncomfortably in fear. I did not know why I was reacting this way, yet something inside of me told me that this was not a good thing. My fear only increased when my father had practically erupted from our hut, his forehead heavily creased with his deep frown. My mother had been right behind him, and she went to me, pulling me to her quickly.
"Mother?" I had questioned as she had seized my hand roughly, giving it a hard squeeze. She shushed me and had whispered, "All is well." Just as she spoke the words the horses came up over the hills and into sight. My heart leapt when I saw that they were Roman, dressed to the hilt in their uniforms. And with them were several other much younger men, all trailing behind as if they didn't want to be there. My father drew his sword in one swift movement, and I had jumped, whispering, "Mama, what's happening?" Alarmed, my mother could do nothing but shake her head at me.
The soldiers had slowed down as they reached the outskirts of our small village, motioning to the younger men to halt there. My father moved then; moved as I had never seen him do before. He moved almost like a cat, sliding in front of my mother and I in one swift movement. The Romans were unperturbed, trotting right up to him and looking at him as if he were an annoying fly to be swatted.
"I think you know why we are here." One of the Romans said to my father, his voice full of contempt. My father bared his teeth at them, looking for all intents and purposes like a cat as he hissed, "You may look elsewhere to settle the debt. I have no son to sacrifice." My mother's fingers dug into my arms as he said this, and I flinched a little in pain. The movement was enough, capturing the attention of the Roman soldiers. One of them grinned at me, revealing blackened teeth, and asked, "Is this your daughter?" My father tensed at this and said, "You will leave her alone."
"Must I remind you that you have no choice in this matter?" one of the Romans said as they dismounted, skirting around my father to come towards me. My mother forced me to back up with her, as if we could escape them. They reached us, smelling of sour sweat and grime. I knew little of why they had come. I had once been told by my father of his debt to the Romans, but he said that I would not be harmed, that we would be left alone. I remember thinking that I must have been dreaming as one reached out and touched my face, caressing my skin as if I were a common concubine. I had acted without thinking, shaking free of my mother's arms and shoving the man away from me, baring my teeth much in the same way as my father.
The Roman had laughed at me then, finding my fierceness hilarious. He had gestured at my basket then and had asked what the herbs were for. I had given him a very suspicious look, replying, "I am making them into a salve." He raised an eyebrow at this and looked back at his companion. The other man had snickered, nodding. The next thing I knew, I was being told to gather my things. My mother had shrieked in protest, almost leaping forward to seize me. She was dragged back by her sister, who comforted her with softly spoken words.
My father came to me then, looking far older than I had ever seen him. Stunned, I was lead into our hut to gather my things. My father hardly spoke, and the only sound that shattered the silence was the far-off sounds of my mother's sobs. When I was ready, my father knelt down, hugged me tight and said to me, "You have the spirit of the warrior within you. Never let them break you."
"Papa." I whispered, my throat closing up. He hugged me again fiercely and roughly told me to leave, practically pushing me out the door. I had just two bags with me, my healing items in one bag and my personal items in the other. My uncle brought my father's horse to me, a beautiful black animal whom I had always admired. He helped me up onto him, and I looked around at my village for the last time. My sobbing mother came to my side, reaching out to me. I touched her fingers briefly, whispering, "I will be back, Mama."
I had then spurred the horse into a quick trot, heading over to the young men waiting at the village limits. I had half expected them to tease me immediately, the only girl among them, yet they all simply regarded me with the same saddened look. I glanced back then, fighting my tears as best as I could. My mother had been joined by my father, who comforted her. My cousins arrived then to see me leave, each of them looking saddened by my abrupt departure. I worried in that instant, my fear twisting at my stomach roughly, that I would not see them ever again. I committed my village to memory, the sights and the sounds of it imprinted in my mind even now.
As we turned away, I let a single tear slip down my cheek. It was the end of my childhood, I would later recognize, and the beginning of adulthood. I would no longer be able to hide within my silly girlish behaviors. I was expected to become a woman.
That first day was the worst for me. The others ignored me and each other as best as they could, and the only thing that I could hear for the longest time was the moan of the wind through the trees. It was disheartening, and I found myself in such terrible spirits that I could barely lift my own head. We rode all day and well into the night before we set up camp. Most of the others were so exhausted that they fell asleep as soon as their heads hit their bedrolls.
I lie awake for quite some time, however. It was then that I missed my family the most. Instead of being surrounded by loving people, I was surrounded by strangers. I wrinkled my nose at the thought and amended, adding the fact that they all smelled awful. Tears pricked at my eyes for the second time, and this time I let them come. I struggled to keep quiet, but my sniffles alerted a single boy.
"Why do you cry, girl?" the boy demanded at a whisper, leaning over me. I scrubbed at my eyes with the heel of my palms and hissed, "That is none of your business, boy." He leaned back a little at my response and I half wished I hadn't reacted so. I was completely disarmed when he suddenly turned a very charming smile on me and said, "You are very lovely when you're angry." I tried to maintain my irritation at him, but I found myself lowering my defenses instead, whimpering, "I miss my Mama." He gave me a sad little smile and sat down next to me. I sat up too, unable to sleep, and listened carefully as he whispered, "Promise you won't tell the others?" I nodded solemnly, wanting to hear whatever he had to say.
"I miss my Mama too." He admitted, shame crossing his face. I patted his arm gently saying, "It's to be expected." He looked at me in surprise and then smiled again, reaching out to gently tug on one of my braids. I had looked away from him and said, "I will miss things, not being at home." He sounded confused when he asked, "What do you mean?" I sighed a little, tugging at my dress and said, "I will miss my cousin's weddings and I will miss growing up with my friends. I probably won't even be kissed!" I blushed as soon as the words left my mouth, making him chuckle at me.
"You shall be kissed." He told me, his voice heavy with meaning. I looked at him, raising my eyebrows. He leaned in immediately, but I stopped him, squeaking, "I do not even know your name!" He looked surprised at that and murmured, "Oh. I apologize. I am Lancelot." I smiled a little, finding the name pleasing, and replied, "I am Kate." He gave me a queer little smile and said, "Such a strange name." I frowned at him and replied, "If you are going to poke fun at my name, I will not speak to you ever again." He snorted at this, yet didn't say another word about my name.
He leaned in for the second time and this time I held still. To my surprise, the kiss was very nice, if a little awkward. He was as experienced as I was, perhaps a little more. It was a very chaste kiss, yet I couldn't complain. When he pulled back he said, "Was that good enough?" I shrugged and replied, "How should I know?" He gave me a look that told me he was not amused and I hastily continued, "It felt nice. I liked it." He seemed proud at this, sticking out his chest and looking extremely cocky. I giggled a little and said, "You are funny." He tugged my braid again and said, "Why thank you. Now get some sleep. I daresay we're going to be up early tomorrow." I nod and then lie back down, automatically obeying him. I sense him there for awhile longer before he too heads to his bedroll.
It was not the beginning of a whirlwind romance. We were friends, and nothing more. It was a relief to have him as a friend, and suddenly I no longer felt so alone. He was kind to me when the others kept their distance and I appreciated that more than anything. Months of travel loomed ahead of us, not to mention years of danger and uncertainty. Now was the time to band together, and he knew it. After that first night, things slowly got better for me.
The next day, we were awoken by the Romans shouting at us, kicking some of the boys savagely. The large boy, whose name turned out to be Bors, did not take kindly to it. He swore at the soldier as he got up, scratching himself crudely enough to make me blush and look away. I packed up my things and mounted my horse with the others, smiling when Lancelot rode up next to me. I pulled my furs around me tightly and set off with new spirit. It made me bolder, having the brave and outgoing Lancelot as my friend and I began to talk to the other boys, persisting until I had befriended them as well. Some saw me as a nuisance, shooing me away like a pesky insect, but most welcomed me.
The journey was long and perilous, and most of the boys grew tired of having only other boys as companions. I recognized and understood that they needed a feminine presence nearby, a soft and nice person to smooth out the jagged edges. Some grew too friendly, but by then I had a large army of friends to fight them off for me. After a few black eyes and even more missing teeth, they quickly came to an understanding that I would not be touched. I would be their comforter, a role that I welcomed.
I had never been in that kind of situation before and my body soon took the toll. I grew thinner and blisters appeared on my hands from holding the reins all day. Many of the others grew sick as the climate changed, and I nursed them back to health with certain teas I had used on my cousins before. I had innocently imagined that my duties as healer would progress no further than treating colds and other sicknesses. I watched the others as they practiced amongst themselves under the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers. Not once did I have any desire to join them in that sport, having seen the injuries that it could potentially incur. Still, I felt the pangs of loneliness the most during these times, the lines drawn between them and me suddenly sharper.
During those months of travel I watched Lancelot closely. He was always leading, never following. He showed himself to be a master with the practice sword, so much so that even our Roman escorts made comments on it. I watched as the praise slowly made him arrogant, yet not always undesirably so. Deep down I knew he was lost, looking for something to take the place of home and family. Slowly but surely he accomplished his goal of making the rest of us fill that role in our own way. It was inevitable, as there was something about the dark featured man that was impossible to ignore. It was the perfect combination of arrogance, confidence and warmth that just made us rally around him without a second thought. I knew the others would be proud to ride with him into battle, and I was right.
We first saw Briton about four months after I left my home. All of us could only stare at it at first, dismay and outrage visible on our faces. There was nothing, nothing at all. The land was barren and desolate. As far as our eyes could make out, there was nothing that could remind us of home. After a moment, words slipped out of my mouth before I could help it. My voice was heavy with despair as I said, "What is to happen to us?" Several of the others glanced at me when I said this and Lancelot touched my shoulder to comfort me. The Romans barked at us to move and we spurred our horses into a gallop. I remember how the bitterly cold wind pricked at my eyes and forced me to wrap my furs around me tighter.
As we crossed the vast fields, went through the thick forests and thundered through bogs, I struggled to keep up with the others. The news that we were close to our post had lit a fire under them and they were eager to rest in a real bed for the night. I was frightened, however, of this new place. I fleetingly wondered if actually seeing the fortress and living there would stake its claim and refuse to let me go. I dallied at the rear of the formation, wanting to postpone the event as long as possible.
But of course we reached the gates that provided access to the wall, and by that time it was the dead of night. The Romans demanded that we be allowed to enter, and the gates opened slowly, labouriously done by two other Roman soldiers on the other side. I sat up straighter in my saddle, wanting to see what lay beyond the gates, but sat back down when I realized that it was impossible. I gave a small smile to Gawain when he told me, "I would not be so eager to see it, Lady. I daresay you'll be seeing much of this place for some time." I remember thinking that he sounded so mature, so accepting. It baffled me that someone who was only a month older than I was could be like that, while I was a veritable wreck.
When we finally walked through those gates, my heart fell. There was nothing special about this compound, nothing to really be happy about. The first word that came to mind was brown. Everything was like mud, from the fort itself to the wall that we had just come to. My horses' hooves made rather obscene squelching noises in the mud as I followed the rest of my companions to the large building ahead of us. My hands alternately clenched and released the reins, making my horse snort in irritation. As we passed, people looked up at the warriors with expressions that would only be described as awe. When they spotted me though, they began to whisper amongst themselves. I could not hear what they were saying, but could guess quite easily. I raised my chin and pretended not to notice.
It was then that the skies opened and began to pour down upon us without warning. I became drenched to the bone within minutes, and I sighed heavily, wondering what might go wrong next. I would become used to the sudden changes in weather; the non-stop rain. I was finally allowed to dismount, and my legs nearly buckled under my own weight. I leaned against my horse for a moment, stretching out my legs as I did. I looked up in time to see Gawain approach me, that wonderfully warm smile on his face. He offered me his arm and said, "Might I assist you?" I remember how I beamed at him, taking his arm and thanking him profusely. I suppose both of us needed someone to hold onto as we entered the building. As the youngest two of the group, it wasn't surprising that we turned to each other.
Stepping inside, I imagined that I was being led to a dungeon. The hallway was small and dark and I shivered a little, imagining the shadows were watching me. I stood up onto the tips of my toes, straining to see what was ahead. That was the first time I spotted him; that was the moment my life changed. He wasn't remarkable from a distance. He was average height, average build. He had dark hair and from what I could tell, he still had all of his teeth. But as Gawain and I got closer to him, I felt something. It radiated off of him strongly, and I was immediately reminded of Lancelot.
"Who is that?" Gawain asked me at a whisper, leaning over so only I could hear. I shook my head at him, my voice echoing around me as I replied, "I do not know." When we finally stood before this man, he regarded Gawain first. He appeared to be appraising him with his eyes, searching for something within the young man that perhaps not even he knew he had. I remained silent and still, in awe of this unnamed man. He smiled at Gawain finally, and I was taken aback at his lovely smile. Gawain nodded at him and told him his name and age. They shook hands and I could feel a camaraderie form almost instantly. Then the man looked at me.
The smile disappeared and I braced myself, unsure of what he would do. His eyes darted back to where our Roman escorts were, and something passed between them; something ugly. I nervously backed up, afraid that the stranger would turn his wrath upon me next. However, when he shifted his gaze back to me, his green eyes were gentle. He leaned forward and gently said, "I am Artorius… Arthur." He raised my hand to his mouth then and kissed the back, a friendly and brief kiss. I flushed a bit, glancing at Gawain who simply stared back at me, dumbfounded. Arthur straightened then and gently, almost condescendingly said to me, "I would very much appreciate it if you would wait out here for a moment."
Without waiting for an answer, even before learning my name, the man Arthur turned away from me and walked into the room at the end of the hallway. Gawain gave me an apologetic look and then left me to follow the man into the room. Stunned at this change of events, I could only stand there and watch, feeling utterly betrayed. The doors were shut behind them, and I was left out on the outside of it all. Releasing a breath that I hadn't been aware that I was holding, I looked around me, not sure what I was supposed to do next. In that moment, a boy came towards me. He was about the same age as Lancelot, perhaps a few years older. He had a kind face, and I relaxed slightly when he approached me.
He gave me a smile, a rather goofy looking one, and said, "You are to help me in the stables." My jaw dropped at this, and my voice was dangerously quiet as I said, "Pardon me?" His smile wavered, and his voice became uncertain as he replied, "Um… you are to help me in the stables, Miss. The horses need tending to." I barked out a laugh, yet there was nothing humourous about what was happening to me right then. I shook my head a little and followed the boy back the way I had just come. He stuttered as he told me his name, as if I had taken the confidence right out of him. Yet I couldn't release the bitterness or the anger that had entered my heart at the treatment I had received.
My father's words came back to me as I helped the squire remove the saddles and other items from the countless horses lead into the dark stables. I glared the entire time, muttering to myself in intervals as I furiously threw myself into my task. My father's words repeated in my head ceaselessly, "Never let them break you. Never let them break you. You have the spirit of the warrior within you. Never let them break you." I struggled to maintain my composure as Jols glanced back at me several times, his face nervous. My muscles ached by the time we had finished, but not nearly as much as my heart. I went over to my horse and reached up, stroking his nose gently as I mulled over my unfair treatment. Jols sensed that I wished to be alone then, and he took his leave with a soft goodnight.
I was alone for only minutes before Lancelot entered the room. His face was practically glowing, and his steps were confident and sure as he approached me. He sat down on the railing next to me and said, "Oh Kate, I think I may have been wrong about this whole adventure." I blanched at this; completely shocked by the way he spoke then, a complete change from his attitude before. To be honest, I felt as if he had stabbed me in the heart. Part of what had bonded us so was our mutual distaste for this journey, and I felt as if he had suddenly taken that away. His eyes almost danced as he said, "The man Arthur is our commander Kate, and he is a man of enlightenment. At first, I thought that what he was telling us was madness, but the more he spoke, the more it made sense."
He suddenly took my hands into his then, and continued on at a manic rate, almost frightening me, "There was a round table Kate, inside of that room. Don't you see? There was no head or foot to the table, every spot was equal. He said 'for men to be men, they must first be equal'. I trust this Arthur, Kate, I really and truly do." He was breathing hard as he finished, and I realized he must have run straight from the room to here once he was able to. I looked away from him, clenching my jaw and staring at my horse. I was furious with him, so angry that I couldn't speak at first.
"Kate?" he questioned, sounding perplexed, "What is the matter?" The question was so absurd that I found myself looking at him to be sure that he wasn't jesting with me. I barked out another laugh and said, "I would have thought it was obvious." He frowned then, and I felt my rage increase. I looked away from him again and quietly said, "Did you not notice that I wasn't there, Lancelot?" I hopped down from the railing, flinching a little when I heard him do the same. I moved towards the doors but his hand clamped down on my arm, stopping me.
"Kate, I do not understand." He said, making me look at him. I rolled my eyes at him and then shrilly said, "This Arthur speaks of equality? He speaks of justice? Well if this is his view of equality then I do not want to share in it. I'm sure he believes in equality for all… unless you happen to be a woman." I stormed out of the stables then, ignoring Lancelot as he called my name repeatedly. I had no inkling of where I was running to, I just knew that I needed to be away from him at that moment. I paused outside of the stables, leaning against a wall. It continued to rain but I paid it no heed.
When Arthur's voice came back, it was almost too much to bear. I found myself staring hard at a puddle on the ground as he spoke to me, his voice smooth as he told me that I would be staying with a woman instead of in the quarters with the rest of my companions. He told me that I would be doing women's work, mending the clothes of the boys inside of the building and the like. I laughed then, a bitter laugh, and I looked at him. He seemed taken aback as I looked at him and said, "I am a healer, Arthur. I am here to heal." He shook his head after a long pause and told me, "No. Your place is not here." I clenched my fists, and then stonily repeated, "I am here to heal." He was silent, and I knew that he was not listening to me; that all he saw when he looked at me was a thin, unremarkable girl.