tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Solitary Arrow Ch. 14

The Solitary Arrow Ch. 14

bymack_the_knife©

As Hyandai entered the bathing enclosure, she noted that she could hear giggling from beyond the canvas. She pulled the flap aside an inch or two and peered into the bathing area.

The enclosure had no roof, and the stars overhead twinkled through the dimly glowing haze that spread over the campsite. The area itself was lit with several torches guttering from poles driven into the ground at the enclosure's center. A great expanse of oilcloth had been laid out to form a floor of sorts for the chamber, and to prevent it turning into a mud pit. In a tight cluster were six large, wooden tubs. Two long benches sat inside the entry flap and there was a wooden framework with cloaks hanging upon it right beside those benches.

There were three women lying in the tubs in the middle of the room chatting as they bathed. All three were young, none older than twenty-five summers.

She quietly slipped through the curtain and began to disrobe. As she did so, the women quit speaking causing Hyandai to glance nervously at them.

"Don't be a stranger, Hyandai." One of the women said. She was a blonde woman with densely packed freckles on her face and shoulders. "Please, come speak with us." She splashed the water in the tub next to hers, which was empty.

Hyandai, in her shyness, had tried to take the tub farthest from the tight little knot of women. Obviously, this was not to be, however. With a nervous smile, she walked toward the indicated tub. She noted all three women watching her as she walked; she saw the freckled one leaning toward the nearest woman.

"By the One, she's gorgeous." The girl with the freckles whispered in a tone few humans could have heard from across the enclosure. Of course, Hyandai's sensitive ears heard it perfectly and she blushed a bright pink.

The freckled woman's friend, a pretty brunette with thick, wavy hair, said, "And she's got good ears, too, Maegan." Then broke into peals of laughter as Maegan turned even more crimson than Hyandai and smiled sheepishly.

Hyandai smiled and stepped into the tub, it was only lukewarm, but more than adequate to get the grime of travel off of herself. She laid back, luxuriating in the mild warmth and the feeling of buoyancy.

"Thank you." She finally said in reply to Maegan's compliment. "You're very pretty too, Maegan, and your freckles simply add even more character to your loveliness." Hyandai said.

Maegan blushed again, and then laughed. "I apologize for trying to be sly with my words, Lady Hyandai." She said. "It's just that I'd only seen you at a distance before, and never imagined how very pretty you truly were."

The brown-haired girl giggled as well. "Be careful, Lady Hyandai, else you'll make Maegan here rethink her preferences." She said.

Maegan, also laughing, splashed her with a great gout of water for her lip.

"You just watch yourself, Tessa." Maegan warned, her gray eyes flashing. "Don't think I didn't see you looking at Wendy like she was a prime little lad."

At those words, the girl who had remained silent throughout the exchange made a rather forlorn little squeaking sound and seemed to shrink into the tub more than she already had been. Hyandai immediately took more interest in the girl. She noted that the shy one's hair was almost blue in color, and wondered at that.

"How do you come by that color of hair, Wendy?" Hyandai asked, smiling encouragingly at the younger woman.

"Uh." Wendy said. "Well." She added after a moment. "It's from berries." She finally stammered out.

This sent the other two women into a fit of raucous laughter, so much so that Tessa actually lost her grip on the edge of her tub and managed to dunk herself into the water. She sat back up sputtering and still laughing a moment later.

"You, you've got to tell her why." She said, squeezing the words out between laughing and coughing from inhaled water.

Hyandai immediately felt pity for the poor girl. This was terribly embarrassing for Wendy, but it did seem to be also genuinely funny. "Please, explain." She said, keeping an absolutely straight face.

When the girl looked toward her, she locked eyes with Hyandai's deep emerald orbs. Her own blue eyes opened widely.

She slowly sat up straighter as Hyandai seemed to feed her confidence through the eye contact. "I was trying out a new soap recipe, and it called for strawberries." She said, her ends of her mouth quirked upward a fraction of an inch. "Well, I had no strawberries, so I used blueberries instead."

Maegan and Tessa fell into laughter again. Tessa patted the young woman's shoulder. After a long moment, Wendy started giggling along with the other two, and once she had done that, Hyandai began laughing as well, refusing to laugh at the young woman, but quite willing to laugh with her.

---

Harlen walked into the men's bathing area, and looked about. There were a dozen large tubs set into a circle about the open space within the canvas walls. The floor had a huge amount of oilcloth covering it, and there were several long benches lining the outer wall. Two torches illuminated the enclosure with their flames.

Only two of them had occupants. The two men sat next to one another and watched the hunter enter. One murmured something to the other, and the other's eyes widened with realization.

"Huntsman!" He exclaimed. "Come, take a tub near to us, we would speak with you, if it isn't an imposition."

Harlen smiled slightly and shrugged. He walked around the other tubs to the nearest to the one who had spoken, a young man with an eye patch. "I always welcome good conversation." He said as he disrobed and stepped into the tub.

"I don't know about good, but it should be entertaining, anyway." The talkative one said. "I am Lanner, and this is my friend, Willem." He pointed to the other young man, about the same age as the speaker. They were both perhaps two years Harlen's junior, or so he judged.

Willem finally spoke. "I saw you with the elven lady, Hyandai." He said. "She's amazing, from what I hear."

Harlen nodded. "My name is Harlen." He replied. "We've traveled together some days now. And she is – Amazing that is."

"She's amazingly beautiful." Lanner said, grinning broadly. "You're a lucky man. Even if you only get to walk beside her from day to day."

"Every time I hear her voice, I remind myself of that, Lanner." Harlen said as he began scrubbing himself. "And every time she smiles, too."

"Are you two to wed?" Willem asked, feeling bold with either friendliness or simplicity.

Harlen thought a moment. "I honestly do not know." He answered. "And it will be most of a year before I find out."

"There's a burden to carry, eh, Willem?" Said Lanner. "Imagine not knowing if the most beautiful woman you can ever hope to have may leave you in a year." He looked at Harlen. "In that way, Harlen, I do not envy you."

Willem nodded, and his face took on a mildly sad expression. "I do feel for you, Mister Harlen." He said. "I wish you the One's grace in that matter."

Harlen tried to push back the doubts that Lanner's words had created in his mind. "Thank you Willem." The huntsman said.

"But, we move onto lighter things." Lanner said. "We will be having beer at our company's tents tonight, Master Harlen. If you wish to join in some small revelry, please feel free to come. And, naturally, Lady Hyandai may come as well."

"I will keep that in mind, Trooper Lanner." Harlen replied. "Though I cannot promise much. Hyandai and I are weary from our trek in the mountains, and she may desire only sleep."

The two younger men rose from their tubs and dried off. As they cast cloaks about their shoulders and prepared to leave the bathing area, Willem turned to Harlen again.

"She will choose you, Master Harlen." He said earnestly. "You're one of the best-known and best thought of men in the duchy."

Harlen stared after the young man as he turned again and followed his friend through the flap.

"I wish I shared that confidence." He murmured to the empty enclosure.

Harlen let himself slide down in the tub and let his muscles relax. The water was barely warm enough to be comfortable, but it would suffice. Soon, with his mind wandering over the events of the last few days, he drifted off to sleep.

---

Hyandai received the bottle from Maegan and took a sip from it. This stuff was good, she decided, handing the bottle over to Wendy. It burned a little as it went down, but then seemed to explode into general warmth throughout her. It had a mild aftertaste, but she could not place it.

"What did you call this?" Hyandai asked Tessa, noting that her voice slurred a little as she spoke.

The four women had abandoned their tubs in favor of the two long benches set near the entrance. Hyandai sat next to the petite Wendy, and the other two women sat next to one another. The bottle, something with no maker's label, and only etched with two 'X's upon its side, passed among the four women freely, each drawing off little sips, and passing it along.

"Itsh my daddysh brew." Tessa said, her voice slurring even worse than Hyandai's. "He makesh it with pertatoes."

Maegan giggled at Tessa. "You're drunk." She accused her friend. "When you're drunk, you can't say pototoes."

Tessa was taller than any of the other women here, by almost a head. "I reshent that." She said, standing to her full height. "I can so pay sotatoes." Then she blinked, her face adopting a blank expression for a moment. "Oh dear." She said, finally. "I think I need the latrine."

The tall woman hastily grabbed up her long cloak and ran for the flap, trying to don it as she bolted.

"Ah, blast!" Said Maegan. "I better go tend to her, else some young soldier will likely take advantage." She grabbed up her own cloak and headed for the flap. "I wouldn't want to miss out on a good soldier." She said over her shoulder, winking at Hyandai and Wendy.

Hyandai rose from her place next to Wendy, turning to the young woman. "I find myself untired." Hyandai said. "Would you like to walk for a while?"

Wendy's eyes widened as she smiled and nodded. She stood from the bench and took her cloak from a peg.

Removing her own cloak and bundling her other clothes under her arm, Hyandai took the young woman's hand and led her from the bathing enclosure.

Wendy proved to be very good company, Hyandai discovered. She was also knowledgeable about many things, especially herbs and what the young woman called 'home alchemy.' They had walked the length of the encampment, and even as far out as the sentries on the south side.

They now stood on a low rise that overlooked the campsite. The fires down in the shallow valley created an artificial star field below that echoed the much vaster one above. A cooling breeze blew down off the mountains, and sent shivers down Hyandai's spine as the curls of wind snuck beneath her cloak and caressed the bare flesh beneath. One of the sentries had just passed by the pair and had nodded in acknowledgment before moving on down the slope on his rounds.

Wendy turned and looked at Hyandai with staring eyes. "Lady Hyandai." She said, very quietly. "I understand that elven women are often, well, they are often equally," She paused a moment. "accommodating of other women as men." Her blue eyes shone brightly to Hyandai, even a bit more than could be explained by the elf's darksight.

Hyandai nodded but said nothing, keeping her face impassive.

Wendy stammered a moment. "I, I do not know if you are of that sort." She murmured, her eyes growing very large and concerned-looking. "But if you are." She looked down at the ground, her expression encompassing embarrassment and curiosity and nervousness all in one quick glance from the slender woman. "If you are, and you find me appealing . . .." She let the sentence drift off to silence.

The elven woman's face softened at the girl's discomfort. "Wendy." She said, very softly. "It is true that many elven women are attracted to other women." She reached out a hand and touched the young woman's cheek. "But, I do not even know if I am one of them." She finally admitted. "I have not done more than kiss another woman, and those instances were unbelievably rare."

Eyes alight with kindled interest, Wendy stared at the elven woman. "Did you enjoy those kisses?" She asked.

Hyandai giggled. "Well, yes, I did, but then . . . "

She was interrupted by Wendy's lips against hers. The young woman embraced her fully as she kissed the elven lady. Hyandai was stunned for a half a moment, then relaxed into the kiss. She had been about to say she did not often pass up a chance at a good kiss. No point in wasting this rather impulsively given one. Hyandai began to kiss Wendy back, putting her own arms around the young woman, and pulling her tight.

It took Hyandai a long moment to realize that she had slipped a hand out of her cloak and into Wendy's. She was stroking the girl's back and rump softly with her fingertips. She could feel Wendy shivering beneath her touch.

Hyandai pulled her lips from the girl's. "Are you cold?" She asked, still stroking Wendy's spine.

"No, Miss Hyandai." The young woman said, looking down nervously. "I'm somewhat frightened."

A soft giggle came from Hyandai's throat. "Frightened of me?" She asked. "You are probably half again stronger than I."

Wendy smiled wryly. "And still you could easily hurt me, even with just words." She said. "I want to trust you, though, something tells me I can."

"I tell you that you can trust me." Hyandai said earnestly. "But words mean little. What is it you wits to entrust to me?"

There was a long pause as Wendy stared at the campsite below them. More stiff breezes came down off the mountains and whipped the girl's subtly blue hair around her head.

"You are the first person I have wished to give myself to." Wendy said, keeping her eyes upon the flickering fires of the camp. "I've wanted neither men nor women until now."

A small piece of Hyandai's will fell aside with those words. "But I am betrothed." She said. "I cannot take a lover without my beloved."

Wendy turned to her. "But you can take a lover with him?" Her eyes glinted in the darkness again. Hope rekindled in her eyes.

A gentle smile crossed Hyandai's lips. "Yes, it is our way, when the situation is as ours is." She said. "But, it is not necessarily Harlen's way. Would you like to speak with both of us?"

Hyandai saw a slight nod of the young woman's head against the backdrop of the camp. With an extended hand, Hyandai brushed her fingertips against Wendy's neck.

"Come," The elven lady said, "we will go speak to my betrothed, if you are certain of this."

Hand-in-hand, the two women walked back to the camp. They wore smiles that were both mysterious and telling. The air did not seem so cool anymore to Hyandai. It seemed downright warm out now.

As they walked, Hyandai noted the girl's glances, and was reminded of Harlen's glances at her the first morning after they met. Hyandai did not know if they were being observed, and did not much care, in either. As the two approached the tent she shared with Harlen, Wendy squeezed her fingers tightly enough that it was very near too painful.

---

Harlen actually fell asleep for a short while in the tub. It was not until the water grew chill and the moon had risen well into the sky that he awoke shivering. He got up and hastily dried off with his blanket and bundled up his clothes. Casting his cloak over his shoulders, he headed toward the tent that the captain had provided Hyandai and him.

The tent was empty, he discovered. He supposed that Hyandai must have found the bath relaxing as well, or got to speaking with someone. He hung the cloak upon a peg mounted in the framing poles of the tent then cast himself onto the cot with a loud sigh.

His eyes wandered to the Ehladrel lying atop their packs in the corner. What sort of thing was that weapon? Did it think? He sat up and regarded it, watching the ornate engraving in its flanks flicker and dance in the torchlight. The runes unsettled him, they seemed somehow malign, like they noticed him and did not care for the feel of him near.

Shaking his head to dispel the distasteful thoughts he was having he stood from the cot and walked toward it. It sat, unmoved by his approach and did not seem affected by his touch when he lifted it. It was heavy; especially considering it was an elven weapon. It was longer than his leg by about a foot, and was bladed for that entire length, terminating in two incredibly sharp points. The weapon was cunningly curved, and had handholds along its backside, allowing the wielder to adopt many varied grips of it.

Harlen smiled to think that from the look of it, it was nearly as dangerous to the wielder as to his opponents. Almost any grip he attempted aimed one of the arrow-sharp points toward him as well as his would-be foe. He remembered how the blade dancer had wielded the weapon, always keeping it in motion, never letting it rest. It was not a spear, or a staff with a blade; it was something different by its very nature.

A feeling of apathetic disdain overcame him after a few moments. The weapon did not even desire to grow upset in his grip; it only wished that the human would quit touching it. Harlen could feel this sense of disregard and it offended him, even more than active hostility would have.

"You think you're so superior, don't you?" He asked the blade. It did not respond, even in the gut feeling he received from it. Harlen shrugged and laid it back down, resting it only on Hyandai's pack, and lifting his own.

He fished out his light sphere and the tent filled with its radiant, soft light. He slipped on a clean pair of pants and set to sharpening his sword, which had received many notches in the blade over the last few days. The large grinding stone from his pack made short work of smoothing them out, then he began the slow process of restoring the edge.

He had been at this rather mindless and relaxing task for almost an hour when the flap of the tent finally folded inward and Hyandai came through.

She pulled another woman through, as well. At first, Harlen thought that it was another elven maiden, so slight of build was the newcomer. Her oddly colored hair reinforced this mistaken identification. After a moment, though, it was apparent that she was quite human. Her rounded ears, though mostly concealed by her hair, would have been far more pronounced if they had been pointed. Also, as she turned to face Harlen with a nervous smile, she flashed pale blue eyes his way.

"Beloved." Hyandai said, coming forth and releasing the girl's hand. She kissed Harlen as he sat with the sword across his lap. "I wish for you to meet Wendy." Her hand curled to indicate the young woman standing behind her.

Harlen stood from the bed and nodded, then stepped toward Wendy. "I know you, Wendy." He said. "But I'm not sure from where."

She looked Harlen in the eyes. The first time Hyandai had seen her make eye contact with anyone but her. "I am Wendy, daughter of Rory and Anya," she said, "Anya is the youngest daughter of Tammer. And I know you, Harlen, and have known you for some years."

"But you were in Ghant, I remember you leaving." Harlen said, smiling. "When did you return?"

Wendy's face almost blossomed as she smiled. "Just last year, and we did so quietly, moving to a cottage down by the river." She replied.

Harlen's face grew mockingly stern. "You should have sought me out." He said. "I rather had a fancy for you before you left." The grin on his face was one of fond remembrance.

"Truth be told, I feared you, Harlen." She said. "Grandfather told me you had become rather grim and stern over the years intervening. He said you sought not the company of people."

The expression on Harlen's face was one of frustration, but inwardly directed. "I suppose he was correct in that." He finally said, after a long pause. "But I would have welcomed an old friend, in any case."

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