So a beggar said to the prince,
“My eyes are old, though my face is young,
My water’s here, my lute’s freshly strung;
Throw your lot in with me, we’ll cross the river.”
When his mother eventually enters the tent, he’s sitting next to the bed, his eyes red and with dark patches underneath them. He’s been careful not to make the same mistake twice, keeping vigil and forcing himself awake. He hasn’t let the swordswoman out of his sight again, and she’s lying on the cobbled-together mattress, sleeping deeply. He thinks the pain may have sapped the last of her energy.
His mother looks at him with a raised eyebrow, struggling not to laugh. “You look like a patient, dear boy.”
“Thank you, mother,” he says flatly and insincerely, standing slowly, aching to his bones.
Her eyes fall upon the sword still resting next to the bed, her brows creasing; she takes the blade back, striding outside, and he hears the sound of it being sheathed. Confused, he watches her return.
“I wouldn’t want our hospitality repaid rudely,” she explains.
His gaze darts back to the swordswoman, her dark, matted hair fanned out on the pillow, and he frowns. “I doubt she would…” he tries, but his mother shakes her head. He sighs and leaves her to her work, glancing back at their odd patient.
It’s a week before he’s called back, and when he ducks into the tent once again, his mother isn’t there.
Instead, he halts at the sight of the swordswoman sitting on the edge of the bed, carefully and methodically cleaning her sword. Her face is still painfully swollen, her hair – slightly tamed now, no longer the tangled mass it was before – falling into her face as she ducks her head, frowning at the blade. The cloth makes a small swish with every stroke.
Swish. The silence grows and deepens, and he shifts his weight in slight discomfort.
“The cunning woman is outside,” she says at last, not looking up.
“Thank you,” he says, going to find his mother, and walks out and around the tent.
When he does find her, she looks up from the mixture of herbs she’s stirring, watching him expectantly.
He can’t help but enquire about the sword. “You trust her now?” His voice is hushed so the woman inside the tent won’t hear them.
His mother doesn’t even attempt the same courtesy. “The sword? Yes. She’s had her chance, and she seems in no hurry to run us through.” He nods, mulling her words over, but then she adds, “She’s walking across the marshes. The moors are too dangerous. I have insisted on an escort, and that escort will be you.”
He looks at her sceptically, already having an inkling, and asks, “And what did she think of this idea?”
“She protested,” comes the blunt answer from behind him, and he turns to see the swordswoman walking towards him: it’s slower than it should be, almost a hobble, but she’s walking at all, even leaning on her sheathed sword as she is.
He turns back to his mother, and she gives their patient a hard look over his shoulder. “There is little choice in the matter.”
A pause as something occurs to him. “When?” he asks.
“Tomorrow,” she confidently replies, and he can only stare at her in disbelief.