Disclaimer: I do not own Quest for Camelot, nor the books on which it was (very) loosely based!
A/N: I don't know any way to sufficiently apologize for the gap there has been. All I can say is…a lot has happened. I didn't follow through with the dedication I wanted for all of you, but as I promised, I didn't forget, and I have come back. I thank all of you—deeply and sincerely, truly more than I can express—for the inspiration and much-needed cheer that your favorites, follows, and especially comments have given me through some painful and difficult challenges. It has meant the world to me that, even now, people have taken the time to express their enjoyment, to give a few words, and have continued being interested. I won't even try to promise a timeframe...but I can definitely repeat and reaffirm my promise that, no matter how long it takes—and I am admittedly hoping for less struggles, and thus more writing, going forward—I absolutely, definitely, undoubtedly will follow this through and finish. And it is absolutely for you...! Thank you all—so, so very much!
Chapter 28: Anticipation
A day of rest had done Kayley some good, Juliana noted to herself, pleased. She had woken readily, though still with some soreness to her movements. They broke their fast in relative peace, though Kayley did seem perhaps more quiet than usual, to her mother. Due in part to Kayley's concern, she returned
"How are you feeling, Little Hen?" asked Juliana, fondly. Kayley looked up, slightly amused that the fond name was being used so often. Was this more often than usual? Or had it simply been several weeks away from her mother, for the first time ever, made it seem like those fond words were so rare? Or perhaps had the arguments for the days—or was it months?—before her journey had them so often at odds that such moments of fondness hadn't been so common for some time...? In hindsight, now, those foolish arguments seemed so pointless. If she knew then what she knew now...but then, there was no point in wishing to change the past. Years without Sir Lionel had taught her that.
"I am well, Mother, thank you—and the king's own physician shall tell you as much if you ask him!" she teased, still as insistent as that morning that it wasn't truly necessary. Still, she had submitted to another examination, if only to ease her mother's fears." And how are you this afternoon?" she looked up and smiled. Her mother smiled back, and Kayley once again noticed the lines that folded the skin of her mother's face with the expression. When had she aged? She had always seemed the young, strong, fearless woman of Kayley's childhood...had the years passing taken their toll on her mother all this time, so unnoticed by her only daughter?
"Quite well, I assure you!" Juliana smiled, leaning over to brush back a lock of Kayley's hair. She stood, having finished her small luncheon refreshment, and straightened her skirts, before frowning momentarily at Kayley's picked-over food. "I know we have called you 'Little Hen', but it was never meant that you should eat like a bird!" she teased, only half-covering her concern. Kayley looked down at her food and shrugged, smiling back to her mother.
"I am unused to resting so much. Usually the exercise works up my appetite!" Kayley laughed easily. Her mother, unconvinced to some extent, simply grabbed the brush from the small table by the window, and began gently brushing her hair, as she often had when Kayley was very young. Kayley sat, content to let her mother fuss over her, if it might soothe them both, just a little. Another reminder that the other was there, and well, and safe. Kayley quietly looked out the window while her mother tidied her hair. It had been quite the task, after that first bath. The bath water hadn't been fit to share, after Kayley was done with it.
"It looks pleasant outside." Kayley noted, half a question in her voice. Lady Juliana smiled somewhat wryly. "Indeed it is. I don't imagine I will be able to get away without spending some time admiring the uninjured parts of the gardens with some very self-important ladies, who are certain that the fighting that happened within hearing range of their homes makes them experts on war and suffering." Lady Juliana sighed, smiling wryly and shaking her head. Kayley wondered at this wry, politicking woman...had this been her mother, all along...?
"I could come with you!" Kayley offered hopefully, though her mother gave a bitter laugh, and Kayley couldn't help the frown that set in, an old habit when she felt she was being needlessly "protected" in such a way that shut her out from opportunity.
"Remember, you are supposedly too ill, today...and you really should use the chance to rest. Please, Little Hen—if you must wander and walk to your health, stay within the castle...and take a guard." her mother instructed, urgently, so that Kayley remembered her mother's anxiety over her health that very morning.
"Very well, Mother. But on the morrow, there is a feast in our honor! I must be there, at least, must I not?"
"Oh, you must." her mother noted, gravely. "It would not do to absent yourself from a banquet in your honor, from King Arthur himself! Not unless you were most desperately unwell...and I am sure, for all their customary privacy, the physicians under hire by the king report to him directly, not only to your mother." she noted.
Kayley wondered, for a moment, if her mother might distrust King Arthur. Startled, she searched the older woman's face. She did not see bitterness or suspicion there, however...just a weariness she could not rightly place. She told herself it was just the intrigue of castle life, as her mother had mentioned before. She could not bear to think anything else of her mother's opinion for the noble King Arthur.
*~*~*~*~*~*LATER THAT AFTERNOON*~*~*~*~*~*
After a very tiresome argument with the physician's apprentice, the young man had left Garrett again shortly after arriving that morning—though with a warning that the King's Physician still did intend to fulfill his duties, and as such would be there to check on the hermit later.
The sharp knock at his door, then, he assumed to be that man. Nevertheless, he need not make it easy for them to continue to heckle him.
"Go away, whoever you may be! Do you not know that an injured man needs his rest?" he grouched sullenly, though his voice was stronger and more sure, as he noted with appreciation at his returning strength. It was too bad that such medicines and tinctures were hard or impossible to find, in the town.
"Indeed I do, Goodman Garrett. That is the only reason I have not checked on your health again more swiftly." came the clear, sonorous voice from the other side of the door. His innards seized as if stunned from a punch. He refused to consider what reaction it might be, and settled on anger.
"Did I not send you away last time, with assurances I was alive and well?" he asked, voice tinged with his frustration.
"Indeed not! Only with assurances you were alive, which have not fulfilled my debt to you. As you know, it is now afternoon, and a reasonable time to visit, after a day of rest has been had by the both of us. I have come to make assurances of the latter. I refuse to leave without such." she insisted firmly. Garrett grit his teeth and slowly rolled until he could sit up in bed. He waited a minute, then another, hoping to hear footsteps leaving...but of course, none came. He muttered under his breath, surly and cross, but did eventually grab his replaced staff from beside the bed, and used it as a walking stick to go to the door. He yanked it open sharply.
"Goodman Garrett. It is good to see you." she said, gently. He momentarily softened, despite himself, hearing what he first thought must be worry in her voice, giving way to relief. Hearing her announce herself had at least let him know, in turn, that she was well enough, up and about through the castle, despite the whispering he overheard as gossiping ladies and servants passed in the hall, which had carried rumors that nobody had since seen her because she was dreadfully ill.
The gentleness did not last, as his churlish side almost immediately returned in full force when he heard the shifting sounds of fabric. She was curtsying to him?! Outrageous! No, this truly was a visit of duty, observed perhaps by some passing nobles, guests in the King's castle before whom she could dare show no lapse of propriety. The very people who would never suffer the presence of someone like him. His scowl intensified ten-fold. For all her perfunctory goodwill, she was already lost to the Castle—its people, its town, and its ways. Only his unseeing eyes moved in response to her gesture, and only to narrow.
"I do not see anyone, or I might return the courtesy...but then, you did just interrupt my rest. I am healing, if more slowly than I would at my solitary hermitage. Is your curiosity satisfied, Noblewoman? Will you now leave me in peace, as I ask for now the second time?"
"My mother is well, I thank you!" Kayley retorted to a question not asked, obviously angry in her own right, "And my own recovery, if somewhat slower, is progressing also." Garrett only scoffed at this again.
"You need not bother with pleasantries with me, Noblewoman—you well know that I am a hermit! Now take your assurances, and be off with you. I refuse to be a showman for the landed and rich. If you wish to demonstrate your charity, you might look for beggar- or servant-children. They could use your crumbs and pity more than I."
"A showman?! To whom, might I ask, do you think I play? To the walls and halls, as if they truly spy on their denizens? To my stoic guard, bound to follow me, since the King is afraid of what intrigue or evil may still be after my mother or myself, given the way Ruber gained entry to the Town?"
"Perhaps you should be grateful, then, since you have still not returned to your senses. You ought not be seen—especially alone except for a guard—with a lowly, common hermit." Garrett objected further, words still sinking in, but frustration and pain egging him onward in his snarling before he stopped to consider them. "Now take your longsuffering guard and your assurances, and begone! The Castle ways are unbending—even for young, adventurous, noblewomen who think themselves beyond their reach!"
The hermit stepped back and used his staff to roughly shut the door, the loud closure more rude even than he had intended. He stood there, frozen, holding his staff and panting silently to himself, as he heard her heavy footsteps—and a set of even heavier, armored footsteps, presumably of her guard—stomp down the corridor.
When the King's Physician arrived a while later, knocking sharply and professionally before slowly entering, given the lack of response, he found the hermit sitting at the edge of the bed, leaning heavily forward and using his staff for support, head bowed.
Garrett submitted silently to his examination, never looking up, and only occasionally grunting in response to questions or prodding. The physician drew a sharp breath at first glance at his wounds, but beyond that hid his surprise at Garrett's improvement behind a professional demeanor. Still, he was noticeably better, so the Physician could only warily note incredible improvement, and cross himself as he left, in case the taciturn man's unusual moods were related to whatever otherworldly happenings had led to such stark and rapid betterment of the hermit's condition.
"He was a good lad, for all that happened." the old man reminisced. "I never knew where he went, either—maybe back home, or to work in the stables on someone's lands. Or so I hoped. He was changed, once his champion was gone...if you can forgive me saying so, Milady." he quickly caught himself, remembering the knight who had taken interest in the boy had been this very Lady's late husband. She simply inclined her head in acknowledgement, and passed him a shiny coin. To the old man's credit, he tried to refuse—but she raised her hand, and with the authority she emanated, he fell silent.
"For your bread, and your hospitality. Please, do not forbid a widow her generosity. Especially not when you offer kind memories of my husband. How I have longed for such stories, through the years...not even this can repay you for the balm of your memories." While it wasn't only for the sake of memories, as much as she did cherish extra tales of her beloved Lionel, she was much pleased with the information she had received. Besides, it was polite, and while the old man had but little, he had shared readily both his food and his remembrances. Visit by visit, small pieces were ever coming together...
She left the home and slowly made her way back to the Castle and its gardens, not looking forward to the meeting of matrons she was approached out of necessity and courtesy...especially in contrast to this humble, welcoming old man. In their sensibilities, after all, she and Lionel had always been similarly matched.
*~*~*~*~*~*LATER THAT EVENING*~*~*~*~*~*
There was a tap on the sitting room window. Her mother had retired already, but Kayley was stubbornly sitting before the fire as it burned down to embers, wrapped in a warm shawl to protect from any chills seeping in through that very window now being disturbed. She turned in alarm, and saw a glint of silver—the only hint of her visitor. She stood quickly and rushed to throw the window open.
"Ayden!" she cried in a hoarse whisper, trying not to wake her mother. The fey raptor swooped in easily, landing on her shoulder. The shawl was a nice barrier, but she could still feel the pinch and cold of his talons. She shut the window again. "What happened? Are you all right?!" she asked, trying to look at him despite his near position. She felt the threads of amusement in his silent "voice" in response, and a sudden pang of nostalgia and loss reverberated through her unexpectedly, at the reminder of companionship she had so recently enjoyed—even if the circumstances in which those new friendships formed had been less desirable.
Be not alarmed, Fledgling. All is well—or will be. the falcon assured her with a soothing tone and a gentle nuzzle of her cheek with his feathers. Take the vial from me, now...and if you wish to help Garrett continue to improve, you can by making additional healing tincture. I will instruct you, if you have forgotten his lesson. Kayley stiffened at this instruction, features darkening as she remembered their earlier encounter. She grabbed the vial a little more abruptly and roughly than she otherwise might.
"I suppose he will scold me for this, as well!" she grumbled, "A far worse crime than simply asking how he fares! Perhaps he will advise me that fey forest growths are no business of a noblewoman, either, even worse than asking after hermits one had come to know in close quarters over more than a fortnight!" By the end of the complaint, she nearly spat the words, as she hunted down and grabbed the bag he had lent her. It sat where she had left it, still stocked with plants and supplies from the forest, undisturbed since she and her mother had been escorted to these chambers—whether out of respect or fear, she could not be certain. She felt Ayden's concern and wry suspicion before the words came across to her consciousness.
Of what do you speak, Fledgling? Do not be coy. Ayden insisted, then waited as she explained the hermit's testy nature and gruff responses each time she had checked on him, and his apparent disdain of the residents of the Castle and Town—as if he wished to offend and make enemies, should any of them overhear! Ayden's displeasure came across almost as a scowl through the connection, moreso even than in the steely look in his ever-sharp stare. She was very mildly amused—though she would never confess such a thing—as his next words came through to her mind, in a sort of mental tone almost like a scoff.
Making enemies to both East and West will only mean he can never fly safely with the sun to his back!
Kayley smiled ruefully, both in agreement, and because she knew the surly hermit wouldn't be pleased with the rebuke that Ayden would undoubtedly deliver along with the bottle of prepared fey forest herbs, once the medicine was ready. She continued to grind the leaves in the small, hand-carved pestle. Too bad the whole bag would be too great a burden for Ayden...it appeared that if Garrett wanted it back, he would actually need to speak with the noblewoman—the horror! She fought back a smirk as she worked, knowing it would earn her a scolding nip for herself, should she reveal her less-than-generous thoughts.