Eris' Handmaiden, Page 2

Sinaedh ran without thinking, past startled merchants and frowning guards, finally falling to her knees in the grassy park near the huge castle. There, before the silent statue of a knight, his hands crossed on the quillions of his sword, she gasped for breath. “Sanders,” she whispered, covering her face with her hands, finally giving in to the sobs she’d kept hidden.

“Sinaedh?” A gentle hand on her shoulder accompanied the spoken name.

“No, Christiana, don’t,” Sinaedh bowed her head. “Don’t you see, I’m being punished? I... God is punishing me. He took Sanders away!”

“Sinaedh, you’re not being... how could you say that?” Christiana knelt next to her friend. “We know what war brings...,” she began, searching for words of comfort.

“No, don’t you see it? I... we... I lay with Sanders before we were wed. Many times. I knew... I knew it was wrong, but I... I wanted him! And now... now I’m being punished.”

Christiana didn’t know what to say. The woman’s revelation astounded her. She’d never have expected that of her friend, even though the man she was attracted to was known as a womanizer of sorts. “Sinaedh,” she finally said weakly. “That’s not so.”

“It is! You know it is!” The red-haired cleric lurched to her feet, and Christiana rose with her, but took a step back, frowning. The expression on the younger cleric’s face was horrible, a mixture of pain and anger. But even worse was the look in her eyes. Rage. She’d seen it before in enemy warriors. She’d seen it in those of their own army. She never expected to see it in Sinaedh’s eyes.

“Don’t touch me!” the red-haired cleric hissed. “I hate you!”

“Sinaedh, what’s...,” Christiana started, taking a step back.

“You! You’re the one! Jealous when you couldn’t have someone like Sanders! Jealous of our pleasure! You killed him!”

Christiana stared at her friend, aghast. “I? Sinaedh, surely you can’t think that!”

“Don’t lie to me!” Without warning, Sinaedh swung her fist, and before Christiana could think to defend herself, she found herself knocked down, a bruise already forming around her eye. “Liar! You’re all liars! Randon said he can't find out, but he knows! He knows! You killed him!”

Christiana slowly rose to her knees, holding a hand over one eye. “Oh God,” she murmured. “Help me.”

With a strangled sob of pain and confusion, Sinaedh turned and ran, shoving through the crowds on the street, dodging into alcoves away from guards, and finally racing through the gate, out into the countryside. She ran, lungs straining, heart pounding, until she could run no longer, staggering to a halt and leaning against the bole of a towering elm tree. The tears had dried, but the anger and confusion remained. “I’ll find him,” she murmured, turning to trudge along the road. “Somehow, I’ll find him.”

Sinaedh stumbled. The darkness of the forest was like a living thing, reaching out with flailing branches or tripping her with grasping roots. This root, seemingly interwoven with the low brambles, gripped her ankle tight, twisting as she fell. A soft grunt left her lips. Anger and fear had driven her when she first ran from Christiana and Camelot, but she’d traveled many miles since. Now she was bone tired, but the only thing she could do was keep moving, the thought of Sanders driving her onward. She’d lost the path some time back, and worked her way to the south now using the dim light of the few stars trickling through the high branches.

A twitter sounded near her. She tore the bramble branches away, wet blood slicking her fingers where thorns had pricked. Night bird or some other creature? she wondered as she staggered up. Eyes wide, she peered into the night.

“A pity, Deary,” wheezed a voice... Or was it her imagination?

Sinaedh spun toward the sound, hobbling slightly. “Who is it? Who’s out there?”

“Only me, Deary,” the whispered voice again... Or was it the wind in the trees?

“Who? Who are you?”

Sinaedh nearly shrieked as a hand fell gently on her shoulder. “Now, Deary, ‘tis only me. Only Old Abigail. Nought ta fear.”

“Who? I... I’m afraid I don’t know you.”

“Lost are ye?” Sinaedh watched the hunched form move slowly before her. Even though the light of the deep forest was dim, the white of the woman’s hair seemed to glow. Stars gleamed in her eyes. “Are ye, then?” A lift of whispy eyebrow as the woman looked up into Sinaedh’s face.

“I...,” she finally nodded. “I am. I was traveling...”

“To find Him,” the old woman answered, nodding. “Aye, I ken. Foller me.” Without another word she turned into the wood, easing between branches, up small hills and crossing a small stream lightly on conveniently placed rocks, every step belying her apparent age.

Sinaedh stumbled behind her, keeping up as best she could, footweary with complaining muscles. “Do I know you?”

She puzzled over the woman’s strange answer. “I ken thee, and yer problem, and that’s all that needs be.”

Almost as if by magic, the forest opened into a glade. Beams of moonlight gleamed on the grass there, and a pair of deer paused in their grazing to regard the old and young women as they passed. “Here then,” the old woman said, opening the door of a small hut and standing aside. “Enter, if ye dare.”

Sinaedh frowned, looking from the woman to the door. “If I dare? What danger do you hold for me?”

“Nae danger, no more so than’s life itself,” the woman answered, a hint of laughter in her voice. “So do ye enter, or do ye wander?”

Sinaedh looked through the opened door. A fire burned in welcome at the small hearth. A battered wooden table stood close by, plates and bowls stacked on it. From within came the scents of herbs and baking bread. She looked at the old woman, watching her with a gleam in her eyes that might only have been from the light of the fire, then back over her shoulder, toward the dark forest. “I appreciate your hospitality,” she said softly, then walked through the door.

“Tha’s the spirit!” the old woman said, following close behind and pulling the door shut. She hobbled to the hearth, taking a loaf of bread from a warming stone. “Eat, and then we’ll find Him,” she said, placing the loaf on the table. Bustling to the side, she retrieved a crock of soft cheese, then dipped in a kettle hanging near the fire, filling two bowls with a stew.

The scents of the food caused Sinaedh’s stomach to clench, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten lately, but the questions the woman’s words awoke were stronger. “What do you mean, find Him?” she asked as the old woman cut bread and spread it with cheese.

“Oh now, Deary, have ye been studying so long in the Church that ye’ve forgotten the stories of wise women, and of fairies, and of those who touch other realms?” She laughed, the sound reminding Sinaedh of birdsong, when the cleric would have risen in alarm. “Nay, Deary, ye’ve no cause to worry. I’m not after yer soul, or any such. Just here to help. That’s my pleasure and my duty. Here now, try the bread, and the stew.”

Sinaedh couldn’t help herself. Hunger twisted her belly, insisting that she take the elder woman at her word. Taking a chunk of bread smothered with cheese, ignoring the blood that stained her fingertips, she dipped it into the stew, then chewed. “Good,” she nodded, dipping again and again until she’d cleaned the bowl and eaten three slices of bread. “Very... good.” She sighed, leaning an elbow on the table. “I thank...,” blinking wearily, she looked toward the woman. Was her hair gleaming even brighter now? “I...,” with a soft sigh, she slumped forward on the table.

She felt the gentle brush of kisses on her lips. “My love,” a familiar voice whispered in her ear.

Slowly, Sinaedh opened her eyes. Where was she? It was dark, so very dark, but a gleam from a window across the small room shone on his face. She glanced toward the light, watching snow fall silently through a dim grey sky. “My heart, my wife.” Soft kisses traced down her neck, warm hands slid over the bare skin of her sides. Her eyes were drawn to him, and she needed nothing else.

“Sanders?” Her voice weak, her hands came up, fingers tangling in his hair. “My… love?”

Blue eyes gleamed, looking into hers. “My love, come for me.” He leaned down, his lips on hers, exchanging a kiss of passion that she’d missed so much recently.

Tears streamed from her eyes, each one kissed gently away. “Sanders, where…?” Lips covered hers again, fingers kneaded and caressed, and she felt the heat of his skin burning into hers.

“Shh, love,” the feather touch of kisses slid down her throat, over her collarbone.

Her fingers tightened on his shoulders, holding him close, a growing need within her. His hands tickled and probed, caressing insistently. “Love!” she gasped, desire burning in her. “Sanders!”

There was time, certainly it passed, but she had no knowledge of it. She moved with him again, each building the other’s passion, as it had been from their very first meeting in Snowdonia. She looked deep into his eyes when she could, the blue seeming to gleam in the dark room, but more often than not, her eyes were squeezed shut, simply feeling him as they made love.

And then he was gone.

Her eyes snapped open. She was alone, in a small glade, grass green and fresh under her, a soft blanket of wool covering her. “Sanders?” Quickly, she sat up, pulling the blanket with her to cover her nakedness. The sun glinted in the east, filtering through the dense forest. Her armor and weapons lay piled nearby, a tracing of dew covering them. She rose, turning a full circle. No cabin. No sign of people. No snow. No Sanders.

A lone tear traced down her cheek. “Sanders,” she whispered. “I will find you. I will come to you.”

She lifted each piece of her armor, carefully looking over it before donning and settling straps and buckles. Now only the coif remained. Sinaedh stared at it, absently chipping away a remnant of blue dye that had once made the armor colorful. Sanders had loved color, loved dressing himself and her in the brightest and most complimentary colors. Now those colors were collecting dust in a closet, locked away in Camelot. With a sigh, Sinaedh brushed back her hair, then lifted the coif and settled it on her head. She twisted her shoulders twice, looking behind her, making certain that nothing was binding or hindering her motion. Then, after another look around the strange clearing, she set off again.

This time, the trees and shrubs of the forest seemed less intent on hindering her. She looked up into the high branches, spotting birds singing, watching the smaller creatures pause then resume their activities as she passed. Using the sun as her guide, she traveled steadily south. Soon, the underbrush thinned, and she heard the sound of horses stamping in the distance. With a small sigh of relief, she walked quickly toward the sounds of civilization.

Caer Ulfwych’s tower gleamed in the sunlight, surpassed only by the glint of the armor of the two guards standing at attention at the gate. One was younger, standing at attention, eyes darting over those who bustled from the gates into the keep, or from the keep toward the small huts of vendors and the smithy nearby. The elder smiled, and nodded to Sinaedh. She recognized him from her many trips nearby. “Good day to you, Markus.”

“And t’ ye, Lady Cleric. What brings ye t’ th’ south?” The guardsman’s smile didn’t diminish as he looked over her armor. “Seems ye been travelin’ a bit, haven’t ye?”

“Yes.” Sinaedh smiled, hoping to avoid further conversation. “I’m headed to Lyonesse.”

“Aye, I seen yer friends headin’ that away, not long hence.”

“Friends?” A puzzled expression flitted over her face.

“Aye, that mercenary, an armsman, and th’ Lady Christiana. Said they were travelin’ t’ Lyonesse themselves. Didn’ say nothin’ ‘bout ye joinin’ them, but I reckon they just forgot.”

“Oh,” Sinaedh nodded. “Yes, that’s probably right.” Her hand fell to the hammer at her side, fingers clenching on the handle. Fear gripped her belly. Were the others searching for her? Had they become so angry that they would turn her in to the authorities for her transgressions? What would they do, imprison her? Or worse? She worked to control her fears, finally bringing a weak smile back to her face. “Well, I must be collecting supplies, then I’ll be on my way.” She nodded again to the guard, and passed through the gate.

Hurried buying at those merchants she knew would charge a reasonable price filled her supplies again. Sinaedh waited until a sizable group was leaving the gate, simply waving at the friendly guard from the midst of the group, then turning aside as soon as she reached the road. A glance around assured her that none were watching her with undue interest. “Sanders, I am coming,” she whispered. “God help me.” With another look around, she turned from the road, making her way into the forest again.

The trees thinned as the ground grew wetter, slowly changing from the tall strong oaks to willows and clumps of brush that surrounded small ponds and bogs. Her steps squished, alerting the skittering lizards that darted out of her way as she made her way deeper into the marsh. Sinaedh grimaced, soggy stockings rubbing against her heels. “I’ll have blisters in no time,” she murmured to herself. “Best to find the road again.”

Thoughts of Christiana’s tales of decaying dead, sinkholes and bog monsters of her native land gripped Sinaedh’s heart as the sun slowly set. “Why didn’t I take the road?” she murmured. Crickets and frogs raised a chorus in the only answer. Looking up at the full moon, Sinaedh breathed a whispered prayer for safety. “If you can hear me, Lord God, hold me in Your palm. I know I’ve sinned…,” unbidden tears welled into her eyes, and she wiped them away. “I know that,” she said firmly. “But I also know that You have shown me Sanders. I will find him again.”

The moon rose higher. Distant splashes in the swamp caused her heart to race more than once. But there, in the distance, a light shone. Sinaedh could see the dark shape of a tower, small lanterns posted at the gates. Stumbling forward through mud and swampwater, she hurried to reach the tower.

No matter how she struggled, sliding through the mud, pulling her feet from the muck with sucking sound, grasping low-hanging branches to aid her, she couldn’t seem to get closer to the light. The tower drifted like a phantom, twin lights that she knew bracketed the doorway glinting just beyond her ability to resolve them, or any of the other features other than shadows. “Lord God,” she murmured. “Help me. Can it be I’ve run afoul of some evil mirage?”

She stopped, panting, swiping a hand across her brow, then smacking it to her cheek to crush a bloodsucking insect that had been drawn to the heat of her body. She looked up into the sky. Clouds scudded over the nearly full moon, somehow draining that light nearly completely before it could reach down into the murky marsh. The scent of salt from the coast mingled with the sulfurous odor of decay from the mud she’d disturbed, hinting that she’d traveled far from the path she’d thought to walk. “There must be some way,” she murmured. “Some way to find the road.”

Another glance up to the moon confirmed that she’d been traveling to the south. Sinaedh frowned into the night. “South?” she wondered. “But the road should be off to the west.” One further glance to the phantom tower, still hovering tantalizingly to the south, then she shook her head. “No. I’ve gone too far south.”

She turned to her right, grumbling under her breath as the mud once again attempted to suck her boot from her foot. Wriggling her toes in their soggy stockings, she shook her head. “Too slow,” she muttered. “I have to get to Sanders.”

The moon struggled free from the clouds, giving the trees with their low-hanging branches a ghostly air. A breath of salted breeze, and the sound of ocean waves was carried to her. For a moment, she looked again to the south, but the tower was no longer there. Sinaedh crossed herself, murmuring a prayer against spirits of the swamp and the night, then frowned. There, off in the distance, a glint of light again. This time, however, the light was more solid than the spectre that had drawn her south. It gleamed, shimmering in the strengthening moonlight, moving in small arcs as she watched. “What is that?” she wondered in a soft voice.

The tug of the road that must be off to the west was met by the very real curiosity of the gleam to the south. With a shrug, settling her hauberk and pack, Sinaedh once again slogged through the mud, her eyes fixed on the gleam when she could see it. The sound of the ocean grew, the smell of salt spray nearly covering the dank mists of the swamp. When the light was hidden by vegetation, she moved by sound, directing her laborious steps toward the ocean.

Slowly the footing grew stronger, sand invading the mud of the swamp and making the trek easier. The salt water infused the soil, keeping most vegetation from growing. And there, Sinaedh could see it. “A ship,” she murmured in wonder.

Bobbing slowly, lifted by gentle waves, the boat seemed deserted. It leaned slightly to one side, whether due to the shore or to damage, she couldn’t tell. The sails were loose, fluttering slowly in the breeze. And on the planks of the deck, something glittered in the moonlight.

Sinaedh stripped off her armor then waded out in the low rolling waves, carefully approaching the ship. It seemed undamaged, leaning to the side because its keel had ground up against the sand. The waves washed around it, setting up eddies that tugged her close. There were no markings save for a strange ornate eye that had been painted on the prow in deep blue. Sinaedh frowned. Even though she wasn’t that familiar with ships, that mark seemed unusual. What could it mean?

The deck was too high for her to reach, and she despaired for a moment, fearing she wouldn’t be able to board the vessel. But as she swam around the deeper portion of the boat, she found a line trailing out to sea in the ebb of the wave, then slipping back under the boat. Gripping the rope and bracing against the wooden hull, she waited for a wave, then hauled herself up out of the water, climbing the few feet up to pull herself onto the deck.

Gasping for breath for a moment, she rolled onto her back, wiping the salty water from her eyes. The boat seemed fairly secure, only rocking slightly with each small wave that passed under it. The moonlit fluttering sails gave the vessel a ghostly feel, but it was curiosity, rather than ghost-hunting that drove her now. Would this vessel sail again? Could she use it to travel north? Would it bring her closer to Sanders?

Slowly, bare feet spread for balance, she got to her feet. There, off to the right, the moon gleamed off a piece of metal. Carefully, wary of any quick movement, Sinaedh walked over the plank. Frowning, she looked down at the metallic object that had drawn her to the boat. Gasping, Sinaedh paused with her hand half-way to the object. It was a weapon, a short blade, bloodied and salt-encrusted, yet still gleaming with a fey light. “Elves,” she murmured, taking a quick step back, and looking around warily.

Sinaedh froze as a low moan sounded, her hand lifted to the cross she wore around her neck. Ruing her decision to leave her weapons safe on the shore, away from the salt water, she glanced around. There to her left, a small round wooden dowel rocked. She stooped to lift it, then padded silently in the direction from which the sound had come.

He was lying on his belly, but she could see blood had seeped from a wound on his thigh that seemed to be bound with a torn strip of cloth. No elf, nor lurikeen, nor even firbolg, but this man lying there could well be a celt allied with those enemies of fey blood. Fingers tightening on the club she held, she slowly prodded the man’s side with her foot.

The man moaned again, but made no motion to rise. Slowly, Sinaedh knelt, the club held high, ready to smash down on his head if he tried to attack her. She felt the side of his throat, the pulse weak, but steady. This man was injured, and no danger. Her healing instincts took over, and she placed her makeshift club by her knee, reaching to feel down the man’s back. He didn’t seem to have any broken bones, though he flinched as her skilled hands pressed on the ribs of one side. Carefully, she rolled the man over, working to keep his body moving in one motion. She gasped as his face was revealed. “Brother Braden?”

The sun and salt air had dried and cracked the paladin’s lips. Bruises purpled his face and hands. Still, except for exposure, it seemed the wound on the man’s thigh was the worst of his injuries. Carefully, Sinaedh unwrapped the bloodsoaked cloth, then ripped away the torn trouser leg. Braden moaned again, but didn’t wake or move. Murmuring a prayer, she placed her hands on the angry-looking wound. She closed her eyes, feeling the familiar comfort of the warmth of the healing as God answered her plea for help.

Looking down at Braden again, Sinaedh was pleased to see his expression easing to one of sleep. “Now, how do I get you to shore?” she wondered aloud. Rising, she lifted the club again, moving to explore the remainder of the small boat.

Of course it was too small to have a dingy, she thought to herself after making a transit of the sides of the boat. She’d found several crates, but nothing she’d trust to keep Braden warm and dry long enough to get him to the beach. She pulled the cabin door open, peering into the darkened room. Large chests lined one wall, a bunk suspended over them. A table bolted to the wall on the other side of the small cabin held dishes still trapped by the ingenious lip carved into it. “I never thought of them as sea-faring,” she murmured to herself. She peered at the bunk, then on impulse, tugged at the mattress. It seemed to be stuffed with some light-weight fiber. Better than nothing, she thought to herself, dragging the long mattress out of the cabin.

Several crates were bashed into pallets with her club, then lashed with bits of rope scavenged from the drooping sails. Sinaedh noticed that the sun was pinking the horizon, then nearly fell as the boat shifted, caught by a wave. The tide was coming in. Quickly, she hefted the still-unconscious paladin onto the makeshift raft, pausing for a moment as she considered. She could tie him on, but if the raft slid into the water and flipped, would she be able to untie him quickly enough?

A lurch of the boat, and grinding noise from under the deck convinced her. This boat probably wasn’t going to survive the waves much longer. She had no knowledge of ships, so attempting to sail it free wasn’t an option. Resolutely, Sinaedh tugged a rope over and bound the paladin to the mattress atop the wood.

She dragged the raft to the side, pulling the one free rope she’d left to turn it around the mast. Slowly, she lowered the raft down, quickly tying the rope to the mast, then hurrying to see if it was floating. To her relief, the paladin lay serenely on the floating mattress.

A surge of a wave sent Sinaedh back to untie the rope. The boat shifted as she stumbled back to the edge of the deck. Whispering a prayer, she leaped into the water, splashing to get a grip on the edge of the raft. Kicking strongly, she guided the floating construct toward the beach.

As the sun peeked over the water, brilliant orange spreading over the waves, the boat creaked and leaned. Waves splashed over the deck on one side, and the craft wallowed. Sinaedh dragged the raft up onto the beach, helped by a large wave. That same wave caught the boat, dragging it onto its side. With a wooden groan, the boat was pulled out and under the waves.

Sinaedh untied the man lying on the mattress, then rummaged in her pack, pulling free a flask of water. She sat beside him, lifting his head. “Brother Braden? Can you hear me?”

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How did Braden get there? Read about it here.

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