The man with the axe cried out and reached for his back, dropping his weapon. Cartell looked to the man who was rising and he rushed to him, thrusting his weapon through the man's chest before he could recover. He wrenched it free as the man slumped and whirled around as the man Serena had stabbed lay on the ground twitching, the knife had struck his nerves. Cartell looked to Eyan who had already dealt with his attackers, seeing them lying in a broken, bloody heap. There was the sound of crunching leaves behind them and they both turned around quickly with their blades. It was Andal, his sword was drawn and his clothes stained with blood in places. "Bloody hill clans.." He murmured as he stepped to them, looking each of them other. He raised his eyebrow at Serena and her bloody knife, then nodded in approval before looking to Cartell. "You took an arrow I see, sit down, let me see to it." Eyan walked over and wiped the blood from his blade before sheathing it. "The Illios claimed they had purified the foothills of the hill people.. more lies." He put a hand on Serena's shoulder, "Are you hurt, girl?"
Andal pulled the bolt from Cartell's shoulder with a sickening crunch and Cartell growled in pain. Andal looked at Serena and motioned for her to come closer.
Serena darted back as the man she had stabbed dropped his weapon and eventually fell to the ground. With her foot she kicked at the pommel of the axe in order that he, still living, may make use of it. She still clutched the dagger in her hand tightly, as if giving up would put her in danger again. She trembled from the adrenaline and her concern had turned to the arrow in his shoulder, but she shirked away from the sound of crunching leaves and raised her arm again if it should be an enemy. She relaxed at the sight of Andal and then knew that this battle was over. As Andal paused beside her to ask of her wellness, she clutched the flat of the dagger safely against her chest, worrying that he would wrest it from her. “Yes, quite fine,” she spoke through pale lips.
Her eyes then fell upon the two as the bolt was removed, and the sound of arrowhead grinding against bone made her shudder visibly, grimacing in empathy. She drew her eyes up to Andal’s face, her eyebrows raising in question and stepped to him. She really did hope that she would not lose her present, especially now that it had proved to be of use in her hands. But this had been her very first violent act, and she had not fully recovered from the shock of it. Her eyes trailed over her victim a moment before she began to tremble at what she had done.
Andal's eyes flicked down to the dagger in her hand, "I can only think of a few places you could've obtained one of our family daggers." He sighed, looking at Cartell. "Keep it, I care not." He looked to the corpse of the man she had stabbed, "You struck true, probably saved this fool's life, I'd say you've earned it." He reached down and removed one of his gloves and cut his hand with a knife, letting a few drops of the blood drop onto the blade. He reached up and held the knife above Cartell's wound, letting the blood drip down onto it. He muttered a few words and held his hand against the wounded shoulder. The light around them seemed to grow dark for the briefest moment and Cartell winced as his flesh began to weave back together.
Andal sheathed his knife and started to walk away, looking at the trees above them. "Come, we must leave at once. If we are in their territory they will send more."
Hours more passed as they ran. The sun passed the peak of the sky and now drifted to the west. Andal brought them to the checkpoint they had set up. It was a small cave in the side of a hill facing south-west, out of sight of most travelers. Three horses were roped to a post outside of it. Andal hopped up to the mouth of the cave and disappeared inside for a few minutes before re-emerging. "It is safe, come, we make camp. I will check our perimeter, Cartell start a few." Andal left the cave and disappeared from sight over the hill. Cartell obeyed his brother's command and began gathering wood for a fire. Eyan stood in the mouth of the cave, standing guard over Serena.
She looked quite relieved that she could keep the gift, and even more, took the compliment happily. If it were not Cartell who had been wounded, would she have so hastily come to aid despite the risks that she would die? It was a minor thought, and she shrugged away. She would do so again, for any of those who she held dear. While her relationship with Andal had come to a truce of sorts, she would not betray him. Serena’s brow knit as Andal cut his hand for no reason that she understood, and when he allowed droplets to fall upon Cartell’s wound, she was even more confounded. Confusion turned into surprise as, when Andal removed his hand, the wound, though scarred, was sealed. As he walked away, Serena knelt beside Cartell, bending her face to look into his. “Are you all right? That was magick that healed you, was it not? Does it still pain you?” --- She had searched for a way to clean the blade of her dagger, and, reluctant to stain her dress any further, she tore some cloth from one of the fallen enemy’s rough shirt and wiped it that way, then slid it in the sheath, bounding it up again inside her boot. She had no objections to delay any longer, and often watched Cartell’s back to wonder how he was doing after having been wounded? Serena was unused to keeping up such a pace for as long as they had, and although her body was strong, she had become winded, her knees weak, but on she went for she did not dare slow the others down.
As soon as she was at the mouth of the cave, she sunk down to a seated position, leaning back and asking Eyan for water. She drank not too deeply after being warned so that it would not make her ill. She obeyed with small sips and handed the canteen back. She would have liked to sit there for long, but she saw Cartell had begun to gather wood for a fire. She began to get up in order to help him, for tired as she was, she did not want to burden him with the task alone.
Cartell smiled at Serena, glad that she had shown a care for him, "Yes.. the process is uncomfortable, and there is a soreness, but much better than the alternative."
Eyan gathered their packs and began unpacking some of the food they were to eat later. Cartell smiled as Serena came to help him. "Uhm.. Serena? Thank you. I mean about before, when we were attacked. I think he would've taken my head if you hadn't helped me." He looked down, shaking his head. If he couldn't defend himself, could he hope to keep her safe? He had taken an arrow and was outnumbered, sure, but he had seen Andal and Eyan cut down five times their number with worse ailments. He grew silent as he gathered the wood and started back towards the cave.
He piled the wood up, with her help, and drew flint and tender that they had packed. In a short time they had a fire a distance from the mouth of the cave, so the glow could not be seen. Eyan handed out dried meat and bread as they gathered around the fire and awaited Andal's return. Cartell sat close to Serena and laid his sword's scabbard across his legs, rubbing the scuffs and dirt from it.
“Yes, much better,” she wholeheartedly agreed. And having him smile at her and speak more lightheartedly, she felt joy to rise up in her. She gave one close glance of the wound and drew back so that he could stand, and followed him as they began to race off, trying her best to match the male gait.
As she was quite expert in the art of making fire, having lugged pieces of firewood from the block to light the kitchen fires, she knew what wood was favorable than the other, and did not bother with damp wood nor much which would only serve as tinder. She heard hesitation in Cartell’s voice as he spoke, and she wondered if his feelings had been hurt despite his glad words that she had come to his aid. “He was carrying a very big axe, and I wasn’t about to let him cleave you in two if I could help it,” she said cheerfully. “Besides,” she sobered, “I would not be able to forgive myself if I hadn’t helped and saw you die. I couldn’t bear that, Cartell.” There was no blush on her cheek, these were not the words of a silly child in love, they were fierce and meaningful. “After all, I’ve only barely begun to know you…” She chuckled a little. “and I want the time to know you more, even if that means that I must draw my dagger again. And it was only by luck that he had been mortally wounded. He could have very well have turned the axe on me and that would be the end of it.” She swallowed hard. “What other use could I be, without knowing swordsmanship?” She felt a wave of frustration at this fact.
Having said what she said, she kept at the task in silence as they piled the wood near where the fire would be lit, that which could be added later once the fire had caught and blazed adequately for their use. She sat down and took the food gladly and ate it slowly in thanks, and so that what rations they had could be saved for another day. She turned her eyes to Cartell idly as he polished up his weapon. She heard the sound of the horses, and ceased her eating at once, her eyes becoming wide. She had not told them yet… would they laugh at her that she had never sat astride a horse?
Cartell looked up from his work to meet her eyes, studying her sincerity without speaking. "I hope I can know you too." He knew there would probably be a dozen more threats on his life or more before their task was done. He was beginning to understand the plight of duty, having something to lose. "I'm sure Andal or Eyan would teach you how to use a weapon if you asked, they're both very skilled.."
At the fire he finished with his blade and placed it at his side, finishing a piece of the jerky. Noticing the change in her behavior he looked around quickly, "What? What is it?" Fearing some doom, he placed a hand on his scabbard.
She had nodded a little at his suggestion to ask Andal or Eyan if they should teach her how to defend herself. What she wanted most was to have the ability to protect those she loved. She dared not yet hope that Cartell would fit into the picture, but his friendship, and she hoped that one day it might possibly be more than that, was a start. There was also the question if they would get through this with their lives, since it seemed that the Illions were ceaseless in number, and they were crawling under the belly of a terrible sleeping beast. Would danger subside when they reached sanctuary again, she wondered?
She was startled by his question, for it had grown quiet. Her eyes flowed the movement of his hand. Her face flushed red with embarrassment. “Cartell, I… well, that is to say…” She let in and out a deep breath, might as well get over it. “It’s about the horses. I… never learned how to ride one.” She rubbed her arm a little. “Do they bite?”
Cartell sighed with relief, smiling, "Ah, they do not bite. Horses are rather docile creatures, very beautiful. These were bred to be ridden so they are not a challenge. Come, I'll show you." He stood, fastening his sword back to his belt and walking out of the mouth of the cave. The sun was almost gone now, the area around the cave was dark with orange beams of light flowing over it from the hilltop. He stooped and reached into one of the backs they had been carrying, retrieving a carrot. He approached one of the horses, they were all black-haired with dark eyes. Waving her over he held the carrot out to her, "Here, feed him, it's important to form a bond with your horse if you can, even a small one."
To make her more comfortable he continued to stand near the horse with his hand on its haunches, behind the saddle.
Andal stood at the peak of the hill which housed the cave, looking down at the two children as they milled with the horses. He watched as they talked and laughed. Memories leapt forward unbidden. Hurtful, but also sweet memories. It reminded him of his own time he had been given with love, back in the time of the Golden Kingdom. Roaming the halls of Duskwell when his father and King Thorsten had been close friends. The time when they had planned to join their houses. The Hollands' oldest son Andal, to Aurelia, the first born princess of gold. It was a controversial match, given the Holland's purported ties with the occult - but they were both happy.
Those sweet few years he had gotten to spend with her. His eyes moved down to Serena and then snapped close, a grimace of pain flicking across his face. He turned away, scowling at the horizon. They looked so much alike, Aurelia had had the same flowing blonde hair, almost silver. He had been the envy of every man in the westerlands. They had planned a long life together, ruling over Dire's End and beyond. Until the Illios had snatched it all away in an instant with an assassin's poison. It did not act fast, she grew ill and remained so for months. Her hair fell and her skin paled, all while he stayed at her side and witnessed it all.
He looked down, examining his hands. Had he spilled enough blood to avenge her? Would seeing Serena on the throne and restoring the kingdom be enough to fulfill her memory? He didn't know. Her face would stay with him, as would the pain, until he cut it out with his life.
Serena set aside the meager remains of her meal and rose up when Cartell stood, brushing her hands over her dress to dislodge forest litter and dirt. She obediently followed him to the horse, hovering a distance from the horse while watching him withdraw a carrot from one of the packs, and had not expected a vegetable to solve her anxiety. But she walked forward, eyeing the horse’s face still warily. As the carrot was placed on her hand, and being instructed to keep her palm flat so as to not have her fingers bit, her smile turned into one of delight as the horse’s lips brushed her palm and then ate the carrot in loud crunching noises, causing her to giggle, her eyes turning to Cartell. When the horse shifted she yelped and backed away, still a bit intimidated by the size of the beast. When he urged her to try and brush the horses nose, she tentatively reached up, hesitated, and then ran her hand down the horse’s face between the lines, and carefully trailed down. “Its nose feels like velvet!” She said delightfully.
Cartell smiled and nodded as she proceeded with the horse. "Yeah, their coats are very soft. I guess you haven't seen many animals aside from small livestock up in that monastery." He stepped forward and started fiddling with the saddle, adjusting it to be more suited for her. "If you want.. we can try to ride, we shouldn't go far but.. it'll be good to be comfortable with it before trouble starts."
He knelt and offered his two cupped hands as a step, "Want to give it a try? It's not too bad.. they do most the work, just have to guide them."
Serena nodded and then grinned. “It would be difficult to ride a goat around, wouldn’t it?” She watched him adjust the saddle patiently, for it was a foreign act to her. There were so many straps, how could the horse breathe with the saddle so snug around its middle?! With Cartell’s gentle coaxing, and with the fact that she trusted him to do her no harm, she agreed, steeling herself up for the task.
She stepped forward and allowed Cartell to boost her up in the saddle. She was surprised at the comfort of it, since the seat was so well molded, even if it was a bit large, built for a man to ride. She listened attentively to his instructions on how to lead the horse by means of the reigns, and to hug the horse gently to stay affixed on the seat, and how to turn the horse and halt it. As he slid into the saddle of his own horse, she mimicked his movements as best she could.
After a few minutes she saw what he had meant of the horse doing most of the work. It was an intelligent animal and barely needed guiding. But she tried to not look at the ground since she felt quite high off the ground, since she had never been seated on a horse before. Instead she trained her eyes ahead, or upon Cartell as he led the way in a long circle around the cave. She was worried that the horse may stumble against the rocky ground along the rise of the cave, but the horse seemed familiar with rough terrain and it moved smoothly.
Cartell lead the way, showing her around the hill at a gentle pace. Eventually he broke the horse into a brisk canter to see if she could get the horse to keep up. Smiling as she excelled at the task, he lead them a short distance from the cave to a small creek shrouded by forest. The sun was gone now, and the clear waters reflected the silver light of the moon. He stopped on the bank and let the horse drink.
He folded his hands on his saddle and looked to Serena. After a few minutes he cleared his throat, "Serena, I wanted to ask you.. how do you feel, about all this I mean?" He waved his hand around, gesturing at the universe for all it meant. "Learning who you really are.. being with us, the violence." He looked down, seeming as if he himself were doubting some things.
Serena was startled when he broke the horse into a canter, and though her heart began to pound and she lost her breath for a few moments, she intended to impress him. So she bolstered herself by hugging the horse with her legs, leaned forward into the canter, allowing the reigns slack, and managed to keep up. The horses breathed deeply as they were led to cool down for a few minutes, then happily took their fill from the creek.
Her cheeks were of high color from both the wind of the ride and the thrill of it. She patted the horse that she had ridden, thankful that the gentle beast had given her no trouble. She turned her body towards Cartell as he cleared his throat. Her face turned sober as he spoke. She bowed her head and laced her fingers together as she thought of what to say, for she had the instinct that he was troubled for her sake. At length, she replied, her voice soft.
“I admit I never thought that my life would take such a turn. I had expected to stay cloistered in the convent since that is all that I had known, a life of piety and servitude… and when I was attacked and the mark carved upon my back, and having been abused so easily in judgment despite my quiet life, I was afraid for my life. Who wouldn’t be?” She looked into his eyes. “And although I had taken offence for the death of so many of my former people… the Illios…” she cringed, “I understand now that I surely would have met my end if not for your rescue.”
“I am grateful that I know now who I am and where I come from. I thought myself an orphan, and to know that I may have a mother and father that still live…” her throat caught as she shivered to hold back that surge of hope, for she dared not to hope. “I am comforted. Now, to be named queen, that much is intimidating, since I know nothing of holding court or the duties of the crown. I have not lived the life of a noble, and thus have remained unspoiled…” she smiled sadly. “I suppose you could say I will be all the better for it.”
“I was prepared for violence at the very moment I stood in the Illios court, for I feared for my life and had almost surrendered myself to despair and prayed that god would have struck me down so that I would not have given them the satisfaction of taking my life. But my life has taken a turn, and after having met you…” Her eyes turned down shyly, “one whom in which I put my full trust, if you believe in me then perhaps I might succeed in my new station.”
He nodded slowly as she spoke, then looked at her with a small smile as she spoke of her trust. "I'm glad you trust us, I'm not sure what I'd do if you were unhappy. I know Andal can be hard at times but.. he has seen a lot." His eyes flowed over her as he recalled the stories of Aurelia Eyan had told him. Would the same fate befall Serena? He suddenly stood up straight in his saddle, a stern look coming over his face. He was an image then, he almost looked the confident knight he was meant to be. He would die before he allowed harm to come to her, he knew that even now.
Cartell sighed, his form somewhat slouching again in his saddle as the heroics in his mind faded to reality. "Shall we return?" He looked to her and picked up his reins, though he secretly wished to stay with her in secret. He almost wanted to just take the horses and run for the hills, to show her everything she had never seen, to see her smile as she experienced the world for the first time. It was folly, he knew, he couldn't protect her like the others could - and it was no common girl he was gambling with.