Hello friends. So I've been holding off on doing a chaptered wayhaught fic until season 2 was announced. Now that it has been, I feel a bit more comfortable with this. Special thanks to JayBear1701 for betaing this and reminding me just how much I suck at tenses.
"Good day, Sir Victor." The early morning fog parted as light steps crunched against frozen grass, a tall form damp from a frigid morning swim striding with a confident gait. Long tapered fingers reached out, only to be blasted with a playful burst of air and God knows what else from the beast's nostrils. "Oh, is that how it is now?" A smile spread across fair features, dimples evident even in the low lighting of the rising sun.
The dapple gray destrier nodded eagerly, hooves stomping at the ground before bumping his snout into his owner's chest, searching for the treat he knew she'd brought for him.
"Yeah Yeah Yeah." She ran her fingertips along the muscular neck, soothing down the fine hairs. "We should be home by end of day." Removing a sharp knife from her belt, the woman made easy work of the yellow apple, the cooks she'd long ago befriended having turned a blind eye in the rations tent earlier. The skin was a little weathered, but the sweet juices dripped down her wrists as she offered half to the horse. "Do you even remember what home is like?" She spoke softly, the fondness she had for the animal evident to anyone who dared wake before dawn. They had been together since leaving the kingdom, growing together into the rhythm of battle, protecting each other when needed. He was the closest thing she had to family out on the battlefield with the exception of her mentor and he was always available to offer an ear to listen to her woes.
Looking out at the pasture, she sniffled, taking a bite of her own and rolling the mealy flesh over her tongue as she stroked the dark mane. This early in the morning, before the rest of the world awoke, was her favorite part of the day. She was allowed the miniscule sliver of peace that would soon be disrupted by the wakefulness of a league of rowdy fighters. It was in these moments that she found easiest to look back on the countless nights she'd spent away from the kingdom, nights that had turned into weeks, months, and eventually years. How long had it been? Five years? Six? She could ask one of the record keepers, but she feared the answer.
One enemy had led to another and then to another until they had ended up so far from home they'd taken months to make the journey home when they'd received news of the king's passing. She could barely remember the reason they left in the first place.
She tried to remember the life she'd had at the castle, before she'd left on the campaign… before her life was ruled by the sword and duty to her king, but all she could remember were moments… small intervals of time that stood out like signal fires to remind her of what she was fighting for.
Remembering running through the halls of the castle, the sound of the laughter of her best friend, she sighed softly. Her best friend… the princess. Would things be different now? They were both older, so much so that no doubt the princess would have her own duties to attend to. Balls and dinners where there was no place for a knight. With the king's death came responsibilities that would no doubt fall on the shoulders of the girl who'd once, in secret, dared to call her sister. Would they still associate with each other? How many times had the chambermaid attempted to come between their friendship, saying an orphaned girl had no business within the walls of the royal castle? How many times had they snuck out together, where she was no longer a bastard without kin, and her friend was no longer a princess destined to live a life she had no control over? Would they still dare to sit by the river in naught but their shifts, talking about what the world outside the kingdom looked like?
No. There would be no dreams of leaving. She'd seen what the world had to offer, with its pain and misery. She still heard the screams of the dying in her dreams, the gurgle of blood as her sword plunged through a chest. She'd lived to see a helmet fall from the head of a boy years younger than herself as she pulled her sword from his body.
She would never look beyond the walls of the kingdom in wonder again.
She had changed. She wasn't as carefree as she once was. She understood more of the boundaries between social status. She understood the need for order and structure and where her place in life was. She was in no place to make a best friend of a princess.
Or maybe she was just trying to convince herself so as not to feel the bite of disappointment and rejection when she returned home.
Turning in surprise, she attempted to mask the agony that shot through her side with the sudden movement. It was over a month ago that she had been injured and still the pain was overbearing at times. She couldn't help worrying about her future service, but she pushed the pain aside, taking in the presence of the man twice her age and far more weathered than she on the battlefield. He was shorter than her by a great deal and a bit stout, but he was an amazing fighter and critical thinker. That combined with his way with words, he was an obvious choice for Captain of the Guard. "Randell." She fed the rest of the apple to her horse before wiping away the lingering juices. "You're up early. Run out of ale last night?"
"Sadly, yes." He answered in a gruff tone, clearing his throat as he smoothed down his gray mustache with battle-worn fingers. "Did you find any sleep yourself, or is the pain still keeping you awake?"
Of course she couldn't hide anything from him. Having trained her since illness had taken her own parents from her, he knew every one of her tells. "I'm fine." To prove her point, she reached for the saddle she'd prepared before her swim, settling it over the blanket on Victor's back. By the time she got the straps tightened, the taste of blood lingered on her tongue from where she'd bit her cheek to keep silent. Her hands shook as she swallowed the pain, giving the older man a smile. "We about ready to head out?"
Randell shook his head at her stubbornness. Defending herself was apparently not the only thing he'd taught her "Should've sent you to the kitchen so they could teach you to cook instead of fight."
"Then who would watch your back on the battlefield?" Nicole smirked as she wrapped her hand in Victor's reins, knowing he wasn't serious. He took almost as much pride in her success in battle as she did, never having had a son of his own, just a daughter that preferred pretty dresses and ideas of marriage. "I bet you can't wait to see Mary."
Randell only grunted, leading the way back to camp.
Nicole smiled and followed him in silence.
Once the troops were mobilized, it took most of the day to arrive back at the kingdom. The sight that greeted them was definitely one to remember, one that was already in her memories from childhood, but from a completely different perspective. Nicole remembered what it had been like as a child, lining the streets with her parents and the other citizens of the kingdom as people came to watch the army pour in the gates.
She remembered sitting on her father's tall shoulders, wincing as the sun reflected off the well-shined armor of the knights that sat proudly in their saddles. When she had been a child, she didn't remember noticing any battle damage, no dents that couldn't be pounded out or punctures that spoke of the injuries that laid beneath the cloth and armor. She hadn't noticed the weary looks in the eyes of the knights, or the haunted expressions that hid behind false smiles and cheerful waves. In the eyes of a child, her memories lingered on the pride and honor of the great warriors that went out to conquer and defend. She saw heroes on their fine stallions.
How things had changed now that she was the one on horseback. She was excited to have returned home, where she might possibly get a night's rest without fear of an ambush, but she felt far from jovial. Not when she could still feel the pain in her side with every move, a pain that would sometimes rob her breath if she weren't braced for it. She always joked that Randell wouldn't survive a battlefield without her, and while that was true, so was the reverse.
She still remember the feel of the pike slicing through her side, a pain that had brought her to her knees in the midst of battle . Thankfully the thrust from the mounted rider, which had been aimed for her heart, had been deflected enough by Randell's intervention to keep her alive. In pain still, but alive. It had broken two of her ribs and sliced through her side, but she had survived. She had been lucky, where so many she knew and fought beside hadn't been.
And now, haunted and in pain, she was still expected to put up an excited facade and celebrate.
There would be a feast to commend their victory over their enemies, but in her heart she had lost the will to engage in such frivolity. Casting her eyes up towards the castle and the long path that cut through the busy kingdom, she longed for the ride to end. She wanted to slip from Victor's back and lead him the rest of the way, but the pompous ceremony was required. To increase the morale of the kingdom, Randell had explained. Because successful campaigns neither started nor ended on the battlefield. They started within the hearts and optimism of the people, and that was exactly where they ended.
"Almost there, Lass."
Nicole looked to her left where her mentor rode, reins wrapped around one glove as his other rose in greeting. There was pride in his posture, his smile like none she'd seen in the past several years despite knowing that age had been cruel to him. She knew the real reason he drank was because sleeping was difficult, old wounds and uncooperative joints working against his every move. This would be his last campaign. Knowing that, she wondered how he could still smile.
She felt a bump against her leg and noticed a girl no older than six years of age jogging beside her, cheeks red as roses and fiery red hair braided back and out of her face. A small fist of flowers was thrust in her direction and a smile worked it's way onto Nicole's face as she accepted them. "Thank you." To her surprise, the girl grew ten shades redder before shrieking in excitement and dashing back to the crowd where her father scooped her up.
For the smallest of moments, she didn't feel any pain in her side. Looking up at Randell, she saw knowing eyes watching her, and the ghost of a wink before he turned back to the crowd.
Surprisingly, she found the remainder of the ride slightly more bearable with her handful of flowers. Longer than she hoped later, they stood before the grand steps, a place that was hers to stand only because she was second to the captain, most of the men having head to the barracks.
Atop the stairs was a line of noblemen, some she recognized and some she didn't. No doubt they were there to keep the kingdom together until coronation of a new king.
There was one form that stood out like a diamond in the rough, a crimson dress clinging to the womanly curves of a girl that had grown out of her awkward teen years. She stood with a nobility that showed off her status, back straight, shoulders back, dark hair meticulously braided in a complex weave. She looked positively bored until her dark eyes settled on Nicole.
Even as Nicole ascended the stairs beside Randell, she could see the smile inching slowly across the royal features until they were standing less than a few steps apart. Nicole couldn't stop her own smile if she wanted to.
Unexpectedly to all watching, the princess closed the distance between herself and the captain's second, pulling her into a hug for the entire kingdom to see. "You didn't die!"
Nicole didn't even feel the pain as she wrapped her arms around the richly clothed form. "Wyn… I'm pretty sure this is against protocol," but still she returned the hug, flooded with a silent relief.
"Pfft… haven't you heard? I'm in charge now." She laughed a bit, pulling back to reveal eyes that glistened with unshed tears. Unable to stop herself, she pulled Nicole back into another hug, purposely ignoring the clearing throats of her advisors.