Author's Note: It has been a year and... I wanted to give you all something I think you've been wanting for a while now. Enjoy, and thank you for this past year.
A Burning Sky
The next day and a half went by with relative ease, with us knights spread amongst the wagons once we finally hit the open road again. I stayed with the wagon holding the Roman family, forcing a smile so that no one would know just how much my calf was bothering me. Dagonet pulled me to the side every few hours to check the bandage, to apply more salve, or just to ask how I was feeling. It was the constant rub of my leg against the saddle and the bounce as we quickened our pace that was causing the pain, but I ignored it as much as I could.
If we could get the family to their destination and get back to the wall in one piece, I would gladly sit down and tell Dagonet how much pain I was in, but I could not do it while we were on a mission. Everyone was already keeping their eyes open for another attack, plus Bors and Lancelot were still refusing to allow me to do our nightly watches, and I was slowly starting to feel like a burden.
Julia watched me from the back of the wagon, my dagger still clutched in her hands. She slept the least of her family, staying near the back of the wagon and making sure I was within earshot at all times. If I strayed too far, I would come back to see her clutching the dagger to the point that her knuckles would lock around the hilt and I would have to pry it from her fingers. The attack had scared her, had made her attach herself to me because I was the one that had protected her this time and the last time we had been together.
"Irissa, you have to be wary of the attachment. Think about what will happen when we leave them. It would be a disaster for her to try to follow us, try to stay with you." Arthur had not talked down to me, was not lecturing me, simply telling me how things were. Of course it was something I already knew, it was not a thought I had not had a few times already. I would have to try to get her alone when we reached their house, even if the conversation would hurt me as well as her. No matter the difference, I still looked at her and saw Tonet. I still saw the boy that I failed to protect.
"Irissa, ride ahead with Lancelot, Gawain and Dagonet to check the area." Arthur had also been giving me more tasks for the past few days, as if sensing my restlessness. The wagons and hansoms, along with the snow, had caused us to lose time. More time than we really felt we could afford.
I rode forward, letting Horse do most of the work, to meet up with my brother and Gawain, Lancelot having already headed off. We branched out, fanning infront of the caravan and looking in every direction for any sign of life. Since we made it to the open, we had not seen any sign that people were near. The weather gave us some hope, not a lot of traders would try to travel in such deep snow, but that did not mean we would let our guards down. Especially after the large scale attack from the first night, our guards were twice as thick as before.
A section of trees, thick and dark, were off to my right and I stared at them, trying to make out any forms in the darkness. After a bit of staring, I was satisfied, turning Horse back the way I had come, but something caught my eye. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, the sun going down and reflecting off of the snow, but then I realized that it was actually there. In the distance, partially hidden by the trees, was a fire. The size was too large to be a torch, even too large to be a campfire.
Gawain rode up beside me, glancing in the direction I was staring and then at me.
"Are you in pain Irissa?" I shook my head and pointed my finger.
"There's a fire behind those trees." Gawain looked again, staring at the trees with as much intensity as I had been. I knew the moment he saw the fire for he spurred his horse, nearly running into the backend of Horse as he did so, and rode back to the caravan. Only a few minutes later, all of the knights were lined around where I was standing, staring off at the trees. The fire had grown, to the point that I did not need to point it out to the knights. There was also smoke billowing upwards.
Arthur barked a series of orders, for the knights to ride to see what was going on, and for me to stay with the family. I had expected it, seeing as how I had been left with the family for everything, so I rode hard towards the caravan, shouting orders at the guards that I passed to protect the wagons in equal parts.
Julius Arcenius was leaning against the back of the wagon, trying to peer around the side to see why we were not moving. Abellana was leaning against the back wall, one hand holding onto Julia's shoulder and the other resting solidly on the sword next to her. The wetnurse held onto Julius Minor and Julius Major was leaning next to his father, a sword in his hand.
"Is it another, another attack?" I shook my head, dismounting onto my uninjured leg and winced as I stood on both of them. Once I was sure I was not about to collapse, I pulled myself up against the wagon.
"Back, get back. There's a fire in the distance, the knights rode to see what is going on."
"And if it is another attack? You are our protector again?" Although I could tell that Abellana was grateful for how much I did for her and her family, there was still a sneer in her voice that I could not overlook.
"I think I have done a good enough job at protecting your family. If you would rather, I can go protect the wagon with the rations in it and you can defend yourselves." The glare that Abellana gave me was meek compared to the glare that Julius and even the wetnurse sent her.
"You have done a splendid splendid job of protecting my family, lady knight." The praise coming from the head of the Roman family threw me off guard, making me fumble a bit on the back of the wagon. It was unheard of, for someone of his position to stick up for someone deemed below them, but I nodded.
"Her name is Irissa, father." All of us turned to look at Julia, sitting under her mother's hand with a smile on her face.
"Of course, of course. Irissa. We are very thankful for your service Irissa." I nodded to the Roman but before I could say anything, although I was not really sure what I could say at this point, I heard my name being called out from the distance.
I jumped from the back of the wagon, wincing as it sent a shock of pain up my right leg, and made my way to the side. Tristan was riding through, weaving through the lines of guards that were around the wagons. When he got close enough to where I was, he shot a pointed look to my leg before looking back up to me.
"There is a small village on the other side of the trees, bandits set the blaze. Only a few survivors. The first wagon is being empited to go and fetch the survivors." I nodded, turning back to the wagon. I could feel that Tristan wanted to reprimand me for standing, knowing that I had to be in pain, but he would not do it now. He would wait until we were all out of danger and there were not any prying ears to listen to us.
I told the family what was going on, watching Abellana scowl as her husband urged me to tell Arthur that they would take them in, that the family would help the survivors and allow them to build anew in their village if they wanted to. After promising Julius that I would tell Arthur of his offer, I moved back to where Horse was and pulled myself back onto the saddle. Julia was pressed against the back of the wagon again, her head resting in her hands, and I wondered how she was able to fight her way out of her mother's grip.
"When we get home, I will not see you again, will I?" I situated myself on the saddle, trying to find a way to answer that. The truth of it was, I probably would not see her again. Deciding that the truth was better than lies, I nodded sadly.
"I think this will be our last adventure together Julia Arcenia." She nodded and looked into her lap, reaching down and pulling up the dagger that I had given her. I stared at it and then smiled.
"You keep it." She smiled, a brighter smile than I had seen her show this entire trip, and moved it back to her lap.
I rode out from behind the wagon and pushed forward, moving around the guards until I was in the front and could see the wagon in the distance, heading towards the trees to gather the survivors. Everything came down to timing, because if we had ridden through here only a day earlier, we never would have seen the fire.
When the wagon came back, I saw Dagonet's horse attached to the side. That was my clue that he was inside, doing his best to help them in any way he could. More people meant more time we had to spend to get everyone to the village in one piece, but we were thankfully on about a day's ride away from house at this point.
Arthur announced that we would make camp where we were, allowing the guards and drivers to adjust the wagons so that they were in a circle again. A fire was started in the middle, to help everyone get warm again, and I moved so that I was on the outside. Dagonet found me, leaning against the wheel of one of the wagons, and knelt down beside me.
"Are you putting too much strain on the wound?" I shook my head, rolling the leg of my pants out of the way and checking under the bandage. A few of the stitches had torn but it did not look like it needed to be redone. Dagonet inspected it, shaking his head with a sigh and tying a new bandage over it.
"If you promise to take it easy, you can do first watch." I stood up quickly, nearly tripping over Dagonet in the process. He watched me, gesturing to my leg to tell me to put weight on it. When I did, I was happy that I did not buckle. There was an ache, but it was dull compared to what it had been earlier that day.
"A brief warning, I think Tristan wishes to have words with you." I opened my mouth but snapped it shut because Dagonet was gone, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Some days it felt like Dagonet only gave his blessing to my relationship with Tristan because it meant someone else to scold me for my bad decisions.
It was halfway through my watch, doing small and then wider circles around the wagons, when I ran into Tristan. First watch was Dagonet, Galahad and myself, so I imagined that Tristan had been waiting to get me alone. The wind had picked up, howling around the wagons and my cloak was not doing very good at keeping the wind from biting at my skin, so I shivered from the cold and the apprehension of whatever conversation we were about to have.
"Have we not told you on multiple occasions that you are supposed to ask for help? You cannot do this by yourself Irissa." I wrapped my arms more tightly around myself, bowing my head to look at our feet. He was only a foot or so away, his voice low and rough, telling me that he had been holding this in for most of the day.
"I do not want to slow us down, I do not want special treatment. Am I not a knight like the rest of you?" Being a woman made me feel like I had to strive twice as hard to make myself as good as the knights, made me feel like I had more to prove.
"And if it was one of the other knights that had been injured, we would all try our hardest to make sure we did our mission but still kept him safe. It has nothing to do with that Irissa. We do not want you to strain yourself."
I stepped backwards but a gust of wind actually blew me closer to him than I had been in the first place. He seemed to notice and stepped forward, our bodies now only inches apart. A wave of warmth, the warmth of another person's body heat, washed over me.
"I am not a weakling Tristan. I can take care of myself. I do not need to be babysat." Tristan shook his head, reaching down and tilting my face up to his.
"We are not trying to smother you Irissa. We do it because we care about you, we love you."
The words came out softly, confidently, and I felt my mouth dry up. Tristan had been very careful never to use the word love around me, not in reference to anything. I tilted my head back down, his hand moving to cup my cheek instead. I wanted to apologize for acting childish, I wanted to continue to argue the point that I was not an invalid, I wanted to tell Tristan that I loved him. I wanted so many things, but the only thing I could do was think about the fact that the man I loved had come as close to saying that he loved me as he ever had.
"I love you." I spoke softly, settling with saying that instead of anything else that I could. When I looked back up to look into Tristan's eyes, I could see the emotion that he never voiced, I could see the words that he never said. But as I went to wrap my arms around him, to silently reassure him like I usually did that I did not need him to say them back, his voice stopped me.
"And I love you." Those words, the words I had been holding my breath for all of this time, seemed to crash into me and make me feel warmer than any fire could ever do. Instead of crying, and believe me when I say that I felt the urge, I leaned forward to press my cold, chapped lips to Tristan's and smiled. When we pulled apart, I wrapped my arms around his waist and pulled him tightly against me. His arms came around my shoulders, holding onto me and keeping that warmth locked between us.
I knew that I needed to get over my insecurity of being a woman amongst the knights, I knew that I needed to learn how to ask for help and how to recognize my limitations, but that was all in the back of my mind. All there was now was just Tristan and myself, holding onto one another and knowing that tomorrow was another day.
A/N: It has been a year, such a long and yet short year. I feel blessed to have kept everyone's attention this long, blessed to have had the amazing repsonse to my little (little, it's 75 chapters long!) story. I want you all to know that I love you dearly and I can never begin to explain just how grateful I am that you all take the time out to talk to me, to read my story, and just... how great you all have been. It has been an amazing year. You all have been there for me through the good and the bad and the ugly and I just cannot begin to explain how much it means to me. Thank you.
And, because it has been a great year and I wanted to give you all something, this update holds three little words. I love you. I felt like it was time that Tristan step up and give Irissa just as much as she gives him. I hope you liked the chapter dears!