A.D. 1250 or thereabouts.
‘Twas a prince, he fled one night –
The prince, he ran from house and home
Took to the road all on his own
Came to the torrent, couldn’t cross the river.
He’s gathering apples in the orchard, searching for more underneath the leafy trees, when he hears his sister call from behind him, “Martin!”
He turns, watches her run to him, and she explains, “A swordswoman.”
He frowns at the odd word. Swordswoman.
“She fell on the moors.”
Ah. There are… things on the moors, things no-one wants to talk about, and he isn’t surprised.
He nods, giving the basket one last, longing glance. “Wait.” He grabs two of the ripe apples, offering her one. She shakes her head and he pockets the fruit, walking with her.
Their mother is the cunning woman of the village, the one with knowledge, and she looks up from her patient as he enters the tent. “Still no wife, eh?”
It’s her usual greeting, asked only half in jest; he knows he should have a family by now, but he pretends he hasn’t heard. “You wanted my help?”
She nods, shoving a bowl of herbs and a poultice into his hand; he takes it, used to this by now, and steps to the side of the makeshift bed. She sweeps past him, possibly to grab some food, and he looks down at the “swordswoman”.
She’s covered in blood, her face obscured by matted dark hair, and he can barely make out her features; she smells like blood and sweat, and there are gashes and bruises all over what skin he can see. He winces to look at her, and wonders what could have done this. He knows for certain that he wouldn’t want to meet it himself.
Frowning, he begins to clean off the blood; she mutters, lashes out in her sleep, and he knows she must be in pain. He’s used to seeing it, and gently lowers her wrist.
When he’s done that for what must be the hundredth time, her eyes snap open; they’re wide and blue, panicked, and her wrist flexes in his grip. She’s a step away from thrashing desperately in an attempt to escape him. He tries his best to calm her, raising his other hand in surrender, but it doesn’t work; she tries to snatch back her arm and fails, reaching to her side with the other. For a sword, probably – the same one that’s been propped outside the tent, far from her reach. She makes a sound very like a growl, low and feral, glaring at him and obviously about to strike out.
He sighs. Still holding her wrist with one hand, he digs in his pocket with the other, eventually retrieving his sister’s refused apple and offering it to her.
She freezes, staring at it for a long moment, and then she reaches out and takes it; her grip is cautious, gentle but firm. The bite she takes is loud, crunchy and ungraceful, but she meets his eye and her hand leaves his wrist. There is steel in her gaze but also, temporarily, submission.
Her first words to him are, “My thanks.”
Her face is still swollen and discoloured in many places – she’s quite a sight to see – and he thinks that it will be a long time before she’s given a looking glass.
“You were found on the moors,” he says, partly to fill the silence that has grown between them.
“Hm,” is her only reply, as if he has just announced something astonishingly obvious.
He gazes at his knees, feeling like a fool and silently agreeing with her tone of voice. He tries, “My mother will be back soon, to tend to your wounds.”
Another half-grunted “Hmph” is his only reply, and then the tent is silent except for crunching.
When his mother does return, she looks over the woman, makes an approving noise at the fact that she is awake and sitting up, and says with a distinct lack of fanfare, “Night watch.”
His least favourite duty. It’s been months since he’s had to do it.
“Yer on night watch,” she repeats, stepping from the tent. “Make sure no-one don’t get too curious.”
He exhales loudly into the stillness of the tent, dreading the night ahead, and turns to see the swordswoman watching him; her head is cocked and, beneath the swelling, there is interest in her eyes. As his eyes fall on her, however, she quickly hides it, and asks flatly, “When can I have my sword?”
Sick of being treated like some sort of mule, he says nothing, stalking out of the tent with gritted teeth. He has no time for this.
The lute is reassuringly heavy in his hands, and he fights the urge to smile as he strums the first chord, the tune coming easily as he sits outside the tent, the instrument and the stars above his only companions.
“So the beggar said to the prince,
‘Throw your lot in with me, we’ll cross the river’.”
He expects to find the swordswoman asleep, but when he re-enters the tent to check on her condition, she is sitting, sheets pooled around her waist. She watches him with bright, interested eyes and maybe the hint of a smile, visible even through her wounds.
Neither of them says anything, and he leaves soon afterwards. When he enters the tent again, she’s asleep.
Or pretending to be.