You don’t want him to go, but you know he must. Only Arthur’s presence, only Arthur’s authority, will suffice to broker peace between the warring clans.
But you need him too, for only Arthur could calm the turmoil in your breast.
If he but knew … and if he would.
So you stand beside his horse, snatching a precious moment, as Arthur prepares to leave.
He gives you a curt nod. “Take care of the village while I’m gone.”
You rest a hand upon his leg, only meaning to give a reassuring pat, but your hand lingers too long, and your thumb, disobedient digit, betrays your desire with a slight rubbing motion on his thigh.
Arthur stares at you with startled eyes, then kicks his horse and thunders off, leaving you tumbling backwards into hell.
With a puzzled glance after Arthur, Llud mutters: “He’s in a tearing hurry” – then sets off himself. “Keep out of mischief, will you?” he calls over his shoulder. “Spend at least one of the next three nights in your own bed.”
You try to laugh, but it sticks in your throat.
You spend the next three days in a cold sweat. The sight of food sickens you, but you must eat. Arthur charged you to defend this village, and to defend a village, a warrior must eat. So you force down a few scraps. It all tastes like rags and ashes in your mouth.
You can’t sleep, yet you have nightmares that leave you paralysed with fear, until the monsters that pursued you fade.
Then you remember what you did – the look on Arthur’s face … a worse nightmare yet.
You dread Arthur’s return; you spend hours making up excuses in your head, then you think you’re ready. You can’t wait for his return.
If he asks you what you meant by that small movement of your thumb across his thigh, well, you’ll just laugh, and shrug, and say: ‘What? I don’t know what you mean. I don’t remember …’
And Arthur will frown slightly, then forget, and everything will go back to how it was.
At last, you hear hoof-beats, and run out of the longhouse, but Llud has come alone.
You feel the blood drain from your face. “What’s happened to him?”
“No need to get worked up. Arthur decided to spend the night at the old hermit’s cave. Said he wanted to be alone, and clear his head.”
Another day … another day to wait. And what is it that Arthur contemplates?
Llud frowns. “You look like death warmed up.”
You're glad to see Llud lead his horse away, without asking you what’s wrong.
You sit at the longhouse table, chewing at a quick on your thumb. That same thumb … Your hand shakes as you take a sip of mead.
How long will you have to wait?
You feel a hand on your shoulder, and turn your head so fast it hurts your neck but it’s just Llud.
He sits down beside you. “You’re up early. Did you even go to bed?”
You shake your head abruptly.
“Aaaah.” Llud nods, thinking he has the slightest notion of what’s wrong. “Troubles of the heart. Some girl –”
You can’t stay here, listening to fatherly assumptions and fatherly advice, so you get up and leave, run to the stables, saddle your horse, and go – riding out to meet Arthur, and your fate.
And there he is, riding slowly towards you. His head lifts – he sees you, you know he sees you – yet he just carries on at the same pace.
Your heart pounds in your throat. You want to speed towards him, but instead you just get off your horse and wait: your horse’s reins gripped in your hand.
Trying to appear nonchalant, you shift your stance, resting one foot on a tree stump, but you slip, and your foot squelches in the mud.
Arthur gives no sign of having noticed, though he’s a mere heartbeat or two away.
You pull your shoulders back, put your hand on your axe haft, ready to cheat your heart to save your friendship. But when you look up into those ice-blue eyes, your courage fails. You stare past Arthur into the distance, then at his horse’s head, then at your boots. Anywhere but his face.
“Did you get what you wanted from your meeting?”
Arthur swings his leg over his horse’s neck, and slides to the ground. “Everything I expected.”
You scuff the toe of your boot against the ground. “And from your contemplations?”
“Not everything, no. I did not.”
“What was lacking?”
With one hand, Arthur lifts your chin, and says simply: “You.”