Dante had no idea how much time had passed whilst she'd been out for the count, but when she finally awoke to find herself nestled in a mound of furs beside a glowing fire, she figured it must have been several hours, at least.
Groaning a little as she slowly sat up, blinking and rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she vaguely became aware that everything had gone quiet. It took her a moment to realise that there were several other people sat around the fire, and all of them had turned to look in her direction, their conversations stopping in an instant.
She raised a hand gingerly and probed her throat, wincing at the bruise that had already formed, and was pretty tender to touch.
"Sleeping beauty awakens at last," a familiar voice said from nearby, and turning to squint into the dark, she could just make out the shape of a Gwaine, sitting just a few feet away, shredding the bark off a stick and tossing the little strips into the fire. "How are you feeling?"
"Sore," she admitted, rubbing her throat gingerly again. "And confused. Where am I? What happened?"
"You're currently on the border between Essetir and Camelot," another voice spoke, this time from her left, and tucking her legs under her, she sat up straighter, then turned to him, again squinting into the darkness, although this time she couldn't make out anyone at all. Just a bodiless voice. "You look like you've seen a ghost, Milady."
She knew others were sitting around the fire - she could see their silhouettes, and hear them moving. But she couldn't see any of them clearly enough to distinguish who they were. She'd only recognized Gwaine because of his oh-so-familiar voice, and the firelight dancing across his handsome features, casting half his face into shadow, and bathing the other half in a mellow orange glow. "Easier said than done when I can't see anything at all," she retorted at last, still struggling to make out who had spoken.
"You're blind?" Someone on the far side of the fire asked, concerned.
"Blinded by the fire," she corrected, motioning to it with a vague wave of her hand. Which was true enough. The fire was so bright, compared to the dark surroundings that she actually couldn't see anything more than a foot away from her. And she finally understood why guards on sentry duty chose to stand with their backs to their braziers and torches. That way they would not be blinded by the flames and caught unawares by approaching enemies.
After all, anyone could walk up to her, right at that moment, and she'd be none the wiser. Not until it was too late, at least.
As a murmur of understanding rippled around the group, she was able to distinguish that they were all men. She was, apparently, the only woman amongst them
"Here, let us help you with that," the bodiless voice to her left spoke again at last, as he shuffled forward and began kicking dirt onto the fire to extinguish it.
"What are you doing?" she frowned. "It's still dark!"
"Yes, and you're being hunted by pretty much the entire armies of both Camelot and Essetir, from what Gryff could make out. They'll see the fire and catch us for sure. Now that you're awake, however, we can move on again and be home by morning."
"Home. The one place I never thought I'd see again," she mused thoughtfully. And then she frowned. "Wait, did you say Gryff? As in Gryfflett? He's here?" Dante asked, squinting into the darkness, even though she knew it was futile.
"I'm here, Milady," he called out from the darkness. "So's Baudemagus, Dinedan, Gaheris, Galahad, Gareth and Dagonet."
Dante blinked in surprise. "You...you're all here?" She asked, stunned. "But...my father...?"
"Sent us to collect you, Milady," the voice to her left spoke again and now she recognized him as Baudemagus, her loyal bodyguard and shield. Or at least he had been, before she'd run away. "When Gwaine told us about your plight, Ector ordered us to come and rescue you. Not that we needed telling twice. I'm sure you know by now that we'd all give up our lives for you in an instant."
"I...I don't know what to say..." she stammered, although this could be partly to do with the fact it had also suddenly turned very cold, without the warmth of the fire or the thick fur mantle round her shoulders.
"Say nothing, Milady," Baudemagus said gently as he moved to her side and crouched beside her. Now that her sight had finally started to adjust to the darkness, she was able to make out his features once more - rugged, tough, handsome - beneath a bushy beard and long shoulder-length hair.
"It 's so good to see you Baldy!" She grinned.
He laughed, running a hand through his hair. "You know, no-one's had the audacity to call me that in many years."
"They just don't know you as well as I do," she laughed, hugging him.
And then the other knights and squires who had come to her aid, were suddenly clambering forward to greet her and ask her questions and beg her forgiveness for the fact they had almost been too late. They were all loyal soldiers in the employment of her father, and she'd known them all since before she could even remember.
Sir Baudemagus was her Sworn Shield - her loyal bodyguard who had shadowed her everywhere and thrown himself between her and danger on more than one occasion. Now, he told her, he had become the Sworn Shield of Gwaine's sister, Arya, instead. He'd been reluctant to leave her, but in the end, Arya had insisted, and he'd also realised that he was still technically Dante's Shield too, so he had a duty to protect her as well.
Sir Gareth, Master of the Horse, was in charge of training all the horses in Ector's stables and keeping the stables themselves in order. His brother, Sir Gaheris was Master at Arms and it was his job to ensure that the armoury was kept in order. Their father, Sir Lamerocke was Ector's own Sworn Shield, so had remained behind whilst his sons had come to Dante's rescue.
Sir Galahad, the Captain of the Guard and his squire Gryfflett had also come, as had Sir Dagonet the Kennel Master and his squire, Dinedan. These men were the main body of Ector's private guard - a group not dissimilar to Arthur's knights of the Round Table, in fact. They were an elite order within the much larger group.
And they all loved Dante dearly, and were glad that they had rescued her and were the ones charged with bringing her home again. To them, it was the ultimate honour, and they did not stop telling her this, for quite some time as they crowded round her.
Only Gwaine did not rush forward. He simply remained shredding his stick and tossing it into the smouldering embers of the recently extinguished fire. At first, Dante didn't notice, but as the Knights of Arryn slowly drifted away to pack up their make-shift camp, she finally noticed him sitting alone, and wrapping the thick fur mantle about her once more, she stood on wavering legs, took a moment to steady herself, then walked over and sat beside him.
"I owe you a huge apology," she started quietly, but was suddenly silenced as he reached out, pulled her to him and crushed his lips against hers in a desperate, passionate kiss that completely and utterly betrayed his undying love for this remarkable young woman. She'd been about to speak again, but, taken by surprise by his kiss, completely forgot her train of thought as after a moment of surprise which rendered her immobile, she finally regained control of her senses and wrapped her arms about his neck, returning the kiss with equal passion, equal love and devotion.
After what felt like an eternity, they parted, but their foreheads remained resting against one another as they panted slightly from the kiss.
"For a while there, I thought I'd lost you," he whispered at last, into the silence.
"For a while there, you did," she whispered back. And then she frowned. "We're not out of the woods yet, though."
"Literally, or figuratively," he agreed, reluctantly letting her go and standing, then extending a hand to her. "But no matter what happens, I will not lose you again." As she stood, he pulled her into his big, strong arms. "I won't," he promised, as she rested her head against his shoulder, feeling the chainmail and the armour beneath.
And she knew that he meant it. He'd rescued her from the jaws of death twice now. And he'd keep doing it, again and again and again, if he had to.
"I'm not going anywhere," she assured him, clinging on tightly as they stood there in the dark of the forest, whilst all around them, the Knights of Arryn packed away the last few things and hid any traces that they had ever been there in the first place.
Ten minutes later, they were finally ready to depart, and this time Dante shared Gwaine's horse, sitting behind him, her arms wrapped about his waist and her head once again leaning against his strong shoulders.
Dawn was just beginning to appear on the horizon when finally the group emerged from the forest on the western border of Arryn. Dante was the first to spot the man, sitting on the low stone wall at the entrance to the town, and squinting in the early morning light, she gasped when she realised who it was.
"It is," Gwaine nodded as the group of horses were reigned to a halt. "Your father promised he'd wait there for your return. Seems he's a man of his word."
"He always was," Dante nodded as she slid from the saddle, pulled Gwaine's borrowed cloak tighter about her shoulders, then started forward, only to have a sudden thought that made her turn back.
"Wait here? Please?" She asked the men, who all nodded.
"Yes Milady," Baudemagus spoke aloud the confirmation. With a nod of thanks to him, she then turned and started off in the direction of her father, once more.
By the time she reached him, he'd moved away from the wall and was standing with his back to her, looking out over the lake to the left of the roadway leading into the town. A pair of swans glided silently across the still waters, ripples dancing across the smooth surface behind them. On the far side, a mother duck and her ducklings were just waking from sleep and stretching, making themselves ready for an early morning dip.
Somewhere nearby, a lone bird was singing his morning chorus in one of the trees as he waited for the other birds to wake and join him.
Dante moved to stand quietly beside her father as he watched the swans. She folded her arms across her chest, holding the borrowed cloak tighter about herself to protect from the chill wind that had picked up. She was still wearing the sack cloth robe, after all, although Gwaine had very chivalrously given up his socks for her, so that she wasn't completely bare footed. She'd have taken his boots too, but they were just too big. Even his socks she'd had to tie up with strips of material.
For what seemed like an eternity, the pair of them stood in silence, the rest of the group keeping a wary distance as they knew that this was not for them to get involved in.
After what felt like a lifetime for Dante, she finally felt his eyes turn to her. But even then, she remained staring out at the mountains in the distance, not having the courage yet to turn and face him properly.
"I've been waiting for your return," he said eventually.
"Long enough," he said after a pause.
"And how long have you been waiting here?"
"Since sunset, yesterday."
There was another pause as Dante shifted on her feet, a little awkwardly, unsure of what to say.
"Are you angry with me?" She asked eventually, needing to break the silence before it drove her to the brink of insanity - not that she wasn't bordering there already. She still wouldn't look at him.
He shook his head. "I don't think there's enough room in my heart for anger."
Again, there was a long, almost painful silence as she appeared to be thinking things through in her mind. And then finally, she looked to him, for the first time. His shocking electric blue eyes, neatly trimmed beard and long flowing hair so familiar to her – and yet so alien, too. She hadn't seen him for four years, and yet it felt like only yesterday that she'd last seen him. He looked older now, though. And burdened with something - like the weight of an entire Kingdom rested on his shoulders.
"It's been four years..." he sighed at last. "You've no idea how much I've missed you."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"You've changed...those four years have been kind to you. I barely recognized you at first, when you rode out from under those trees. Of course, your choice of clothing is somewhat debatable," He eyed her up and down and she felt herself cringe. But then his gaze returned to her eyes and held her stare, as his voice took on a much gentler, more compassionate tone once more.
"But there was no mistaking who you truly were. My eyes, Evelyn's attitude. You sound so much like her when you talk...It's strange, I never noticed before. I guess it's true what they say. You never do appreciate something until it's been lost to you."
He reached out to wipe a strand of hair back from her brow, but stopped, unsure if he was allowed to.
A tear slid down Dante's cheek as she took his hand and held it to her face. "I miss her," she nodded sadly.
"So do I, my girl. So do I."
"Father...I'm so...SO sorry," she choked and this last word was said in a terrible outpouring of grief and love as she crumpled into his arms, embracing him tightly. It felt so right to be back in her father's arms once more. He kissed her head and held her close, feeling her trembling and shaking as she cried into his shoulder.
"My little girl...I thought I'd lost you..." he whispered. "What happened to you?"
"I...I don't know..." She replied between sobs. "I'm so sorry! I've failed you!"
"Failed me?" He frowned, stroking her hair soothingly. "How have you failed me, my girl?"
"I...I've done some terrible things..." she continued, barely able to get any words out between sobs now. "You'll be so ashamed of me!"
"I doubt it, Sweetheart," he reassured gently, smoothing her silky hair with one hand. "I promise, I will hear what you have to say, and listen to your reasons. You have no reason to fear my judgement, until I have heard everything. The good AND the bad."
"Promise me?" she asked, glancing up at him with wet eyes.
"I promise you."
"I'll tell you everything," she muttered, burying her face into his shoulder and clinging to him tightly, as if afraid to let go. "But not here. Not now."
"Not here," he agreed, noticing for the first time that she was shivering quite violently - and not from crying. She was cold.
Unclasping his own cloak, he draped it about her shoulders over the top of the other, then motioned for the men to follow as he began to lead her back to the large manor house on the far side of the village. As they came to the gravel track, however, she paused, wincing as the sharp stones dug through the socks and into her feet.
"Need help?" Ector asked her gently, but she held her head high, in determination. If she could walk calmly to her own death without aid, then she could manage a stupid pathway.
"No. I've got this," she assured him. Then gritting her teeth and taking a deep breath, she strode purposefully out across the gravel, her fists clenched so tightly that her nails began to dig into her palms. But this pain masked the pain she felt on the soles of her feet, and before she knew it, she'd reached the front step of Ector's Manor house - Her house.
And she finally let go of the breath she'd been holding, a wave of relief crashing over her as the door was opened by one of the servants and she was welcomed inside.