(Click here for an introduction to the story.)
The path ahead seemed to wind on without end as far as the eye could see, hedged by trees on either side. Birds sang every so often, setting a picturesque setting on my travel as the sun’s beams danced lazily to my left, having begun her descent an hour or so ago. The path I strode over was well trodden, the dirt and dust dry, but not clouding as it often did on windy days.
I felt light-hearted, but also kept my reason. My boots left prints in the dirt of the road as I adjusted my cloak and the small traveler’s pack I kept slung over my back. When I returned my gaze forward, I saw the path ahead of me snake out of sight into the trees in a curve. The bend it took brought it up onto a hillside, which looked completely forested form my point of sight.
That is the way, I thought to myself.
I continued to walk casually, but my hand out of habit strayed down to the hilt of the sword sheathed at my side. I stroked the sapphire jewel at its pommel before settling my hand into an easy grip that would not hinder my stride.
The path ahead remained void of any other travelers, but as I walked, the noises of birds and other animals fell silent, gradually, until an eerie calm settled around me. Making certain to keep my movements calm and quiet, I drew my sword, leaning the flat of the blade against my shoulder as I continued on, senses alert.
From the right side of the path ahead, a large, tall man stepped out from the greenery with an enormous claymore gripped in his hands. Three others emerged behind the man, armed with either longswords or axes. I stepped back to stand with a large tree to my back as the four began to encircle me. I restrained a smile as I recognized their clothing, but they did not seem to share the knowledge.
Lowering my sword, I raised a hand in greeting. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I trust I find you in good health?”
From a tree to my left, a man suddenly dropped to the ground with two short swords gripped in his hands. The man wore leather armor, and, not surprisingly to me, a kilt. Like the others, he wore a hood to hide his features, but he pulled this back, revealing a very sober expression. By his bearing and posture, I sensed one here who was more than skilled in warfare, even compared to the others.
When he spoke, his tone was curt. “Better health than you shall soon be in if you do not state your business.”
I raised an eyebrow at the comment, but kept a casual position. “My business, gentlemen, is quite harmless; to you all, at least. I will relate it in due time, though I would feel better were it under less tense circumstances.” In a gesture of calm, I sheathed my sword.
None of the others gave any indication of following my example. The fellow who had dropped from the tree came closer.
“The circumstances are tense and shall remain as such.”
As he spoke, the others tightened their circle around me, raising their weapons.
I let my expression lose a touch of its warmth, my eyes flashing blue slightly. “If I did not think you were more honorable than you let on, this circumstance would be a lot tenser, I assure you. However, I do not wish to incite a confrontation; I’m only here looking for a friend.”
“What ‘friend’?” the man growled, looking no less intimidating for my reply.
“A woman, about yea high,” I gestured to a level slightly lower than my own, which was already quite less than the large fellows around me. “Tan skin and dark, curly hair; she answers to many titles, so I won’t bore you with a list.”
The man’s eyes narrowed, making his expression look fiercer than it already was. “There are many women who could fit that description; what’s so special about this one?”
I smiled slightly. “Oh, quite a lot I could go into. She’s an avid writer, and has a confident aura about her. She’s… how should I put this…” I frowned as I sought proper word usage, “She’s like me, I suppose, in that she may not seem like she fits in properly. That and she’s a good friend, so that makes her special to me. You all seem like worthy fellows, though, so she would probably get along with you.”
One or two of the surrounding warriors exchanged cautious glances as the leader looked me over carefully.
“You’d better be telling the truth, lad.” He said at last. He turned, and walked onto the path.
The others looked at me expectantly without moving. Taking the hint, I followed their leader onto the path as the others came behind, forming a rearguard. I narrowed my eyes at the back of the leader, attempting to jog my memory.
“Charley, is it? Or am I mistaken.”
The large fellow glanced back at me for a moment, and then shook his head. “Nay, lad, my name is Rex.”
“Of course,” I replied. “My mistake, forgive me. If you don’t mind me asking, where are we going?”
“I do mind. After you tell me your name, you can stow your chatter until we get there.”
I smiled as I said,
“My name… “ I hesitated. “…Sage. That will do.”
The large man did not reply.
We continued our trek in silence. As I and the others followed, the leader suddenly veered off the path into the shrubbery to our left. I felt the familiar tingle run through my body. We’re still going the right way; might as well enjoy the scenery while I can.
The leader marched with a purposeful manner through the forest underbrush. Behind me, the rearguard of warriors followed without a comment, but every so often I heard them exchange whispers which I could not decipher.
We walked in silence for some time as we traversed the hill. I breathed deeply, the air clear and touched with the scent of pine from the trees around us. Gradually, the dirt and green carpet of the forest undergrowth gave way to small outcroppings of rock and ridges of stone reaching up amidst the trees. I heard sounds; voices calling, horses, marching, the clink of hammers; the sounds of a camp, I deemed.
We came around a particularly large outcropping, and I saw the trees thinning ahead. The ground beneath, which was already an incline, began to raise more. Above, through the tree tops, I could see the towering sides of a mountain. My eyes widened slightly at the impressive sight, but I said nothing.
We reached the edge of the forest. Ahead, two warriors, garbed as the others, stood on the fringes. We came closer, and they stepped aside from our path, recognizing Rex, from what I could tell. The two men gave me wary looks. I made certain to smile amicably as we passed.
The view outside of the forest was quite a sight; we had come to a clearing in the forest. Jagged mountain face rose skyward on three sides of the clearing, the rest being bordered by the forest to create a secluded, comfy hideaway. Two yawning cave entrances could be seen from where we were, set back in the cliff walls and lit within by torchlight.
The grassy clearing itself was filled with military equipment, horses, pitched tents, rows of weapons, wagons, and the like; many warriors and workers wandered throughout the camp, all armed and armored like Rex, and most dressed as he in highlander attire.
I smiled at the sight. It’s good to be back.
Some noticed us as we walked through the camp, but returned to their tasks with little more than a glance. The soldiers and workers busied themselves with various tasks: cleaning, sharpening and repairing weapons, attending to the horses, and other tasks that would compose an army’s upkeep. Several appeared to be fashioning something like a battering ram to one side of the camp, groups of younger soldiers having been charged to haul heavy sections of wood, rope, and pine tar from elsewhere in the camp to their superiors at the building area.
Rex looked about for a short moment before grabbing the arm of a young soldier hurrying by on some errand.
“Where is Lady Kearney?” He asked the warrior. At the title, I raised an eyebrow, but otherwise did not respond.
“She’s juss comin’ ou’ a th’ infirmary, sar,” the soldier replied.
Rex nodded, releasing the man who promptly returned to his course of motion. Rex started off toward one of the cave entrances.
“Infirmary?” I asked.
Rex did not respond as he strode forward. The others following behind seeming to have left at some point after we entered the camp, I jogged after him, taking care not be bowled over by anyone marching past on some task. As I followed, a voice from ahead and to the side suddenly called out, “Rex!”
I came to a halt behind him as the large soldier turned in the direction of the summons. The view of whoever had called was obscured by his immense bulk, but I knew well enough who it was.
“Where the blazes have you been?” The voice continued with a subtle edge to it. “The raid leaves in less than an hour; I was about to assemble the men myself.”
I smiled slightly at the tone used on the hulking figure in front of me, and relaxed, my hand casually grasping the hilt of my sword at my side. Rex took the outburst well, or so I thought from how his stance remained as it was. He stepped forward, hands coming to rest on the shoulders of the shorter figure before him.
“I did not forget the raid; you have little faith in me.”
“I have little patience.” His hands were shrugged off. “All that evaporated while I was sitting there for two hours while the medics attended to a knife slice that should have only taken fifteen minutes to bind.”
“If you have little patience, then I guess our guest is in for a bit of a cold shoulder for his troubles.” Rex crossed his arms, his shoulders flexing.
There was a pause, then the woman’s voice became short and tense. “Guest; what guest, Rex.”
“He says you’re a friend of his.”Rex nodded back at me.
With a touch of amusement, I spoke at last. “Troubles? Hardly; I’ve seen worse, and in better settings, too.”
Rex moved to one side, though he remained there; giving me a view of the speaker. She was just as I had described her: tan skin, dark, curly hair and the tension in her voice showing in her brown eyes. She wore a long tunic, overlaid with leather armor as were her warriors. A sword hilt set with an aquamarine jewel that glittered in the afternoon light showed over her right shoulder.
At the sight of me, the tension in her eyes drained, to be replaced by disbelief.
Her brow smoothed. “…Dana?”
I shrugged. “I suppose we’ll go with that, Lady Kearney. A pleasure to grace your presence once more.”