For disclaimers see part 1.
Cyndi, as always you did a good job. And you never complain (nor does Cbar by the way <g>) when I accidentally delete the whole betaread file and you have to do it all over again. Thank you, my friend. What a good thing you saved it, huh? <vbg>
Isa pushed back a sob and tried not to think of the pain or the warm flow of blood that steadily seeped from the gap in her shoulder, staining the rough fabric of her dress. She knew she had to keep moving, or else she would surely die by the hands of a very pissed off Roman soldier.
Isa could hear the sound of approaching footsteps and focused on the relatively safety of the forrest, that seemed so close, but yet so far away.
She gritted her teeth and started to run again, ignoring Flavius's concerned voice, not wanting to know what was happening behind her. She ran past the pottery shed where her brother was supposed to be an apprentice and rounded the corner, hoping she would be out of sight soon. Not looking back she kept running until she reached the treeline. She literally jumped through the bushes. They tore at her dress and scratched the skin of her arms and legs, but she didn't care. She had already lost her sandals and the soles of her feet were assaulted by branches, pebbles and sharp stones.
The rain had started to fall again and Isa angrily wiped away the drops that were blurring her vision, mingling with the tears she didn't know were falling. The forrest was so dense, she couldn't run anymore, but she kept on walking, towards the hill where she knew there was a little shed, she and her brother had built years ago. Isa stumbled and hit her injured shoulder against the trunk of an old oak tree. She bit her lip to prevent herself from crying out loud and gasped for breath. She was wet, tired and the pain in her shoulder made her feel sick to her stomach.
" Just a little further," she encouraged herself, her voice hoarse with pain and thirst. " C'mon Isa, you can do it. Just a little further."
Her hands were shaking when she cautiously grabbed a low branch to pull herself up on her feet . A wave of dizziness almost made her faint, but determined she shook her head.
" No, " she whispered. " Just..just.a..lit.tle..fur.ther!"
With unsteady steps Isa continued her walk, dreading the climb up the hill where she knew the shed was located. Again she lost her balance and she quickly grabbed hold of a tree to keep her from falling. She doubled over in pain, when one of it's branches hit her left shoulder . With all the strength she had left and all the willpower she could muster, Isa tried to fight back the darkness that was threatening to overtake her. She took another deep breath, let go of the tree and took a few steps forward. She didn't get far. Her knees buckled and she could feel herself falling to the ground again. With a soft moan she prepared herself for the impact,that never came. Suddenly she was scooped up in a pair of strong arms, like she was a small child. Cradling her firmly, but gently against a tall, lean body. After that, Isa's world went dark, when unconsciousness finally claimed her.
The crackling fire cast long shadows on the rough surface of the walls, spreading a comfortable warmth and, strangely enough, some coziness in the mostly colorless surroundings. The ceiling was high, only visible due to the happily dancing flames of the few torches that were put up against the wall. The smoke that slowly rose up, disappeared through a small hole in the ceiling, the black traces of soot silent witnesses to all the previous fires that were lit within the walls of the room.
Isa slowly became aware of her surroundings, when she heard the soft sound of boots, shuffling over dry ground. Her body stiffened and immediately a painful jolt was sent through her left arm and shoulder. With a groan she tried to push herself upright, but she was stopped by a warm hand on her good shoulder.
" Lay down," a low not unfriendly voice told her.
Isa felt the hand apply a little pressure and she let herself sink back in the soft bed of hides and woolen blankets. The owner of the voice was sitting with it's back against the fire, so Isa couldn't see a face under the hood, that was now pulled back a little.
" Who are you?" she asked, her voice hoarse with thirst.
" Here. Drink.'"
A hand slid behind her neck, lifting up her head and the stranger held a wooden cup against her lips, filled with deliciously cold water. Isa drank greedily. The cold fluid almost tasting sweet on her dry lips and throat. After she drained the cup, Isa took a deep breath, feeling a little better, though still hurt and tired.
" Rest now."
Isa was lowered back on the bed, wondering why this faceless stranger, made her feel so safe.
" Was it a javelin?" the voice asked, almost casually.
" Yes," Isa answered, shivering when she remembered the impact of the sharp steel with unprotected skin of her shoulder.
" A Roman javelin?"
The voice sounded a little more tense, almost angry.
" Yes," was the simple answer.
Isa could hear a deep intake of breath, that, a few moments later was slowly released again.
" You should rest."
" Who are you? " Isa asked again, intrigued by the solemn stranger, that had been so kind to her. " And where am I?"
" This is my cave, I live here," the stranger answered.
" My name is Isa, I live in the village down the hill," Isa introduced herself, her eyes trying hard to make out a face in the darkness underneath the hood. " What is your name? You do have a name, don't you?" she gently joked.
" Mor. My name is Mor."
Isa suddenly sat up straight, but the unexpected movement made her feel dizzy and she would have toppled over if a strong arm hadn't quickly grabbed her good shoulder to keep her steady.
The hood slid back and with wide eyes Isa took a first glance at the face of her rescuer. A strong face, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. Hair that was long and as dark as the night. And eyes, the color of a summer's sky. So clear and blue, that Isa involuntarily held her breath.
" You! You are the black rider! I always thought you were a man," Isa finally managed to whisper.
One dark eyebrow arched.
" The black rider?" Mor repeated. " Don't tell me the midwives tell tales about me."
Isa cast down her eyes and felt a warm blush creep up her cheeks.
" Um..no.not the midwives," she uncomfortably admitted. " Um..I.I saw you before and..I call you that."
" You'd better rest," Mor advised. " I will get us something to eat. Don't try to leave this cave on your own. You'll never find your way out."
After those words she rose to her full length, flipped the hood back in place, took one of the torches from it's stand and walked towards a dark hallway. The flames cast her long shadow against the walls and before Isa could utter another word, she was gone.
Except for the crackling sound of the fire, there was nothing left but silence.
Isa's green eyes held a puzzled expression when she stared at the ceiling, reliving the few hours that had passed. She realized her action against the Roman soldier would be considered an attack and she somberly pondered over the possible consequences.
She had gotten herself into trouble, she didn't need to be a genius to know that. Titus was known as an arrogant, violent soldier, who enjoyed putting down the inhabitants of the conquered provinces, always looking for ways to aggravate and provoke them. He was the reason a lot of the village's young men had left their families to travel East and join one of the German tribes, across the river Rhine, that still had their independance. They had fought hard and long, using the outstretched, dense forrests to their advantage. Of course the legend of Ambiorix, the leader of the Eburones had already sparked the imagination of many young men. The story told that, long ago, it was Ambiorix who fought Ceasar with all he had, making it impossible for the Roman Emperor to defeat his tribe. But eventually, after years of bloody battles the Romans finally had their victory and Ceasar ordered his troops to execute Ambiorix's whole tribe, including women and children. According to the legend, only a few managed to escape, seeking refuge in the East, with German tribes. One of them supposedly had been Ambiorix himself.
Isa had heard all the stories, but she knew that was just what they were; stories. Unlike her brother Baldric, she didn't believe that there were descendants from the Eburones still planning to come back to fight the Romans and claim their homeland. Besides, life under Roman rule wasn't all that bad. The villagers profited from the building of the roads and the trade that had followed. True, they had to pay heavy taxes and they weren't free, but they had never gone hungry. And as long as the inhabitants of the area obeyed the laws, they were pretty much left alone.
Isa shifted into a more comfortable position and let out a deep sigh. She wondered if she could return to her family any time soon. Maybe she should keep a low profile for a while and things would blow over.
She softly snorted, knowing that wouldn't be the case. Not with Titus. He was one the governors favorites and even Flavius, who was Claudius' son, would have a hard time convincing his father of the fact that Isa had only been protecting herself. Titus probably would have made up a beautiful story, to justify throwing a javelin at her.
Isa felt her eyes go heavy and decided to give into the temptation to close them and rest for a while. Deciding what to do might be easier after a some much needed sleep. She carefully rolled onto her right side and wiggled her body deeper into the soft furs that held a faint trace of lavender. She inhaled deeply and felt her aching body relax. Within a few moments, she was asleep.
Mor had not wasted any time in finding some food for her young guest and herself. She knew exactly where she had put her traps and was happy to find a few rabbits trapped inside them. She made quick work of skinning and gutting them and wrapped the fresh meat in a thin cloth, that was layered with crushed Rosemary leaves. After that she put it away in a leather pouch, making sure to close it securely. She cleaned her dagger in the small creek she had used to rinse the blood off of the meat and cast a look at the sky.
The weather had cleared up and there were only a few gray clouds left. The sun was making it's descent and Mor decided it would be best to return to the cave and see to her patient. A small smile involuntarily tugged at the corner of her mouth when she remembered the surprise on the girl's face, when her hood had slipped off. She didn't get that reaction much, since she usually stayed away from people. Occassionally she met with traders to conduct some business, but she always made sure to wear her cloak and hood, even inside the inns that were usually pretty dark inside. She lead a solitary life and was content with it, pleased with the fact that she could rely on herself and never needed anyone else.
But now there was someone who needed her , even if it would only temporarily. That was something new.
Mor frowned and her face held a pensive expression when she slowly followed a hardly visible track up the hill, towards the entrance of the cave, hidden behind some dense bushes.
Mor had been collecting some plants that afternoon, when her sensitive ears had picked up someone running through the forrest. That was very unusual, since the part of the forrest Mor usually dwelled in, was dense and most people avoided the old tracks, preferring to take the roads, built by the Romans. It was a quicker and safer way of travelling.
Mor had followed the sound, which wasn't hard, because, whoever it was didn't really try hard not to make any noise. When Mor picked up the distinctive scent of blood, she had quickened her pace, her trained instincts telling her somebody must have been hurt. It had not taken her long to find the injured girl. Mor had just arrived when Isa had been trying to get to her feet and the unsteady, slighty swaying form had alarmed her. So had the sight of steadily seeping blood, coming from a gash in her left shoulder. Mor had jumped forward, just in time to catch the girl in her arms. She had hesitated just for a moment, but then decided to take the girl back to her hide out. She clearly was in need of attention.
Mor had carried the unconscious Isa up the hill, to the entrance of the cave she lived in and had carefully lowered her on the bed. With experienced fingers she had examined the wound in her shoulder, relieved to find it was a deep flesh wound, no serious damage had been done. She had rinsed it out with clean, fresh water, quickly stitched it up and covered it with a mixture of different herbs. The rest was up to the girl herself and her body’s ability to heal.
It had taken a while for the girl to regain consciousness and when she did, Mor was sitting by her side. Glad the girl had not been able to see the expression on her face when a pair of emerald green eyes tried to search for the face underneath the hood.
Again a small smile tugged at the corner of Mor's mouth. Isa had not even tried to hide her curiosity and Mor decided she had liked the open, inquisitive expression on the girl's face. The girl appeared to be smart and suddenly Mor wondered if it had been a good idea to bring her into her home.
Her clear blue eyes narrowed and a frown creased her forehead.
" Now what? " Mor whispered to herself. " What will I have to do with you now, little one?"
Suddenly Mor stiffened. Her sensitive ears had picked up a sound that did not belong in her part of the forrest. She was familiar with the rustling of the leaves, the sound of the birds, small animals foraging on the forrest floor, but this was something different. The sound of feet, trying to avoid stepping on the small branches that were scattered around the forrest floor.
Mor slowly lowered her pouch with fresh meat on the ground and soundlessly turned around, her clear blue eyes scanning the bushes behind her. She crouched down behind a blueberry bush, carefully avoiding it's tiny,sharp thorns and waited. She didn't have to wait long. After a little while she saw a movement behind the trees. The shape of a body carefully making it's way through the dense shrubs.
Mor decided not to wait any longer. In one fluid motion she raised herself to her full height. She flicked back her cloak and not making any sound, swiftly crossed the distance between herself and the intruder.
She jumped in front of the other person, kicked his legs away from underneath his body, making him fall to the ground. In an instant she was pinning him down, her knees pressing on his upper arms, her dagger dangerously close to the unprotected skin of his throat.
" Why are you following me?" she growled, from deep within her throat.
A pair of familiar emerald green eyes looked up at her in fear, throwing Mor off balance. Silently she kicked herself for being startled, but the young boy she had wrestled down to the ground had not noticed her momentarily lack of concentration.
" Who are you?" she asked, more gentle this time, already knowing the answer.
" I." the boy swallowed, his eyes fixed on the sharp metal that was still dangerously close to his throat. " I.I am looking for my sister," he whispered. " My name is Baldric. I wasn't following you, honest. I didn't even know you were here."
Mor knew he told the truth, she could see it in his fear filled eyes, that were so much like his sister's. She pulled away the dagger and jumped to her feet. Extending her hand to the boy she helped him up.
" Who is your sister? And why are you looking for her?" she asked.
" My sister's name is Isa and she is hurt. A Roman soldier threw a javelin at her and I was told she was running for the woods. I.I.I can't find her. Have you seen her?"
The young boy's voice was filled with concern and the green eyes underneath the disheveled blond hair looked at her pleadingly.
" Are you alone?" Mor asked.
" Yes, I am. I was.when I came home, they told me what Titus had done and.I just ran off, looking for Isa."
" What did he do to her?' Mor asked, curious to find out the whole story and making sure to file the name of the Roman soldier in her memory, for future reference.
" He was." the boy swallowed. " He was drunk and he.he wanted to take her into the inn to.to.have some fun with her. But Isa smashed a bucket against his legs and made a run for it. That's when he threw the javelin."
" Spunky little thing," Mor thought with appreciation.
" Come," she said. " Isa is at my place."
Mor turned around and started on her way back to the cave, knowing the young boy would follow her obediently. He did. He stayed closely behind Mor's tall form, who was leading the way, following a hardly visible track up the hill. He had to almost run to keep up with her long strides. Effortlessly she brushed passed trees and bushes, hardly touching them.
When they had almost reached the top of the hill, Mor gently pushed aside a heavy branch, revealing a small opening in the rocky surface of the hill. She gestured Isa's brother to enter, which he quickly did. Mor followed him closely and let go of the branch, immediately it fell back in place, sealing off the entrance and making it impossible to see the cave.
The entrance was dark, the bushes in front of it filtered the light from outside, but Mor had no trouble finding her way around.
" Stay close behind me," she ordered Isa's brother, walking towards a narrow, slanted shaft, it's opening hardly visible in the dim light.
" It's so dark," Baldric mumbled, the cool air making him shiver.
" Just stay close," Mor answered.
As soon as they entered the shaft, all light was gone. It was pitch dark and steep. Insecurely Isa's brother walked behind Mor, only hearing the soft sound of her boots on the uneven ground.
Isa's brother stepped on a small stone and would have fallen over if Mor had not grabbed his arm.
" Careful," she warned.
" How do you do that?" Baldric gasped, deeply impressed by Mor's swift reaction that prevented him from a probably painful collision with the floor of the cave.
" If you can't use your eyes, you should use your ears," Mor cryptically answered. " Come."
She was still holding the young boy's arm and he could feel they were turning a corner. Suddenly he saw the soft glow of a light, illuminating the end of the shaft. It was an eerie sight. An orange glow in a world of darkness and silence.
Isa's brother shivered when he realized he had taken Mor's word for granted. What if Isa wasn't there? What if the tall women had hurt his sister? What if she was a witch? She did live in a cave, which was pretty odd. When they were little children, had his grandmother not warned Isa and himself of the dark side of witchcraft?
Mor voice startled him out of his dark thoughts.
" Try to be quiet," she told him, letting go of his arm. " Your sister might be asleep."
" Is she okay?" Baldric whispered.
" I think she will be," Mor answered. She looks pretty healthy to me.
They quietly rounded another corner and were suddenly standing inside a well lit room. Baldric's eyes curiously took in his surroundings and immediately he noticed the small form of his sister, laying on a bed, close to the fire. He wanted to run towards her, but a hand on his arm stopped him.
" She is asleep," Mor softly spoke. " Let her rest."
Baldric nodded and looked around the room. He had never been so deep inside the cave. Every villager knew how dangerous it was to enter the underground maze of shafts. Many people had entered them, to never return. Even the Romans stayed away from the caves, knowing full well the risk of getting lost in the dark. Of course all the local legends about haunted caves and roaming spirits only fueled the ever present superstition.
Mor had shrugged off her cloak and for the first time, Baldric was able to have a good look at the strange woman who lived in the cave.
Her long, dark hair cascaded down her back and was pushed back from her forehead with an impatient gesture. The light of the fire emphasised the strong planes of her face and the black eyelashes, surrounding eyes that almost looked silver in the light of the fire.
She was dressed in black pants that were tucked in her boots, revealing her long legs. Her roughly woven shirt was grey and fell down midthigh, obscuring a belt that held a couple of daggers.
Baldric didn't realize he was staring, until Mor spoke to him.
" Maybe you could get some water and heat it up," Mor suggested. " I promised your sister something to eat."
Baldric nodded and looked around with a puzzled expression. Water? Where would he be able to find that?
Mor looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
" There's a little well around the corner," she told him. " We passed it when we came in."
Baldric blushed, feeling emarassed for not having paid enough attention and quickly grabbed a small iron pot, that was placed next to the fire. He walked back towards where the well should be and quickly spotted the place. A tiny stream of water trickled down the cavewall, apparently coming out of nowhere, filling a shallow hole in the ground and disappearing again through a crack in the ground, leaving behind an always fresh supply of cold water.
Impressed by the well, Baldric quickly dipped in the small pot, filling it up with water, making sure not to spill any of it. Somehow he wanted to please the tall, dark stranger. Instinctively knowing it would be better to stay on her good side. Baldric was a healthy, strong boy, but Mor had wrestled him down to the ground, before he even knew what happened. He had never even heard her approach.
When he returned, Mor silently took over the iron pot and hung it over the fire. She had opened the pouch and cut up a few chunks of fresh meat, putting them in the water. She opened another pouch and Baldric saw her adding some dried herbs.
" There's wine in that little alcove behind you," Mor spoke, without looking up. " Help yourself, if you want any."
She grabbed a waterskin and walked towards the sleeping form of Isa, kneeling down next to her and tentavely feeling her forehead. It was cool to the touch and Mor nodded contendly.
Isa was still asleep, laying on her right side and looked completely relaxed. There were no signs of pain or discomfort. Mor carefully lifted the poultice and was happy to see the bleeding had stopped. The stitched up wound was ragged and surrounded by angry red welts, but to Mor's experienced eyes, it looked better already. The herbs she had used were doing their job.
Isa suddenly stirred and mumbled something incoherent. Long, blond eyelashes fluttered and suddenly a pair of sleepy, green eyes stared at her from close distance.
" How are you feeling?" Mor casually asked, ignoring the strange, tingling sensation in her belly.
" Thirsty," Isa croaked, trying to sit up, which send jolt of pain through her injured shoulder.
" Let me help you," Mor offered, gently putting her arm around Isa's shoulder and helping her to sit up.
She handed her the waterskin and Isa drank greedily, enjoying the feel of the cold water, sliding down her dry throat.
" You have a visitor," Mor told her when she was finally satiated. " I found your brother, he was looking for you."
To be continued in part 3
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