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KNOTS: by Eagle
Disclaimer: This story is set in an alternate reality we might call eagle_earth. The characters and setting which inspired this are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance.
Rating: This story contains no offensive content in regards to either sex or violence.
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Wading out thigh-level into the cold water, Sioban grabbed the truant boat and tied it with a double knot onto the jetty. It was the second time the boat had come undone; she was almost beginning to believe in the old family curse that `no knot you tie will ever stay fast'. She had always thought it to be figurative.
Even her knot of bright red hair was falling down past her shoulders, and impatiently she shoved it up again. She had no time to be chasing after recalcitrant boats or equally rebellious locks. She had only a day left, and there was too much to do. It had been lucky, more than lucky that she had noticed the boat drifting. But there was not much water, there had been so many dry days; and the stream was sluggish. People about were worried about the summer's lack of rain; but in a few days it would not be her problem.
She had tried her best to keep the farm going on her own, but she had finally given up hope. The family over the way bred cattle, and had a good business of meat and milk. There was a vegetable business on the other side of the river. The market was full of people's enterprises, but no one wanted to buy her few scrawny hens or the eggs they laid. She had tried until she had not a silver coin left, and now she would have to leave.
But as she gazed up at the old family home, she knew that someday she would return.
When Sioban woke up the next morning and peered out the window, she noticed one salient fact.
Someone was stealing the boat.
Jumping out the low window, she ran towards the river, shouting wildly.
"That's my boat! Hey, that's my boat!"
The thief turned around and Sioban stopped.
It was a woman, a woman in a large dark cloak, wearing army gear. Sioban stepped back, aware of the fact that she was wearing only her father's old shirt and that her hair was falling wildly around her face. And that in the boat there was another woman, dead.
"I thought everyone had left this house."
Sioban could feel the tension come out from the woman, and she began to tremble with fear. The woman had killed this girl, and now she would kill her.
"This is your boat?"
Sioban nodded, almost paralysed with fear.
"You'll have to come with us; go get your things. I can't leave you here."
In case I tell someone, Sioban thought, recognising an order. The woman turned back to the boat; Sioban ran back to the house and pulled on the clothes she had set out to wear for the journey, finally slipping a knife in her boot. There was no way to escape; the woman could outrun her in an instant. She picked up her bag, heavy with provisions, and came out of the house. The woman was standing by the boat, her eyes like flint.
Sioban slipped into the end of boat furthest away from the body. The woman sat pushed the boat out into the middle of the stream and then jumped in. Grabbing the oars, she rowed strongly, her back towards the body and Sioban. Soon they had passed the house; they were around the bend, in the heart of the wood.
Part of Sioban's mind recognised that she was going into shock. She could hear her teeth chattering, feel the grip she had on her bag, the way the straps were cutting into her skin. The same few thoughts were going around and around in her mind. This woman will kill me. I'm going to die. I can't escape. This woman will kill me.
A splash of water shocked her out of herself, and she gasped. She had never taken the boat this far, and they were passing by a small water fall, coming from a neighbouring stream and joining her own. The water swirled around boulders and splashed bright in the early sunlight. Sioban hung on as the woman steered them expertly around the rough, white, water. The boat lifted up and spun, then crashed down again, and sped down into a calm pool.
Everything around her was beautiful; the willows overhanging the stream, the darker-leaved trees behind them. Sioban decided that she would not die. She wiped the cold sweat from her brow with cooler stream water and gripped onto the boat. She would not die.
The body which lay in front of her had its head turned away. The woman had long fair hair and finely shaped hands. She was curled up as though asleep, her boots under her head, her legs bent beneath a skirt. She seemed young and innocent, as much unlike the dark woman who steered the boat as night from day. Sioban stared at the back of the woman fearfully.
She was strong, that was for sure, rowing with the same powerful strokes which had drawn them away from her house an hour ago. She was taller than most women, and had her dark hair tied in plaits around her head, as well as down her back.
"If we hurry, we might just outreach them." The woman muttered.
Sioban jumped, and began to tremble again. If this woman was being chased by the soldiers - she was, perhaps, a trained killer, a torturer even. Fleeing to meet even more frightening comrades. The words began to flow through her mind again, faster and faster, until everything span out of control. I'm going to die she's going to kill me I'm . . .
The woman leapt back and grabbed Sioban's shirt as she slipped into a faint and almost fell into the river. She laid the girl down on her back and lifted up her legs, forcing the blood to run to her head.
When Sioban came to, she saw the dead woman's head facing her own and began to scream. A hand was placed firmly over her mouth and although she tried to struggle it was no use. It had become dark, and fog was over the river.
"They'll kill us if they find us here." A harsh whisper silenced Sioban. "Our only chance is utter silence."
They floated along the river in utter silence, the oars lifted from the boat and the pair crouched down beside the dead body. Sioban even noticed a hand on the corpse's shoulder, as though she was expected to rise from the dead. There were the sounds of other boats far off in the mist, but none close enough to alarm. Sioban wondered if, in fact, the other boats contained people who would come to her rescue, and the whole charade had been done in order that she did not escape. But with the dark woman's hand still over her mouth, her body crouched over her, she had no way of alerting them.
There was a clink of metal, and both Sioban and the dark woman froze. It sounded like a sword being removed from its scabbard. It was impossible to see anything further than a hand's length away, and Sioban wondered if her rescue or her death lay only inches away in the mist.
They waited, frozen, tense, terrified for what seemed hours, straining ears and eyes for clues. Suddenly Sioban felt the woman's breath, and looked to see her eyes only a finger's breadth away. They were the deepest, most brilliant blue, and they were staring at her with almost pity. Sioban felt as though the woman could see everything in her, all her worst nightmares, her worst terrors. She opened her mouth to scream again, but the woman closed her eyes and - pinched her. She was flung into sleep.
When Sioban awoke she realised she was lying on grass, and sat up.
They had passed the woods and were now camped on a green patch next to a newly dug field, deeply ploughed. It was night, and yet there were no lights coming from anywhere except the fire, where the woman was busily toasting some of the bread Sioban had brought in her bag. For some reason she had laid down the dead body on a mat by the fire, as well as placing her own bag beside her.
"What's your name?"
Sioban sat up. She decided to pretend the woman wasn't her captor, just someone along for the ride. She decided to pretend the body wasn't dead at all.
"Sioban." She replied, and wondered whether she should have given a false name. Then she decided that was pointless - her name wouldn't save her.
There was almost an amused look on the tense face, as though she had followed Sioban's reasoning.
"You're all alone?"
Sioban wondered whether this was the time to invent the large brother with the expert fighting skills, then decided against it.
"The farm's mine. My father died years ago, and I've run it myself since I was fifteen." She replied, a little pride showing in her voice.
"You can't be much more than that now!"
"I'm eighteen." Sioban answered quickly, a little hurt. She sat up straighter and began to tie up her hair. As usual, the knot had fallen out.
"And so what will you do?"
Sioban thought that a little irrelevant, seeing as she was to be murdered in cold blood as soon as the woman wished. Still, she liked to satisfy curiosity.
"I was headed towards the City. I was going to stay there until I'd -I'd made my fortune, and then return to - whatever was left."
The woman offered her some of the food, and, seeing as it was her own, Sioban ate it and enjoyed it. The woman asked no more questions, simply stoked the fire, then lay down the fire. Sioban stared, her flesh creeping. The woman had lain down next to the corpse and had now put an arm around it.
Sioban lay down herself, alternately shivering, and playing awful nightmares through her mind. The woman was obviously mad. She had her `companion' there, along with her, and when she rotted away she would probably want another `companion' - a nice quiet one. It was obvious she didn't enjoy conversation.
Sioban heard steady breathing, and slowly rose up, creeping towards the boat. It was tied to a branch of a tree, and she slipped a hand to the knot. It was tied in some strange foreign way, and it was tied fast. Obviously this woman's family hadn't suffered the same curse.
"What are you doing?"
Sioban turned and faced the woman, who stretched out a hand to touch her shoulder. Sioban jumped back, and the expression on the woman's face - which, Sioban admitted, amounted to kindliness - changed to surprise. Then a blank.
"Go back to the fire. You'll never get that knot undone."
Sioban flung herself down by the fire and curled up as far away as the strange couple as possible. It was worse than a nightmare, because she was alternately roasted by the hot fire and frozen by the cold air. She could feel the steady gaze of the woman on her all night.
There was shout and Sioban sat up. Two men stood up in the moonlight, one with a knife to the woman's throat.
Was she saved at last?
Sioban scuttled round the fire then stopped as the slumped body of the dead woman barred her way.
"Give her to us and we'll let you go." The man growled.
Sioban looked up hopefully at the woman, from her position crouched at the woman's feet. Then she realised they were talking about the body.
"No. No! You can't hurt her!" The woman screamed, clasping the corpse to her body.
"Leave her! She's dead, and we're alive! Leave her!" Sioban screamed hysterically, jumping up.
In that moment, the man stepped back and the woman made a single movement with her feet. The two men crashed to the ground. Sioban looked back and saw the woman had been cut, and was pressing on her wound. She flung a rope at Sioban.
"Tie them up." She ordered curtly. "I'll give up my life before I'll give her up. And she's not dead yet." She almost spat out the words.
Sioban tied the men's hands behind them with trembling fingers and watched as the body was laid gently on the ground. Oh, no, of course she wasn't dead. And the dark-haired woman wasn't a crazed maniac, either.
"Get some sleep." She ordered, and, as though she could do nothing but obey, Sioban laid herself down and fell asleep almost immediately.
It was dawn when the commotion began again.
"Can't you tie a decent knot?" Sioban heard being shouted, and sat up. The two men had got free and were in the boat. The woman leapt into the river and grabbed onto the back of the boat just as it was flung by white water around the river bend.
Suddenly it was silent. Sioban looked around. The fire had died down to coals. There was no one around, nothing except the freshly ploughed fields and the body in front of her.
She stood up and stretched, wondering if it was finally the end of the nightmare. Walking to the edge of the field, she saw a long road snaking down below and a line of red-coated soldiers making their way from the City.
The King's Men!
Sioban began shaking again. If they caught her with the body they'd probably hang her from one of those strange trees surrounding her. And there was nowhere to run, no way to leave now that her boat had been stolen. She looked around desperately.
The soil was soft, having just been turned over, and Sioban got down on her hands and knees and began scooping out great piles of earth. Once the dirt had been pressed down over the top there would be no way to tell there was a body in there.
Sioban worked quickly, and then, closing her eyes, dragged the body over to the hole. Then she flung it in.
At last she saw the woman's face. It was a beautiful face, a young and innocent face. Sioban could see why the mad dark-haired woman had believed she was alive.
Sioban knelt down beside the grave, wondering whether she should say something over the body.
Then it sneezed.
Sioban stumbled and fell into the grave beside the body.
"What - what's going on?"
The corpse sat itself up and brushed the loose soil from its face. Sioban stared and tried to scream, but no sound would come.
"Who are you? And why are we stuck in a hole?"
A salient fact suddenly occurred to Sioban. Perhaps the girl wasn't dead.
"The redcoats are coming." Sioban answered finally. "We'd better hide until your friend comes back."
The girl yawned, and brushed some beetles from her hair. "I must have come down with that sleeping sickness; there's was an epidemic of it over the mountains that my friend and I were helping treat. Unfortunately there was a lot of hysteria, and they wanted to kill everyone with it, so that it wouldn't spread." The girl grinned. "I guess I'm lucky to be alive!"
The marching feet of the soldiers passed by the road and the field harmlessly. Then the girl pulled herself out of the hole, giving Sioban a hand.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm starving." She looked around. "Ah! This place is filled with olive trees!"
She grabbed a few strange fruits from the trees lining the field, and popped them in her mouth. "Ahh. Here, take your fill. Did you ever hear the story about Athens and the olive tree?"
"I've never seen this strange fruit before." Sioban admitted. "It's quite tasty."
The girl stared. "Never? Well, this is a very useful tree. It has nice fruit, makes a great oil when pressed, and the wood is good, too. So useful, that when Athena introduced it to the people, they decided to name Athens after her!"
Sioban picked up a few stones and thought about it. Now, here was something new . . .
There was a sound of running footsteps, and the sight of a very wet figure running up the road towards them. Sioban decided to leave the dark-haired woman to her reunion with the corpse, and go back to her farm. She had been crazy to have thought of leaving. Some ties were never meant to be broken, just as some knots were never meant to be tied.
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