Note: Some parts of this story might be a little disturbing or just plain icky.
Note II: This story is kind of a Conqueror story, however, it’s characters aren’t Xena and Gabrielle. So, I guess you can say it’s a bit of an uber Conqueror story. Either way, I hope you enjoy it.
Sex: You know me better than to even ask that by now. J
Violence: There is definitely gonna be violence in this story, and quite a bit of it, some fairly graphic.
If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am oar that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
Riding Out the Storm
"Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from their city. But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick sons. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken, too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial."
The woods were smoky and dark, entirely too quiet. Not even birds seemed to live in the numerous trees of old, who’s tops reached to the Heavens, branches spread before God in prayer. Perhaps they were praying for the safe keeping of His people. Perhaps they were raised in fists, damning a god who’d punish the land with such merciless fury.
A lone figure moved through the maze, a pale hand clasping the ends of the brown cloak together, trying to keep the chill of the air, and unknown enemy, at bay. Unseen green eyes watched ever vigilant from beneath the large hood, keeping the feminine face in shadow. It wasn’t wise for a woman to travel alone, with no horse. Cara’s small dagger was gripped in her unseen hand, fingers sweating as they flexed against the simple handle of polished wood. The cool metal of the hilt brushed against her skin.
Hearing footfalls in the fallen leaves around her, the girl tucked herself flat against the trunk of massive oak, pushing the hood slightly back to listen to the day around her. Many footfalls, heavy, made by boots. That would mean knights or nobles. They were often worse than any highwaymen.
Scanning her surroundings, Cara saw that she had little chance of hiding; only trees, no caves, or rock overhangings. Sucking in her lower lip, squeezing the handle into her palm, she waited.
“I see a body, my Lord,” John shouted, his voice echoing throughout the woods. Grimacing, he put the cloth to his mouth and nose. A disgrace. From the distance of three horse lengths, the gender couldn’t be determined, the skin mostly black and eaten. The eyes were open, but only one stared out, the other having been a small forest creature’s dinner.
“Well, stay far from it, man!” Lord Avery, Third Duke of Cornwall, shouted back. “We steer around these woods. Forward!”
Cara’s heart began to beat again, the noise of a small army heading away from her, their booted footfalls, and clanging armor becoming distant, soon only an echo.
“Thank you, my Lord,” she whispered, eyes flickering Heavenward. Not waiting a beat more, she pushed off the tree, making her way through the trees that she knew so well, the weight of her pouch bumping against her hip as she darted from tree to tree. She, too, had seen the body the soldier spoke of, and knew these woods were cursed.
She must hurry.
“Bugger,” Merryn growled, tossing the rotten piece of fruit aside. Let the vultures add it to their enormous feast. Crouching as she made her way through the carnage, she stopped, kneeling beside the body of a child, blue eyes staring up at her, silently begging for help that never came. “Don’t look at me, lad,” she hissed, throwing a piece of cloth over the child’s face.
It had stopped bothering her long ago, now it just annoyed her. The girl never liked to be looked at or noticed by the living, let alone the dead. Even so, the dead offered so much more than the living. Noting the child’s hand still clutched around something, she pried his fingers open, wincing at the sound of breaking bones. Damn the stiff ones.
Though it was a grotesque work, the treasure inside was worth it. Bright blue eyes opened in wonder at the gold that glimmered in the seemingly endless gray sky. Three gold coins, kept shiny by the child’s sweaty palm, that is, before the body dried out.
Plucking the precious metal pieces from the clammy, gray palm, she quickly wiped one on her cloak before bringing it to waiting teeth. Satisfied by the small mark made, Merryn pocketed the money, then moved on.
“Get out! Flee, you savage!”
Merryn looked up to see an old, grizzled monk picking his way through the layers of dead, an angry fist raised in her direction.
“Go back to your monastery, Father. There’s nothing here for you,” she said, tucking a dagger into her belt.
“How dare you steal from the dead!” he bellowed, grunting as one of his turnshoes was sucked into a badly decomposing body. Unable to hide his look of disgust, the priest lifted his foot, balancing on his other foot and walking stick as he leaned down to grab his shoe from the mess.
Merryn couldn’t help but chuckle, all the while shoving the few valuables she found into her cloak.
The priest finally reached the cloaked girl, panting heavily after his journey through what had once been the street, but had been turned into a make-shift lane for the dead.
“Go back Father, before the blackness gets you, too.” Merryn didn’t even spare a glance at the old, rotund man. She continued picking through the bodies, shaking out the rags that had once been clothing, seeing what would fall out. Most were dead in the tiny village, so Merryn had the pick of the litter.
“And you, young boy, thief!” He hobbled over to the cloaked figure, grabbing her by the arm and swung her around. Merryn stopped, glaring as her hood fell away, exposing a tanned, dirty, and decidedly female face. “God have mercy, a girl!” His dirty brown eyes took in the torn, dirt-encrusted tunic, belted at the waist with several daggers tucked within, a baldric across her chest with a sword dangling from it. His mouth fell open in shocked disgust as he took in the breeches and booted feet.
The old man’s eyes flickered up, his tongue about to admonish when he stopped, choking on the words. He was looking down the blade of the very sword he’d just spotted, at the end, a very unamused young woman.
“Leave it be, Father, or I’ll send you ta yours.”
“You shall burn in hell, child,” the priest said quietly, yet with great earnestness. Merryn grinned, nodding as she put her hood back in place.
“So I’m told. If it t’weren’t me, would be some other lad. Leave me be.” She lowered her sword, smoothly easing it into place.
“Damned Gaelic,” he muttered, knowing there wasn’t anything he could do. He was no match for the girl and her blade, so instead he turned and blessed the dead, freeing their souls to rest in Heaven. Turning, he was stunned to see the girl was gone. Nervously he tucked his hands into his robes, and moved on.
Cara sighed with relief when she saw the split stump she knew so well. Just a hundred paces beyond would be the entrance to her village. She began to run now, no longer having to worry about being seen alone wandering through the woods.
Hood flying off her head, allowing long, golden hair to flow behind her, the young woman, just fifteen summers old, ran on.
“No,” she breathed, hand coming to her hand as she stopped short. Her green eyes widened in stunned shock and dismay. She wasn’t sure which face to linger on longest, many no longer identifiable. Taking slow, careful steps, the girl made her way through the sea of bodies, waving off masses of flies and awful stench.
She was too late.
“Mother!” Panic setting in, Cara ran as best she could, whimpering as a fear greater than any she’d known before, gripped her heart. She saw the shack she shared with her mother and younger sister, Grace. The plank door was open, windows dark.
Slowing, Cara watched, trying to distinguish any movement at all. She knew what she’d find, in her gut, and she didn’t want to get there to see it.
“Oh, mum,” she cried, rushing to the prone figure on the dirt floor, skirts riding up the swollen, blackened skin of her mother’s legs. Falling to her knees, the girl gently turned the larger woman over, a quick, shrill cry escaping her throat when she looked upon the face of the only parent she’d ever known.
Cara could feel the lunch of berries and bread she’d had earlier threatening to rise once again, but swallowed it down. Raising a trembling hand, Cara brushed dark blonde strands away from the nearly unrecognizable face- eyes open and bulging, a silent scream frozen on the swollen face. Numerous sores littered Mary’s face, the puss that had leaked out in life, dried and smeared in death.
“Oh, mum. I failed you. Forgive me,” the girl cried, hugging the stiff body to her, rocking gently.
“My child,” said a soft voice. Cara looked up, her grief so profound, she was almost unable to make out the image of the priest standing in the doorway of the shack.
“I was too late, Father. Too late.” New tears began, the young blonde burying her face in her mother’s dress, almost choking on the smell of death that clung to it.
“No, dear Cara. The Lord had plans for Mary and Grace. Do not blame yourself,” he walked into the hovel, walking stick making soft clicking sounds on the dirt floor.
Wanting badly to believe the priest’s words, Cara released her mother, laying her gently back onto the floor. She wiped her eyes, to no avail as new tears quickly fell. Shoulders slumped in defeat, Cara untied the thick rope from around her waist, removing it and the bag that hung from it.
“I brought the medicine as quickly as I could.” She laughed ruefully, the irony not lost on either her or the priest.
“Keep it for yourself, child.” Father Steffen grunted as he lowered himself to his knees, pulling the girl he’d known all her life, into his warm, fatherly embrace. “You must go far from here, Cara. Those who lived have gone. You must go, too.”
“Do you think I’ll go to hell, Father? For killing my mother and sister?”
Father Steffen looked down into the most green eyes he’d ever known, made to look like twin pieces of jade from the tears shed. He smiled down at the child who was growing into a lovely woman. Shaking his head, he brushed a few strands of blonde hair from her dirt-smudged face.
“No, child. You have been blessed with life, surviving the blackness that walks the land. Death come to us, stalking our every move.” He grabbed the bag, filled with hard won herbs and roots, including rose petals, that would be mashed into a tablet to relieve the pain and suffering of those who caught the plague. “Go now. You have beaten death, don’t stop here. Heal those you find, and bring them peace with your lovely smile.” Steffen smiled at the very smile he spoke of, shining on him.
Cara nodded, giving the priest one last hug before picking herself up, taking the bag the Father handed to her, before grunting as he, too got to his feet.
“Go, child. Survive this darkness with the light God has given you.” Father Steffen watched the girl leave, following with his eyes until she was out of sight. He had always known that someday that girl would be so much more than the peasant filth she was born into.
The fire was burning bright, warming a cold, lonely night. Merryn wrapped her cloak around her shoulders a bit tighter, then rotated the rabbit carcass that hung above the fire.
The night was quiet, very quiet. So many had died. Merryn tried to not think about it, knowing that it would do her no good. Death was part of life, just like breathing was.
She’d been wandering for so long now, it seemed. Long before the sickness had scorched the land. Looking down at her pack, she drug it over to settle between her booted feet, pulling it open to peer inside. All the goods she’d found over the past couple days glittered in the firelight. She’d be able to do some good trading for much of it, using the rest for herself. Weapons, clothing, and the blankets that made up her bedding.
Pulled out of her reverie, Merryn realized her dinner was beginning to burn. Crawling over to the fire, she poked at the meat with a dagger, stopping mid-stab. Blue eyes scanned the inky forest around her, ears perking up for what she thought she heard.
Slowly rising to her feet, she turned in a small circle, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from, and what exactly it was. Footsteps, hurried, not being very careful or stealthy.
Then she heard a scream.
Snatching her sword from the baldric, then ran headlong into the dense foliage. Up ahead she heard the whimpers of what sounded like a young girl, and the muffled words of a man, and lots of thrashing.
As she burst into a clear, Merryn saw the glint of steel against the moonlight, bringing her attention to two dark figures, which became clear as she got closer. A young girl was pressed against a tree, a man holding her there with his body, a blade held to the girl’s throat as he loosened the ties of his breeches. The girl was breathing hard, her chest heaving against the rough material of his shirt.
“Please! Help me!” she begged, spying Merryn, who had finally reached them. The brunette grabbed the man by the back of his long, unkempt hair. He howled in pain as he was tossed onto the forest floor, dead leaves the only thing to pad his fall. With what Merryn knew would be a brief respite, she grabbed the girl, yanking her away from the tree by the front of her dress, then pushing her behind her larger body.
“You just made a big mistake, girl,” the man growled, getting to his feet. Again the glint of steel as he brought his dagger up, eyeing Merryn’s sword, which she held in a slightly trembling hand.
“Run away and you will only lose your pride,” Merryn said, sounding far more confident than she actually felt. The man laughed, whipping his head back slightly to toss the dark, greasy locks out of his eyes.
“I’ll slit you from gullet to that pretty mouth of yours, wench. I say you walk away and leave me to my business and maybe I’ll let you live.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot, waiting and watching to see what the girl would do. Maybe he could have fun with the both of them.
“Try it and tell your tale to Satan, himself.” Merryn could feel the girl behind her, holding on to her cloak with claw-like fingers, fear making the girl’s breathing fast and erratic.
“You’ve got a big mouth on you, lass. There are far better things for it than this rubbish.” With that, he attacked, using brute strength against the smaller girl.
Merryn hadn’t been prepared for the attack, and was knocked to the ground, the girl backing out of the way, and screaming in frightened surprise. Within in moments the man was on top of the brunette, trying to press his advantage of surprise and size.
The brunette’s head hit the forest floor with a resounding thud that echoed through her brain as he grabbed a handful of her long hair, using it as leverage to pound her head into the ground. She swore she saw birds flying around her head, the second pounding making her teeth clang together, nipping her tongue in the process. The warm, salty taste of blood filled her mouth. She knew she had to do something and quick, before he got the upper hand and knocked her out. If that happened, neither one of the girls would be safe.
With a mighty grunt and heave, Merryn pushed, using her feet against the ground, the muscles in her thighs standing in stark relief as she used them to change their positions. Now sitting astride the man, she used the pummel of her sword, slamming it into his jaw. A resounding crack filled the night, followed closely by a cry of pain. Blood leaked out of the man’s mouth, oozing black in the moonlight.
“Nasty wench!” he shouted, bringing a fist up, connecting solidly with Merryn’s own jaw, throwing her head to the side. A hot flash of pain filled the right side of her mouth, something very hard getting lost in the ripples of her tongue. Spitting her tooth to the ground, she bared her remaining teeth, using every ounce of strength she had, pummeling the fool silly. His head whipped this way and that, crashing again and again with the hard ground below him.
“Stop! You’ll kill him,” a soft voice said from just behind and above Merryn. The darker girl glanced briefly behind her to see the girl, huddled in her cloak, face the picture of worry and fear.
“If I don’t, he’ll kill us,” Merryn said, turning back to the man below her, his eyes half-hooded as realty swirled in his head, the world closing in around him until finally his head stopped moving, blackness enfolding him.
”Is he,” the girl with the blonde hair couldn’t bring herself to say it. She’d seen so much death lately.
“No. He’s unconscious.” Merryn pulled herself up to her feet, her head pounding, jaw badly hurting and bleeding.
“You’re hurt,” the blonde said, hurrying over to her, looking up into Merryn’s face with the kindest, gentlest eyes. The brunette pulled her face away from exploring hands.
“I’m fine.” Turning back to the man, she knew she’d have to do something with him. She could leave him be, but when he awoke, he’d be wanting to find the wench who’d done this to him. She couldn’t very well kill him just like so. “Go to my campsite, grab the rope inside the pack. Go!” she shouted when the girl hadn’t moved. Running off into the darkness, Merryn turned back to the man. Maybe she could run him through while the girl was gone? “Bloody hell,” she growled, knowing she couldn’t do that.
“Here’s the rope.”
Merryn took it from the shaking hands of the girl.
“Now get out of here,” she growled, turning to the man who was starting to come around. “I said go!” she yelled over her shoulder, heaving a mighty kick at the man’s head. He grunted, then was out like a snuffed torch.
The girl gasped, covering her mouth with her hands, eyes huge as she looked at a panting Merryn.
“I told you to go,” the taller girl growled as she knelt, using the rope to tie the man’s hands and feet. The girl said something, but it went unheard as the man’s head fell to the side as she moved him. Leaning in a bit, she hissed, jumping to her feet. Behind his ear, and down the side of his neck was the tell-tale marks of the sickness. “Bugger me.”
Without another word, she grabbed the man’s dagger, which he’s dropped, planting it firmly in the soil next to the man’s unconscious body. He could cut himself free. If he had the strength.
Ignoring the questions from the blonde, Merryn headed back to her campsite, where she began to pack up.
“What are you doing? What’s happened?” the blonde asked, not sure what to do, where to go.
“You’ve brought death to my campsite,” Merryn said, pointing an accusing finger at the blonde.
“What? I don’t understand-“
“The lad has got the sickness,” she snarled, roughly gathering up her pack, the rope not bound, the whole thing toppling over. “He’ll be dead by morning, most likely,” she muttered absently, tossing a few things back into the pack that had fallen to the ground.
“What’s this,” lightning quick the blonde was kneeling at her side, daggers in her eyes as she reached into the pack, her hand glittering in the firelight when she brought it out. “Stealing from a child, are you?”
Merryn looked at two of the three gold pieces she’d taken off the boy. “He was dead! Hardly needs ‘em anymore.” She reached to snatch them away from the irritating little blonde, but the girl was too quick, jumping to her feet.
“I gave these to that boy,” Cara whispered, looking at the shiny gold resting in her palm. “He’s dead, you say?”
“Quite,” Merryn smirked, the smile fading quickly when she saw the look of death aimed her way. Clearing her throat, she stood. “Give ‘em here.” Holding out her hand, she stared into narrowed green eyes, made golden by the firelight.
“Not a chance.” Cara closed her fingers around the coins, holding her fist close to her chest. “Where’s the third?”
“There were only two,” Merryn lied, figuring she could at least get good use out of the last piece. It was obvious the blonde didn’t believe a word she said, but she didn’t care. You had to survive any way you could.
“Thief,” Cara muttered, slipping the gold pieces into the pouch tethered to her waist. The girls stared each other down, a battle of the wills rumbling through their eyes.
As Merryn stared into those deep, soulful eyes, she was stunned by the way they seemed to be looking into her very soul. She began to squirm, worried about what the blonde saw there.
Clearing her throat again, the taller girl turned away, pretending that breaking up camp was far more important than some silly game. Once everything was bundled and hidden under her cloak, weapons in place, she began to kick dirt onto the fire. She kept her eyes off her unwanted guest, but knew the girl still stood nearby. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a hand swipe out and grab the badly burnt rabbit from the fire.
“We’ll need this for the road,” Cara said softly, wrapping the meat into cloth.
“I don’t think so, lass,” Merryn said, walking over to the girl, reaching out to snatch the food, which was promptly moved out of reach. The brunette sighed. “Don’t play with me, girl. I’m in no mood.”
“My name is Cara, not girl. You owe me.”
“I owe you nothing! Fine. Keep the bloody meat. ‘Tis burnt anyhow.” Like a child, Merryn stomped over the dying embers, heading out into the dark forest. Cara quickly followed after, mindful that her skirts didn’t drag through the red pit.
“You stole from me,” she explained, having to hurry to keep up.
“You lie,” Merryn tossed back over her shoulder.
“I gave those coins to David, and you stole them from him.” It took everything Cara had to keep her voice steady, and not shed the emotion she felt in her throat. She knew she had to stay strong, especially around this girl. She wasn’t entirely sure she was that successful.
“No time for tears now, girl. The boy was dead, and he certainly wouldn’t need them to get into Heaven’s gates, now would he?”
Cara sniffled, trying to swallow the growing sadness that welled up inside her. “You still shouldn’t have taken them. It’s disrespectful.” Cara yelped in surprise as she nearly ran headlong into the taller girl, who’d turned on her.
“Respect don’t keep you alive, lass. Remember that.” Standing toe to toe, they looked into each others eyes, one looking for a weakness of any kind, the other looking to see how she could exploit the other in the quickest way and get rid of her. Finally Merryn broke the silence. “If you’re gonna follow me around like a dog, keep your trap shut. These woods are not a safe place, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Cara nodded her consent, though grudgingly so. They traveled in near silence for what seemed like days, but what was actually a few hours. The blonde was starting to wobble on her feet.
“Wait,” she said, slowing to lean against a tree. “I need to stop.”
Merryn turned, looking back to see the girl leaning against a tree, hand on the trunk, head bowed.
“Sick, are ya?” she asked warily, keeping her distance. Merryn was fine with the dead ones, but had trouble watching the live ones die.
”No. Just tired.”
Merryn sighed, looking up at the sky, trying to determine what time it was. It was very late, and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, the brunette was exhausted herself.
Without a word, she headed deeper into the wood, trying to find a good place to camp for the night.
“I’ll gather some wood,” Cara offered, heading back out, though keeping her hand near the dagger at her side. She had been wandering over the day, trying to find life somewhere, anywhere. She had found wanderers like herself, everyone afraid to stay with their homes. The dead were piling up faster, the stench of burning and rotting flesh making Cara nauseous just about anywhere she went.
The man in the woods had taken her by surprise, grabbing her from behind and slamming her against that tree. The blonde shivered at the thought of what would have happened had her dark companion not shown up.
“What is your name?” she asked, making her way back into the circle of their cap. The other girl looked up at her, where she’d been laying her bedding on a cleared spot.
“What does it matter?”
“Because I don’t want to call you hey you, and I want to know to who to give my gratitude.”
The brunette sighed, taking the armload of wood from the blonde. “Merryn.”
“Merryn,” the blonde tasted the name, deciding she liked it. “Well, thank you for what you did, Merryn. I owe my life to you.”
“You owe me nothing. And don’t thank me, Cara, because this time tomorrow, you will be on your own.”
Cara was silent as she readjusted a few sticks, helping them to catch. The fire began to illuminate their surroundings, trees tall, sending shadows over everything the flames didn’t lick.
“It would be safer for us to travel together, Merryn,” she said, her voice soft. She spared a glance at the other girl who stood by the fire, feet planted wide apart, arms crossed over her chest.
“I don’t need you with me, lass. If t’weren’t fer you, I’d be sound asleep by now.” Merryn’s eyes were cold as she stood there, unmoving, both body and soul. Without a word, Cara nodded, dropping her eyes as she untied the pouch around her waist.
“’Tis your choice, Merryn. Let me have a look at your mouth.”
Merryn landed on a log with an oomph, the blonde standing above her. Glaring up at the girl, she stayed put. Cara knelt before the stubborn girl, raising gentle, warm fingers to examining the damage, and what would be needed.
The brunette watched, fascinated, as the girl pulled a small bowl, carved from the trunk of a tree, sprinkling various herbs into its depths. Setting the bowl aside, the girl tore off a sprig of something the darker girl had never seen before. The blonde put the weed into her mouth, chewing for a few moments before spitting the newly-made mush into the bowl.
“Have you any water?” Cara asked, eyes raising to look at the confused blue of her temporary companion. She smiled softly when the girl nodded dumbly. Merryn reached over to her small pile of belongings, handing the blonde a small animal bladder.
A bit of water poured into her mixture, Cara pulled out a small, thick stick from her pouch, and began to mix it all together, making a strong-smelling paste.
“You look a bit young to be an apothecary,” Merryn said quietly, eyes never leaving Cara’s movements. The blonde smiled.
“Because I am not.”
“Your da, then?”
Cara shook her head, meeting the other girl’s gaze. “Since I was a small child I’ve understood what would help those who were sick.” She shrugged. “Father Steffen used to say I was a chosen one.” She smiled shyly. “I don’t believe that, but t’might have saved my life. A man in my village was struck with the black sickness, so I left to gather what would help him. I was gone but a few days, and at my return,” her voice broke.
Merryn cleared her throat softly, guilt consuming her. “How did you know those gold pieces belonged to the boy?”
Cara quickly swiped at her eyes. Now was no time to mourn. She finished mixing, scooting closer to the brunette.
“Because I gave them to him. A soldier had passed through our village. He had been hurt in battle, his leg growing dark with sickness. I helped him,” Cara said a slight smile of pride spreading across her lips as she cleaned Merryn’s bloody mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m being as gentle as I can,” she whispered when the other girl winced.
Merryn did her best to not react as gentle fingers cleaned her. She focused on the young blonde’s face as the girl continued her story. She was a beautiful thing. She wondered what wondrous colors would jump from the girl’s expressive eyes come the light of sun.
“So grateful was he that he gave me the three gold pieces.” She glanced up briefly to meet Merryn’s eyes. “I knew they belonged to the boy because we’re so near my village, and pieces of gold like that aren’t lying around just anywhere.”
Again, the brunette felt a stab of guilt, and looked away. A gentle touch on her chin told her not to move. She kept her patience as the paste was applied to her face with the stick, tapping it down lightly with a fingertip.
Merryn was stunned as the pain began to recede. Her jaw was sore, indeed, but the cuts and bruises seemed to shrink under the blonde’s care. As if reading the girl’s mind, Cara spoke.
“I’ve made you a bit extra so you can take it along with you.” She sat back on her heels, looking at her handy work. “Within a day or so your wounds will be healed.”
“What is in this?” Merryn asked, taking the bowl from the blonde, holding it up to her nose before quickly jerking back. The smell was not unpleasant, but potent. Cara smiled.
“Oh?” Merryn raised a brow, letting the blonde take the bowl from her hand. Cara nodded.
“’Tis.” She scraped the remnants of the paste onto a cloth, wrapping it before handing it to the brunette, who was adjusting her jaw.
“Like magic,” she murmured. She could have sworn the lad had broken her jaw.
“Don’t breathe that too loud, Merryn, or you’ll get me hunted.”
Merryn smirked, then stood, walking over to her sleeping rags. Without another word, she made herself comfortable, and fell asleep.
Cara watched her go, a sense of sadness washing over her. Yet alone she’d be again. Sitting by the fire, the girl brought her knees up, wrapping her arms around them and staring up into the Heavens.
Her whole life she’d been surrounded by those who loved her, and those she loved. Her father had died many, many years ago, but her mother and Grace …. Cara felt tears chilling her skin as they fell silently. She wished she’d been able to give her mother a proper burial. At least she’d been able to say goodbye, which is more than she could say about her sister, Grace. A mere child, the girl had been the light of Cara’s life.
Forehead resting against her knees, she really began to sob, unable to keep it in any longer. She was devastated and filled with a profound sadness. What now? Where would she go? What would she do?
Startled, Cara looked up as her fingers found the rough material of the cloak that had been wrapped around her shoulders. She brought the warmth closer around her. She tried to curb her emotion, not figuring Merryn for the crying type, but just couldn’t get it to stop. Glancing up over her shoulder, Cara saw Merryn heading back to her bedding. As the taller girl sat down upon the pile of rags, she met the blonde’s gaze for a short moment. A soft, brief smile, and the brunette laid back down, cocooning herself in the rags.
Cara sighed, grateful for the kind gesture from the older girl, she decided to try and get some sleep. She curled up within the cloak, bigger than her own, allowing for her to create a bubble of warmth around her, her own cloak serving nicely as a pillow.
A deep breath was taken, then another and another before a green eye opened. The sideways world showed a fire crackling, and a small, iron pot was laid out on a few flat rocks in the flame.
The world righted itself as Cara sat up, running a hand through her hair. A deep rumbling in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since sun high the day before. Movement behind her caught her attention, and she watched as Merryn tugged on leather twine between her teeth, repairing one of her bracers, which were simple brown leather. No decorations or ornamentation.
“Stir that, will ya, lass?” Merryn asked, eyes never meeting Cara’s as the brunette set the bracer aside, grabbing one of her boots.
Without comment, Cara made her way to the pot, using the wooden spoon that rested on a rock outside the fire ring. Leaning over the wonderful-smelling stew, she was mindful of her sleeve and the licking flames as she stirred the concoction, roots and wild potatoes bobbing in the mix, along with chunks of cut up meat. Bringing the spoon to her lips, she blew over the broth, made of mostly water, and the few juices left over from the rabbit the night before.
“It’s just about ready,” she said, setting the spoon back to its rock. Standing, she stretched her arms high over her head, balancing on her toes for a moment to stretch out her calves and arches. A day full of walking can be torturous on the body.
Merryn did not reply, instead tugged on her boot, which Cara could tell was slightly too large for her. Boots were rare, and Cara’s curiosity got the best of her.
“Where did you steal those?” She neatly folded Merryn’s cloak, which had been put over her shoulders the night before. Blue eyes twinkled up at her.
“Who knows. Let’s say that there’s a soldier out there with cold feet.”
Cara grinned, shaking her head as she gently set the heavy garment atop the brunette’s belongings. Seeing the cloth filled with the remains of her herbal mixture, the blonde walked over to Merryn. Squatting in front of her, she raised a hand.
“Let me have a look at your mouth,” she said quietly.
Merryn held still, allowing the smaller girl to do what she needed to. She focused on the girl’s face, seeing the skin, surprisingly smooth considering the hard life the girl had already endured. Slightly arched brows, dark blonde, drew slightly as the girl’s concentration deepened. Merryn looked at the girl’s eyes, such an unusual color. They were green, but it wasn’t the color that caught the brunette. There was a depth to them, a wisdom far beyond the girl’s maybe sixteen years.
Those eyes glanced up to meet her own for a moment, Cara smiling encouragement before she returned to her task.
“You’ve healed well, Merryn. One more day and you should be fine. Perhaps a bit of a bruise, but nothing more.”
The brunette nodded her acknowledgement at the news, sitting as still as she could as Cara applied a second layer of the paste.
“How long have you been alone?” Cara asked, surprising her companion with the softly spoken question.
“Many years, lass,” she said just as softly, watching as the blonde brought a rag up, gently wiping away a smudge of the paste she’d accidentally gotten onto the brunette’s cheek.
Cara sat back on her heels, looking up a the girl who sat upon a large rock. “Don’t you ever get lonely?”
Merryn shrugged, suddenly feeling shy. “Sometimes. ‘Tis the way of things, and I move forward.”
“Where are your parents?”
“I know not. I was left on the steps of the nuns, and I ran from that place.”
“I’m sorry,” Cara whispered. She was amazed at the pain she could see in those incredibly bright, blue eyes, which shone even brighter from the dirty face they looked out of.
“Do not. ‘Tisn’t worth pity, Cara. I’m alive, and no longer anyone’s whipping boy. Nor will I be again.”
Cara nodded her understanding.
“How have you managed to avoid the black sickness, lass?” Merryn asked, putting voice to a question that had plagued her since the day before.
“Father Steffen said it was because I was blessed, but I think it’s more because I found that cleanliness is next to Godliness.” She smiled sweetly, standing.
“What does that mean?” Merryn also stood, walking over to the fire, using her sword to hook into the iron loop on the pan, tugging it from the fire.
“The sickness seems to live in the dirt, the mire and dung. Since I was a small child, I wash nearly every day-“
“Every day! Are you out of your mind, lass?” Merryn cried, stopping mid-scoop when she heard the outrageous boast. “Man nor beast needs that. How have you got any skin left?” her eyes wandered over the girl’s face and arms, brows raised in shock. Cara laughed.
“You won’t lose your skin, Merryn. It’s better for you, and from the looks and smell of you, a trip to a river would be a good idea.”
“Not on your life.”
“Tell me again why I didn’t let that bugger be down away with you last night?” Merryn growled, eyeing her blonde companion, who was clearing the water out of her eyes. Cara grinned.
“Because deep down you want someone to travel with you, and the moment you laid eyes on me, you knew I could be your very own troubadour.”
“That must be it,” Merryn rolled her eyes before dunking herself under the cool surface of the water, rinsing off the last of the herbs Cara said would clean her hair. Running her hands down the rope of wet strands, she squeezed some of the extra water out of them. She had to admit, though it would never be to Cara, that she felt much better, and liked the feel of a clean body.
Cara grinned, ignoring the sarcasm in her new friend’s voice. She swam a few laps to stretch her arms and legs before deciding she was cold enough. Walking out onto the rocky shore, she quickly grabbed her clothing.
“Wait, lass,” Merryn said, wading to the shore. “Ya may night die from the black sickness, but ye’ll catch yer death with the cold, wet garments.”
Cara watched as the darker girl quickly got a fire started, right there on the shore, seemingly unconcerned with her nakedness. The blonde looked away, wanting to give her friend some privacy.
“Come here, lass. Warm yourself.” Merryn laid herself down on her cloak, hands tucked behind her head. It was a beautiful day, the sun shining down to warm their skin. For the first time in she couldn’t remember how long, the brunette was enjoying herself. She glanced across the dancing flames at the blonde, who lay in almost the exact same position.
“So where are we headed?” Cara said, eyes twinkling. Merryn smirked.
“We, lass?” she asked, brow raised. Cara smiled sweetly, but said nothing. Merryn, shook her head, incredulous at the young blonde. She was filled with guilt once again, as her thoughts turned to where she was off to, next. Yes, she should take the blonde with her, and yes, they had fun in the lake. Perhaps this washing thing isn’t so bad, but would Cara drive her crazy as time went on? Merryn was a loner, always had been, always would be. “I’ll take ya to the next town, maybe London if you’re lucky. But at that, lass, we part ways.”
Cara looked at her friend, heart dropping, but she nodded in agreement. She would have to be grateful for what she could get.
“Are you a character in the bible?”
“Nope,” Merryn said absently, looking around as they made their way through the forest. The snow had fallen heavy and brutal, their breaths and words immediately crystallized in the air. She worried they wouldn’t be able to find any dry wood for a fire.
“Dead or alive?” Cara asked, brows furrowed as her mind brought up image after image of possible candidates for their game.
“Dead. Alright,” the blonde stopped for a moment, head cocked to the side. Merryn had heard it, too. “What is that?”
Ignoring the question she had no answer for, the brunette headed off toward the left, hearing the sound get louder. Soon she was running, cloak fanning out behind her, boots crunching across the snow.
Cara stayed where she was, then jumped to action when her name was echoed through the wood. Out of breath, and grateful for the warmth that spread through her body from the exertion, the blonde burst through the trees into a clearing, stopping short. Merryn slammed her blade into the frozen ground with a grunt. “Give me your rope,” Merryn shouted, seeing the blonde over her shoulder.
Cara gasped at the site before her. The noise she’d heard was a horse that had fallen through the ice of the river.
“Now, girl!” Merryn said, desperation in her voice as she threw her cloak to the ground, stripping herself of all her weapons. Acting purely on auto-pilot, Cara untied the rope with trembling fingers, eyes never leaving the site of that beautiful mare, thrashing in the ice, desperately trying to keep her head above water.
Merryn took the rope thrown to her, quickly tying one end to the cross-guard of her sword, the other around her ankle.
“Hold on to my sword, lass,” she said quietly over her shoulder as she edged toward the ice. Cara hurried over to the blade, falling to her knees and wrapping her cold-reddened hands around the grip. She flexed her fingers before lacing them, making a stronger hold. Her heart was beating fast as she watched the taller girl make slow, but sure progress across the ice, her boots sliding, Merryn’s arms out for balance.
Cara listened as Merryn murmured claming words and sounds to the terrified horse. The blonde let out a cry as a sharp crack wrent the air. Merryn stopped in her tracks, eyes huge as she tried to find the source of the crack. The mare was making it worse, her cries of terror and distress almost deafening.
Realizing that the horse would tire soon, and it would be too late, Merryn continued, sliding faster across the ice until she reached the animal.
Cara’s hands flew to her mouth as Merryn fell into the water with the animal. Remembering what she was to do, she quickly wrapped them around the grip again, her heart stopped cold in her chest.
Merryn’s breath was stolen from her lungs as she was immersed into the frigid water. Going under, she quickly made her way back to the surface, reaching down to untie the rope from her ankle. She had to be very mindful of the frightened animal’s movements, as the horse could easily kill her in its frantic state. She jumped onto the mare’s body, a death grip on her neck.
Cara watched as Merryn fought to get the rope tied around the animal’s neck.
“Tug on the rope, Cara!” Merryn cried, her lips barely able to get the words out, so frozen they were.
Jumping into action, the blonde wrapped her hands around the rope, using her body weight to pull. Eyes squeezing shut, teeth bared and an echoing cry erupting from her throat, the mare began to move.
Another crack, then another, and another. Cara’s eyes opened in time to see a spider web rush across the ice, the horse following as the ice parted.
“Pull, lass! Pull!” Merryn cried, half desperation, and half laughter at the incredulity of the horse breaking her own way out of the river. Her laughter was cut short when the horse reared up, her back body throwing the brunette, who was sent crashing through the ice, her body disappearing under the surface.
“Merryn!” Leaving the sword, the blonde ran toward the ice, wincing and whimpering as the mare jerked forward, running toward her as the horse broke through the last of the ice. Getting out of the galloping animal’s way, wading her way into the water. “Merryn!”
Seeing movement, Cara sent a thanks to the Heavens, and hurried forward, gasping as the water rose until she was having to swim.
“Merryn,” she gasped, seeing the darkness of long hair. Hurrying over to it, she grabbed at her friend, startled, but immensely happy when Merryn gasped loudly, taking in a long breath. Cara grabbed the taller girl, tugging quickly, knowing she had to get Merryn out of the frigid water as soon as possible. “I’ve got you,” she panted, kicking her way toward the shore in the open waters created by the mare. “I’ve got you.”
Finally able to touch the bottom of the river, Cara drug the coughing, shivering girl toward the shore. “’Tis okay, Merryn,” she encouraged, helping the girl to the ground. Looking around, she saw a long, deep trail in the snow and realized it was from Merryn’s sword, where the mare had pulled the blade out of the ground, dragging it behind her in her haste to escape her terrifying confinement.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, gently squeezing Merryn’s shoulder.
Hearing a heavy breathing and snorting, the blonde scurried through the trees, ignoring her shivering as she stepped carefully around the trees, not wanting to spook the animal. When she finally found her, she saw the horse lying on her side, ribs heaving with every hot breath that managed to melt a small trench in the snow at her head. The rope was still around the mare’s neck, so as carefully as she could, a big brown eye watching her, Cara untied the other end from around the sword, which lay not far behind the horse, tying the end to a tree.
“I’ll be back, girl,” she murmured, kneeling at the animal’s head, gently running a hand over the horse’s nose.
Running back to Merryn, who lay where she’d be left, huddled in upon her own body, which was shivering violently. Ignoring her own chills, Cara made quick work of digging into Merryn’s belongings, tugging on the blankets the brunette slept on.
“Here, Merryn. Sit up,” she said, her voice soft and soothing. The brunette did as bid, her lips almost as blue as her eyes. The blonde tried to untie the laces of Merryn’s shirt as quickly as her trembling fingers would allow. Once the shirt was removed, she wrapped the blanket around Merryn’s shoulders, her skin like ice.
“I’ll make a fire,” she whispered, rubbing her hands frantically up and down the brunette’s arms, trying desperately to put some warmth back into her companion’s body. Merryn nodded, saying nothing.
Crying out in frustration, Cara was desperate to get a fire stared, and not a smoke stack with the wet wood. Finally, God above, she got it started.
“Thank you, Lord,” she whispered, hurrying over to her friend. “Come, Merryn. Let us warm you.” With a groan, the brunette got to very shaky legs, walking the short distance to the fire.
“You need to warm yourself, as well, lass,” Merryn said, her tired eyes resting on the shivering blonde.
“Soon,” Cara said, hurrying back through the woods to the mare. The horse was on her feet, too exhausted and cold to fight the girl. Cara untied the rope, leading the weary animal back to camp, tying her to a tree near the fire. The mare immediately went about nosing the snow out of the way, finding natural grass at the base of the tree.
Finally out of energy, the cold taking over, Cara collapsed next to Merryn, quickly untying her cloak, which was heavy and still water-logged.
Silence prevailed as both girls absorbed the warmth that finally managed to permeate the layer of ice on their skin, feeling coming back to Merryn’s body. She turned to the blonde, who stared into the flames.
“You saved me, lass,” she whispered. When green eyes met hers, she smiled. “You saved my life.”
“Guess we’re even,” Cara smiled back.
“I’m alright, lass,” Merryn said, though the last word was interrupted by another violent coughing fit. Cara rubbing small circles across the darker girl’s back, brows knitted in worry. It had been two days since rescuing the horse from the icy waters, and Merryn’s health was faltering quickly.
“No, Merryn, you’re not. You’ve gotten worse.”
“No,” the brunette waved off her words of concern, determined to continue on. She’d been sick before, and could beat this time, too. She didn’t need to be pampered like she was a child. “I’m fine.”
Cara said nothing more to the stubborn girl, instead keeping an eye on her as she led the mare, yet to be named, through the trees. They headed down the path they had been following since starting out that morning, heading toward London.
Finally, Merryn agreed to stop for the night, her pace slowing more and more as the day passed. Cara tried to get the brunette to eat the soup made of a few random roots they’d been lucky enough to find over the day. They really needed to get to London soon, so Merryn could get out of the cold.
“Please eat, Merryn,” Cara pleaded, bringing their one bowl to the brunette. The steam from the food warms the brunette’s face, the smell making her nauseous. Turning away, she brought a hand up, the other tucked against her stomach.
“I can’t, lass,” she groaned, the bile rising in her throat. Sighing, Cara looked down at the food, uncertain what to do. The girl hadn’t eaten more than a few spoonfuls of food in two days. She knew Merryn was weak, and unable to travel for long lengths of time.
“Please, Merryn?” she tried again. “For me? Just a couple bites?” The blonde raised green eyes to meet the sunken blue of her companion. The brunette nodded, accepting the bowl.
Not long after, Cara helped Merryn to bed. That is, as much as the proud girl would allow.
“Stop your fussing,” Cara gently admonished, her patience being tried. She grabbed the heel of one boot, giving a mighty tug and grunt, keeping her balance so she wouldn’t fly back into the fire once the boot came loose. Setting it aside, she pulled off the second one, noticing the sole was beginning to wear. “We need to get this repaired when we get to London,” she said absently, setting the boot aside and grabbing Merryn’s cloak.
“A bit breezy,” the brunette whispered, her voice hoarse, just before she was wracked with another coughing fit.
“Shhh,” she cooed, moving up to the girl’s head. Cara looked down with concerned eyes, bringing a hand up to gently brush dark hair away from a sweaty brow. The blonde thought for a moment, then began to sing, her voice soft on the cold night air. She wouldn’t be London’s next minstrel, but her voice wasn’t unpleasant, either. It helped to calm and lull Merryn into an uneasy sleep.
Exhausted herself, but knowing what must be done, Cara grabbed her pack, sifting through until she found what she sought. Pinching a few of the dried leaves between her fingers, she moved back over to the sleeping brunette, gently parting Merryn’s lips with her finger before placing the leaves on her tongue. The brunette’s brows drew for a moment, her lips briefly tucking inside her mouth as the dried leaves tingled against the soft flesh of her gums and tongue. Finally with a soft sigh of contentment, Merryn was still, her breathing even.
“Sleep well, my friend,” Cara whispered, placing a gentle kiss on Merryn’s clammy forehead, sweeping mahogany locks away from her face, usually so beautiful, but now pale and sickly.
Merryn’s mind wandered, through the trees, under the surface of the river, ice bumping into her face, giving her the shivers, only to have the fear of flame licking up her body, causing a great sweat that turned into a small glacier, which she stumbled over. Blue eyes widened in terror as the deep brown mare turned into a raging beast, dragon of olde, fire flaring from its dilated nostrils, hitting the brunette with a wave of heat, making her cry out as it singed her mind.
A voice. A sweet, lovely voice … “Merryn? Come back to me, Merryn,” echoing, bouncing around between the brunette’s ears, like a ball of string she once had. The string unwinds, tugging at a liter, the dragon pulling, tugging her by the string. “Merryn? Are you hungry?”
Food. What food comes back to life to snap at you? Crazy lass, give her food that bites at your throat, stings the inside of your mouth, making your tongue tingle like so much ale.
Cold. So cold. So very cold.
Softness. Do the clouds fall from the skies? Lie upon the land like so much dew. Warmth, softness along her body, and in her mind. The wool keeping her ears apart had grown soggy, capturing her thoughts into tiny little caves where spiders crawled in and out of them.
Blue eyes slowly fluttered open, blinking several times before becoming focused. Quickly Merryn squeezed them shut, her head pounding, temples pulsing.
“Shh, it’s alright, Merryn. I know it hurts,” a soft, warm voice said to her right. Turning her face in that direction, Merryn kept her eyes closed as she felt coolness spread across her forehead, and a small, calloused hand take her own. “The pain will pass, I promise.”
“Where am I?” the brunette whispered, her voice as scratchy as her throat after such little use.
“The nuns at St. Michael’s were kind enough to allow us respite,” Cara explained softly.
“H-” Merryn cleared her throat, trying again. “How long have we been here?” She attempted to open her eyes again, squinting in the dim light of a single candle that rest in its holder upon the small table next to Cara’s chair.
“Three days,” the blonde said, head cocked slightly as it was tilted down as she looked at her patient.
“Why does my head hurt so badly?” Merryn blinked again, grateful to feel the ebb of pain beginning to ease.
“’Tis the comler root I gave you. T’will break your fever, as it seems to have done.”
“To what horror,” the brunette groaned. She saw a small smile briefly tint Cara’s lips.
“I’m sorry, Merryn, but a pounding head is more welcome than a raging fever of a week in age.” Cara removed the damp cloth, the coolness sucked right out by the wicked heat of the brunette’s skin. She dunked it in the wooden bowl, filled with cool water that the sister’s had provided her with. Wringing out the cloth, she reapplied it, gently wiping away the few beads of sweat that remained. Merryn closed her eyes once more at the cooling sensation, which helped to ease her headache. “Other than a hurting head, how do you feel?”
Merryn paused before she answered that question, taking stock of her body and all it’s moving parts.
“I’ll live, lass,” she whispered, pleased at the soft chuckle that received.
Return to the Academy