For complete disclaimers see part 1.
This story is dedicated to the wonderful people of the Xenaverse. Without you, I would not have been able to weather my own storm.
Merryn's eyes closed in pleasure, the ale burning a trail down her throat and warming her stomach. Eyes closed, she sat back against the fire-warmed wall of the cave. She felt the soft touch of Evela's fingers graze her own as the woman took the bladder from her.
Blue eyes slid open as Ezra and Frederick, the man who had been with George, began to talk again.
"'T time is now, lad."
Merryn turned away from the men, tuning out their passionate conversation. With a grunt of exhaustion, she pushed herself to her feet and made her way to the mouth of the cave.
She leaned against cool, stone wall, letting the soft breeze of the late night wash over her. The strong ale running through her body with the fire-warmed inner cave, had warmed her to an uncomfortable level. Needing to cool off and find some solitude, she pushed off the wall, and found a dark corner to sit.
Wishing she had a bladder of ale to herself, she sighed, wallowing in the sounds of night around her. Blindly reaching to the ground, she feels a small assortment of twigs and leaves. Grabbing one of the larger of the twigs, she holds it in her fingers, feeling the shape and size with only her sense of touch. Hands busy, it leaves her mind free to wander.
Now that they'd met up with George and Frederick, she could leave Tamara and Paul in their care, the young mother deciding whether to day with them, or continue on. Merryn had a clear conscience about her actions, knowing they'd be safe. So what lie ahead for her?
Before meeting Cara, she'd been wandering aimlessly, surviving on scrounging from the dead, and pick pocketing the living. She had no direction in mind, just lived by the adventure of each day. Either the local magistrate on her tail, or the need to find solitude or supplies, had guided her movements.
Then there was Cara. The small blonde had given her what she'd never had before, no knew she wanted or needed- a sense of belonging. A family, even if it had only been the two of them. Now she felt lost and lonelier than she could have ever imagined. How could she go back to living a life with only yourself and creatures of the forest to talk to, when she'd had such a wonderful person to share thoughts and dreams with? Someone who made her laugh, even when she didn't want to. She tried so hard to keep her true thoughts away from the blonde, even though somehow Cara saw through the farce, seeming to know within moments what was really going on behind those walled up blue eyes.
Merryn raised a hand, gently wiping at a single tear that had begun to slide from her left eye. No one had made her laugh, or cry, as much as Cara had.
"What makes ye so sad, Merryn?" asked a soft voice, no louder than the softest breeze. Merryn glanced to her right, barely able to see Evela standing near a tree, arms hugging herself. The stripe of white could be seen in the slender moonlight.
Seeing that she hadn't scared the young girl, nor angered her, Evela made her way over to her. Lowering herself gracefully to the ground, she studied the beautiful brunette.
"Who do ye think of?"
Merryn shook her head, wiping her wet fingertip on her tunic. She blinked rapidly, trying to get her emotions to cooperate. She wasn't sure why, but she began to speak.
"Her name was Cara," her voice was soft, eyes focused on the leaves of a tree, the moonlight making them glow.
Evela waited. Where the brunette spoke no more, she cleared her throat softly. "Who was this Cara?"
Merryn glanced over at her, a soft smile curling her lips. "She was my best friend, my family." She sighed, eyes finding the glowing leaves again. "She was my friend."
"'M sorry, Merryn. What happened ta her?"
Evela nodded, not surprised. They were quiet for awhile, both watching as the moon began to slowly fade from the sky. The darkest part of night was upon them.
"Will ye travel with us?" Evela asked at length. Merryn sighed, shaking her head. "'N why not?"
"I dona belong," she said simply. Evela smiled gently, laying a warm hand on the brunette's arm. When she saw she had the girl's attention, she spoke.
"We all find 'r way, Merryn, 'n cannot do it alone."
Merryn stared into caring, dark eyes. She saw truth in those eye, and acceptance. Evela stood, about to return to the cave. She looked at the brunette, kindness in her dark eyes.
"A family c'n come at any time." With those soft words, she was gone.
Merryn sat in the back of the buckboard, body swaying with the movement of the horses' steps over the rough terrain. Her eye was caught by curious dark. She let her gaze settle fully on Paul. When he saw he had her attention, he smiled, big and bright. The brunette couldn't help herself- she smiled back.
Looking over her right shoulder, she saw the movement of the brown and tan horses' rumps, muscles flexing in their flanks as they did their master's bidding. She sighed, wondering not the first time, what she was doing there.
Paul. That little boy. Say nothing with his mouth he may, but the boy spoke volumes with his eyes. She thought about the night before.
Everyone had found a place to sleep in the warm cave, the fire beginning to burn down. Blue eyes studied them all, everyone exhausted from a long night filled with fear and running. Slowly making her way to her feet, she gathered what few belongings she'd managed to grab from Ezra's house, tucking them to her body as she picked her way over the bodies, toward the mouth of the cave.
Nearly stumbling over Frederick, she caught herself with a hand to the stone, steadying herself. Once she had her footing again, she headed out into the early dawn. There was a chill in the air, and she pulled her cloak around her body, clasping it with nimble fingers. Taking a deep breath, she was about to start out when she felt a tug on her cloak.
Merryn was surprised to see Paul looking up at her. Brows drawing, she knelt down in ftont of him.
"What's 't matter, lad?" she asked, her voice soft. He stared into her eyes, blindly grabbing for her large hand, holding it in both his warm, little ones.
She raised a brow at this, but waited to see what he was going to do. She felt a slight tug, the little boy grunting slightly as he used a good amount of his body weight. Not understanding, Merryn cocked his head to the side. Standing, she mussed his hair, trying to take her hand from his. He refused to let it go.
"I've ta go, Paul," she said, voice a bit more stern. The boy held her hand in one of his now, turning his little body toward the cave, trying his best to tug her with him.
Curious, she followed the boy, Paul nearly stumbling as he no longer had resistance. She caught him by tugging on his hand. Getting his footing, they headed back into the cave. He looked up at her, tucking his lower lip as he yanked down on her hand. She bent down, lightly pushed to her butt by the little guy. About to protest, Merryn's words died in her mouth as Paul crawled into her lap, curling up against her and falling asleep.
Sighing, and resting her hand protectively upon his shoulder, Merryn's head fell back against the stone wall behind her. She glanced to her right, seeing everyone still asleep. Almost everywhere. Evela's eyes were open, a soft smile on her lips.
With a sigh, she relaxed during the rest of the ride.
Cayshire Castle. It stood atop a rocky hill, on its own island, attached to the land by a stone bridge. The winding road leading up to its ruined keep was treacherous, the horses whinnying at the path they were set upon.
Merryn could hear Frederick yelling at the poor beasts, trying to get them to keep their paces. Blue eyes met dark, Ezra shrugging his shoulders as they headed higher.
The buckboard was met by a young boy, perhaps ten years of age, the boy taking the palfrey by the bit, leading them through the arch.
Merryn looked around the large, outdoor space. The walls were crumbling, age and battle the enemy of the stones lying about. She pushed herself up from the recline she'd been in since she'd dozed, the sway of the buckboard as good as any lullaby Cara might offer.
They were led around toward a set of stone steps, the top one split in half. The heavy wooden door was braced with iron. Standing in the doorway was a man, his hair reaching to the middle of his wide back, blonde, and wild. Piercing, suspicious gray eyes watched the wagon come to a stop. His feet were set wide apart, thick, leather lacing wrapped around his calves, up to just under his knee to secure the high top turn shoe. His hand rested on the pommel of a large sword.
"Gerik, we've guests," George called out, hopping down from his seat. The blonde man's eyes did not leave the five strangers.
"Me eyes do not deceive, George," he muttered, bringing his arms up to cross over his chest.
George ignored him, tossing the reigns to the buckboard, then helping Tamara and Evela to the ground. Merryn jumped down, boots landing soundly on the cracked stone. She looked up to see gray eyes on her, roaming up and down her body, distaste pulling up Gerik's lip. She ignored him.
"Come!" George said, waving everyone in, his voice filled with pride. He looked up at Gerik, who had yet to move. George stood his ground, bearded jaw clenched, though his gaze never flickered. Without a sound, the giant of a man finally stepped aside, scrutinizing all who passed before him.
Merryn was uncomfortable as she walked through the short breezeway, the sun shining down on her once more as she stepped out into the main yard. Turning in a small circle, she took in the walls, cracked and filled with hundreds of windows, like eyes looking down at her. Not to her surprise, she saw faces appear in those windows as George called out the arrival of the strangers.
Blue eyes were caught when another door opened, the left side of a pair. The person standing there was lost in the deep shadows within. Merryn knew she was being stared at. She swallowed, trying to keep her anger in check. She hated the feeling of lost control over her own situations.
"Returned, have ye?" was said from the shadows of the open door. She stopped, knowing that voice- deep, a full rumble from the chest. A smile began with the twitch of the corner of her mouth before spreading across her lips. The owner of the voice stepped out of the shadows, the sun shining down on black hair.
"Angus," she said, walking over to him. The Irishman smiled, his mouth visible as the heavy beard of a year ago was gone.
"Dia duit," he said, meeting her half way. She smiled.
"God 'n Mary te ye, as well."
"Who'r yer friends?" he asked, looking past the brunette at the small group, looking around the yard.
"Ezra, his wife, Evela, Tamara, 'n the lad is Paul." She pointed to each person named. Angus nodded, looking back to blue eyes.
"'N yer friend?" He saw the sadness fill the girl's eyes before they fell to the ground. He nodded, needing to hear no more. "Come," he said, voice soft. "Let us feed ye."
Merryn was amazed. Angus was running quite the operation at the crumbling old caste. She and the others were led into the dark, chill confines of great halls, wood and stone ceilings so high, they defied sight. They passed many, most smiling or nodding a welcome, all bustling around to perform a given duty. Inside the castle was a city, self-sufficient and alive.
They were taken up a long, winding staircase that led to a second floor, dark, only lit by the torch their nameless guide held. Golden waves of light illuminated the stone walls as they walked past. Merryn felt a gentle touch and looked down. Paul grinned up at her, both his hands wrapped around her larger one. She smiled, reached down to grab the boy, pulling him up to rest on her hip. He happily draped an arm around her shoulders as he enjoyed the new perspective.
A large, iron-ribbed door was squeaked open, the torch throwing light into the deeply shadowed room.
"Lot 'o us sleep 'ere." She tilted the torch toward the wall, a second torch in a sconce flared to life. Without another word, the heavy-set woman waddled out of the room, leaving the five of them to their own devices. Tamara jumped as the woman called over her shoulder, halfway down the hall. "Suppa 'n an hour!"
Merryn found Evela's amused gaze. Ezra took the torch from the wall, waving it around the large, cold room. Scattered all over the straw-covered stone floor were bedrolls, pallets, blankets and various personal belongings. He walked further into the room, chasing the shadows away, revealing a huge fireplace stretching along one wall, tall enough for a grown man to stand inside it's belly. There was one window, tall and narrow, wooden shutters keeping the night air from seeping through the windowless orifice. Along that stretch, near the window, was the only bare space on the floor.
Merryn removed her cloak, balling it up and tossing it to the floor. She heard the others beginning to disrobe of their supplies as well. Some things the brunette kept on her person, not trusting anyone around her to not rob her blind. She smirked at that thought, considering at one time that's exactly what she would have done to every person in the castle.
A fire roared and smoked from the massive fireplace in the Great Hall. Torches lined the walls, as well as lamps on the long, scarred tabletops. Merryn was surprised to see people lined every table, several dozen all told.
Angus stood with a small group of men, talking and laughing, sipping from a wooden mug of something. His dark eyes caught the brunette's. Turning from his friends, he grinned, walking over to her.
"Welcome!" he boomed, arms spread wide. Walking up to Merryn, he placed a hand on her shoulder.
Merryn smiled at her old acquaintance. She wasn't sure how to feel about such attention, but tried to accept it with grace. She respected the man, after all, if not for him, she would never have had more time with Cara.
"Come," he said, leading her toward the longest of the tables. "May ye and yer friends be guests 'o honor!" He indicted five chairs near the empty one at the end. "Bring out't feast!" he called out, clapping large hands.
The huge room was filled with murmurs as some scattered to grab and serve supper, while others milled around, finding their seats. Merryn gathered Ezra, Evela, Tamara and Paul, showing them to their seats.
They were all amazed at the feeling of family and camaraderie that surrounded them. Much laughter and loud voices. Much teasing, a few tossed morsels of bread pudding.
Merryn was astonished at what she was witnessing, having never experienced anything like it. Other than a couple watchful sets of eyes, everyone enfolded Merryn and her friends with open arms and happy hearts.
Evela watched quietly, as seemed to be her way, taking in everything she saw, a soft smile curling her lips. Her husband, meanwhile, talked and laughed, sharing his own stories to make the crowds roar with laughter. Tamara seemed most comfortable helping the serving party, and Paul made little time finding other children his age to run around the seemingly endless space of the Great Hall.
Merryn was almost double fisting it as she ate her fill. The food was some of the best she'd ever had, and was certainly more bountiful than she ever believed possible. She glanced over at their host, a bemused look on his face.
"Wha?" she asked, brows drawn. Angus rested his chin on his fist.
"Ye starvin', lass?"
"No. 'N dona call me lass!" She pointed the dagger she'd been using to spear her food, at his throat. He chuckled, turning back to his own food.
The food was wonderful, the company entertaining, but Merryn needed some time alone. She left the Great Hall after dipping her hands in the waiting bowls of water, ready to rinse the juices from the meat off her fingertips. Her boot heels made hollow thuds on the stone as she walked down the long, cold, arid corridors. She felt naked without all her equipment hanging from her, only in her tunic, breeches and boots. As she stepped out onto the turret, placing her hands along its cut stone edges. It was cold up there, the ocean bringing in waves of chill with every break of its waves.
Looking out over the island, she could see random bits of light coming from fires burning in windows or through doors, in the castle. The outer apron lined the rocky edge of the island, leaving little to no room for anything else.
Walking to the other side of the tower, away from the ocean, her eyes ran along the stone bridge leading back to land. It was dark, but she remembered the farms and small, but well-kept houses that dotted the landscape.
Glancing up to the sky, she saw the moon had finally decided to grow, and would soon be full in a few nights time.
Merryn sighed, running her hands through thick hair. The weight of the past few days was bearing on her. Coupled with the fact she hadn't had a good nights sleep since the night before Cara, … well, she hadn't slept.
A huge yawn nearly splitting her face in two, the brunette decided it was time to turn in.
"Angus?" Merryn looked around the large room, gray light painted in long rectangles from the windows made a patchwork for her to walk through.
"Aye. Over here, Merryn."
Hearing the dark man's voice in the far corner of the huge, Great Hall, the brunette headed that way, boots making hollow thuds on the stone. She started as the corner of the room was suddenly ablaze with golden firelight. Angus was a simple silhouette before the massive fireplace.
"'T difference fire c'n make," he said quietly, eyes burning orange. Merryn nodded, but said nothing. She had been summoned there, so waited for Angus to tell her why. Having his fill of the fire, the dark man turned to her with a smile. "Merryn, let us talk." He walked further into the room, the shadows growing with each step until he stepped into a patch of light. There he removed a torch from the wall, walking back over to the fireplace to light the tip. He studied the flame for a moment before taking another torch, replacing the lit one in its sconce. He went around this way until about half the room was lit.
Merryn watched him, arms crossing over her chest. She had a slight feeling of unease.
"Ye've been here fer three days," he began, sipping from a wooden mug. Merryn said nothing. He eyed her, sizing her up. Merryn didn't like the scrutiny, but kept her silence. "Have ye enjoyed yer time?"
"Aye," Merryn said slowly, carefully.
"I am glad." He put his mug down, clasping his hands behind his back. "I'd like ye ta stay on, Merryn. Ye have good instincts. Yer strong, good on yer feet-"
"I'm not here ta fight, Angus."
"Wha?" he looked at her, surprised. "'N why not?"
"'M done. Not a fighter. What I had ta fight fer," she looked away, then lowered her eyes. "Well, 'tis gone."
Merryn flinched slightly when she heard the angry footfall that walked over to her. She felt Angus' presence in front of her. Finally, she lifted challenging eyes.
"We went in there, Merryn, 'n we got Cara out." His voice was carefully controlled, though his anger was boiling just under the surface. "She was alive. Frighten'd, a wee worse fer wear, but alive." He was beginning to breathe through his nose now, keeping the calm. "My wife, Teresa, was no so lucky."
Merryn looked at him, stunned. She could see the pain in his eyes, slowly overcoming the anger. The dark man turned away, shoulders slumped as he was overcome with the memory of seeing his beloved wife, beaten and tortured, bloody, lying on the cellar floor. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the brunette.
"Merryn, my people, our people, deserve ta be free. These bloody tyrants ran to the hills!" his booming voice echoed off the stone walls around them. "They ran, leaving us ta die 'n be ravaged by this, this, madness! Some call it God's wrath, other's 't work 'o witches. Dona matter. 'Tis here, 'n I'm gonna take back what's ours."
"Ta what end, Angus?" Merryn asked, her own anger building. "Ta get yer people slaughtered against trained, hired killers?"
"Hired," he said, holding up a finger. "Hired soldiers dona care, but fer their pence. We fight fer our lives, our freedom. 'N as Teresa looks down from Heaven, I want her ta know she'll be avenged."
"Cara didna die from soldiers, Angus," Merryn said, her voice soft, feeling the other man's pain.
"Nay. She is gone. What have ye got now?" He looked deeply into her eyes, not allowing her gaze to falter. "What have ye got ta go back ta, Merryn?"
"I've got me," the brunette said, her anger returning as Angus pointed out truth she didn't want to face.
"Then why'r ye here, lass?" he asked, eyes wide, voice quiet with accusation. She had no answer.
"Cara is dead!" he boomed, brows drawing to create dark shadows where his eyes once were. "'N she's lookin' down at ye, and she sees a coward!"
Merryn held her ground, hands closing into painful fists, short, jagged nails biting into the palms of her hands. She didn't want to admit he was right.
Angus ran his hands through his hair, trying to get himself under control. Taking several deep breaths, he gave her a soft smile.
"If ye dona want te fight, you dona want te fight. But, Merryn, stay. Have a family again."
She looked into his dark eyes, seeing the genuine caring in them. After a moment, she nodded. His smile grew. Without another word, Merryn hurried from the Great Hall.
Merryn raised the bow, testing the tension. Satisfied, she shouldered the bow, a quiver filled with well-made arrows already attached to her back.
Stepping out of the armory, Merryn headed for the keep, and then beyond where she'd grab a horse and head out into the woods on the mainland. The sun just moments away from chasing the dreariness of the castle away, the brunette noticed big, brown eyes watching her.
"Wha?" she asked, brows drawn. Paul, looking up at her, began to chew on his lower lip, hands fidgeting with the hem of his tunic. His big eyes trailed from hers to the bow over her shoulder, back to her eyes. Merryn followed his gaze. Smiling, she reached out a hand. With a huge grin, the boy took it, happily joining her.
Merryn brought the horse to a stop, dismounting the beast, then reaching up to life the boy off, his small feet touched the ground with uncertainty. The brunette smiled. She wondered if that had been his first time on a horse.
Taking his small hand in hers, they headed into the dense forest. Stopping, she sat on a rock, pulling the boy to stand before her.
"Alright, lad," she began, pulling an arrow from her quiver. "When I was a small lass, livin' in that church, Father Joseph would take me ta hunt with 'im. Blind as a mouse, was he." She smiled at the memory, which made the boy smile, his eyes still riveted to the arrow. "This, lad, is called an arrow," she began to explain. "This," she said, brushing gray feathers against the boy's nose, making him sneeze, "is the fletching. Goose feathers, these." Next she ran her fingers down the long, wooden shaft. "This, lad, is the stele. 'N this, the arrow. Sharp." She grabbed his small hand, bringing a single finger to push gently against the tip. Paul snatched his hand away, holding it in the other, surprised at the little tingle the point sent through his finger, up his small arm.
Setting the arrow aside, Merryn swung the bow off her shoulder, spreading her knees to place the bow between, one end resting in the rich soil at their feet.
"Tug on this, lad," she nodded toward the string of the bow. The boy grabbed it in his fist, grunting slightly as he tried to pull against the great tension. Merryn chuckled. Getting to her feet, she grabbed her bow, holding a finger to her lips. Paul nodded.
As they headed deeper into the forest, Merryn moved with cat-like stealth and silence, eyes turned to her surroundings, allowing her body to call out to the life around her, feeling the pulse of the rapid heartbeat of her quarry. Suddenly she stopped, falling to her knees. Peeking through the thick foliage, she saw the flicker of a white tail, then the brown body, hidden well by the forest.
"Nock yer arrow, lad," she whispered, doing as she said. Paul watched with large eyes. Bringing the bow up, Merryn closed her right eye, focusing with her left, then letting her arrow fly, the deer crying out in surprise before it collapsed. Paul looked on with huge eyes. He quickly followed the brunette as she hurried over to the felled animal.
"This, lad, is how to butcher."
Merryn whipped around, left hand already slicing through the air before she'd even completed her turn, her right arm immediately raising to ward off the blow she sensed was coming. Her right leg swung out, making solid contact with the side of her opponents thigh. The blade in her left hand slashed through the neck region, her right coming down to pound the top of the head.
"I'm down! I'm down!" Erik exclaimed, covering his face with his arms. Merryn swung one final time, the blade in her left hand coming within a breath of his nose. He looked up at her with wide, frightened blue eyes.
Grinning, Merryn collected both blades in her left hand, using her right to reach down and help the man to his feet.
"Second blade's a killer, it is," he panted, gaining his breath.
"Aye." She looked at the blade in question, happy with the sword Ezra had created especially for her in his blacksmith's shop. It was much like a Roman Gladius, short, light and deadly sharp. Merryn had always been as good with her left hand as her right, easily multi-tasking between the two. She found fighting was no different. Over the six months she'd been at Cayshire Castle, she'd honed her craft, making each arm as strong as the other, both functioning equally, with equal speed and skill. She came at them like a storm, all steel and intensity. She had become feared and respected, even among those who still refused to see her as nothing more than a woman invading their world.
Since she refused to fight, Angus had asked her to train others to fight. She had natural skill and instinct that many of the growing army lacked. Angus had been lovingly crafting his army, Ezra and the other blacksmiths working feverishly to create enough armor and arms for the men.
The castle had become a fortress to be reckoned with. Merryn had convinced Angus to talk to the men, make them bathe at least three times per week, Merryn working on the women, elderly and lame. If an outbreak of the black sickness erupted, it would be disastrous. They grew all of their own food, made their own supplies and weapons, and had very little contact with the outside world. The thought was in everyone's mind every day, but they lived as though they'd never get sick, continuing on with the plan.
Merryn sheaved her blades in the double baldric, running a hand through sticky, sweaty hair.
"That, lads, 'tis what ye dona want te do." There was a round of chuckles as Erik brushed himself off, a slight limp as he walked back to his place in line. "Watch their feet. Weapons, too." She looked at each and every expectant face, many meeting her gaze with obvious respect and admiration. These men were farmers and peasants. Merryn almost laughed. They knew no better. "Off with ye!" she waved them all off. The large, wooden tubs were already set out in the yard, the men disrobing as they walked over to them.
Walking back toward the keep, she noticed someone standing in the shadows. The sheer size told her everything she needed to know.
"Ye need ta call yer dog off, Angus," she muttered, storming into the Great Hall, which Angus had turned into the gathering place for his army and officers. Angus, going over a map with two other men, stood, surprised by the brunette's outburst. She walked over to him, eyes burning. "If ye do not, I'll do it myself."
"Are ye outta yer mind?" Angus asked, anger burning through his dark eyes. Merryn met his gaze straight on. She pointed a warning finger at him, and left, leaving Angus and the rest to look after her.
Merryn was furious. Gerik had made it well known his thoughts of a woman being anywhere but in the kitchen or chasing after the numerous children. Merryn had heard rumors that he was talking to other soldiers of a like mind. The brunette worried that the giant and his followers would cause discord in the smooth running operation that was Cayshire.
Merryn headed up the circular staircase that led to the living space that she and Ezra had built for the five of them. The large room had been walled off into three separate spaces- one for Evela and Ezra, one for Merryn alone, and one for Tamara and Paul, though Paul stayed with the brunette most the time.
Merryn stripped out of her mail, the metal falling to the stone in a loud clump. She was angry, her breathing uneven. She had worked so hard at the castle, deciding that Angus was right- she had no one and nothing beyond the walls of Cayshire. So she had embraced it, helping to rebuild the crumbling walls. A smile spread across her lips as she remembered the birth of the now two month old Ezekiel.
"Merryn! Merryn, please help me," Jane begged, crouched over, arms crossed over her protruding stomach. The brunette, who had been heading down an adjoining hall, turned, eyes growing wide at the puddle of water at the young woman's feet.
Hurrying over to the blonde, she helped her to the floor, murmuring words of encouragement.
"Hang on, lass. I'll get help-"
"No! It's comin'!" Jane cried, her voice hoarse, fingers claw-like as they dug desperately into Merryn's sleeve.
"Alright." Merryn could feel her heart pounding in her temples. She helped the mother-to-be to a squatting position, her back leaning against the cold stone wall. Merryn reached up, grabbed the torch from its sconce, bringing it down, chasing the shadows away from between Jane's spread knees. Her breath caught, never seeing anything like that before. The baby's head had already crowned, Jane screaming as her flesh ripped. The insides of Jane's thighs were streaked with red. Unsure what to do, she reached in, feeling the hot, slimy flesh of the baby, Jane's chest heaving with every breath and every cry.
"It's comin', lass," Merryn breathed, exhilarated and frightened at the same time. "Push, lass. Push!"
Jane's head fell back against the wall, her blonde hair hanging in sweaty strands. Eyes squeezed shut, mouth opening in one final scream. Merryn screamed along with her as the baby slid out with a liquid gush.
"Ye've gotta son, Jane!" Merryn looked up at the exhausted mother with tear-filled eyes. The baby began to whine, getting used to his lungs in the cold air instead of warm liquid. It didn't take him long to push out his first cry. To Merryn's surprise, a round of applause erupted in the hallway. She looked up over her shoulder, seeing smiling members of the household, some of the women hurrying over to the new mother. Jolene, a midwife, immediately set about checking Jane's health and state of her sex. She turned to some of the men and boys hanging around.
"Well now, stand around like a bunch of oxes," she chastised. Getting the point, the men jumped into action, lifting the poor girl to a comfortable bed.
The baby had been taken from Merryn's arms, but she stood there in the hall, tears still in her eyes and a lightness in her heart. Looking down at her hands, she saw they were covered with the blood and juices of new life. She felt someone was still with her in the hall, and glanced up. Evela was watching her, a smile on her face.
"Ye did good, Merryn," came the soft voice. Merryn grinned.
"Thank ye." The brunette had never been so proud of anything she'd done in her entire life.
"Cara smiles down upon ye, now."
"Ye think?" Merryn asked? She'd told Ezra's wife of her life, though short, with the blonde. It was wonderful to have Cara's memory live inside of another, as well as her. Evela nodded.
"Aye." She walked over to the still stunned brunette. "Come. Let us clean you up."
Merryn rested her head back against the wall, a soft smile curving her lips. The business of Gerik yet again watching and stalking, forgotten. She saw that baby in her arms again, how tiny he was, yet how big his cry.
She felt a special bond with the child, which his mother recognized. Jane tried to give Merryn as much time with Ezekiel as possible. At first, it scared the brunette to death! She had not one clue how to handle a baby, how to hold them, change them. Her smile grew at the memory. The first time she'd tried to clean the lad after changing his soiled cloth. The new one she'd put on him had slid right down his legs, his tiny bladder unable to hold in his need any longer. The next thing Merryn knew, the front of her tunic was being sprayed and marked.
Merryn chuckled lightly at the memory.
"Wish ye could see 'im, lass," she whispered, eyes closing.
Merryn looked down into squinted blue eyes, faint, blonde brows drawn in infinite concentration. She smiled at the little sounds Ezekiel made, tiny fingers wrapped around one of hers. Her eyes scanned his pinched face, taking the tiny nose, nostrils flared as the baby instinctually took in everything around him, smells in the air that would remind him of his mother.
"'Tis a beautiful child, Merryn."
The brunette turned to her right, an instant smile matching that of Cara's. She nodded, turning back to the child in her arms.
"Aye." She looked again at the blonde. "Would ye like ta hold 'im?" Cara's smile at the offer warmed Merryn's entire being.
"Very much so."
"Support his head, lass," Merryn whispered as she handed the tiny body into Cara's tender embrace. The blonde looked down into the child's face, her smile grown soft and wistful.
"Hello, little Ezekiel," she cooed, bringing a hand up to touch the soft skin of the baby's face, lightly tapping his pert nose with a fingertip. Merryn moved behind Cara, resting her chin atop her shoulder, seeing what the blonde was seeing. For a moment, it seemed as if the impossible had happened, and the child in Cara's arms was their child, born of the love Merryn shared with Cara.
"He's got yer eyes, Merryn," Cara said, glancing at the brunette.
"Aye. Yer hair."
Cara smiled, nodding. Merryn leaned into the blonde, inhaling the smell of the golden hair, eyes closing in bliss. She felt Cara lean beck into her. Merryn wrapped her around the blonde's waist, both looking into the child's face.
"Ye must head the family, Merryn," Cara said softly, leaning down to place a light kiss on Ezekiel's forehead. "With yer guidance, the family will grow 'n be grand." Cara stepped away from Merryn, turning to face her. She looked up at her with the softest green eyes, head slightly cocked to the side. Cradling the baby in the crook of one arm, she raised her other. Gently resting her hand on Merryn's cheek, using her thumb to wipe away a single tear. Merryn leaned into the touch, eyes closing for a moment. She knew their time was coming to an end. "Lead yer family, Merryn," whispered. She leaned up, eyes closing as she placed a gentle kiss to the brunette's lips. As she pulled away, she smiled. "Now wake."
Merryn's eyes blinked open, surprised to feel the tickle of her dream tear very much making its way to the corner of her mouth. Sniffling and wiping it away, she sighed.
Suddenly the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Eyes growing wide, threw herself to the side. Sparks from steel against stone flew, as well as the deafening clang. Rolling to her feet, Merryn immediately grabbed for her blades, both whooshing from their leather homes.
Gerik turned to her, teeth bared as anger coursed through him. He'd thought for sure he had the element of surprise with the slumbering women.
Breathing hard, Merryn's eyes were trained to the huge man, his blonde hair half covering his face. He looked like the wild ones of the Highlands.
Legs spread wide for center balance, Merryn flexed her fingers on the grips of her blades, palms becoming sweaty. Gerik mirrored her stance, one large hand flexing, the other wrapped around the hand-and-a-half grip of his long blade, the tip gleaming menacingly in the sparse sunlight.
Merryn could feel sweat dribbling down her back and between her breasts. Keeping her cool, she brought in air through her nose, exhaling between slightly parted lips.
With the cry of the beast, Gerik lunged, bringing his blade down. Merry met his thrust, using her body strength to push him back, which didn't last for long. With a growl, he came back for another blow, Merryn blocking it with her left blade, bringing her right blade up under his to push it away, Gerik nearly lost his sword altogether. This angered him more, his face red as he began to swing blindly, pushing the brunette further and further across the small room. Fist balling, he lashed out, catching the brunette across the jaw. The light from the window reflected off the blood that flew from her mouth as she bit her tongue. Pain soared throughout Merryn's head, rocking her world. She couldn't get lost in the pain, or she was dead.
Merryn knew she would be trapped soon between the wall and Gerik's massive body. Ducking his blow, she used as much force as she could in her kick, catching him square in the gut. Coughing as he stumbled backward, Gerik looked at her, then raised his blade as Merryn came at him with dizzying speed and ferocity, both blades catching the sunlight to look like slashes of light coming at him, catching him on the arm, the other slicking hic cheek. She kicked at him again, this time catching him between the legs.
Gerik's eyes flew wide open, the pain sprouting through out his body. Even still, he threw himself to the ground, rolling out of the way of the wicked blades of Merryn. Getting to his feet behind the brunette, he raised his blade high overhead, bringing it down toward her shoulder, Merryn bringing both her blades up, catching and dislodging Gerik's blow. The sword flew out of his large hands, leaving him defenseless as Merryn whirled to face him, another kick catching him in the chest, the brunette enraged as she followed his staggering progress, another kick across the jaw, whipping his head to the side. Another kick landed to his knee, bringing him to the ground. Merryn stood over him, nostrils flaring with murderous intent. She looked into his terrified blue eyes, though saw him reaching for a dagger in his boot. Kicking him once more, Gerik gave up on his dagger, but with the rage of near defeat, he lunged at her legs, bringing her to the ground, her blades flying off into the shadows.
Merryn cried out as pain licked up her spine, her head bouncing off the floor, nearly knocking her out. Blinking rapidly, biting her tongue again to make the pain wake her up.
Gerik was on top of her in a heartbeat, his snarling face in hers as one huge fist found its way to her jaw, making her head bounce again. Her vision began to grow dark around the edges, her eyes rolling in their sockets. Bringing her hands up, she began to pound uselessly against his shoulders and sides. Her world was rocked once more as a fist was slammed into her ribs. She knew immediately that the fragile bones were broken.
Bringing her hand up once more, one last desperate attempt to save her own life, she reached for his eyes, fingers turning into claws.
Gerik screamed, trying to get away, pain shooting through his head, down into his neck as his world went black.
Merryn cried out in pain as she moved with him, not letting him go, her fingers firmly latched onto the man's sockets. Blood flowed down his face, and over her hand, Gerik's shrill screams making her blood run cold.
Finally pushing away from him, she watched in horror as the huge man convulsed on the floor in agony, face covered by his hands.
Gasping for breath and clutching her side, Merryn saw his blade, picking it up in her blood-covered hand.
Angus laughed with Lukas and John, two of his most trusted officers in the yard. The army was working on drills, their grunts and clank of steel rent the afternoon air.
Suddenly all noise stopped, the day becoming deathly silent. Wondering what was wrong, Angus turned from his men, stunned at what he saw.
Merryn limped into the yard, half hunched over, her mouth a bloody mess, her tunic covered in it. She looked at everyone present, eyes wild and filled with rage. Wincing as she raised Gerik's blade, she shouted into the still day.
"Any 'o ye wish ta fight me, do it now." With that, she threw the blade to the ground, slowly walking away, barely making it to a doorstep before sliding down to her knees.
Angus ran over to her, falling beside her. "Merryn," he breathed, stunned and worried. He brought her hanging head up, looking into the broken face. "By God, Merryn, who did this?"
"Yer pup was spanked," she whispered, barely hanging on to consciousness. With that, she passed out cold.
Merryn had to cough, need to cough, was about to choke on her cough, but didn't dare. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to swallow it down, but began to choke. Finally giving in, she cried out in pain as she coughed, her midsection making its injuries known with a howling scream.
"'Tis alright," Evela cooed, helping the brunette back to the bed, blue eyes squeezed shut in intense pain. Dark brows were furrowed in concern and understanding. Evela brushed dark strands away from the beautiful, angular face, so filled with pain. "Alright, dear Merryn."
Merryn tried to relax, even out her breathing, which was already shallow. The more she breathed, the more it tore at her midsection. Her face was beginning to hurt now, too, the adrenaline gone, leaving only pain. Her skin was stiff and sticky from healing pastes. Evela had already gently washed away the blood and gore from Merryn's face, neck and hands. She was bruised badly, her pupils dilated.
Merryn could hear soft murmurings from another part of the room, someone saying that Gerik was alive, but blinded. She couldn't feel pleasure from this news. It had been unnecessary, and she resented Gerik forcing her hand.
"How is she?" Angus asked, his deep voice hushed.
"Alive," Evela said, her cool touch on Merryn's forehead.
"Shall we call fer 'T Healer, Angus?" someone else asked. There was silence, and Merryn could feel eyes on her. She didn't have the strength to open her eyes or wave off such a crazy notion. Finally Angus spoke for her.
"Nay. Merryn's a fighter."
"Aye," Evela agreed. "She'll be back on her feet shortly." Merryn felt that hand gently caress the side of her head. "Won't ye, Merryn?"
"Aye," the brunette whispered, moving her face as little as possible.
"Out with ye," Evela shooed the gathered crowed, the second wave of such a crowd. Everyone filed out obediently, some giving one last mournful look to one of their own. Soon it was just Evela and Merryn.
Merryn winced as shooting pain ripped through her middle, stealing its breath along the way. After a breathless moment, it passed, leaving her weak and gasping.
"Merryn, take this."
Merryn felt her head being carefully lifted, and something against her lips, which made her wince yet again. She opened her mouth with soft encouragement, tasting the bitter herb.
"Coriander te help ye sleep, Merryn."
Merryn nodded, taking a sip from the mug at her lips. She swallowed the herb, then laid back down, praying for a quick effect. The last thing she remembered before drifting off was the feel of a small body climbing up onto the bed and curling up next to her.
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