Sorry for the delays, I have been really tired as of late (hopefully, this is precursor to something good :o)) and have been unable to think. Anyway, thank you all for your great reviews (and patience) and I hope you enjoy this new installment!
Only five short days after the incident in my room, I was sitting in a bright patch of sun beside the practice yards, trying to stay warm as I did some of the never-ending mending. Thanks to Lancelot's salve, my hands had healed to the point where to hold a needle was acceptable even if returning to the washing was still out of the question. The sound of the men's' practice was soothing, as were the laughs and taunts. As long as I didn't make eye-contact or allow them to know I was enjoying my time there, I could stay. As soon as anyone of them caught whiff that I was happy, I would be sent off on some pointless chore, though I was quite sure they would think twice before doing that.
Two days earlier, angry that he had nothing clean to wear as I was still unable to wash his clothing and looking to get revenge, Galahad had ordered me to go and find sticks for him to fashion into arrow shafts, a task somewhat difficult without going to a heavily wooded area in which I had been banned.
Unable to find anything that would work for shafts in the village -- I didn't think anyone would be too happy with me if I tore their fruit trees apart, and properly irritated, I promptly hacked up the legs of Galahad's bed with a borrowed hatchet – a thing which Lancelot assured me would be fine, even though it could be considered a weapon -- to proper shaft length and delivered them to the youngest of the Sarmatians. Nothing had been said until I heard an enraged yell come from the direction of Galahad's room late that night after he had returned from his revelries. Lancelot kept him from killing me and laughed the whole time. Turns out, Lancelot had been annoyed as well, as my quest had kept him from wooing a certain blacksmith's wife as he would have liked.
Anyway, as I sat there and fumbled my way through the mending process, Arthur's squire, Jols, appeared with an announcement that the men were needed in the Great Hall. I didn't need Lancelot's pointed stare to inform me that I was to accompany him, even if only to sit in the corridor behind closed doors. Huffing with irritation that my enjoyable day was to come to a premature end, I secured my needle and gathered my things. It seemed I never had more than a moment's peace before Lancelot was off somewhere and I was obliged to follow.
I trailed the men several steps behind as they filed into the dark corridor. As they disappeared one by one through the heavy doors, I made myself comfortable on a bench that sat opposite them. It was too dark to do any work, so I decided to take advantage of the lull and laid my head back against the wall. I had begun to doze when the door creaked open and I opened one eye to see Lancelot smirking down at me in amusement.
"You're just jealous that I am out here sleeping and you have to be in there pretending to like it." I stated as I again closed my eye. A tentative friendship had begun to blossom between us which left me, most likely, too saucy for my own good.
"That may be, but your nap's to be disturbed. Arthur would like a word with you."
His smug words caused me to snap to attention, all thoughts of sleeping immediately gone, "What?"
"Arthur. Wants. To. Speak. With. You." He repeated slowly as if I were daft. I glared at him as I stood and barely repressed the urge to shove him with my shoulder as I walked by him and into the Hall.
It would seem the other men, with the exception of the ever stoic Tristan, were less than pleased at my invitation to join them. Their scowls caused me to pause in the doorway. Lancelot gave me a slight nudge and took his place at the great table that filled the Hall. I had heard tales of this table and its significance and it was not to disappoint, but it was impossible not to notice with sinking heart the gaps that separated the knights from one another. Those gaping spaces and the angry tension which filled the room led me to feel a grief that I had not felt before.
It was all such a waste. Good men, both those who used to occupy these vacant seats and those that used to freely roam the forests had died – killed each other, and for what? There was precious little to show for their sacrifice and I had an idea that it would get worse before it ever got better.
I was jerked from my dark thoughts by the quiet voice of Arthur. I swallowed my tears and hoped that none of the men would notice my damp eyes as I squared my shoulders and faced the Roman Commander determined not to fear him. He was of my blood, no matter where he thought his allegiance lay.
"There is rumor that the Roman village of Greystream is to come under attack." He paused as if to waiting for me to give credence to this intelligence. I knew nothing, therefore held silent. I had spoken with no one in more than a season and he knew that. How would I be able to inform him of anything even if I'd had the inclination? Yet it was strange.
The small village of Greystream was far to the north and west, just on the border of the occupied lands. It had once been a completely Roman village but over time the Romans had intermarried with my people and their blood was now so thoroughly mixed that they thought themselves true Britons, though Rome still considered them hers. They were one of the few villages to help the rebels and I highly doubted an attack was to be used to annoy invading Rome. But as I had been gone far too long to know anything of the elders' plans and it had happened before, I kept my misgivings to myself.
He watched me closely and when it was apparent that I was not going to tell him anything, he spoke. "We must go and because of your … unique position, you must accompany us."
I frowned. What was he playing at? Did he expect me to talk my people out of the rumored attack? If he did, he was to be sorely disappointed. They would take one look at me and laugh or they would take one look at me in the company of the men and kill me.
The knights were strangely quiet as they waited for my answer. I glanced to Lancelot, but his face gave nothing away. I sighed inwardly, "I cannot ride." I said at length hoping that would change Arthur's mind.
He nodded in understanding, "Still, we cannot leave you here with any knowledge of where we are going."
I narrowed my eyes. So that was it. I had still not garnered his trust. In all the time that I had been here, hadn't he learned that I had no place to go and even less to tell?
"How shall I accompany you if I have not been on the back of a horse more than five times in my life?"
It was an honest question, though I hadn't intended to sound so sharp. I was not overly fond of horses having reasoned that in my forests I would have little need for more than the most basic of equestrian knowledge. I was also fully aware that Arthur and his knights had practically been born in the saddle and they rode hard and fast. There was little possibility that I could stay seated for a leisurely afternoon ride much less a furious race against time.
Arthur watched me closely, "The men have agreed to give you their aid in this regard."
The silent groans and frustrated disapproval were nearly audible. I was sure the knights had agreed to this in much the same way they had agreed to have fifteen years of their lives stolen.
I smiled, more grimace than anything, "Well then, it looks as if I have no choice."
"No." Arthur agreed and with that final word the meeting concluded. I was the first one out of the Hall, closely followed by Lancelot. As I retrieved my basket and stood, I glanced up at the silent file of men as they passed.
"I am sorry."
There were several hostile glares thrown in my direction as the last of the knights left their commander's presence. I felt my face heat and my blood boil in outrage. I wanted to slap each one of them and yell in their hate-filled faces that this ordeal was not my bloody idea of a good time either. Lancelot only grinned at me as he stood waiting for me to join him.
"Not as sorry as you will be tomorrow night," he quipped with a laugh.
The ride was worse than I imagined it would be. The only comfort came with the knowledge that sometime during the night the men had held their own meeting and decided that Lancelot was to tote me the entire way. Small comfort now.
My aching body was shaken almost to pieces by the unfamiliar movements of the animal beneath me and the twin swords that Lancelot wore prevented me from pressing my forehead to his back to offer some respite for my pounding head. I did manage to return the favor, though. At one point he laid a cold, calloused hand atop my own tightly clenched at his waist and told me to loosen my hold so that he might draw proper breath. I think I did as he asked for a moment, until that devil animal of his gave a high spirited jump causing me to gasp and hold on for my life.
I heard Lancelot sigh heavily and glared reproachfully at the sympathetic look Arthur shot his way. As afternoon fell into evening, my weariness overtook me and I gave up trying to save my face from being rubbed raw by the roughness of the sheaths and pressed my cheek against Lancelot's broad back. He felt my strength flagging in the slackening hold of my arms about him and in the end the hand he had used to plead for breath, was the only thing that kept me in place.
When we finally stopped for the night, I sensed Lancelot dismount more than I felt him. I was in a daze and numb to everything but the knowledge that I had to get to solid ground no matter what. Gritting my teeth and drawing upon my last reserves of strength, I threw my leg over and slid to the ground. As my feet hit the hard earth, I buried my face in the saddle I clung to praying that I wouldn't instantly collapse. I took several steps from the object of my misery and sank to my knees. In that moment I knew I never wanted to mount another horse as long as I lived. How would I be able to endure the ride for one more day?
I stayed that way, on my knees, head bowed, for a good long while as the feeling slowly returned to me and my nausea passed. I didn't even notice until later that a cold drenching rain had begun to fall. At last a dim shadow fell over me and I saw two muddy boots stop in front of me.
"Don't," I hissed sharply without looking up to see who it was, "touch me." My very skin throbbed in pain and I couldn't bear the thought of being handled. Instead of two rough hands dragging me to my feet, a cloak fell over me and I heard the splashing footsteps fade into the patter of the rain as their owner retreated.
Now that my eyes were working again, I could see that it had been raining for awhile as I had been finding myself. I raised my face to the cold drops and let it fall soothingly on my scratched cheeks. I heard the men grumbling about the weather and lack of adequate fire wood and forced myself to stand, catching the cloak before it fell to the muddy ground, though it was filthy enough now that that would have hardly mattered.
Just being under the enveloping embrace of the trees again rejuvenated me and went quite far in lessening the aches of my body. The fierce pounding in my head had settled to a dull throb and rain or no rain, I was home. The men glared at me sullenly as I approached and I narrowed my eyes in irritation.
"This is not my fault, no matter how you might wish it." I snapped, folding the sodden cloak that was not mine with abrupt and angry movements, and at least two of the men had the decency to look apologetic. I glanced at the scout, "You can't get a fire going?" I asked scathingly.
Somehow I had thought the man all knowing and infallible. Any small child of my people could start a fire in the rain and with much wetter wood as tinder and I have to admit I was surprised when he gave an indifferent shake of his shaggy, wet head.
"The wood is too wet." Galahad interjected with a frown.
"Oh, quit whining." I retorted coldly, turning on him now. Being among the trees had not gone so far as to make me happy in my current predicament and now that my head had stopped its thunderous pounding, I could feel each and every ache throbbing hotly. The knight opened his mouth, but I spoke before he could. "I may not know how to ride, but you didn't hear one sound from me." I glared at Lancelot, challenging him to disagree.
Smirking he said, "Not a sound, though I am sure my insides will never be the same."
I snorted as slapped the wet and muddy cloak into his arms and limped passed on my way to a small thicket, "Just thought you might enjoy feeling the strength of a real woman, not one of those little, scrawny things you seem so taken with."
My knowledge of their fellow's intimates caused a brief moment of silence followed by raucous guffaws. I ignored the ribbing as I found a hole in the tightly woven mat of twigs and fought my way inside pushing the greedy branches from my clothing and skin.
Here I could find dry tinder and if I was lucky – I moved quickly and grabbed the hindquarters of a rabbit that had entered the brush thinking to wait out the wet. I snapped its neck with one deft movement before it could turn on me or escape. Its companion darted out of reach and I hoped that the knights were not so distracted by their feelings of self-pity that they would let it run unnoticed.
I shoved the dry grasses and sticks to be used for tinder under my shirt and grabbing the rabbit, backed out. Once in the rain again, I tossed dinner at Galahad as I passed and ignoring his faint grimace of disgust, knelt at the foot of a large oak. Here it was still dry enough to light the grasses and yet the tree was sufficiently wet so as not to catch fire itself.
Murmuring a litany to the gods that I would be successful, I fed the growing flame the dry sticks from my shirt and then squeezed excess moisture from others before adding them. It took time and careful concentration, but eventually a reasonably sized fire burned brightly. The rain had softened to a steady drizzle, but did not seem to be letting up any time soon. Hopefully the fire would burn long enough to cook a warm meal.
Pushing back on my heels and feeling quite pleased with myself, I spotted Galahad unmoved from the spot he had been standing in and holding the rabbit I had killed by one hind leg. The other men stood looking at me as if I had grown a second head.
"You want a warm meal?" I asked in exasperation. What was it with them? Did they think I had killed the animal and then poisoned it? I slogged through the deepening mud and took the rabbit from Galahad. He allowed me, but continued watching me warily.
"May I borrow your knife?" I asked, trying to be polite.
He shook his dripping head stubbornly, "No."
Sore, drenched, and in no mood to eat the now sopping wet bread that had been brought along, I reacted to him in anger. As I turned from the youngest knight, I gave the rabbit's head a vicious twist, the force of which tore the fragile hide and allowed me to rip the remainder of the skin and fur from the meat.
"Feed the fire – slowly." I snarled to no one in particular as I dropped the dripping hide at the feet of a disgusted Galahad and turned to make my limping way to a small stream nearby. There I found a rock sharp enough for my purpose and I dressed the carcass as best I could and returned to my little fire which to my surprise the scout had kept alive. As he backed away from the flames at my approach, his golden dark eyes met mine and I had to lower my gaze from the strange intensity I saw burning in their fathomless depths that caused my heart to beat harder.
The comforting scent of cooking meat soon lifted our damp spirits, though the rain continued to fall and it grew steadily colder as night fell. Being early winter the rabbit had been somewhat plump, but there was little meat and certainly not enough to fill us all. There had been enough however that each received a small warm portion of roasted meat to supplement their wet traveling fare and as I doled out the meat; I saw smile or two, though no one said anything until later.
"That was quite the show." Lancelot commented as I curled into the roots of another tree and tried to get some sleep. The rain had turned to snow and the fire, having done its duty, had died out and was nothing now but a freezing pile of wet ash and blackened sticks.
"What was?" I asked through a jaw-cracking yawn. It had been a long day and between the lightly falling snow, my damp dress, and aching body, the night would prove to be just as long and I was thoroughly exhausted.
"The way you ripped that rabbit apart."
I opened my eyes and looked in his direction. There was little light and in his dark clothing, he was near impossible to see. "You ate it happily enough." I pointed out with a little frown. "You've been in battle. I never would have thought your stomach was so easily turned at the sight of blood."
Lancelot crouched near enough for me to clearly see his face. As usual he was smirking at me, "It's not everyday you see a woman rip the head and hide from an animal and gut it with a rock." A dark brow rose almost in reprimand, "It's something we expect from Tristan, not you."
I sat up until I was close enough to see the moisture dripping from his hair and onto his face, "When I was eight, I was blindfolded and taken out into the forest. For days we traveled and I had no idea as to where I was. Finally, we stopped and I was allowed to remove my blindfold. When I did, I found myself alone in a clearing with nothing but my little tinder pouch. I did what I had to in order to survive and make my way back to the training camp."
His expression changed subtly, "And the point of that exercise was?"
I stared at him for a long moment, then sat back against the tree before deliberately turning my back on him and his sarcasm and closing my eyes. He could freeze to death tonight and I would gladly dance on his grave in the morning. I heard his low chuckle and slight scufflings as he settled himself near me and tried to sleep.
I nudged Kellan carefully with my foot and sincerely hoped the girl was in a better humor this morning than she had been the night before. At my last comments, she had very much looked as though nothing would make her happier than seeing my immediate demise and not for the last time did I think that she would have been better off with Tristan as her guardian.
She groaned at my second attempt and blinked blearily up at me. Her eyes had dark smudges under them and she moved as stiffly as an old woman might, but she managed a warm smile as I handed her a bit of bread.
"Sleep well?" I asked, crouching beside her.
She snorted as she shook the light coating of snow from her hair and blanket, "If that's what you want to call it. I cannot imagine how you can ride as you do. I would rather have both legs cut off and both arms broken than do that again." She grimaced and she moved, "I am so stiff, I can hardly move."
I cocked my head, "Better move quickly if you want to get that done. Arthur gave the order to move out after we have finished and as you can see, we are finished."
Kellan looked around for the first time and groaned when she saw the men watching her and waiting impatiently. She handed her meal back to me and quickly rolled her blanket. I smiled as she stood with squared shoulders and raised chin and marched towards Dan, my stallion. After securing her bedding, she pulled herself rather gracelessly into the saddle and sat staring at me as she carefully ignored the others. I shook my head and stood tossing her bread to the side. I had not missed the ugly green her skin had been when we stopped yesterday and knew she would be unable to hold it down as we traveled. I was glad she had been able to keep her dinner down the night before.
I pulled myself up behind her, which happened to be the correct thing because she was limp and I was completely supporting her slight weight by the time we reached our night's camp. She would have not been able to stay on Dan had I sat her behind me, but once gain her fortitude surprised me and she murmured not one word of complaint.
Though many of the others regarded her with barely veiled contempt, I admired her for her endurance and courage. She had come along way from home with men who could care less if she were dead, and would probably like her better in that form, and she was proving her worth.
I had wondered again as she clung to my arms around her slender waist as we rode, just why her people had forced her to the fort. What had such a strong, young woman done to deserve such a harsh punishment such as banishment? Any father of my people would have been proud to have a daughter such as Kellan. I could not understand how she could be of such little value to those who were supposed to care for her.
I had to help her from Dan's tall back, lifting her enough that she could get a leg over and steadying her when she would have fallen after sliding to the ground. She said nothing, only smiled her thanks with pale lips and limped away to sit under a tree. I watched for a time as she pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in them and though I could hear nothing, I would have sworn she was crying. Kellan didn't move the rest of the long night, not to eat, not to near the warmth of the fire, or to even retrieve her blanket. I covered her sometime later and left her in peace.
She looked up at my first call the next morning and pushed herself to her feet. I could see her jaw clench and heard the uncomfortable sound of her teeth grinding together when she moved. She said nothing as she trailed me to Dan. I had to give her a boost today to get her on the horse and when she was seated I received no indication of gratitude only a bone deep exhaustion.
It was a frigid day and Kellan shivered beneath her thick cloak and pressed her back tightly to me so that she could share in my body heat. She was close, but it was not uncomfortable and I appreciated the warmth of her small body as well.
"Why were you sent from your home, Kellan?" I asked in her ear as we rode. I felt her body tense at my question and she turned her head so that I could see one deep blue eye before a wild lock of hair hid it from me and she turned forward again.
"I wouldn't fight." She said quietly after a long pause.
"Would not or could not?" I asked in curiosity and I saw several of my brothers glance over. We were holding the horses at a walk in order to rest them and so not moving quickly enough for our pace to interfere with conversation.
Kellan knew the men were listening and her answer was short and curt, "Wouldn't."
"That's a lie." Tristan's low voice startled me and I looked back to see him riding just behind us. "You were there when we lost Erik." His voice was calm and held no audible accusations, yet we all felt his anger.
I tried not to show my surprise at his words. Having fought so many battles and lost far too many brothers, I only remembered the battles in which we lost someone, but I couldn't recall having seen Kellan's face prior to Tristan tossing her into Arthur's study. An angry murmuring swirled about Kellan and I like a killing wind and we both felt the tension rise.
She sighed heavily and looked down, "I am sorry for that and I hope that I was not the one who took his life." Her words surprised me as much as her remorseful tone. I did not think one as young and soft as Kellan would be capable of taking the life a much larger and stronger man.
"It was my first and last battle." She explained softly.
"Why?" Galahad growled and the men craned to hear her answer. Even Arthur was stiffly poised in anticipation. When Kellan held silent and refused to answer, Bors leaned forward in his saddle.
"It turn you coward?" He asked roughly. "Find you had no stomach for the killing and no taste for the blood?" His tone turned mocking and several of the men chuckled humorlessly and smiled at Kellan, their lips pulled away from their teeth in wolfish grins.
Kellan turned her head slowly and when she did and I was able to see one eye, something in it chilled my blood. Instead of fear or embarrassment, her deep eyes glowed with excitement and her cheeks flushed pink with the emotion. She looked anything but a coward. Only Tristan appeared unsurprised at her transformation. Galahad, many feet away on his dappled gelding, actually drew back at the sight of those cold, calculating eyes.
"Quite the opposite, Sarmatian," she fairly purred as she spoke. "My mouth waters for it even now. My hands ache for the cold touch of a blade in them, for the soft give as it slides through tender flesh. My heart races to see the shadow of death creeping over my victims, stilling their hearts and glazing their eyes like a dark god. My eyes see only red and I embrace the dark that rises within me."
She was trembling and her breath came in hard gasps. She shook her head and when she looked up again, the glow and excitement had faded leaving her pale and tired looking. She smiled sadly, "So you see why I won't. I know nothing but the thrill of the kill, the desire to see my enemies as so much slaughtered meat." Her hands clenched convulsively, "Problem is, in the throes of my bloodlust, I see only enemies. I know no one. No one," her voice was harsh and strident in her conviction, "friend or family is safe. I could not fight after learning that."
Her words brought a contemplative silence from my brothers, a thing which happens only rarely. They spoke not at all, not even Bors and by the time we had reached the tiny village of Greystream, Kellan had fallen asleep her head tucked under my chin, her hair tickling my neck, her lithe body relaxed for the first time since we had left the fort and it was just as well. I didn't think she would appreciate the pitying glances my brothers were throwing her way.