For disclaimers see part 1
As always, thank you Cyndi!
When Baldric knelt at his sister's side, his thick blond hair fell in his eyes, almost managing to hide his worry and grief.
" I am so sorry, Isa," he whispered. " I should have been there."
" And then what, little brother?" Isa gently smiled. " You think you could have stopped Titus? Baldric, he would have snapped you in half!"
A light blush covered the young boy's cheeks and he bit his lip in frustration. Seeing his sister wounded and knowing she could have died if the dark stranger had not come to her rescue, fueled his hate against the Roman conqueror.
" Where were you anyway? It was your job to get the water," Isa joked, trying to lighten her brother's somber mood, even though her voice sounded strained and tired.
" I was with Karl and Jan. They are talking about going East and finding a rebel army to join."
Isa's green eyes widened and from the corner of her eye she saw that Mor had suddenly tilted her head, listening with interest.
Isa sighed deeply and struggled to sit up, wanting to at least be at eye level with her sibling, when she scolded him. She threw off the heavy blanket that was covering her body and rolled unto her uninjured side, to push herself up.
Suddenly there was a hand on her arm, gently helping her to sit up.
" Thanks, bro…"
Isa stopped in mid sentence, when she looked straight into a pair of clear blue eyes. Suddenly remembering the image that was reflected in the water, when she was carrying the bucket. Their faces were so close, that even in the dimmed light of the fire and candles, she could clearly see the darker parts around the irises. The dark eyelashes, starkly contrasting with the blue, the perfect arch of the eyebrows and the twinkle in the eyes. When Isa realized she had been staring she colored a bright red.
" Since you're sitting up, you might as well have something to drink," Mor said, ignoring Isa's discomfort. " I have made some tea that will help you with the pain and healing."
" Oh…okay," Isa stammered, mentally slapping herself for her silly behavior.
She turned back to her brother, who was sitting cross-legged on the cave floor, watching Mor with clear interest.
" I hope you are not planning on joining Karl and Jan," Isa addressed him, her voice slightly trembling from the pain her throbbing shoulder was causing.
Baldric tore his eyes away from Mor and looked at his sister.
" I want to, but they said I am too young," Baldric answered. " They said they only take skilled warriors with them."
That remark made Isa snort and she looked at her brother in disbelief.
" Don't tell me you believe all those stories they tell. Do you? "
" You tell stories," Baldric answered, his voice slightly rising.
" That's just for….fun, entertainment. Gods, brother, I hope you don't think I believe every tale I have ever told you?"
" The story about Ambiorix is true," Baldric stated, his jaw set in determination.
" Yes, it's true," Isa sighed. "They all got killed. Julius Caesar slaughtered the whole tribe, men, women and children. Legend says the earth saw red with their blood. Don't you see, Baldric? That is the lesson. That's what happened with every brave person who stood up against Rome. They all died!"
" So you think cowering to the Romans is what we should do? We should let them oppress us, we should pay all those heavy taxes, serve all their needs like we are slaves? Do everything they say? Look what happened to you today! Titus could have killed you! And for what? Because you fought back. He wanted to abuse you like they have done with so many of our girls and women. Like you are just a piece of meat! They don't respect us, Isa. They don't respect you! They just take what they want and when they are done with it, they just toss it aside, like some worthless piece of pottery. That's not the way I want to live my life. I want to be free. And if that means going East and joining some rebel army, I will. Maybe not today, but one day I will go and fight the Romans."
Baldric groaned and rubbed his heated face.
" What will you do now, Isa? " he continued. " You can't go back home. As soon as Titus sees you, he will hurt you really bad."
" Flavius was there," Isa weakly objected, knowing he brother had a point. " He could tell his father what happened."
" As if the governor would care," Baldric spat. " We all know that Titus is his favorite. He has the governor eating out of his hand. You can't come back, Isa. Not for a while anyway. It wouldn't be safe."
Isa stared into the fire, pondering over her brother's words. She knew he was right. There was no way she could go back home any time soon.
Suddenly Mor knelt beside her, handing her a wooden cup with steaming, hot tea.
" Drink this. It will make you feel better," Mor advised. " It's a mixture of different herbs," she explained when she saw Isa's questioning glance. " I hope you like it sweet. I put some honey in it."
Isa smiled at the dark woman and took the cup into her right hand.
" Thank you."
Mor just nodded and rose to her full height, gesturing Baldric to follow her. He obediently did and they walked towards the fire where Mor had put the meat, some carrots and herbs into the pot with boiling water, making a fragrant soup that made his mouth water.
" After you have eaten you should go back home to tell your father your sister is safe and being taken care of. Don't mention the cave. Don't mention me. You have never seen me. Do you understand?"
Although her words utterly confused him, they were spoken with such authority that Baldric did not dare object. He just nodded his head.
" I meant what I said: you have never seen me. When we will meet on the road, or in the village, you don't know me. I am a stranger to you."
" I understand," Baldric whispered.
" Good, because it's very important. I trust you, Baldric. Do you trust me?"
Baldric looked up at the towering woman in front of him. Her raven black hair cascaded down her shoulders and the fire cast a warm glow on her tanned face. Her clear blue eyes that looked at him without blinking were like a pair of precious stones, illuminating the strong planes of her face. Most people looked at him as a boy, but Mor's attitude towards him was totally different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he was treated as an adult.
Baldric swallowed and nodded.
" I trust you"
" Thank you," Mor answered, extending her hand and clasping his arm. " I swear I will look after your sister. No Roman will hurt her again. You have my word."
" I trust you," Baldric repeated and slowly let go of the muscular forearm.
Mor nodded and looked at Isa, who was sipping her tea, clearly enjoying the hot, sweet beverage. To Mor's experienced eyes, Isa's face had taken on an unnatural red color, especially her cheekbones. The light of the fire was reflected in a pair of green eyes, which sparkled brightly, without seeing much. Isa stared at the fire, her eyes half closed, apparently not aware of her surroundings.
Mor clenched her teeth when she realized she would be in for a long night.
Damn you, Titus!
" Keep an eye on that soup," she ordered Baldric, without taking her eyes off Isa. " I think I need to make a new poultice."
A heavy, cast iron gate, with bars that were put so close together it was impossible to creep through, blocked the cave entrance. Even for a small child it would be impossible to enter. With a sound that would make most people's teeth rattle, the elderly man unlocked the gate and gestured the small group of waiting people to follow. Hesitantly they did. Carefully placing their feet on the cold, uneven surface. Squinting their eyes to get used to the darkness inside, which was a huge contrast with the brightness outside.
The moment she entered the cave, Jody grabbed Sam's hand, immediately feeling a reassuring squeeze.
" It's so dark in here," Jody whispered, thoroughly impressed. " And cold."
" It's a cave, honey," Sam answered with a hint of amusement in her voice. " What did you expect?"
Jody nervously giggled and pressed closer to Sam's tall body. Truth is she had never been inside a cave and although she found them intriguing, she was also a little afraid of the immense darkness she knew was waiting around the corner.
" Are you sure he has a spare flash light?" she asked, not sounding too confident.
" Don't worry, he does," Sam's voice sounded close to her ear. " And if he doesn't….I do."
She tapped on the inside pocket of her jacket and smirked infectiously, making Jody throw her head back and laugh out loud.
" You are incorrigible."
" Nah, just had a smart idea," Sam smiled, forcing herself not to pull Jody into her arms and kiss her senseless. " Don't tell the guide, we are not allowed to bring our own."
" Our little secret," Jody smiled back, her green eyes sparkling with amusement. " Come on, Sam, let's follow them, or they will leave us behind."
The guide rounded up the cave tourists, while his young aide closed the gate behind them, locking them away from the outside world. Some people nervously looked around, which elicited a smirk from the elderly man.
" Listen up people," he started, raising his voice. " I'll be your guide for the next hour or so. We will enter this cave system only for about a kilometer. That's not much of a distance, but far enough to get lost and never find your way out again. Please stay behind me. I have a light," he raised his hand to show the old-fashioned oil lamp he was holding. " No fancy modern flashlights. I want to show you how people got around this cave in the old days. An oil lamp was all they had."
" What if the oil runs out?" a skittish French tourist asked.
" Well, let's hope it won't," the guide answered, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief. " But if it does, we will get rescued, eventually. We will just have to make sure to stay warm and stay put."
" He's mucking around," Jody whispered to Sam. " I saw him put a flashlight in his pocket before we entered the cave."
" Of course he is," Sam whispered back. " He just wants to make people a bit nervous. It adds to the experience."
" Follow me, please."
The guide turned around and walked inside a shaft that was only illuminated by the soft light of his lamp. Long shadows were cast on the walls of the cave, making the place look mysterious and desolate. The surface they walked on was uneven and slightly slanted. The tourists carefully put down their feet. The prospect of stumbling and hitting the cold, jagged wall of the cave was not exactly appealing. The group of tourists were quiet, almost subdued when they followed the man with the lamp. They talked in hushed tones, pointing at the different shafts they passed. Awed by the high ceiling that was cut out by the hands of many laborers.
"It's amazing," Sam remarked, looking at a deep alcove. " They used to cut this stone out by hand. Must have been hard work."
" And they were underground for days," Jody replied. " Gives me the shivers just to think about that, Sam. Imagine, during the winter they hardly saw daylight. They went inside when it was still dark and by the time they left the cave, it was dark again. Couldn't have been healthy!"
" No tan for the working class," Sam joked, playfully squeezing Jody's nose.
Jody slapped the offending hand and backhanded her lover in the stomach.
" Behave," she whispered.
They had reached a high ceiling room and the guide stopped walking. He patiently waited until everybody was gathered around him and then raised his lantern to illuminate a charcoal drawing on the wall. It was the face of a beautiful lady, with a gentle smile.
" Many artists have left their fingerprints in these caves," he said. " As we will go deeper into the cave system we will see more works of art. Most of them are craved after a overlay of charcoal. Because of the dry, cool climate inside this system, most paintings, or drawings if you like, are perfectly preserved. A lot of them are true masterpieces. Look at this drawing. What do you see?"
The guide looked around and nodded towards an elderly lady who was looking at the picture intently.
" I see the picture of a pretty girl," she answered.
" That's right," the guide answered. " But sometimes looks can be deceiving."
He stepped closer to the wall and raised the lantern even higher, so everybody could have a good look.
" The story goes that this beautiful girl lived here a few hundred years ago. And indeed, she was very pretty. The girl had two suitors whom both wanted to marry her. But she couldn't choose between them. She loved them both. Eventually she ran out of time and she did have to make a decision. But it would always be the wrong one, no matter what. The man she turned down was an artist. She broke his heart. The rest of his life he was torn between his love for her, but also hate, because she didn't choose him. When I hold my lantern up high, we see her through his loving eyes; a beautiful girl."
The guide paused and looked at the group of tourists who were hanging onto his every word. He smiled and turned back to the picture.
" But when I lower my lantern…." He brought his lamp closer to the ground, making sure the light that fell on the wall came from down below. " …we see an ugly, old woman."
Jody and Sam gasped when by the shifting of the light, the whole picture changed. The face of the pretty girl had turned into an old woman, with piercing eyes and a mouth that was set in a grim expression.
" Looks can be deceiving," the guide repeated.
" Wow, that is amazing," Jody sighed. " And what a sad story."
The guide,who had heard her words turned to her and smiled.
" This cave is full of sad stories," he remarked. " It's been a dark world for many people."
Jody involuntarily shivered and stepped closer to Sam, who immediately put an arm around her partner's shoulders.
" You okay?" she asked, a little worried.
Jody nodded and looked up in her lover's eyes, that were usually blue, but seemed almost colorless in the dim light.
" I am okay," she answered, smiling reassuringly.
" Come on, people, follow me. I have many more things to show you and stories to tell," the guide said cheerfully, heading towards another dark shaft.
Sam and Jody waited until the rest of the group were on their way and followed close behind. But suddenly Jody stepped into a little hole and stumbled. In a reflex she leaned against the wall of the cave, to keep herself upright. Sam's hand on her upper arm kept her steady.
" That was clumsy," she grinned, pushing against the wall.
All of a sudden she was hit by a strange feeling. She felt hot and cold at the same time and her body started trembling. The light of the guide's lantern was too far away to help her see clearly, but Jody could have sworn she saw the dying embers of a fire. She could even smell the smoke, mixed with the fragrant scent of lavender and thyme. And for a moment there was a throbbing pain in her left shoulder.
" Are you okay, honey?" she heard Sam ask, from far away.
" Yes, I am fine," she slowly answered, rubbing her left shoulder. " I don't know what just happened. Can you smell it too ?"
" Smell what? Baby, you didn't hit your head, did you?" Sam asked, very worried this time.
" No," Jody chuckled, feeling a little bit embarrassed. " I…I don't know. Must have had a deja vu or something. Or maybe this cave is giving me the creeps."
She grabbed Sam's hand and pulled her with her.
" Let's go before the guide leaves us behind."
After she had made sure he had a good meal, Mor had sent Baldric on his way. She had escorted him to the cave entrance, to make sure he wouldn't get lost in the maze of hallways and as soon as he disappeared behind the trees, Mor had returned inside. Not needing a light to find her way back to her home.
When she sat down next to the fire, she noticed that Isa was asleep. The girl was lying on her uninjured side, facing the fire. The light softened the reddish highlights in her hair, turning it into the color of fresh honey. Long, blond eyelashes rested on reddened cheeks, contrasting starkly with the underlying skin.
Mor poured some hot water in a wooden cup and put it in front of her on the ground. She reached inside two different pouches and sprinkled some dried herbs into the steaming liquid.
" I am afraid you will need this soon, little one," she whispered, mixing the lavender and thyme into a fragrant tea.
She put the cup aside to let it steep and her eyes were drawn back to the sleeping form on the floor. Her mind drifted back to the conversation between Isa and her younger brother. Mor had not interfered, but she had heard every word that was spoken. She couldn't blame the boy for wanting to fight the Romans. They had brought their inventions with them, built roads, bridges, and villages. But the people in the conquered territories were never truly free.
Mor sighed and stared into the fire. Had she been right to trust a boy that young? What did she know about him? Absolutely nothing at all. She knew his sister was a courageous, spunky girl. What she did to Titus had been pretty heroic. But it had sealed her fate as well. At least for the time being. Baldric had been right when he had said Isa could not return to her family any time soon. Titus would not allow it. He would probably get a hold of her as soon as she would set foot in the village. And then what would happen? Working as a slave in one of their treasured bathhouses? Being sent to Rome, to be a slave in the home of a nobleman? Titus could even kill Isa, or worse….
Mor's dark thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Isa mumbling in her sleep. She looked across the fire and even from the distance, she saw the perspiration on the girl's skin, making her hair stick to her forehead.
Mor grabbed a cloth and dipped it in some cold water. After that she rose and walked towards Isa, kneeling down next to the girl and gently patting her face.
" Isa," her low voice urged. " Wake up. You are dreaming."
Mor used the damp cloth to wipe Isa's forehead and she could feel the heat radiate from the girl's body.
" Isa. Come on, little one. Wake up."
Mor hesitated only for a moment. But then she slid behind Isa, put her arms around her waist and pulled her in an upright position. Isa's back was leaning against her chest. Gently Mor pushed the girls' head against her shoulder. Her right arm was wrapped around Isa, holding her steady, while with her other hand she used the cold, damp cloth to wipe the girls face.
" S' okay…I..wannetodo…'sokay," Isa mumbled, trying to open her eyes.
" Shh, just open your eyes," Mor replied. " You need to drink something. You are burning up."
" Thought that was the fire," Isa slurred. " I'm comfy though…"
Mor didn't know whether to be annoyed or amused. Most of her life she had been alone, with no one to take care of but herself and her horse. Now there was this young woman who had unexpectedly crossed her path. Shaking up her life and disturbing all the plans she had carefully plotted, within just one day.
Mor's blue eyes softened when she looked at the disarray of hair that was nestled against her shoulder and she bit back a smile.
" Isa," she urged again. " You really have to wake up. You need to drink something and I need to change that dressing."
Isa groaned and tried to sit up by herself. Although her upper body lightly swayed, she managed not to topple over.
" It hurts," her voice croaked.
" I know," Mor answered with empathy, wondering why all of her sudden her body felt so cold. " Just sit up for a little while. I will be done quickly."
" Wanna drink first," Isa replied. " I'm so thirsty."
Without answering, Mor jumped up and walked towards the waterskin that was hanging on a pointed part of the wall. She grabbed it and picked up the tea she had made earlier. She dropped down on one knee in front of Isa and handed her the cup.
" Drink this first."
Isa raised her eyes to meet Mor's and silently nodded. To Mor it was clear she was fighting not to fall asleep again.
" Do I have a fever?"
" Seems that way," Mor answered, slowly and carefully peeling away the torn fabric that was covering Isa's shoulder.
Mor's fingers made quick work of removing the poultice and she intently searched the wound and it's surrounding tissue. The edges were slightly swollen and around it there were angry, red welts. From in between the stitches some drops of yellowish fluid slowly seeped.
Mor quickly grabbed a clean cloth and a cup of water and carefully cleaned out the affected area. When Isa made a sharp, hissing noise, her hands stilled.
" I'm sorry. I know it hurts," Mor apologized. " I need to clean it though."
" Go ahead," Isa answered, glad that Mor couldn't see the tears in her eyes. " My mother died of a fever. Am I gonna die?"
Mor's fingers rested on the unaffected part of Isa's left shoulder. The skin was feeling warm and smooth underneath her hand and suddenly she felt the urge to stroke it and leave her hand there for a while. Mor quickly jerked back her hand and clenched her jaw. Glad that Isa couldn't see the confusion in her eyes.
" You're not gonna die," she answered gruffly.
" How do you know?"
" Drink your tea," Mor answered, while she was liberally pouring some clean water over Isa's wound, to rinse it out.
" Feels good," Isa mumbled. " I feel so hot."
"Finished the tea?" Mor asked, a little more friendly this time, mentally slapping herself for her strange thoughts.
" Yes, thank you, Mor. It tasted…different. What was in it."
" Lavender. It will help you relax."
" How do you know all these things?" Isa asked, yawning and rubbing her eyes with her right hand.
" I just do," Mor replied, not in the mood to answer a lot of questions.
" You have gentle hands," Isa mumbled. " Nice."
Mor sprinkled some dried and powdered herbs over the wound and covered it with a fresh poultice. She inspected her work and nodded contently. Isa did have a fever, but it didn't seem too serious. The wound was a little red and swollen, but Mor was sure it would look a lot better in the morning. All she had to do was keep an eye on Isa during the night, to make sure the fever would not get any worse.
Isa's body suddenly started to sway and if Mor had not grabbed her around the waist, she would have fallen over. She looked down at the girl in her arms and shook her head in disbelief.
" I don't believe this. Can you fall asleep on command? Or are you just overly sensitive to my herbs? If that's the case, I will lower the dosage," Mor mumbled, looking around to see how she could get out of the situation she was in.
Isa's left sleeve had been torn off and a large part of the front of her dress had been ripped open. When Mor cast down her eyes to look at her sleeping patient, she couldn't help noticing the smooth skin and the soft swell of one breast. Suddenly her mouth went dry and had she been impulsive, she would have jumped up, dropping Isa on the floor.
Instead she lowered the sleeping girl back on her bed, covered her up to keep her warm in the cold air of the cave and hastily went back to her side of the fire, where she sat down and grabbed the waterskin. She gulped down the cold, refreshing fluid, wondering why her heart was pounding in her chest and her hands were shaking.
Annoyed with herself and her unexpected guest, who was sound asleep, she got back to her feet and grabbed her long, black cloak. She adjusted the belt around her waist, making sure the three daggers she was carrying were in their right places. After one last look at Isa she turned around and walked towards the shaft that would bring her to the entrance of the cave system.
" It's time I'd pay you a visit, Titus," she softly growled.
Continued in part 4