So the prince, he lied at an inn:
“I have nothing of value, nothing to lose
I have no coat, I have no shoes
Will someone please help me cross the river?”
His mother returns the next morning, looking him over with narrowed eyes. “Was she any trouble?”
He’s sitting next to the simple straw mattress and sheets, cross-legged and rubbing his eyes in an attempt to keep them open. “None. There’s been little change. I checked her bandages sometime close to dawn…”
He’d barely laid a hand on her dressings when there was a hand round his neck and blue eyes staring into his. She was a terrifying sight then, with her wild hair, her bruised flesh and gritted teeth. He froze, not daring to move; but she looked down at what he was doing, his hands splayed gently across her wrapped stomach. After a pause, she lay back down, and nodded. Their eyes met, and she watched him for the first couple of minutes, but she soon dropped of to sleep again, exhaustion overwhelming pain and suspicion.
He clears his throat. “She is healing. Slowly.”
His mother regards him a moment longer, then bustles past him to see their patient. He’s rather afraid that the old woman will receive the same tense response as him, but the woman barely stirs. Even with her injuries, in sleep she looks almost… peaceful. He’s tempted to laugh at the irony of it. This woman, tranquil?
His mother glares at him, her brows meeting. “Out with you. Sleep, m’boy.”
He nods and obeys, hearing rustling and a muttered curse behind him. As he turns one last time, he sees the swordswoman sitting up, her eyes on him. She looks hastily away, back to her wounds, taking hissing breaths as his mother attempts to dress them.
The call comes once again as he’s in the orchard, and he tries to conceal his irritation as he turns to face his sister.
“Mother wants you,” she tells him, her tone bored. “It’s… the woman again.”
He frowns, remembering wild blue eyes and a steel-strong grip on his wrist, and is hesitant to return to the tent. He eventually nods, and chews the thought over, along with another apple, as he makes his way there.
His mother is standing outside the tent waiting for him. “Second night watch,” she says bluntly, shoving a woollen, rough-spun blanket into his hands – he’s only just fast enough to stop it dropping to the floor, and he walks past her with slumped shoulders and a sigh.
The swordswoman is sitting up, her arms curled around her knees, dressed in some rough rags that might have been his mother’s once. They might have been wearable once, as well. Her face is still bruised and swollen, but with some improvement: he can make out a slightly concave, upturned nose, and her lips – along with narrowed, suspicious eyes.
The question is quiet, curt. “My sword?”
“Outside,” he replies equally curtly, sick of being ordered around. He strides over to her bedside and begins lighting small candles, aware of the makeshift material of the tent around them and as careful as he can be. He begins to walk away, but stops at hearing her voice behind him.
He slowly turns, and she’s regarding him with the anger and suspicion gone from her eyes. He approaches her again, and she suddenly seems much smaller. “I am sorry. I appreciate your treatment,” she says, eventually.
He sighs, and holds out the second apple from his pocket. A peace offering, perhaps.
Her eyes flicker from it to him, and then she reaches out a hand – it’s rough, calloused, at least two knuckles uneven from breakages (whether old or new he doesn’t know), but it’s tentative, careful. “Thank you,” she says, and he begins to turn, hearing satisfied crunching behind him; then a suspicion, small and unsure but there, begins to grow on him.
He wonders if she is asking not to be alone.
For some reason – whether he has a death wish or is simply too foolish to run in the opposite direction – he finds himself sitting next to her bed, leaning his back on it; there’s a long silence in which he feels her watching him, and then she sighs, and he hears her shift, relaxing onto her covers. He watches the walls of the tent, silent except for the crunching as he consumes his own apple, and tells himself that he is far too experienced to fall asleep on night watch.
He wishes he had his lute.
He wakes sometime before dawn with a startled breath, and hears unfamiliar noises. Gasps and hisses, one hastily bitten-off whimper that makes him check the bed.
She’s not there.
He gets to his feet as quickly as possible, rushing outside, and spots a hunched figure. She’s limping slowly, a hand held to her ribs, before she stops, reaches for something…
He has his hand on her shoulder when she turns, a blade raised to his throat. She’s breathing heavily with the effort of moving only a few feet, tears streaming down her battered face. “My sword,” she says simply, and it would be matter-of-fact if it were less of a gasp.
He wonders if she’s slept at all, or if she’s simply waited for him to drop off.
After a frozen moment, she lowers the blade, making another startled half-whimper, her eyes widening with the pain; then she glares at him resentfully, as if he has no right to see her in this state. He reaches out, hesitantly looping an arm round her shoulders. He fights his surprise when she doesn’t protest, instead leaning her weight against him and letting him lead her back to the tent. She’s silent, her other arm – the one not holding on to him – at her side, her grip tight on the sword, her anchor in the pain.