"Shit. Shit, shit, shit." Gwaine cursed on every breath as he limped through the snow. "Where is that damned horse? WALWEN!" He paused for a moment, leaning against a tree and listening, as if the beast would whinny back. But the forest around him was silent.
"Damnit," he said for the fiftieth time that day, but the word was beginning to lose its force. Gwaine was tired, his leg hurt like hell, and the snowy landscape was beginning to turn greyish. It would be dark soon, and since he had entirely failed to locate his horse, he needed to find some kind of shelter and wait until morning.
The underbrush to his left rustled, and Gwaine raised his head. Maybe that damned horse had come back after all!
"Walwen? Walwen, c'mere girl." Gwaine limped over toward the brush. Damn, that ankle was bad. He caught himself on a tree and lifted his weight off of his right foot, wincing. "Walwen! C'mon." He clicked with his tongue and stared into the brush. "Walwen?"
There was a sound behind him, and Gwaine turned his head. There definitely weren't two horses in this part of the woods. Then he heard a faint growl from the direction he had come. Two yellow eyes appeared from the darkness—two yellow eyes in a lupine face. An echoing growl came from one side, then another. A hunting pack.
"You're kidding me," Gwaine groaned, and drew his sword.
One by one, the three wolves emerged from the underbrush, beginning to growl in earnest now.
Gwaine held his red cloak out to the side, trying to make himself look bigger. "BACK OFF!" he shouted as loud as he could. "BACK OFF, YOU MANGY HYENAS!"
Absolutely no reaction. It had been a hard winter, and these wolves were not giving up their prey that easily. They continued to advance. Turning and running was a bad idea; the only thing Gwaine could think of to do was attack. He raised his sword and stepped toward the nearest wolf—
-and three more came leaping out of the brush. Gwaine moved to retreat, but his injured leg gave suddenly, and he fell backward against a tree as his feet slid in the snow. Time seemed to slow down; he struggled to raise himself, brandishing his sword and expecting any moment to feel the teeth of the wolves sinking into his unprotected legs.
Instead, he heard a dull thunk and a whine. The nearest wolf sank to the ground with an arrow sticking out of its side. The other wolves turned and growled over Gwaine's right shoulder. He turned in time to see a figure cloaked and hooded in fur come charging forward through the snow.
"BACK OFF! BACK OFF!" the figure shouted, and loosed another arrow into the wolf nearest Gwaine's legs. The wolf fell, and the others began to back up, still growling and showing their teeth. Pushing himself up with the tree trunk at his back, Gwaine struggled to his feet in the snow and brandished his sword again. One of the wolves stepped forward and snapped at him, and Gwaine lunged at it and made a swipe with his sword. He caught the wolf across the face, and it turned and ran into the woods, yelping. Gwaine and the stranger advanced on the others, still shouting—Gwaine mostly using up the last few curse words he hadn't gotten in earlier in the day. The wolves had started giving them more ground and were beginning to look less confident. Gwaine turned his head to look at his unexpected ally. The figure swung toward him and drew his bow. Gwaine didn't even have time to open his mouth as the arrow was loosed—and flew past his face to bury itself in the chest of the last leaping wolf. The animal fell to the ground with a whine, and Gwaine stumbled backward.
"Careful!" the archer said and caught Gwaine's arm as he lost his footing in the snow once more. "Put the sword away, and let's get to some shelter before they come back."
The voice was cheerful, hearty—and distinctly female. Gwaine gave a short laugh as he sheathed his sword and allowed the woman to pull his arm over her shoulders. "My heroine," he said shortly as they turned westward and began to trudge through the snow. "Do you come here often?"
"Come here? I live here," she answered. Gwaine tried to see her face, but her fur hood was deep and her head was down, watching their steps. "It's you who hasn't been here before, apparently."
"What makes you say that?"
"I found your tracks in the snow. You were going in circles."
"Ah." He thought he should come up with some sort of cheeky comeback to that, but frankly, he was tired, cold, and his right leg didn't want to hold his weight up—he simply couldn't be bothered with trying to be clever right now. He hoped wherever his rescuer was taking him, it was somewhere close.
Apparently his luck was back: it was only a quarter of an hour later when she said "Here we are!" and Gwaine raised his head in the gloom to see a small cottage, with a lean-to on the side. He resisted the urge to say Thank God.
It was pitch-black inside the cottage, with only two small squares of brown to indicate horn-covered windows. The archer sat Gwaine down on what felt like a small bed, and he could heard her arranging kindling and then striking a flint. In a few minutes she had fire lit, and was turning back to him. "Let's get that chainmail off you and warm you up," she said briskly.
"The words every man loves to hear," Gwaine said with a grin, unhooking his cloak and removing his belt. The girl gave a laugh and helped him to pull his hauberk over his head. "What's your name, fair rescuer?" he added as he began to unbutton his arming jacket and she knelt to remove his boots.
"Raynelle," she answered, pulling off his right boot. He sucked the air in between his clenched teeth and shut his eyes. "Sorry," she added. She stood and pulled off her own cloak. "Your trousers are wet—but I won't offer to remove them," she added with a smile.
In the dim, reddish light of the fire, which was beginning to warm the small cottage, Gwaine saw that she had brown, straight hair pulled back in a utilitarian braid, a squarish face and brown eyes. Under the fur cloak she wore a belted tunic over warm woolen leggings.
"That's alright—I have braies on underneath," he answered, and pulled the outer layer off, laying bare his injured leg.
"Eugh, nasty," Raynelle said sympathetically as his dark bruises came to light. She examined his swollen ankle in a businesslike manner, feeling the joint with the touch of an expert. Gwaine breathed deeply through his nose. "Just a sprain," she said at last, going to a chest in the corner of the room. "I've got some cloth here we can use to wrap it. What did you say your name was?" she added.
"Gwaine—Sir Gwaine," he corrected himself, and paused. "Of Camelot," he added lamely.
"And what, Sir Gwaine of Camelot, brings you to Inglewood in the middle of the winter?"
Good question, Gwaine thought. It was what he had been asking himself ever since his horse had thrown him and run off that afternoon. Why, oh why oh why, had he thought riding to Inglewood in the snow was a smart move?
He hadn't, he admitted to himself. It had been the impulse of a moment, born of boredom, restlessness and—if he were really truthful, discomfort.
Gwaine realized that he had been silent for a few moments. Raynelle, seated on the floor with some old cloth in her hand, was looking up at him expectantly.
"It's a long story," he said, waving off her question.
Raynelle began tearing the cloth into long strips. "Well, we have plenty of time. Tell us a story to warm this cold winter evening."
Gwaine grinned at her tone. "Well, I was just knighted about six months ago," he began.
"During the recovery of the kingdom from Lady Morgana," Raynelle observed.
"Yes." Gwaine didn't know why he was surprised that she knew this; Inglewood was part of Arthur's kingdom, after all. "He knighted four of us at once. None of us had any land." So far as it went, this was true. He didn't need to add that he, at least, was of noble blood. In fact, he was pretty sure Arthur didn't know this—he had only told Merlin.
But this was beside the point. He went on. "We were busy for the first few months restoring order and taking care of the last of Morgana's allies. Once things quieted down, Arthur decided he should establish each of us with land. I didn't think that was necessary," he added, "but Leon said that the knights helped to defend the various parts of the kingdom because they had ties to the land. He also said we needed land to establish our authority in the court. Which is bullshit. I mean, a knight should have authority because of his character. It doesn't matter how many acres or peasants or horses you have, people should respect you because of your actions. Anyway," he continued, realizing he had gotten off topic again, "Prince Arthur asked the court historian to let him know what land had defaulted to the crown since so many knights had died in Morgana's attacks, and then he gave us each land according to where the kingdom most needed defense. Geoffrey—the historian—said Sir Gromer of Inglewood had died a year and a half ago, and since he had no sons, the land had returned to the crown in default of heirs male. So Arthur bestowed Inglewood on me. I guess I'm—Sir Gwaine of Inglewood now. And I decided, why wait to see my land and start setting things in order? Why not go now? It's winter—we're hardly training, and there's nothing to do in Camelot…"
He realized he was rambling and trailed off. The silence continued, and he looked back down at Raynelle. She was sitting motionless, staring up at him with an expression that was no longer cheerful. She looked half surprised, half angry.
"What?" he said.
His question seemed to unfreeze her, and she looked him up and down with disdain. "You are not Sir Gwaine of Inglewood," she stated coldly, and dropped her gaze to tear off a strip of cloth with savage energy.
"What do you mean?"
"My father, Sir Gromer of Inglewood, passed his lands on to my brother," she emphasized, looking back up at him with blazing eyes. "His name is Somer, and he is the rightful heir. You will not dispossess my family."