by A. K. Naten
For disclaimers, etc., see Intro.
Anton and Gwynneth arose early the morning after their night of passion and love. Still full of warm feelings, they kept the atmosphere light as Anton clumsily helped her wife get dressed so she could leave the room without drawing stares. The Lord playfully tickled and nipped at her Lady's exposed skin as she tied up the back of Gwynneth's gown, eliciting soft giggles and half-hearted swats.
Kissing her husband soundly, Gwynneth reluctantly left him so that she could go bathe and put on fresh clothing.
The Marquess had to hurry and begin gathering her things in preparation for the battle that awaited her. Falsworth Valley was a good two-day journey, so she and her men needed to get moving as soon as they could. They would travel all day, make camp at nightfall, then travel all through the next day, arriving at the Valley hopefully that night or at the latest, the following morning, where they would rendezvous with the rest of the allies. The next day would be spent organizing approaches and finalizing attack plans. Then, in the darkness before the morn, they would make their first strike against Liam's encamped army.
Anton's heart was heavy as she prepared. Not only did she have uneasy feelings about rushing into a war with Liam, she also felt guilty about leaving Gwynneth. She knew her wife was worried sick, and Anton hated that she was putting additional stress on the pregnant young woman. She hoped that the battle would be over quickly, and that their victory would be swift. Mostly, she hoped that Gwynneth would be well while she was gone.
Gwynneth hurried through her bath, anxious to return to her husband. She knew he would be on his way soon, and even though it would kill her to watch him prepare to leave, she felt a great need to be by his side.
Last night had been a mixture of many things, both good and bad. Good in that they had reconnected with one another in very intimate, very emotional ways, and bad in that the pleasure and relief was to be very short-lived. Gwynneth had given in to her craving and spoken her wants aloud to her husband who, thankfully, did not think her too wicked and in fact, returned her overtures with much enthusiasm. Combined with their mutual declarations of love and the physical and emotional connection Anton seemed to make with their unborn child, Gwynneth's heart had been happy and full.
But the fullness did not last, for as the dawn broke, the lovers were reminded that on this day, Anton would be leaving Weldon Manor, and Gwynneth, to go off to battle. It seemed that, once again, the couple's happiness was being torn from their grasp.
Once Gwynneth had gotten dressed, she immediately went in search of her husband, stopping first at his chambers. Not finding Anton there, she began looking throughout the castle. After several moments, she began to panic, fearing that perhaps he'd already left. She was debating heading out to the stables to look for him when she finally spotted Anton walking into the great hall with Albert, the castle's steward, Edwin, the castle's chamberlain, and Marina. Lifting the hem of her dress, Gwynneth hurried after them.
Anton was speaking quietly to the other three when Gwynneth entered the room. Her eyes went immediately to her husband, and Gwynneth's heart clenched at what she saw. Instead of his usual white silk shirts and colorful finery, Anton was clothed in all black. The garments were beautiful, and Anton looked quite dashing in them, but Gwynneth knew that the attire was not for display. Anton wore a long-sleeved gambeson beneath a long, black leather surcoat, under which was worn a pair of black leather pants and knee-high boots. A long war sword, sheathed in a leather scabbard, hung on his left side, and tucked at the small of his back, half-hidden in his black belt, was a dagger. Gwynneth couldn't help the small noise of dismay that escaped her mouth, causing everyone to turn their eyes turned toward her.
The young Lady bit down on her lip and quickly forced a smile on her face. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to interrupt," she said as she approached the quartet.
Anton smiled, "You aren't. We were just going over a few things." She looked back to the others, "If you'll excuse us, please."
"Of course, Sire...Milady." Albert and Edwin bowed to the Lord and Lady, and Marina simply nodded as they left the couple alone.
Anton curved an arm around Gwynneth's back, "Come dearest. Let us talk for awhile."
Gwynneth took hold of her husband's other hand as they walked toward the library. "I couldn't find you...I feared that you'd gone already." She said, her mouth twitching in a nervous smile as she looked up at her husband.
Anton smiled and leaned down to kiss her wife gently, "No, but I am prepared to leave. I've a long journey ahead of me."
They reached the library and Anton closed the door, wanting some private time with her wife. As soon as she turned around, the blonde was in her arms, hanging on to her as though her life depended on it. Anton knew that this would be the worst part of her departure, and she dreaded the pain and emotion that was to come.
Gwynneth relented after a few moments and looked up at her husband, tears trickling from her eyes. "I implore you once more, Anton... please don't go." She gave him a pleading look and grasped at his shirt. "These dreams I've been having...I'm certain they're about you." Anton's sad expression became a frown. "I feel they portend something dreadful happening to you!"
Anton grimaced and closed her eyes as she lifted her hands to lay them on her wife's narrow shoulders. The tearful fear and hurt reflected in her lover's oceanic eyes stabbed painfully at her heart. "Gwynneth, we've been over this."
"I know, but—"
Anton squeezed her shoulders, "Nothing is going to happen to me. I plan on staying alive - very much so."
More tears dribbled down fair cheeks as Gwynneth stared up at her husband's strong, beautiful face. She wanted to believe him, but she feared the worst nonetheless.
"I don't want to leave you, beloved, but I must...'tis my duty. You know this." Anton spoke quietly, moving her hands to hold Gwynneth's face and caressing her trembling lips with a gentle thumb. "I shall return home before you know it. Until then..." Anton reached down and removed the signet ring from her right hand, then, taking her wife's hand in hers, she slipped the ring onto Gwynneth's finger. "...You must take care of Weldon for me." Anton lifted the ringed hand and pressed it to her lips. "I entrust everything to you." More tears ran down Gwynneth's face. Anton touched her cheek, "You are strong, Gwynneth...be strong for me while I'm gone."
Gwynneth looked into her husband's eyes. There was love, promise and trust in the sky-blue depths and she felt encouraged, but only a little. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him again, fighting to get hold of herself. After a few minutes, she released her grip and stood back. Clearing her throat, Gwynneth nervously glanced up at Anton. "I...I wanted to give you something." She reached into the bodice of her gown and removed a necklace made from a thin piece of ribbon. Hanging on it was a lock of her hair, neatly braided and tied around the ribbon to form a small circle-like pendant. "'Tis just a silly superstition, but," she began, sounding unsure of herself as she handed it to Anton, "'tis said that it will keep you safe, as long as you keep it on your person, somehow."
Anton fingered the blonde braid and smiled as she slipped the necklace over her head and tucked it beneath the collar of her gambeson. Touching the braid where it laid on her chest, she smiled again, "I shall wear it always. Thank you." She reached for Gwynneth and kissed her, and they held each other tight for a long moment. "It's time for me to go now." Anton whispered the words regretfully as she finally broke the embrace. Gwynneth nodded and stepped back. "Come." Anton took her hand, "Let us walk out together."
Hand in hand, the Lord and Lady walked out to the central courtyard. Gwynneth's eyes warily took in the people who'd come to bid Anton and his men goodbye and wish them well. She very much wished that no one were present. She was certain she'd cry her eyes out, at the very least, which was something a Lady did not do in front of others.
Anton walked to her horses, securing the last of her gear and speaking with Richard and some of the other knights who would be traveling with them. Seeing her mother approach and come to stand beside Gwynneth, Anton instructed his squire to finish up and patted the boy on the back.
She walked toward the two women, forcing a smile for them and wiping away the sweat that had already accumulated along her brow. "Going to be a bloody hot journey, that's for certain." She continued to smile, trying to keep a handle on the unpleasant atmosphere.
Marina went along with the idle conversation. "You'll cook yourself in that," she said, motioning to the leather surcoat and quilted doublet the Marquess wore.
Anton shrugged. "Probably. But I can't ride out with no protection at all, can I?" She glanced toward Gwynneth, who looked pale. "I'll wear my hauberk and mail later, don't worry."
At that, Gwynneth closed her eyes and bit down on her bottom lip, fighting tears that nonetheless began to leak from her eyes. The Marchioness Dowager saw the reaction and watched her daughter-in-law cautiously, wondering if the display was genuine. "How long will it take you to reach the Valley?" she asked, continuing with the small talk. Truth be known, Marina worried for Anton too, but she didn't dare show it. She had quite a lot of experience when it came to such things, unlike her daughter-in-law.
"A good two days, and perhaps two nights. Depends. If this sweltering heat plagues us all the way, we may have to slow the pace for the horses." Marina nodded and Anton glanced again at her wife, who was wiping at her eyes and looking away, obviously struggling to maintain her composure.
Phillip, the Marquess' young squire approached the trio, "Milord, 'tis all ready for you, sire."
"Thank you, Phillip." Anton nodded at the lad then turned back to the Ladies. Knowing that the time had come, she sighed. "'Tis time for us to go."
Marina forced a smile. "Yes, well...," she placed a hand on Anton's shoulder and reached up to give her daughter a kiss on the cheek. "Do take care of yourself. Return to us victorious, and safe."
"I shall, Mother." Anton turned her attention to her wife, stepping closer to the blonde. "Gwynneth?" she whispered, touching her fingers to a trembling chin.
Gwynneth closed her eyes and her face crumpled, "I'm frightened." She whispered, her voice quavering unsteadily.
Anton's heart ached for her wife. "Shh...everything will be all right." She whispered before leaning down and kissing the heart-shaped mouth that she loved and cherished so much. But the soft words did little to comfort Gwynneth, and her tears began to flow harder. Heedless of the onlookers, Anton wrapped her arms around Gwynneth and held her tight. "Shh," she soothed, "Please don't cry, dearest. I can't bear to see you cry."
Gwynneth had no words. She could only weep and hold on to her husband tightly.
Marina watched the interaction, feeling a wave of pity and compassion. She knew what it was like to watch a husband go off to battle. She knew what it was like to fear for the safety and well being of someone you cared for. Gwynneth's fears were very real, and her feelings for Anton obviously ran deep and true. Marina watched the emotional display in front of her. Perhaps, she thought begrudgingly, I have been wrong about this young woman. Perhaps Anton has been right all along. Marina had to admit that it certainly looked as though Gwynneth's feelings for Anton were, indeed, as strong as Anton's feelings for her. It seems odd, she mused, seeing Anton so enamored of someone.
Marina knew of her daughter's predilection for women. She and Edgar had discussed it numerous times, though never with Anton. She'd never seen the need, nor the point. Anton had played the role of a man her whole life, so it seemed natural, somehow, that she be attracted to women. But having never seen her daughter so much as touch another woman before Gwynneth came along, Marina couldn't help but watch in wonderment. As unnatural as it all may seem, the two of them plainly care for one another a great deal. Perhaps I should just be happy that they've managed to find and share something so rare.
Anton finally broke the embrace and touched her wife's chin again, forcing her to look up. "Gwynneth, you know that I love you, yes?"
The young Lady nodded, "Yes. Just as you know that I love you."
"Yes," Anton leaned in even closer, their lips nearly touching. "Do you believe in me, my love?"
Tears streamed down her face as Gwynneth blinked her eyes and nodded, "With everything that I am."
Anton cupped her cheeks and they locked eyes. "I shall not fail you."
Gwynneth stared, absorbing the full impact of the words.
Anton reached down and clasped their hands together, "I shall not fail you," she repeated softly, squeezing Gwynneth's hands and pressing them to her lips.
Gwynneth kept hold of one hand as Anton slowly began to back away. Finally they were as far apart as they could be with their fingers still entwined. Anton gave Gwynneth one more small, sad smile before their fingers finally disengaged and pulled apart. Gwynneth's arm fell limply to her side, and tears streamed down her face. Anton could feel her heart break as she looked one last time at her impossibly sad lover. Then she turned and walked away.
Gwynneth covered her face with her hands, willing herself not to cry, but failing miserably.
The other men were waiting for their Lord, and as soon as Anton mounted her horse, they all rode out of the courtyard, through the gatehouse, and into the open countryside.
Gwynneth walked quickly to the gatehouse, watching as the band of warriors rode away. She wiped at her tears, conscious of the fact that the others present in the courtyard were probably staring at her. She wanted to appear strong and in control, not a blubbering mess. When Marina appeared beside her and placed a hand at the small of her back, Gwynneth stiffened, unaccustomed to and surprised at the older woman's touch.
The two noblewomen continued to watch the group ride away. Just before they disappeared over a hill and out of sight, Anton turned back and held a hand up. The final parting gesture was the last straw for Gwynneth, and she could not contain herself.
The sadness that she'd been holding deep within her heart came rushing to the surface, and she finally broke down, erupting with a mournful cry. Her emotions consumed her, and she could no longer suppress them. She began to wail and sob uncontrollably, her arms wrapping around her body as her chest heaved as she gasped great convulsive breaths.
Marina empathized with the young woman but wasn't sure what to do for her. There seemed to be no end to Gwynneth's woeful release. Finally she slipped an arm around her daughter-in-law's waist. "Come, Gwynneth," Marina spoke softly, "you should lie down and rest."
Gwynneth did not resist. She allowed the older woman to lead her back inside and into her chambers, where she laid in bed for the rest of the day.
She thought, as she stared at the room's stone walls, that she truly did not care if she left her chambers ever again.
The first few days after Anton's departure dragged by listlessly, and Gwynneth stayed in her chambers, refusing to speak to anyone or take part in anything, even meals.
She passed her time as best she could. She sewed, she read, she wrote letters and composed poems full of lament and regret-filled longing. She would often sit and stare at Anton's signet ring – the ring that her Lord and husband wore; the ring that signified who was Master of Weldon Manor. Anton had placed the ring on her finger, appointing her as his representative and entrusting his kingdom to her. It was an honor and a statement of absolute confidence, but it wasn't what Gwynneth wanted. She didn't want her husband's role; she wanted her husband. The ring was a very poor substitute.
She missed Anton so unbearably that, at every raucous sound from the courtyard, she would fly to her window and eagerly peer out, hoping desperately to see her husband riding through the gatehouse. The nights were the worst. Gwynneth spent most of them tossing and turning restlessly, her mind continuously tormenting her by conjuring up terrible thoughts and visions. Sometimes she would venture up to one of the open towers and spend hours gazing at the stars, wishing on them for her husband to return to her, unharmed and happy.
Marina had been keeping tabs on her daughter-in-law through the servants and the young Lady's chambermaid, Alice. She knew full well what Gwynneth was going through, but she also remembered her promise to Anton that she would take care of Gwynneth. Her patience finally exhausted, Marina went in search of her daughter-in-law, determined to make the girl see reason.
When she reached the Lady's wooden chamber door, Marina knocked loudly. Hearing a muffled acknowledgment, she entered. The room was dark, save a single candle, which sat on a table. Beside the table, in a large stuffed chair, sat Gwynneth, her face pale and her eyes hollow. She held several pieces of parchment in her hands and as Marina came closer, she could plainly see tears glistening in her eyes.
Marina sighed and approached the blonde, reminding herself to tread lightly and be conscious of the younger woman's volatile emotions. "Are you busy writing, or reading?" she queried, motioning to the letters.
Gwynneth's hands covered the letters self-consciously. "I've finished writing, I was just...reading over them."
"Is it anything you wish to talk about or perhaps, share?" The Marchioness Dowager kept her voice soft and friendly.
Gwynneth swallowed and blinked her eyes nervously. "Well, no. They're just, uhm, poems...some silly billets-doux...that's all." Marina still eyed her hopefully. "They're rather...personal, My Lady."
Marina held up a hand, smiling knowingly. "Alright. I understand." She sat down in a chair opposite Gwynneth and smoothed out the skirt of her long dress. Folding her hands on her lap, she fixed the young blonde with a serious look. "My dear, you've been holed-up in this room for three days and nights." Gwynneth's eyes dropped. "This self-imposed exile is not good for you. I know your heart is heavy with worry and fear – mine is as well." She leaned forward, silently demanding Gwynneth's attention, "But hiding away here in your room, ignoring everyone and everything, torturing yourself by writing and reading love letters – all of this will do nothing to hasten Anton's return. You shall only drive yourself mad. Believe me, Gwynneth, I know."
With that, Gwynneth looked up, finding her mother-in-law staring at her frankly. Her relationship with Marina had been fraught with tension and unease for so long, Gwynneth wasn't sure whether or not she could trust the older woman.
"I realize that you and I have gotten off to a rather...vexatious start. You and Anton have had to overcome a great many obstacles. And, I do admit, I have not been very supportive of either of you."
Gwynneth looked at her in surprise, wondering briefly if Marina could read her mind.
"But, I should like to change that, Gwynneth. My...my son loves you. I can see that. I can see, plainly, how much the two of you care for each other." Her voice grew quiet. "It's...it's quite touching. You are very fortunate."
Gwynneth watched the expression on Marina's face as it changed from its standard look of regal superiority to one of melancholy and perhaps, even sad longing.
"I should very much like it, Gwynneth, if we could get on with one another in a peaceful, more agreeable fashion. One that is befitting of a happy family."
The young Marchioness stared long and hard at her mother-in-law, seeking out any potential untruth in the blue eyes that were so much like her husband's. She saw only honesty and sincerity reflected there. Gwynneth sighed and smiled faintly, "Yes, I should like that very much, Lady Marina."
"Good." Marina clapped her hands on her lap. "Now then...there are several things that require your attention. Anton designated you as his representative while he's away," Marina motioned to the signet ring that Gwynneth wore, "it would dishonor him if you ignored your role, would it not?"
The older woman's voice was not scolding, but Gwynneth still dropped her eyes, feeling shameful.
Marina stood abruptly, "Come my dear. I've had cook prepare a splendid meal, and I absolutely insist that you come down and join me."
Gwynneth looked up and found her mother-in-law smiling at her. A tiny sigh of relief escaped the young Lady's lips, and she half-smiled, "Very well. Allow me to freshen up, and I shall join you."
"Excellent." Marina smiled and turned away, leaving the room victoriously.
Anton gripped her sword as she sat atop her war horse, surveying the battlefield as the fighting finally wound down. The war had been an intense altercation that had lasted several days, and Liam's rebel army put up a surprisingly valiant fight. In the end, however, the allied armies and knights overpowered Liam and killed him, and the battle was finally nearing its end.
The Marquess was weary and her body ached. She hadn't been hurt - only a few minor cuts and probably bruises here and there - and for that, Anton was grateful. She removed her helmet and mail coif, anxious for the fresh air to dry her sweated head. Her eyes scanned the battlefield looking for signs of her men and knights. She could see her friend, Richard, steering his horse through the carnage, shouting victorious words of encouragement to the men who were still standing. It wouldn't be much longer until they all could leave the bloodied field and head for home. The thought brought a ghost of a smile to Anton's lips. She could hardly wait to return to her beautiful wife and show her that she was alive and well.
The happy thoughts were still lingering in Anton's mind when suddenly, out of the blue, something slammed into her upper thigh and she felt an intense searing pain. She cried out loudly and grabbed her leg, her horse spinning around nervously from hearing her master's yelp. Looking down, Anton could see where the shaft of a large arrow bolt had penetrated her chain mail and was protruding from her flesh.
A bolt...a crossbow bolt? Anton thought frantically. Bolts meant crossbowmen, and in these parts, crossbowmen were only employed by mercenaries. Gerrod of Clarendon was one of the few noblemen in the realm who dealt with mercenaries, but Gerrod was here, fighting alongside Anton and the allied forces. The mercenaries, if there were any, should be with them, fighting on their side, but Gerrod had said there weren't any available to fight this day, and indeed, Anton had not seen any either. It didn't make sense. Unless Liam had hired his own mercenary crossbowmen, there shouldn't be any around. Anton didn't understand it at all and her mind whirled with pain as she tried to comprehend it. She wasn't given any time to ponder further, for as she turned her horse around and scanned the area searching for the crossbowmen, another bolt went whizzing past her head, barely missing it. She was able to discern from which direction the bolt came, and as she wheeled her horse around and saw the thicket of woods, she knew that the bastard was hiding within.
Unleashing an angry war cry, Anton kicked her horse and stampeded toward the woods, determined to find the crossbowman and place the blade of her sword against his throat.
Back on the battlefield, Richard heard the cry from his friend and turned to see Anton charging into the woods. He wondered where the Marquess was headed, but knew that his Lord was more than able to chase down a foe, so he turned his attentions back to the field for the moment.
As soon as Anton entered the woods, she found herself faced with not just one crossbowman, but a handful, all of them lying in wait for her. Someone yelled "release!" and all the bolts were unleashed at the same time. Anton could feel multiple points of impact as several bolts struck her, some piercing her chain mail and imbedding deeply into her flesh. She cried out as her horse, which had also been struck, reared up in panic and flung her off it's back. Her sword fell from her hands and she landed on her side at an odd angle, a sickening crunch indicating that her ribs had failed to absorb the impact. She laid on the hard earth for only a second, determined to get up so she could face her foes. She would not go down easily. Alas, Anton was only able to struggle to one knee before her body, wracked with agonizing injuries, gave out and she collapsed.
As she lay on the forest floor, Anton was in shock. She never dreamt that she'd be brought down in such a way. She glanced over at her left shoulder and saw the shaft of an arrow sticking out. Her eyes traveled down her chest, where she saw another one protruding from her ribs. Intending to pull the blasted things out, Anton reached down and grabbed hold of the shaft in her chest. She was shocked at the horrific pain that rocketed through her body when she touched the shaft, and she jerked and cried out in terrible anguish. Her mind could hardly grasp what had happened. How could this be? Who are these cowardly men who laid in wait for me? Who would command them to do this, and why? She received her answer as a figure came into view overhead.
"Dear, dear Anton...my friend...my brother. Lord Anton, the Merciful...it appears that you have fallen in battle." Gerrod's snide voice taunted her and he grinned down at his fallen comrade, "I am so dreadfully sorry to find us in this unfortunate situation."
"Gerrod?!" Anton coughed and groaned as she tried to sit up, but she was unable. She fell back to the ground, staring at her brother-in-law in utter confusion. "I-I don't...understand..."
Gerrod sighed. "I did not want it to come to this, Anton, truly I didn't, but you've left me no choice."
Anton shook her head, her consciousness and comprehension beginning to falter as blood slowly drained out of her body and the pain and shock of her injuries intensified.
"You," Gerrod pointed a finger into Anton's face, "You want to be noble and moral and give these lands back to the pathetic serfs and peasants. Instead of conquering lands, you wish to be benevolent and philanthropic!"
The Marquess frowned, unable to believe that Gerrod would try to hurt her over something like a disagreement about the spoils of war. "There is no glory in taking lands away from the people who live here!" Anton rasped.
"And there is no glory in walking away!" Gerrod's voice echoed loudly in the woods.
"I thought...," Anton drew in a sharp breath as a tremor of pain shook her. "...I thought you were a good man."
"I'm more than a good man. I'm a smart man. And I know how to get what I want!" Gerrod knelt down beside Anton and stared into his eyes, "You are weak, Anton. You do not have the heart of a conqueror. You have become a liability. Weldon is too important to have a weak leader. Just as Aldred needed to be eliminated, so you too must be eliminated." He said, his voice harsh as he enunciated each word sharply.
Anton's eyes grew large and her mouth opened in a silent exclamation of horror as Gerrod's words began to fully make their impact.
"I need to take over Weldon, my foolish, naive friend. I am meant for great things, and to do that, I must have a kingdom like Weldon under my control."
Anton gritted her teeth and grimaced, "You've lost your bloody mind!"
Gerrod threw his head back and laughed. "Ah yes, yes...that may very well be true, but it doesn't really matter. With you out of the way, I can go back to my sister and break the sad news of your demise. Then, as she struggles with what to do, I'll play the chivalrous brother and offer my assistance and guidance. In no time at all, Weldon will be under my control."
"Gwynneth will never allow you to do that!" Anton rasped, anger, pain and disbelief all mixing together and coursing through her veins, boiling her blood and igniting a fury in her soul. If only she could make her body rise and fight...she would make Gerrod pay.
Again Gerrod laughed, "If Gwynneth - or your mother, for that matter - doesn't see things my way, she can easily be exterminated as well." He leaned down further and patted Anton on the chest. "Neither of them will really be in a position to negotiate though, will they? I'm certain they'll both see things my way." Gerrod rose and stood above Anton, looking down on him and smiling evilly. "And as for that unborn child of yours? He, or she, will be a non-issue as well. There will be no heir from your bloodline. The only future Weldon heirs shall be mine. After I marry Gwynneth, she shall provide me with an heir of pure Clarendon blood."
"What?!" Anton sputtered and coughed from the force of her cry. "You're mad! You cannot marry your own sister!"
"Half sister, dearest Anton...Gwynneth is only my half sister. My mother died when I was just a wee child. Father later married one of his mistresses, but only after she fell pregnant with his child, Gwynneth. So you see, a child borne of the two of us would complete the family circle quite nicely."
Anton's whole body began to tremble as another angry cry burst from her throat. "You sadistic bastard! I will kill you!" Using every bit of strength she had left, Anton rolled to her side and absolutely forced her body to get up. She grabbed hold of a tree and began to pull herself up, not quite able to stand before her legs gave out and she collapsed to her knees, crying out in frustrated pain. As she struggled, Gerrod merely stood and laughed, a low, purely evil chuckle that filled Anton with impotent rage.
"You're pathetic. Fearless, valiant, merciful Anton of Weldon...reduced to a bloodied, groveling fool in the forest." Gerrod mocked. "It's time to end this and move on. I have better things to do." Gerrod said as he stepped closer to the kneeling Anton. Removing his sword from its scabbard, Gerrod raised it up over his head. "Goodbye, my brother in arms..."
But the blow never came. Anton heard a loud thwacking noise, and looked up to see the tip of a sword protruding through Gerrod's upper chest. Anton raised her eyes to the young knight's face and saw his mouth opening, but no words came forth. Only a gurgling sound could be heard as blood oozed and dripped from his lips, and then the traitorous Gerrod fell to the forest floor, dead.
Anton herself collapsed completely, her body and her mind thoroughly shattered.
Soon the forest was filled with knights, urging their steeds through the trees to chase down the fleeing crossbowmen. Richard steered his horse closer to his fallen comrade. He dismounted and hurried past the body of Gerrod, glancing quickly at the sword that still protruded from him.
Richard had never fully trusted the young knight from Clarendon. He never dreamt that Gerrod would try to harm Anton in any way, but when he saw him standing over his friend, ready to deliver a death blow, he'd reacted instinctually, hurling his sword at Gerrod and spearing him squarely between the shoulders. Richard shook his head; all that could be pondered and discussed later. Right now, Anton needed him.
The knight beheld his friend lying on the forest floor, his face a ghastly gray and his body bleeding badly from multiple crossbow wounds, the most devastating of which still protruded cruelly from Anton's chest. Richard knelt down, carefully scooping Anton's head into his hands as he shouted at some others to hurry and fashion a makeshift sled for the felled Lord.
Anton's eyes fluttered and opened and she licked her parched lips as she tried to focus on her savior's face. "Richard..." Anton rasped and swallowed hard. "Gerrod, he...he murdered...Aldred!"
"My Lord, please don't try to talk." Richard urged, "We must get you out of here quickly."
"Wait," Anton rasped, clutching at Richard's arm, "Please..." she grimaced in pain. "Please, tell my wife...tell my Gwynneth—" She gritted her teeth and waited through another shot of agony. "Tell her that...that—" Yet another searing pain gripped her and she gasped aloud.
"Shh," Richard shushed Anton. "You can tell her yourself, my friend. You're going home."
Anton squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, gazing up at the treetops and the dark clouds that suddenly gathered above them. Oh Gwynneth, I'm so sorry, she thought with despair, I should have listened to you...I should have stayed with you, where I could be holding you in my arms and loving you. Instead I'm lying here in a pool of my own blood, wondering if I shall live long enough to see your angelic face once again.
Anton ached with the need to cry, but there was nothing left in her. A cold tendril of despair and finality wrapped itself around her parched throat, and soon her eyes slid shut and everything went black.
...To Be Continued...
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