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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
This is a "hurt/comfort" story and as such contains scenes that depict violence and its aftermath. If you find such scenes disturbing, please be warned. It is not my intent to offend anyone.
It would be raining soon. The forest was cloaked in a gray mist so heavy that beads of water dripped from the veined leaves on the trees like tears on an old man's cheek. The last bridge they'd crossed had been almost impassable. Yesterday's rainstorm had beat down with such ferocity that the river had risen as if in resentment and the wooden bridge had almost disappeared beneath its surface. Xena pulled her cape tight around her shoulders and bent forward to stroke Argo's neck. Only a few more miles, she promised. Once we're over the next bridge the journey will be easier. Only a few more miles.
With no one but Argo as witness, Xena bent over in the saddle, her shoulders hunched against the wind, her head down. The rocking motion of Argo's progress, the rhythmic sound of her hooves lulled her and Xena's thoughts strayed from the path before her. Here in the forest, the mists swirling, it seemed almost as if she were in a dream and would awaken to find the embers of a campfire crackling and Gabrielle sleeping a few feet away. Many a night she had awakened from fitful sleep to such a sight and been comforted by it.
But this was no dream and Gabrielle was nowhere near. When they had first heard of the bardic competition in Corinth the younger woman's eyes had sparkled with an excitement that had been rare since the death of Perdicas. Willingly and without comment, Xena had turned their path toward the city and listened while Gabrielle reviewed the dozens of stories she knew and the dozens more of her own composition. The young woman sat by the campfire, scribbling on parchment late into the night, polishing her verse, revising, refining, and if Xena chose to make camp a little earlier than usual or rested in her bedroll a little longer after dawn, Gabrielle merely smiled to herself and made no mention of it. The warrior was silent as ever, offering comments only when asked.
And so the bard was taken by surprise when, two days from the city gates, Xena had announced that here they would part, that she would venture alone to a remote village said to be threatened by wild beasts. Gabrielle's' eyes, always the mirror to her heart, were filled with disappointment and hurt. But Xena would not change her mind. For not so long ago she had passed this road with an army by her side, and the dust of the path had been stained with blood as the Warrior Princess laid siege to the city. She would not walk this way again so soon. Not for fear or shame - she had been spat upon before and surely would be many times again. But she was determined that her friend should win or lose by the merits of her own achievements and should not be judged by the company she kept.
And so they had agreed to meet at an inn in a week's time and had parted. Xena's mission had turned out to be a fruitless one for the wild monster had been only an aged boar, desperate with pain and fear, who had been dispatched by hunters the day before Xena's arrival. All she would accomplish was the long and lonely trip back to the inn.
Xena smiled to herself and tucked her chin further into the edges of her cape. There was a tiny shock of recognition as she acknowledged that word. Lonely. Perhaps that was part of her atonement, that loneliness. In the past she had conquered her feelings as surely as any village or rival warlord, had beaten them back as if they were armed warriors threatening her life and position, as in a way they were. There had been no thought of loneliness as she surrounded herself with an army of soldiers to do her bidding. There had been lovers too, sometimes chosen merely to lie between her and the ghosts who invaded her sleep, and if some had betrayed her, she knew that there was those she had betrayed as well.
But then there had been Marcus. Marcus with whom she had shared more than her bed, who had made her laugh, shared her fears, and knew her thoughts even before she knew them herself. She closed her eyes at the memory of him, felt warmed by it. If those in Elysia could hear the thoughts of those who loved them, he would be sharing those memories too. Argo tossed her head and Xena sat up, jolted from her reverie. That's what comes of traveling with a bard, she thought, focusing her attention on the road before her.
As she urged Argo on, her eyes caught a light in the distance and she wondered at a home so far from village and town. If the rains came and washed out the next bridge, it would be the only shelter for miles around. The small wooden house grew larger as she approached. The light she had seen was shining dimly in a small workshop or stable at the far end but the rest of the building was cloaked in the gray mists that seemed to rise from the very ground. She rode past, thinking how the dwelling itself seemed to blend into the mist, looking almost otherworldly in its isolation. Glancing at the roof and walls rooted to this desolate spot, she was glad that she and Argo would soon make their way to shelter and the warmth of a friend waiting to greet them.
Just one more bridge to cross.
A light rain started to fall as the river came into view. Xena felt the wetness on her face and cursed softly to herself. From her vantage point atop Argo she could see that the level of the river had already risen even with the boards of the bridge and that soon neither she nor her horse would be able to gain a footing for the walk across. She dismounted and reins in hand, began to lead the golden mare to the river's edge.
But above the noise of the rushing water and the creaking of the bridge, there was another sound and her eyes narrowed as she turned to scan the trees beside them. One by one, four men emerged and approached her. They were a raggedy lot and Xena judged from their movements that they had drunk more than a little wine to warm themselves in the rain.
"Can't let you pass until you pay the toll." The oldest one leered at her, waving a small pouch in the air while the others circled behind him. They laughed and congratulated themselves on their good fortune. A woman alone, unprotected. At the very least, her horse would command a good price.
"Think again, Boys. You don't want to do this." Her voice was low and husky and instead of drawing back in fear, she brought herself up to her full height. She seemed irritated, rather than afraid, and some of the men became apprehensive, grasping their weapons tighter than before. The youngest one held back while the leader drew his sword and swaggered up to her.
"I don't have time for this," Xena thought and with a single movement, she pushed her cape over her shoulder and reached for the sword in its scabbard at her back. She brought its hilt down on the side of his head and he crumpled to the ground. With a shout the others rushed forward and Xena spun around, anxious to end this scuffle. She brought one to his knees with a kick to his midsection and cut across the sword arm of another when he ventured too close to Argo. The last man cursed and rushed her blindly, moved more by fear and the drink than by anger. It was harder to ward off a drunken foe than a skilled one, Xena knew, for one could anticipate the moves of a seasoned fighter. But a drunken lout was likely to do anything.
She caught a glimpse of the youngest man fleeing into the woods before her sword clashed with that of her last opponent. She heard a shout behind her and suddenly she was pulled off balance, as one of the men on the ground grasped the hem of her cloak and yanked it. She felt the cut of a sword's blade on her leg as she fell to her knees and before she could rise, one of the men lunged forward, the dagger in his hand aimed for her heart.
But Xena dodged and instead the cold metal sank into the side of her throat. She gasped with surprise and then with pain, as she fell to the ground and the two men walked away. She shook her head to clear her vision and saw them reach for Argo. She stumbled to her feet and with a fury that would have shaken the gods themselves, she reached for her chakram and threw it. The weapon responded as if only awaiting her command and quicker than the eye could see, her attackers lay dead at the feet of the golden mare while the weapon returned to her hand in one lethal circuit.
The youngest robber crouched in the bushes and watched in amazement. At first he thought she must surely be a god or at the very least an immortal. But those from Olympus could feel no pain and this woman was hurt, badly hurt. She fought like a demon though, and he felt no desire for a closer look. She lay on the ground now, grasping the round weapon. If I just wait, he thought, she will fall into unconsciousness or death. Time enough to snatch the killing ring and sell it to a weapons dealer. It would fetch a fine sum, for he had never seen the like of it. A weapon that could be thrown like a lance but came back to be thrown again. A army would be almost invincible with such a thing. All he had to do was wait...
But his plan seemed doomed, for as he watched, one of his fellow revelers rose from the ground and approached the wounded woman, ready to grab the prize and finish her off. Suddenly the woman's mount was beside her and with a angry snort it pawed the ground in warning, standing guard over her fallen body like a sentinel. When the robber raised his sword, the horse reared and as fearless as its master and easily as deadly, it brought its hooves down on the attacker, hurtling his now lifeless body across the clearing to land at the water's edge.
Then as the man in the bushes watched, the golden mare gently nudged the woman with its nose and stepped back as she struggled to rise. Without signal or command, it knelt beside the woman, bending its neck almost to the ground until she could reach up and pull herself onto its back. It was as if the horse and she were partners and for now it would take charge as she could not. She half sat, half lay on its back, clinging to its mane, barely conscious. Slowly, so as not to disturb its precious cargo, the mare turned back on the path away from the riverbank and disappeared into the forest mists.
Sandor lifted the heavy beam effortlessly and laid it on the worktable before him. Slowly he passed his blunt fingertips across the surface of the wood and studied the graceful curves of the woodgrain. It was a beautiful piece and he smiled to himself as he envisioned his designs carved into its swirls. There was life in wood, even after the axe had separated it from the earth. The grain marked its growth, the path its life-force had taken as it transformed light and air into substance and Sandor knew that no matter how many times he would carve a design, each piece he carved would have a life of its own, a strength or grace that his art would enhance but never deny. Even the coarsest plank would reveal its beauty to him as he sanded and polished it, oiled and caressed it until it glowed in the lamplight. While other woodcarvers would bend and gouge any material to suit their needs, Sandor chose his art and his wood to complement one another so that each was made more lovely by the union.
The rain was beating against the roof now and clouds had darkened the sky. Sandor tightened the belt around his tunic. It was cold and damp and the sound of distant thunder made the workshop less hospitable than it had been just hours before. He turned up his collar and closed the door behind him, bending into the wind and rain, making his way back to the house and the comforts of a warm meal and a blazing fire.
But he sensed another presence in the yard and turning, he saw the massive palomino emerge from the trees, spectral and silent. It paused and fixed him with its eyes, waiting for him to come near, willing him to help. Sandor reached for the reins that hung loosely down and murmuring softly, he began to lead the horse to a stall behind his workshop. There he realized that the horse was not alone, that its rider clung flat against her neck, covered by a dark and wet cloak. Horse and rider seemed to have melted into one another in the heavy downpour. He reached up to give aid and the horse's head bowed in acquiescence.
"It's all right, girl. I've got him now." Sandor lifted the unconscious rider from the saddle and was startled as the cloak fell away to reveal a woman's face, even more shocked by the hilt of a dagger arising from the column of her throat. She was alive but Sandor's heart raced as he carried her into his home. He felt her stirring in his arms and gently lay her on the oversized bed before the fire.
Her eyes had fluttered open and she tried to sit up as he released his hold on her. He put his hand on her shoulder and spoke softly. "You'd better lie still. My name is Sandor and I'll do what I can to help you. Please don't be frightened when I light the lamp. I mean you no harm, I swear. But sometimes I take a little getting used to."
Xena lay back against the pillow and shut her eyes as the pain threatened to pull her back into darkness. When she opened them again, Sandor had placed a healing pouch on the bed beside her and held the lamp above her body. She needed to focus, to push away the pain, and so she studied his face in the flickering lamplight. Small wonder he had warned her of his appearance, for fire had ravaged his face and the scars that covered his features were like leather that pulled and stretched his cheek and brow downward. It looked as if his face had liquefied in the dreadful heat and the scars went on to cover his neck and what she could see of his shoulder. He turned to her and she saw that the right half of his face had been spared. There was the reminder of the man who had been and the symmetry of his features, the finely chiseled cheek and jaw, made his disfigurement even more jarring.
He smiled, a odd contortion of his face. The scarred tissue was still, empty of expression, while the rest of his face showed his concern. "I don't get much company this far away from town. And I love to talk, so beware. Soon your ears will hurt more than anything else and you'll leap on that beautiful horse of yours and gallop away just to be rid of me." He bent over her leg as he spoke and swiftly and surely he began to clean and dress her wound. Aside from an involuntary tremor as he poured brandy over the cut, she lay still as he stitched the gash and wrapped her thigh in strips of clean soft cloth. She had lost a lot of blood but it was a clean cut and would heal well.
All the while he kept talking, partly perhaps to amuse himself but more likely to reassure her. His voice was deep, a fit match for his size, for Sandor was a formidable presence. He was well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and powerful arms. He was clean shaven, for Xena knew that a beard would not grow where fire had done its damage. But it was his eyes that held her gaze. They were deep brown with lashes any woman would envy and they flashed with energy and compassion as he emptied the pouch for more supplies. It was as if his spirit were hidden behind his half dead countenance and could only peek now and then through the windows of his soul.
Finished now with her leg wound, Sandor moved the lamp closer to her head and examined her neck and the dagger there. There was little blood and the hilt seemed firmly embedded. He hesitated for a moment. He was familiar with cuts and sword wounds from his time in Troy but he was unsure of how to deal with a puncture such as this. So far she was breathing regularly, although she had made no sound at all since her arrival. He knew that he should pull it out swiftly and straight or else he would do more damage than already had been done. The slightest movement left or right could end her life. He had seen soldiers who had bled to death from such neck wounds and he feared that he would do what her attackers had not. He took a deep breath and prayed to the gods that he would make no mistake and that she would not see his fear.
To his surprise, she raised her hand just inches away from the dagger and gestured for him to pause. He watched as she closed her fingers and fanned them out again, once , twice, before her arm fell back beside her. Her eyes sought his and he nodded. "I will be ready for that," he promised as he arranged more compresses beside her pillow. He tried to calm himself as he realized that she sensed his unease and had nonetheless placed her trust in him.
Slowly, carefully, he propped her head on the pillow, his rough fingertips brushing her wet hair away from her face with a gentle touch. "I'm sorry I don't have anything for the pain." He added, "But I'm a woodcarver and I have many of these. Maybe one can help you through this." He pulled a clean polished piece of wood from his tunic pocket, and offered it to her to bite down upon. He had seen others bite their tongues in their agony and he hoped to spare her that much. To his chagrin, she shook her head slightly in refusal.
"Believe me, it's not that I doubt your courage. It's for my own protection. That way you won't be able to bite me if you get mad when I'm too clumsy. " His touch belied his words as he sat on the bed beside her, ready to begin. His tone of voice was more serious, softer as he added, "Please."
This time she nodded and he placed the peg in her mouth and she bit down on it. She nodded again, calmly, and he watched as she braced herself for his next move. With one sure motion he pulled the dagger from her throat as the blood spurted in an arc toward his face. He held a compress to the wound and stared as it soaked through immediately. He reached for another and suddenly the flow ebbed as she moved her hand and pressed her fingers near the hollow at the base of her throat. Quickly he cleaned and stitched the wound, grateful for her help. He bent over her neck, making his stitches as small and as neat as possible, not noticing when her hand fell to her side. In moments he was done and he turned to her in relief and satisfaction.
But now she lay still, unconscious. She had made no sound throughout and her only movement had been to stem the bleeding as he worked. A most remarkable woman, he thought. Sandor rose from her side. He must heat some water. His patient must be bathed and made comfortable and the bloody bedclothes cleaned and dried before the fire. Slowly he pulled the rough blanket away from her body. There was a sound and Sandor looked downward. There on the floor lay the polished peg, bitten almost in two. He shook his head. A most remarkable woman.
She heard the rumble. Like a drumbeat of an enemy force, it was steady and distant. She felt the beat of it like a pulse, and it echoed in the very fiber of her body. The sound of it grew louder, filled her ears and she struggled to listen, to understand, to decipher its language and ready herself for its coming. Not a drumbeat, not as measured as that. It grew louder, taunting her. The wheels of a fully loaded war wagon would rumble so. So would the sound of horses' hooves, pounding at once, together, bearing warriors to challenge her own troops. Or the Centaurs. It had to be the Centaurs' attack. But Borias had gone and the child she carried, his child, was already struggling to be born. With no one left to lead, they would all be slaughtered.
The noise surrounded her, gathered itself together like a fist and exploded in her ears. She tried to hold back the cry that swelled in her chest and instead there was only an eerie gasp that ripped along the sides of her throat and made a noise like a sword drawn across a rock. She was enclosed in a bright light that burned and she knew the taste of blood on her tongue......
"Just a little thunder and lightning, my friend." Sandor's voice was close by her side and she felt his hands on her shoulders, holding her down, holding her still. He sat on a chair only a few feet away, and though the lamp was turned down low, she could see his face. He smiled at her and adjusted the blanket near her chin. "You didn't sleep very long. You'll need to rest so that you can heal. From the sound of it, maybe it's best you don't try to speak right away. Don't worry. I'll do the talking for the both of us. I can do that, you know. I have much conversation stored up and you're a captive audience."
He held a cup of water to her lips. "Here. You must be thirsty." He poured only a few drops into her mouth and felt her tremble as she tried unsuccessfully to drink. Quickly he grabbed a wooden basin from the bedtable and held it for her but she pushed it away and forced herself to swallow. "Good. That's enough for now. A little more later."
She lay back and looked around her. He had removed her armor and dressed her in one of his own tunics, so large that it could serve as a nightshirt and there was a clean soft bandage around her throat to match the one on her leg. The bedclothes smelled of cedar, as if they had been stored for some time, and her head was propped up on a huge feather pillow. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious but the darkness outside the window showed it to be night rather than early evening.
Sandor looked at the woman lying in his bed and wondered what forces had brought her to him. It had been a long time, months, since he had seen anyone at all. He longed for company but knew it to be a rare prize. Back in the village there had been those who stared and gawked, those who made remarks when he was barely out of hearing and those who shuddered and turned away quickly as if fearing that the same plight might affect them if they came too close. All in all, it had been easier to move here, far away from others, and to do his work in peace.
But this strange woman had shown no such response. Even in her suffering, she had not drawn back in fear or disgust. Her eyes had taken the measure of him in seconds and accepted him. He looked into her eyes, mesmerized. They were blue like the ocean he had once crossed and seemed now in the lamplight to be at least as deep. Many nights he had leaned over the rail of the boat that bore him to Troy and looked into the sea, hoping it would yield the answers to his fears and doubts. He had felt its power, admired its beauty but the sea had given no answers, no promises.
She lay still and then closed her eyes. Her jaw was set in a determined line and reminded Sandor of the faces of his wartime comrades. On the eve of battle, the younger men, the boys seeking adventure, would be seized with fear, even weeping, while the older veterans set to the task of readying their weapons. Even when the seasoned fighters were hurt in battle, when even the deathblow had been struck, there was no sign of fear betrayed on their faces or in their eyes. Instead, Sandor had seen them accept their wounds and even the possibility of death as part of who they were and how they would conduct themselves. There had been the will to survive but also a grace and courage to face death if that were to be so. This mysterious woman had the same grace and courage as they.
He bent forward. "Well, if you won't sleep, then we should pass the time getting acquainted. My name is Sandor, born in Thrace with a comely face." He smiled as she turned her gaze to him, her eyes warm. "Well, maybe not all that comely, but at least both sides matched." He pointed to the scars and continued. "A souvenir from Troy. When Menelaus' recruiters came to my village, they grabbed the biggest, tallest men they could find. Never mind that I had never put my knife into anything but oak or ash. Suddenly I was a soldier. And not a very good one, I might add."
The thunder seemed to crack above their very heads, drowning Sandor's words in its crash. He held the cup to her lips once again but she managed only a few drops before turning her head away. Lightning illuminated the darkened room and for one brief moment he saw the pain flash across her face. But then she seemed to rein it in and her eyes sought his as she nodded, encouraging him to continue, as if the sound of his voice were a bulwark against it.
"Judging from your armor and weapons, I'd say you're much more of a warrior than I ever was." He gestured toward the weapons piled on the floor beside the bed and she seemed to take comfort in the sight of them. "I'd bet that whoever attacked you has reason to regret it tonight." If they're alive at all, he added to himself. There had been blood on her sword and on the metal ring that had hung on her saddle horn and Sandor struggled to reconcile the signs of violence with the still and silent woman lying beside him.
"You'd think the Trojans would have figured out that I wasn't much of a threat to them. Maybe they'd heard reports about my tendency to chatter. Not everyone appreciates my conversation as much as you do, it seems. When my comrades and I tried to scale their walls for a visit, they poured hot oil on our heads to discourage the idea and I of course was first in line. A habit left over from dinnertime."
He tried to keep his voice light but the memory of it was harsh and hurtful. When their eyes met again, she looked at him with sympathy and understanding, like one who knew the horrors of war. She gave him a weak, lop sided smile and he went on. "Maybe I was luckier than some. All I lost was a half a face but at least I made it back to Greece again. Lucky for you too, or else I wouldn't be here to offer you the comforts of my home and hearth."
But then with a suddenness that brought Sandor to his feet, she sat upright with a strangled sound and her hands grasped the blanket at the sides of her body, clutching it in a death grip. Her eyes widened in shock and Sandor realized that she could not breathe. In horror he watched as she reared backward, her head just missing the heavy carved headboard by less than a finger's width in her desperate struggle for air.
Her movements were as much a danger to her life as her wounds and with an agility he did not know he possessed, Sandor leaped behind her, placing himself between her anguished body and the solid wood behind them. Swiftly he wrapped his body around hers in a frantic effort to protect her. With one hand he scooped up the wooden basin and held it before her, his chest supporting her back, and with the other, he cupped her forehead, trying to still her frenzied movements. But she pushed his hand away, struggling to be free, and instead Sandor wrapped his powerful arm around her body, holding her to him.
And then she reared backward once more and her shoulders slammed against his chest with a force he would not have thought possible in a woman and in few men. Before he could think, he tightened his grasp around her body and released it again in less than a second. Sandor knew his own strength, knew how easy it was for one so powerful to do harm without intent. He almost cried out as he let go, afraid that he had broken her ribs and killed her as surely as any bandit or highwayman. He cursed himself for his carelessness as he felt her shudder in his arms.
But he had done her no harm. Rather the force of his embrace had given her release and she rocked forward violently, bent over the basin he still held and expelled the blood and tissue that had stopped her life's breath. She could breathe now and there was a ghastly sound, neither gasp nor moan, as she took in the air she needed. Unable to cry out, she made a strange primal noise, a visceral reaction separate from her conscious will and intent, as she retched again and again. But her body shook with the pain of it and her fingers dug into his arm as she bent over the basin. He felt the burning as her hands gripped him and it was as if he shared her pain, as if it flowed from one to the other, and in his mind it became a fiery link between them.
Thunder filled the air around them but still he heard each breath, labored, ragged, as she struggled to force air through her raw and tortured throat. It seemed to Sandor that her agony would never end. He pressed his cheek to her back, wishing he could impart the strength from his body into her own and held onto her until her grasp became weaker and her body began to sway and tremble. Sandor shook his head, certain that death would surely claim her now. Silently he prayed to the gods that if they chose to take her, they would do so quickly and end her suffering. He felt her go limp and almost afraid to look, he put the bloody basin aside and laid her back in his arms.
In lightning's flash he saw her. Her eyes were closed, the blue of them hidden from him now, and her face was white. Not the white of a polished stone or mountain snow, but fishbelly white, almost blue or gray. Her face was streaked with sweat and her lips flecked with blood. Sandor thought that it would be only minutes now until she crossed over. He drew a rag from his tunic pocket and dipped it in the cup of water from which she had sipped. Softly he wiped her face and mouth with the cool, wet cloth and rocked her in his arms like a child.
He closed his eyes and remembered Troy. He had lain on the ground, his face on fire, beneath the ladder from which he had fallen and the battle had raged above and around him. He had tried to crawl to safety but the armies had run past him, trampling him into the ground in their rush to victory. When the fighting had ceased, when he no longer had the strength to speak or move, rough and impatient hands had grabbed him, dragged him away from the battlefield.
But just as his heart filled with thanks, he realized that they had dragged him to lie beside the burial pit among the dead and dying. Soon the lifeless forms would be rolled atop one another and set aflame before the stench of death could fill the air or animals tear them apart. He had been left to share their fate although the blood still flowed in his veins. He had been abandoned by his comrades, left to die alone and the despair and loneliness that gripped his very soul were as torturous and as scarring as the fire that had seared his body. He had survived the night, had found the strength to crawl away. But he would never forgive those who had given up on him, who had turned their backs on his suffering, who would have let him die in cold and silence.
He looked at the woman warrior and decided that he would not surrender her so easily. A woman with such courage and strength deserved better. Sandor wrapped his arms around her tightly and bent his head until his lips were inches away from her. In barely a whisper, he spoke. "Listen to my voice, my friend. Please, listen to me. I won't let you go. We'll see the dawn together, I promise. You can make it. Just listen to my voice. Let it lead you back."
Her lips parted as if she were about to speak but instead she opened her eyes and looked into Sandor's face. Her gaze was steady, calm now. Sandor looked into the depths of them and realized that she was no stranger to death, that she knew as well as he how slim the chances were that she would survive until morning. She had little strength left and her eyes were glassy with pain but slowly she raised her hand and brushed the backs of her fingers down his scarred cheek in thanks.
Sandor held her closer. He could hear the roughness of her breathing, knew that her ordeal was not over. She would bend over the basin again before the night was through, until the airway was clear or until she could move no more. There would be no sleep for her. To lie back would be to drown in her own blood.
And so all through the night, as the storm beat against the walls and roof, they sat in their desperate embrace. He held her steady each time she shuddered over the wooden basin and then pillowed her head against his shoulder as she rested. Finally she was through and with a sigh she turned her head to rest against his chest and slept. Sandor watched the morning light filter through the window and rested his cheek against her hair. He waited for a few moments and then closed his eyes. He had promised her they would see the dawn together. And so they had.
Callisto had shot her in the neck with a dart but her arms were lead weights by her sides and she could not stir to wrench it free. Her body ached as if she had run too far too fast, but her throat hurt most of all. Not like the last time when the poison had made her weak and dizzy. Now it burned in her throat and she could taste it like a copper coin in her mouth. The heat of it seeped into her chest and to her limbs and rushed to her head and face as if seeking to fill every inch of her. She heard the crackling of a fire and wondered that Cirra still burned so fiercely, after all this time....
Sandor had been dozing at her side, but awoke when he heard her move. Twice before he had pressed his hand to her shoulder to hold her still but the nightmares had proven even stronger than he. Fever dreams, he had thought, but as the day wore on her fever had broken and still the dreams persisted.
Warriors' dreams, then. Sandor understood. During a battle one had to grip one's doubt and fear, crush them into a hard dense ball and push them back to the recesses of one's mind, like scraps pushed deep into the pockets of a tunic. But later, when the danger was past, when one was safe and home again, the ball opened up like a poisonous flower and would be denied no more. In sleep or in illness, it came and transported one back to the sights and sounds of its birth and then the fear took over and the bravest of warriors was defenseless against it.
He had had dreams like those when he first came home from Troy. He would wake up shaking, sweating. Sometimes he had seen the faces of others, friends, enemies, faces that had been a blur in the sweat and smoke of combat but were as clear as his own face in the mirror now. Sometimes he was utterly alone, unsure of where he lay, in his bed or by the burial pit. He would cry out for someone to help him, to know that he still lived. Night after night he dreamed the same dream until he was reluctant to sleep at all. It was then that Mara had set up the cot in his workshop. So that he wouldn't bother the baby, she'd said. He smiled bitterly at the memory of it.
The woman struggled beneath the heavy blanket and Sandor pulled his chair nearer to the bedside. After his attempts to hold her down, he'd discovered that the sound of his voice was enough to soothe her. If he spoke when the nightmare began, if he kept his voice low and measured, she seemed able to relax, to sleep. He idly brushed a few strands of dark hair back from her forehead and started to tell her about his carvings and the new designs he planned. He was pleased when she ceased her movement and lay still. Perhaps her dreams were not so much different from his own. Maybe the sound of another voice was enough to assure her that someone was there, that someone cared.
Sandor, you've become a sentimental old fool, out here all by yourself, he thought. This unknown woman was a warrior, a mystery, and it would do no good to fashion romantic notions about her mind and heart. She was helpless now, it was true, but it would not be so for long. She had come into his yard with the smell of death upon her, her weapons and armor smeared with blood that was not entirely her own. He knew nothing of her intent or even of the circumstances that had brought her so close to death. Perhaps he harbored a wanton killer in his bed and would soon regret his actions. Sandor shrugged, surprised at his own lack of concern. If he were right about her, she would be pleasant company for a while before she went on her way. If not, then his death would not be such a great loss that the world would be changed. There would be no one to mourn or even to notice.
He turned to her again and saw that she had awakened and was looking at him closely. Last night she had been dazed and close to death, not really seeing him, he supposed. And he had spent the night behind her, holding her, rarely revealing his face in the dim lamplight. Now, more out of habit than anything else, he turned away so that she would not see his face and also, he knew, so that he would not have to see hers as she saw him clearly for the first time.
But she did not turn away when Sandor turned to wet her lips with the cloth. For a moment their eyes met. She gave a crooked half smile and nodded her thanks. "By the gods, I'm a damned fool." Sandor smiled back in relief. "If you weren't frightened by a knife in your own throat, a few scars aren't likely to put you off, are they?" He turned his chair around so that he could face her and reached for the water by the bedside "Let's see if you can manage a few sips of water. It'll hurt like Hades but you need to drink."
He cradled her head in his arm and held the cup to her lips as she took a careful swallow. He saw her jaw tighten with the effort but she bent her head and drank slowly. As he pulled the cup away a few drops ran down her cheek and Sandor reached to wipe them away. His sleeve fell back and with a curse he tried to roll it down again.
But she had already seen the bruises that darkened his arm from wrist to elbow. She pulled her hand from beneath the blanket and softly lay her fingers on his forearm. When she looked at him again, her eyes were a deeper blue than they had been last night and there was a darkness in them he had not seen before. She was angry, he realized. Angry with herself that she had hurt him, angry that she had been unable to withstand the pain any other way.
"It's all right. I'll live. Besides, it's my lot in life. Not the first time I've been hurt by a beautiful woman. At least you had good reason. The others did it for sport." He held the cup to her lips and watched as she drank once more. Then she lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes, her fingers still resting lightly on Sandor's arm. With a grunt he sat back in his chair and watched as she fell back into sleep, strangely comforted by her touch. He looked at her armor piled next to the bed and the weapons he had cleaned that morning. There was much about this woman he did not know, much he probably would never know. But of one thing he was certain. She would be as passionate and tender a friend as she would be a fierce and brave warrior. And Sandor acknowledged that it had been a long time, too long, since he had had a friend.
He was sitting by the fire when she awoke later that night. He held a bowl of stew in one hand and a heavy wooden spoon in the other. She watched as he mashed the meat and vegetables against the side of the bowl and patiently made a paste of the evening's meal. He added more broth and nodded his satisfaction. Last he blew on the bowl, cooling it before he could offer it to her.
"I'm a rotten cook," he said as she caught his eye. "Nevertheless, you need more than just water to build you up. If you can eat a little of this, it'll do you well. After all, if I let you leave here looking thin and pale, I might have a hard time getting any more visitors. And I'm beginning to enjoy having someone to talk to, even if you're not about to talk back." He stirred the contents of the bowl. "Or maybe that's because you're not about to talk back."
He approached the bedside but she raised her hand and motioned for him to sit. Sandor watched as she pulled herself up to a sitting position. She swayed a bit at first and Sandor fought the urge to lend a steadying hand but he sensed that she was testing herself, taking account of her body and the damage that had been done. She placed a hand on the blanket above the leg wound and looked at him questioningly.
"A clean cut. I changed the dressing this afternoon while you slept. A little swelling and redness. No more than you'd expect. It'll be fine if you stay off it for a few days. And the wound on your neck is healing well too, though I know it's sore. And while I'm giving you the daily report, your mare says to say hello. I don't think she'll be satisfied until she lays eyes on you but I told her you're just fine. She's been worried ever since she brought you into my front yard. She stopped right in front of my workshop and gave me a look that demanded I take care of you or else. I had absolutely no choice in the matter, I want you to know."
The woman in the bed suddenly smiled, not the half grin, half grimace he had seen before, but a wide and warm smile that took him by surprise. He forgot to smile back and for a moment just stared like a foolish schoolboy. Strange that such a simple action would unnerve him so. He had so little contact with others that he had forgotten what it was like to sit with friends in easy exchange.
But now her attention was elsewhere as she took in the gown she wore. The fabric was rich and soft and a shade of blue that spoke of expensive dyes. She ran her fingers across the embroidered bodice, feeling the softness of it against her skin and she raised an eyebrow at Sandor as he stirred the stew.
"It belonged to my wife. She always liked pretty things. But she's gone now and I thought it about time you had something besides my old tunic to wear." Sandor saw the expression on her face and knew she had misunderstood. "Oh no, Mara's not dead. I didn't mean that. I just meant she's gone. One day I came back from gathering wood for my workshop and she'd packed up and left me. Gone to Corinth. She had family there and she always wanted the excitement of living in a place like that. She never liked village life. " He bent over the soupbowl, suddenly embarrassed.
He lifted the spoon to offer her a taste of stew, but she reached for it and tried to feed herself. Her hand shook with the effort and Sandor brought the bowl beneath it just as the stew threatened to fall to the blanket below. "Maybe tomorrow," he said softly as he took the spoon from her hand. "You'll feel better then, stronger. Besides, this brings back memories for me. I used to feed my daughter this way. Her mother could never get her to eat like I could. Supper was a special time for just the two of us. I would tell her stories and she wouldn't even realize she was eating until she was through."
He watched the muscles in her jaw tighten as she swallowed the stew and heard a sound, half grunt, half moan, that betrayed the difficulty she was having. She cast a sidelong glance at Sandor, regretting that she had revealed even that much and took a deep breath as if bracing herself for the next spoonful.
Sandor leaned forward. It was so easy to talk to someone who would not turn away and who could not answer back. Perhaps his ramblings would make the meal go easier for her, would distract her from the pain. She would be gone soon, he would never see her again. What difference would it make?
"I bought that gown as a wedding present for her. Everyone thought that she would marry Marius, the councilman's son. Reckless troublemaker but exciting to be around, I'll give him that. He wanted to be a warrior, said how he'd be a famous warlord one day and just ran off. You're a warrior. Maybe you've met Marius?" Sandor offered a spoonful of stew and the woman shrugged her shoulders. "Well, I'm sure he'd remember if he ever ran into you. He always had an eye for the pretty ones. Well, Mara's family soon decided to marry her off to someone dull and dependable. The clumsy woodworker and the village beauty." He watched her swallow, added a little water to the bowl. "I was a poor substitute for Marius, I'm afraid. Or maybe it was my constant chatter that drove her off. It doesn't seem to bother you. But then maybe the first words you speak will be "Shut up, fool" and I'll think Mara is back again."
The stew was half gone now and Sandor was pleased. He leaned forward with another spoonful but she held up her hand and leaned back against the pillow. He was about to rise to leave but she gestured for him to stay . "So you prefer my stories to my cooking? Wise choice. I used to tell my daughter stories at bedtime just to hear her laugh. Maybe someday I'll get to hear you laugh too. That would be nice." He settled back in his chair. "That's what I miss most of all. Children laughing. I had dreams of a dozen little Maras and Sandors running around the workshop when we were first wed. But Mara was angry and upset that we were having a child at all. She said she hated being fat and ugly but I didn't think she was. And Lora was so beautiful, with her mother's golden hair and I swear by the gods, she had my laugh. She was a year old when I went to Troy, almost three when I got back. Once she heard my voice, she just seemed to know who I was. And you know, she was the only one who wasn't frightened by my scars. She'd look at one side of my face and then run around me to look at the other like it was a trick I was playing to amuse her."
He had almost forgotten the woman who lay beside him now as he was swept away by memory. So much he didn't say, couldn't say. How Mara had been unable to disguise the shock and disgust on her face when he'd come home. How she thought it a punishment of the gods to be cursed with such a husband, how she had refused to walk in the village by his side for fear the neighbors would point and stare. How it had been almost a relief to set up the cot in the workshop and not feel the coldness of her presence at night. Until one day she was gone. And the child with her.
The warrior shivered and he pulled the blanket up to cover her shoulders. "You know, after they left I came out here to work. Once or twice a year I go into town to sell a few carvings and trade the others for food and supplies. I send the dinars to Lora and I think, maybe someday I'll go into Corinth instead. So many wonderful things to see and do in a place like Corinth. I have this dream that I'll see my daughter there. She'd be six now. Probably doesn't even remember me. It doesn't matter. I wouldn't tell her who I was. I wouldn't even show myself. But I'd like to see her just once and know she's all right. The hardest thing I ever did was to give her up but deep down I know she's better off without me. People can be cruel and it would break my heart to have her suffer because of what I am."
The warrior woman had closed her eyes and turned her face to the wall. He heard her breathing and there was a new roughness to the sound. He regretted that he had encouraged her to eat the stew so soon, that he had been so wrapped up in his little tale that he had not noticed her pain. What would a warrior care of his sadness, of his loss? Embarrassed he rose and took up the lamp, anxious to return to the quiet haven of his workshop.
Then she turned to face him once again and the lamplight caught the blue of her eyes, as lovely as that of the gown she wore, he thought. He studied her face for a moment and the mystery of her deepened as he found neither impatience nor mockery there, but instead a sorrow and regret as profound as his own.
Dinius kicked at the smoldering log at the edge of the fire and watched as the sparks flew upward. His anger burned like the embers as he wondered how everything could have gone so wrong. A jug of wine, a simple raiding party, a chance to make a few dinars. It should have been just an afternoon lark but she had made a mess of it. When they'd seen the woman all they'd wanted was to steal her horse and to take their pleasure with her. Who could know that under that cape were weapons, that a lone woman on the road would put up such a fight? Now they were all dead, and not so much as a copper coin to show for it.
He glanced at the entrance of the cave that sheltered him. Three days and the rain had not let up. Time enough to plan his next move. He would get his hands on the round weapon and get a good price, that was certain. That had been his plan from the moment he had seen it fly through the air and like magic come back to her hand. It would have been so easy if she had just died on the spot. But she just lay there with the damned dagger sticking out of her throat while that accursed horse protected her. He had seen what those hooves could do and he had no wish to join the others in Charon's boat. So he had kept his distance and followed well behind.
And it had been easy to follow their path. The cut on her leg was deep and drops of blood spotted the ground beneath her. At one point, the grass had been flattened, the stain larger than before and he knew she had fallen and had lain there for a time. He had been pleased, sure that she was weakening, confident that the next time he saw her she would be lying dead in the road and he could snatch the thing from her lifeless fingers.
But then the skies had opened up and made his pursuit more urgent. The bridge was impassable now even if he had wished to give up the chase and go home. It seemed fated that he should have the prize. If he were wet and cold, she must be even more so. How much blood could she lose and still live? But then the damned horse had led them to the woodcarver. Dinius had cursed as he crouched in the bushes and saw the rugged craftsman carry the woman into his home to tend her wounds.
He sat by the fire and angrily snapped the twigs in his hands before throwing them into the flames. Better to wait until the time was right.
Sandor shifted the adz from one hand to another as he surveyed the results of his work. It was good to feel the tools in his hands again, to work the wood to his satisfaction. For days he had been reluctant to leave her. She was not one to complain or ask for help and so instead he bustled about the room, trying to anticipate her needs, searching her face for any signs of pain or discomfort, listening to her breathe, fearing that every cough or swallow might bring on another fit of choking.
But her first meals had given her strength and now she slept peacefully. Sandor had dashed through the pouring rain to his workshop, confident that he could work for an hour or so before she would awaken. Besides, he wanted to be alone for a while. Somehow, the eyes of the woman drew him and he had found himself expressing thoughts and feelings to her that he had never even admitted to himself before. Best to merely play the fool, make her smile and give help when it was needed. She would turn from him soon enough when she was able to ride and no longer needed him. Mara had known his weaknesses and had despised him for it. Perhaps the less this woman knew of him, the better it would be for them both.
He heard the sound of her horse as it paced back and forth in its stall and walked over to rub the nose of the anxious animal. "What's the matter, girl? Surely a little thunder doesn't frighten you. Your rider seems to fear nothing, not even death itself and I'd bet you're cut from the same bolt." The mare nickered and shook its head, pulling away from Sandor and moving from side to side in the narrow stall. Sandor began to feel an uneasiness as he watched her. Something was wrong. Animals had a special sense about these things and the bond between the woman and her horse was strong. It wouldn't hurt to check on her, Sandor decided and turned his collar up and left his workshop.
But the lamplight spilled through the doorway of the house into the yard and Sandor ran, knowing he had closed that door behind him. He felt his stomach tighten and he felt the wind and rain on his face as he stood and looked in. There on the bed, the woman and her attacker were locked in a deadly struggle, seeming to Sandor to be as motionless as one of his own carvings. The man gripped her throat with one hand while the other held her round weapon above her breast. Somehow she had pulled herself erect and her hands held his wrist, stopping the downward sweep of its sharpened edge. Sandor could hear her ragged breathing from across the room, knew she had been unable to cry out for help, and felt the rage, the familiar fire, fill his very being.
He shouted, a roar that caused the attacker to drop the woman from his grasp. He heard her struggle for air and watched as she reached for her knife and sword on the floor. But they were beyond her reach and she swung her legs over the bedside in a desperate effort to snatch them. But her wounded leg gave way under her and she fell to her knees.
Sandor was across the room in a second, holding his huge hands before him. He dodged as the chakram cut through the air, missing him by inches. Unarmed, he stood defiantly in the center of the room and shook with fury. Dinius cursed and lunged at the woodcarver, confident that as big as he was, he was no match for a sharpened blade. But Sandor grabbed his arm with one hand and with a sudden and powerful twist, snapped the bone as if it were a slat of wood in his workshop. And then like the mighty Colossus, Sandor lifted the attacker high above his head and flung him across the room like a sack of flour. He hit the wall with a thud, a dead man, his neck broken by the impact.
And then the silence of the room was broken only by the rasp of the woman's breathing. The bandage on her neck had been torn away and there were red marks where Dinius' hand had held her. Sandor picked her up and lay her on the bed. He held her tightly and with his mouth buried in her hair, he asked, "Are you all right?" She nodded and Sandor pulled back, suddenly aware that he held her in his arms. He sat on the chair by the bed, and stared at the dead man a few feet away.
"I thought after Troy, I'd never have to kill anyone again." His voice was little more than a whisper and he shook his head as if in disbelief. "Even out here....." He turned to look at the woman, afraid she would be shocked by the violence of the deed, that she would turn away from him. "I didn't mean to kill him. I just wanted to get him away from you. He's not much more than a boy, is he..."
She had caught her breath now and leaning against the pillow, she rubbed her throat with her hand and looked at the body of her attacker on the floor. Her face was impassive, her eyes ice blue, and Sandor could read neither fear nor anger in her face. Like those soldiers in Troy, he thought. Can death be such a part of her life that it means nothing to her? No, he thought, her sleep would not be so crowded with nightmare if it were not for the horrors she had hidden there. If only he could banish his grief as well.
He walked over to the body and picked it up as easily as if it had been a bundle of old rags. He started out the door, but hesitated a moment and turned to face her. "The men who hurt you on the road. He was one of them, wasn't he... Was that his dagger in your throat?"
For a brief moment she looked at the body of the young man, broken now, far beyond sympathy or contempt. This one had run into the bushes that day, had taken no part in her torment, had never touched her until now. She dropped her hand to her lap and shifted her gaze to the woodcarver as he stood in the doorway, holding the body. She could see the despair in his eyes and understood.
Quietly, she nodded.
She heard him exhale and realized he had held his breath waiting for her response. He shifted his burden and bent his head for a moment. "All right then. You rest. I won't be far away." He left the room and she sat alone in the lamplight.
Sandor marveled at her progress in the next few days. With each short sleep, with each labored meal she seemed to grow visibly stronger. She had begun to lose the deathly pallor of that first night and though her face was still pale and gaunt, he knew she was well out of danger. He had found her own healing pouch in her saddlebag and she had delighted in directing her own treatment from that moment on. He had recognized some of the cures but her knowledge of healing was far beyond his. She had refused the white powder that had been so prized in Troy and that he knew would lessen her pain and instead, she had him crush some herbs to make a salve to spread over her wounds. And when the nightmares broke her sleep, less frequently now, she taught him to blend some leaves into a flavorful tea that they shared in the quiet of the night.
But she was restless. As soon as she could feed herself, she gestured for Sandor to help her to the table where they could eat together. In the evenings he sat by the fire and watched as she carefully cleaned and polished her armor and sharpened her weapons. One evening he was surprised to find that she had found a basket of clothes to be mended and as he sat by her side, he watched as her fingers plied the needle, her stitches neat and precise.
"A warrior with a knowledge of the healing arts who can mend a tunic. How many other skills do you have?" He smiled at his companion, feeling the comfort of her company steal over him like the warmth from the hearth. She turned from the mending, her head bent and raised an eyebrow in his direction. "Perhaps tomorrow morning I should retire as cook and let you prepare the meals from now on."
She raised her hands before her face and drew back in feigned horror. Sandor threw back his head and laughed at the unexpected levity. "You can't be any worse than I am, can you?" She nodded vigorously and Sandor laughed again. "Well, I knew sooner or later I'd find something you were afraid of. I wouldn't have guessed it to be your own cooking."
Sandor saw her smile and thought how Mara's beauty paled in comparison. Mara had spent hours arranging each curl of her hair, each fold of her gown to create an impression. She had been as artful in front of her mirror as he in his workshop, he thought. But this woman was different. Her beauty was natural, powerful, like a sunset or a waterfall. It was there, to be noticed or not, and if one were lucky enough to chance upon it, the effect was breathtaking.
Sandor sat in the firelight and watched the shadows as they danced across her features. In a few short days he had come to know every curve, every plane of her face. He had seen it in pain and in repose, had seen the flash of those blue eyes in anger and amusement. He closed his eyes and tried to fix the images in his memory, for each step of her recovery brought her one day closer to leaving.
He opened his eyes and turned to face her. But her eyes were fixed upon his own, studying him as he had studied her. He turned his gaze away, unable to read her expression. Suddenly uneasy, he mumbled his goodnight and left for the workshop and the cot that awaited him there.
The next morning she awoke to find a crutch of polished wood, the armrest padded with soft cloth, leaning against the side of her bed. Sandor had risen early and was hard at work when he heard her enter the shop. His first inclination was to scold her for her recklessness, for venturing into the wind and rain, for hobbling across the muddy yard without him. But she was so pleased with her accomplishment, so glad to be free of the confines of his small home, that he could only shake his head and make a place for her at the bench.
But first she headed for the stall that held her golden horse and as the animal nuzzled her in welcome, she leaned and pressed her cheek against it. Sandor had carefully groomed and attended to the mare, knowing that he and the horse could both lay claim to having saved her life. He had begun to think of the palomino as a friend, a confederate in the effort to protect and care for her.
Her gratitude communicated if not voiced, she sat beside Sandor and looked at his work. He had said he was a woodcarver and she had expected the usual array of trays and mugs for sale in any village stall. But the scope of his talent was wide and she sat silently as she looked around her. His carvings were amazing, the reach of his imagination matched only by the skill of his hands. There was an oaken doorknocker, carved as a lion's head that seemed to rise out of the wood itself and every detail of its face and mane was as true as the work of any painter or sculptor.
In the corner of the shop rested the ornate headboard of a bed carved with dozens of vines and wildflowers so real that she almost expected to smell their perfume across the room. Each leaf, each tendril, reached across the wood as if it had grown that way, seeking the light of the sun. The bedposts leaned beside it, just as beautifully carved and polished to shine like gold.
Everywhere she looked there was another carving more lovely than the last. Even the simplest tray was carved with an artistry that was rare. That he should merely trade these works for sacks of feed and flour seemed wrong and unfair, for in cities like Athens and Corinth there were wealthy merchants eager to decorate their newbuilt villas with works such as these. The great cities were filled with public buildings that could house these treasures so that everyone could enjoy and appreciate their beauty. Had she only the voice to encourage him, to assure him of his talent and worth. If only he had the confidence that his skills deserved.
"So, have you come to help out?" His voice startled her from her thoughts and she nodded, anxious for something to do. He recognized her need to act, to be useful and so he set her to work oiling a small chest he had made. Soon they settled into companionable silence and worked side by side throughout the morning, breaking only for lunch.
By midafternoon he sensed she had tired and so he led her to the cot and made her rest, threatening to burn the crutch if she refused. There a few feet away from her horse and watched over by the woodcarver, she slept, at last untroubled by dreams. Sandor hummed as he worked, pleased by her company, proud that she had seemed so moved by his carvings.
She awakened after several hours just as Sandor was clearing his workbench, ready to return to the house and supper. She reached for the crutch and was about to rise when he sat on the cot beside her and motioned for her to sit a while longer.
"I was going to give this to you when you left, as a sort of remembrance. But since you worked so hard this morning, I suppose you should get some kind of reward. If I'm going to have an apprentice, the least I can do is treat her well." He handed her a small suede pouch and watched as she opened it and spilled the contents into her hand. "It's for your cloak. Maybe the next time you wear it to protect yourself from the wind and rain, you'll remember Sandor, the woodcarver."
She looked at the small brooch fashioned in the shape of her chakram, no more than two inches across, with each detail exact. Its polished surface gleamed in the lamplight and as she turned it over in her hand, she marveled at the intricate workmanship. She could not imagine when he had had the time to create such a thing as he had barely left her side for days. Only at night when she slept had he any brief opportunities to come to the workshop.
She looked into his eyes, saw him smile. She took a deep breath and for the first time since her throat had been torn by the dagger, she tried to speak, to thank him. But her words came out as only a painful wheeze and she pressed her lips together in frustration. Sandor teased, "So you don't care for it, eh? True, it should be gold or silver to really do you justice, but I'm afraid that's all you can get from a woodcarver, like it or not."
She reached out and he laughingly ducked as if avoiding a blow. But instead she turned her hand and slowly ran the backs of her fingers down his scarred cheek, just as she had on that first night. Sandor remembered. She had been so close to death that night, in so much pain. How close he had come to losing her. Sandor met her gaze and she smiled at him, almost shyly.
"You're welcome, my friend." He handed her the crutch and as she leaned on his arm, they walked back into the house.
After a week of almost continual downpour, the rain began to subside. With the reappearance of the sun, they began to follow a regular routine. She was an early riser and by the time Sandor had awakened and come to the house, she had stoked the fire and set the kettle for their breakfast. As her leg healed, she began to take long walks in the morning, her round weapon hanging from her belt, and she would return in a few hours with freshly killed rabbit or quail for their evening meal. Then in the afternoons she would keep him company in the workshop. She groomed her horse, sharpened Sandor's cutting tools and polished the carvings that he had finished.
To his great delight, she seemed determined to regain her voice. Sandor had feared that the damage was beyond healing and that she would never speak again. But now several times a day she would take a deep breath and then speak a syllable or two as she exhaled. What Sandor heard was little more than a breathy whisper as she forced the sound through her throat yet he was glad to hear her voice and even more pleased that the first word she had spoken had been his name.
She had set aside the crutch now and although there was a decided limp to her walk, she had recovered much more quickly that he would have thought possible. With a pang he realized that their days together were drawing to a close. Soon she would be gone and he would work at his bench without her help, eat his meals by himself and sit alone by the fire to wonder where she had gone and how she would fare. Surely there were others who treasured her company, who would coax a smile from her as he had. Perhaps they worried now, not knowing where she was or if she were well. It was not so hard to imagine that others would feel as he did, but it did little to lessen the pain of parting.
One day she saddled her horse and returned home later in the day than after her usual walk. She had brought back fresh fish for their meal instead of rabbit or game and Sandor tried to conceal his emotions as he took the sack from her hand.
"So you've been to the river. I'm not even going to ask how you got these without a net or pole. Yet another skill, I suppose. Thank you. It'll make a nice change." But he was subdued as they sat at his workbench and she seemed lost in thought when he did speak to her. He tried to concentrate on his carving but his hands seemed suddenly awkward and he became frustrated as the wood that he held no longer seemed agreeable to his demands.
He found himself staring at her at she sat across from him, her head bent over her own work. He watched her hands as she sanded the piece as he had taught her. Her fingers were long, blunt like his own and he remembered the strength in them as she had gripped his forearm, remembered how soft they had felt as she lay them across his bruises the next day. In so short a time he had seen many sides to her, so many contradictions, and he knew that now there was much he would never learn. Even if she stayed a lifetime, he was sure he would never know her entirely. She was a puzzle, a wonderment.
By suppertime he had resolved that his sadness at her parting should not ruin their last evening together. He cooked the fish with care and opened a flask of wine a merchant had given him in trade during his last trip into town. They ate slowly and Sandor told her tales of his voyage to Troy, of the men he had known, the sights he had seen. He told her a story he had heard of a wooden horse and joked that if he had thought to carve such a thing, the war might have ended sooner.
But finally the lamp burned low and Sandor knew he could prolong the meal no more. Reluctantly he cleared the table and sat down for a moment before leaving. "Your trip to the river..... it's possible to cross that bridge now, I suppose." He studied his fingertips. "You'll be leaving." He felt her nod, unable to look at her while saying the words. He rose and gave her a half smile as he turned toward the door. "I'll get your things ready. I know how early you rise and I guess you'll want to get an early start." So much he wanted to say, but for once he had not the words at his command. He was mouthing meaningless chatter and cursed himself for it but there was little else he could say without playing the fool. Better to just leave quickly.
But he saw her face in the lamplight and her eyes seemed to read the very thoughts he struggled to hide. He spoke softly, from his heart. "Well, my friend, it was good to have your company, if only for a little while. I thought I was content here but it will never be the same as it was, not ever again. Because now I'll miss you."
She leaned forward and Sandor bent down, thinking she wanted to speak to him. She put her hand on his arm and drew him closer and as he brought his ear to her lips, she put her hand on his cheek, turned his face toward her and kissed him softly on the lips.
Sandor drew back as if she had struck him. There was shock and pain in his face as he stood before her and a disappointment that seemed to fill the space between them as if it had weight and matter. He shook his head and slowly he felt the anger build up in him. Their friendship had been so good, so easy, that he resented her action, could not understand how she could endanger it this way. Perhaps as she had grown stronger, his weaknesses seemed more apparent, more pathetic. He could hear again the murmurings of his neighbors as he passed, the laughter and clicking of tongues that had driven him to this exile. Sandor the man with half a face, Sandor who could be neither husband nor father anymore. He turned to leave but hesitated a moment. "I only wanted your friendship. I never wanted your pity."
He looked at her, one last time he thought, and was startled when she smiled and stood up from the table. She gestured for him to come closer and put her face beside his so that her lips were by his ear. He felt her hands on his shoulders and he felt the warmth of her as she breathed softly, "Don't believe....." He waited as she took in another breath. "......in pity." And then she kissed him again and there was no mistaking her intent this time.
Once again they lay on Sandor's bed before the fire. Sandor thought how not so long ago she had trusted herself to him, how he had held her close and prayed to the gods that he would not fail her. He almost laughed to himself as he realized the same fear held him now.
He had been with only two women in his life. When he was a boy his older brothers had introduced him to hard drink and the local prostitute on the very same night. He had been embarrassed and awkward, anxious to be done and away. She had collected her coins and made sport of his ignorance, sending him off in a short time to suffer the gibes of his kinfolk. Now you are a man, they told him, but he felt more like a fool instead.
He had loved Mara when they married. She was bright and beautiful and he knew he was the envy of every man in the village when their banns were announced. But it was not long after the wedding that he learned she had a touchstone for comparison and that in her reckoning he would never match her first lover, the graceful and forbidden Marius. Her parents had desired this arrangement, not she. She would do her duty, she informed him, cook his food, keep his house, share his bed, but he knew she would never love him as she did the slender runaway. She seemed to grow more resigned to the marriage as his business prospered and he bought her the things she desired. But their lovemaking had always been at his request, never hers. It had been years before Lora had been born and Mara had been so repulsed by the pregnancy and the birth that their relations were even less frequent afterward. And soon after he returned from Troy he had been banished to the workshop and stable.
And now this silent and beautiful woman lay beside him. He was sure she had mistaken gratitude for desire, that she would soon realize her mistake and turn from him as the others had. She lay quietly with her head on his shoulder, as if waiting for him to sort out his thoughts and feelings. Sandor wondered what would be best. If he were to leave her now, she might be hurt and angry. If he stayed, it would be awkward but the embarrassment would be his. Either way he would disappoint her but at least he would not hurt her feelings if he stayed. And truth be told, Sandor longed to hold her one more time, whatever the price.
He reached out to her, hesitant, mindful of the injuries to her leg and neck. But she was an eager and responsive partner and Sandor was first bewildered and then delighted by her touch. She welcomed him as Mara never had and Sandor gloried in the nearness of her. He was startled when she first kissed the scars on his face and chest, but her lips were warm and for the first time Sandor felt that the scars were truly a part of him and not just some terrible barrier that the Fates had thrown between him and the world.
He had been afraid that he would not please her but instead he found that it was she who seemed to take the lead. Many times he had watched her, walking across the yard, riding, practicing with her weapons, and he had admired her confidence, her ease. Even during her convalescence she was sensual, physical, always sure of her body and how to use it. She had that same grace and sureness now as they lay with one another.
Finally Sandor knew what it was like to have a strong and loving partner. Free of her censure, no longer afraid of giving offense, he was thrilled with the sensations she awakened in his own body. He had never dreamed of pleasures such as this. She was invitation, challenge and promise, each in its turn, and as they passed through the different rhythms of their lovemaking, Sandor was shocked by the intensity of his desire and even more amazed at the power of her response. He held her in his arms and prayed the night would never end.
After a time they lay quietly together and she heard him sigh. She turned and rested her hand on his chest. He heard her inhale and she asked, softly, "What?"
He shook his head. "Nothing."
But she reached across his chest and looked into his eyes and even in the darkness he could see the flash of blue there. "Tell me," she said.
His voice was a whisper, almost softer than hers. "The last thing she ever said to me was that she couldn't stand looking at me anymore, that I was a nightmare, a monster." He felt the pressure of her arm as she held him and she rested her cheek against his chest.
"She was........." There was a pause as she took a breath,"......a fool......You're a ......kind.........good man."
Sandor closed his eyes, felt her body pressed against his. "She said that no woman would ever want to lie with a man who had a face like mine."
"Face .....doesn't matter." She waited a moment to catch her breath. She had spoken more in the last few minutes than in the whole week before. Sandor waited, soothed by the softness of her voice. She lay against his chest and with her face inches from his, she smiled. "All cats......are black......in the dark......my friend."
Sandor held her in his arms and their bodies shook as one, not with passion this time, and not with pain, but with laughter. Afterwards she fell asleep, still lying on his chest, her head on his shoulder. And as the daylight began to filter in through the window, Sandor once again rested his cheek against her hair. Here in this very bed he had begged her to listen to his voice, to let it lead her back to life.
And now with the gift of her love and a few well chosen words, she had led him back too.
They slept till midmorning and shared a last meal together. Sandor packed some food and supplies and when she left for her horse, he folded the blue gown and added it to the sack. He knew she liked its softness, remembered how it matched her eyes. Besides, it had been bought to celebrate the union of two lovers and Mara had cast it aside, fittingly enough. Now he had cause to celebrate and if anyone had the right to feel its richness against her skin, it was the woman he knew he would hold in his memory, the woman he cherished.
She walked toward him, dressed once again in her armor, her cloak gathered around her shoulders. Sandor saw the brooch at her throat and she touched it with her fingertips and smiled. The wind whipped the cloak behind her and Sandor thought how regal she looked standing straight and tall before him, like a true warrior. But there was warmth in her eyes and Sandor knew it was reflected in his own as they kissed one last time.
She paused as their lips parted, as if trying to find words and the breath to speak them. "Go to............Corinth." She looked at him earnestly, imploringly. "Take carvings............find your daughter." She shook her head when she saw the shadow of doubt that began to cross his features. "Teach her.........to look......inside......for what's......... beautiful." She stopped, breathless, but she smiled as she took the reins in her hands and turned to leave.
Sandor reached out and held her arm. He started to speak but the words would not come. There seemed to be no words adequate to tell her how much she meant to him, how grateful he was that they had shared the time together. He stood there, holding her arm and slowly, softly, he raised his hand and brushed the backs of his fingers down her cheek.
And she smiled and with a nod of understanding, she mounted her horse and curled her fingers in goodbye. Sandor watched as she rode out of the yard and across the clearing to the path that led to the river. She turned once and waved and he raised his hand in farewell. When she was no more than a dot in the distance, he turned and entered his workshop. It seemed unusually quiet and he sat at the bench where he always worked. But he left his tools untouched and instead cast a critical eye at the carvings around him.
So many wonderful things to see and do in a place like Corinth.