A Daemon-Horn Blade Ch. 11byStultus©
Despite their lack of proper rest, they started off again right at the very first crack of light and made a decent amount of relatively swift progress on the dryer grassy ground before the skies fully unloaded upon them. The rain soon got so hard that they could barely see ten yards in the woods ahead of them, so they risked a more dangerous but open path across several meadows to speed their course.
Driven slightly south, to avoid a large hill that Gwenda feared had an Eorfleode watchpost on it that guarded one of their army routes south, they found a relatively swiftly moving stream that followed their desired route nearly due east. But where did it go? At length Gwenda thought that it must merge into the large Elm River, which ought not to be too far ahead. Once at the river, they could turn north upstream to easily find the ruined town of Silana, and to soon be hopefully reunited with his friends.
Following the stream appeared to be quite a simple plan until the waters began to rush considerably faster, now swollen by the heavy autumn rainstorm as warm humid air from the Great Western Sea now meet colder air now coming south. They tried to follow what little of the stream bank they could that was level and smooth, but they were nearly washed into the rushing currents at least twice, until Rowan, dizzy with fatigue and his festering leg that could no longer bear his weight, fell right into the current entirely. With but a moments hesitation, Gwenda, who was just in front of him on the path, leaped in as well to join him, and they grasped hands tightly so that they would not be separated by the increasingly faster flowing, and deeper stream.
They worried about possible rocky rapids ahead, but for here at least the water was deep enough that they were being carried quite rapidly and smoothly away. Able to keep their heads mostly above water, the two decided that at least for the moment, they were making a much more rapid progress this way, albeit in a rather more dangerous manner.
Just when the flowing stream slowed enough for the couple to consider swimming over towards the shore, they passed through a turn in the stream and now found themselves suddenly in the much deeper and even faster flowing water of what must undoubtedly be the Elm River. The current bore them quickly, every minute taking them a bit closer to their destination, but the waters were choppier and rougher here, and it was harder to stay held fast together against the whims of the river current. Slowly, they began to work themselves to the eastern shores of the river and after about an hour they began a very precarious climb up the muddy and very slippery riverbank. With every weary step, they nearly lost their footing to slide back down to the mercies of the raging river once more, but finally they climbed up some reasonable stable flat grassland along the shore. Exhausted and unable to move another step, they hid themselves in the tall river grass to weakly laugh at their lucky escape and to rest just a bit more for the final walk north to the relative safety of the sacked town.
"I feel like a half-drowned river rat!" She laughed
"And I feel like I've been greeted by angels sent to carry me across the border to the Shadowlands!" A weak but not unfriendly strange voice said from the hidden depths of the tall grass, not twenty yards away from them. "You must be angels sent to come gather me, or else my fading eyes hallucinate and see a naked couple fresh from a river-frolic, in the worst possible weather."
Rowan and Gwenda grasped hands for a moment and drew their weapons in protection. Rowan's sword did not flame with anger or peril, and his companion drew her long stabbing dagger and the shorter knife that had wounded Rowan's leg in each of her hands. Together they searched through the grass until they found the near bloodless and wraith-pale form of the former Sergeant Worrel, still lying in a dried pool of blood where he had fallen, when his former traitor in crime had dumped him after running him through nearly a week ago.
Although Rowan and Gwenda knew nothing of the former bodyguard's treachery, the direly wounded Sergeant made no effort to conceal his crimes. Apparently he had done a good bit of repenting while he lay helpless and slowly dying by inches from his mortal wounds.
"Aye, my old commander led me false in wickedness and then he betrayed me too, but those lads were not the first throats that I had slit in the dark for the sake of some sweet silver! It will go hard on me for my crimes in the Shadowlands... of that I have no doubt or fear! I'd ask you for but a sip or two of wine to sweeten my mouth for my passage but it seems that you two have but barely escaped with only your very skins! It appears young Rowan, that you are indeed now quite a hero of note and we all indeed much misjudged you. So then, the rescue party was successful then?"
"If the loss of one life weights well against the rescue of more than a dozen, then I would say 'yes', and the rest of the raiders should have returned back to the ruins of the town quite safely some time ago. In my rescue of this young lady, I became quite separated and we had to take a different and rather difficult path towards home."
"Difficult indeed, I can see and even smell your wounds. Already they are turning ill from hardship and ill-treatment, and the wound-fever is full upon you both! If you can lift my back and head up against that nearby tree, I believe I have yet strength enough to clean out and stitch those wounds. As a trained soldier and a veteran of several campaigns, I always keep my medicine kit on my belt, to have needle and gut at hand for immediate and ready use. Indeed, this wasn't the first time I've had to stitch up my stomach to keep my guts from falling out! I've already given them quite a few stitches as well, but before I was done I'd lost too much blood and strength to even crawl. A deep belly wound is always tricky. Three out of four men with that wound die, even if a good camp surgeon or medicus is at hand, and over the years I've learned near every trick that they know! Wounded out here, away from help for many days, my own chances will be much slimmer, but I would like some river water to wet my mouth full before you leave me to my eventual but very certain fate."
They got the Sergeant his water, but from a clean pool of rainwater rather than the muddy torrent that was the river below. Then propped up carefully against the tree, the crusty old veteran put gut thread to his needle, and together the three of them carefully attended to the young couple's wounds with the last good clean bits of his clean linen wound patches from his aid-kit.
"Already corruption infects both of you deeply and if you're not safely in the hands of a very good healer by tomorrow, the blood poisoning will likely take the pair of you! Wave me goodbye and get quickly then on your way! The town is little over two hours ride to the north along the river and if you walk hard and fast you can be there by dark tonight. You can come back for my bones later... I'll still be right here!"
Instead, unwilling to leave the treasonous but repentant soldier, Rowan cut a pair of long poles from two young sapling trees and using the Sergeant's heavy leather coat and trousers, they formed a rough stretcher that would support his weight even with some rough handling. Each of the young couple then took a hold of a front pole and together they began to drag the direly wounded man along behind them, with his boots and the bottom pole ends scraping the mud and grass as they doggedly pushed onwards, to the north and to safety.
They had to stop to rest all too often to catch their breath and rest their arms, as Rowan found that his great strength had nearly entirely now failed him. With Gwenda's wounded and dangerously inflamed shoulder, she could only use a single arm to assist Rowan, and more and more he had to assume the full weight of both stretcher poles on their crude travois. Somehow they stumbled along. With his eyes now closed from the tears of pain that even chewed tree bark wouldn't dull, and Gwenda gently guiding his path, he willed his dreadfully infected leg to keep moving, if even for a few inches at a time, to ignore the awful pain to keep pulling the wounded Sergeant yet another hundred or so feet ahead at a time before he would have to stop for yet another and increasingly longer rest break, when he became overcome by his weariness and excruciating pain.
Gwenda helped the best she could to pull even a bit of their burden, and she clung to him to help support her lover's increasingly weak and near useless leg as they shuffled along well after dark. The night was quite black, the darkest night that he could ever remember yet in his travels, but he trusted Gwenda to lead him yet onward along the riverbank, and to avoid their falling down over the slight embankment back into the river. Theirs was a world of uncounted moments of near insufferable pain and abject misery, but they knew that if they stopped to take any sort of proper rest that night that the Sergeant might die before reached help. They also were now both too feverish from their wounds, and without Gwenda by his side, Rowan feared that he would have given up and collapsed quite a long time earlier, but somehow she found the means to encourage him to take one more another step, and then yet another forward.
How Rowan dragged himself and his exhausted companions through the burned wooden gate into the ruined town and into the astonished and welcoming hands of his friends and the town's survivors, he never quite knew. For the last hour of that fateful death-march in the early hours of the morning, he felt that they had walked with but one foot left in the real world while their other foot had treading across the border into the Shadowlands.
Oddly, it was the Lady Ayleth who ran first into Rowan's arms, outracing his frantically worried pal Boyle to lend him an arm as the wounded couple staggered their final steps into the town, and then utterly collapsed, surrendering themselves to the internal fires of their wound-fevers. Rowan wanely smiled, and clutched Gwenda's feverish hand and squeezed it with the very last of his strength as he closed his eyes, seeing with blurred and tearful eyes, Oddtus, the Lore-Master now kneeling by his side.
They had made it! With everyone still alive and the last of the rescue trip now over and successful, Rowan thought contently, as he fell into a coma-like delirium, but with Gwenda's hand still tightly held in his. He thought for a moment that he felt a soft hand stroking his head and hair, biding him to rest, and for a moment he thought for certain that he was once again near the border of the Shadowlands, now reunited once more with his former love Cedany, but in his feverish dream she shook her head at him and bade him to return to the land of the living, once again without her.
"Your oath!" Her spectral voice whispered to his ears as he awoke with a start, to find Gwenda sitting right by his bedside, running her hands and long fingers gently through his hair. Seated on a chair nearby was the gaunt form of the Lady Ayleth, who suddenly now arose and fled from the room once she realized that Rowan had now his eyes open and that had seen her.
"I see you've met her august Ladyship." Rowan whispered to her in a scratchy throat, and with a faint smile.
Gwenda laughed. "Oh, I'd met her before in court some years ago, with my father when we travelled once to Tellismere to discuss frontier fortifications that her father had no absolutely intention of paying for. She was a sly devil and more than a bit of a manipulative cunt even then before she'd grown tits. Maybe she's improved... a very tiny wee little bit. She blames herself for your injury, and well she should! You'd told me about the nasty little trick she'd played to launch this rescue mission in the first place, and it wasn't until later that the stupid twat had realized exactly what she'd done, from her cleverness. She's been here alone for nearly a week, scared out of her mind that she's fucked nearly everything up. I let her know in rather clear and uncertain terms that I agreed exactly with that assessment, and told her get her noble head out of her ducal ass, and to start acting like a proper Duke's daughter, allegedly someone who was born to command... ha ha! She's sort of speaking to me now, but she still has that scared deer look to her. I think she wants and intends to apologize to you, eventually... but the idea of admitting that she had screwed up is still confusing enough to her that to actually apologize for it might cause her to have a most unlady-like nervous breakdown, so don't push for it... at least for right now."
"How is your shoulder? It's... different, seeing you in clothes. Was that dress from Ayleth? It's pretty and it quite becomes you... especially your eyes."
"My shoulder is healing at last and it probably now itches more than it hurts. Whatever your gléaman friend put into it stopped the blood-fever fast, and cleaned the wound out nicely. Same as he did for your dreadful leg wound, although he's slightly worried that it might never heal back all the way completely. He thinks that when you get old it will go a bit lame on you, but for now it should be fine. The dress belonged to an older daughter, now lost, of one of the townsfolk. They have all been rather kind to me, and have offered me my choice of anything that I could use. The silk is indeed lovely, and I would like to wear it again for you at a kinder pleasanter time, if long enough for you to slide it off of my shoulders and onto a bedroom floor. Alas, but for now, while we remain in danger, I would rather be outfitted in some good leathers with a war-belt around these hips rather than this womanly sash. This is no time to pick or enjoy the scent of flowers; it is the equally delicate arts of war that yet call to me and I must be ready. Now that I know you will be well, I shall now gird myself more accordingly, for we shall fight together at each other's side for some great time yet to come, I do fear, until we have occasion for some gentler moments together. Commonly born or not, you are among the very best of men, and you live with honor. The Weaver's guide your path and I would have learn much more of you and remain ever-present by your side in war and in peace, until my rescue-debt can be repaid... if ever."
Gwenda gave him a soft kiss on the cheek, and then a rather much less chaste open-mouthed kiss before she left his side and the room. Rowan caught the Lady Ayleth peeking around the doorway, watching them together with a combination of surprise and not a little obvious displeasure. Was she jealous of Gwenda's very apparent attachment to him? She had not seen the lad kiss any other woman during their time together, nor had Rowan ever engaged in any love-play or even flirtment with any of the three lady sailors on board The Lady Ellyn, unlike the more romantically audacious Boyle. She hadn't acted particularly jealous of that singular encounter, but then again Boyle was not her appointed Champion and now nearly her sole remaining protector either. Upon his return from the raid, Boyle had stayed fast by her side ever since, to protect her until Rowan's return, and he and the Foole alone had never given up hope that the plucky lad would indeed come back.
Confused, but yet amused, Rowan closed his eyes to rest for awhile before his eager and concerned friend Boyle came bounding in to check on him. He informed his injured friend that all of the raiding canoe members, along with their rescued townsfolk, had returned safely and swiftly back at the town. Boyle had then reported to the tearful Lady that her Champion appeared to be mostly safe and sound and would undoubtedly be delayed leading the angry and vengeful Eorfleode well way from the rescue party. From that point, it was just many days of increasingly anxious waiting and anticipation until his return. They had not expected for him to make such a dangerous journey, and everyone was greatly disturbed by his reports of so many different large Boar-men tribes all generally heading south, to the largely unprotected valleys of central and eastern Tellismere, and even to the unguarded border with Broadmore.
Their discovery of the critically wounded treasonous sergeant was another wrinkle that no one had expected or planned for. The Lady Ayleth was all for a swift hanging, already a day or two overdue in her opinion, but the Foole had counseled for patience. Worrel was still in recover and not yet able to speak a word in his defense. To hang the man in such circumstances would not be justice, the Lore-Master convincingly argued, and he secured a delay for the execution of his death sentence until he could be able make at least some token words in his own defense.
The Oddtus had complimented Worrel's wound stitching, and once Rowan and Gwenda were both out of danger, the Histrio cleaned out and restitched up these belly wounds as well. No one gave him any sort of odds to see the dawn after they had arrived so late that night, but the old bastard was tough and clung to life, day after day.
"Oddtus says that he'll live... until the Lady Ayleth gives the order to have him hanged. He's a hard man, but as he helped save your life enough to allow you to reach us, I would be rather loath to see his own life be taken in turn, even in justice for his crimes." Boyle earnestly stated, and Rowan, in principle, agreed.
Rowan lingered mostly in bed for the next two days while his leg healed and the last of the fever went away, but Oddtus showed no object to the lad taking a few short shuffling walks with Gwenda. True to her ambition and word, she had neatly outfitted herself in a pair of sturdy leathers and she now wore a proper sword at her right side. The long stabbing dagger that had so effectively wielded during their escape was now in a small leather sheath on the left side of her war-belt. Another pair of smaller throwing daggers appeared to be stuck in each of her tall boots. The comfort with which she walked, while so fortified, indicated to him that she was well used to being armed, and that she could now put up a more suitable defense for herself the next time they found themselves in danger. Rowan didn't doubt in the slightest that she had another dagger or two further hidden away, ready for any emergency.
Indeed, nearly her foremost act on their short walk that first morning was to begin to instruct Rowan in the proper and correct use of his mighty sword.
"Look my brave handsome young fool! You've got a divine sword by your side that could probably slay half of the Eorfleode armies single-handed, if you could just learn to wield it properly. I was in frantic fear for you just watching you fight in every single battle we faced! You waved that blade around like a blunt piece of red-hot metal straight from a forge! I know... you're just a young smith stuck in a desperate situation, without a lick of any proper training, and now frantically learning things as you go along. But now it's time that you learned to use that pig-sticker properly! I've sat and watched my father train my younger brother for countless thousands of hours, and fenced against them both often in practice. The women of Great Yarmouth Pass are not the sort to cringe behind their men, quivering in their skirts! Give me but a week, and I'll at least keep you from nearly cutting off your own nose, or worse yet, mine, with your wild but enthusiastic swings!"
Rowan did have a lot to learn! In fact, he spent the first two days of his formal instruction 'unlearning' virtually everything that he had taught himself so far. Even the way he held his sword was quite wrong. For the next two days they practiced for at least an hour every early morning and then again every afternoon, in addition to participating in the archery practice that the sailors continued to hold each evening. Rowan was becoming a tolerable shot with a bow, but Gwenda proved herself to be an absolutely deadly archer and she could hit a fist sized target easily nearly every time at a hundred paces. With a bit of digging in the ruins of the old guardhouse, she added a serviceable bow and a rather overstuffed quiver of arrows to her gear. Another large bundle of arrows was wrapped up into her camp blanket, and tied to her pack, ready for their hopefully soon departure from the ruined town.