For complete disclaimers see part 1.

Note: There is violence in this part, though not gory.

Storm

(the story formerly known as Riding Out the Storm)

by

Kim Pritekel

Part 4

Merryn kicked the great black beast into a fierce gallop. Cara sat before her, a protective arm wrapped tightly around the blonde's waist. Cara leaned back into her, head resting against the brunette's cloaked shoulder.

As they rode on, leaving the tiny village of Middleham far behind, Merryn looked out over the land, a numbness beginning to fill her head, spreading into her eyes. Her vision was becoming fuzzy, her mind playing evil spells on her reasoning.

Head wobbling, Merryn blinked several times, trying to clear the clouds from her eyes and to still her head. The numbness was on the move again, spreading down into her neck, darkness closing in around her world.

Cara was jostled from her restless slumber. Eyes opening, she looked around, noting that the horse beneath her was slowing, beginning to wander off course.

"Merryn!" she cried when the brunette's arm fell away from the blonde's waist, and with a loud thud, Merryn fell to the dirt at the horse's feet.

><

Wincing, Merryn squeezed her eyes shut, deciding that letting the world in was a bad idea.

"Anu, help me," she muttered with a soft moan.

"Shhh," a soft voice murmured. Merryn sighed when she felt gentle fingers on her face. Keeping her eyes closed, she listened to the soft voice as Cara hummed to help soothe her pain. "I know it hurts," the blonde said after a moment. "T'will pass. I think yer noggin' took a few too many blows today."

"I'd have te agree, lass." Merryn smiled at the soft chuckle she heard.

"This will soothe the ache," Cara said, her touch as gentle as her voice as she laid a cool, foul smelling rag to Merryn's head. "I know it smells bad. Trust in me."

Merryn nodded, groaning as that had hurt as well. A cold, soothing touch seemed to seep into the brunette's skin, covering the ache until she could just barely feel it. Her heart no longer beat within her temples or her throat.

After a moment, blue eyes fluttered open. The sun shone through the leaves above the tree she lay under. Cara sat by her side, her fingers gently caressing the side of Merryn's face.

"Look into my eyes, Merryn," Cara softly requested. The brunette turned her head ever so slightly, watching as concerned green eyes peered closely into them. "The swelling's gone down," Cara whispered, as if to herself.

"Need ta look after ye, Cara," Merryn murmured, seeing the bruises and dried blood that still painted the blonde's face. Cara shook her head.

"No. You need to rest."

Merryn didn't argue, knowing she'd not win this battle. Instead she allowed her eyes to travel around Cara's face, taking in the soft features, slightly curled corners of the blonde's mouth. Those eyes, so deep. Sometimes Merryn felt she could see entirely new worlds in those eyes.

"What?" Cara asked, taking the cloth from Merryn's head and dunking it in a small bowl. She wrung out the excess, then replaced the rag on the brunette's head once more. Merryn shook her head slightly at the question, unable to tell the blonde just how worried she'd been. Cara smiled, seeming to understand. "Who were your friends?"

"Angus, Anna, George, Mary and Aaron."

"Oh? Ye've been busy." Cara smiled, a brow slightly raised. Merryn smiled.

"A bit of luck, really. They helped me," the brunette quietly explained. She reached her hand up, brows knitting as she gently touched the incredible bruise around Cara's eye. "Does it hurt, lass?" she whispered. Cara nodded, then green eyes dropped.

"T'were so many, Merryn," she said, her voice so quiet that the brunette almost missed it. "I was shackled to the wall in that God forsaken room," she swallowed hard. "It was dark and smelled of death. So many had died. Thought I was dying when that girl came runnin' in, an angel come to take me to Heaven."

"Hey." Forgetting about her aching head, Merryn pushed herself up to a sitting position, pulling Cara to her. The blonde clung to her as she wept, smaller body trembling. Merryn rested her cheek against the girl's blonde head, stroking her back.

After some minutes, Cara pulled back, bright eyes looking into Merryn's. "Why did this happen? For what purpose?"

Merryn sighed, running her thumb under the girl's undamaged eye to wipe away her tears. "The king's own selfish reasons," she said softly. "People 'r runnin', finding their own lands from those who've died," she explained, bringing her other hand up to brush Cara's hair from her face. "Edward is capturin' the healthy to replace his servants."

"That is all? He is capturing and murdering to have someone to serve him!" Merryn nodded at the blonde's angry question. The blonde was stunned, no idea how to respond to such selfishness, such a vile lack of caring for those Edward ruled.

"Angus wants to build an army, lass," Merryn placed her hand on the side of Cara's face, gently caressing the skin there with her thumb, mindful of the girl's bruises. "He wants storm the daft bastard down."

"And he should,"

"Be that as it may," Merryn groaned as she stood, closing her eyes and resting her hand on the trunk of the tree as a wave of nausea washed through her. Taking several deep breaths, she steadied herself. "I know what 't'will make ye feel better, lass." She grinned, wiggling her brows.

Green eyes slipped closed as the cool water washed over her skin. Cara winced slightly as its coolness stung against the bruises and cuts on her skin. All too happily she dunked her head beneath the surface of the water, slicking her hair back from her face. Wiping the water out of her eyes, Cara looked at her friend, who joined her in the lake.

"Come here, lass," Merryn said softly, reaching a hand out to her friend. The blonde quickly took it, slowly making her way across the rocky bottom to her friend. Merryn held up the pouch of herbs Cara had mixed for them, that would cleanse the hair and skin, and make it smell like the rose petals that was in the mix.

Grinning, Cara eagerly turned around, giving her back to the taller girl.

"Kneel down a bit," Merryn instructed softly. She rinsed the girl's hair, knowing she'd have to be mindful of the knots made from dried blood, as well as the wounds that caused the blood in the first place. She felt around Cara's scalp, fingers brushing against sensitive areas that made the blonde gasp or outright hiss. "Sorry, lass," she whispered.

Deciding none of the wounds needed to be tended to, she scooped some of the paste into her hand, rubbing the grainy mixture between her palms before rubbing it into the long, blonde locks.

Cara's eyes closed as her neck relaxed, trusting Merryn's hands on her. She sighed as strong fingers worked the mixture in, massaging and tugging on the hair gently, but just to the point of pleasure, before pain. She loved for Merryn to wash her hair, the way the stoic girl was so gentle with her always amazed and amused.

Merryn massaged the girl's scalp, somewhere along the way the hygienic caress moving her fingers to the back of her neck, feeling the soft skin there, the corded veins and tendons as her fingers moved slowly around toward Cara's throat. She watched with curious amazement as her fingers trailed up the side of Cara's neck, feeling the proud jaw line there, before moving up to feel a soft earlobe.

Cara was surprised at first, feeling Merryn's fingers wandering over her skin, finding herself leaning back into the taller girl, Merryn's naked breasts against her back. The blonde felt her breathing change slightly, though if it were from nerves, that surprised her. She'd never been nervous around Merryn before. She had nothing to be nervous about. But still, as she felt warm breath brushing against her left ear, she felt a strange wave of heat flow through her, almost like nausea, but not unpleasant.

Closing her eyes, she decided to rest fully against Merryn, relax and enjoy being with her again, being touched by her.

Merryn watched as her fingers traced a delicate line behind Cara's ears, smiling slightly when she felt a little shiver pass through the girl. Her fingers trailed down her neck once more, finding their way across the smooth, creamy skin of well defined shoulders. Her fingertips ran lazily down over the rounded shoulders to glide along Cara's arms, meeting her hands beneath the water's surface. Cara's fingers interlaced with her own, bringing their joined hands above the water's surface. She folded her arms across her own breasts, taking Merryn's hands and arms with her, until the taller girl had her wrapped up in a tight embrace.

Merryn's eyes slipped closed as she felt their bodies press together, her lips grazing across Cara's temple. She had no idea what was happening, but her body felt- how could she describe it- alive. Her skin felt as though it were an entity all its own, tiny fingers reaching out to feel and grasp.

For the first time, she was aware of every single curve of her own body, as well as that of Cara's. She felt the swells of Cara's breasts against the tender skin of the insides of her wrists, and they tingled. She did not understand, but could not move away. She craved the contact with this girl who had grown to become the center of her world, even if Merryn refused to say it aloud.

How could it be that over the past couple of days, since Cara had been taken, Merryn had felt hollow and utterly alone? And now, standing in the lake, holding the blonde so close, she felt complete and whole?

Cara shivered as the early evening breeze blew across her skin, and she felt her body shiver again as the cool water rippled around her.

Merryn could feel the goosebumps rise on the blonde's skin, and knew she had to get her out of there soon. One final squeeze, she released the girl, softly telling her to bend down so the brunette could rinse her hair. When she finished, Cara turned to face her, smiling softly at her before returning the favor. They each washed their own bodies, hurrying as the air continued to get colder.

Wordlessly, Cara helped her friend, still somewhat unsteady on her feet, to the shore, where they fought over who would gather the wood, each wanting the other to rest.

"Please, Merryn? For now, for me, please rest," Cara pleaded. She grinned when the taller girl finally nodded with a sigh.

Cara was grateful for the bread and dried meat that Merryn had packed from the tavern she'd stayed at. Neither were in any shape to hunt or fish.

It was a quiet evening, nothing needing to be said. After Cara got a healthy fire burning, she walked over to Merryn, who leaned up against the trunk of a tree. They shared the food, then Cara scooted to sit beside the dark girl, shoulder to shoulder, heads leaning together as they stared into the flames.

"How is yer head?" Cara asked quietly

"Still feels a wee bit fuzzy," Merryn answered after a moment of mental inventory. The blonde nodded.

"And probably will for a few days. Quite a bump you got."

"Aye." Merryn sighed, her eyes beginning to droop further and further. "'M so tired."

"As am I."

><

Deep, even breathing hitching, Merryn sighed, letting the darkness take her deeper into its embrace.

There it was again.

Reality crashing down around her, the brunette's eyes snapped open, immediately grabbing for her sword as thoughts of soldiers finding them danced in her head. It was still very dark, the fire long ago burning to embers. The night was quiet, nothing out of the ordinary.

Glancing to her right, Merryn saw the figure of Cara, lying not more than an arms-length away. The girl lay on her side, facing away from the taller girl. The blonde's body curled in on itself as blue eyes watched, a small whimper coming from Cara's throat.

"No," the blonde begged quietly, still in the clutches of sleep. Her body jerked, and she rolled to her back. Merryn was able to make out the tortured look on her friend's beautiful face, and her heart broke. "Please, no,"

Once Merryn saw the tears beginning to slip from closed lids, she could take no more. Scooting over to her friend, she gently grasped Cara's shoulder.

"Lass," she said softly, "'tis a dream. Wake up, Cara."

"No!" Green eyes opened, terror widening them for a moment before Cara realized who sat before her with a worried brow. "Merryn?"

"Aye, lass. 'Tis me." The brunette reached out, brushing blonde strands from a pale, shaken face. "Yer safe now, Cara."

"I'm sorry I woke you-"

"Shhh." Merryn moved to lie on her back, pulling the blonde to her. "'Tis alright."

Cara happily scooted over to her friend, resting her head upon the brunette's shoulder, curling her body as close as she possibly could, her heart still racing. The images and terrors of the past couple days were still so fresh in her mind. Immediately she felt better as Merryn tightened her grip, her arms closing around Cara, making the blonde feel as though the world could just slip away.

Merryn's soft voice washed over her again.

"Would ye like ta talk about it?" Merryn felt Cara shake her head slightly, so she let it go. She knew what demons had been chasing her friend through her nightmares, and only wished there was something, anything, she could do to take it all away. So she just held her close, trying in the only way she knew how to let the girl know she had somewhere safe to go. Not only that, but guilt was eating the brunette from the inside out. She felt completely responsible for what had happened to the blonde, for her getting caught. Never, ever should she have left the blonde for the wolves to devour.

"Merryn?"

The brunette glanced over to see that Cara had raised herself to her elbow, looking down at her. She saw the concern in green eyes, made a deep gray in the near darkness. Merryn closed her eyes as she felt soft fingertips on her face. It was only then, when she felt the tickle of a tear rolling into her ear that she realized she was crying.

"Why do you cry?" Cara whispered, bringing her fingers to blue eyes, suddenly squeezed shut. Merryn, stubborn, shook her head, which made the blonde smile. "Tell me. Please?"

Finally sighing, getting her emotions under control, the brunette looked up at the concerned blonde. "I never should've left ye," she answered softly. "I should've gone back fer ye, somethin'."

"Shh," Cara cooed, covering Merryn's lips with two of her fingers. "'Twas a bad thing, Merryn. There was nothing you could have done." She shook her head. "Not one thing."

"I could've tried," Merryn insisted, her voice stronger, yet still filled with so much regret.

Cara sighed softly, knowing there'd be no way to convince the bull headed woman of anything else. She smiled softly. "Well, I'm here now, aren't I?"

Merryn nodded. "Guess so."

"Come," Cara laid herself down, snuggling against the strong shoulder beneath her head. "sleep now."

><

The sun was bright, its warmth beaming onto the upraised face of Merryn. Standing by the lake, she reached up and unclasped her cloak, letting the garment fall to the shore at her feet. Her bare arms opened wide, absorbing the much needed warmth to melt the ice around her heart.

She kept seeing his eyes. Brown, a ring of gold lining the irises. She could see his face so close to hers, the tiny hairs of his recently shaved face could be seen. The way a small group of his eyelashes were clumped together. She could see the sweat oozing from his pores from both the heat of the boil room, as well as his fear.

Blue eyes closed as she remembered the feeling of warm, stickiness that covered her hand, the way that it dried into the cracks of her skin, dried into brown specks on her sword's cross guard, and staining the blade. She drew her blade, holding it across her hands, brows drawn as she looked at it.

Suddenly a shiver ran down her spine, and with a growl, teeth bared, she splashed into the water until it reached the top of her ankles. Kneeling down, she frantically began to wash the blade, using her fingernails to scrub the dried blood off the metal. A cry of frustration escaped as the blood didn't wash away fast enough. She could still see it, vibrant and red.

"Come on," she hissed, the cold water splashing into her face, her bangs hanging limply in her eyes as she desperately tried to cleanse herself. "Get off, ye daft bastard!" Merryn didn't even feel her own blood join that of the soldier's as the blade sliced into the palm of her hand.

"Merryn! Merryn, stop!" Cara grabbed at the frantic brunette.

"Leave me be!" Merryn roared, pushing the girl from her before turning back to her blade, scrubbing with her fingernails. "Got to get if off,"

"Merryn," Cara whispered, slowly taking a step closer to her friend. "Merryn, there's not a thing there." She looked into the panicked blue eyes of her friend, red and swollen. Cara reached a hand out, tentatively cupping her face. "Not a thing there."

Merryn, breathing hard, looked down at her sword, still clutched in a devil's grip in her hand. The blade was clean, reflecting the overhead sun. Hissing, she felt the sting in her palm.

Embarrassed and unsteady, she got to her feet, shrugging off Cara's touch.

"Go find yer herbs, lass," she said quietly, knowing the blonde needed to replenish her medicines. Much of that had been left behind in the cave, the rest taken by the soldiers.

Cara stared at the older girl for a moment, not sure what to think. She had been startled awake when she'd heard the thrashing in the lake, worried that Merryn were being attacked. She worried the girl had been hit on the head harder than first thought.

Gathering her wits about her, she walked out of the water, lifting her skirts and wrung out the water. She glanced at her friend, once she'd hit the shores. Merryn still stood in the water, head hanging. Cara knew there was nothing she could do to calm the girl's conscience. What was done was done, and though it had been horrible to watch, Cara knew what those soldiers were capable of, and felt no loss for his death.

As she scanned the nearby woods for the roots she needed, her mind flashed back to the terror of the past couple days.

The night they'd been forced from the cave, Cara had run with Merryn, done her best to keep up. She had tried so hard, but was not to be. The soldier's hounds had caught up to her so quickly, their hot breath snapping against her legs until one of them had finally lunged at her, knocking her to the ground.

"Cara!!"

She had heard her friend scream, but there was nothing the blonde could do. Kicking the hounds aside before they chased after Merryn, Cara saw four heavily armed men standing above her, a sword at her gullet.

"Don't you move, lassy," one of them hissed. Cara had tried to swallow back the tears that threatened, but it didn't work so well. She was terrified for Merryn as she was forced to her feat, looking over her shoulder in the direction of the dogs barking in the distance. Shoved from behind, she was forced back through the woods, then mounted on a horse, her hands tied to the saddle.

A young soldier mounted his own steed, and he and two others led her off into the night.

The soldier's camp was filled with tents and knights yelling at squires, who ran around desperately trying to please their masters. The poor boys squired until they were twenty-one, then were knighted, if they were lucky.

"Get in there, filth!" the young soldier growled, shoving Cara into a tent. The interior was nearly black, save for a small lamp at the center, near the main wooden pole that held the structure up.

Cara gasped when she realized that the tent was filled with young women, all tied to each other. Dirty, exhausted faces looked up at the girl, who trembled as she looked from side to side as she was pushed deeper into the tent. A large hand on her shoulder shoved to the ground.

A small cry of surprise left her throat when those same hands tugged roughly at her clothing, stripping her of her cloak and the pouch around her waste.

"Be nice, wench, and I'll let ye keep those nice boots ye got," foul breath muttered into her ear. Green eyes opened wide as she felt that same large hand cover her breast. Squeezing her eyes shut, Cara prayed that the soldier would go away and leave her be. "Ye feel nice, little one, ye do," he said, his grip rough and painful.

"Rutger!" a voice growled from the mouth of the tent. "Leave her be. You know what the king said."

Cara held her breath, terror filling her. The soldier sighed heavily, almost making her choke on his breath. "We're not done, ye an' me," he whispered, then was gone.

Two young boys came in and tied Cara where she lay. Strong, prickly rope laced her hands together, and connected her to the sturdy log pole at the center of the tent.

Cara tried desperately to blink the tears away, but they refused to leave her. Perhaps her only company this night. She blinked rapidly, trying to take in her surroundings better, and the faces of those who filled the tent. It was hard to take a decent breath, the smell of unwashed bodies assaulting her nose. These were simple village girls, uneducated and frightened.

Cara's biggest fear, other than what the soldiers might have planned, was if someone in the tent were infected with the black sickness. There would be no escape.

Cara leaned her head against the tree, a hand wiping gently at the moisture on her face. She could never tell Merryn what happened to her, as she knew the brunette already was beating at herself for what she saw as her fault.

Cara would pray for the gift of forgiveness. And may God help them get through this, and give her the wisdom to heal Merryn's wounds.

Merryn wandered through the woods, sword bouncing lightly against her hip. She glanced down at her hand, wrapped with a thin piece of cloth ripped from her tunic. A small patch of blood could be seen soaking through the material, but she didn't care. The sting kept her mind sharp, focus clear

Images of the last few days flashed before her eyes, her mind filling in the blanks of smell, sounds, the taste of victory as she led Cara out of the tunnels. Merryn had been filled with such pride, a feeling of doing a great thing, the greatest she'd ever done. It had been the first time in her life that she'd put someone else's life before her own.

She found a stump to sit upon, resting her elbows on her thighs.

It would have been so easy to let it go, to just keep on her endless travels, leaving Cara to whatever fate might be hers. It certainly wasn't up to Merryn to decide that. Yet she had. Or perhaps it was Cara's fate to survive, to become something far greater than her captors. Could this be true?

Merryn thought of her young friend. Why did she keep her around? Why did she care? Something about the little blonde. It was unattainable, untouchable, yet so very potent and profound. Her eyes. Within those eyes was the soul of a wise woman, someone capable of great things. No simple villager was she.

"Greater than all," Merryn whispered, startled, as she had no idea where the words had come from. She was confused, and frightened. She had taken a man's life, all for the rescue of one little blonde.

Merryn glanced to the east, seeing the clouds begin to roll in, sky gray and pregnant with shattering bolts of lightning. She slowly stood from her stoop, mouth open as she watched the unnaturally fast storm approach, seeming to stop overhead.

Gasping, Merryn took a step back, feeling the chill of a raindrop splattered against her forehead, followed by another then another.

Merryn turned, intent on hurrying to find shelter in the downpour when she felt something stop her, a force. She had the feeling it was the same force that had pushed her out of the way when the soldier had come after her with his dagger.

Squinting against the onslaught, she stared up into the angry skies. It was almost as if time stood still, the day waiting, holding its breath.

"What?!" she yelled to the Heavens. "What do ye want from me?"

Merryn's eyes closed, a series of images flashing through her mind, quick yet powerful:

"Hold on, lass. Just hold on," Merryn whispered, cradling Cara's head in her arms, the blonde's eyes closed, face pale

moonlight illuminated the night, Merryn hiding behind a tree. Her intended targets just moving shadows

underneath her eyes, the flames close by. Merryn cupped Cara's face, green eyes sliding closed, leaning into the larger hand. "Merryn, yes," she whispers, her sweet voice echoing inside the brunette's head

bashed again into the stone wall. "Tell me," Merryn hisses, pulling the man up to look at her by his hair. "Tell me where he hides, or die now, lad." Merryn brought his face up closer to

her body, being drug from the battlefield by her arm. The soldier grunts loudly, desperate to get her to safety. "Hold on, Donal. Almost there." Merryn is drug to safety, behind

those eyes. She knows those eyes. "I know you," she whispers.

Merryn staggered back, the rain seeming to bring her from her own mind. Her heart beat wildly within her chest, almost making her feel weak and faint.

"I don't understand," gasping, she looked up into the sky once more. "I don't understand! I'm jest a drifter!" Her cry echoed through the rain, seeming to reverberate off each individual drop. Falling to her knees, her head fell. "What do ye want from me?" Looking at her hands, she jumped to her feet, stunned to see her hands were covered in blood. The rain bounced uselessly off the life that she held within her hands. "No," she whispered, tears filling her eyes, head shaking slowly back and forth. "No."

With a cry to the Heavens above, she pulled her sword from its holding, swinging around, the blade flying through the air. Merryn watched, breathless, as the blade flipped head over end several times, arching back to the land, slicing into the earth with a loud hiss, the blade vibrating back and forth from the impact.

As she watched, the blood on her hands began to run, rain beating specks of clear flesh into the crimson stain. Merryn felt cold, bitterly cold. Glancing at her blade once more, she saw the steel gleaming as the clouds began to clear, the sun slipping through to bounce off its life-giving light off the steel.

Slowly, Merryn made her way over to it, shaky on her feet. With a trembling hand, she reached down, carefully gripping the leather-wrapped grip, flexing her fingers around it. The sun's warmth filled her hand, rising up her arm and into her body as she pulled the blade from the ground.

With a gasp, blue eyes opened, wide, taking in everything around her. Her head was pounding, and her hand stung in pulse with her racing blood.

Birds sang nearby, the shade from the tree she sat under shielding her from the warmth of the day.

"Losin' my bloody mind," she muttered, slowly getting to her feet. She felt shaky and unsteady, bracing her hand against the thick trunk of the tree.

Taking a deep breath, Merryn pushed off and headed back to camp.

In the distance, thunder rolled.

><

Merryn sat on the banks, back against a tree. Her sword's pummel rested on the ground between her legs, blade resting against her chest and shoulder. She watched, amused, as Cara frolicked in the stream.

"What'r ye tryin' at, lass?"

The blonde glanced at her over her shoulder before turning back to the water. She held her skirts up above the water, looking into the shallow depths.

"Lookin' for a good rock," Cara said, bending to grab at a colorful one that caught her eye.

"What for?"

"Crushin' herbs." Cara brought the rock to the surface, bringing it up to her eyes to examine it. Grinning, she tossed it into the air, quickly snatching it in her fist. She walked over to Merryn, plopping down next to the moody brunette. It had been nearly a full month since their adventure at Middleham, and ever since Merryn had been so hard to reach.

Cara turned to her friend, blue eyes already on her. She noticed yet again the wrinkle of concentration that seemed to have formed between Merryn's beautiful eyes almost over night. The girl seemed to have aged, her face changing from that of a young girl to that of wisdom and responsibility.

Cara's words died on her lips. Instead, she raised her hand, thumb running along the crease between Merryn's eyes, smoothing her brow.

"What weight of the world you carry, my friend," she whispered, her own brows drawn in concern. Merryn said nothing, her head leaning into Cara's touch as the blonde's hand slid to cup her cheek. "Please let me not be a burden to ya."

Merryn smiled, soft and filled with affection. "Yer no burden, lass. None t'all."

"But I am." Cara caressed the soft skin of Merryn's cheek, turning her hand so the back of her fingers traced her jaw, Merryn closed her eyes, sighing softly at the comforting touch. She could not tell her friend just how right she was. Merryn knew not why, but knew she carried a great responsibility, a destiny yet fulfilled. She could do it, she could. With Cara by her side, she could do it.

The dreams were getting worse, closer together and more vivid with their warnings and prophetic images.

Stubbornly, Merryn shook her head. She reached up with her own hand, tucking it into Cara's.

"My dearest friend," Cara whispered, moving to her knees to keep her balance. She leaned into Merryn, watching her eyes, so compelled to be as close as possible. "My Merryn." Two sets of eyes closed as Cara brushed her lips against Merryn's. It was such a beautiful touch. She leaned back, watching as the brunette's eyes slowly fluttered open. Merryn smiled, the biggest smile Cara had seen in days.

><

"I know not, lass!" Merryn growled, glaring at the blonde who walked by her side. Cara looked at her friend, brows shooting up.

"Some one poked with a rock, were you?" Cara tried to not laugh at Merryn's foul mood, knowing it would only make it worse. The dark girl had woken up like this yesterday, and again today. By the slight grimace of pain on her face, and as often as they'd needed to stop so she could visit the bushes, Cara had a feeling she knew exactly what the problem was.

"Rest, now, Merryn," she said softly, resting her hand on the brunette's shoulder. She was slightly hurt as Merryn pulled away from her touch. She swallowed it down, knowing it would do them no good to be such, and it was beyond Merryn's control.

"Nay. We must-"

"Rest." Cara's voice was firm, her eyes leaving no room for argument. Merryn sighed heavily, and nodded in acceptance.

Cara turned to the heavily wooded area around them. She chewed on her lip as she tried to decide which direction to go. Brushing her hand over various plants and bushes, avoiding others, sharp green eyes scanned the vegetation.

"Were I monk's pepper, where would I be?" she muttered, kneeling as she saw a small bush growing next to a tree. The plant had the familiar violet flowers, but lacked the reddish-black berries she sought. "Bugger." Scanning further around her, she looked for another bush. A wide grin spread quickly across her lips when she found it.

Pushing her cloak over her shoulder, Cara hurried to a small clearing. A clump of the bushes grew together, berries aplenty.

"Thank ye, Lord," she whispered, quickly picking the small berries, making a pocket with her upturned tunic. Hurrying back to where she heard the black horse whinnying softly.

"Can we go, then?" Merryn asked, glancing at the blonde from where she was seated under a tree. Cara nodded with a smile.

"Aye."

Cara glanced at the brunette from time to time, amused as she saw Merryn's scowl deepen. Her bloated irritation was no secret.

As they continued on, Cara fashioned a bit of a drying rack across the back of her cloak, the berries strung through with a piece of thin rope. She knew there was no way that she was going to get Merryn to stop for the day to dry the berries out on rocks. So, when the brunette was like this, she had to get creative.

Merryn tried to smooth out her forehead, raising her brows, but as soon as she lowered her brows, the skin of her forehead wrinkled up again. She was so tense. Of course the pulsing clinch of her insides didn't make things any better.

Glancing over at her friend, Merryn glared, seeing the happy, go-lucky smile on the blonde's face. Mumbling to herself, Merryn quickened her pace, wanting nothing to do with the happy girl. She felt miserable, and by damn so should the rest of the world.

Cara felt Merryn's intense gaze on her, but didn't dare meet those blue eyes. She kept an eye on her out of the corner of her eye, giving the darker girl her space, but making sure she was okay at the same time. She couldn't keep the smirk from her lips when Merryn tripped over a root in the path, nearly falling to her face. Merryn grumbled curses to the Heavens as she moved on.

"Feeling better?" Cara asked, resting against a felled log. She chewed contentedly on the meat she'd dried at their last campsite. Merryn sat across the fire from her, the scowl still in place. The brunette shrugged, noncommittal.

Cara popped up from her place by the fire, crawling to her cloak. She tested the texture of the berries which had been drying all day.

"Aye," she whispered. "should work." Gathering what she needed, so grabbed the water bladder and a wooden mug, then crawled around the fire to Merryn. Pouring some water into the mug, she crushed the berries between her fingers, sprinkling the large dust into the water. Glancing up, she saw Merryn watched her every move, though the blue eyes stubbornly looked away when the brunette saw she'd been spotted.

"What craziness 'r ye makin' now?" she mumbled.

"Somthin' to make ye feel better." Cara swirled the water and berry dust around, then held it out for Merryn. "Drink."

Merryn looked at the blonde as though she'd lost her mind. Cara hardened her eyes.

"Drink, Merryn."

Merryn growled, but took the mug. One last petulant look and she drank the peppery mixture in one gulp. Her entire face scrunched up, her tongue sticking out. Cara chuckled quietly, taking the cup from her friend before she threw it into the fire.

"Ye poison me!"

"I did no such thing." She took hold of Merryn's cloak, tugging. "Come here," she said softly, pulling the older girl's head into her lap. Grudgingly the brunette went. But as soon as she laid down, Merryn turned to her side, her arm wrapping around the thigh she rested her head on. Blue eyes closed as she felt fingers running through her hair, carefully unknotting wind-blown strands. "Yer pain will be soon gone," Cara reassured the brunette.

Merryn could still taste the slightly bitter, peppery taste on her tongue, but had no idea what Cara had used. She did know that soon she'd have to go find some privacy and take a clean scrap of clothing with her. But not yet.

Cara stared down at the long, thick tresses that her fingers swam through, the firelight making the locks shine. Though Merryn's hair was dark, the flames brought out the red and gold highlights. She could see Merryn's profile, the strong features and proud jaw. Blue eyes were barely open as the brunette studied the tattered material of Cara's dress.

"Ye need new clothes, lass," Merryn said quietly, poking her finger through a hole. Cara smiled, nodding.

"Aye. Ye going to steal some fer me?" Cara grinned, teasing in her voice.

Merryn said nothing, only snuggling closer into the blonde's lap. The brunette stared into the flames for a moment before her brow wrinkled.

"Cara? Why'r ye not married?"

The blonde chuckled softly. "I was. I think."

Merryn's brow drew further. She turned so she could look up at her friend. "Aye'r nay, lass. No thinkin' 'bout it."

"Well," Cara sighed, looking down at her friend, wiping at a small smudge on the girl's cheek. "Will had claimed me as such, to be his wife."

"Claimed ye, did he?" Merryn asked, dark brow raising. Cara blushed deeply, hiding her face.

"Not like that. What do ye take me for? Do not answer that," she hissed at Merryn's further raised brow. "Will was a fool," the blonde continued, chuckling lightly as she played with a bit of the dark hair in her lap. "I had no desire to marry him, but mum felt otherwise. Thought it'd be a good match, she did. The day I was to move into his home, Will got himself killed while hunting."

"Killed on his weddin' day?" Merryn asked, incredulous. She saw Cara's grinning nod. "Daft bugger." Again Cara nodded.

"That he was. Without a heart, I am not. I did not wish Will killed, but I did not want to marry him. I had my head turned to the blacksmith's son."

"Did'ja now?"

Cara nodded. "Aye. I wanted a family." She slowly ran her fingers the entire length of Merryn's thick, beautiful hair, rubbing the ends between her fingers before making another pass. The brunette closed her eyes and sighed in pleasure. She so loved her hair played with. Eyes still closed she spoke.

"Ye still can, lass."

"Nay."

Blue eyes opened, taking in the stubborn set of Cara's jaw. "Nay?"

"Nay. I can't imagine ye'd be willin' to settle down in some village somewhere, livin' next to my husband and me." She knew there was no way she could leave Merryn behind. The brunette had become part of her over the months. She'd be lost without her.

Merryn chuckled slightly at the mental image, and fought down the ugly head of sudden jealousy. She shook her head.

"Nay t'is. Ye don't need me, lass. Yer fine on yer own."

"What 'bout you, Merryn?" Cara asked, her voice soft.

"A master? Me?" Merryn looked up at the blonde like she's lost her mind. Cara laughed, the sound like crystal on the still night air.

"Tis not a master, Merryn. A husband."

"Not a difference there is, lass. I cannot be ruled."

Cara leaned down, hugging Merryn's head to her chest, giving the older girl a soft kiss on top of her head.

Merryn was about to speak, but stopped, nearly knocking Cara over with the ferocity in which she stood. Hand going to the grip of her sword, her eyes scanned the dark night around them.

"What 'tis it?" Cara asked in a whisper, her eyes wide, trying to find what her friend must have heard or seen.

Merryn said nothing, just tried to comb through all that she saw, trying find something out of place that would account for what she'd heard. Head snapping to her left, she heard it again. Footsteps, definitely footsteps.

It didn't take long for the noise maker to enter the ring of firelight. Merryn drew her blade, eyeing the dirty, scraggly man. He looked just as surprised as the two women did.

His surprise passed quickly, and he raised his hands in abdication. Merryn kept her eyes on him, seeing his eyes were sharp, taking in everything around him. She noticed his palms were covered with small scars, much like her own. Such is the fate of flesh digging into unseen pockets. Many things poked and cut. She knew a kindred spirit when she met one.

"What of ye, old man?" she asked, her voice low and filled with warning. He gave her a near toothless smile, raising his hands higher.

"I mean ye no harm, lassy," he said, his voice whispery between his rotten and missing teeth. "Have ye no water ta spare?" his beady eyes looked from the point of Merryn's sword up to her face, then trailed to Cara. Blue eyes didn't miss his looking around, trying to see if anyone else was at this camp.

"Be on yer way, lad." Merryn was surprised by the growl in her voice. She had a bad feeling about this drifter.

"Merryn," Cara said from behind her, voice soft and surprised. "We can share."

The man's watery blue eyes latched onto Cara, an ally. He bowed deep, eyes never leaving the little blonde. "Me thanks, lassy."

Cara handed him the water bladder, then turned hard eyes onto her friend. Merryn avoided the questioning green eyes, instead keeping her own eyes on the stranger.

"Warm yerself." Cara indicated the fire, and the man eagerly lowered himself to the ground, soaking in the warmth. He whistled his thanks once again as he found himself with a bit of meat and dried fruit in his hand.

Merryn grabbed Cara, leading her away from the camp, but positioning herself so she could keep the old man in her sights at all times. She spared a glance to the blonde.

"What'r ye doing, lass?" she hissed. Cara was shocked, her mouth opening slightly.

"Showing kindness. He has nothin'."

"Ye let 'im stay, and neither will we!" She looked into Cara's eyes, wanting the blonde to know just how serious she was. She knew his kind. Cara refused to hear it. She shook her head sadly.

"How can ye be so cruel, Merryn? 'Tis a cool night, and food is scarce in these times. We have it ta spare. He stays, were he ta wish it." With that, Cara turned, headed back to the camp.

"Cara! Cara!" Merryn hissed, but the blonde never turned back. "Bugger ta hell," she muttered, heading back to the camp as well.

Merryn sat moodily against a tree, watching as the drifter and Cara talked quietly. The man was telling the young blonde of the towns he'd been through, and of the burnings. Some towns were so bad off as to pull wagons through the streets, calling for the dead to be brought out, only to be loaded into a wagon and burned.

The brunette leaned her head back, eyes hooded as she took in the sight, trying to keep her sense of doom and jealousy down to a dull murmur. What was with the jealousy? Merryn had never been jealous in her life. But then, she'd never exactly had something or someone in her life to be jealous over. She wasn't entirely sure what she thought of this new revelation.

Shaking the thought out of her head, Merryn pushed herself to her feet, brushing her hands off on her thighs. She muttered a good night, and unrolled her bedroll, ignoring the questioning look Cara sent her way.

The blonde was trying to listen to what Daniel was saying but her mind was on her friend. What was wrong with her? Why was she being so rude and inhospitable? And now she was going to bed, not even waiting for Cara to join her?

"M'lady." Daniel stood, bowing deep at the waist. "I bid ye and yer companion a safe travel."

"Wait." Completely charmed, Cara looked at him, then glanced over at Merryn, who lay with her back to them. Turning back to the traveler, she smiled. "Stay the night, Daniel. Be warm 'n safe."

"Well," he glanced over at Merryn, giving Cara an unsure look.

"Be a guest of mine, sir. Sleep."

The most earnest and beautiful green eyes Daniel had ever seen were looking up at him, beseeching him to accept her gracious nature. He grinned, making sure it was a smile worthy of her trust. With another bow, he accepted.

The night was quiet, leaves lightly swaying in the slight breeze, and the popping of the dying embers. The sweet smell of the oncoming spring mixed with the acrid smell of wood ash wafted to Merryn's nose.

She started, falling heavily into reality. She could feel the slight weight of Cara's arm across her back and the hard ground beneath her breasts. Not even her bedding could keep the chill out from the cold soil beneath her.

Raising her head slightly, Merryn looked around. She saw something, movement, on the other side of the dying fire. There it was again.

Easing out from under Cara, Merryn kept it as slow and steady as she could before she got to her feet and lunged at the dirty bastard who was now rifling through Cara's pouch. Merryn saw the glint of the steel from her own blade lying on the ground next to him.

Without a sound, the two tumbled to the ground, Merryn on top of the drifter, who's eyes only registered his shock for a moment before they turned hard; the eyes of a survivor. Merryn knew it well, and knew how dangerous this man really was. He had nothing and nothing to lose, save for what he was about to steal from them.

The brunette felt a rage overtake her, boiling from the pit of her belly until it finally fired out of her fingers. She wrapped her hands around his scrawny neck, squeezing.

"Ye think ye c'n take from me, ye daft bastard," she hissed, teeth glinting white in the moonlight. "Know yer kind, I do." She raised his head, only to slam it back into the leaf-strewn ground beneath them.

Cara heard a sharp thud, her eyes flying open. Looking around desperately for Merryn, she saw her straddling Daniel. The brunette's back was to her, but she could see the man's legs flailing frantically, his body bucking, trying to get the girl off him.

As the blonde watched, Merryn's fist came away, only to slam down into his face, a wet crunch following the impact, followed by a hoarse, whispery scream.

Merryn watched in satisfaction as she saw what was left of his teeth disappear into the dark cavern that was his putrid mouth. Inky blood splattered out, dribbling down the side of hic chin.

"Bastard," she hissed again, squeezing harder, using both hands now.

As Daniel began to gasp, his eyes huge and bloodshot, Merryn ceased to see his face. His wide blue eyes turned brown, the stringy mop of brown hair fading into red. He reached for her, the steel of his gauntlet glimmering in the fires beneath the cauldrons.

Behind her, Merryn can hear her name whispered on the wind, floating to her ears before brushing by. She squeezed tighter, feeling the soldier's frantic hand on her triceps, though the grip was weakening significantly.

"Merryn! Stop it! Let go!"

Merryn gasped, as though taking a breath for the first time. The night closed in around her, the rough, hair-covered skin beneath her hands trickling into her conscious mind.

"Yer killing him," was sobbed quietly next to her.

Merryn's hands released their purchase as though they'd been burned. She looked down at the drifter. His eyes were closed, his face twisted in pain and fear, chest heaving.

She climbed off him, looking around, feeling lost and confused. She heard Cara crawl over to the man, talking to him quietly. She also heard the blonde searching through her pouch until she found the medicines she needed to help with the pain of his destroyed mouth.

Looking down at her hands, Merryn felt her blood go cold, her fingers still tingling as they got circulation back into them, so great had been her hold on him. She grunted as her body fell to the ground, her knees meeting the chilled soil. She couldn't take her eyes off her hands, stunned that she nearly took a man's life with them, just her own touch.

"What evil has me?" she whispered, stunned and feeling shame spread through her like wildfire. She'd lost control. Only the sound of Cara's voice had saved the drifter's life.

Glancing over at her friend who tended to his wounds, she could not meet the watery blue eyes that met her own. Standing, she headed into the darkness.

Continued...

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