The shadows grew long and ominous in Genualt as the sun sank behind the city's thick wooden wall. Few people stayed in the streets, and most shops and houses had shut their doors and closed their windows. And it seemed that even a town as open as Genualt had its dark alleys, hidden away from prying eyes. It was into one of these uninhabited alleys that four of Lord Albrecht's recruited hunters were leading the smiling Matthias Fairchild and his out-of-place steed. The four surrounded him as they walked so that he couldn't run. Fat and Ugly stalked him from behind with well-worn clubs while Big and Stupid led the way brandishing their crude iron swords with the skill and finesse of an ostrich at sea.
The ugly one spat an unhealthy yellow glob at the horse. "Don't think ya so big jus' cause ya got a horse," the ugly words gurgled out of Ugly's ugly mouth in an ugly fashion.
"Hah! A'sright!" the fat one chortled, his jowls and gut rippling independently as he laughed, "We got horses too."
The stupid one turned around with eager eyes and a loose jaw, "Hah, yeah we do. Right fooled that idiot lord into takin' em from all them dumb farmers."
The big one spun half his monstrous body and sent the stupid one reeling with the back of his hand, "Shut up. We aren't supposed to talk about this."
The stupid one looked back with tears in his eyes and whined, "But we're going to kill him anyway! The red guys won't care if we told some dead fool."
Big, Fat, and Ugly stopped in their tracks as they felt their hearts fall into their stomachs in unison. Stupid was looking around with a blank expression, unable to understand how he had summoned a silence so crushing that it pained the ears. The first one to act was Ugly. He was ugly, not stupid. Without saying a word, he lunged forward with a wild swing, hoping to silence Matthias from behind before he raised an alarm.
“If you would have me, I tend to you anytime you wish m'lord.”
The Princess closed her eyes. His voice was calming, and the weight on her heart lifted, though only for a few minutes. A breeze swept past, strands of her hair brushing across her cheek and brow, and tickling her nose. Hastily she pushed those strands behind her ear, only for them to misbehave and return to their flight of fancy.
His offer was enticing. Perhaps it would be easier to have a personal servant at her beck and call at all hours. Indeed, it was no less than she was used to, as a Princess of the Crown. Gabrielle had no doubts that had her brother been here, the servant would have tended to William just the same. Gently, the princess turned her head, glancing at her would-be man.
Perhaps she could even trust him enough too… no. Never. If anyone found out she would be ruined, and the very people she set out to protect would be lost. Too much was a stake.
She looked at him for a long moment, her face shadowed from the glare of the sunlight. Her lips curved upwards and her face, for a moment was lighter, happy, almost, as she regarded the servant. He had a kind face, and a gentle disposition. There were no worldly cares in those eyes, only loyalty. Surely, she could trust such a gentle soul.
Just as soon as she dared to hope, she frowned, and her heart sank, feeling yet heavier than it did before. She turned away again, and found herself picking at a bit of lichen atop the crumbled wall. “Thank you, Asten, but I—”
The Princess turned and waves her hand dismissively to the servant, and she cleared her throat. “I mean to say, I have all the attendants I require. I am sure there are Knights who have duties for you. Now if you will excuse me.”
Gabrielle stole another look toward the servant who showed such gentility; but her own look was stern and icy. It was surely the look that a stern leader—a man—would give. It was important to be firm, and decisive. William would not be gentle, or apologetic. Nor would he be cruel though. She nodded once as she started back toward the town, only to stop again in her tracks.
The hairs on her neck stood on end, and she turned just in time to duck.
Thick beads of sweat ran down Maria's brow as she hauled two heavy wooden pails of water through the shifting, uneven grasslands between the community's well and the stable. She cursed whoever crafted the terrible buckets as she forced her body to lurch forward under their heavy weight. Even empty, the water pails felt like stones in her hands, and even worse they were leaking. Maria guessed that she would need to bring two buckets, and quickly, if there was going to be anything left in them by the time she returned. She hated every lazy soldier that wasn't helping her.
She was so preoccupied with her task, she almost walked straight into one of the knights. She quickly delivered an apology and started to march off past him, but a rough hand on her arm stopped her. She turned back to the knight in fright and confusion.
"Are you deaf, girl?" he asked with a sharp tone and a severe look, "You had better not be ignoring me."
Maria looked at him wide-eyed, her gaze darting between him and the distance to anyone else. He was standing next to his horse, which had a saddlebag dripping a bit of mud. She tried to stammer out a response, unable to make a proper reply. The scruffy man in front of her cut her off anyway.
"Ugh, bloody peasants. Look, wash my bedroll," the man began speaking slowly and loudly, very close to her face, while making exaggerated pantomimes, "It fell in the mud."
"B-b-but I was told to bring back this water," Maria protested unsteadily, looking towards her pails of water as if they somehow proved her point.
"Yes," the man responded by cocking an eyebrow dismissively, "And now I am telling you to clean my bedroll. Are you simple?"
Maria looked helplessly at the water slowly seeping into the ground, and back at the man glaring at her. Whatever she did, someone would be angry at her. She gave a weak smile and tried to compromise with the man, "Please sir, as soon as I finish my duty, I will attend to your--"
The man's face erupted in a scowl and he drew back his hand, "Know your place!"
Maria clenched her teeth and shut her eyes, bracing for the terrible pain of an armored hand across her face. After a few seconds though, it still hadn't come. She dared to peak out the corner of her eye, and she saw the knight's outstretched arm being crushed under the iron grip of an unknown hand.
He was tired. It has been at least a fortnight -- maybe more -- since the two of them had stood a lonely vigil over the barrow. Ever since that night time itself seemed to drag on wearily overhead with at times such slowness, and at times such speed, that he at found himself wondering whether he might be standing stationary, a lonely statue of a wanderer and his steed, all the world rushing by above and below without so much as a passing glance to either of them. Their wandering had been purposefully aimless ever since -- fate, it seemed, had chosen him to live, and so fate he would trust to show him his eventual purpose; a fact he found himself compelled to remark aloud upon, turning back now and again to glance at his companion, as if to be certain she were paying heed to his words.
The mare, for her part, suffered the regular outburst of rambling monologues with longstanding patience, only pausing on rare occasions to snort or toss her head -- though whether in agreement or annoyance would be difficult to tell. It seemed to make little difference to the man, who would smile faintly and find the breath for a few more long-winded expositions at every response from his horse.
He was hungry. Their stock was running low, and though his mare could graze freely whenever they stopped, he had long since given up an attempts at gnawing on the grass with her. (Who, he had to admit, was swiftly deteriorating toward a rather unhealthy shade of thin despite; the pickings were slim, even for a horse.) He had not the foggiest notion as to where he might be -- though something, somehow, about it all seemed at least vaguely familiar; something in the trees flanking the road, and the low, sloping foothills leading up to the irregular peaks of a distant range, or the dark haze of forest that obscured much of the horizon whenever one might chance upon a rise or hillock in the road.
Not that he found himself much caring -- save for the distinct lack of food, of course -- and at the last crossroad he could remember he had beckoned his steed forward, pointed at the sign, and then given her a brief slap on the rump. The path she took was the one he took also, and so -- for the present, at least -- his course had been decided by the mare.
But it was upon cresting another short rise that he caught the faint whiff of something in the air. Thick smoke of a cottage hearth, carrying with it the bland scent of something baking. The low echo of a a stubborn cow floated toward him from some invisible bend in the road ahead. The underlying scent of manured fields pervaded it all. A town. He gave a dry, croaked sort of laugh at that, turned to his mare and announced “A town, Celliavas! Fate or you... I do not know... perhaps we shall actually eat something tonight!”; the mare, though clearly not understanding, seemed to have done some reasoning of her own -- not to mention catching on to her master’s change in mood -- and with that tilted her head up a bit, perked her ears forward a bit, and the both of them gained a slight spring to their step. Even the tasteless gruel of a peasant’s tavern and the stale water of an unwashed flagon seemed a blessing then.
The pair attracted little attention on their slow progress toward the gates, mingling easily with the others; just another bedraggled traveler, or poor farmer, skin and bones nag plodding along behind. He had taken the precaution of stowing his sword and buckler in the hollow of an old oak some ways from the town, leaving it there with the hopeful prayer that both would still be present when he returned. Not that he intended to enter the town itself, but even simple folk he found -- ever since the war -- had become suspicious of armed strangers. And aside from that, it was scarcely as if he looked an inviting target to rob.
Yes, he decided, he most certainly recognized this place... or perhaps it was simply a memory fabricated from one of the other dozens of such towns he had seen in the past. He came to a pause beside a sorry little well, the better half of which seemed to have wound up piled in a haphazard heap about its mouth, while the frame overtop had long since been stripped off, and in its place a frayed rope and rusting iron hook the only means of drawing any water. He glanced about in a moment of seeming despair -- there was no bucket -- and his thirst was great enough that he half-fancied he might follow his mare’s lead (who had, by then, already tugged her reins free of his hand and sunk the better part of her muzzle into the nearby watering trough.)
Still, he decided he wasn’t nearly that thirsty, and so strode off in search of a bucket when a nearby outcry drew his attention.
“Are you deaf, girl!?” Hard, faintly mocking -- he clenched his teeth. Noble, a King’s Knight by the sound of it -- the accent fit, or so he thought. Though truth be told he couldn’t have given an accurate date on when he’d last heard another human’s voice. Still, it seemed somewhat soft around the edges. A noble playing King’s Knight more properly, no doubt. He couldn’t quite catch what was said next, but hurried his pace a little and struck a course toward the sound of the voice.
He could see them now; the armoured knight looming well above the scant figure of a peasant girl -- her own frame all but obscured behind the metallic wall of his back. He twitched his lip and shifted his grip on the staff in his hand, hefting it thoughtfully as he closed the last few paces between the two of them.
He took the last few paces at a loping stride as he saw the altercation escalate from the verbal to more physical, and by the time the knight’s hand was raised for the blow his own had already grasped firmly about the wrist. His hunger might have taken its toll, and the thirst certainly had not abated, but the raw indignation that had seized him at such an action more than made up for the lack.
It might have seemed on odd picture then, to the girl, as she tentatively opened her eyes to peer at the two of them. The looming knight, appearing more metallic monster than man, and the sudden appearance of the stranger -- taller, by a fair margin, than his adversary, though seeming slender as a rail and almost insignificant in comparison. His own form lost in the miserable folds of travel-stained cloak, muddied boots and unshaven, half-wild beard.
They stood poised there for a few moments, struggling silently, though the knight it seemed could scarcely move his arm now so firmly had the stranger grasped it. With a curse, then, he brought the gauntleted fist of his left hand driving toward his captor’s face. The stranger seemed to have anticipated the blow. A step back. Another. There was a sharp whistling. A rush of wind as though an arrow had flow through the space of air between them. Then a resounding crack as the iron tip of the staff connected squarely with the knight’s metal-clad wrist. He gave a sharp cry, half of surprise and half of pain, and then to his credit -- though great regret -- lunged full on at the stranger, reaching for his sword and swearing aloud through the pain.
“My wrist! You...” But it was all the more he could get out; his good hand had scarcely made it to the hilts of his sword when the second whistling blow fell against the back of his knee. A soft groan escaped the beleaguered knight as he toppled heavily toward the ground. The stranger had scarcely moved, rather, allowing the knight’s momentum to carry him forward and well within range. He sidestepped now, and with one, final flick of of the staff brought the iron tip to a halt a scant hair’s breadth from the skull of the now fallen knight. He leaned over his victim, seeming about to speak, though there was no need -- the knight raised his hands above his head and cried in a rather pitiful voice, the last shreds of pride now gone. “I yield, you miscreant! I yield!”
The stranger paid him no more heed, but instead stood and offered what might have passed for an attempted smile to the peasant girl; he bent ever so slightly at the waist, before remarking as he strode forward and reached for the buckets she had left on the ground nearby.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss; if you would allow me...” He paused here, gave a grunt and hefted up both buckets, meanwhile awkwardly tucking the staff beneath his right arm, before continuing on -- his voice rough at the edges and rasping, though showing a near perfect enunciation and accent; it stood very much at odds with his dress and disheveled appearance. “...But then again, as they say, one good turn does deserve another (and I do not mean -him)” Here he paused and nodded discreetly toward the still fallen knight. “So might you do me the favour of going to fetch my mare? She is down by the... well... and then you might show me what is to be done with these pails of water.”
He stood there a moment longer, watching the young woman quietly before turning the cold grey of his eyes elsewhere; his stare, he had come to awkwardly learn, had an unnerving effect on some. Words could only go so far to cover the shadow of war that lingered still behind him.