For complete disclaimers see part 1.
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
Full grin, Merryn jumped off her mount, heavy armor clanging as she hit the ground. Falling to her knees, she caught a very enthusiastic little boy as he ran into her arms. Relief washed over the brunette as she held Paul. When she'd said goodbye to him three days before, she had no idea if it was for good.
Giving him one last squeeze, she groaned as she got her feet, Paul hanging onto her hand. He was growing with leaps and bounds, seemingly right before Merryn's observant eyes.
"We are victorious!" Angus called, his voice echoing throughout the day, and answered by cheers of the soldiers, as well as those who now called Middleham Castle home. Some still stayed on at Cayshire, but Middleham was far more centrally located, and much better fortified than the crumbling structure by the sea.
Merryn walked over to Angus, standing with his hand firmly placed on the head of his cane. The dark man looked tired and weary. His health had begun to deteriorate since his wound at Middleham, and nearly incapacitating headaches and dizziness had kept him from the battlefield. He seemed to have aged overnight, and Merryn worried about him greatly.
With a smile, Merryn accepted his hug of congratulations. With a fond slap on the back, Angus presented her to the gathered crowds, nearby villagers filling all the gaps soldiers and household members didn't.
"'T King is dead!" he shouted, more cheers erupting, swords being thrust into the air with pumping arms of victory.
"Our Donal!" Baird called, eyes wide with the excitement and rush of such a victorious campaign.
Angus looked at Merryn, brows drawing. She met his gaze, her smile faltering at the look in his eyes. She knew he was deeply troubled by the new limitations of his physicality. She felt her heart drop as he swallowed, forcing a smile back to his face.
"Aye." He smiled, though it was tight. Nodding, he turned back to the crowd. "Donal! Leader and conqueror, though not sure if it be fer 't world." A round of amused and polite chuckles followed Angus' announcement. With one final smile, he turned from Merryn, walking away.
The brunette watched him go, sighing heavily. Suddenly her victory didn't seem quite so satisfying.
It was a time to celebrate, a time for new beginnings and for a new time of rule.
After helping her husband ready for the evening celebrations, Evela headed down to the kitchens. So much food had been prepared over the past several days. Basically since the war party had left. The dark woman had just prayed that it would not all be in vain. It was quietly agreed that were Merryn to fail, the food would be for a funeral celebrations.
The material of her dress billowing around her as she hurried down the stone stairs, Evela spoke quietly with a few household members, giving orders and directions. Guests would be arriving soon- local nobles, all having put their own necks on the chopping block. They hadn't realized they'd put all their faith in a woman, thinking instead that Angus ruled this roost. Evela smiled to herself. This was not the case, and most knew it.
The young girls around the land looked up to Merryn, a woman who had broken through tradition and expectation. The men either refused to see her sex, instead seeing the brave, capable warrior she was, or they hated her. The brunette feared this would always be so. Trouble brewed in the castle walls, she just wasn't sure from which direction it would ooze.
Everyone bustled about, wanting to make things perfect for the night's activities, as well as honor Merryn with the perfection. Because of her bravery, they were free people. The new rule was anxiously awaited.
The finest of the new kingdom had arrived, dressed in their finest. The music was lively and adding to the cheerful festivities. Evela helped to serve the guests, even as Ezra begged her to join him at the table. She knew how important it was to make a good impression this night, so refused his requests.
The gaiety of the evening continued, a local minstrel entertaining the masses. Merryn stood against a wall, watching the officers and men make the rounds, talking, laughing, dancing and enjoying themselves for the first time in many months. Tensions had been high, no one sure what to expect of such a battle, nor what Edward would do. His attack could come at any time.
She didn't know dark eyes were on her from across the room. Instead the brunette watched everything with slightly hooded eyes, and a smile gracing her lips.
Evela sipped from her mug of wine, finally deciding to enjoy herself. Everyone had dined, and it was time for merriment. She had even given in to a dance with Ezra, drinking her wine to help cool her body down from the exertions.
Glancing back at Merryn standing by herself, Evela's attention was met by movement. She saw a young girl, dressed in a gray robe, walking toward the blue-eyed woman, a single mug on her tray. Merryn saw the girl, setting her old mug on the tray, and taking the new. The girl bowed in deference at the tall woman, but as she walked away, Evela saw the girl glance over her shoulder, watching Merryn as she brought the mug to her lips.
A sickening chill flowed through the small brunette, and she felt her stomach clench. Nearly throwing her own mug at a very confused Ezra, she ran over to Merryn, trying with all her might to move her legs as quickly as possible.
The mug was nearly to Merryn's lips, the bitterness of the wine inside the cup just about to reach her tongue when the mug was suddenly sent flying, the red liquid splashing all over her and the wall behind her. Blue eyes rose to meet panicked brown.
Evela's chest was heaving as she fell to her knees, grabbing the mug in her hands. She brought it to her nose, sniffing tentatively at the contents that still stained the inside of the cup.
Stunned, but coming to quickly, Merryn fell to her knees beside her friend. She eyed the smaller woman, brows drawn.
"Poison," Evela said, her voice dark and quiet.
"Ye sure?" Merryn asked, taking the mug from her friend. The smaller brunette nodded as Merryn brought the mug to her own nose. She smelled the acrid smell right away, then stuck her finger into the mug, brining up tiny white granules on her fingertip. She studied them closely, eyes nearly crossing at the inspection. She could feel Evela's breath on her cheek as the woman got close, looking at her find.
"Who would do this?" she asked, glancing at the taller woman, who shook her head. Suddenly something occurred to her. Looking at the smaller friend, Merryn raised her hand to her mouth, then began to look around the room. They'd attracted a small crowd, but Ezra was trying to keep it at bay.
"What'tis it?" Evela asked, her voice dropping further. Blue eyes met her own.
"On 't battlefield, I was attacked." She sighed, running a hand through her hair. "By one 'o mine."
"Ye believe that is related ta this?" she held up the mug.
"What 'tis this?" Ezra whispered, standing over them. His wife looked up into his eyes.
"Find the serving girl in a gray robe."
Merryn got to her feet as Ezra scurried off, grabbing one of his fellow blacksmiths before they left eh Great Hall. Turning to her friend, Merryn sighed.
"Thank you, lass. How did ye know?"
Evela shook her head. "Had a bad feelin', and when I saw the girl check ta see if you were indeed drinkin' what she brought ye," she shrugged. "felt wrong.
"Is there a problem?" John, Barron of Middlesex walked up to them. The smile never left his face, his hands clasped behind his back.
"All is well," Merryn said, her own smile not reaching her eyes. The man studied her, though said nothing. As Ezra returned with the girl, he walked away. Merryn followed his retreat, jaw clenching. Once the Barron disappeared within the crowd, blue eyes turned to the terrified girl. "Come."
Merryn held her emotions intact as she led the small precession through the Great Hall, away from the noise and celebrating. Pushing through the doors of the kitchen, Merryn turned, pinning the girl with piercing blue eyes. She decided to let the girl sweat, her dark eyes moving about, uncomfortable and afraid.
"Leave us," Merryn said finally, her voice quiet, deceptively soft. She heard the footfalls of Evela and Ezra, as well as kitchen staff, echoing out of the room. Alone with the tall brunette, the gir's pulse began to race, beads of sweat roiling down her back and slightly developed chest. "Sit, girl."
The girl quickly made her way to a stool, tucking her hands in her lap, legs pulled tightly together. She looked down, frightened of the anger in the amazing blue eyes of the woman she'd grown to admire and respect.
Taking a deep breath, knowing that the girl was not responsible for what could have happened, Merryn tried to calm herself. She stepped toward the young girl, who's name she believed was Ruth. The castle was so large, and its occupants so many, it was often hard to keep them straight.
"How did this happen, lass?" she asked at long last, forcing her breathing to remain calm and even. Instantly tears welled in dark brown eyes.
"'M so sorry, milady." The girl shook her head. "I knew not what 'twas in the cup!"
Merryn studied the girl, reading her eyes, seeing nothing but truth. She paced a few times, staring down at her boots before asking the next question. "Who gave ye the mug?"
"A dark man, milady." The tears began to flow down her cheeks in earnest now.
"What dark man?" She leaned in, her face close to that of the sobbing girl's, two finger under Ruth's chin. "What dark man?" she whispered again, feeling her blood beginning to boil. How dare he, whomever this dark man was, put this girl through this.
"The big man, milady," she whispered, her eyes finally meeting those of her questioner. Her gaze was huge, her fright turning from Merryn to the image in her head. "The big man with the mask!" she brought her hand up, covering the upper part of her face.
Merryn stood, gaze wandering off into her own thoughts. "Bastard," she whispered, then turned back to the girl. She forced a smile, bending down again. "Ye've done well, lass." Gently squeezing the girl's shoulder, she headed out of the room, taking the backstairs two at a time.
"What'tis this all about, Merryn?"
The brunette didn't turn at the sound of Angus' voice. She answered as she slid her swords home, making sure the buckle of her baldric was tight. "Gerik." She turned to look at him over her shoulder before tucking her daggers into her belt. "Ordered two assassins. One here, tonight, 't other on 't battlefield."
"What!?" Angus moved further into the room, his cane tapping lightly on the stone.
"Then we get 'im."
"Aye," Merryn said again. "He's here, Angus."
"Then we find 'im."
The clatter of armor and boots echoed through the empty halls of Middleham. Torch light bounced off stone walls, glazing the darkness with gold.
Shouts could be heard, rooms proclaimed clear, steps running up stairs, tapestries moved as curious eyes peered behind.
Merryn ran to the north tower, her boots thudding along the stairs, her hand on the pummel of the blade bouncing against her right hip. From the yard she'd seen a dim glow from the depths of the room. No one stayed in that room. Until now.
She stopped at the closed door, the crack underneath dark, though sulfur could be smelled, sulfur from a recently blown out candle. Resting her ear to the cool wood, she listened, eyes closed to allow her sense of hearing to flow out over the expanse beyond the door. Movement inside, close, just on the other side of the thick wood.
With a snarl, Merryn pushed the door open, hearing the satisfying grunt of surprise and thud of a body hitting the stone floor. Crashing into the room, the brunette felt around, her hands doing her seeing for her as she tried to orient herself.
A second before it hit her over the head, Merryn dove out of the way of something that whooshed through the air. She rolled to her feet, eyes wide as she tried to see through the inky darkness. The air in front of her nose was disturbed, causing her to jump back.
"I c'n hear yer heart poundin', ye Demon of Satan!" hissed a deep voice near the door. Merryn's snarl from earlier returned as hatred boiled through her body.
"Could only Satan survive yer cowardice?" she asked, moving around the tower room, keeping her footfalls silent. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could see the outline of the hulking man, his head raised, trying desperately to hear what his ruined eyes could no longer see. "Havin' trouble seein' me, 'r ye?" she asked, brow raised in amusement. "Shall I light a torch fer ye, Gerik?"
With a snarl, the big man lunged at her with the thick stick in his hands, missing where she'd been standing by a breeze.
"Ye pay, ye bitch of Hell," he hissed, his voice low, guttural.
"Ye send a child ta do a man's job, Gerik. Then ye try on 't battlefield, eh?" Clicking her tongue, she shook her head, eyes never leaving his bulk. "Ye dona learn, ye daft bastard."
"I do learn from me mistakes," Gerik growled, his big feet moving him slowly around the room, his back grazing the wall as he went. "Kill ye this time, I will."
Merryn smirked, slowly drawing out her blades, Gerik's head tilting slightly at the sound of steel sliding against leather. His massive hands flexed on the end of the stick he held like a sword. He cursed quietly as he bumped into a small table, nearly sending it falling to the floor. The brunette wanted to laugh at his pathetic stance, but couldn't bring herself to do so. This man, a young, very capable lad, did not have to be such. He could have been a good, valuable member of her army. It was a waste of talent and a life, as Merryn knew one of them would lose their own this night. Gerik would not stop at any cost- this he had shown twice. His hatred and resentment of her femaleness blinded him more than his ruined eyes.
Merryn jumped out of the way as Gerik lunged, his stick swiping through the air with vicious intent, the end making solid contact with her hip, nearly batting her off her feet. The big man grinned, victory hissing through his teeth.
Knowing she needed to end this, Merryn leaned her body back, throwing out a long leg that caught Gerik under the chin. Startled, as well as propelled from the blow, he slammed back against the wall.
"Dona do this, Gerik," she panted, standing at the ready for anything he might dish out. "Ye can't win this."
"I'd rather die then watch ye and that fool ruin this country," he breathed, adjusting his jaw as he gained his feet.
Merryn felt a wave of anger rush through her at his words, no doubt the intent. Baring her teeth, she lashed out again with her boot, catching him at the temple. He stumbled back into the wall again, catching her boot before she was able to pull it away. The brunette cried out as her leg was twisted, her old injury yet again inflamed.
Quickly hobbling away before the big man could do any more damage, Merryn regrouped. She watched as Gerik wiped blood from the corner of his mouth, then threw his hair out of his face with the whip of his head. The rag tied around his head, covering his ruined eyes, was knocked slightly askew from her last kick.
Outside the closed door boots made their presence known.
"Stay out!" she called, ducking the swinging stick, Gerik using the opportunity of her calling out to find her. "'Tis between me 'n the giant." She ducked another blow, striking out again, using the pommel of her blade to catch him under the chin. She could hear the click of his teeth, then blood seeping out the corner of his mouth, Gerik biting his tongue. She felt as though they were playing with the other, cat and mouse at war. She didn't want to admit she was enjoying it.
Gerik's tongue slipped out of his split lips, licking some blood that dribbled to soak into the hair of his goatee.
"Ye could've been a great warrior," she whispered, a sudden sadness gripping her, though as he bared his missing teeth, lunging at her with renewed vigor and purpose, Merryn felt that sadness seep out with her sweat. He was obviously not playing anymore. "So be it," she breathed, grunting at the force in which she landed a kick to his knees. The big man cried out, legs buckling under him. The stick flew out of his hands as he hit the stone floor, his head bouncing slightly. Merryn was on him instantly, bringing her hand down, pummel landing a solid blow to his temple. With a final sigh, Gerik's head fell to the side, unmoving.
Panting, Merryn got off him, pulling the door open. Beyond stood a small band of soldiers, their faces glowing from the torches they held. She nodded toward the room behind her.
Merryn fingered the soft petals on the new, spring flowers. The moonlight made them silver, her fingertips caressing the precious glow. So soft, so gentle and beautiful.
The paths that wound through the gardens were clear and easy to follow. The greenery had been pruned to perfection, the fragrance an intoxicating mix of God's best perfumes.
"The night makes it magical, does it not?" Evela asked quietly as she walked along the path at Merryn's side. She saw her quiet companion nod in agreement, a small, white flower plucked and twisted in long, calloused fingers.
"'R ye goin'a attend the festivities tomorrow?" Merryn asked softly, bringing the flower up to her nose, inhaling the sweet fragrance. She heard a soft sigh from her smaller friend, glanced at her.
"I know not. Seems such a waste."
"Aye. That it'tis. He could've been valuable in this."
"What is 'this', Merryn?" Evela looked up at the brunette, her dark brows drawn.
Sighing, Merryn ran a hand through her hair, then chuckled at the grin she received after tucking the flower she'd nearly mutilated in Evela's hair. Sobering, she sighed once more.
"'Tis a new beginning," she said, her voice a whisper, filled with wistful hope. "'Tis a way to find our way back home."
"Is this yer home, Merryn?" she asked, glancing at her friend before returning her attention to the trees that lined the path.
"Aye, Evela, that it'tis." She smiled, though it was sad. "Never thought I'd have it again."
"Will ye tell Grace?" she asked, stopping their stroll to sit upon a carved stone bench. Merryn stood next to it, lifting her leg so her booted foot rested on the seat. She shook her head.
"Nay. The child thinks Cara is dead already. I need not give her 't false hope that her sister lived further."
Evela nodded her understanding. She had gotten to know the young girl well, and liked her quite a bit. The young blonde was quiet and thoughtful, a very good worker. Tamara was training the girl well.
"'T morrow should be an interesting day."
"Aye." Merryn nodded, dreading what the morning would bring. Sighing, she removed her foot from the bench. "Sleep well, lass." With that, she turned and headed back toward Middleham.
Merryn felt sick as she made her way out to the yard. The crowds were already gathered, news spreading quickly through the hamlet of Middleham. No one loved anything more than the spectacle of an execution. The builders had been up early, quickly constructing a gallows for the event.
She saw Angus, and he nodded, looking ever bit as uncomfortable as she. She stepped up to the dais where two chairs had been set up, front row seat to the event. Walking over to the dark man, she grimaced slightly as she took in the side of his head and face, back by his ear. The bandage was off for the first time, and she felt nauseous, knowing the disfiguration would be permanent.
"I cana believe 'tis come ta this," he said, shaking his head sadly. Merryn nodded, glancing over at the noose, ready for its first victim.
"Aye." Merryn nodded again, sighing. Looking back to her friend, she gave him a rueful smile. "Gerik must be made an example of." Angus nodded in agreement. "Let us get on with it."
Merryn walked to the front of the dais, raising her arms to gain the attention of those gathered. A hush began to spread through the crowd, all eyes focusing on her. When she saw she had everyone's complete attention, she began to speak.
"People of Middleham, hear me." She looked around, making eye contact with as many as she could. Her gaze was firm, yet troubled. "Ye've been under 't thumb of a tyrant fer many years," she paused, letting her words sink in. "No longer!" The crowd erupted in shrill cheers of hope and joy. She waited until they died down, then continued. "We've fought fer ye, bled fer ye, and died fer ye. Know this," Merryn held up a finger in warning. "We will not tolerate traitors!"
With that, the double doors that led into an anti-chamber opened, and two armed men escorted Gerik into the yard. The crowd grew quiet, all eyes on the large man, his head held high, hands bound in front of him. The cloth around his eyes had been removed, and Merryn winced at the sight of the shriveled sockets that were his eyes. Scar tissue criss-crossed the skin around them.
Booted feet clanked on the wood of the gallows as Gerik was moved into position. Turning back to the crowd, Merryn continued.
"This man would not follow a woman," she could feel fresh rage flowing through her. "yet he was too cowardly to lead himself. If ye have a problem with me, tell me now." Merryn's nostrils flared as she glared out over expectant faces, her hands balling into fists at her sides. No one spoke, nor breathed. They could feel her rage roiling over them in waves. At the continued silence, the brunette turned, walking back to her chair and sat. The guards took this as their cue to continue. One man fell to his haunches, quickly wrapping a rope around Gerik's ankles, pulling the knot tight.
Merryn couldn't take her eyes off the proceedings. She didn't feel guilt, but deep regret. Deep down she knew that this was good, to let the people know she was quite serious, but it still seemed so senseless.
Gerik's head was covered by a sack, the material pulsing with his breathing, which was quickening as fear was setting in. The noose was put over his head, and tightened, the thick knot just behind his left ear.
The noise level in the crowd was beginning to rise as excitement spread. The soldier's walked off the wooden plank floor, hurrying down the stairs, leaving just the executioner to carry out the sentence of the condemned man.
The man with long, dirty gray hair wrapped his hands around the thick lever for the trap door. He looked to the dais, waiting for the signal. Merryn took several deep breaths, then met the executioner in the eye. With a curt nod of her head, the lever was pulled back, releasing the doors. The crowd sent out a collective gasp as the large man fell through the large, square opening, the double doors flinging back and forth on their hinges. Gerik's body began to convulse, his tied legs wiggling, swinging his whole body like a fish out of water. His head was bent at a most fatal angle, slight gurgling sounds coming from the hood over his face.
Merryn made herself watch, feeling a punch in the pit of her stomach. It seemed hours the man struggled, but was merely moments. Finally his movements ceased, and Gerik's body swung uselessly. The castle physician made his way through the crowd over to him, checking for a pulse and any signs of life. Looking up at the dais, he shook his head.
"'T traitor is dead!" Angus exclaimed, the crowd roaring at the declaration. Merryn stood, walking across the dais and into the castle.
Principality of Novgorod 1360
Heavy boots pushed up clouds of dust in the hot, arid day. Unusual for that part of the world. Merryn ran a cloth across her forehead, mopping at the sweat that threatened to drip into her eyes. Glancing up at the sun, she could see it was pushing into late afternoon by its position in the sky.
Turning to the path beyond the camp, she saw a rider approaching. Shielding her eyes from the sun's rays, she smiled and raised a hand in greeting.
"Ho, David." She walked toward the dismounting rider, reaching for the folded parchment he held. Unwrapping it, she quickly read over the lines, nodding with a sigh. Looking out over the camp, seeing her men taking care of their weapons, some eating or drinking. None stood around, nor slacked in any way. They were well trained, and filled their commander and Donal with pride that spread across her face briefly before being replaced by the severity of the situation at hand.
"Troops 'r movin' in through 't north." Merryn looked to the direction in question, sighing heavily. "Bastards."
"Do ye think there'll be a sneak attack, Donal?" The Donal's silence lasted so long, the soldier thought perhaps she hadn't heard his question. He cleared his throat, about to ask again when the tall brunette nodded.
"Aye." Her weathered face was lined, many years of sun, weather and battle scarring her more than skin deep.
The soldier, a loyal lifer, nodded. He knew what she would want and waited just a moment, as her unusual requests usually came within that span of time. When none were forthcoming, he hurried off to carry out her orders.
Merryn walked toward the sand dunes, the wind rustling up the dry grains, hitting her in the face, and making her squint against the onslaught. Resting her palm against the old friend that was her blade, she looked out over the dunes, seeing nothing but an expanse of sand and barren land. She knew her generals thought she was crazy for taking such land, but it meant expansion, as well as control of important trading posts. She had been steadily working her way across the map of Europe, claiming as she went. Her campaign in Germany complete, her army had marched south.
A small smile stretched sun-dried lips, white teeth blinding against darkly tanned skin. She had been gone from her seat in London for more than a year. Sometimes she forgot what home looked like. Her home had become a tent and her steed, Wilhelm. She often laughed when Angus called her 'Little Lionheart', in teasing from the kind of old, Richard. The French born king of England, who spent less than a year in his kingdom. The road and battles kept him away. She was the very same.
"At least I speak the language," she muttered. Brushing long strands of dark hair out of her face, she brushed again, as the hair immediately flew before her eyes. She thought of Angus, back at his estates near the castle, ruling in her absence. Many years he'd come to her, worry furrowing his dark brow.
"But 'tis yer people, Angus!" Merryn had argued, pacing. The dark man nodded.
"Aye. But they follow ye, Merryn. They look ta ye, no me. Donal." His eyes were twinkling when she glared at him. Seeing his good humor, she smiled in turn, looking down. "Ye've earned such a title, my friend." A large hand on her shoulder had stopped her movement. Meeting his eyes, she saw the affection in them.
"Rule with me, Angus," she said, voice quiet, yet firm. "Ye've got the diplomacy I have naught." She stared at him for long moments before finally he nodded.
"Alright then. But ye 'r 't Donal."
Angus had not fought since the last against Edward III. He had found his place in the office of politics, which Merryn happily left to him. She cared for her people, kept them fed and happy, but stayed out of the daily diplomacy. She made her kingdom grow, bringing prosperity to all she touched.
Merryn felt a pride spread through her that she had not allowed herself time for in many years. Her life had become one of the warrior. She led her men through blood and tears, their victorious cries a balm to a tattered soul. Merryn was happy, that she knew, and felt a contented satisfaction in the life she'd created for so many. Yet loneliness was an empty bedfellow.
As she made her way down the hill, she saw the face of the boy she'd adopted so long ago. Paul was a young man, now, nearly fifteen years in age with a lifetime of wisdom already. His dark eyes shone with such intelligence, his mind a sponge, never soaking in enough information or knowledge. A fighter, he would never be. Merryn had made sure he had the finest tutors and teachers, learning him in theology, science and the world around him. It had been quite the fight, as the Church saw science as the learnings of a heretic. After all, only their God created, and molded. Surely there was nothing to the sciences nor minds of man.
Rubbish, as far as Merryn was concerned. She wanted the boy to have the right to decide for himself. She missed him dearly, but tried to write to him as often as possible. It wasn't always easy to get a rider out to race back home and deliver her messages. She often had to wait until official business was sent out, a message for both Angus and her generals, and Paul.
"Donal, the men are ready." Lukas walked up to the brunette, matching her stride toward the Commander's tent. Merryn nodded in approval.
"I'll be joinin' them."
"Donal," the short, blonde man stopped, a hand coming to rest on her shoulder. Blue eyes met narrowed hazel. "Do ye think that is wise?"
Slightly annoyed, Merryn shifted her weight to one hip, hand resting on the other one. "'N why not?"
"Well, ye should rest fer the morrow's battle, is all." Lukas looked remarkably uncomfortable suddenly, and the brunette was amused.
"I see. Yer older than I am, Lukas." She smirked as a blush flared across his cheeks. Clearing his throat, he spoke.
"Thus why I wait here this night, Donal."
Merryn's head fell back, a hearty laugh erupting from her throat. Lukas looked at the Commander, a small smirk teasing the corner of his lips. With a slap to the back, Merryn headed to her tent to prepare for a long night.
Eyes closed, Merryn leaned back in the tub that had been brought to her tent. She had made it a standing rule that all soldiers must bathe at least three times a week. Most grumbled, but all conceded. The punishment for disobedience was not worth the annoyance of taking time to clean themselves.
Long, deeply tanned arms lined the edges of the round tub. The water just barely bobbed above firm, ghostly white breasts, the nipples the only dark part of her torso. Merryn's body had grown hard and defined from years of handling weapons and opponents, sometimes twice her size. A military career spanning half a score.
Bathing was one of the few times the brunette found any peace. No one was allowed in her tent or rooms while she bathed, no matter how serious the problem. She needed the time to regroup, relax and regain her sanity and clarity.
As blue eyes slowly slid open, she thought of what lay ahead. The fighters of Novgorod were known for their sneak attacks, small groups of soldiers were dispensed to infiltrate and assassinate. Not this time.
Water fell in noisy waves from the long, lean body that stepped from the tub. A soft robe waited for Merryn to step into, the thick material absorbing the excess water immediately. The brunette grabbed her long hair into a thick rope, squeezing and twisting the water out, falling back into the tub to bubble the surface of the water.
Slipping into her armor, a look of single minded determination slid across her features; a mask she knew and wore well. As she prepared herself physically, Merryn's mental state was shutting down, all thoughts locked away behind safe keeping until she was alone once more, victory unlocking the gates.
Buckling her baldric into place, twin blades, razor sharp, were slid home. The comforting weight at her hips helped to ease the brunette into that dark place she had to take herself before every battle. It was a place where no light could enter, no conscience, no care, save for that of her men. This was a place of ultimate sacrifice, where her own body and safety meant nothing next to theirs, and that of her people, loyal and acquired alike.
Hair pulled back into a tight knot atop her head, her helm was pulled down into place. Gauntlets tugged on, fingers flexed, she was ready.
The early morning was blessedly cool, a slight breeze washing over the small attack party. The camp of the enemy was not far now, just over the dunes. The small camp was dark, soldiers fast asleep. Gathered intelligence had told Merryn that the pre-attack was to happen the following morning, just before dawn. She could not let that happen. She would strike the head from the snake first.
Using hand gestures, she told her small party where they needed to be. A nod steel-covered heads told her that her commands were being heeded and followed to the very letter.
Merryn's vision through the slits in her helm told her that she was in the clear as she ran across an open valley, the dark outline of tents coming into view. Her blades left their sheathes with a satisfying hiss. She heard the similar hiss all around her.
Startled, Merryn threw herself behind a tent when she heard a barrage of battle cries coming from the dunes surrounding them. Eyes opening wide, she was horrified to see her men being cut down as the enemy poured in on all sides. The clash of steel was instant. She shrugged out of her surprise quickly, running full force into the fray, blades dancing.
The whistling of incoming arrows, caused men to fall around her, both her own and the Novgorod. Her attention was ripped from the volley of arrows by the sound of an attack coming from behind. She whirled around, her own breathing echoing through her ears in the cave of steel. Eyes wide, she met the blow with her left blade, kicking out with her right leg. The opponent was quick, whirling out of her way, then knocking her with a kick of his own, catching her in the armpit, and nearly knocking the wind out of her. She ignored the pain that san through her body, instead slicing with her right blade, hearing the satisfying howl of a deep cut. Her attacker wasn't finished with her, however. He swung with his saber, nicking her in the shoulder, the armor neatly absorbing the blow. Angry, she redoubled her efforts, her blades a blur of motion, confusing her opponent until he was trying to parry a thrust that had been there a breath ago. Finally Merryn felt the satisfying penetration of her blade making contact with pliant skin.
As soon as she pulled her sword free, she turned to the next man who dare cross her blades. Surprised to see him running, she bared her teeth as she ran after him, not wanting the cowardice bastard to escape.
This thought was no more out of her brain when Merryn was pitched off her feet. Landing on her side, she tried to get up, but cried out as pain bloomed through her chest, razor-sharp tentacles raced up into her left shoulder, and down her arm. Her hand convulsed, blade falling to the ground. She tried to raise herself to her knee when she was knocked down again. Breathing was becoming nearly impossible, the coppery taste of blood filling her mouth. Merryn began to choke, desperately grabbing at her helm with her right hand, tugging frantically until she felt the cool, night air run through her hair.
Crying out in agonizing pain that now leeched out through her chest and out into her body, which was suddenly being dragged from the battlefield by her arm. The soldier grunted loudly, desperate to get her to safety.
"Hold on, Donal. Almost there," he panted.
Merryn couldn't think, her mind taken over by the intensity of her pain. Her head bounced against a rock as she was drug, her eyes rolling back into her head as the jolt stole her breath. More wet heat flowed down her chin, gathering in her mouth, making her choke.
"Roll 'er over," someone hissed.
Merryn felt hands on her sides, her shoulder screaming out as she was rolled onto it, the blood in her mouth spilling out the side of her mouth, making her chin and cheek feel sticky.
Voices, mumbled and distant, the smell of earth under her nose, night's cooling breeze spreading over her suddenly naked skin. Words entered her ears, though made little sense- arrow … penetrated lung … Healer … ride hard!
Surrounded by white pain, clawed fingers reached into every fiber of her being. The brunette remembered a night fire and concerned brown eyes peering down at her. Her lids were opened one at a time, thick brows furrowed in concern.
Was that a hand on her breast?
"Must eat, Donal."
Merryn groaned as she was lifted from the liter she'd been strapped to. Her head lolled back, body limp and covered in sweat and dried and fresh blood. A constant groan oozed from her throat as she was carried inside, gently laid upon softness. Her brain was fuzzy, eyes unable to focus. She felt so hot, yet she shivered with a chill that made her body scream in agony. Raising a hand, she tried to touch the pain that webbed across her chest, but her hand raised not more than a small bit, too weak.
Merryn's world went black again, the pain slowly easing into the darkness, only to be replaced by the coolness of a cloth across her forehead. Words were murmured, though lost to the pain. Her lips moved uselessly, tongue filling the space, no words able to escape past.
Hovering. Someone was hovering. She could feel it. Crying out, a touch to her shoulder, stealing her breath and power to think. More hovering. A smile slowly spread, lopsided. Green eyes looked into her own, soft, filled with concern and love.
Those eyes. She knew those eyes. "I know you," she whispered, the smile sliding off her lips as her eyes lost their focus, darkness creeping in once more, stealing her pain.
"Sleep, Merryn. You must sleep now."
Merryn's brain raced, reaching for the soft touch, golden hair brushing into green eyes. Her eyes wide, she tried to focus, tried to reach out, grab her, touch her.
"Cara!" she cried, tears draining into her ears, her body convulsing with her pain and loss. "Don't leave me, Cara."
The hovering, cloaked figure was there again, always there, offering soft words and a healing touch.
Her breathing even, blue eyes blinked open, then shut again. Merryn took a deep breath, grimacing at the pain that caused. Easing the breath out, she opened her eyes again. Looking around the room, she realized she was in her own bed, the rich, dark wood posts and canopy. Glancing to her left, she saw a water basin, soaked rag hanging off the rim. Bottles and apothecary bowls of medicines and herbs littered the table. Moving her eyes around the large room, she saw the fire burning brightly in the corner, the wooden shutters closed tightly.
Her eyes made their way to the other side of her bed, near the door. Angus stood with George and a few of the house servants, speaking in hushed tones. One caught her eyes, cleared his throat. Angus tuned to look over his shoulder, a wide smile instantly upon his lips. He left the small group, moving quickly around the bed to her side.
"How do ye feel?" he asked, his voice soft. Merryn took a mental stock of her body, locating every single area that hurt or was sore.
"I'll live," she said, her voice broken and raspy.
"Aye. So I'twas said. Gave us a mighty scare, ye did."
Merryn smiled weakly, a light cough escaping her lips. This made her eyes squeeze shut as pain rocked her body again.
"Rest now, Merryn."
Nodding, the brunette closed her eyes. Just before she fell back to sleep, she heard Angus call for the Healer.
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