Sticks & Stones Ch. 06byBlack Tulip©
Feeling nervous and unsettled, Deirdre hurried back up the mountain. Conn had convinced her to at least come with him to escape the area, but she refused to leave the herbarium behind. It was the only thing that her mother had left her and it was precious to her. It also held a lot of information and she hated to let that go to waste. Besides, she had persuaded him to pick her up near the mountain pass so nobody in the village would see her departure.
She had left Conn's house before his wife was up. Deirdre grinned as she recalled Conn's face that morning. He had looked very smug when he told her his missus was still sleeping. No doubt he had buried his cock in her as well. For a moment she dwelled on the feel of his cock last night. Still convinced it had been unwise, she couldn't deny the fact he had fucked her good and thorough.
As she neared the entrance to the cave she felt her stomach tie into a knot. Would he still be there? On her way up she had seen nothing of search parties but that did not mean anything. There hadn't been any the previous night either. She was almost inside the entrance tunnel when she heard him. His muttering carried through the tunnel and she darted behind a fold in the rock to the left.
With her back pressed against the cold stone surface she held her breath and prayed he would not come her way. She came close to thanking God when he turned the other way. She could hear his boots scraping along the rocks, his grumbling as he searched for a way down the mountain. After more than a week inside, the sun would probably hinder his eyes a bit so she dared a quick peek.
There was nothing left of the lost and dreaming boy she had left the day before. The set of his shoulders shouted determination and the way he searched for footholds told her he had found a new confidence. She was glad she had been able to avoid him. She had no desire whatsoever to know this newfound purpose; as a matter of fact she was afraid she knew all too well.
After she saw him disappear around an outcrop of rocks, she slipped inside the tunnel and heaved a sigh of relief. She never realized she had been holding her breath. A quick look around showed her nothing special, so she hurriedly stuffed her spare set of clothes in her haversack, together with the herbarium. It took her no more than a few moments to decide she would leave most herbs behind, they would do no more than advertise what she was. She only took the poppy juice and a healing salve. Those could have been bought from anyone.
Deirdre looked one last time at her home for the past ten years, a sad expression on her face. "Goodbye haven, goodbye Johan." She didn't care if it was pathetic to whisper into the empty cavern; she just had to do something to make it an official farewell. Clenching her jaws she turned and left, refusing to cry. The sharp sunlight made her eyes water, that was all.
Not sure how long it had taken her to pack her things, she was very careful in going down to the main road. It would be really witless to stumble into the priest, as he was likely to make his way a lot less rapid. The moment she spotted a dark speck moving on the mountain below her, she froze in her tracks. Mindful of sending stones or gravel tumbling down, she settled herself and watched the tiny dark figure moving towards the small light ribbon of the road.
For a few seconds she feared he would turn towards the village. If he did he would block her access to the fork in the road; the place she and Conn had thought would cause the least amount of questions for her to join his traveling set. A soft sigh of relief escaped her as she saw Rory turn towards the town. Next she frowned as she saw him bending down. It was way too far to see clearly, but he was definitely doing something.
As soon as he disappeared from sight, Deirdre hurried down, for a moment hesitating what to do first. A glance at the sky convinced her it was still early so she had time enough to get to the fork. Once down to the road she looked around, curious to find out what Rory had been doing. She felt like she had been kicked in the stomach when she saw. At the side of the road, marking the place where he had come down from the mountain was a large letter W laid out in stones.
Deeply disturbed Deirdre sat at the side of the road. Waiting for Conn and his party to come up from the branch leading out of the village, she felt exposed, vulnerable. The fact that Rory had marked the route to the cave with a W was spelling it out for her. He would try to find her, no doubt because he wanted to save her, but the result would be the same as if he searched her to sent her to trial. She'd end up on the stake, after ... She shuddered, refused to think further as she wrapped her arms around her.
Conn frowned as he spotted her from afar. The splotch of indigo that was her cloak stood out against the greys and whites of the mountainside. She sat hunched over like she was aching and he felt a stab of worry. He knew she could take care of herself most of the time, but still felt responsible. He shook his head at his own nonsense. Ever since he came to live in this village he had lusted after the healer's daughter. Now that he finally had fucked her, he found her even more attractive.
He glanced aside to his apprentice, but the lad was too busy absorbing all the unfamiliar things nearby. It was his first time on the trail with Conn, his first time away from the village he was born in. At the moment the boy eyed the whole world as if it were a wonder.
"Deirdre, glad you're on time girl. This is Kendrick, my apprentice. Kendrick, this is Deirdre, a cousin of my sister's husband. She'll be traveling with us."
Conn had spun his wife the same tale. His sister had been dead for more than ten years, so there was no risk there. He hardly ever spoke with her husband and it was unlikely his wife would ever meet him. He was sure she would never betray Deirdre on purpose, but she could let something slip. He directed the lad to lead their mule for a while, giving him a chance to follow behind with Deirdre. The sound of the cartwheels would drown out their conversation.
"What happened? You look awful."
Deirdre gave a feeble grin. "The priest. He left as I was coming up. I watched him take the road to Wicklow." She swallowed and rubbed her arms through her cloak as if she was cold. "He...uh, he left a sign. I looked after he left."
Conn frowned but waited for her to continue. He didn't have to wait too long.
"A 'W'. He made a 'W' with stones to mark where he came down from the mountain."
"I hope you destroyed it?" Conn sounded almost savage. "The bloody idiot. Doesn't he know you saved his life?"
Deirdre put her hand on his arm. "Let it go Conn. He knows, but he thinks he's doing me a favor. Saving my soul."
She managed a sickly smile, not really believing that herself. Not when he marked the way to the cavern with the W for witch. She sighed, not sure what had convinced Rory she was a witch after all. Maybe she had been right in her anger. That it was easier to blame her and her 'witchcraft' than admitting he had had a moment of weakness.
Conn cleared his throat. "All right, but did you destroy it? Real good? Just point it out to me, will you? To make sure."
When she nodded, he went on to tell her what route he had in mind. Follow the road to Kilpoole so they could skirt Wicklow. Then on to the coast road. He thought they could make it to Arklow and find shelter there for the night. They would need another day, maybe two to reach Wexford. After that, he had to see the lay of the land. Deirdre nodded again. She had never traveled beyond Wicklow or Kilpoole. Never even been that far as a matter of fact. Maybe in other circumstances she would have been excited to see new places. Right now, she was much to upset and scared to find joy in leaving her safe surroundings.
As the day passed she started to feel more and more tense. Conn had taken a good look at the stones Rory had used for his sign and with a wicked grin he had taken half of them with him. During the rest of the morning he had been throwing them away one by one, scattering them along the road. At noon they had rested for a while, giving the mule a pause as well as their own feet and when they got up again Conn had told her they would soon pass Kilpoole. Kilpoole, once they passed that place, she would feel a lot safer. Until then she felt the shadow of the inspector general breathing down her neck.
Conn pointed ahead and she looked, following the road with her eyes, seeing the slow descent towards a crossroads of sorts. A few houses had sprung up around a small guesthouse. Conn had said he didn't want to use the guesthouses because they would cost him too much. She knew it was a tale for the benefit of Kendrick. He didn't want her to show her face more than absolutely necessary.
They neared the crossroads and Deirdre felt like a coiled spring. The tension inside her was building to the point where she felt like screaming and she had no idea why. Then they were close enough to see people and she knew. In front of the guesthouse she saw a small band of soldiers, loitering in the weak sun. The crimson of their tunics proclaimed them as hired by the church. The inspector general of the Inquisition to be more precise. Her knees nearly gave out and she had to use every ounce of willpower to keep walking.
"Keep going girl. You're doing just fine." Conn's voice was no more than a breath of air.
"Hey, old man. Want to sell your daughter?"
The soldiers roared with laughter at the look that Deirdre was unable to hold back. One of them even lifted his tankard as if to salute her. She bit her lip and clenched her fists to keep from running.
"Not a chance, lads." Conn grinned back at them as he made sure Deirdre and Kendrick kept going, the mule between them. "No offense, but I'll find her a decent husband in town."
They kept going as the laughter of the soldiers slowly faded behind their backs. Deirdre thought the sweat on her back would be visible through her clothes. She had balled her fists so tight her nails were digging into her palms and her eyes stared ahead, refusing to see anything but the road leading to safety.
Once around a bend in the road Conn patted her on the shoulder. "Relax, you did fine." His hand was on its way to stroke her bottom, but more was impossible as Kendrick looked back with a question on his face.
"Will you really do that, master? Find her a husband?"
Conn snatched his hand back but laughed at the boy's naiveté. "We were all joking, Kendrick. You better keep your thoughts on the mule, boy."
After another hour or so, they finally crested the last hill and saw the blue-grey waters of the Irish Sea in the distance. Both Deirdre and Kendrick were speechless at the sight of so much water, as they had never been out of the Wicklow Mountains. Conn smiled, enjoying their amazement at things he took for granted.
The rest of the day the road followed more or less the coast so they had an almost permanent view of the water, blending with the sky in the distance. As the sun started to go down, Conn pointed ahead. They saw a cluster of houses and he explained it was Arklow. At the outskirts he sent Kendrick and Deirdre with the cart into the stables of a guesthouse, claiming the mule needed to be fed and rubbed down by the boy. And Deirdre needed to watch the cart with his trading goods while he went in to ask for lodgings in the hayloft, again to save some coin. Deirdre knew he was still being careful of showing her face to strangers and she felt grateful. After all, he was hardly more than a stranger, well maybe a bit more but still not obliged to guard her safety.
Later on, Deirdre lay on her side in the hay, eyes wide awake, listening to the breathing of Kendrick and the soft snoring of Conn. They had filled their bellies with a leg of roast and slices of fresh bread, washed down with cool ale. Conn had tried to feel her up a bit, but the presence of the boy prevented any serious touching. Both men had dropped off soon afterwards, but she couldn't sleep. Not yet. The events of the day replayed themselves in her head and although she was tired to the bone, her thoughts kept her awake.
With a start, Deirdre woke up. Her eyes flew open and she felt her body go rigid as she strained to hear what had disturbed her sleep. Oh God, were they coming for her? Nearly scared out of her wits, she lay in the hay, listening to the sound of boots coming into the stable. It took her a few moments to realize she heard only one pair of boots. A late guest? She tried to stay awake, but all she heard were the sounds of someone settling down in the hay and finally deep breathing, indicating sleep.
"No... please..." The touch to her arm blended into her dreams of getting arrested. They had been tormenting her all night.
"Shush girl, it's all right. Time to wake up."
Ashamed to have cried out like that, Deirdre pushed the heavy black locks out of her face as she sat up. Rubbing her eyes she turned to Conn but halfway she froze. Her gaze touched the guest she now remembered she had heard coming in during the night. Her face went from pink to deathly white and her violet eyes turned almost black with fear.
She tried to speak but no sound came out. She tried again and her hands gripped each other so tight the knuckles turned white.
"Good morning to you, folks."
The deep voice sent her shivering into the bales of hay at her back. Almost desperate she tried to push the fear down, fighting to keep the panic from taking over as she looked at the source of that voice. After a few moments she was able to look beyond the scaring crimson of his tunic, proclaiming him a soldier for the Inquisition.
When he stood up she saw he was a big man, topping Conn by at least a foot, which meant he was even taller than she was. The broad muscled frame was to be expected in a fighting man. His blond hair was tied back with a piece of leather and ... With a start she realized the unusual green eyes were studying her about as intent as she had been looking at him.
"I guessed right, didn't I? You are the one."
Deirdre felt the blood drain further from her face. It would be useless to pretend not knowing what he meant. She couldn't understand how he knew so fast, but he knew. Rory must have been very convincing to have soldiers after her already.
"Care to explain that?"
Conn had stepped up and stood at her side, as if he would have a chance defending her against the big man. With a flick of his hand he had sent the boy out to take care of the mule.
The soldier's face split in a grin as he looked down at the older man.
"Sure, but I think it's best to do that on the road. I may have been the first to catch on, but I won't be the last." He suddenly offered his hand to Conn. "Andreas, I'm called Andreas."
Conn automatically took the hand and shook it, telling his name in return. To his surprise the soldier nodded to his companion.
"I know your name, you're Deirdre, right?" He smiled in an effort to reassure her. "Let's get moving, I have some food we can share on the go."
Without waiting for their agreement, he stepped outside, ducked his head into the rain barrel and came sputtering back up again. After a moment's hesitation Conn and Deirdre followed him out of the hayloft, both using some of the water to wash the sleep from their eyes. As Kendrick had taken care of the mule, all that was left was harnessing the beast.
Their little band was on their way in a matter of seconds, and Conn directed the boy to lead the mule down the road that followed the coast further east. Deirdre walked behind the cart and Conn and Andreas made up the rear. True to his word, Andreas provided all of them with a big slice of juicy rye bread and a slab of cheese. Savoring the tasty breakfast, Deirdre listened to his voice, explaining his presence.
"I saw you coming by yesterday. Remember? Near Kilpoole. You looked scared to me woman, but I thought it was the prospect of your father going to find you a husband." He chuckled at the look she gave him. "Maybe an hour after you were gone, we got word from Wicklow. Seems one of the pets of that Father Edward had been lost." He almost spat the name out. "The fool priest claims to have been the victim of a witch, who held him captive this last week. Said the witch was sent by Satan to seduce him. Black-haired with violet eyes and a lush body. I wasn't sure about the eyes of course, but the rest fitted."
In the silence that followed his words, Deirdre could hear the sound of the sea in the distance, the wind sighing softly nearby and a few birds singing, confident that spring was upon them. She looked at the side of the road where the first green buds were poking their heads up. Finally she looked up at the sky, an unending stretch of pale blue blending with the grey waves to her left.
"Why?" She licked her lips, but refused to look at him, still afraid to read his eyes. "Why not turn me in right away?"
The loud laugh made her jump out of her skin and she glanced back to see he really was only immensely amused. No fear lurked in his sparkling green eyes. She looked at him with a questioning face. Finally he stopped laughing and still shaking his head he started talking again.
"First, I don't believe in witches. I guess you're a healer?" He lifted his shoulders. "My mother was one too. I know she wasn't a witch", he grinned. "Second, I hate men who can't take responsibility for their own actions. The priest forgot his celibacy I guess?"
Deirdre surprised herself by blushing rather furiously. Hell, it wasn't as if she were supposed to be a virgin still. Not at her age! But to be honest, it was more the way this Andreas looked her over that made her face turn pink. His eyes turned a bit darker at the sight of her flushed face and he nodded.
"I thought so. Can't say I blame him. Nevertheless, he shouldn't make you the scapegoat for his own failing." His face got an angry set as he continued. "That is what I hate about those priests. It's all about them and their place in heaven." He clamped his mouth shut, refusing to look at one of the others.
Deirdre frowned as she thought his words over. They kind of reawakened long buried memories, memories of what Johan had told her about his home, his country, and his faith. This Andreas had an odd sound to him; he could very well be from another country.
"Are you a Lutheran?" Deirdre surprised all of them, including herself by blurting the question out.
"And what would a woman like you know about that?" His face carried a guarded look, all of a sudden not sure of his own safety.
Conn was walking along with his eyebrows almost up in his hair. He had been following the conversation as it turned ever more interesting. He had heard about those heretics on his travels, but he never knew Deirdre had heard about them as well. A quick look assured him Kendrick was oblivious to their talking. The boy stepped alongside the mule, whistling softly and kicking little stones every now and then. Conn felt relieved, as he would feel definitely uncomfortable if he corrupted the lad's faith.
As their feet carried them ever further along the coast, Deirdre hesitantly at first told them about Johan and what he had shared with her. Andreas confirmed her suspicions. He was from the same country as Johan had been. His decision to follow them was no more than an excuse to finally give in to his wish to quit being a mercenary, servicing a faith he no longer adhered to.
They followed Andreas' suggestion and left the road for the beach, walking along the waterline for a bit, the cold water refreshing their tired feet. Once they rounded an outcrop of rock Andreas allowed them to sit down. At long last letting them take a break. He had been setting a fast pace, knowing his former comrades could figure out the same as he had. It was not very likely they would pursue them, not without a reward, but he was rather safe than sorry. However, after hours of walking Conn needed a rest badly. He was, after all, not a young man any more and a bit overweight as well.