Past Lives: Crossing The River: 7

seven

companion

The beggar said he was “no-one,

Nothing to know or see,

There is nothing important in me;

Now, we must be going to cross the river.”

Martin wakes to the sound of birds, but otherwise silence. Not an angry silence, but a tired one, an uncertain one, and when he sits up, rubbing his head with a groan, Aerith says nothing. She meets his eye, opens her mouth as if to speak, and then looks away – it bares her neck, the movement unexpectedly vulnerable. “Good morning. Is there anything of use left here?”

There’s a moment as he sits there – hands still planted on the ground but ready to be raised in self-defence, if necessary – when he waits for her to say something about last night, to strike out at him (verbally or otherwise) for his presumption. She regards him from a face still swollen and painful-looking. There are bruises where blood once was (blood that he remembers wiping away, revealing skin under his fingers), and only her eyes are clear, untouched. He feels like they’re looking right through him suddenly, the sensation unnerving, and so he looks at the sword next to her, focuses on the patterns in the sheath’s leather, and waits. Nothing more happens until she takes the sword and places it across her crossed legs, balancing it on her knees and forcing his eyes back up to hers. She raises an eyebrow, obviously wondering what the matter is with him. He clears his throat, realises that she means useful herbs or business to attend to, and replies, “No. Nothing.”

She nods. “Make preparations to move, in that case.”

He nods in return, and she stands – slowly, her leg seeming to pain her. The words, “I could dress that,” slip out before he intends them to, and she pauses, tenses, her eyes meeting his.

“I am perfectly capable,” she tells him shortly, moving across the makeshift camp to dig in the ragged sack she calls a bag and pulling out strips of fabric. Of course he knew she was dressing her wounds somehow – he supposes that his mother must have given her the bandages – and he exhales in what is decidedly non-surprise. That changes when no poultice appears with them. She holds onto a tree, using it to sit slowly, painfully, wincing as she does so. Then, without ceremony, she pulls off her boot, draws up the leg of her britches, and looks down. He sees her eyes narrow in a suppressed grimace, then even that small weakness is gone. His eyes narrow too, for very different reasons. Her calf is a mess, and so is her shin, her lower leg covered with hastily tied bandages that are bloodstained and yellowing.

“When did you last change this?” he demands of her suddenly, his voice sharper than he intended, anger making him brave.

She doesn’t take her eyes off her injuries, begins slowly unwinding the bandages. “What does it matter?” is her equally harsh reply, the fact that it is not truly an answer telling him all he needs to know.

“It matters plenty.” His reply is quiet but still clearly a retort. He pretends for both of their sakes not to hear the regular hisses of pain she lets out, and that he can’t smell the wound. “It’ll fester.” It already has, a voice whispers somewhere in the back of his head, but he doesn’t want to give the thought too much credence. The thought very nearly upsets him, though it only sinks in after a second or two. She is not easy. She is not a friend, and judging from this she may certainly be a fool. Yet she is brave, and he respects that, strange as it may be. She is stil walking – even if slowly – and the thought of that walk stopping seems wrong, somehow.

A sharp nod, and she admits, “It may well do.” It takes her a moment to add, “I won’t die.”

He loks at her in disbelief, and the comment comes out drier than he intended, with less frustration behind it.  “You seem remarkably certain for a woman who can barely walk.”

“I can walk,” she grits out. “I do walk.”

She is dodging the point completely, and he wants to give up and put an end to a conversation that seems at many points like an uphill struggle, but something makes him continue, “Honey?”

She nods; he looks down at the mess of gore and God-knows-what-else that is her unbound leg and hopes to see the product of his mother’s bees’ hard work; it is a central part of the dressing, helps to stop the wound rotting. Picking up a rag, she begins dabbing off the wound – gently, not seeming to worsen it, he’s relieved to see – and then roots around in her bag until she takes out a small pot of honey along with some fresh bandages. He looks to the horizon, pretends not to watch as she applies it, re-wrapping her injury.

“You know you cannot simply leave it,” he tells her.

“I am aware,” she tells him. But I frequently find myself busy. I have people to see and things to kill.” She looks away, off to the horizon. “Besides, this is most likely not an infinite supply.”

Hearing that, he grabs his own bag and oulls from it to a similar pot. “I have spares. You need only have asked.”

She looks at the item in his hand for a moment, then the anger fades from her face to leave it blank; but there is something in the set of her mouth and the flash of her eyes that’s almost… embarrassment. “Ah.”

“Surely you’ve dealt with injuries before?” he asks her, the question seeming like a stupid one, what with the way she chooses to spend her time.

Again she doesn’t meet his eye, and seems uncertain of her reply. He is used to seeing many thingd from her, but not hesitance. “Yes. No. Yes. But there were wards, guards, things I did… things I do.”

Wards and guards. There is a moment where he struggles for comprehension, and then he realises what she means. Not the herbs he and his mother use, the useful little things that look good but are really nothing more than glorified nature study. She means magic, true magic, and the knowledge of it has him fighting not to get up and run from her.

He has never heard of a swordswoman, but he has certainly heard of witches, and nothing good ever comes from them.

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So far: a vague, unfinished sort of timeline for Past Lives

+ Unknown.

+ Sometime (*mumblemumble*) BC/early AD: Melinda starts learning some magic; maybe she was originally one of the Gauls or some of the Welsh before the Romans invaded. Either way, she’s either British or French, but no-one (certainly not me) actually knows. I’m not even sure she remembers.

+ Early AD: Melinda is captured and taken as slave. Escapes master by killing him with his own sword.

+ Somewhere round the 1140s: Resurfaces in the story. Has been making a living and basically staying alive with the same sword from so long ago. Meets Martin. Crossing The River takes place.

+ Unknown. Lots of time as a wandering sword.

+ 1800s: Spends some limited time as a high-society lady in England. Some vague reports of a woman named “Adelaide” matching her description. I have no idea about much of this period.

+1899 – 1918: Spends some time in Ypres. Befriends Paul. Leaves on a ship to Britain at the end of the war, narrowly escaping with her life.

+ 1918 – 1946: Gains a service revolver from an old soldier friend. Spends World War II moving around the UK, mainly in England, and decides to make a new start after living through yet another war.

+ 1928: List is born. His father leaves a few months later.

+ 1945: Melinda buys? rents? a flat with office space from Motimer Ferguson – sets up the M.R. Harrigan detective agency, and List joins her. Recruits Mary the same year.

+ 1947: Established “present” (non-flashback) time in Past Lives.

Past Lives: Crossing The River: 6

six

tracks

“And who are you?” asks Martin, frowning at the man – who is still smiling that eerie, over-practised smile.

The smile widens. “Smith,” their uninvited guest answers. “My name is Smith.” Martin frowns. He doesn’t look like a smith; he looks little like someone who spends much of their day with a heavy hammer. He is thin, slight, a man whose appearance cries fast rather than strong.

Suddenly, Aerith’s hand is on his arm, her voice low and next to his ear. “Don’t trust him.” At the deepening of his frown, she elucidates, “Did you hear any footsteps? Do you see any tracks?” His eyes fall to the ground, following her words, and his jaw tightens, his teeth clenching in suspicion and sudden worry as she ends with, “Or did he just… appear? The grass is not flattened, Martin.”

Two realizations flicker suddenly into existence inside his head: the first being that he never heard this “Smith” approach, and the second being that this is the first time she has used his name. He works not to register his surprise, his gaze sliding back to their intruder. “I saw nothing. I heard nothing.” He is almost afraid to blink, lest this odd man attack, or slip out of his grasp. Or out of his mind – it occurs to him, as he looks at the simple, rough-spun wool of Smith’s clothes (an unfussy brown tunic, rumpled breeks) and his face (what his sister might call “kind” eyes slightly crinkled as he watches them; only slightly aquiline nose; wide mouth with lips just a little on the full side) that he is, to put it simply, the most forgettable man Martin has ever come across.

Smith’s head turns, his eyes flickering between them – silent, calculating – several times before he says, “Not my usual idea of being hospitable. A dour pair, aren’t you?”

Martin and Aerith glance at each other, surprise and anger warring on their faces, and then back to Smith.

“What do you want?” Martin sighs.

Smith has the air of the men who have come to his mother’s hut with offers of mysterious herbs, cures and newly-discovered ailments; men with eyes that are too quick and fidgeting hands, the kind he has met so many times before. Except… this one is still, so utterly still that it is strange to see his hair blowing with the wind – calm, immoveable as the trees rustle and the grass bends with the breeze. It’s unnerving, strange in a way he hasn’t encountered before. What Martin recognizes from the other men is the same smirk lurking behind the eyes, waiting to break through in a moment of honesty and spread to the man’s mouth; the same look of knowing something that he doesn’t, of being ready to play a fine, fun trick. It unsettles and irritates him at the same time, and he struggles not to let it slip into his behaviour and manner; he can’t help feeling that that will only amuse the fellow before him.

A hand on his arm. He looks to his left to see Aerith watching him, that afraid, feral look in her eyes once more – one he thought, hoped he’d never see again – and she says, “Ignore him.” Then the pleading look falls from her face, her eyes shuttering and growing hard, and the next thing she says is an order. “Never make deals with his kind.”

Martin barely has time to wonder at the his kind before the implacable, calm stillness of Smith’s face is disrupted. Just slightly, the smallest downturn of his mouth and a narrowing of his eyes – but a shiver runs down Martin’s spine, his toes curling and his shoulders tensing involuntarily. He looks to Aerith, confused and worried by his reaction, but the utter lack of surprise on her face only serves to increase his anxiety. Out of his prior confusion blooms, suddenly and strongly, fear, climbing into his throat and making him swallow so he can breathe.

“You could at least have the grace to consider my offer,” Smith says, the gentlest of frowns creasing his brow. “Or has your trek here stolen your sense as well as your charm?” He grins, white-toothed, wide and animal, and Martin feels the hand on his arm tighten – whether the cause is fear, anger or a need to warn him, he doesn’t know. “You need never make another such trek, when you’re with me. I have a way for you to cross the marshes quickly, safely.”

Though Martin hates to admit it, his interest is piqued, and he has just opened his mouth to ask for more information when Aerith says firmly, “No.”

Smith raises a disbelieving eyebrow. “‘No’?” Then the disbelief is gone, a confused, hurt smile in its place. “But I’m only trying to help you.” In that moment, Smith’s eyes are so kind, so innocently hurt, that Martin can’t quite help but trust him. Some indeed help strangers in need – some ask for nothing in return, or only meagre offerings. The song of the beggar and the prince winds its way back into Martin’s head, and he is torn between questioning Smith and longing for his lute.

“Do you enjoy playing?” the stranger asks suddenly, his eyes meeting Martin. “I have a lute here…” There is an instrument strapped to Smith’s back, one that Martin swears wasn’t there before –

Of course it was. His mother has taught him not to be superstitious, or a fool, and many men on such journeys carry lutes. Playing is a way of keeping sane on the road. He has simply been unobservant, something very unusual for him, and he’s ashamed of himself. His eyes are drawn to the shining wood of the instrument, and much as he still can’t trust the man, he still admires his lute…

Aerith shakes him, and he jumps, looking to her in surprise. “How did he know?” she says urgently. When he only frowns at her, she elaborates, “How did he know you were thinking of a lute?”

His thoughts swirl strangely, refuse to piece together,; the hand on his arm, the firm grip and the nails not-quite digging into his skin, is the only thing keeping him grounded. His brow furrows. “I do not… know…” His mind begins to clear as she watches him, eyes sharp and narrow, and she seems to notice the moment that anger rushes into him. “I never spoke of it!” he says, understanding the words as they spill from his mouth.

Aerith gives one curt nod. She removes her hand, strides forwards. In a smooth, sure movement that Martin barely registers, there is a hiss and scrape of metal and the sword is pointed at Smith’s throat, touching his Adam’s-apple just enough to draw blood. “We will walk,” she tells him, through gritted teeth. “We accept nothing you offer us. Leave without bloodshed.”

“I’m sure I can…” Smith begins.

“We accept nothing,” Aerith reiterates, and her eyes are frightening. Wild and half-unseeing, her mind trapped somewhere else.

Smith rolls his eyes. He straightens his legs in a movement that’s graceful and effortless. There is a pause in which he watches Aerith, mouth now fully downturned, seeming displeased with what he sees, before he speaks. “Very well, crone. I am a demon of my word.” He turns, takes a couple of steps, and then he is simply… not there. The air is still where he was, but now with an absence rather than a presence.

Aerith is unmoving, seeming to wait for a few heartbeats before she turns to him. When she does, the seeming mania is gone from her eyes, her bruised face calm, but as her anger has faded, so has her burst of speed; the movement is, like many of her other, prior ones, slow and jerky. She limps past him, sitting by the fire slowly, painfully and without a word.

He shakes himself out of his stupor and follows her, taking the other side of the fire and watching her through the flames. “He said ‘demon,'” he remembers, his eyes steady and his voice unwavering.

She is looking at her knees, seeming lost in thought. “Yes,” is her blunt reply.

“They are children’s tales, meant to frighten them, to stop them following those who would hurt them. Peasants’ explanation for the illnesses that befall them, created to help them grasp disease.” He swallows.

“No,” is her reply.

Growing frustrated, he asks, “‘No’? Meaning what?

She looks up, her eyes angry. “No, meaning that they are not children’s or peasants’ tales. No, meaning that they look like men. No, meaning that I have met them before.”

He swallows. “Before?”

She looks away, out into the night. “Their kind are drawn to me.” She exhales heavily, in an audible huff of breath. “They find me. Then they find my blade.” Her tone is matter-of-fact.

“It frightened me,” Martin admits, pausing. “But it seemed willing to trade.” That confused, hurt smile sticks in his memory, even as the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

She meets his eye now. “Some are. But traders always ask something in return. Demons always ask too much of you.”

“They – ” he begins, but she cuts him off.

“They like precious things. Trinkets, lives…” Her gaze is unwavering, and she probably doesn’t mean for her voice to hitch – just slightly, many wouldn’t hear it – as she finishes, “… lovers.”

Martin remembers the necklace amongst her things that so perplexed him, and wonders. “Did you kill it?” he asks quietly.

Her teeth come together with a click as she realizes that he has caught her unintentional slip, and he knows he has overstepped a line, pushed too far. She looks way from him, at the now tough, charcoaled rabbit. “Eat,” she orders. “We move in the morning.”

“I apologise,” he tries, attempting to repair the damage and warm the suddenly cold air. “That was…”

“Eat,” she says again, and no more words are exchanged for the rest of the night.

Past Lives: Crossing The River: 5

Sorry about the absence. Generally, I try to update the blog with something at least once a fortnight, but things have been quite hectic (and I’ve managed to misplace my journal where I write all this stuff longhand, so that was rather a blow to motivation). However, my life is settling down again and I’ll make do until I find my journal, so here’s some more story.

five

aerith

Then the prince spoke to the beggar,

“Give a title, or a name,

For we are both men, one and the same;

With whom am I going to cross the river?”

When she returns, he is staring at the fire, mouth twisted and eyes thoughtful. The necklace is back in the bag, but it hasn’t faded from his thoughts.

She’s clutching a dead rabbit, blood still matted in its fur, and when he turns his head, she briefly meets his eye. He hears her sit a few feet behind him, and, as he doesn’t turn around, he hears what he knows to be the sound of her slowly and methodically skinning the animal.

Martin has always had an astonishing propensity for stillness. He has grown up with a mother who ignores cries and tantrums, and despite the events of the past few days, it is usually extremely difficult to rile him. So he sits, listening to the silence, patient as curiosity replaces the boredom of the trudge across the marshes. In his head, he’s still holding the necklace, still turning it over in his hands; still realising that he knows nothing about the woman he has elected so vehemently to travel with. He frowns, still wondering, and suddenly something occurs to him. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t give it,” is her quiet reply, but he thinks, briefly, that he hears a smile in it.

He can’t help looking around; her eyes are still on the rabbit, and between her injuries and the shadows, he honestly can’t deduce her expression. “I…” He stumbles in the silence that follows, unsure of what to say, afraid of being presumptuous or offensive. There is a small, clicking pop that hangs in the silence – she has cracked her knuckles.

“Aerith,” she says, saving him from his plight. It’s sudden and awkward, rusty from disuse, the sentence bursting forth like an accident. “And you?”

He looks around once again, and belatedly realises that her eyes are upon him; she is watching him quietly, carefully, like a hunter sizing up whether he is prey or predator – and in that moment, he feels that she is as unsure as he. He looks down, unable to keep her gaze now that the ire of earlier has faded. “My name is Martin,” he replies at last, looking down at his hands, running a thumb over his other hand’s knuckles in a half-hearted attempt at warming – or perhaps comforting – himself.

“Thank you for your name,” she replies quietly, and the silence briefly descends again until he hears her footsteps and she comes to crouch beside the fire, grabbing a stick  and skewering the rabbit, preparing to put it over the flames. Some of the shadows  are stripped from her by the light of the fire, and when he looks around, he sees her features clearly, her eyes bright and curious as she watches him. “It’s not too late,” she says.

It takes him a moment to understand what she means, but when he does, he grits out, “I know. And I refuse to turn back.”

“Is there nothing waiting for you at home?” she asks, looking back at the fire.

“My mother. My sister.” His voice is flat and unenthusiastic, and her head turns rapidly to look at him with an odd expression – it’s torn, somewhere between shock and anger.

“And do they not matter?” she asks.

He sighs, shaking his head and looking at his hands – they’re unable to keep still tonight; tense, he’s pressing them together as if in prayer, clenching and unclenching his fists, squeezing his thumb between his fingers – all the small, annoying habits his mother always used to scold him for. “They matter. Yes. But if you are enthusiastic at the prospect of meeting my mother, then you have obviously not yet met her.” He smiles, but there’s something false and hollow in it.

“She seemed a fine woman to me,” Aerith replies, poking at the fire with a stick.

“Fine in some ways, not in others. I can see why my father ran from her.” An astonished pause. His fingers slip from his lap, and he puts his palms flat on the ground, leaning back to rest his weight on them. Unable to look at Aerith, he focuses his gaze on his knees instead. “No. No. That was… unfair of me. Not something I believe.”

Another pop, another crack of the knuckles – a habit his mother has always called unhealthy, but one that she herself frequently engages in. Aerith swallows. “The voice of a man who has been bitter for far too long.”

With another sigh, he rubs the heels of his hands into his eyes and mutters, “You may well be right.” He looks up. “And who is waiting for you in the next village?”

“Not who. What.” Her voice is matter-of-fact.

He’s growing tired of word games and evasion. “What, then?”

“More road.” She frowns, rubs her forehead; the rub becomes a scratch, and she hisses – quiet and low, in a way that obviously means she doesn’t want him to hear.

He raises a hand to her fingers, lowers them. “The skin is still tender, I know. but doing that helps no-one, and certainly not you.”

She directs a glare at him, snatching her hand away. “I know that.”

Another knuckle-cracking pop behind them

They look at each other in the silence, and he feels his mouth turn dry. “That was…” he begins.

“You,” they both finish, eyes still on each other, then, in chorus, “No.”

She draws her sword, stands in a movement that Martin can tell should be smooth – it’s made slower, jerkier by her injuries – and he pulls himself up from the ground, turns to look behind them.

Sitting a few feet away, further from the light of the fire, his legs crossed and his hands resting patiently on his knees, is a man in the simple clothes of a villager; he is smiling, but there’s something strange in it, as if it has been practised but not quite perfected. He cracks one more knuckle, loud in the silence.

Pop.

Past Lives: Crossing The River: 4

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.

four

beginning

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.

Past Lives: Crossing The River: 3

three

aid

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.

Swish. Swish. 

“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.

Past Lives: Crossing The River: 2

two

sword

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.

“Wait. Please.”

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.