I must be dreaming, she thought. Or dead, a part of her mind countered. No, not dead, I hurt too much, the first part of her mind argued. A myriad of smells and sounds infringed upon her senses. Her limbs felt like stone; it was too much work to move so she lay still, listening to the sounds that surrounded her. Some kind of animal munched on grass off to her left; a fire crackled and snapped somewhere close by. She could even feel the heat on her face; the warmth felt incredibly wonderful on her skin. A delicious but unidentifiable scent made her mouth water. Distant voices communed and chuckled quietly.
Her eyelids felt like stone and it took a while for them to respond. Finally, her eyes slowly opened. Dim light broke through the treetops and the air was perceptibly cooler. Early evening.
“Ugh,” she groaned quietly and closed her eyes. The murmurs ceased. She opened her eyes to see a face quiet close to her own. Elizabeth gasped in shock, scrambled away and rose unsteadily to her feet. She stumbled backwards then regained her posture and wrapped her arms around her stomach in an instinctual protective and comforting reflex.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” the man that had frightened her said, his light baritone voice soothing. He had his light brown hair cropped short. His nose was straight, and slightly tilted upwards at the tip. The sun had tanned his skin to the color of aged honey. He was well over six feet tall, and had a wiry physique.
The men around the fire stood slowly and remained still, so as not to startle her. She could hear the musical sound of a stream nearby. A quick glance to her left revealed the animals she had heard just moments earlier as horses. She took another step back before returning her gaze to the men. Quickly, she pushed her hair out of her face, then wrapped her arm back around her stomach.
“Where’s Jonathan?” she croaked then coughed, trying to clear her throat.
“The man we found you with?” he asked.
She nodded instead of replying verbally. His face tightened angrily, and a quick glance over his shoulder showed the other men around the fire exchanging furious looks with one another. From their furious expressions and their silence, Elizabeth realized what had happened.
“Dead?” she rasped in shock. He nodded once, eyeing her face. Suddenly, her legs could no longer support themselves and she fell to her knees.
“Are you alright?” he asked, obviously concerned.
“I’m fine. Just… relieved,” she replied, still dazed. She put her hand against her cheek and slowly brushed a stray curl from her face, trying to absorb what she just learned. After a moment, she looked up and met his gaze, her eyes searching his own for the truth. “He’s really dead?”
He nodded again, watching her expression closely. She sat down slowly, then let out a shaky sigh and rubbed her face. When she pulled her hands away, she could see the marks that the rope had left on her wrists.
“How am I going to explain these,” she muttered to herself. The silence lengthened and she glanced up to see them still watching her. She studied them as they returned the gesture. Their tunics were light tan; their breeches dark brown. Camouflage colors. Some kind of symbol had been stitched into their tunics with golden thread, resting on the left side of their chest, placed directly above their hearts. Ten pairs of multicolored eyes blazed with curiosity, yet at the same time they were soft with compassion.
Her own curiosity got the better of her. “Who are you?” she asked, intrigued. “And what are you doing out here in… in the middle of… of nowhere?” she stammered, remembering the reason why Jonathan had followed her here and shuddered.
“I’m Gavin,” he replied with a warm smile. “And these men are the First Squad of the Golden Riders,” he said with a wave of his hand. The men looked at each other, amused. When they looked back at her, she nodded politely. Taken aback by this respectful gesture, they nodded in return.
“We were on patrol when we came upon you and… Jonathan,” he finished, his voice livid. His eyes were as hard as stone. She shivered involuntary. This was not a man I would want to have as an enemy, she thought.
“You must be freezing,” Gavin continued. He had obviously seen her shiver but assumed it was from the cool evening air. “Come sit by the fire.”
“Thank you, but…”
“But?” Gavin inquired with arched eyebrows.
“But I must to be going. I have to return home to my brother and sisters.”
“You’re in no condition to travel,” he remarked. “I’m sure your mother or father could…” his voice drifted away as she shook her head.
“It’s just me and them. They’re probably terrified because its late and I haven’t returned yet.”
“Where are your parents?” he asked gently. She looked away; she didn’t want them to see the tears in her eyes.
“They died; a long time ago. I’ve been taking care of them since.” Quickly, she swiped her eyes with slender fingers, hoping that they didn’t notice in the fading light.
“Where are they now? Your brother and sisters,” he asked, confused.
“At home. I left my brother in charge.” She rolled her eyes skyward and sighed. “Which may not have been a smart choice,” she voiced and shook her head in chagrin. She looked up at them in surprise when they chuckled. She felt the corners of her lips turn up into a radiant smile, her eyes sparkling. “Oh, well,” she muttered to herself with a shrug. She pulled her hair over her shoulder and ran her fingers through it quickly, removing the leaves and twigs tangled into the curls.
“Thank you,” she said with feeling, after she had finished getting the litter from her hair. “Thank you for… for everything.” She looked at every man there, meeting his eyes. “I need to get back to them.” She tried to stand but her legs couldn’t hold her and she fell to her knees.
“I don’t think you have a choice. You can’t even stand, let alone walk,” Gavin observed.
“It’s only two leagues. I’ll be fine,” she replied.
“Two leagues!” Gavin exclaimed. The men behind him exchanged shocked glances, then stared at her, astonished.
“I’ve walked farther than that in worse condition,” she remarked coolly, insulted.
“What do you mean ‘worse condition’?” Gavin asked, appalled.
“Nothing,” she replied and kept her eyes on her feet. She rose again; this time her legs held her weight. “See? I’m fine. Thank you, again. I don’t know where my siblings would be if you hadn’t come along when you did.” She smiled shyly, then turned and stumbled away from the warmth of the fire into the frigid night air.
~ ~ ~
“Leone,” Gavin called behind him softly.
“Yes, Gavin?” one of the men answered.
“Follow her. Make sure she gets home safely.”
“Aye,” he replied and disappeared into the fading light.
~ ~ ~
Leone followed Elizabeth, his training serving him well. He moved stealthily through the woods, his footsteps leaving no trail. He was amazed by her persistence and her determination to make it home. Two leagues, he thought and shook his head. Amazing. He had followed her for about a league before he saw her tumble to the forest floor. He thought she had passed out until he saw her crawl to a tree and lean against it. After a moment, he walked silently to her and found that she had fallen asleep.
He was tempted to carry her the rest of the way home, but he had no idea where home was. Well, my job is to make sure she gets there safely, he thought to himself and leaned against a nearby tree. As he watched her sleep, his mind wandered. He kept going back to right before they came across her and Jonathan. It occurred to him that they didn’t even know her name. He shrugged and let the memories surge through him.
He had been laughing with the men of his Squad at a joke one of them had just made when he heard an agonized scream. The laughter had ceased immediately and they looked at each other baffled. This area of the forest was uninhabited. Who could be screaming?
“It came from this way,” Gavin confirmed with a jerk of his head to the left; the men set off at a gallop through the wooded area. It was not long before they saw a tall man standing in front of a young woman. She was cowering against the tree, obviously frightened of him. He hit the young girl and snarled something that they couldn’t understand. Her head fell to the side but when he laid his hand on her throat Gavin signaled them to attack. Every one of men sighted their arrows on the man and let them fly. Their arrows flew straight and true. Each one struck the man in the back and he crumpled in a heap with a painful cry.
As they neared the young woman, they could see that her arms were taut against the tree and the rope tied around her wrists. Her feet barely touched the ground.
“Roland, cut her down,” Gavin commanded, his voice tight. Roland cut the rope binding the woman to the tree and Leone caught her as she fell to the ground.
“She’s so young!” Julian exclaimed. “She can’t be any older than 17 years.”
Leone kneeled, Elizabeth still in his arms, and laid her on gently the ground. He checked her pulse, than laid his ear against her chest. After a moment of listening to her breathe, he griped her chin with his thumb and forefinger, and examined her neck with his free hand.
“She’s alright. Her throat may be sore for a while and she’ll have a headache when she awakens but other than that, there’s nothing wrong with her,” he told the others, his eyes still on her. He looked up at Gavin. “He hit her pretty hard.”
Gavin’s eyes blazed and his lips were all but invisible. “I’m tempted to leave this man for the animals,” he growled and nudged Jonathan with his boot.
“She’s a beauty,” Roland voiced. When Gavin glared at him, Roland held out his hands in defense. “I’m just saying.”
“That’s what he was clearly thinking,” Leone added. “His intentions weren’t honorable. Look at this.” He pointed to her bodice; the laces were partly undone. “I dread to think what would’ve happened to her if we hadn’t heard her scream.” He shook his head and noticed the rope still tied around her wrists.
“Roland; the knife,” he called and extended his arm. Roland dropped the blade hilt first into Leone’s outstretched hand; he proceeded to cut the ropes away from her wrists. “Here.” He handed the knife back to Roland and removed the rope from her wrists. He tucked the discarded—and useless—rope into his saddlebags. Maybe they could use it as fuel for a fire.
“Well, we’re here for the night, at least. Let’s make camp.” Gavin started to walk away then turned back. “What are we going to do about him? What do you think?” he asked his men. “Leave him like he is or bury him?”
“I would like more than anything to leave him here for the animals but I wouldn’t want to come upon him, a while from now, let alone others who might.” Leone looked from one man to another. “Bury him.” They nodded their agreement.
It took them less than an hour to dig the grave and bury Jonathan. When they were finished, Leone went to check on Elizabeth; she was still unconscious. Her breathing was even and quiet. He laid his hand on her forehead, and then held her fingers in his hands. “We have to get her warm. Her temperature is dropping. We need to make camp and get a fire started as soon as possible.”
“There’s a small clearing back a little ways and to the left,” Julian added.
“Alright, let’s get going. Mount up!” Gavin looked down at Elizabeth. “Need help?” he asked Leone.
“No, I got her.” Leone picked her up in his arms as though she weighed nothing at all. “Actually, yes, I could use some help. Hold her for a second.” Leone handed off Elizabeth to Gavin—who also held her as though she weighed nothing at all—and leapt into his saddle. Gavin handed her back to Leone, who put his arms around her waist, leaving her sitting in a sidesaddle position; her head fell against his shoulder. Turning his mount slowly, he followed Julian and the rest of the men the distance to the meadow.
When they reached the clearing, the men quickly got to work setting up tents, unsaddling the horses, and building a fire. Leone handed Elizabeth off to Gavin and dismounted. He unsaddled his horse as Gavin laid her next to the smoking kindling. Soon the small flickering flames turned into a blazing fire. When their chores were done, they sat around the fire talking softly. Every now and then their eyes flickered to the young woman lying nearby.
~ ~ ~
She had stumbled halfway home before collapsing in exhaustion. I’ll just rest for a moment, she thought tiredly. She crawled her way to the closest tree and leaned her back against it. I just need to rest for a moment, that’s all, Elizabeth thought as she tucked her skirt around her legs tightly. She rested her hands in her lap. She could feel her eyelids drooping, so she let them close. Just for a moment, she sighed inwardly.
Elizabeth slowly awoke to the twittering of birds. Cold. Oh, it’s so cold, she thought and shivered. When she opened her eyes, she could see her breath as she exhaled. A ghostly light filtered throughout the woods.
“Oh, no!” She scrambled to her feet. It was just before dawn. “Oh, they’re probably petrified,” she cried, distressed and upset with herself. Without a moment’s delay, she started off and hurried on her way. She had gone about half of a league when she sensed that she was being followed. She whirled around and searched the seemingly deserted forest. “Who’s there?” she called into the faint light. “I know you’re out there. Show yourself!” she called louder.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” a man said, appearing out of nowhere. He was tall, just over six feet. His nose was long and straight; his high cheekbones were speckled with freckles. His hair was the color of ripe wheat and his eyes the color of granite. He moved with the ease of a man experienced in hand-to-hand combat. She recognized him as one of the men in Gavin’s squad. He showed his large hands and moved slowly. “Gavin asked me to follow you and make sure you got home safely,” he said. “My name is Leone.”
“He didn’t need to do that. I can take care of myself,” she responded, annoyed.
“It didn’t appear that way when we found you.”
She glared angrily, her eyes filling. She shook her head, turned around, and continued on her way, all the fight draining out of her.
“Wait! I’m sorry,” he apologized and appeared at her side. “That was uncalled for. I’m sorry,” he said again. He kept up with her easily.
She was too upset to answer him so she just kept walking in silence. She could feel his eyes flicker to her face now and then. She stopped walking suddenly and turned to him. “I’m almost home. You can go back now. I’ll be fine.”
“If you’re almost home,” Leone responded, “then it won’t make a difference.”
“Fine!” she replied, annoyed, and began walking again. Less than ten minutes later she walked into the clearing that surrounded a small cottage. She opened a gate that surrounded a small but sufficient garden. She stood just inside the garden’s fence and inhaled deeply, letting the floral scents calm her nerves. Walking a few paces, she kneeled and picked some Lilac. She latched the white gate and walked the small distance to the cottage. She turned when she reached the door; Leone was standing less than a foot from her.
“Thank you,” she said softly in case her brother and sisters happened to be asleep. He nodded and looked down into her eyes. If his gray eyes hadn’t been gentle and his expression kind, his close proximity would have been overwhelming.
“Be careful, won’t you?” he requested with a smile.
“I will,” she replied and smiled in response. His eyes flickered over her shoulder as she heard the door creak open.
“Elizabeth?” a tiny voice called. She sighed and turned around. “Oh!” She sharply exhaled as her brother threw himself at her, knocking the air from her lungs. “Aidan!” she groaned. “That hurt!”
“Where were you?!” he accused, his voice condemning. “Susanna, Christine, and Jane were impossible,” he voiced dramatically.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed and rolled her eyes. “You took care of your sisters like I asked you to, right?”
“Yeah,” he mumbled.
“Go inside. I’ll be just a minute,” she said and pushed him inside. “Thank you…” she said as she turned only to find that he was gone. She scanned the surrounding empty forest with her eyes briefly before she sighed and closed the door behind her.