For complete disclaimers, which I recommend reading, see part 1.
Note: This part is filled with violence and some gore.
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
Merryn felt the cold night air on her face, the hood of her cloak long ago flying off her head. She looked around the tree she leaned against, the sliver above emitting no light onto the darkness. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting sense of hearing take over what her eyes couldn't do.
The soldiers were near the cave, Brogan whinnying at the unfamiliar guests. She hated leaving the mare, but there was no other choice. Trying to ride her through the trees in next to blackness would have been suicide. Leading her would have slowed them down, and taken the element of stealth away from them.
Opening her eyes, she glanced to where she thought Cara was, though she didn't dare put voice to her whereabouts. It sounded as though Cara's breathing, as heavy as her own, was a tree over.
Listening to the night again, she heard some of the soldiers talking, their voices clear in the still night.
"Not long ago. They gotta be here somewhere."
"Search these woods. The King will be happy to have ‘em healthy."
"Take the horse, too."
With those orders, the clamor of armor as the men spread out.
Merryn pushed off the tree, reaching for where she thought Cara was, relieved when she felt the rough cloak of her friend. A light squeeze to let the blonde know she was on the move again and Merryn was off.
Trying desperately to remember where things were when the sun was high, the brunette headed in the direction she thought was the next village, where she'd been but two days ago. She felt her lungs begin to burn as she broke out into a clearing, legs pumping as fast as humanly possible.
"Bloody hell!" she gasped as she heard the vicious sound of the royal hounds, hot on her trail.
"Merryn!" Cara cried out, her voice far behind that of the faster brunette. Merryn glanced behind her, only able to see a darker figure against the dark background of night.
"Cara! Come on!"
"I can't make it," the blonde gasped, her voice desperate as she heard the dogs getting closer, followed by the soldiers, their armor clanging almost deafening.
"Ye have to, lass!"
"No! Run on, Merryn! Leave me!"
"Go!" the vehemence in the blonde's voice struck the brunette, filled with so much uncertainty.
"Cara!!" she cried when she heard the blonde scream, cut off by the savage barking of a swarm of hounds. Her own voice echoed in her ears, time seeming to slow to a crawl for but a brief moment of complete desperate fear.
"Get the other one!" one of the soldiers yelled, followed by more clanging armor.
Blinded by her tears, Merryn ran on, her heart shredding with guilt and fear of her friend's fate. All she could do was press on, just as Cara told her to do. She'd expect the same of the blonde. She could do Cara no good dead.
Merryn could barely make out the glitter of water, almost upon the stream before she realized. Pushing on, she splashed through its depths, wading until she had to swim. The dogs ran to the edge of the water, barking like mad, the soldiers following soon behind. Maybe those little bastards would lose her scent, and there was no way the soldiers could follow in their armor- they'd drown within minutes.
Barely registering the call to return to the camp, Merryn ran on, her soaked clothes clinging to her, water-logged cloak slowing her down. She felt like she must weight twenty stone.
Out of breath, the brunette fell to her knees, grunting in pain as her hands skidded against the harsh, rock-infested soil.
Hair plastered to her head with sweat, she reached up to push it out of her eyes. Looking around her, she saw the teasing flicker of lantern light.
"Made it," she gasped, slowly getting to her feet with a groan, every step sloshing from her late night swim. She followed the distant flicker, needing to find some place to rest for the night. First light she'd start her hunt.
Frozen flesh stinging against the blow, the brunette brought her fist up again, pounding.
"What you want?" a deep, gruff voice boomed from the other side of the plank door. It was yanked open, a dim triangle of light falling through the doorway. Caterpillar brows drew at the site of the shivering girl on his doorstep.
"Please sir," Merryn begged. "Might I stay a night? T'won't be a bit of trouble, be gone by first light."
The old man stared at the girl, wondering what sort of trouble such rabble had gotten into. Looking out into the night beyond his most unwanted guest, then roughly pulled the girl in by her cloak.
"Lord above, yet wet!" he grumbled, brows drawing further to nearly cover his gray eyes. Merryn nodded.
"Chased, I was," she slid down the rickety wall, landing on the dirt floor with a thud.
"I want no trouble-"
"A highwaymen, he was. Out for lass' blood," she said quietly, knowing it would do no good to let the old peasant know she was being chased by the King's men.
"Well, stay there if you want, girl, but I've not got food for yer mouth!" he boomed, waggling a sausage finger at her. The brunette nodded, exhaustion beginning to take over.
The old man stomped over to the tiny log table, thick, wooden needle to a torn garment, his work lit by the lantern she'd seen flickering through the single window.
Merryn watched him, eyes hooded as exhaustion and grief began to sink in heavily, almost making her feel like she could drown in either.
Tearing her gaze away, the brunette took in the sparse quarters of the man's shack. To the right was a small cot fashioned of planks covered by layers of rat-eaten rags. Next to the table was a small stack of wood for the fire ring, which was to the left. Above it were a few cup boards, lined with wooden bowls and two mugs.
Merryn figured a wife must have recently died, as seconds were still around. Once the man had stopped grieving, he'd likely sell or trade the excess.
Her gaze raised to the thatched ceiling, a hole bored in it to allow the smoke to drift through and out of the small confines.
Fingers curling into a fist, Merryn swore she heard the cries of hounds echoing into the night. Blue eyes squeezed tightly shut, forcing her tears to stay behind the closed lids. She wouldn't allow herself the release of crying. She should be hanged for letting Cara be caught by those bastards. She had to forcibly shut her mind off or it would conjure up the myriad of things that could be happening to the blonde at that moment.
I'll find ye, lass. I swear it.
"Break camp! We head out in one hour!" cried a booming voice. Blue eyes watched, owner lying flat bellied on the bluff above. The rising sun bounced off the armor of the men within said camp, bustling about, empting pitchers and bladders, others barking orders.
Merryn scanned the tents, looking desperately for any sign of Cara. She didn't have to wait long. She spied a man walking toward one of the tents, hand resting on the pummel of his sheathed blade. Disappearing between the flaps, within moments a cry wrent the air.
"Get up, wench," the man inside snarled, followed by another cry.
"Cara," Merryn breathed, fists clenched in the dirt. "Ye'll pay, ye bastard." Slowly backpedaling, soon she was running back toward the village she'd snuck out of that morning. It was best not to be seen were any questions asked.
Hiding among the tees and small leans-tos and shacks, Merryn kept an open eye out for what she was looking for. Blue eyes widening, she breathed a sigh of relief.
There, in the middle of a small pasture, grazed a massive black horse, happily munching on grass.
Merryn's fingers dug lightly into the tree she stood behind, looking in every direction. The village was beginning to come alive, hushed voices and the hacking of the sick. She needed to make her move, but be careful of it. This crime would be punishable by stoning.
Running like the wind, launching herself over a waist-high make-shift fence, Merryn found herself in the pasture with the horse, who raised its head to study it's visitor.
The brunette took another look around, then turned back to the horse, hands raised to calm the animal, who was beginning to lightly stomp her back hooves.
"Calm, girl," Merryn said softly, taking a step toward the horse. "t'won't be hurtin' ye, promise." She looked around her again, knowing she had to make this hasty. Taking several steps toward the horse, she grimaced as the mare reared up, whinnying as the brunette rested a hand on her flank. "Bugger me."
Whipping herself up over the mare's back, Merryn grabbed the horse's brown and white mane, kicking hard into her flanks.
"Hey!" someone yelled, running after the flying mare, having to jump out of the way or risk being trampled.
Merryn rode hard, having to put much distance between herself and the village, yet stay on the trail of the soldiers.
Not surprisingly the soldiers' camp had been completely struck, leaving behind dying embers and trash. Landing in the mud with a grunt, Merryn's eyes immediately began to scan the area, looking for anything, clues.
Brows draw in absolute concentration, she walked over to the closest fire ring. Kneeling down, the brunette breathed in deeply, taking in the acrid smell of ashes, not long ago abandoned. Slowly passing her hand over the area where the fire had once been, she guessed the men had left a half hour ago.
Rising to her feet, she looked all around her, seeing where the ground had been torn to shreds from the galloping hooves of a hundred horses.
"I'm comin' fer ye, lass."
London was bustling with activity and life, yet the tell-tale stench of death and sickness hung heavily in the air and in the hearts of the Londoners. The sky was gray, filled with winter yet to let go, and smoke from individual fires and funeral pyres, releasing the souls of the dead and burning their rotten flesh.
Merryn led her horse down the streets, careful to keep her face and female body covered by her cloak. She felt anger burn deep inside each time she saw a soldier walking the streets, or leaning against the stonework of a cathedral, uncaring eyes watching those that passed. With each passing soldier, that deep anger rose closer to the surface until it felt like a river of lave ran just beneath the surface of the brunette's skin.
The vengeance that boiled her blood also kept her calm. She knew that she'd never stay alive long enough to find Cara if she didn't keep her cool.
From the looks she was getting from those she passed, Merryn figured she must look like Death herself- black cloak hiding her face, only black boots visible as she led her huge, black horse through their streets. The mysterious figure in black certainly raised a few brows.
The day was getting long in shadows, and Merryn knew there she'd have to find a place to bunk down and think. Seeing a couple of rowdy villagers in front of a rickety, two-story building, the brunette headed there.
"Yer a bloody liar, Tom!" one man cried out, shoving the other.
"And yer a dead man," Tom flared, pulling out a dagger.
Merryn hurried behind the man who was about to be stabbed, not wanting any of their trouble. Soon enough she'd have her own to deal with.
The tavern was dingy and dirty, only a few scattered lanterns and the fire in the wall pit illuminated the plank walls. A few tables lined the outer walls, three dotting the center.
Merryn made her way to the plank bar that lined the left wall, clay jugs behind filled with harshly bitter wine and room temperature water.
"What currency ye take here?" she asked, her voice low, ambiguous.
"What kind ye got?" the keep asked, thick arms spread out across the splintered surface of the bar.
Tugging on the string of her pouch, blue eyes peeked inside as dirt encrusted fingers dug through the treasures within. Merryn's heart stopped when she saw the third gold piece she'd taken off the boy named David.
Gently laying the coin aside, she found a small flask of pepper. Very valuable to a cook. Sighing heavily, she pulled the flask out, pulling the stopper. The barkeep took it and ran it under his bulbous nose. Nodding in agreement, he put the stopper back in and tucked the flask into a pocket of his apron.
"What can I get for ye, boy?"
"Wine and a room for two nights."
"Aye." The large man turned his back to the brunette, filling a wooden mug with the odorous wine, a bit of the dark liquid sloshing over the rim as it was set down, along with a long, narrow key. "Last at top of the stairs. Ye got a horse, boy?" he asked. At Merryn's nod and description, the barkeep told a young boy to take care of t for her, turning to another customer.
"Ye got a," Merryn looked around, clearing her throat. "bath?"
The barkeep stopped pouring a mug of wine, looking at the dark figure at the end of his bar. His heavy beard nearly hid his grin. "Bath, lad?"
"Never mind that," she rolled her eyes, drug her mug off the plank, and headed toward her room. About to take a step on the first step, she was stopped by the soft voice of a man leaning against the wall next to the staircase.
"There's a lake out back," the cloaked figured said, indicating the direction with his thumb. Merryn nodded acknowledgment at the information, then quickly made her way up the stairs.
The room was tiny, just large enough to fit a small, plank bed and a tall, square table with a chamber pot on it, and then a handy window above the table to throw it out of.
"Well," she muttered, turning in a slow circle. "Here we are, then. "Here we are." Reaching up, she unfastened her cloak, tossing the heavy garment across the narrow bed. About to pour some water from the clay chamber pot into the receiving tray beneath, she paused, hand on the thick, heavy handle.
The knock sounded again.
Hand immediately moving to the grip of her sword, she walked over to the door.
"Who goes there?" she called out, trying to peek through the cracks in the plank door.
"'Tis a maid, sir," a quiet woman's voice said.
Merryn raised the wooden bar that served as a lock, pulling the door open with it. There in the hall stood a young woman, her dirty brown hair half covering her face. She held a bucket filled with water in each hand. She took a stunned step backward, eyes widening as she looked into Merryn's face.
"Oh," the barmaid said, mouth moving but nothing coming out.
"What ye want, lass? I haven't got all night." Merryn was feeling irritated, her patience at an all time low.
"'M sorry, miss. Angus asked me to bring these up fer ya, miss." She glanced down at the buckets she carried.
"Aye, miss. He wants to speak with ye."
Merryn studied the young girl for a moment, trying to size her up. There seemed to be no malicious intent in her brown eyes, so she nodded.
"He's downstairs, miss. By the stairs." With that, the young girl raised the buckets in question, Merryn nodding as she stepped aside, allowing her to pass. She took that time to don her cloak, bringing the hood up to cover her face. The women left together.
Merryn felt ill at ease, her eyes constantly darting back and forth, surveying her surroundings.
Just as the barmaid said, Angus still leaned against the wall, one booted foot on the table top. When he heard the footfalls upon the wooden steps, Angus turned dark eyes to the pair.
The barmaid gave him a small nod and curtsey, then scurried off to do her duties. Merryn pulled out the chair across from the man, black Irish, with his black hair and eyes, his pale skin a stark contrast.
Blue eyes looked out from underneath the hood, boring into the equally intense dark.
"We have sumethin' common, besides the fire in our blood," he said at length, his words thick, rich in the strength of the Celts. Merryn said nothing. "Ye'r not here by accident, lad." This was a statement.
"We need ta get one thing straight," Merryn said, her voice soft. She pulled the hood back just enough to show her face. To his credit, Angus showed no surprise. "Merryn," she said.
Angus finally nodded, though there seemed to be a slight gleam of admiration in his dark eyes. "Answer me now,"
"'M here on business."
"As I thought. As am I, lass." Angus' foot hit the floor with a heavy thud. He leaned forward, bracer-clad arm coming to rest on the table as a large hand wrapped around his mug of wine. He looked deeply into Merryn's eyes, almost making the girl nervous. It seemed he was looking into her very soul, reading her mind.
Finally tired of fidgeting under the scrutiny, Merryn leaned forward in her own chair, bringing but a few inches between their faces. "If ye plan to stare at me, make it worth my while, lad."
Angus grinned, then a soft chuckle began deep in his throat, slowly billowing its way out of his mouth. He nodded with obvious approval.
"I have business with the king," he said simply. At the look in the brunette's eyes, Angus nodded, standing. He nodded with his head for Merryn to follow.
Merryn looked around, seeing the three others in the stable. Including the serving wench.
"All of us have lost ‘cause of the evil that is King Edward the third," Angus explained, his arm sweeping over the small group, his eyes on the newcomer. "His soldiers be gatherin' folk. The black sickness has killed so meny," he paused, head lowering for a moment. Clearing his throat, Angus brought a hand up, fingers absently stroking his black goatee. "Servants are leavin' their post, takin' up their own land, the land of the dead. Fer the first time, they be havin' their own place on this land."
"He's gatherin' slaves, then?" Merryn asked, her world beginning to come into focus.
"They'll be his bloody servants now." The brunette's eyes were drawn to a clean faced young man standing in the corner. An axe rested across his lap, fingers flexing on the handle, fingernails near black from unwashing. "Or dead."
"They killed me sister and nephew!" the third man said, pushing to his feet from his seat on a bale of hay. His fiery red hair hung in his eyes, which blazed green fire.
"They took my friend," Merryn added quietly, her own fury building inside.
"We're tryin' to gather numbers, lass," Angus said, moving to stand between Merryn and the others, blocking her view so she only saw him. His dark eyes shone total determination. "We've got ta fight back. Raise some men," he smiled apologetically at the brunette. "and women. Are ye with us, lass?"
Merryn looked at the four sets of eyes that were locked on her.
"Are ye with us?" Angus asked again. Merryn met his eyes, and finally nodded. "Good." Angus smile his approval. "We'll make plans from here, mount an army-"
"That'll take time," Merryn said, shaking her head. "I must get her out now."
"Lass, it's far too dangerous-"
"Then I'll go it alone!" she growled. Something inside her implored the girl to act now, to not wait. With quiet determination, she whirled on the small group, cloak floating in her wake. Hand on the door to the stable, she halted, a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Wait, lass," a soft, but deep voice said. "I know how you feel. My wife is behind those walls," Angus explained. "But if we don't think this through, ‘t'we'll all die, surely."
Merryn turned slowly, eyes blue fire. "Then I die."
It was a battle of the wills, blue clashing with black. There was no chance that Merryn would back down. She knew as she knew her own name that she must act fast. As Angus looked into her beautiful blue eyes, he saw that truth. Nodding, he broke the gaze, bowing to the girl's stronger will.
"We will help ye, lass."
Merryn looked at the others, all nodding. "Thank you, then."
Angus sighed, arms crossing over his chest. "I still think ‘tis too soon." He studied the girl for a moment. "Ye shuld wait, lass. There not a thing I can say to change yer mind, then?"
Merryn shook her head, will strong and sure.
"Jest as I thought," Angus grinned. "Stubborn Irish." With a wink, her put an arm around the girl's shoulder, pulled her back into the group. Merryn took a seat on a barrel.
Reaching inside his tunic, he pulled out some rolled parchment. Kneeling to the hay-strewn dirt at his feet, he wiped a clean spot, using four rocks to hold the corners of his parchment. The group gathered around him as he explained.
"We have spies in the castle," he began, tapping the page.
Merryn studied the sketched lines that was Middleham Castle. She listened as Angus explained that the castle had an unusually long keep, of over one hundred feet long, which dominated the structure.
"'Tis divided by a cross wall, length-ways," he ran the tip of a dirk along the wall he spoke of. "This curtain wall here, around the keep, ‘t'will make it a bit harder to get past."
"We can't get over that," Merryn said, brows drawn. Angus nodded.
"I agree. And we can't just walk in. So," he moved his dirk tip, making a circular motion on a spot to the south west of the castle. "William's Hill," he said, making eye contact with everyone that knelt around the map. "'Tis said tunnels run from this place to the belly of Middleham."
"We must move by dark," Merryn said, glancing up at Angus. "Go early, before the sun awakens."
"Hold our position till day," Angus grinned. Merryn grinned back, nodding.
"Aye. At dark, bring too much attention ta the lot of us." The brunette met the looks sent her way.
"By the light ‘o day, we cin slip through, be enyone." Angus nodded.
"Aye, that." Merryn glanced over at the bale of hay the redheaded young man had been sitting on. There lay a lute. "Ye play that, lad?" she asked, nodding toward it. The boy glanced back to see what she spoke of, then grinned proudly with a nod. Merryn grinned, mischief in her eyes. "Take it with ye. Travelin' minstrel, ye are."
"All be here two hours before sunup." Angus stood, rolling his parchment.
"Merryn. Merryn, awaken."
Blue eyes fluttered open, a gasp escaping as Merryn laid eyes on Cara, kneeling by her bed. The blonde smiled, reaching out a hand to rest against the older girl's cheek
"Cara?" Merryn raised herself to her elbows. "What are you doing here? I'm so sorry I lost you-"
"Shh," the blonde whispered, two fingers covering the brunette's lips. "That matters not." The brunette could only stare at her friend, her mind fuzzy, not able to reconcile the situation, yet not wanting to think too hard for fear Cara would disappear. The hand that rested upon Merryn's cheek moved slowly down to cup her jaw. Green eyes looked into blue with utter faith and trust. "Save me."
Merryn's breath caught as she watched Cara's eyes close, her beautiful face, tinted blue in the moonlight, coming closer, closer. Merryn's own eyes slid shut.
"Save me, Merryn. Save me …"
"Merryn?" followed by more pounding.
Merryn sat up, her heart racing. Desperately she looked around the room, still swarmed by moonlight-tinged night. Cara was nowhere to be found. The brunette almost cried at the pang of disappointment that stung through her like the cut of a blade.
The door opened, Angus standing upon the other side.
"Ye carry a blade, lass," he said, nodding toward the very blade that Merryn held in her hand. "Do ye know how ta use it?"
Indignant, the brunette raised her chin. "Yes."
"Do ye now?" a midnight brow raised. Merryn's eyes fell. "Come, Merryn. Let us practice."
The world wasn't sure if it were late night or early morning, the sun to rise within hours. Merryn followed the dark man out of the tavern, their stealth turning them to ghosts in the night. She was led far from the tavern, into the woods, away from prying, curious eyes and ears.
Angus stopped, pulling his blade with a satisfying hiss. "Show me, lass."
Nodding, swallowing her nerves, Merryn pulled her own blade. She'd never had to fight anyone more than a farmer with a pitchfork. Most of the folk she dealt with were already dead.
Swallowing again, she spread her feet wide, fingers flexing on the grip of her blade. Angus raised his blade, wide blue eyes following the attack, meeting it with an echoing clang.
"Good lass," Angus encouraged, light on his feet, making her work for his compliments. Merryn grunted with every parry, every thrust, every block. The black Irishman nearly had her, Merryn baring her teeth, back to her opponent, sword held up over her head to block what could be a debilitating blow to the shoulders. She pushed him away, then rolled out of Angus' reach, popping to her feet.
"Ye will kill me yet," she panted. Angus grinned, sticking his blade into the forest floor at his feet.
"Or try ‘n save yer life," he chuckled. "Ye'r a natural with a blade, lass. Most impressive." He plucked his sword from the earth. "Come, Merryn. We must get food." Slapping her arm around the girl's shoulder, they headed back to the tavern.
The group gathered in the stable once more, though this time there were two other women.
"This is Mary and Fanny," Angus explained, indicating the two blondes. "They've both run from their duties at Middleham Castle, ‘n have agreed te help." Dark eyes met every set of eyes gathered. "We go in, we get out." Again, he met every eye, then turned to Mary and Fanny. "Where are the captives bein' kept?"
"The tower, my lord," the one named Fanny said quietly, her head bowed.
Angus turned his eyes to Merryn. For long moments they shared a look, each building their own courage.
"Let it begin."
The small group rode hard and fast, though rode in pairs, far from their fellow riders. They were set to meet at William's Hill. It wouldn't do for suspicion to stop their mission before it began.
Merryn rode with Fanny, both strong riders, lost in her own thoughts. She couldn't help be filled with fear and doubt. Angus had shown her just how very little she knew of being a fighter. She could protect herself from highwaymen and thieves, no doubt. But what of a trained, professional soldier, protecting his king?
And what of the dream the night before? Cara's eyes so filled with love and trust. It was as if the girl had absolutely no doubt that the brunette would swoop in and … "Save me" …
Oh, Cara. Don't have more faith in me then I have skill, lass.
When it had first happened, pure rage had driven Merryn on, almost making her foolish enough to attack the soldiers' camp that same night. She would have been ripped to pieces, no doubt. By the gods above she'd kept her head in reason and on her shoulders.
Now, as she glanced over at her companion, riding as hard as she, a certain sense of pride filled her body, and smile wrapped across her lips. Since the moment they met, it had been Merryn's duty, at first grudgingly, to protect the small blonde. Then as time had passed, the brunette took her job seriously, and with great joy.
This was no different.
Now it wasn't just about keeping Cara safe from the cold, or getting her away from some wayward drunkard. Now it was about saving the girl's life and virtue.
"Ya!" she cried, spurring the dark horse she rode onward, speeding through the valleys at breakneck speed, her companion keeping her paces.
Merryn looked around, trying to find the source of such sound.
"Come, Merryn!" Fanny yelled across the distance between their horses. The brunette followed the blonde woman into the trees, where Fanny's pinto was stopped in a thicket. Merryn pulled her horse up beside her.
"What's this?" she asked, dismounting.
"Angus' signal fer trouble, miss," Fanny said, her voice a whisper. They listened, Merryn's heart beating in her ears. It wasn't long when a small regiment of soldiers rode past. Blue eyes watched them pass. Their cuirass' gleamed in the falling moonlight.
"They travel in twos, miss," Fanny whispered, clutching Merryn's sleeve. The brunette nodded, both hunkering closer to the tree. Within a few moments a second set traveled past.
"Let us go," Merryn whispered, keeping an eye on the soldiers until they were out of sight.
Mounting their steeds, the woman rode on.
The early morning air was crisp, seized the lungs and made them burn. But oh how it made Merryn feel alive! She inhaled deeply, eyes closing for a moment as her resolve clinched with her focus. Her blue eyes nearly glowed in the early dawn, the earth painted blue.
The group were but shadows in deeper shadows, making their way around William's Hill. Fanny and Mary led the way, pure silence reigning as the women used hand gestures to show the other five where the hidden entrance was.
Angus drew his sword, using it as a pick as he began to dig through the thick wall of rock, Merryn quickly joining him. Soon, all the members working at the entrance, a small space was revealed. It would be a tight fit for the larger of the group, but all would be able to pass.
"I go no further," Fanny said, backing away, head shaking. "I'm sorry, my lord."
"'Tis alright, lass. Thank you."
The woman nodded, looking to her friend. Mary said nothing, but turned her face away from the retreating woman. Fanny then grabbed up her skirts, quickly heading for her mount.
"I'm sorry, my lord," Mary said, a bit of disgust edging her voice. "We she wanted to help-"
"I'd rather she back out now then get herself killed, lass," Angus whispered.
"Angus," the redhead, whom Merryn had found was named Aaron. "there's a door."
Merryn said nothing as she pushed between the two men, heading inside the cave beyond the barrier they'd dug through. She took the torch that George, the third man, had struck inside the earthen cave.
Brows drawn, Merryn fell to her knees at the arched wooden door, firelight reflecting dully against the iron ribbing. The lock was large and secure, rust making the metal orange and dull.
"Hold this, lad," she told George, who stood beside her. Hands free, Merryn reached into the pouch hanging at her waist, fingers working as her eyes as she felt for the two small, thin pieces of iron.
"Blimey," she heard George whisper in excitement.
"Hold the light here," she said, ignoring his whistle of approval. The light showing her work clear and bright, the brunette quickly slid the thin metal into the large key hole. She leaned in, seeing as far into the lock as she could, fingers gingerly moving the picks around, subtle in their exploration until she felt a catch, then a loud, scraping click.
Holding the picks with one hand, she grabbed the lock in the other, the mechanism filling her entire palm, tugging gently until it gave way, slipping from of its holdings. Standing, Merryn removed her picks, and tossed the lock aside, waving the others, who'd gathered behind her, onward.
Merryn couldn't help but feel a bit or pride as she heard whisperings behind her, surprise and elation. It was short lived as she focused on the mission. She turned when she was tapped on the shoulder. Angus was behind her, handing her a torch, which she happily took. The dark man moved up to walk beside her. He said nothing as his own torch light.
The cave had turned into the tunnels beyond the door. They were narrow, the width of two men to walk somewhat comfortably side by side, each outside shoulder nearly brushing the earthen walls, which eventually turned into a tunnel lined with stones, the floor dirt.
Mice and any other manner off tiny beast scurried to get out of the way as the torch light melted the darkness. Around the bend the group was surprised to find a line of bones, some with remnants of tattered clothing still clinging to them. One set lay on the ground, the grinning skull half buried. Others were pinned to the walls of the tunnel either by shackled wrists and chained necks, or by nails driven through the wrists.
All eyes scoured the bones, a quiet so thick, so rich, so complete, filled the space. Those poor, lost souls served to remind the group of what could still happen to them.
Torchlight brought to light another door. Once again Merryn fell to her knees, working the ancient, rusted lock. It took several moments, but the lock gave with a scratchy moan. Tossing it aside, the brunette stood, turning to face her new friends.
"Beyond this not a peep," she warned, instinct telling her they were now entering more living parts of the castle.
"Feel as though ‘ve stepped into a nightmare," Aaron whispered. The group around him only glanced at his words, none wanting to admit that they probably had.
With a little persuasion, the door creaked open, all but one torch doused. Merryn listened, the darkness near complete on the other side. The air was foul, the tinges of raw sewage floating upon its breeze.
Closing the door, she turned to the five expectant faces before her.
"'T'will be headin' to the bowels ‘o Middleham," she explained. "Foul stench. Be wary."
Turning to the door once more, she pushed through a second time. Angus hurried to take the lead, understood between he and Merryn that he was better and more experienced with a blade, were they to be surprised.
The silent hiss of steel being pulled from its sheath was the only sound, the slight glint in the one light of the torch, which Mary held, sandwiched between Angus, Merryn and Aaron. George and the serving wench, Anna, brought up the rear.
Angus gave the signal to douse the flames as they stopped, the faintest echo of voices filtering through the tunnel. Down the tunnel, maybe two hundred paces, the barest hint of light could be seen interrupting the near completeness of the tunnel's darkness. Angus began to move again, followed by the other five.
Merryn tightened her grip on her sword, her heart beginning to race, sweat dotting her brow. Tucking in her bottom lip, she quickly laved its dryness with her tongue. Soon the echoes turned into discernable words.
"O'er here, boy, and be quick about it."
Angus put a finger to his lips, his outline able to be seen by those behind him. They could now see that at the end of the tunnel was an iron grate with large squares of space.
As they got closer to the grate, the tunnel walls narrowed, a man's shoulders touched either side, and the floor sloped down, the ceiling falling until the group found themselves on their knees.
Angus carefully made his way to the grate, torchlight illuminating the room beyond.
The room was a large, stone square. Inside were the workings of an elaborate pipe system, all being fed by enormous cauldrons of water, brought to a boil by stoked fires.
"What ‘tis this place?" Merryn whispered in Mary's ear.
"'Tis the boilers, miss," the woman whispered back. "Gives the king's baths heat."
Sure they were alone in their little corner, Angus carefully removed the grate, all wincing as sharp whine wrent the air as stubborn metal was forced to budge. Holding her breath, Merryn waited for the worst. When nothing was forthcoming, she released her held breath.
Stepping into the unbearably hot room, Angus held his blade at the ready, eyes pouring over the large room, trying to find the source of the earlier heard voices. Once everyone was out, Merryn realized Mary still crouched in the grate opening.
"North tower, my lord," she whispered to Angus, pulling the grate back into place. The girl was soon consumed by the deep shadows of the tunnel around her.
Merryn raised her own blade, eyes searching every shadow that danced from the flames. There was no one to be found in the room, the group moving out toward the much cooler hallway, that beckoned.
It seemed the castle was made up of an endless maze of halls and small anti-chambers that spilled into glorious halls with stone walls and vaulted ceilings. The rooms were dark, lit by sporadic torches, candelabras, and a few massive fireplaces that measured the length of some of the great halls.
Shadows danced everywhere, often catching Merryn's eye, making her jump. She'd feel a calming hand on her shoulder, then meet dark, understanding eyes. Thus far they'd run into no soldiers, and it had everyone on edge; the waiting was the worst part.
Merryn's eyes widened as she mentally calculated what she could get for just one tapestry that lined the great walls. She smirked, thinking Cara probably wouldn't mind too much if she stole from this bastard.
Easing their way up a long, stone set of stairs that wrapped around a huge torch-ladden column, Merryn found herself at the top, met by two surprised soldiers.
Merryn's heart stopped, then as the two men set eyes on her blade, instinct took her. Dark brows drew and white teeth bared.
The guards, dressed in cuirboulli leather breast plates and simple hose, were taken off guard as Merryn struck. Raising her arm, she raised the blade high above her head, bringing it down to crash the pommel into the skull of the closest guard to her. The man grunted, folding quickly as the bones of his forehead crumpled. His body slipped down the stairs behind Merryn, the girl getting out of the way so she wasn't bowled over.
Surprise passing quickly, the second guard drew his own blade, releasing a battle cry as he attacked. It took all of Merryn strength to take his blow against her own sword. Gritting her teeth, she pushed him off, lunging after. She could hear the harried footfalls of her companions coming up behind her in the stairwell.
Within moments two more guards found their way to the melee. Within moments Merryn was at the center of the deafening clank of steel against steel, cries of pain and death, and the almost overwhelming stench of fresh blood.
Anna stood to the side, smacking falling soldiers in the head with a heavy tree branch, making sure they stayed out.
"Anna!" Merryn cried, turning to the girl. Blue eyes met her own, then widened as the serving wench realize something was being tossed her way. She caught the large ring of iron keys, then nodded in understanding.
Merryn cried out as she was hit from behind, knocked to one knee. Quickly turning at the waist, she saw a soldier behind her, blade raised to make the final blow. Suddenly the man's eyes bulged, and Merryn looked down to see a stream of red blood racing down his body, the tip of a blade barely sticking out of the leather of his armor.
Scrambling out of the way, Merryn watched as the soldier's body was kicked off Angus' blade, the man falling dead where Merryn had knelt moments before. Breathing heavy with exertion and fear of what could have been, the brunette looked up at her savior.
"Thank you," she breathed. Angus nodded, then turned as footsteps were heard running toward them. Wincing slightly as she got to her feet, bringing a hand up to her head, Merryn's fingers came away covered in blood. She knew she'd have some headache come morning. But at least she was alive.
The brunette looked up in time to see a blur run at her. She was nearly knocked to the floor at the force in which Cara threw herself into her arms.
"Cara," she breathed, dropping her blade as she wrapped her arms around the little, sobbing blonde. "I've got ye, lass. I've got ye," she whispered, eyes squeezing shut as she crushed the smaller body to her. She held the girl in place with one hand behind the girl's head.
"I knew you'd come," Cara cried, her words barely understandable.
"Shhh, I'm here now."
"Merryn!" Angus hissed. The brunette looked over the blonde's head. "Get her out, lass. We'll follow behind."
Nodding, Merryn gently pushed Cara away so she could look in her face. The brunette's heart broke at the sight. The color of Cara's right eyes jumped out from the blackened skin around it. Dried blood was caked to her mouth, and in her hair.
Knowing there was nothing she could do about it at the moment, Merryn swallowed her grief down. Taking the blonde by the hand, Merryn picked up her sword, and they were off.
"Move fast, lass," Merryn exclaimed, Cara nodding as she followed closely behind. The quickly made their way down the stairs, Merryn's eyes wide, looking every which way, blood-covered blade at the ready. Her instincts were piqued as she felt the heat from Cara's body behind her, making this escape the most important thing in the world.
Heading down a hallway, which Merryn knew would led to the great hall, she heard stopped them, a stilling hand to Cara's arm. Listening, she heard the unmistakable thud of boots pounding stone. She turned, pushing Cara away from the torch they stood near, slinking away into the shadows of a deep, stone entryway. Placing her body in front of Cara's, Merryn hid her blade behind her leg so no chance of a gleam would be seen.
Merryn tried to hold her breath as the soldiers ran by, obviously heading toward the stairs to the north tower.
"Let's go," she hissed, once they'd passed. Flying through the halls, hiding several more times before hitting the boil room.
"Bugger," Merryn hissed, pushing Cara against the wall as she raised her blade to meet the attack. The man was strong, and determined. When his strike didn't land its mark, he swung at her head, hitting her square in the ear with his gauntlet.
Merryn staggered backward, her world ringing and slowing to a crawl. She looked up, eyes filled with surprise and pain. The eyes of her attacker met her own, brown filled with the rage of protecting the Crown. He ran over to her, pulling a dagger out of his belt, the blade narrowing into a nasty ‘v'.
From somewhere behind her, Merryn heard a voice, seemingly warbled from the mouth of a drunkard. Like the land from clearing fog, she realized the voice was Cara's, and she was screaming the brunette's name.
Blinking rapidly, bringing her world back into focus, Merryn felt a force take her over, something seeming to push her out of the way, moving her beating heart out of death's grip, the soldier lunged, missing his mark so completely that he nearly stumbled into the wall behind Cara.
Head still ringing, Merryn brought out her blade, blindly trying to find her foe. She didn't have to search for long. With the roar of the tiger of myth, the soldier ran toward the girl, knight's dagger raised over his head, blade gleaming with the firelight under the cauldrons.
Merryn moved toward him, eyes mere slits with narrowed intent. The crunch was astounding, the slickness of steel splitting flesh, slipping through all that made a man stand and breathe. The gasp as his air was stolen from him, and the look of tortured pain and sorrow in his eyes, so wide with regret. The soldier fell into Merryn, his hand grasping her shoulder as his danger clanged to the stone floor.
Merryn watched in a sort of dazed wonder as his mouth opened, a gurgle of blood sprouting to leak down his chin. Slowly, oh so slowly, he slid down her body, his eyes never leaving hers, until he collapsed to the floor.
Numb and astonished, Merryn tugged at her blade, the dead soldier's body wriggling with the motion. Finally she had to press a booted foot to his shoulder, then pulled, the blade coming free with a sickening slurp, the man's blood and fluids sliding down the blade's fullered center.
Merryn looked up to see Cara pressed against the wall, her face ashen, making the bruises littering her fine skin stand out all the more. Feeling her resolve double, the brunette reached for Cara's hand, taking it gently in hers as she led her to the grate, which Mary had already pushed open.
Without a word, Merryn tugged she and Cara through into the tunnels, a nod of thanks to the blonde, who scraped the grade back into place until the others would pass.
Merryn grabbed a torch that Mary had lit for her and stuck into a sconce on the wall, the light guiding their way back through the black tunnels. The only thing louder than their frantic steps was the sound of Merryn's own heart in her ears. She felt no pain, her emotions numb. She had but one focus, and that was to get Cara out alive.
Cara's screams startled the brunette, stopping to see what had frightened the girl. Seeing the remains of the long dead prisoners, Merryn tugged the girl forward. One last look, a trembling hand raising to her mouth, Cara moved on, her torn, dirty skirts causing insects and rodents of every nature to scurry and squeal into crevices in the tunnel walls and floors.
Merryn kicked the final door open, tugging Cara through as she saw the light of day at the other end. Heart and breathing heavy, she dropped the torch in the dirt passage, regaining her sword in case they ran into visitors on the way out.
Gulping in lungfulls of the fresh, morning air, Merryn's eyes were everywhere at once, taking in the dark forest, where her horse awaited them.
The castle had yet to come alive and realize where Merryn and her companions had entered.
"We are clear, but must hurry," the brunette panted, tugging Cara behind her as she bolted from the entrance of William's Hill, until they were sheltered by the thick crops of trees. Once there, Merryn stopped, dropping her sword and pulling Cara to her.
"I dreamed you'd come for me," Cara whispered, eyes tightly closed as she inhaled all that was Merryn- sweat, leather, dirt mixed with rain, and all that made Merryn. Her fingers dug into the brunette's shoulders, terrified that she'd be ripped away again.
"'M so sorry, Cara," Merryn whispered, her face buried in golden hair. "I'll not leave you again. I swear it. Never!" Her promise was so passionate as to almost frighten the blonde, if she hadn't been so relieved by it.
Cara nodded, the terror of the past days released in a long, shaky sigh.
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