There is something wet hitting my face.
There is something sharp poking my back.
I can breathe.
I open my eyes and see two very worried storm gray ones looking back intently from only a few inches away. My thoughts are muddled from passing out; I can’t tell how long it’s been or where I am. A fine rain patters on my face again. The rocks beneath me stab into my wound. Neither of us say a word, we’re just staring.
“Did you know you have green flecks in your eyes? They’re not just gray.”
Lex bursts out a laugh and hugs me close to his chest. “I thought I lost you.”
After a moment, “I’m actually pretty amazed you found me at all in the darkness with all that smoke.” My voice croaks. Between the pain in my throat and lungs and Lex squeezing the life out of me I can hardly speak.
“You made it all the way to the ladder before you collapsed. I waited as long as I could stand it and then went down to get you. You were at the bottom of the first ladder. I couldn’t tell if you were alive or dead.” He finally releases me; lays me back on the ground, to look at me again. His face is covered in the oily soot that was coming from the fire. Looking up into the sky, I see it still belching blackness into the air.
“Anything come out after me?” I rasp. He shakes his head ‘no’.
Now that the fear from chasing down the Crickets is gone I find I’m extremely tired. Laying my head back down on the ground I close my eyes to rest.
“Please don’t do that.” Lex immediately states. “Just not…yet……I wasn’t sure if you were going to wake up, I’m still a little worried you might not.” He lets out a slow breath, “you were barely breathing.”
Nodding my understanding, I recall countless hours of sitting in our tree-well watching him breathe, wondering if he would ever wake up. That seems like forever ago, years instead of months. “I understand. Help me up and we can figure out a place to camp.”
He stands and then bends down to help me. I’m shocked at how weak I feel, like my muscles are made of jelly. “You don’t happen to have some healing potions do you? I used all mine up.”
He nods, “A couple. Not enough to completely heal you, but enough to keep you from deaths door,” he says a little grimly. I start to protest but then realize that he is, in fact, right. I was that close.
He picks up our gear, both packs, and starts leading me off the rocky hill outside the mine. The body of the cricket still lays where he died. My eyes linger on that awhile. Lex says, “We’ll take care of the bodies tomorrow, I think we’ve done enough today. It’s getting dark soon.” I nod, too spent to argue.
I realize we are both covered in the oily soot that came out of the hive. Our clothes, hair, faces and hands coated with it. It smells bad. “I stink.” My nose crinkles at the sickly odor coming off of me, my clothes. It’s like a burned sugar smell.
“I didn’t notice.” Lex says as he stops and surveys a spot to camp. It’s on the edge of the clearing, but not near my last battle with the three Crickets. He sits the packs down and unrolls the tent. Going to his bag, he starts fishing through it. He pulls out 2 healing potions and hands them to me before going back for something else. After several minutes, “Dammit.”
“What?” I’m slowly sitting down on a fallen tree, still a bit wobbly even after taking the potions.
“I think I lost my hatchet in the tree.” He stares at his pack accusingly.
“Here, use mine.” I unhook my hatchet from it’s loop on my belt and hold it out to him. “Oh, that’s right….you said you’d explain once we were done.”
“Yes, I did….” He takes the hatchet and walks away to cut some branches for tent poles. I rest and drink water, I can wait…. I will have answers soon. He can’t put it off forever.
After many minutes of putting up a tent (it is a rather large, round pavilion style, you can stand up in it, definitely big enough for both of us) he stops and faces me sitting there on the log watching him.
“You know….. I’m a prince.” He starts haltingly.
“I’ve heard.” My sarcastic answer.
He gives me an annoyed look. “Well, you see…every member of the royal family is given something.” He pauses and looks at me like he’s searching for the right words. I give him that ‘go ahead’ look.
“So….it’s a scroll…..we each have a scroll.”
“Ok. Can you please just spit it out.” I’m too tired for guessing games.
“Umm, the Royal Observer gives us scrolls that allow us to teleport from one location to another. They’re meant for when we are in danger so we can escape. I used my scroll when I got your message.” He spits the words out fast, like he’s embarrassed about it or something.
“So, let me get this straight. The Royal Observer…Martume’….gives you a scroll to teleport out of danger. And you had enough faith in it that you actually decided to use it?” I start laughing at my own joke, “you have met this man, yes? And you trusted a scroll he gave you? You’re braver than I thought.”
My reaction is completely unexpected, along with my burst of laughter. He joins in. “Now that you put it that way….it was a pretty crazy idea.”
“So….do your men know who you are? How did you explain that you just popped out? Disappeared?”
He shakes his head, “No. I told the Lt. to gather a large contingent and start out towards Paxton mine. I was going ahead on Steve to make better time. We rode out a couple of miles or so and I tied him to a branch, got my gear and used the scroll-“
“Wait a minute….you left Steve tied to a tree!” I’m in shock.
“No, no..wait…I left a note so when the troops find him they will bring him. I told them I decided it was safer to go stealthily on foot.”
“Oh, oh…..you are gonna have some explaining to do to that horse. He’s gonna be pissed. And if your men have ever traveled with you through the forest they’ll know you were lying. You? Stealthy? Please.” I cross my arms and do my best ‘you’re not fooling anybody’ face.
“It’s all I could think of OK? You’re the one you sent the note ‘see you on the other side’. I still can’t believe you wrote that.”
“It sounded cool.”
“It did not sound cool.”
I shrug off his remark. We’re quiet for awhile. He starts to build a fire near the tent. “Hungry?” I nod. He starts prepping our dinner.
I’ve been putting off asking something and now I can tell it will not wait any longer. The two potions were enough to lessen my bleeding, particularly the wounds across my front, but the deep gash from the throwing star in my back is still not faring well. I have to break the silence. “Lex, I need your help.”
Maybe it was my tone, or merely the fact that I directly asked for help. Whatever it was, he immediately freezes and looks alarmed. “What is it? What’s wrong?” He rushes to my side.
“I took a couple of good hits down there….in the mine, and I can’t clean and bind the one on my back. The ones across the front I could probably handle, but I can’t reach the one behind me and I think it’s still bleeding.”
He looks alarmed and leans to inspect my back. “Lily, oh…Lily. I didn’t realize. We need to get you in the tent.”
[Game note: In the mine, the encounters with the Crickets had left me with only a handful of HP. I could not go another round. You know that sick feeling when you realize that you don’t have enough hit points to survive minimum damage…..that’s where I was. Even after 2 potions of healing I would still be considered ‘bloodied’ and I had exhausted all my healing spells during the fight.]
Whatever he sees it must be bad because his manner is all business. He helps me up, which is sweet, and leads me inside. “What did this again? One of their thrown things.”
Nodding, “Yeah. I was taking out one and another hit me from behind. I tried to just leave it in there, you know like you do with a knife to keep the bleeding down? But It hurt too bad when I moved and my coat would tug it, so I had to get it out.”
“How did you do that? It’s in the middle of your back.” He asks as he’s helping me to carefully remove my coat.
“Used my bow, hooked it and jerked it out. Hurt like hell.” Now that my coat is off I can feel the wetness of my blood, saturating my armor and clothes.
He let’s out a low whistle at the sight. “I need to heat up some water on the fire to clean it up. Do you still have those tins of salve you use?” I nod in response. “OK, I’ll grab your pack too….I think I’m going to need to sew this closed.” I feel the blood drain from my face, recalling how it felt when Bathilda had to sew up my grizzly bear wounds. Lex picks up on my silent panic, “It will be OK, don’t worry.”
When he returns with my pack I pull out the first aid tins I replenished at the garrison. As I do that he’s setting up stuff from his kit: needle, thread, gauze, bandages. He adds the tins as I hand them over. I dig through my coat until I find my flask, open it and take a huge swig of whiskey. I know what’s coming and I’m terrified in a whole new way. I am covered in healing and healed scars; marks from battle. No one has seen this before, not even my family. When I left home I wasn’t like this. Even I was surprised at the map of violence on my skin when I caught sight of it in the mirror of my room at the Dancing Bear. There are a lot more now than there were then. And this man is going to see them all.
“You’re going to need to take off your shirt.” I hear quietly behind me. I look at him.…and take another huge drink. “Your shirt and armor are soaked with blood and I have to clean and sew up the wound.”
Silently, I nod my acceptance and purse my lips to express my displeasure as I turn away from him and start loosening the ties on my tunic. But pulling it over my head becomes problematic, the pain flaring when I try to lift my arms; I hiss at the intensity of it.
“Here, let me help.” Lex gingerly takes my shirt from the bottom and tries to lift it off without hurting me too much. Every time I flinch or wince he slows or stops his movements until I urge him on. Once the shirt is removed there is my dwarven chainmail. After that is my undershirt. I glance at my shirt on the ground, it is saturated with blood on the back. That’s going in the fire.
“This chainmail isn’t ‘of Ratik’.” Lex states curiously. “It’s beautiful.” He is lifting the edge of my sleeve and inspecting the intricate tiny loops. If you had to compare my current chain to our military issue you would find this one’s links outnumber our normal chain 3 to 1 at least. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when you see it; when it’s protecting you.
“It’s dwarven. I got it at Hausen Hold.”
“They gave you armor? This armor? That’s generous.” He starts lifting it off of me, which I’m thankful for, I discover the less I have to move the better.
“They said that they would repair my old armor, my military issue. So I took it to their blacksmith, Klob, and he…….well, it kind of offended him. So he made me this new one.”
“Oh really? Ratik armor offended him?” I hear an annoyed tone in Lex’s voice. I can’t help but smile. The conversation is distracting me from the pain and embarrassment, so that’s helpful.
“No, I think it was specifically my armor that offended him. I had a run-in with a goblin raiding party at Artus compound, some wolves before that, and a grizzly bear…..oh yeah, and my sleeve had disintegrated from acid. So by the time he saw it there were huge slashes and tears that had been repaired with random bits of metal, pot handles, spatula, parts of a hoe; whatever we could scrounge up at Artus. That’s what offended him I think. That I was wearing that as armor.”
As I’ve been talking Lex has helped me out of my last layer, my undershirt. Instinctively, I cover my chest with my hands and arm, but I feel especially exposed, specifically all the scars. I find that I’m curling into myself in shame.
To his credit he hasn’t said a word about it, just began cleaning the wounds, all business. But here, at this moment, he stops completely and leans around to look me in the face. “You mean to tell me you were using bits of farm equipment and cookpot handles to repair your armor?” I nod. “Well, yeah…seeing as he was a dwarven blacksmith I bet that would be offensive.” He starts back to work. I hear a quiet snicker but before I can get too self-conscious over it I hear him mutter “pot handles”.
“Wait a minute, why had your sleeve dissolved from acid. What was that?” He has finished sewing my back and is placing a bandage over it.
“I fell into a lair/trap of a ground locust on my way to the hold. It spits acid.” I answer as plainly as if we were discussing the weather.
“Ground locusts are real!” He exclaims and looks into my eyes again for verification. “I thought those were just wives tales that they use to scare us when we were kids.”
“I know, right! I thought the same thing until I was looking one in the face. Nope, those things are real.” He shakes his head in surprise and goes back to patching me up.
“I think these wounds in the front won’t need sewing. I just need to clean them and put the salve on so they won’t get infected.” He hesitates and looks me in the eye, asking permission. “OK?”
I nod, keep my boobs covered with my hands and arms as well as I can, while he administers first aid on my sides and stomach. I watch to see if his eyes stray or if he seems put off by all of my old wounds, but there is no sign of either thing. He is, what can only be described as, professional. Once he finishes the front, he goes behind me, I feel him prod the bandage on my back. He must be pleased because he stands and says, “I’ll clean up this stuff and go back to making dinner. If you need any help, or if you find anymore wounds…..call me.” Then he leaves me alone to dress.
I dig out another undershirt and regular shirt. For now I’m leaving the chain off. I need to clean and oil it and frankly, it feels nice to have the weight off of me for a bit. I move out of the tent carrying my chainmail and my little stewpot. Scooping some snow into it I set it by the fire to melt. Lex is currently chopping some branches off the fallen tree I was sitting on. The snow melts quickly and I start using the warmed water to clean my gear. I have time to do it before dinner is ready.
“How long will it take them to get here?” I ask Lex as he returns with more wood. My trek to the mine was a roundabout one, I don’t know how long it is straight from the garrison.
At first he looks confused, then realizes I’m talking about his troops. “At the warrior’s pace, about four days. They will probably arrive the day after tomorrow.”
“That will give us time to burn those bodies and make sure nothing comes back.” He nods in agreement.
“So….the tree?” Hope he didn’t think I forgot about that.
“Can we talk about something else?” He asks wistfully.
I continue to clean my chain mail, my sword is next, and act as though I’m thinking it over. Which I am not. “Nope, I want to talk about the tree. Specifically, you hanging upside down in it.” And then I smile… a real big smile.
“I came to rescue you.” He mutters to the stack of wood.
“I remember you mentioned that before. Right after you scared me to death.”
He takes a deep breath and starts his explanation. “You see, when you’re using one of those scrolls, you have to picture the place you’re wanting to go in your mind and then say the words on the scroll. I have never been out here, so I studied the map in my office….”
“Oh, my god. So your visualization was….. from above!” I stop everything when it hits me. “How far did you fall?”
“It was pretty high up actually. Luckily I smacked into a few limbs to slow down. And then the rope tangled…..that slowed me down.” He shrugs. “It was….it was not something I recommend doing.”
“No shit! I’m amazed you’re sitting here alive. Forget the fact there were deadly Cricket creatures running about….I mean…compared to ‘falling from the sky’ they are small potatoes.” I shake my head in amazement and go back to my task. After a few more minutes, “You would risk that…..try that….for me?”
“Yeah,” he nods as he stirs our dinner. “I really didn’t want you to die out here alone.”
“I guess we are even now.” He looks at me quizzically. “I saved you from them and now you’ve saved me.” I speak to him with a flourished fake accent, “You are no longer beholden to me young sir, you are released from your life debt to continue your journey in peace.” And then I bow, and hiss and cringe from pain.
“Serves you right smarty pants.” He mutters. “Dinner’s ready.”
Setting down my gear I grab up the offered bowl of stew and fill my mug with warm tea. “Thank you for making this,” and more quietly, “and for saving me.” He just grins and nods.
“So, tell me about this Spring Festival.” I try to change the topic and he gladly complies. We spend dinner discussing what is traditionally planned and expected. Being from Marner (him) and me from a valley nearby, neither of us has experienced a true Spring or Fall Festival. It sounds like it’s quite an event for the country-side. Before long all the food is consumed and it is fully dark. I’m exhausted and he is too, although we both have a nervous energy around us.
Lex rinses our empty bowls and asks, “Do you think we should have watches tonight?”
I’ve been thinking the same thing. Haven’t been without my weapons since he got me out of the mine. “I’m thinking we might have got them all. I know they’re vicious and I think a little vengeful. If there was one left in the woods, he would have come at us by now. I’m willing to take the risk, just to get a solid night sleep.”
“Me too” he concurs.
Retiring into the tent we say goodnight rather awkwardly and fall asleep in our bedrolls. Right before I finally doze off I realize that we discussed everything of importance. Everything, that is, but the kiss.
Lex is already up, making breakfast by the time I wake. I hear him outside and smell coffee. Moving slowly, I test my wounds. They are much, much better. Still a bit achy but I don’t have any worries about renewed bleeding. I find my armor and put it back on under my shirt.
Stepping outside, I’m greeted with a warm fire, and a dazzling smile. “Good morning sleepyhead!”
“You let me sleep in.” I mutter accusingly as I reach for the coffeepot.
“Of course I did….ah, ah, ah.” He removes the coffeepot from my hand. “Not for you.” Before I can protest he produces my teapot, that was warming in the coals. “I remembered this time.” He pours me a cup of tea. “Hope you don’t mind I got it from your pack.” I shake my head no.
The tea is perfectly strong and hot, warming my hands as I hold my mug. “What’s for breakfast?”
He smiles, “Oatmeal with brown sugar, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Hope that’s OK. Didn’t bring any eggs.”
“If you had they would have broken.” He nods and makes a face like he doesn’t want to be reminded.
“Are you leaving today?” Lex asks. He already looks both disappointed and resigned, I haven’t even answered yet.
“Actually, no.” he perks up at my response. “We need to burn those bodies,” I look and see that the mine is still smoking, “and monitor that.” I leave out the part that I am still sworn to protect the royal family and leaving him alone here in the middle of nowhere is not really doing my duty. If something were to happen after I left…..
He nods with my assessment, “I was thinking of sending some men down there to make sure it’s all burned out before we leave.”
“Don’t want to go down there yourself, huh?” I tease. He looks guilty and shakes his head no. “Yeah, me neither. Sometimes rank really does have it’s privileges.” We both laugh at that and agree.
“So, how about this, we pile up the bodies that are out here and burn them by the mine. Then I’ll hunt us up something for dinner and you can make it.” I suggest.
“Why do I have to make dinner? I made dinner last night. I can do the hunting and you can make dinner.” He counters. I know he’s just being contrary. I can tell by his playful expression.
“Well, that is true. I do have a full stock of rations. I can make us dinner like I did the first time we met. That’s perfect.”
He narrows his eyes, “I remember that mush you called food. You might just have to branch out and cook something I catch or kill for dinner.”
“Rations it is, then.” I state definitely.
“Hey! That’s not fair. You’ve never seen me hunt in a forest-“
“I’ve never seen you be stealthy or remotely quiet in a forest either. Perhaps those things are related? Anyway, how do you plan on sneaking up on game and killing it with your….sword? Don’t even think about using my bow.” I raise my eyebrows and grin smugly. He is so fun to tease.
“That’s not…ok well….maybe.” his shoulders slump a little. “You hunt it and I’ll cook it.”
“Let’s take care of those Crickets first.” He nods his agreement.
After breakfast, we gather the bodies. It takes an hour or so to drag them together and cut enough wood to make a pyre. I point out their pouches and what I’d found on the others. He takes a couple of the throwing stars for his report, evidence. As we watch them catch fire and burn Lex takes the opportunity to ask how I found them. I tell him about going back to Bob’s body and circled out to figure out how they moved. How I tracked the elk, the Edwards cabin, and the Hawthorne Settlement. Once the fire is doing it’s thing I say, “Come with me, I’ll show you their tracks.” Lex seems really curious to learn and agrees wholeheartedly.
We circumvent the area I know has tracks so that we don’t disturb the snow. I find ‘tree-sign’ and stop just far enough away so he can make it out. “If you look there, you can see where they knocked snow off the branch. And then you can see the slight scratch on the trunk where it reached out with its claw.” I move us forward a few paces, “And there is where he landed between trees. Eventually, you can predict where they will land and jump and it makes it easier. You get a rhythm.” I look ahead and find the next tree it jumped to, “See. There is the next one he went to. They hunted a lot in this part of the forest, so their signs are everywhere.”
Lex is looking all around us. He has seen what I’m talking about but he’s also not trained to see and track like a Ranger. He shakes his head and looks at me, “That is pretty amazing. I’m not sure I could’ve ever figured that out.”
“Well, if you had been trained to do it you probably could. I mean, it’s not your fault you went into the cavalry and are therefore insufficiently trained to do much more than ride a horse…..” He catches the amused twinkle in my eye.
“Shall we discuss animal handling? Horsemanship? Riding?” Lex replies with an equal amount of amusement.
“No, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say.” He snickers.
I have my bow, quiver and sword with me so I suggest that I start hunting from here. He agrees and goes back towards camp. I begin circling around this area, just to make sure nothing has changed. I see no new Cricket tracks anywhere. After several hours of looking I finally start to relax. Remembering where I had last seen fresh animal tracks I swing north in the forest. Not long after I find several game trails. [medium percentage roll] I am able to follow a trail [perception success] and get two good sized hares for dinner. It only takes a couple of minutes to field dress them and I’m back at camp shortly after.
I’m met with, “I was getting worried.”
“Tried to be quick. Searched where I last saw the Crickets, just making sure….and yes, no new sign. Then it took awhile to find some game, thanks to them.” I try not to be glib, but not apologetic either.
“I thought that was the case, but still-“ when he looks at me I just shrug. There’s nothing more to say about it. So I hold out the hares.
“Nice. They’ll be great. You do realize that if I wanted I could have tracked down these two and stabbed them with my sword.” He grins.
“Oh absolutely, in fact, I bet you wouldn’t even have to track them. You could just charm them into throwing themselves on your sword with pretty words and sweet smiles.”
“You think I’m charming with pretty words and sweet smiles?” He asks.
“No, I think you scare the hell out of me by hanging upside down from trees in highly dangerous territory.”
“You did look pretty startled. Man, you were down on the ground and up with a sword in no time.” He chuckles.
We continue to banter back and forth until dinner is ready. It is as delicious this time as it was the first time I had it and I take the opportunity to remind him that it was this exact dish that outed him as the prince to me.
Tonight as we eat by the fire he sits much closer to me. We share the last of my whiskey. He is nervous and flirty, and I notice him glance at the tent and then give me a look and then leans in……
I lean back, “What, exactly, is your plan here?”
He looks a little stunned, “Well, I thought you and me….”
Narrowing my eyes, “I am not just another notch on your headboard.”
The mood is killed. “I do not have notches on my headboard.”
“OK, fine, headboard, swordbelt, whatever. I am not a notch.”
“I never said you were. Why would you think that? What about me makes you think that?”
“Well, because you’re the prince. And I’m nobody. I’m just…I’m just a farmer’s daughter who is a ranger. You are meant for better than me. We-” I gesture back and forth between us, “-aren’t meant to be. And I’m not just going to be someone you play around with until it’s time for you to move on. I deserve better.”
He looks hurt. And mad. “First of all, Miss Kodel. You can drop the farmer’s daughter act. I know you are Lilykai Kodel, daughter to Thanos Kodel of Kodel Wines. I know your family’s estate is a couple hours from the capital with a sprawling vineyard. I do believe the proper term for what you are is actually…..heiress.”
“I am not an heiress.”
“Your family’s estate is very well established, and is one of the premier wineries in all of Ratik.”
I look appropriately humbled and start to retort but he holds his hand up and continues, “And even if you weren’t the daughter of a highly esteemed and wealthy winemaker, it is up to me to decide who is worthy of my attentions, regardless of their upbringing. And for your information…” at this point his voice gets a little harder, “I have no notches on belts, or bedposts, or anywhere. How could you think that of me?” He is hurt and mad all at once.
“Because you are….you know. And Baron Mordecai is your uncle and I have heard plenty of stories about Moredcai and Eldiss from when I was supposed to be in bed and snuck downstairs anyway. And he’s a role model for you! You want to be like him, you’ve said it.-“
“In the military, not the bedroom. Lily, I think you’re the one who thinks she’s too good. You’re the one who has these notions about me not being worthy of you!”
This conversation is not going the well. “Look, I’m just saying….. I just don’t want…..” How do you tell someone that you really like them, but you’re afraid of getting hurt. I wish I knew. “OK, let me ask you this. Do you actually want to date me, or do you just want to sleep with me and be done with it. I just want to know which it is. One night stand, or a relationship.”
He still seems mad, but looks deep in my eyes and says, “I want a relationship.”
I release the breath I was holding. “OK, if you want a relationship, a real relationship…..you have to ask my father’s permission to date me.”
He’s stunned. “Look, I’m not asking you to marry me-“
That was not the thing to say, and my crossed arms and the expression on my face relays that to him quite well.
“No, no…I mean….I’m not asking that right now. I just want to….” He’s unsure now how to progress.
“You just want to sleep with me and be done with it. I understand.” It figures, I’m starting to move away. I feel the disappointment collecting in my heart, in my gut. I turn and stand to leave.
He grabs my shoulders and spins me back around, holding me. “That is not what I was going to say….or do. I will write your father, I will ask his permission. I will do whatever you ask. You are worth it. But my question is, am I? Is this something you want to do with me…date me….have a relationship. Even though I am a prince?”
The intensity of his eyes, his words. His hold on me, our closeness. All these things work to take my breath away, and as a result my answer is a whispered, “yes.”
The kissing begins.