“One! Two! Three! Again!”
Dusk was falling. Cwen leaned against the wall of the stable as she watched Danick spar with a fellow soldier, Grenwal. She stayed in the shadows; the soldier camp had no skirts or blouses. She was uncomfortable in the men’s garments she wore no matter how loose she made them. They revealed too much of her leg, her hip. She often felt exposed and the gazes of the men of the watch post did nothing to help alleviate the feeling. She was grateful that Danick and Grenwal’s friendly match drew the men’s attention.
A small ring of onlookers was forming; both men were apparently fine swordsmen, but apparently several of the men found Danick’s skill amusing.
“The huntsman can wield a sword better than you, Hema,” one solider near her goaded his companion. “Too bad he wastes his energies on tracking.”
“What use is a sword or spear to such an ‘excellent’ tracker,” Hema replied. “They hide and strike from afar. They run before facing another in hand-to-hand combat.”
“I can hear you, you know,” Danick said loudly as he parried several quick, vicious strikes in a row.
“Oi! Danick! When you gonna bring home somethin’ better than a lame kitty cat from those woods, eh? Somethin’ t’eat with meat on its bones, say!”
“I wouldn’t mind eatin’ up that kitty cat,” Hema’s companion quipped. “She’s got some meat on her bones worth chewing on, eh?” He nudged Hema with a leering grin and did not notice the sword until it embedded itself in the post the man leaned against.
“Boy! You do that again!” the solider shouted angrily as he stomped toward Danick. “I’ll see to it you never see the other side of the Gap!”
Though the man stood several inches taller than Danick who was now unarmed, Danick did not step back. He glowered at the man and said in a low, even tone, “Thunor. If you do not get out of my face, the next time shall not be a warning to hold your tongue. I will ensure that you do so by placing it in your limp hand myself.”
“Soldiers! Break it up!”
Aldin, the commander’s second. The circle quickly broke up beneath the grizzled man’s cold stare.
Thunor stood over Danick for a moment longer before poking his shoulder. “This isn’t over, pup.” The man turned and stalked away and only when he was out of sight did Danick relax.
Aldin glared at him. The two had a short, curt exchange with Danick nodding before Aldin continued his patrol of the watch tower. Danick rubbed his brow as Grenwal grinned and made some sort of joke that caused Danick to smile. Then, his eyes fell on Cwen as she stood in the shadow of the stable and they narrowed, studying her. He nodded once and then turned toward the commander’s building. Grenwal gave her a look, his expression unreadable. Then he, too, turned and walked away.
Cwen frowned as she moved away from the stables. She slipped through the gate and into the woods surrounding the post. Danick had warned her to stay near especially with the Dunlendings on the move. She hated being cooped up in the high walls, though. She needed space. Trees. Moss underfoot. Two weeks had passed since coming to the watch post and in that time, her physical wounds had healed greatly. Her spirit, however, dwelled in the ashes she left behind.
She found herself in a clearing where she often went to think. Pine needles and bracken covered the forest floor in a soft blanket. The moon broke through the canopy and bathed the center of the clearing and there she sank to her rear and brought her legs up close to her chest. She sat for a long time simply listening to the sounds of the forest and wishing she still had a home to miss.
The snap of a branch underfoot alerted her too late of the danger. A rough, thickly calloused hand seized her from behind and drug her backwards out of the patch of moonlight.
“I think it’s time I get my fill of the little pussy cat,” Thunor’s voice grated in her ears. “I don’t believe you’re one of us, little pussy cat. Your lies might have convinced the tracker boy, but they don’t convince me.”
Cwen’s arms were pinned to the leaves beneath her as Thunor’s weight settled on top of her. She was too scared to breathe, to fight back, to scream. She was frozen as the terror ripped through her again and the nightmares that had plagued her since that day in the abandoned cabin came true.
“Rip her clothes off, Thunor,” came Hema’s voice. “She looks like a boy with that hair cut so short. Let’s make sure she’s really a she.”
She struggled futilely to free her wrists.
“Look at her tremble. She wants it.” Thunor pushed her hands together above her head and held them tightly as he started to rip her shirt.
She stopped struggling. She had struggled against Tyne and it gave him the excuse to taunt her. Hurt her. She would not give these men that satisfaction. She clenched her eyes on the tears and thought of the Adorn rushing by after the spring thaw. The rush of the wind when she rode Bean through the fields. The sight of a fresh bud breaking through the warm earth. Good things. Wholesome things.
Suddenly, Thunor let out a shout and the tip of an arrow whizzed past his head and embedded in the trunk of the oak in front of him. He rolled away from Cwen as and screamed in anger. Hema reeled and looked about for the shooter as he drew his sword. “Show yourself!”
Danick emerged from the shadows of the forest. His sword was in his hand and his bow was on his back. The full moon revealed to cool rage in his eyes.
“Drop your weapon, Hema,” he said cooly. “Grenwal is almost as good of a shot as I am. He’s here and ready to stop you if you try to interfere.”
“Hema!” Thunor climbed to his feet, sword drawn. “We put this pup to sleep for good,” he growled.
“Hema, I would hate for you to get an arrow in your eye,” Danick answered.
“Don’t listen to him! He’s a liar caught in that Dunlending witch’s spell. Kill him for his own good!” Thunor swung his sword in a circle with a swivel of his wrist.
“Thunor…” Hema looked conflicted until the arrow nearly nicked his cheek. “All right! All right!” He tossed his sword to the side. “Yer on your own, lad!”
“Good,” Danick said, “I will deal with you momentarily.”
Danick attacked swift and sure, his blade slicing the air almost too quickly for Thunor to react. The clang of the blades striking shattered the solace of the woods. Cwen curled up at the base of the oak and cowered. She watched the fight from the frame of her arms as she covered her head.
Quickly, Danick wore the larger man down with his controlled assault. He easily deflected Thunor’s blows with dodges and parries. A twist and a flick and the man’s sword fell to the bed of needles beneath their feet. Grenwal, arrow drawn on Hema, stepped out of the shadows as Danick kicked the sword over to him.
“You will turn yourself in,” Danick said softly as he went to retrieve the other discarded sword. “Face your punishment like men. If you run, it only gives me leave to hunt you down and kill you. And, as you said so yourself, I am an excellent tracker. I will find you.”
He handed the other blade to Grenwal even as the two defeated men stumbled up and toward the watch tower. Ignoring them, Danick went to Cwen and eased her to her feet.
“All right?” he asked gently. His bright blue eyes revealed his genuine concern. “I was worried when I could not find you in camp. I am only sorry I did not find you sooner.”
Cwen shook her head and hugged him tightly. The shocked expression on his face quickly faded as he held her.
“You should stay with others,” he said as he looked down at her. “It isn’t safe by yourself. I wish it were not the case…” His fine brow knit as he frowned.
From behind him, Grenwal said, “Danick. We need to get back. If they do return, we should be there to make sure they remember their story properly.” The man moved to retrieve the arrows spent as warnings and then plunged into the forest to return to the watch post.
Danick nodded and began to steer Cwen back to camp. “Stay with me. The commander has given me permission to act as your guard. It isn’t safe being the only woman with a group of men in the middle of nowhere. The next time supplies come, we will send you back with the wagons. You can find a new home and start again.”
Cwen looked up at him in alarm. “But I will not know where to begin. I have nothing. How can I start again when I don’t have anything to start with?”
Danick’s expression was of forced neutrality as he said, “You’ve made it this far. You will find a way.”
She opened her mouth to further prod into that unreadable expression but was cut off by a harsh shout and a body flying at Danick. The crunch of flesh impacting flesh. Flesh impacting the hard floor. And a soft gurgle and whimper of pain.
Her scream faded as she rushed to pull Thunor’s form from off of Danick’s. The blade of a dagger had sunk deeply into the man’s chest.
Danick stared in shock. His hand was open from where he released the dagger he had drawn instinctively. The man’s sword lay uselessly above his head where it had fallen.
The sound of someone crashing through the underbrush brought him to his feet. Grenwal stared at the bloodied mess of Thunor’s shirt front for only a moment before moving to his friend.
“Danick, what happened?”
Shaking his head, Danick said, “A healer, we need to get him to the healers.” Thunor made a helpless noise of gurgling.
“You’re hurt!” Grenwal reached up to touch the blood dripping from Danick’s ear.
“Just a scratch,” Danick assured him and then reached down to take up the dying man’s arm. “Help me carry him back.”
Cwen followed helplessly as the men dragged Thunor through the forest and back to camp. Others rushed to assist them upon nearing the gate and they took the man to the infirmary located in the larger of the two permanent buildings of the post. The healers, two older men who usually looked thoroughly bored with their stock in life, shook their head as they worked over him speaking in low tones.
“I need to report to the comman-” Danick’s words failed him and he would have fallen if Grenwal had not caught him beneath the arm. The man’s face was pale and sweaty. His ear still oozed blood, but now a yellow ichor mixed with the blood. Grenwal reached out to touch the ooze, but Cwen shouted and grabbed his arm.
“No! It is poison.”
Danick, weak and pale, stared up at her and laughed. “Who could have known…”
Pushing her way to him, Cwen leaned over and sniffed the wound. She looked down at Danick’s face and whispered softly, “You must hold on. I will fix this.” And before anyone could stop her, she turned and fled from the room.