It had been a hard week. With a soft sigh of relief, Sinaedh leaned back against the wall behind her. She picked up the sock that lay limp on the bench beside her, the heel threadbare. She slid the sock over her hand, splayed fingers stretching the thin spot, and took up the needle threaded with heavy thread, touching the tip of her tongue to her lip in concentration as she began the careful stitching that would make the sock serviceable again. She didn’t look up as another took the bench on the other side of the table, instead moving the needle deftly through the shrinking worn spot on the sock. “What are you doing?”
Sinaedh recognized the voice as that of Christiana Ravenshire, who had been an object of fear and respect when she first joined the Company that they both served, but who had grown into a friend. “Darning,” she answered, finally closing off the damage, tying the thread and slicing the loose end of the thread close with a small knife. “You?”
“Darning?” Christiana asked. “Why?”
“All this tromping around the frontier has worn my socks out, that’s why. If we’re not marching to Benowyc, we’re slogging through the snow to Myrddn. I don’t have time to knit new ones, nor gold enough to even purchase them, so I’m darning.” Sinaedh flashed a smile to the blond woman.
“Oh. I see. I never learned how to do that.”
Sinaedh nodded. Though she and Christiana had grown close as friends, there were many differences in the two of them. Christiana had come from a noble Avalonian family, and though she had experienced tragedy and sorrow like many in the land, she still had that sense of wealth and nobility about her. “Laro’s meeting me here,” Christiana offered, pulling off the cloak she wore and folding it carefully to place it beside her.
Mention of the Highlander armsman wasn’t unusual. After all, he and Christiana were to be wed. But once again, Sinaedh found that mention clamp cold hard fingers around her stomach. She ducked her head, looking studiously down at the sock, turning it in her fingers, pretending to check it for more wear. “Sinaedh?” the woman asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she whispered, feeling more the girl and less the mature woman she was supposed to have become. She blinked rapidly. She’d not cry. Not here. Not now. Christiana was quiet for a moment, then turned on the bench. As she listened, twisting the repaired sock, Sinaedh knew the interval was filled with the serving girl taking Christiana’s order and bringing the mug filled with mulled wine. By the time Christiana had taken a sip, she felt she’d gained enough control over her emotions to risk a quick glance at the woman. Green eyes met blue as quickly as she did, and Sinaedh flushed, knowing that this topic would come up again if she couldn’t divert it. But try as she might, the words out her lips weren’t about the Church, study or even the war, all relatively harmless topics. “How did you know Laro was the one?”
The blond woman opposite her looked a bit surprised. “How did I know?” She took a sip of the wine, glancing toward the fire. Relaxing just a bit, her own thoughts in turmoil but controlled, Sinaedh waited for the answer, turning the nearly full mug of ale on the table before her. “I suppose I’ve always known. We grew up together. His father and my father...,” Christiana took another sip of the wine, and Sinaedh looked down again.
“I didn’t mean to bring up unhappy memories,” the red-haired woman murmured. “I’m sorry.”
Christiana took another sip, then shook her head. “There’s pleasure mixed with the pain, as in most things. Laro’s father and mine were good friends, so we were friends as well. Both Laro and his father helped us when my father was murdered.” She placed the mug on the worn table before her. “We were best of friends. And something else has grown to bind us, as well. So when he asked, it just seemed... right.”
Sinaedh nodded mutely. It was that ‘something’ that Christiana probably couldn’t define, that she saw between the happy couples surrounding her, that she longed for—and that continued to elude her. Her thoughts drifted home, to the memory of an evening when she was slowly blossoming as a girl. Spring had come, warming the heather and the hills. The Church, as wise conquerors had done since time immemorial, had absorbed the beliefs of those of the land into its teaching. Thus, the laughter and singing that edged the bonfire burning brightly atop the hill was that in celebration of the Saint Brigid, rather than of pagan beliefs about the turning of season and fertility. Still, those gathered in dance around the bright flame would soon be stealing off in pairs. None of the reason, but some of the feelings mattered to Sinaedh, who was lying in the sweet-smelling heather down the side of the hill next to her young friend Rich, who was as close to a neighbor as things got in the remote land they both lived in. Both of them knew that couples were finding places to tryst, reasons to fondle and kiss, time to celebrate the warming of the land. Neither of them would be joining in.
“Th’ say yer fae,” Rich finally broke the silence.
“Fae? Why’d th’ say THA’?” Sinaedh sat up abruptly, peering through the night to Rich. The boy’s face was all she could really see of him, pale among the fragrant heather.
“Dunno,” came his answer. “I ken ye’re no fae like’s come from th’ wee folk an such. So’d they ken tha’. But...,” he shrugged, she could hear the heather moving with his shoulders. “Still, th’ say there’s sommat different wi’ ye. So th’ stay away.”
Sinaedh frowned up into the night sky. “Fae? So tha’s why th’ treat m’ so?” She felt a tickle in the back of her throat, tears trying to escape from her eyes.
Rich had known for months that there had been something bothering his friend. She’d tried to weasel from him the reason that no boys came courting her, but he hadn’t been privy to the gossip of the older lads. So he’d taken it upon himself to find the answer, joining in the activity of his elders when he could, even though his youth often made him the brunt of tricks and pranks. When he had finally found what she wanted to know, he’d known it wouldn’t be well received. Nor did he want to upset his friend. “Well, it dinna matter ta me,” Rich sat up and she felt his hand on her shoulder, to soothe and offer what comfort he could. “Sinaedh, they’re nowt but a bunch o’ foolish boys, an’ ye ken tha’.”
“But why?” she whispered, the stars above blurring as tears swelled unbidden. “I’m no fae. I’m short, aye. I’ve hair o’ fire, aye. But fae? Why?”
“Sinaedh?” the voice came to her through the blur of memory. “Sinaedh, lately you’ve seemed depressed. Tell me why?”
She looked up to meet Christiana’s eyes again, and without thinking, answered. “’Tis a man tha’ I’d wish ta find happiness wi’...,” trailing off, she blushed, ducking her head again, horrified. She hadn’t meant to burden anyone with the emotion that had been troubling her. And when she had, she’d slipped back into the brogue whose use her teachers in Swanton and after had called ‘bastardizing the King’s English’.
Christiana paid no mind to the words. “So... a fellow has caught your eye?” She lifted her mug and sipped the wine again, smiling. “Surely that’s not such an unusual thing?”
“No,” came Sinaedh’s soft reply. “Except that either one who has gripped my heart is a rogue.” She kept her eyes trained down, twisting the sock between her hands, threatening to undo all the stitching she’d put into it to mend it.
“Either one?” Christiana’s blond eyebrow arched.
“Och, aye. An’ neither fer me,” Sinaedh sighed softly, shaking her head. As if a flood gate had been opened, the words tumbled free. “I met a man, doon in th’ Roman burials as I was doin’ m’ duty there. A great, braw man is he... but he’s duties that’ll keep him, and more’n tha’, he’s a noble o’ sorts.” She bowed her head, touching tongue to lips before continuing. “He’s said we should take th’ time, ta hae a drink, ta talk, or get ta ken each other better. But there’s ne’er any time. His folk need him.” She sighed softly. “So while I’d wish it wi’all me heart, there’s nothin’ that’ll come o’ that. Just as well,” she murmured, “fer he’d probly soon enow think I’m fae as well.”
“I see.” Sinaedh didn’t look up at the older woman as she spoke, for she knew her own face was burning brightly with a blush. “And the other?”
“Well, he...,” Sinaedh shrugged. Surely a few chance words weren’t enough to begin to explain the emotion that had gripped her. “He’s a braw fellow as well. From th’ south, so I think. He called m’ beautiful.” She bowed her head. “Asked me if I’d loved. But he’s th’ rogue, an’ said his heart was unfettered, though I believe tha’s no quite th’ truth. I ken wha’ he dinna want ta tell me was tha’ he’ll no be fettered ta me. Still Christiana, I’ve no seen either o’ them in many days. An’ it makes m’ feel...,”frowning she shook her head. “Makes m’ belly feel all hollow. An’ I fear tha’ if I chase ‘em down, either o’ them, it’ll make m’ feel worse.”
“Hm.” Christiana nodded. “Sinaedh, there’s no chance that you... that is, you didn’t...,” she leaned forward, whispering, though there were enough other patrons of the inn that it was unlikely they’d be overheard. “You didn’t lie with either of them, did you?”
“No,” Sinaedh answered, the blush renewing. “No, but if I...”
“Well now, tis my two favorite ladies,” a hale voice interrupted. Sinaedh glanced to the man settling to the bench beside Christiana. His arm went around her and drew her close. Gentle kisses were exchanged.
The longing felt like a hole in her belly as Sinaedh watched, struggling with her emotion. No, she’d not cry, nor would she look weak before the pair. After a moment taken to gather her resolve, she rose, faking a smile to them. “I’m off to put this away,” she explained, waving the sock like a banner. “I’ll leave you to your company. I promised that young mercenary I’d try to put together chain sleeves for him.” With a quick smile, she turned and pressed through the crowd to the door.
With an exasperated sigh, Sinaedh pounded the hammer down on the anvil, her wrist jerking as the tool rebounded. Wincing at the sharp pain, she shook her head at the twisted piece of metal that seemed bound and determined to resist her efforts. “I’m going to march straight up to Mistress Elgen and tell her I canna do this anymore!” she muttered, swiping a hand across her sweaty brow.
“I hope tis not me own piece o’ mail that’s givin’ ye such a struggle,” a deep voice said from behind her.
Sinaedh turned to look at the man standing there. “No...,” she began, then as he shook his head, looking from the bit of metal to the nearly complete chain sleeve lying nearby, she shrugged. “Well, aye, it is. But I’ll not be defeated by a bit of metal.” She took the alloy up in the tongs and plunged it back into the heat of the forge as if to punish it for its misbehavior.
“Here,” he offered, lifting a wineskin from its binding at his belt. “Allow me ta refresh ye.” As Sinaedh nodded her thanks, squeezing a bit of the wine into her mouth and swallowing, the man grinned, light sparking in his deep brown eyes. “Now, if tis me mail what’s givin ye fits, ye’ll jest have ta allow me ta increase th’ payment fer it. An’...,” he held up a hand, stilling her yet unvoiced disagreement. “An I’ll not hear argument. I’ve th’ coin, no matter what ye might think o’ me.”
She took another drink from the sweet wine and passed it back to him. “But you are always trying to borrow coin from Brother Randon.” She wiped her hands down the worn apron, then turned to lift the glowing metal from the heat. Hammer once again taken up, she pounded the metal.
“Aye, an’ he understands, don’ ye ferget,” the man eased to a seat on a stool, watching her work. “He an’ I have a sharin’. An’ if ye spread around that I paid ye overmuch, ye’ll hear denial th’ likes o’ which ye’d expect from th’ druids when forced ta altar an’ acceptance o’ th’ Church.” He grinned again as she looked sharply at him. “No offense, but ye know they’d not be happy about that. Nor do I wish folks ta know my worth, save in th’ use o’ me blades.”
The metal obliged her this time, forming into the circlet desired, which was then fitted to the sleeve. As she wielded her pliers, Sinaedh shook her head. “Bartt, you’re a mystery.”
“Aye, an’ I like it tha’ way.” He grinned again, pulling his cap off and combing fingers through his dark brown hair. “No harm in’t. If ye couldn’ trust me, I’d not be part o’ th’ Company.”
She nodded, knowing that was true. And Randon tolerated the brash young mercenary’s teasing and pranks, so there was probably more to the ‘sharing’ he claimed than she would ask about. Working swiftly now, she added more links to the chain mesh that covered the sleeve, creating a strong yet flexible protection. Bartt watched, taking an occasional drink from his wineskin, his posture one of a warrior taking what little rest he could, when he could.
“Ye see,” he offered as she neared completion of the task. “Ye only needed th’ right outlook ta finish th’ job.”
Sinaedh sighed, taking up a towel and wiping her face with it. “Sometimes it’s hard to have the right outlook.” She took a cloth and burnished the armor, nodding in satisfaction. “There. It’s done.” She lifted the sleeve and held it up for his inspection.
“A right fine piece o’ work.” Nodding, he took the sleeve from her, then fished in a pouch at his belt. A grin once again flashed on his face as he passed several coins to her. “Mind if I ask ye fer repairs, an’ new armor, when I’ve need?”
She couldn’t help but smile at the man. “Not at all. It’s a pleasure doing work for those of the Company.”
He nodded. “Ye do things fer yerself as well, I hope?”
“For myself?” Sinaedh looked at him curiously.
“Aye. Takin’ time off an’ such. Sittin’ wi’ friends. Sharin’ a drink or a tale. All work an’ no play... well, ye know wha’ they say ‘bout tha’.”
“Oh, well, I..,” she shrugged in embarrassment. “I’ve little time for frivolity.”
“Then if’n ye don’ mind, I’d advise ye ta take some.” A friendly grin flashed white teeth in the deep brown beard. “I’d buy ye a drink, if ye’d like?”
Sinaedh smiled at the man, known among the Company as a rogue and womanizer, though his offer seemed only friendly and genuine. “To tell the truth, I’m thinking of a bit of a workout, rather than sitting around.”
“Oh, aye,” he nodded. “Sometimes tha’ works, as well.” He looked at her sincerely. “Some o’ us be worried ‘bout ye. Seems ye be distant, down. If ye need, remember we’re here fer ye.”
She blushed, looking down for a moment. How had she allowed the confused circles that turned in her heart to affect her friends in the Company? With a smile, she shook her head to him. “I’ll be fine. I am going out to the hills, to take some time for myself.”
“Aye, good ta hear.” The infectious smile flashed again as he lifted the sleeve. “Be waitin when ye return. If ye want tha’ drink, jest look me up.”
Sinaedh nodded and smiled as he walked away, his steps sure and confident. “I’ll do that, Bartt.”
Sinaedh headed her horse north away from Camelot, with no true goal in mind other than escaping the populated city and finding refreshment in the rich land. Without thinking about it, she had ridden toward Snowdonia, the horse and rider working their way into rougher land, with fewer inhabitants. As she rode it became her intention to try to convince the Arawnites of the errors of their ways, even though every contact she'd heard of with them had been filled with aggression. Still, hope carried her on the long ride north, into the soaring mountains of Snowdonia. She left the horse at the keep there, not wishing to subject the creature to the dangers of the wilds, even though she sought them for herself. The wind howled through the canyons like a wounded animal, and Sinaedh found her teeth chattering as she clutched her cloak close to her, even as she reveled in the pristine harshness of the land. Slowly she worked her way down into the valleys that the Arawnites were known to inhabit, taking care to camp in sheltered areas and moving with as much stealth as she could.
One mis-step, however, and the Arawnites were well aware that the land they had claimed as their own had been invaded. One crunch of the dead branch that had fallen long ago from a stunted tree, and two heads whipped up, baleful pairs of dark eyes glared at her. One of the warriors sprinted toward her, brandishing a huge hammer, while the other raced off to the tents that circled the campfire they had built for comfort in the chill land. Sinaedh murmured an invocation and gestured, and from the sky a bolt sliced, slamming into the approaching Arawnite, then dashing off to the encampment, where it roared from tent to tent, stunning those within. With a sorrowful shake of her head, she pulled the blessed hammer she carried from its holster at her side, holding it at the ready. The Arawnite warrior continued his approach, though she could see he'd been badly burned. "Stop," she tried to say, though his expression seemed to indicate he couldn't understand her. "Stop, please!" Grimacing, the man continued to advance, swinging his hammer at her. Trained reflexes took over, and Sinaedh responded in kind, slamming her own weapon down at the man's shoulder. A sickening crunch, a groan of pain, and she thought that perhaps she could end this without killing. But the man continued to advance, and her next blow was not as forgiving. Bowing her head, Sinaedh said a brief prayer for the man's soul before moving off toward the trees in hopes of eluding any party sent after her by the man's friends.
But the Arawnites were not all stunned by the hand of God as called down upon them. As she moved into the trees, Sinaedh could hear the soft whispers of two at least, tracking her as the sun slowly sank. Brilliant orange and purple hues in the sky were stark contrast to the dark leather armor the warriors wore, blending into the vegetation. Backing as quickly and as quietly as she could, trying to keep them in sight but not be seen, Sinaedh belatedly considered that it might have been wise to come here with a party of companions, rather than alone.
A sudden rush by both of the Arawnites left her no time to think or to bemoan her fate. Instead she worked with shield to parry the ringing blows, her left arm quickly numbing. Her own hammer swung to defend her, less with righteous fury than with self-preservation. One of the Arawnites staggered back, an arm hanging in twisted pain, but his brother surged forward, beating ruthlessly upon her shield. Wearily, Sinaedh lifted the shield just a moment too late, then gasped in pain as the Arawnite's huge weapon slammed into her shoulder. Staggering, she lashed out frantically, scrabbling up through the rocky slope in an effort to escape. It was only after a few minutes of blind stumbling, nearly dragging the shield dangling from her injured arm, that she realized she wasn't being followed.
There was little dignity in her retreat. Wild-eyed, she climbed the slopes, finally sinking to the ground in the back of a small cave. Gingerly, she unclenched her hand from the shield, removing it from her grip. White flashes of pain danced before her as she loosened the clasps that held the mail sleeve and hauberk together, then eased her shoulder free. Gently probing fingers were accompanied by clenched teeth and soft whistling intakes as she investigated the injured area. "At least tis no broken," she murmured. She tugged her cloak around her and leaned back against the cave wall, thinking to rest for the night. Tomorrow, she'd return to the civilization she'd run from.
“Come by the hills to the land where fancy is free.
And stand where the peaks meet the sky and the rocks reach the sea.
Where the rivers run clear and the bracken is gold in the sun.
And cares of tomorrow must wait till this day is done.”
Singing? Was that singing she heard? Sinaedh stirred groggily, a soft gasp leaving her lips as the wounded shoulder was jostled. “Mum?” she murmured, certain the sound she’d heard had been a lullaby.
“Shh... gently,” a voice whispered close to her ear. “Don’t move.”
Sinaedh blinked, peering through the murky light of the cave to see a face close by hers, lighted only by the dim gleam of stars’ light struggling through the night and into the cavern entrance. “Who?” she half-croaked, her voice twisted by pain and dried throat.
“Shh,” came the admonition again, the whisper feather-light on her ear. “The enemy is nearby. Let me tend your arm. Try not to make a sound.”
She nodded her understanding, then squeezed her eyes shut, teeth clamping together as deft hands unbuckled the chain hauberk then eased it back from her shoulder. She turned her head away, as if by not looking at the wound she could make it less painful. Fingers of one hand bunched into a fist as strong hands spread over the wound, tugging now and again, pressing down at one point, then fluttering over as a soft invocation was worded, the touch nearly as light as the whispered words.
Even though the touch was gentle and sure, by the time it ceased, she was gasping, doing her best not to cry out at the pain, her entire body stiff in resistance. Slowly she realized the form had settled beside her, body warmth next to her, easing the trembling chills. “Shh now,” came the whisper again as a rough blanket was pulled over her. “Shh, it’s over.”
Soft flannel between her and the one lying next to her allowed heat from them both to warm skin. She felt her thoughts drifting, chill outside the blanket that joined them, warmth within easing her. “Who?” she murmured again, turning her head close to the figure. No features showed, only dark.
“Why, my sweet, tis only I,” came the whisper again, brush of words from lips close to her cheek.
“You?” Sinaedh murmured, heart skipping a beat, and a flush heating her skin. She lifted her hand and traced it down the cheek of the one beside her. “How?”
“Surely no dark nor cold of night could keep you from drawing me near,” the whisper came again in her ear. “I only followed your beauty.” Gentle lips caressed her cheek in a kiss. “Rest now. Our warmth will keep the cold away.”
She must have dozed, there in comfort, warmed by his skin and healed by his touch.
“Come by the hills to the land where life is a song>
And sing while the birds fill the air with their joy all day long
Where the trees sway in time, and even the wind sings in tune
And cares of tomorrow must wait till this day is done.”
She woke, warmth lingering from the night, and reached, expecting to find him there... but there was nothing. Sitting up slowly, holding the blanket close, she peered through the murky light penetrating the cave, fingers crumpling a bit of paper left behind. Trembling, she rose unsteadily and carried the paper along with her gear to the exit. Still wrapped in the blanket, she smoothed the paper and scanned the brief note written there, a smile slowly drawing over her face. Oh yes, she had enjoyed as he had, and though there was a tingle of guilt in her mind that she would confess when she made her way to the abbey, there was not as much as she might have expected.
Breath puffing white fog into the Snowdonian morning, she slowly donned her armor, snacked on a bit of waybread, then still smiling, lifted her pack and turned her steps back to civilization.
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