Chapter 1: Prologue
"Liam. Liam. wake up."
"No, not again, please." Liam mumbled, refusing to open his eyes. His limbs ached, the memory of the torture rack pulling at them and the noise of cracking shoulders, as his arms were dislocated, were still fresh in his mind. He laid limp on the wet stone floor, which reeked of urine and blood.
He had failed his mission, gotten captured by the enemy and tortured for days with no end. Flayed until it left scars on his back, boiling water on the raw skin, every bit of him ached like he had been boiled in Hell's sulfur cauldrons. And now they had thrown him in this miserable, flooded hole of a cell with nothing but the scraps of his linen pants to cover him.
"Liam." A blistered, rough hand gently stroked his cheek. This couldn't be the torturer. It didn't sound like him at all.
"Open your eyes." The voice said. Slowly, Liam complied.
He was blinded by a small, yet bright light several inches from his face. It was a candle. Two pale blue eyes were staring right at him.
"We'll get you out of here, just hold on, it's not much now."
"Who..." Liam gritted out through his teeth.
"Later, Liam, save your breath. Can you move?"
"Where are you taking me?" He asked, freezing up in fear. What if it was just a coy to instil false hope, just to have his spirit be crushed even more?
"We are getting you out of here. Can you walk?"
The exhausted man tried to push himself off the ground, but he yelled out in pain, that struck him at any movement of his arms. There was no way he was getting up. They'll just leave him to rot here after they'll understand, that he's no use to them.
"No." He whispered in defeat, head hanging low, in shame.
"That's okay. We'll carry you out. Now, this might hurt, but, please, keep as quiet as you can." The other man spoke, ever so gentle, Like Liam was a meek,scared woodland creature.
"Benjamin!" The man addressed someone in the pitch black darkness. A pair of strong arms wrapped around Liam's waist and lifted him up, like he weighed nothing. Which wasn't far from the truth after weeks of imprisonment, He was nothing more than a sack of bones - it was a wonder he was still alive.
Who were they? Another wave of fear washed over the broken man. All he could think was a jumbled prayer.
"Please, not the Judas Cradle." He muttered, as he was carried out in the dungeon hallway.
"We aren't going to hurt you, Liam." The soft voiced man said, blowing out the candle.
"Shouldn't you give him the drink?" The man, who was carrying Liam, said, stopping in his tracks.
"You're right." Agreed the other. "Set him down."
Liam groaned in pain as he was moved again. They sat him on the stone floor. After a moment, something pressed against his lips.
"This will numb the pain. And you'll get some well deserved sleep."
The drink was bitter and it burned his tongue, but he still drank it. A few moments passed, he was lifted back up and they continued their way.
With every passing moment Liam's eyelids got heavier and heavier, sleep was engulfing him. But right before he lost consciousness, they passed a torch and he recognized the man, who had come to his rescue.
"Anton!" He whispered. The man briefly smiled at him.
"Yes, Liam. I'm happy to see you, too."
And everything went to black.
He felt the ground around him sway from left to right, rythmically. Somewhere near the splashes of water could be heard, though the sound was rather muffled. Liam shifted around, half asleep, and tried to move his hands under his head in place of a pillow, but they were suspended, perhaps even tied, and his shoulders didn't want to work either. His mind was rather hazy and he couldn't remember a thing.
Something bumped against his leg, sending a sharp pang of pain through him. His eyes sprung open and his breathing started to speed up. Why was he tied? Why was it so dark around him? What was making the splashes? Where was he?
"Careful now, place the oars down so they can't hear us." A vaguely familiar voice hissed somewhere not far from Liam.
"You won't take me alive!" Liam croaked as loud as he could, trying to move his arms once again. If he was being moved to a new place for torture, then he'll make sure that all they have to bring is his corpse.
Instantly, a rough hand covered his mouth and the same voice hissed in his ear:"Liam, be quiet. Don't make a sound. It's just us."
"Who are you? Let me go! Untie me!" Liam mumbled against the hand. The other one didn't answer, until Liam bit him.
"Ouch! What's gotten into you?"
"Be quiet, you two." Another voice hissed at them.
"He's gone mad, he bit me!" The first one complained quietly.
"Give him another drink." The second suggested.
"I'm not drinking anything." Liam answered.
"Yes, you are. " The second voice said, firmly and he could hear the splashing of water once again.
"No!" Liam tried to exclaim over the hand, that was muffling him. For a moment the hand dissapeared, but then he felt a hand lift up his head and a rag being placed on his mouth.
"Sorry, Liam, but we can't have you being loud. Not until we get into the sea."
"Sea? What do you mean by sea?" Liam tried to say, but it came out as a series of grunts.
"Shh. Go back to sleep. I'll explain in the morning."
The last thing in Liam's mind was sleep at this moment. There were far too many questions and alarming thoughts running through his head for him to rest. Yet slowly, but surely, he drifted back to sleep.
The next time he opened his eyes, a bright blue sky was above him. A few white clouds, like sheep's wool, decorated it and the sun was shining right above him, making it hard to look.
He tried to shift around, but sharp pain shot through both of his arms, and he was reminded of the horrors he had went through. He wondered, if his arms will ever be of use again. Perhaps it would have been if he had died in the dungeon, since there was no life for a cripple.
"Look who's awake." The same familiar voice said, sounding rather tired.
"Now, promise you won't scream or bite me."
Liam nodded slightly, and the rag, that was covering his mouth, was removed.
"Now, I'll help you sit up. " The voice said and a hooded figure leaned close to Liam. Their lower face was covered with a rag, too, but the pale blue eyes seemed quite familiar. They helped Liam sit up, making him lean against something soft.
"Who... Who are you?" Liam asked, coughing. His throath felt like a desert, and there was a strange bitterness in his mouth.
The hooded figure untied its face mask and lifted off it's hood, revealing a man with unruly, brown, shoulder-lenght hair and a thick beard. The most prevalent feature, though, were his icy blue eyes, that looked upon Liam with friendly warmth.
"It's me, Anton. Your friend from your squire days."
"Anton!" Liam gasped, and his vision blurred. A trecherous tear was trying to escape his eyes.
"Yes, it's me, Liam. We got you out of there, and I promise you..." Anton said, placing a hand on the exausted man's shoulder, "That you won't ever have to experience those horrors, as long as I can do anything about it." His voice was soft, yet firm. He was certain of his words.
Liam wept like a child.
A long time ago, when Liam was just the son of a small noble, who was sent to be a squire at one of the king's summer residences, he met a boy who loved to hide in the treetops and swim in the forest creek. That boy became his first, and best friend, away from home. He had many fond memories of evenings in hay stacks, running after girls and teasing them about how they would have pig farmers for their husbands, while the girls dreamed of knights. There were nights spent in the king's forest with the huntsmen, looking for firewood and sneaking after hares and other small animals. Oh, the nostalgy rushed over Liam like tsunami waves. Seeing his dear friend after all the horrors he had experienced, it was just too much for the man.
What went from quiet sobs turned into hysterical crying, Liam gasping for air and trying to say something, but coming up short on any coherent words.
Anton didn't tell him to shut up, or to get himself together. No. The man crawled on top of Liam and wrapped his arms around him, pulling him into a tight hug, and letting Liam cry into his shoulder. Gently, he rubbed the few spots of unharmed skin on Liam's back, trying to comfort him.
"There, there. It's alright, Liam. You're safe now. You're free now." He kept saying, until Liam went limp against his shoulder.
They stayed like that for several minutes, until Anton pulled back and smiled softly at Liam.
"Let's get your face cleaned up, okay? You'll have to wait for a proper bath until we get to Drage, though."
"Yes, we live in a forest clearing on the west coast of Drage, by a river. It's going to take us approximately two weeks to get there, so we still have to last on our rations until that and hope for good wind to take us there. I have full faith in our ship." He said, sliding his palm over the side of the boat. Liam finally looked around.
It was a medium sized boat, made out of dark wood, and behind Anton's head there was a light blue sail, that almost merged with the sky. There were four oars and the floor was covered in sheep wool skins. Anton's partner was fast asleep in the middle of the boat, or ship, Liam didn't really know what to classify it as.
Then he looked down. His arms were suspended on his chest with bandages - Anton remarked, that it would keep Liam from hurting them more, - and his ripped linen pants were gone. Instead, a fresh, new pair had been put on him.
"I washed your legs this morning, with sea water, and threw your rags overboard. They were soaked with all kinds of undesirable fluids, and I figured we would all feel a bit better if it didn't stink here. "
Liam just nodded, slightly flustered and uncomfortable with himself and the state they had found him in.
"Okay, this might be cold." Anton said, raising up a rag to Liam's face. He had soaked it with a bit of drinking water and was cleaning off the tears and snot from the man's face. The cuts on Liam's face stung, but Anton had a gentle hand, so Liam didn't have to complain much.
"You must be hungry."
"Water." Liam answered, and Anton lifted up a flask to Liam's mouth, urging him to drink up.
"We worked out our rations and we should have enough to last us until we get to Drage, but we can hope to run into the King's navy while we are on our way and ask them for spare."
"What were you even doing back there?" Liam asked.
"I..." Anton began, taking a deep breath. "This requires some explanation."
"After you left to the capital to join the army, and left me, " Anton started to say in a casual tone, and the remark stung Liam's heart, but he ignored it. "I decided that I didn't want to be just a stable boy. I could fight, too. And the king just so happened to be looking for new forest rangers to recruit. And you know, the forest is my second home."
"You were called a fox by the head of the hunters, I remember."
"So I became a forest ranger. Now, since the war is going on, the forest rangers are tasked with raiding the enemy's camps. The most skilled ones were also taught to be spies. Me, too. We were sent to investigate what had happened at Chonce."
"Oh." Liam sighed and a wave of guilt rushed over him.
"I was told that you were leading the attack. King Harold's troops had set the heads of your comrades on top of spikes by the entrance to the city, but I couldn't find yours, so there was a glimmer of hope that you were still alive. To shed some light on the events that occured, of course. "
"Then we did some searching, found out about a hostage in the nearby castle, and...now we are here."
"So you saved me to get a report."
"You understand, that in war we need every bit of information, that anyone can provide."
Liam nodded, sighing. He'll be brought back and probably punished for his failure. Stripped of his title, and so on. If he even makes it that far.
"But we also saved you, because you're my friend, Liam." Anton said, taking out a roasted chicken leg from a leather sack.
"Let me sit next to you, so I can feed you."
"Is that...It can't be." Anton mumbled, looking out over the water to the horizon. The sun was beaming down on their bare skin, reddening it and evaporating any sweat that their bodies could muster out to try and cool them down. They had been without fresh water for two days now, a terrible miscalculation in rations had occurred - you can't have three people on the rations of two, especially if one of them is a sack of skin and bones.
Liam was hiding his face under a sheepskin. It was hot and suffocating, but at this point, he really couldn't care. Too much pain had been inflicted upon him in the last weeks, and in these conditions, he wished they would just slit his throat and throw him overboard.
"This is the third time today you claim to see a ship. Knock it of, Anton." Benjamin murmured, dipping his hands in the sea. "There will be no ship. We are going to die here."
"No, no, don't say that." Anton drawled, which elicited a angry snarl out of Ben.
"Listen, I'm tired, and thirsty, and overheating." He croaked out, coughing. His throat was dry and he was nauseous, and was not having any more of this.
"I know, but you can't say it's my fault-"
" I can. None of this would have happened, if you hadn't decided, that your little friend here," Benjamin said, kicking Liam' s leg,"Needed our help. We had orders and you disobeyed them, causing us to lose time and valuable supplies. This boat wasn't meant for three, this food wasn't meant for three, especially for someone with an appetite like his." Another kick. Liam was too absentminded and delirious to actually react.
Anton sat up, sighed and his face hardened.
"I am your superior, and you will listen to my commands."
"Hah," Ben snorted. " You? My superior? I don't understand why I ever comply. I could throw you overboard with one hand, you little pile of steaming sheepshit." He leaned down and took a knife from the bottom of the boat, turning the blade towards Anton, who backed away slightly.
By this point Liam was wondering, if the loud splashes of water and voices, that were carried with the wind were just his imagination.
"I could cut you open and gut you like a stinky little fish, Anton. And your little friend, too. I guess I might even start with him."
"Put that knife down." Anton said, reaching out, but Ben punched him straight in the jaw. A fight ensued, swaying the boat left and right.
Liam, still delirious, heard music. the sweet sounds of a lute, somewhere not far. And these two were creating a fuss, drowning out the sound.
"Will you two stop?" He groaned. "There is sweet music playing."
A scream. A splash.
"What the fuck, Benjamin?"
"Hey, you!" A stranger yelled at them.
"In the name of King Niall, you are under arrest for entering royal waters without flying a proper banner!"
"Oh, shit." Liam mumbled.
Anton was dragged out of the water, onto the other boat and a sword was put to his throat, while the armed men ordered Benjamin to steer the boat closer to the huge warship.
"Who is your captain?" Anton asked the man, who was holding him hostage.
"What's it to you?"
"Just, please, answer the question."
"Master Louis William Tomlinson."
"Tomlinson, Tomlinson..." Anton mumbled. "He's the foreign one, isn't he? From the north? Went to live in Dragehodet and pledged allegiance to King Niall five years ago? He's a master now?"
The soldier was taken aback by the flow of questions.
"I've met him once, nice to have a pint with. I request you let me talk to him."
"Y-you're under arrest, you can't make no such claims-"
"On the contrary," Anton chuckled, "I have the right to contact authoroties to see through these accusations."
"You have no identifiable markings on your vessel. Under current martial law you are eligible for arrest."
"Just let me talk to your master and we will be out of your hair."
A hour later the trio had been dragged on top of the large battleship, even Liam, who had to be tied to a strecher and dragged up by the side of the ship by rope. Anton, who had been drenched completely earlier, was standing with nothing but a rag around his waist, his long hair and beard making him look like the hermits Liam had heard of in children's stories. They were waiting for the master of the ship to finish lunch and have an audition with Anton.
Liam had been placed in the shade by some barels, and given some water by a boy no older than 10, who had sat down next to him and started chatting with the knight. Liam was too tired and malnourished to be mentally capable of following along the boy's chatter, but he tried to humour him as best as he could in his state. Suddenly, the boy fell silent and Liam could hear a high piched male voice, which had the tone of a knife being scraped against glass to it.
"Who have you brought on board? Who are these beggars?"
"They were in royal waters without flying any flags, sir."
"Off with their heads, then. You know the law."
"Sir, before you do anything you might regret..." Anton began, before his voice fell down to an inaudible volume. Liam lifted up his head to look.
The man, Tomlinson, had medium lenght brown hair with a red tint to it in the midday light, a short beard. He was wearing a shirt as red as wine underneath his chainmail. Anton had leaned very close to him, apparently whispering in his ear. The man's expression changed from annoyed, to concerned, to, finally, absolutely disinterested. He nodded to Anton and turned to his men.
"Bring them rations. Food, clean water, enough for a two week voyage for three." He said to the closest two soldiers. One of them tried to insist, that the trio had to be executed, but the master pointed to something out of Liam's view, and the man quickly blurted out a 'Yes, Sir.' and the two dissapeared into the ship's hold.
"Bring them clean clothes." He said to another soldier, who dissapeared after the previous two.
"Where is Jefferson?" Louis exclaimed, and the boy next to Liam ran towards the master. He chirped a 'Yes, Sir!' and saluted the man.
"Wake up the apothecary. Make him check on the wounded one."
In short, they were taken care of. After a few hours, the crew broke out in song and dance, a lute was being played and the men sang sea shanties of women of imense beauty and ferocious sea beasts. Their boat was packed with supplies and clean clothes, and they recieved a map and a compass as a gift from the master.
As the sun fell beyond the horizon, the trio got back into their boat, and started rowing away from the ship, to north-east. Everyone had been fed and their thirst quenched, their mood was lightened and the morning conflict forgotten. Their spirits had been lifted, and Antom mentioned, that they should get home in no time. Benjamin just nodded, looking back at the battleship.
The two of them rowed the boat, while Liam sat up, looking back at the ship. After a few minutes, something strange happened.
"Are...are they jumping overboard?" Liam asked, and the other two looked back. Shapes of men were falling overboard, and moments later, the sails of the ship were in flames. And then, a sound of a dozen howls.
"Did they have hounds on the ship?" Liam asked. Anton shrugged, while Benjamin just stared at the burning ship, before beggining to row faster.
"That's the Cù Sìth's first howl after our heads." Benjamin said, and the other two shivered. The hound was a legend, but every man feared it like children feared the dark.
The following week was tense. The men didn't talk much. They either rowed the boat in silence or looked out at the horizon, to the east, looking for land. With each passing day the tension grew even thicker, to the point where on the seventh day it felt like you could cut it with a knife.
Anton and Benjamin rarely spoke more than a few words to eachother, the clash still fresh on their minds. Liam felt, that there were a lot of unresolved problems between the two, but the biggest problem, most likely, was Liam himself. He didn't feel good about himself at all. Anton had endangered his mission amd Benjamin for the sake of Liam. For the sake for someone, who he thought left him. Which...wasn't far from the truth.
Liam spent hours overthinking what might have happened. He could understand Benjamin's anger with the childhood friend's - he obviously had something to return to back home, unlike Liam, who had fucked up the most important task of his life. His parents were probably already stripped of their title because of him, and Liam would be executed for failing the King. That's how things were in the Three Isles for centuries, the kings never forgave their troops for failure. And rightfully so, otherwise they might not held their tasks to high enough importance.
Point was, Liam had nothing but death to return to. Right now he couldn't be useful to anyone either, he couldn't even do the simplest of things like feed himself. Nobody needs a cripple like him.
Benjamin knew it, and Liam noticed the way the man glanced at him with his dark eyes. He despised him the second he saw him.
Liam knew it, too. Yet Anton...Anton either didn't want to accept the truth, or...
"Land!" Anton exclaimed, pointing at the horizon. Benjamin stopped rowing and turned around to look to the east, and so did Liam. Indeed, on the horizon, a long, black line could be seen.
"Land, boys, land!" Anton kept cheering, a huge grin splitting his face. The tension that had held them in its clutches for a week dissapeared like a cloud over the sun when the wind picked up.
"We'll be home tonight. Or tomorrow, at most."
"You better be right, Anton." Benjamin said, his tone as cantankerous as always.
"I might not be able to read letters, but I can read maps. I am sure we will see Ashbourne once night falls."
Benjamin looked at Anton, and then looked back at the horizon, and this time, his look softened.
Then he blinked and his gaze hardened again. He turned his back on the two men and resumed rowing. Anton sighed and did the same.
After a few hours, the wind started picking up and they opened the sail, resting their arms as the boat moved towards land at a considerable speed. Time passed.
The line on the horizon got wider, and upon sunset they could make out the individual trees in the forest.
"There is the old oak!" Anton said, rolling up the map and putting it in his leather bag.
"Not far now, Liam." he said, turning to the knight and patting him on the shoulder gently.
There was a slight hassle while the men manuvered the boat into the river, which was getting shallower and narrower, the further they pressed on. Lucky for the travelers, it didn't have a strong stream.
The sun set, and engulfed them all in darkness. The sky was clear and the stars were shining brightly. Water was splashing against the oars and the side of the boat rythmically, and after a while they could hear a lute in the distance.
The lute played a peaceful song with a tinge of sorrowfulness to it. The sounds came closer and closer with every row, until a light emerged on the river bank.
A woman was sitting on a rock, lute in her hands, a torch stabbed into the ground next to her, playing her sweet song. Suddenly Liam heard a sob somewhere near him. The boat leaned to one side, and Liam was drenched by the splatter of water next to the boat. The woman stopped playing and looked up, staring out at the water.
In the light of the torch Liam saw a male figure emerge from the water and stand in front of the woman, who dropped her lute, threw her arms around the man's neck and kissed him.
"Ah, the love birds." Anton said, suddenly sitting really close to Liam. He could feel the other man's breath on his cheek as they looked at the pair on the riverbank.
"Love still blossoms in these dark times." Anton continued, and fell silent, as if he was waiting for Liam to reply.
"Yeah." was all the man replied.
"Alright, I better get out and drag the boat to the shore."
"Can you do it alone?" Liam inquired.
"Sure, but it would be better if Ben helped me out... Though, let's let him have his time with Scarlet."
"Can't you anchor the boat here and then get it in the morning?"
"We need to get you out somehow, Liam."
"Oh. Right." Liam mumbled and kept silent from then on, while Anton huffed and tried to drag the boat closer to the shore. Soon enough both Benjamin and Scarlet came to help him out though, and all finally set foot on dry land.
Finally the light of the torch illuminated the four of them, and Liam had a good look at the pair of lovebirds, who didn't let go of eachothers hands. Him - tall, dark hair, darker eyes, awe inspiring posture. A man you wouldn't want to encounter with a weapon in his hands. Her - fiery red hair, freckles all over her face, a soft, yet enticing gaze and red lips, an enthralling aura around her. A woman you'd lay your head down for in the battlefield in a heartbeat.
"I will run and tell everyone you're back." she said, her voice quiet and gentle.
Benjamin squeezed her hand and pulled her closer, not wanting to let go. Anton caught the movement in his sights and shaked his head.
"That won't be necessary, Scarlet. We don't want celebration tonight, we need to take care of things."
"Such as...him, I assume?" she asked, looking at Liam. Benjamin leaned down and began whispering in her ear. The smile on her face faltered, and she sighed before placing a quick kiss on Ben's lips and freeing her hand from his.
"This is Liam, the knight I've told you about. We found him outside of Chonce. He's been tortured for weeks. Both arms unusable, he's covered in scars. Can I place him in your care?"
"I promise I'll try to not be a burden." Liam murmured. Benjamin snorted. Anton placed his hand on Liam's back, circling his thumb over his left shoulderblade.
"Of course." Scarlet responded.
"And then, tomorrow..." Anton's grip on Liam's shoulder tightened, making the wounded man hiss in pain, for what Anton instantly apologized. "Tomorrow you'll write down a report, and I will leave for the city."
"Leaving already?" she began to ask, glancing at Benjamin.
"Don't worry, Ben stays here. Duty calls. Now, everyone needs a good night's sleep."
Anton took the torch and started walking away from the river, and the other three followed him into the woods.
The dawn chorus of birds filled the cool morning air, rays of sun breaking in through the cracks of the cruck house's poorly thatched roof. A cheeky ray shined right on Liam's closed eyes, making him stir around in his sleep. Something soft and fuzzy poked Liam's face a few times, before he was nudged in the face by something cold and wet, making him open his eyes. To his shock, there was an animal standing by his bed. A lynx to be exact.
"Ah!" Liam exclaimed, eyes wide, as he kicked the sheepskin off himself in an attempt to increase the distance between him and the animal, which jumped back and hissed at the sudden movement. They both stared at each other, Liam frozen with fear, and the feline revealing it's teeth to him in a threatening manner.
"Help!" He yelled, looking at the entrance of his shelter, hoping for someone to show up. He didn't have to wait long until he heard steps coming closer. The curtain by the door parted, and a head of auburn hear popped into the gap.
"Scarlet, run, there's a-" Liam said, frantically, but to his shock, Scarlet just smiled and went inside, heading straight to the predator and petted it's head. The animal seemed to calm down instantly, and even licked the woman's hand, before she ushered it out of the building. Liam watched it all happen with wide eyes, pressed against the wall and not daring to move.
"Don't worry, Liam." She said, approaching him. "At least, not until it grows older. Come with me, we have to get you cleaned up."
"What witchcraft..." Liam mumbled, and for a moment Scarlet's smile hardened. The man carefully got up from his bed, and followed the redhead outside. The lynx was nowhere to be seen, but, even though the sun had barely risen, the village was bustling with life. A few men were gutting freshly caught fish next to the fire in the centre of the camp, some were carrying around large, black caldron, sounds of wood being chopped came from behind. Scarlet led Liam through all of it to a house near the river.
It was a small house, but it was built from stones, with a properly thatched roof and wooden shutters on the windows. Benjamin was sitting on a bench next to the entrance, whittling a wooden figure. He glanced up, smiled at Scarlet, but gave a glare to Liam as he passed by, making the knight tense.
The walls of the house were covered in dried plants. A bouquet of chamomile hanged upside down by a thread from a nail right next to the entrance, filling the room with their scent. There was a table, littered with bits of plants and bottles of fluids. In the middle of the table - a pestle. The floor was lined with a layer of straw, as most peasant houses were. And in the centre of it all, a big wooden bathtub, filled with water.
"First, I will take off these rotten bandages," Scarlet said, taking a knife from the table and approaching Liam. "Then I will wash you," she continued, sliding the knife underneath the bandages and twisting it to cut them open. Surprisingly, Liam didn't even flinch, though he was certain his sides were torn up. "Take care of your wounds and your arms," the bandages fell to the ground as she untied them, "And then Anton will interrogate you. "
"Alright." Liam nodded. It seemed strange to him - a woman being the apothecary. It was a man's job everywhere else. Without any warning, Scarlet tugged off his linen pants, leaving him completely naked, and Liam's cheeks became as red as the dried blood on his back. She, on the other hand, remained unfazed.
"Get in." She motioned to the bath, and Liam complied. The water was warm and relaxing, and her hands were gentle and soft against his back, even on the wounds. Liam closed his eyes and relaxed. It felt like a dream - being taken care of by a beautiful woman after being tortured for weeks. His thoughts began to wander off to more sinful things, but that was quickly cut short, as a loud cough right behind him cut the flow of his imagination.
"Benjamin, love," Scarlet said, voice ever so gentle, "Please, don't interrupt my work."
"I don't trust him." the other man spoke. Liam felt Scarlet's hands leave his back, and he looked over his shoulder. Scarlet had walked over to Benjamin, and was locked in a deep kiss. It didn't last for long, though. She whispered something in his ear, Benjamin's shoulders straightened out and he swiftly exited the room. And then, as if nothing had happened, she continued her work.
After a bath, Liam was laid down on a linen sheet and Scarlet began to treat his wounds with all kinds of liquids and poultices, the scents of which mixed and mingled together, making Liam lightheaded. Then she turned to his arms.
"Who put on these bandages on you, anyways?" She asked, slowly circling Liam's right arm at it's shoulder.
"I don't know... Anton, perhaps?"
"I didn't teach Anton how to deal with dislocated shoulders. Benjamin, on the other hand... Well, it doesn't matter. Your arms have suffered greatly, and I don't think you'll be able to use them properly until winter comes. Which isn't ideal, but you will have to do."
Liam sighed. He won't be useful in the most busy time of the year. Brilliant.
"I will put both of your arms in slings. If you can, try to move your arms, stretch your shoulders, but don't overdo it, alright?"
"Yes." Liam agreed. Scarlet finished her work in silence, in the end helping Liam put back on his pants and get his arms into a loose linen shirt. Liam already felt much better, and he didn't forget to express his gratitude, mentioning that she had 'hands of gold', to which the redhead responded with a smile.
Though, at the back of his mind, a hundred and one question about the lynx burned. She knew so much about plants and wounds, and she had power over wild animals... Perhaps she was a witch? Nonsense, Liam thought. There was no such thing as dragons or witches.
Afterwards Scarlet led him to a different building, one closer to the heart of the village. Anton was waiting inside, and a wide smile showed on his freshly shaven face as he saw his friend.
"Liam! There you are!" he said, opening his arms wide and hugging Liam, while Scarlet excused herself and left. "How did you sleep? Did you rest well? I'm sorry we had to put you in that old building, we just don't have any spots at the moment."
"It's okay, and it was good...Except for..."
"Except for?" Anton raised his eyebrows, puzzled.
"The lynx. Listen, I don't know what or how, but as much as Scarlet seems great, there are things about her that..."
Anton placed a finger on Liam's lips and his voice went down to a whisper.
"Don't let Benjamin hear you imply these things. Or her, for that matter. And God forbid you mention the Red Dragons around either of them."
"Red Dragons?" Liam asked, and Anton quickly explained, that on the isle of Drage there always had been rumors of a group of redhead witches, women that were as cruel as they were beautiful. They were rumored to know things that no one else knew, of plants, and of animals. Men despised them for their power and wits.
He shut up as soon as Scarlet, alongside with Benjamin, entered the house. Anton pulled a chair towards Liam and urged him to sit down, and so did the rest. Then, he took a bundle of papers and laid them out on the table.
"Now, here comes the most important part. I have maps, and you, Liam, will have to tell me everything that happened the day you attacked Chonce." Anton said, rolling out the maps on the table in front of the knight. Liam looked down at the papers and sighed. Now he will have to reveal his failure in detail. He feared they would laugh at him, or call him a coward and a failure, which he thought he was anyways, but words still hurt. And the report would make his way to the king... Liam already imagined an axe coming down on his neck.
"I know you don't want to remember," Anton said, gently placing his hand on Liam's shoulder, as the knight blankly stared at the maps, "But this is incredibly important, Liam. Please."
The knight took a deep breath and delved into his memories.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Chapter by escsorrel, leosorrel (escsorrel)
I hope Liam seems inadequate and inexperienced enough. Also, can't write fight scenes to save my life. I promise the fight scenes in the future will actually feel like fight scenes.
Niall I Horan was the King of the Three Isles, a kingdom, that covered three islands - Caorich Ferainn, or Sheepland, as the commoners called it simply because most of the livestock there was sheep due to the rocky terrain, Drage, known for it's lush fruit and berry fields, along side with tales of dragons and other mythical creatures, and the main island, Tri Adhaircean, or Three Horns. All the names were in a language anyone had barely spoken for centuries, but the aristocracy still used them. Commoners, not so much. Any other land was a forthnight's trip on a mighty ship to the west, so the kingdom had to be self-sufficient, which had been possible for centuries. Yet king Niall had set his sights for the continent, hoping to bring his people out of isolation and make a name of himself.
Liam was born on Three Horns, close to the Northern mountain range, near the Payne peak. As his father before, he carried the Payne name and crest along with him. A red lion graced his elliptical shield and the back of his great helm. He had been knighted three years prior, by the king himself, while the monarch was on a trip through his lands, to allow Liam to participate in a tourney in the king's honor - which he won. Then he had sworn loyalty no matter what.
But now, in his 24rd summer, he was far away from home, leading, what most certainly seemed like a suicide mission. He was leading a 30 men group to liberate the only big city of Sheepland - Chonce.
King Niall's trips to the mainland had attracted the unwanted attention of King Harold. Nobody knew much about him in the Three Isles, but with his recent sudden invasion, everyone considered him a bloodthirsty tyrant.
His troops had taken the north of the western isle of the kingdom, including the city, blocking off the port and making the waters unsafe. King Niall demanded the situation was dealt with, swiftly. And the task fell upon Liam and his troops. They had no information about the size of the garrison in Chonce, all they knew - at midnight someone would open the gates for them.
He waited, anxiously. The sun was lazily setting, as it did around the middle of summer. His troops were tending to their horses, trying to keep the animals quiet. They were hiding in a settlement in the outskirts of town, sharing the barns with a couple hundred of smelling sheep.
Finally the sun hid behind the horizon and all the men got on their horses, as quiet as they could with their swords and shields hitting against their armour. With Liam in the lead, they rode out on the road, towards Chonce.
The sky got dark and the only light illuminating the way was the moon. It didn't help them much, though. It made everything even more dangerous as it was - the reflection on their armour could alarm the guards on the city walls.
Upon arriving to the garrison, Liam and his troops were met with a lowered drawbridge and open gates.
"Men," he said, turning his horse to the side to pace in front of his troops, "We ride in, straight to the city hall. Take down anyone who attacks you, no mercy. We don't know if there are several dozens or several hundreds. If needed, we will lay our heads on the city streets."
His tone wasn't very optimistic, but he knew the others weren't fools. Instilling false hope at the last moment would just destroy the morale once it would be clear, that everything was lost.
"Our task is to free this city. Hiyah!" he finished, urging his horse to gallop towards the city. The sound of 124 horseshoes against the pavement filled the otherwise quiet streets of the city, making a few heads poke out from windows on the second floor.
Liam rode on, not looking back, towards the church on the hill in the middle of the city. He was alarmed by the lack of guards on the streets. It was quiet. All too quiet. He began to become tense.
They reached the church without any incidents, without any enemies in sight. None of his troops were locals, so Liam looked for someone to ask directions to the city hall. He saw a beggar kneeling outside of the church, head bowed down in prayer. He got off his horse and walked over to the beggar, armour clanking on every step and stood behind the praying man. He waited for him to raise his head up, but after a few minutes he got impatient and tapped the man on the shoulder, startling him.
"Sir, I wasn't doing anything bad, I swear, I wasn't badmouthing King Harold in front of the Great One, I-" the man rambled, falling down and trying to get away from Liam.
"Calm down, in the name of King Niall!" Liam said, firmly. The man stopped backing away and stared at Liam.
"Tell me, where is the city hall." Liam asked the man, who glanced behind Liam's back at the rest of the troops.
"Down that street, sir," the man stuttered, pointing to a narrow street that continued behind the church, "But don't go there, for your own sake, don't, you won't return!"
Liam hesitated to reply. It seemed like everyone knew that they were here for a suicide mission. Yet, his vow to the king was still fresh in his mind, and there was no way he was going to be disloyal.
"I'll be deciding where we go or not." he spat back at the man after a tense inner fight, turning on his heel and getting back on his horse.
"Down the street, over there." He said, pointing in the direction and motioned everyone else to follow. As quick as they could on horsebacks through a narrow street, they moved forward, coming out at a large building, the stained glass windows of which were lit up. Two guards slept at the door - Liam sent two men to take them out quietly. Then rest of them got off their horses, unsheated their weapons and readied their shields. Liam stood in front of them, and together with the first two, pushed open the door.
They were met by the Great Hall, full of enemy troops, sat around long tables, feasting and drinking. At the very end of the hall, a throne had been placed, and a man in black armour sat there, laughing with a goblet in his hand. Several seconds later the hall fell silent, everyone staring at them. Liam tightened his grip on his sword, sweating underneath his armour. Too many eyes were on him. Too many enemies at once. His subordinates were exchanging worried glances behind him.
"In the name of King Niall, " Liam exclaimed, causing a chain reaction of angry yells and soldiers grabbing their weapons from the ground, "I demand you leave this city! Or we will..."
"Or you will, what?" The man in the dark armour shouted from across the hall. "You should have brought an army, not a circus troupe! Kill them!"
And all hell broke loose. The sound of steel against steel echoed through the hall, along with grunts, yells and the occasional curse.
Liam used his shield to crash into the torsos of the overwhelming wave of attackers and freeing up space. He waved his sword around him, trying to keep them at bay, feet shuffling around. He had never been in an actual fight to the death, and he was afraid.
He lunged forward, piercing an attacker's stomach, before swinging at the next one with all of his strenght. Almost none of them had shields and were wearing chainmail, yet...
Liam staggered sideways to avoid blows to the head. Right where his foot was a second ago, now the head of his comrade laid, cut off from his body. Liam's eyes widened under his helm and he glanced back.
Somehow they all had ended up in different parts of the hall, surrounded by at least three men. The door had been shut and at least ten were standing in front of it, just waiting at the chance to get to Liam's men.
Liam looked back at the end of the hall - the man in the black armour was sitting there, watching him while drinking from his goblet. Since Liam was much closer than before, now he noticed several details about him. One, he had long, curly hair that ached to be washed. Two, there was a crown on his head. Three, he raised his goblet while looking at Liam with a malicious grin on his face.
King Harold. There was no doubt. If only Liam could get past everyone else...
The knight had lost his attention, caught up in the adrenaline rush of the realisation, and something very heavy and blunt hit him on the back of his head, knocking him down on his feet.
"Capture him!" The king yelled out, and the weight of four men fell on Liam, not letting him move. Someone pulled off his helmet and bashed him in the head with it until Liam passed out.