Updates may slow slightly from their current just-plain-crazy-rate, as so far I’ve been simply typing this up from my journal. I’ve reached the end of my pre-written material with this chapter, and there will be a wait while I get some more down.
So the prince said to the beggar,
“Take the load upon my back,
Pieces of rags and a rough old sack;
Take my load from me and we’ll cross the river.”
“Go home,” the swordswoman orders him matter-of-factly as they begin the walk across the marshes. Well, he begins the walk: she begins the rather slow and painful hobble. She doesn’t even turn, doesn’t stop.
“Home?” he asks, confused.
“Tell her it was by force. Say I overpowered you and left you. There is no reason for you to do this; I have my sword, and my wits. They have served me well, and will do so again.”
Though terse and addressed to the trees ahead, it may be the longest reply she’s ever made to him; he opens and closes his mouth for a frozen, ineffectual moment, eventually managing, “No.”
She finally turns – it’s to frown at him, look him up and down as if he’s suddenly grown a second head. “No?”
“She will know,” he answers, his confidence growing with every second she doesn’t run him through (he remembers well enough her blade at his neck, and that was when she was far weaker), “and besides, she has a point. You are still recovering and you do need an escort.” He stands straighter, waiting for her reaction.
After a pause (in which, to his relief, she still doesn’t run him through), she reaches up to her face, brushing away a few stray strands of hair with long fingers, and there’s something new in her eyes when they settle on him: it isn’t quite respect – it’s too cynical, too long-suffering, for that – but he has a feeling it could be, with work.
That is, until she says simply, “Would you like to die?”
He frowns. “Is that a threat?”
She huffs a long, frustrated outbreath. “No. I am an itinerant sword. This journey will be many things, but it will not be easy.”
He wants to protest that he’s only taking her to the next village, not through the gates of hell, but the retort dies in his throat. Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, “I am a grown man. I will face hardship gladly if there is a reason for it.”
There it is again, that small, surprised something in her eyes. There is a long pause, and then she’s giving him a small, curt nod, turning and beginning to hobble on.
Surely, knowing these marshes far better, he should be leading her? Unsure of what to do, he watches her silently, and then, when she doesn’t protest, begins to follow her.
The walk – slow and reluctant even to begin with, but made slower by a combination of her injuries and the slopping, watery mud of the marshes – passes in silence. He finds himself counting trees in order to have something to do.
This stops abruptly when a boggy piece of land sucks hungrily at his boot. He stumbles at the suddenness of it, about to crash to the ground, but then there’s a hand on his arm, steadying him. The grip is warm, strong and firm, the dependable hold of a swordwielder.
He looks up into steady blue eyes, so very different from the wild, haunted ones he remembers.
“Turn back,” she says again, her voice as immoveable as her gaze, as if this has proven her point.
“No,” he sharply returns, and pulls his foot from the mud with a disconcerting squelch, stepping out of her grasp and away from her.
She turns, and they walk on, the silent tedium beginning anew.
Darkness is settling as they stop to sleep for the night; she unfolds a sleeping mat of some tattered, rough-woven material, and he unfolds his own. They’ve found drier land, a clearing away from the main marsh.
A few scrapes, a muttered oath, and then a fire is flaring into life a few feet behind him – he looks around to see her crouched by the flames, warming her hands. He edges towards it, and she glances at him before tossing him the sack she’s been carrying – he hastily catches it. She stands with a terse, “I’ll hunt.”
She hasn’t even a bow, and he wonders how on earth she’ll get close enough to anything to use that sword. “Wait – ” he tries, but she walks into the trees without a second look. He sighs and drops the sack by the fire, slumping to the ground, but objects begin to spill out of it. Grimacing at his carelessness, he hastily gathers them up, but something gleams. He picks it up, holds it closer to the fire to examine it.
A necklace, beautifully crafted: a heavy silver piece of twisted metal, obviously designed to twine round the neck, carvings – small, elaborate and painstakingly careful – all over each piece. He makes out twisting stems of plants, flowers, odd symbols he hasn’t a hope of deciphering.
She has no-one. Who would give her a gift such as this? It seems unlikely that she’s made it herself.
He frowns, hastily stashing the necklace back in the sack along with her other possessions, and sits back on his haunches, watching the flames.