by SD Campbell
The beginning of a long tale of courage, friendship, and loss.
The sun’s rays wormed gently through the camp. Under the canvas hung from a tree to block the evening’s rain, the light brushed across two bodies. They were both still wet with rain and sweat from the night before. One groaned softly as the light danced through the foliage on its face. The other turned from the light, trying to hide itself for a few moments longer.
Moments passed, the light becoming ever stronger. Another groan rose from a body, followed by the moving of a hand. It pulled across the flesh of the other body toward a canteen and the piles of clothing from the two. The hand closed over the neck of the vessel and pulled it back toward its owner.
She was a fair-skinned woman, freckled on her face, shoulders, arms, and back. Young and fit, covered in small scars from her years of training. Her dark amber hair framed her head, falling over the chest of her companion. In the light of the morning, people would mistake her for beautiful, before their eyes came to her hooked lip.
As she pulled the canteen to her, she rolled onto her back, feeling the chill of the night clinging to her nude body in the dawn’s light. Her free hand pulled at the simple silver chain on her neck, taking the amulet at its end and sliding it into her mouth with a swift chant. The canteen followed, pouring a cold measure of water over her tongue.
Her head rested for a moment in the crook of the shoulder of her partner, a young man seemingly too pale for health. After a moment of savoring the water as it washed away the taste of the prior night’s wine, she swallowed hard and opened her eyes wide to the day.
There was a stillness to the moment. A quiet tranquility she wished not to disturb. But they had days yet in their travel before they parted ways. Respite was welcome, but it was best to not let it linger longer than needed.
Her stomach tightened and pulled her to sitting, her hand falling to the far side of the young man. After another drink from the canteen, preceded by another quiet chant, she spit the talisman from her mouth and felt it hit against her chest.
The cork of the canteen quickly returned to place, as did the canteen itself as the woman began to stretch her limbs. Her fingers stretched to her toes, grasping them and pulling her forward still. The activities of the prior night had kept her from stiffening, but it was best to always stretch the muscles in the morning.
She spread her legs apart on the blanket they’d slept upon, bending in the direction of each before reaching out between them. Another few maneuvers, grasping her arms behind her and pulling them up and she felt as limber as ever. Moving once more, the woman bent her knees under her and forced herself to stand, feeling a moment of vertigo as she reached her fell height.
Her head brushed against the sloped canvas. It had been a point of humor between the two as they joked and drank, with the young man nearly a full hand height shorter. But the night felt long ago as the woman thought of cleaning herself. She did not want a stranger on the road to mistake her as a common tradeswoman again, after all.
Stepping over the young man, she walked to the pot she’d set at the corner of the canvas while they were setting up camp. Her knees bent as she reached it, lowering her to the makeshift basin. Under the pot was a scrap of cloth from one of her dresses. Taking it, she dipped it into the water and squeezed it.
The water was near freezing in the late fall temperature. But, she reminded herself, it would be easier to accustom herself to it. In another week and a half, she would be back in the home of her father. While his claim to nobility was respected by the courts of the land, he was no rich man, not even owning a manor. All of her bathing for the foreseeable future would be cold water at best.
Taking the cold cloth from the water, she rubbed it stiffly along her neck. Her hand submerged it away, then brought it back to under her other arm, scrubbing the sweat from the dark hairs there. She repeated with the other arm, then under and between her breasts. Wringing the scrap out once more, her legs straightened to her full height once more.
She was careful not to allow any of the water drip on her still sleeping companion as she made her way to the tree and leaned against it. The rough bark bit into her skin as the tree took her weight and she cleaned between and down her legs. The cold water in as sensitive an area made her press harder against the tree until she was finished. With a breathless sigh, she dropped the rag to the bottom of the trunk and stood again.
With the quick cleaning almost finished, the woman stepped to the other side of the try, watching her feet for hidden brambles before squatting against the tree. Her back pressed against the bark and her hands rested on her knees. It felt like an eternity, though only a few heartbeats passed before she began to relieve herself, inching her feet apart so as to not soil them. A chuckle escaped her throat as she waited for it to end, thinking of how lowly her family would think of the situation.
Eventually, the stream from her ended, and she raised herself back to her feet. Taking pains not to step in the puddle of her waste, she stepped back around the tree. It’d been a while since she’d woken, and she’d already cleaned herself, but she didn’t feel like dressing just yet. Instead, she sat between the young man and embers in the small pit just beyond the blanket. Her honey eyes scanned the ring of stones, seeing a small felt pouch sitting next to one.
As luck had it, the wind had only blown a little of the night’s rain into the fire. And, more importantly, it hadn’t reached the small pouch at all. Reaching over without getting up, the woman grabbed the pouch and pulled a wood and tortoise-shell pipe from it. The bowl had been cleaned, a habit that she was grateful her companion had picked up. Her fingers dipped back into the pouch and pulled a pinch of sweet bandle leaf crumbs out.
Trial and practice had made packing the pipe quite easy and quick. A moment later, she lean forward again and scooped a nearly extinguished ember with the bowl. A different chant and the amulet returned to her lips, followed by the reed of the pipe. She could still taste on the tip the wine from the night before. And she could taste his spittle. A smile crossed her lips as she drew in the sweet smoke, feeling it cool in an instant as it crossed the amulet.
She sat there, nude in the sunrise with the blue-green smoke wrapping around her. The whole of her experience the past few years had revolved around him and their master. It was only in these early hours that she was alone with herself. As the smoke rushed from her nose, circling her head as it made its way up the canvas, her thoughts turned to the uncertainty she had begun to feel.
Until eight days ago, every morning had been the same for the last four years. Wake at dawn and cook her master breakfast. Polish the leathers so they didn’t dry out and crack. Feed the tolces. Oil the hinges and bolts of their gear so that they were ready by the time the others awoke.
After, it was training. Brutal, violent, and cruel training, disrupted only by riding from one town to another. Swordsmanship, riding, chivalry, mediation, unarmed combat, and the finer points of noble living. Each mistake earning a screech of scorn and a blow to the face. Made worse for her for having the gall to be a girl. She learned to fight, to talk, to read, and to report. She learned to mend clothes and arms and armor. She learned to survive without another person around.
And all the while, she’d grown close to the boy, now the man that still slept. Not as a lover, but as her closest friend. He suffered the same under their master, but he did it with a smile. For ever punishment she earned, he would goad their master into striking him as well. And after, when their master slept from whoring and drink, he would grin through his bloody teeth at her. When she asked why, he quoted scripture to her, the first she’d ever heard of it.
When brothers in bonds share in misery, a bond of blood is forged that cannot be broken.
Once, a year before the camp, she thought that she loved him. But it was never anything as romantic as that. He was her brother in arms. And she his. Closer than friends, close enough to share their bed with one another, but never lovers. But that would soon end.
They had been recommended by their master to the Count, ready for what the lowmen called knighthood. It wasn’t really such. They were granted titles, Suir, and inducted into the Order of the Defenders of Elibe, but only princes and kings could make one a knight. That wasn’t important, though. In their first act as Suirs, representatives to the Count, they were to deliver messages to the mayors of their home villages. She, to a distant cousin that ruled the merchant town of Cesouc on the crossroads in the west of the county.
He, though, was to deliver his letter to his father, the Lord of Delrin Manor. That was on another road, headed southeast. After that, they were granted a short leave of service, lasting exactly as long as it took for the Count or one of his ministers to assign them to something and send couriers for them.
In the end, it meant that they only had four more days until they parted ways, perhaps for the rest of their lives. While it concerned her, it also was a source of pride. She had, after all, made it. One of the few women in the Order. And he would always remain a dear friend, even if from afar. Their master’s letters from the partners of his youth assured that. She smiled again, taking another drag on the pipe.
While their time was ending, in this manner at least, it had yet to end. She would make the most of it. That evening they would take refuge in a tavern along the way. They would drink too much. She would convince him to sing again, in front of all the lowmen. He would convince her to dance. And they would laugh and tell jokes until the small hours of the night. Then there would be another night of camping and another tavern on their last night.
It would be a sweet sendoff for the both of them. And, should His Permanence see fit, they would see one another soon after. She took another puff on the pipe, deeply breathing it in before breathing out. Glancing at the bowl, she decided to pack more in, giving him a fresh pipe when she woke him.
Taking another pinch of the bandle, her hand emptied the embers into the pit. She packed it tightly for his shallow drags, and set the pipe on a stone. Her knees had begun to feel a bit stiff, having sat cross-legged for nearly half an hour. Sighing, she spat the amulet from her mouth and grabbed a knee, drawing it to her chest. As she held her balance repeating the other knee, she softly said, “Marcus?”