Peace was addicting. After more than 8 months with no fights or concerns, Jaelynn felt as if nothing bad could happen. Life was an adjustment, of course. Gossip rose to new heights after she and Tristan were known as a couple. But it didn't bother her.
Jaelynn thought the gossip bothered Tristan at first, but it died off. Or rather, the gossip changed. People noticed Tristan more, partially because he wasn't scouting all the time now. He handled the news from his scouts, and the people understood he was trying to keep them all safe. At least, that's how Jaelynn saw it.
When Tristan and Jaelynn decided to marry, more gossip popped up, but Jaelynn saw it as envy. Yes, even the orphaned girl and the assassin scout can find love. The marriage was to take place in four days, after Tristan asked last week if she'd be interested in marrying him. Leave it to him to make it so casual. She had laughed, and answered affirmatively.
They would have wed already, but Vanora wanted her to wait so she could make a better gown for Jaelynn to wear. Jaelynn didn't really care, but if it made Vanora happy, she felt she should oblige.
She stood uncomfortably in Vanora's house, dressed in the gown, or most of it. The sleeves were a bit tricky.
The house was wonderful. As soon as spring came, Tristan, Gawain, Galahad and Arthur helped Bors rebuild the estate. It was right back where it had been before, outside the wall. Arthur had tried to convince him to build inside the Wall, but Bors, in his loud and raucous manner, said he should be safe if Tristan was doing his job.
Tristan had thrown a dagger by his head, and stated simply: "You're never fully safe."
"What are you thinking about?" Vanora asked. Jaelynn blinked. She refocused on standing straight; Vanora was prodding at a stitch in the dress.
"Nothing," she said. Vanora rolled her eyes.
"You're becoming like him," she mumbled. Jaelynn smiled.
Vanora nodded. "He's gotten a bit more talkative, but it's like you gave him your words to compensate. You know, you both can speak freely anytime. No one fines you."
Jaelynn laughed. "It just means I'm trying to listen more."
Vanora rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh.
"I hate to think how much worse it'll get when you're married," she said. "You both will just nod at each other in your home and never say much of anything."
Jaelynn grinned to herself. It was a funny image, to be sure, but what no one else knew was how much she and Tristan really talked. Their time alone wasn't spent staring at each other in silence (although she overheard that as a rumor from the smithy's wife). They talked freely, about what was going on at the Wall, in the country, with each other, anything.
"I'm cooking a duck for him tonight," Jaelynn announced. The new topic made Vanora raise an eyebrow.
"You may want to wait till after you're married," the red-head said. "Unless you're trying to avoid the marriage, and just kill him off beforehand." Jaelynn glared at her friend.
"The last one wasn't so bad," she defended. "And besides, it's not as if I haven't improved. My bread is edible now."
Vanora mumbled something beneath her breath about bread and stones. Jaelynn sighed. I am getting better. Tristan even told her so, and she knew he wasn't lying because he ate extra helpings now.
"At least you're trying," Vanora said, most likely to smooth things over. She stitched a pleat in the gown so that it clung closer to her frame. Jaelynn wasn't used to how close the dress would fit, but Vanora kept insisting it would look wonderful. Jaelynn suspected there was more to it than that, but didn't question her.
"Will this take much longer, Vanora?" she asked. "I should start on the duck soon."
Vanora stood, wiping her brow. She studied the dress for a moment.
"I think we're about there."
As much as Jaelynn appreciated the dress's beauty, she wasted no time leaving.
The duck lived another day. She was at Lucinda's to prepare everything when Tristan found her.
"Hi!" she greeted him. He smiled tightly, and came to her to give her a kiss. She loved it—just a little thing but a token of his love.
"How are you?" he asked—another change in the man. She shrugged.
"I'm well," she said, "Vanora's obsessed with the gown. I've told her it's just a dress but she insists."
He didn't answer. Jaelynn glanced his direction. His head was bowed slightly, but his eyes were on her.
"What?" she asked.
"Something's happened," he said. Jaelynn felt an onslaught of tension. "Ronin's horse came back today, without him." Her stomach felt like it dropped. Ronin was one of Tristan's scouts.
"What happened?" she asked. She swallowed hard. Tristan kept his voice even, and reached a hand out to hold hers. His thumb moved back and forth over her knuckles.
"There was a ship, coming our way. He saw it around the southern coast," Tristan explained. "He was tracking it."
"Is that the last you heard?" she asked. Tristan nodded. "So does that mean . . ."
Tristan shook his head. "Not sure." He hesitated. Instinctively, Jaelynn knew she wouldn't like whatever he'd say next. "I'm going east, towards the coast. We think the ship is there."
She closed her eyes. No. She knew this would happen eventually, but it didn't help now, so close to their marriage day and after she expected peace to continue.
"You're going after him," she filled in, opening her eyes. He nodded. "Why you?'
He tilted his head to the side without answering. Jaelynn sighed.
"How long do you think you'll be gone?" she asked. He shrugged.
"One week, maybe two. I have to leave soon." Meaning in the next hour.
She nodded, but a pang hit her heart. The marriage would have to be postponed. Tristan mentioned it, and Jaelynn agreed, but that's not what bothered her now. Tristan was going into danger. It was a risk, and he was taking it because he probably felt responsible for Ronin's disappearance, maybe even his death, if he turned up so. That, or Tristan felt this was too important—he had to do it himself.
"Take someone with you," she said. In theory it was a request, but coming from her, she hoped he'd take it as more than a suggestion.
"I will," he said, and she felt a slight respite from her worry. "The knights and some others are coming. Lennor will scout with me."
She thought about what he'd said; he wouldn't be alone. Arthur, she noticed, wasn't mentioned, but he was king, and needed to stay out of harm's way for the stability of all the land. The knights would watch out for each other. It will be all right. She must not have appeared too happy still.
"I've been gone before," he said. Yes, he did scout from time to time.
"But not going into danger," she said back. Now he was tracking someone, a ship of men who possibly killed Ronin. Tristan stepped to her, and tilted her chin up gently to look her in the eyes.
"There's always danger."
She sighed. Of course he was right. But it didn't change how she felt. She shook her head.
"Just be careful."
With no further words, she hugged him hard and kissed him as if to make up for the days to come.
Tristan took Lennor with him, who had come to be his most trusted scout. Perhaps it was Lennor's participation in Tristan's rescue from the marauders, but Tristan found it easy to stand the man's presence. He liked all of his scouts, but Lennor had a way of not trying to curry favor with him. There was one or two who seemed frightened of him, and overcompensated with eager words and sometimes flattery. The scout they sought, Ronin, wasn't like this though. That almost urged Tristan and Lennor to hurry more.
The two men traveled in near silence. After a few days of traveling, they were within 10 miles of the east coast, and scouted ahead frequently from the knights' group. Gawain, Bors, Galahad and some able men rode a few hours behind.
Here, Tristan could feel a difference in the air, and it wasn't just the winds brought on by the sea. The birds were quiet. The trees creaked more as they moved in the breeze.
Tristan exchanged glances with Lennor.
They rode on, slowly and cautiously. Tristan held his bow in hand and one arrow. A few more miles closer to the coast, he stopped. Lennor pulled up on the reins of his horse too, and quickly dismounted.
Tristan held one hand up. Both men stood still, just listening. The leaves were rustling, but it was a different sound than from the wind. Tristan narrowed his eyes, glancing over the woods around them.
A shadow moved behind some trees. Tristan notched the arrow in place, aimed, and waited. The shadow cleared one of the trees, and suddenly an arrow came right at Tristan. His feet moved automatically, making him dodge the arrow, and in return, he released his.
The shadow fell, a man in strange clothing. He didn't cry out; Tristan's arrow hit him in the head.
Lennor frowned as he stood over the body, and Tristan looked over the man's clothing. It reminded him of sailors, when he went to Rome, but less formal or organized. There was a different feel to the clothes, something not Roman.
"Their scout," Lennor remarked quietly. Tristan gave one nod.
"They'll be at sea," he said. "They won't leave their ship behind." He glanced up at the sky. It was noon now. "Gather the knights."
"You shouldn't go alone," Lennor said, and he was rewarded with a blank look from Tristan.
"I'll find you later," he said. He cared more about Ronin, and hoped the man was alive still. He would have to find the ship.
Lennor went back the way they'd come, and Tristan pushed ahead. He kept his horse's pace a bit on the slow side. His ears were honed in on his surroundings. Glancing up at the sky, Tristan saw his hawk gliding over the tree tops. That brought him more confidence. He was getting closer, so he halted his horse. He tied it to the tree, and continued on foot.
His sword was attached to his back in its scabbard, and he added to his burden a quiver of arrows. He walked with his bow in hand.
Above him, his hawk chirped. It was a short, quick sound; someone was ahead. Tristan melded with the trees, quietly moving forward from trunk to trunk. The expanse of the sky was ahead and under it the sea. He heard voices.
He knelt by some brush. On the shore was a camp of men. Even though it was the middle of the day, they seemed to lounge about. Their clothes were tattered, and discipline as Tristan had seen on other ships was not enforced here. Pirates, maybe? The flag that flew near the back of the ship was not of any land Tristan knew. That relieved him, somewhat.
A few of the men toyed with their swords, and Tristan saw a few others discussing something around a rock. On the rock was parchment of sorts. A map, Tristan guessed.
He scanned the beach for Ronin. All the men seemed free and at their leisure—no prisoners. Frowning, he moved his gaze beyond, to the ship that was anchored about three hundred feet from shore. No one moved aboard its decks. Are they all on shore? His gaze stopped on the mast.
Hanging from a cross beam on the mast was a body. Tristan clamped down hard on his tongue. He recognized the clothing and general appearance of the body.
Ronin. He was hanging by his neck, lightly swaying in the sea breeze.
Tristan looked away, bowing his head to the earth. He felt his heart clench painfully, and he felt the anger start to rise within him. He looked ahead at the men, his eyes blazing. He raised his bow and reached for an arrow.
Jaelynn's mind wasn't focused on her task. The poor girl she was treating probably noticed. She had a burn from cooking and whimpered, which temporarily drew Jaelynn to the now. As gently as possible, Jaelynn dabbed the wound with a soothing ointment to quell the burn and irritation. It wasn't a terrible wound, but Jaelynn knew burns were especially painful.
As she bandaged over the burn, Jaelynn felt her heart quicken its pace. She had to breathe through her mouth as a new onslaught of worry hit her.
There was much they had yet to discover about each other. While she knew him better than anyone, she didn't know him completely. What she didn't know scared her.
She didn't know if he would still single himself out to face danger.
She knew he had before. She knew his penchant for trouble was incredible. The months of peace made her think it was a thing of the past, but Tristan did not fight much during those months.
Would he be all right? The other knights were with him, but that meant nothing for a scout. He would save the hardest parts of their mission for himself. The most danger he would take by himself.
Please, no. She bit on her lip to stem the worry that made her lip quiver. The girl before her eyed her curiously amidst her own pain. Jaelynn tried to smile, and tied off the bandage.
"There you are," she said. The girl finally gave a tear-stained smile back.
"Thank you," she said with a slight shake in her voice. She ran off to her mother, who was waiting on the chair by the door. The woman gave her thanks.
Jaelynn turned to clean the supplies she'd used. She hoped Ronin would be found all right, and that Tristan would have no need for battle.
She hoped, because she wanted her future husband to come back safely. She wanted the life ahead of them.
He shut his eyes.
No, he couldn't do this. Ronin deserved revenge, and these men were hardly good men. But he was outnumbered. A year ago he might have tried something anyway. He couldn't now. He wouldn't risk it, his life, so easily—especially since the knights weren't far behind him.
He would wait.
As he sat, his eyes burning into the men of the pirate ship, Tristan calmed himself by thinking about Jaelynn. Be careful. Her words echoed in his mind. He shut his eyes with a long sigh. He didn't want to get hurt—he never craved pain—but even less so because if Jaelynn saw, she would worry indefinitely. She saw him in enough torment over the years. The first time they met was centered around such pain. He would do all he could; Tristan never saw himself shirking a fight called for by his duty and honor. But he would try to make such fights more cautious and planned.
Laughter from the shore drew his attention. Four men were pointing to the sky. Looking to where they pointed, Tristan saw his hawk.
He tensed. What is she doing? She circled over the men, and of all things seemed to enjoy the breeze. Her wings carried her like a leaf, and she just floated in the sky. Tristan saw the four men pick up bows. Their laughter seemed drunken from where Tristan hid, but could he rely on that to spoil their skill? With four arrows aimed at his bird, Tristan hissed in frustration and grabbed four of his own arrows.
He pulled back the string hard, eyeing the arrows to make sure all were notched on properly. Quickly he aimed at the sailors, even as he saw them move about to aim better at their moving target. With their bow strings pulled back, Tristan couldn't delay further.
He unleashed the arrows.
Two hit their marks, and their fall threw off the other men's aim. Tristan heard his hawk cry out, and she quickly flew away from the ship and the men. He sighed in relief and turned his full attention to the shore.
The pirates scrambled for their weapons. They looked to the trees. Tristan kept himself hidden and ran to the right. He stopped there and fired two arrows separately. Both struck their intended targets.
His object in changing positions was to make it seem like there was more than just him out in the forest. Tristan ran again further to the right, and picked out another pirate to kill. His shots were quick, and the sudden start and stop of them made the pirates hunker down behind their supplies and whatever cover they could find.
Their eyes were all upon the treeline, watching, searching. Tristan stilled as he studied them. A few had their swords drawn, and others had arrows ready. One man fired a shot near Tristan, but from the distance the arrow was from him, he gathered that the sailor was firing blindly.
He moved carefully back to the center of the area, facing the men. He notched four more arrows and pulled hard with his shoulder to get the proper distance. He let the arrows fly. The pirates yelled out in surprise, some of them screaming. Tristan grinned.
But his shots gave away his position. He took cover behind a thick tree, seconds later to hear and see a slew of arrows passing by him. His game couldn't last forever. He glanced past the tree to the shore again. The pirates were getting bolder, and a group of ten ran towards him and the forest. He quickly counted how many men were left—about thirty—and ran back the way he'd come into the depths of the trees.
He heard the men shouting after him. They did not see him yet; arrows came randomly through the trees, some far from him. One hit a tree he passed, at the height of his head. He ducked and changed direction.
A good thing about running away was that you didn't have to be too careful. He knew he was ahead of the pirates, and they didn't know where he was exactly or if he was waiting to slay them. Because of this, he distanced himself from the pirates. He could still hear them shouting, but they were at least a few minutes behind him.
He stopped and turned towards his pursuers's shouts as a thought hit him. If he kept running, he would only succeed in fanning out the enemy, and that made it less predictable to hunt them later. He didn't want to draw them towards the knights without his brothers-in-arms knowing what was coming. He frowned.
Tristan needed to hold them off. He sighed, and started to climb a tree. He grunted a bit from the effort as he pulled himself to a sturdy branch, and then reached higher. The early fall season already made the leaves brittle, and they fell easily. Many branches were becoming bare. Tristan found his spot high up in the tree, where he was out of sight.
He drew an arrow, notched it, and waited. The afternoon light was bright, and Tristan had to squint as it filtered through the trees and hit his eyes. He glanced right and left, waiting for the men to show up.
Suddenly he heard movement behind him. His breath caught in his throat. He twisted around to face back, aimed at the only figure he saw, and—
His fingers released the arrow before he could stop himself. He jerked his arms at the last second, and the arrow hurtled towards Lennor. The scout's eyes were wide, maybe more so when the arrow hit through the man's sleeve and then a tree.
Tristan shut his eyes with a sigh. When he reopened them, Lennor was glaring at him.
"Sorry," he muttered, but Lennor merely nodded. He turned around, and waved. Soon Tristan saw the knights. Before he could greet them, he heard something else.
Whipping around again from his spot in the tree, he immediately saw the pirates. They shouted out alarm, and started to retreat. Tristan fired the arrow in hand and felled one man. He reached for another arrow.
Below him, Gawain rode by, brandishing his sword. Bors yelled out his war cry, and led the men against the pirates. Galahad waited by the tree Tristan was in, and Tristan quickly climbed down. Galahad had Tristan's horse by his, the reins in hand to give over. Tristan nodded, some acknowledgement and thanks.
"I'm surprised you didn't take them all by yourself already," Galahad remarked. Tristan spurred his horse forward; the two knights galloped ahead.
"Thought about it," Tristan said. He heard the young knight chuckle.
"Ronin?" Galahad asked as they rode to catch up to their prey. Tristan just shook his head.
They made it to the shore. The knights and the men of the Wall fought against the pirates. There were a total of 20 men against the pirates' greater number, but Tristan quickly saw skill favored the knights. The pirates scattered in panic.
Tristan rode by one, unsheathing his sword with one powerful arc that freed the man's head from his body. He noticed Galahad to his side still. The knight was looking over the fallen bodies.
"Arrows," he commented. He raised an eyebrow at Tristan and grinned. "You didn't wait, did you?"
Tristan grunted, and dismounted. His feet dug into the sandy shore, which threw him off for a second. A pirate came at him, screaming. Tristan ducked beneath his wide swing, and thrust his sword in the man's chest. The man fell with a garbled moan.
Out in the sea was a small boat, just two men rowing back to the ship. Tristan noticed they were the same men he'd seen looking over the map before. The captain. The man who probably had Ronin killed.
Tristan ran towards the shore. Another pirate tried to block him. Tristan parried his strikes. Suddenly there was a swirl of sand in the air—the pirate kicked sand at Tristan's face. The tiny grains got in his eyes, and Tristan felt a moment of panic. His eyes watered and he tried to see but the discomfort made his eyes shut to contain the damage. He heard the pirate laugh, and then a sharp intake of breath.
On instinct only, Tristan held up his sword to block what felt like a downward blow. He stepped forward, digging his heels into the sand, and turned to add more power behind his swing. His blade met resistance, and he heard the lighter plop of a body hitting the soft sand.
Tristan wiped at his eyes, finally venturing a look ahead of him. The captain and the other man were half way to the ship. In a few minutes, they would be aboard the ship. Tristan didn't want them to escape. His bow was with his horse. He had only his sword.
That would do.
With a glance around, he searched out Lennor. His eyes met his scout's.
"Cover me!" he shouted. Lennor nodded, and grabbed his bow. With that, Tristan ran full speed at the water. He sheathed his sword, and as soon as he felt the water was deep enough, he dove head-first into the waves. The waves pushed him towards shore, but Tristan swam beneath the surface and closer to the boat.
The captain spotted him. As soon as he surfaced, Tristan saw the man pointing at him. The other man with him fingered a dagger. Suddenly an arrow hissed by him, and Tristan saw the arrow hit that man. He glanced back to Lennor, who gave a friendly salute.
Tristan swam to the rowboat. Each stroke put himself closer, despite the captain's attempts to row and race to the ship. The salt water stung at Tristan's eyes, and his hair didn't help; it seemed to direct the seawater there. He swam forward with his body at the surface, shaking his head free of some water. He was tiring a bit, and the water was deep here. He couldn't feel the bottom, nor see it.
Suddenly there was a splash right in front of him by the rowboat. Tristan pulled back just as the captain held up the oar and aimed to smash it over him again. The captain tried it repeatedly. Tristan let himself fall beneath the water. Thought it hurt his eyes, he opened them beneath the water to see where he could go. He swam under the boat, and came up on the other side.
The captain quickly changed sides, and slammed the oar at Tristan. Sputtering from his emergence, Tristan tried to tread water and dodge the strikes. He saw the oar coming at him again. He didn't move fast enough.
The oar glanced off his forehead. He felt a sharp pain but his head immediately dulled. He shook it, focusing on the captain who eagerly swung at him again. Tristan caught the next strike, and yanked the oar from the man's hands. Quickly the captain grabbed the other oar.
Tristan deflected it with his hand, even though it hurt, and jabbed the end of his oar into the captain's stomach. He was thrown off balance, and Tristan used the moment to take both oars and toss them out of reach. They splashed lightly in the water behind him.
Something dripped off his brow. Tristan ran a hand over his face, and he noticed his hand had blood on it. He scowled and did it again. His head was bleeding. Annoyed, Tristan swam for the boat again.
The captain jumped off it, diving perfectly into the water. He quickly swam for his ship, and Tristan hurried after him. What a coward, Tristan thought. For a captain, or any leader, to run like this . . . especially while his men were being slaughtered on the beach. . . . Tristan's head started to pound. He ignored it the best he could.
He was just a few feet from the captain, and the man knew it. He turned, and instead of the previous panic in his eyes, there was rage. The man snarled, and plunged himself towards Tristan. Tristan caught him, but their weights made them submerge beneath the water.
Air bubbles tickled his face, and Tristan fought to control the struggling captain. He imagined the man thought he could best him. Tristan felt something hit him. The captain wriggled wildly about. Tristan grasped at the man, snagging his waist. The captain kneed him in the chest, and Tristan felt his breath escape. Water filled his mouth before he could recover.
He cringed; the lack of air was pressuring him, but he didn't release the captain. Instead, he pulled him down, stroking through the dark water to get them deeper. The captain's struggles were increasingly wild, but uncontrolled.
His chest hurt, burning as if there was plenty of air fueling a fire within him. But he wouldn't let go. Not yet. Through the salt water, Tristan watched. The captain gave a little kick. His body stilled. Tristan still waited. His head was hurting more, pressure from the lack of air. But he waited, as the captain gave one last jerk. His head bobbed with the underwater current; the man was completely relaxed—he was dead.
Tristan released him and pulled against the water to bring himself to the surface. The light drew closer, the air sweetly above him. He broke the surface with a loud gasp to fill his lungs. In his haste to refill them, he got water too, and he coughed hard to expel it. His chest heaved in a drastic rhythm, but he was calming down. He weaved his arms back and forth in the water, keeping himself afloat.
The battle was over, judging by the calmness on the shore. The knights were finishing up. He noticed Lennor was watching him. Tristan nodded in his direction, and turned to face the ship, just a little further away.
He swam to it, taking his time now. Luckily the ship was closer than shore. He didn't have much more energy to swim back right now.
Behind him he heard Lennor call to Gawain. The men were swimming towards the ship too. Tristan reached it and noticed boards nailed to the hull like vertical steps. He used them to climb. It was a bit different than a tree, but he managed.
The deck was quiet. With water dripping from his body and his armor, Tristan unsheathed his sword. Just in case. He didn't know who else might be aboard, if anyone.
Something moved by the stairs to a lower deck. Tristan stepped to the side, on the defensive. He held his blade up, ready to deflect and attack. A whimper reached his ears. He frowned, and drew closer to the stairs.
"Shh, shh," he heard. Another whimper.
"Come out," he said, his voice gruff but even. Someone whimpered again. A woman? "Show yourself." He tried to soften his tone that time, but he doubted it worked.
But slowly, a figure came forward. It was a boy, maybe 10 years old. Behind him was a small girl. Her features were undefined, encased in the soft fat Tristan saw on babies. She can't be more than 6!
They were dressed in rags. Their hands were dirty, and judging by the boy's leanness, not well kept. Servants, Tristan guessed. He frowned harder.
"Who are you?" he asked. The little girl shrunk back while the boy squared his shoulders.
"Where is our uncle?" the boy asked.
"Who's your uncle?" Tristan asked back.
Tristan should have guessed. "Dead." For a moment, he saw surprise on the children's faces. The girl looked especially worried, glancing to her brother for guidance. Tristan expected tears and anger to follow.
But instead, the boy sighed, almost doubling over in his relief. Tristan heard him whisper.
There was more to this than he thought.
He waited for Gawain and Lennor to come aboard. They dragged the rowboat with them. The children seemed to respond easier to Gawain, and soon they explained their circumstances.
The captain was indeed their uncle. But they hardly missed him, since the uncle was quite the taskmaster, and unscrupulous. Tristan felt sorry for them. Their parents, they told Gawain, died and with no one else to care for them, the uncle took them in.
"Not a good man," Gawain mumbled. "Making his own niece and nephew serve him."
"On a pirate ship, no less," Lennor added.
Tristan nodded. "Arthur will make sure they're taken care of."
"Should I take them to shore?" Lennor asked. Tristan glanced at Gawain, and nodded. The British scout led the children to the side of the ship, below which was the rowboat.
Tristan turned to the main mast. He released a long, quiet breath. Ronin's body looked worse from here, and he knew it would only worsen the closer he got. Without a word to Gawain, Tristan began to climb the main mast and its nets.
The wind whipped by him, and he shivered despite the sunlight shining on him. Droplets of seawater flew off him. He looked above him. Ronin's body was two thirds of the way up the mast, secured on a cross beam. Tristan stopped at that beam.
He'd seen his share of bodies. He'd killed some, and buried others. Past knights that died, like Dagonet . . . death left little that was pleasant. Staring at Ronin, Tristan knew he'd been dead for about two days, but not more. There were marks on the man's face, bruises. He was held captive for days, and beaten.
The body stank, but Tristan expected it. Regardless, he held to the nets around the mast, and leaned out to the body. He had enough room from the rope holding Ronin to swing the body to the mast, where Tristan held it in place. It was awkward, but he managed. He cut through the rope around Ronin's neck. The full weight of the body hit him. Tristan grasped the ropes tight, steadying himself. He took a step down, and carefully grabbed the body about the legs. He held it over his shoulder, again ignoring the smell. Carefully, he descended from the mast.
Gawain had a large piece of burlap laid out on the deck. He gently assisted, guiding the weight off Tristan's shoulder as he knelt over the burlap. Together, the knights laid the body in the center of the cloth. They brought in the sides of the cloth, wrapping Ronin's body.
"He was younger than Galahad," Gawain said quietly. Tristan knew that. He was trying to figure out how Ronin's mother would act. She was all the family left; Ronin had no wife or lover. The mother already knew her son was missing, but death was something most people put as a last resort. She hoped Tristan would find him, alive.
He pulled the cloth to cover Ronin's face and sat back as Gawain tied some string around the cloth to keep it in place.
"Lennor's coming back with the boat," Gawain said. "Come—we'll carry him down." He meant Ronin. He stood, and poised himself to pick up Ronin's body at one end. Tristan shook his head.
"I'll carry him."
Gawain made to object, but Tristan didn't look at him. He glanced to see where Lennor was, just drifting to the ship now, and knelt by the body. He grasped Ronin about the torso, and lifted him up enough to pull the body towards him. The weight hit him over the shoulder. Bracing himself, Tristan stood, his knees wobbling a bit. Gawain outstretched a hand to steady him, but there was no need.
With cautious steps, he went to the ship's edge, where those wooden planked steps were. Gawain tied off a rope to the mast and fed it down the side of the ship. Tristan nodded once; it would help him descend.
The strain was great on his body, but Tristan swallowed the effort and climbed down to the boat. Lennor and Gawain exchanged looks, but silently let Tristan do it.
They reached the shore, and Tristan tried to ignore Galahad and Bors' staring. Tristan stepped out of the little boat into shallow water, with Ronin's body still hoisted over his shoulder. He met the quiet stares of his brothers-in-arms.
They looked to the ground, a sign of respect, Tristan guessed. Ronin certainly deserved it.
"What should we do about the ship?" Bors asked.
Tristan found himself abandoning that decision. He sought out his horse, and heard Lennor's footsteps following him. The scout helped him load the body on the horse's back. There weren't any spare horses, and luckily so since they lost no men in the fight—except Ronin. Tristan figured he'd ride with one of the knights or Lennor, or walk some of the way on foot.
He laid a hand over Ronin's back, staring at the burlap-covered form. A soft, tired sigh escaped Tristan's lips.
He glanced to the sky, where his hawk was happily gliding again.
Time to go home.
One week, maybe two. That's what Tristan had said. He probably assumed two weeks if they had to travel further. Or, as Jaelynn suspected, it meant they would encounter trouble.
It had been 9 days. They had to have met danger.
Was Tristan all right? She prayed he wasn't hurt, or captured, or . . . . Her daily tasks left little comfort, for as she cooked, prepared ointments, aided Hilden, and stood in her wedding gown, her thoughts easily turned to Tristan. Her mind conjured up the most perilous circumstances, some of them not even as far-fetched as ones Tristan actually got caught up in. How easy would it be to fall by an arrow? Or be clubbed in the head, and never wake?
It was driving her mad. Was she doomed to feel this way, every time he went out? Just because he acted as Arthur's advisor now didn't mean he would pass opportunities to scout or confront danger. His body was already littered with scars from injuries.
How many more can he take before he gets killed?
She shuddered as she thought how awful that would be. Her heart wrenched, thinking about Ronin. His horse came back without its master—what if Tristan's came too? Maybe not now, on this trip, but months or years down the road?
Can you live with that? she asked herself.
She bowed her head as she walked along the Wall, looking out over the land. Night was falling, and with it a light, humid mist. It was warm, pleasant even, but the air would cool overnight. Another night in the cold, she thought, picturing Tristan and the knights hunkered around a tiny campfire.
He'll come back.
And if he doesn't? She would regret not marrying him, even just moments before he had to leave to find Ronin.
Her breath caught in her throat. In the distance in the waning light, several specks came over the land. Horses, and men.
Her heart beat fast. It is him. Her face exploded with a grin, and she felt a surge of happiness run through her. But it quickly subsided.
This is what it will be like every time he comes home. Waiting, wondering, rejoicing.
She bowed her head again, her eyes seeing nothing but the stone of the wall. She shut out her thoughts and worries. Her ears just listened to the relative quiet, and a feeling came upon her in the solitude. It was one of peace.
Yes, she would always worry. Glancing up at the approaching men, she knew she would always wait here on the wall for her knight to return. And she would always love him. No matter what dangers he faced, she would be there to heal him if necessary, or calm him when memories of the latest battle assailed him.
She would be there in the night to comfort him into peaceful slumber when the past hurt him in his dreams.
Her brown eyes glanced over the land, gauging the men's speed. They would arrive in ten minutes, she guessed. A smile won over her face, and Jaelynn had to move. She ran from the wall, with one resolution in mind:
She couldn't count on constant peace and steadiness in life, but she wouldn't pass up even a day with Tristan. He was nearly her husband, and regardless of the dangers they faced, she and Tristan would get through it.
Tristan rode full-gallop through the gates, and immediately he spotted her. She stood still, grinning, watching as he came right at her, and nearly made the horse he rode skid to a stop just a few feet in front of her. He dismounted with vibrant energy, though his face betrayed more than just excitement—maybe it was sorrow. Quickly she glanced and saw a horse carrying a body among the knights and men. Her brow furrowed sadly. Ronin was dead.
But Tristan was home, and he eliminated the few paces between them to kiss her. His arms wrapped fiercely around her, and there was fervor behind his kiss that she didn't usually feel if he showed any affection in public. She kissed him back and held him close to her. She felt him relax in her arms and she smiled.
When he pulled back, she gave him a peck on the forehead.
"I'm glad you're back," she said. He gave her a slightly crooked grin.
From behind him, Gawain led his horse forward.
"Tristan," he called. Her knight turned, and must have known what Gawain wanted, for he simply nodded. He shot Jaelynn a look, and turned to lead the horse bearing Ronin's body.
Jaelynn stepped back so he could pass, but then walked respectfully alongside the body. The other knights followed. Ahead of them was Ronin's mother.
She was crying, but there were no uncontrolled sobs. The woman knew this was a likely fate for her son. Through her tear-filled eyes, she watched Tristan lead the body towards her. Jaelynn saw Tristan's body stiffen the closer he drew to the woman.
He stopped in front of her, dropping the reins of the horse. Tristan's eyes were on the ground momentarily, but he looked up to face the mother.
"I'm sorry," Jaelynn heard from where she stood. At these words, the woman lost her control, and the wails started. It wrenched Jaelynn's heart, but she stood where she was. Ronin's mother leaned forward, grasping Tristan by his armor as if to find some support there. Tristan held her up, and eventually the woman turned her face into his chest. The wails became muffled.
Jaelynn knew that Tristan wasn't close with the woman. He liked Ronin—he was a great scout—but Tristan didn't take it upon himself to come to know all the families of the men he worked with. Even so, he gently patted the woman on the back. To her side, Gawain was glancing around, a bit bewildered by Tristan's actions.
The mother drew back, and attempted a smile.
"Thank you," she said so softly that Jaelynn found herself leaning forward to hear. "For bringing him back." She wiped at her eyes. "He said you were a good man. He was right."
Jaelynn felt her heart constrict more. Hadn't she just complained to herself days ago about Tristan leaving? Wondering why he had to go when there were others?
She thought she had understood before, in theory. Now she saw it in action. This was why he left, and why Jaelynn wouldn't ask him to stay away from danger. This was his duty. His honor. Without that, she took away what made him who he was.
A townswoman came to Ronin's mother's side, and helped lead her back to her home. Lennor was by the horse and body now, and muttered something about taking care of preparing Ronin for burial.
There were more townspeople around them; they'd all seen the homecoming, as grievous as it was. But they dismissed now, going on their ways to turn back home for the evening. Jaelynn caught their whispers, and smiled at the respect that laced the words she heard.
It was coming together now. For them all. They deserved it—the knights, Arthur, the people. Hadn't they worked together for this life? And they would still, standing together and fighting together to protect life—to protect happiness.
To protect freedom.
And each other.
Beside Jaelynn, Gawain plopped down from his horse. He sighed loudly, tiredly. But on his face was a goofy smile.
"So," he asked, nearly shouting, "are you and Tristan getting married today?"
She blinked. It wasn't the first thing on her mind. At Gawain's words, Galahad, Bors and Lennor cheered.
"It's about time!" Galahad said. Jaelynn rolled her eyes, and turned to her future husband.
Tristan smiled mischievously, and raised an eyebrow.
a/n: And so it ends. I hope you forgive how long this is, and how long it took to write. I had most of it done, but I lacked the finishing touch. I finally got around to it today. Thanks for your patience. And thank you for reading this story. I hope you find this epilogue enjoyable, a glimpse at life that's not meant to detract from the rest of the story. If not, well, I hope you liked it a little. Thank you for your reviews and kind comments and suggestions. They were helpful and made this very fun for me.