Leah had always been the quiet type of person that hadn’t minded idle questions, but this guy didn’t know how to shut up.
“Where do you live? Do you live in this forest somewhere? I bet it gets cold in the winter; it even gets cold in the palace during the winter months. Do you live with anyone? I bet it gets—
Leah turned around on her heel and glared at him, pulling out a sword in the process. He immediately closed his mouth and winced as he put his right arm on his sword. She squinted at that. He looked a little too pale. Her thoughts at threating him to shut up forgotten she put her sword away.
“Let me look at that arrow wound.” She told him. He backed up at her small advancement. She commended his bravery, but rolled her eyes again, “the yurdk use poison on their weapons from time to time. Let me look at it.”
Caelum looked at the figure before him, unsure whether or not he could really trust him. He saw the barest of gold amongst the dark colors that he wore and then the warrior was right next to him looking at the arrow wound. Caelum had already broken off the shaft of the arrow during the fight. This close Caelum could make out the gold eyes of his quiet companion. He tried to stay still as the warrior checked his wound. Without warning the arrow was pushed through the rest of the way and yanked out. Caelum cried out and tried to move, but the warrior already had enough pressure on the wound to prevent him from moving.
Leah frowned at the arrow wound. She had been right and she didn’t have the antidote with her either. He wouldn’t make it to town, let alone the palace where he kept saying he was from. She let go of his shoulder to reach in her bag for bandages. His motions were already slowing down. He tried to move away and she didn’t even have to move fast to grab him and keep him in place. She quickly wrapped his shoulder in the bandages to keep pressure on the wound for now.
“Get on the horse.” She ordered him, he tried to argue, but she put a hand up, “Get. On. The horse.” He squinted his blue eyes at her, but did as she said and got into the saddle. She tossed the reins over the horse’s head and glanced at the man’s glossed over eyes knowing that she needed to hurry. The last thing she wanted was a dead noble on her hands and a bunch of guards in her forest. She swung her leg over the horse and situated herself behind him on the horse and took out a knife. He didn’t even realize what was happening as she hit his head with the handle of the knife to knock him out. She didn’t need a random noble knowing where she lived. Leah gathered the reins and spurred Zephyr into a comfortable canter, turning him towards the base of the mountains.
Carrying a full-grown man into her small cave was more taxing than she would like to admit. Leah told herself it was because of her own small injuries and not because she had been neglecting her normal exercise routine for the past few months. She dropped—lowered him down gently— on the bed and removed his coat in order to see his shoulder better. The wound itself was clean for an arrow wound. It didn’t appear to have severed anything and would heal up just fine once she got the antidote into his system. She went over to a chest in the next area of the cave and pulled out a bottle and a jar. Kneeling next to the small bed she tipped his chin up and poured some of the contents of the bottle down his throat, hoping that this would work. She opened the jar and smelled the recognizable scent of the ointment inside. She used this for almost all of her wounds. The herbs that had been ground into it would numb the area and assist in the healing process. The scent also made one rather drowsy if they were exposed to it for too long. She smeared some of the ointment on his shoulder before putting new bandages on it. She went into the next room and did the same for the small cut on her side. Leah then went to work on cleaning her blades, took care of Zephyr, cleaned her cloak in the nearby stream, and tried her best not to fall asleep.
Caelum was aware of a few things when he woke up. He wasn’t at home, his shoulder didn’t hurt, and his head was throbbing. He cracked his eyes open to find himself looking up at a ceiling of rock. He raised an eyebrow at that. He looked to his right and saw a rock wall and to his left was what looked like a curtain that led into another room. The room was simple, but felt inexplicably cozy. There were furs and books in every free space. A small basket with clothes was near the entrance along with a few different pairs of boots, and a dress was thrown in a corner of the room. He did a double take at the dress. He got up to move towards the dress and turned it over.
“So you’re awake.” Came a voice from behind the curtain. Caelum let go of the dress and went towards the curtain to pull it back. He found his new friend in a new room that was apparently for weapons. There were knives lining the walls, swords in a neat stack, leather scabbards, cleaning supplies, whetstones, and a seat where the warrior now sat. Caelum noticed that his mask and hood was still covering his face.
“You were that girl at the market weren’t you?” He asked before he could think of anything else to say. The warrior whipped his—her head around and searched him with her eyes.
“You need to leave.” She snapped at him as she stood up and walked out another curtain that he hadn’t noticed yet. He followed her into another room that led outside.
“You have a nice place, miss . . .” She stopped and turned around.
“I’m not telling you my name. You’ve caused me enough trouble and I want you gone.” The cloaked girl responded in a huff, he opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off, “I will show you the way out of the forest if and only if you allow me to blindfold you for a few miles. Otherwise I will knock you out and dump you at the capital gates.” Caelum closed his mouth and decided that it may not be wise to cross the fierce woman before him. He figured that he at least owed her some trust when she went to all of this effort to not kill him with the rest of the yurdk.
The blindfold turned out to be a very dark, not see-through at all, bag over his head. He and the girl were on the horse and were cantering through the forest.
“My name is Caelum, though you may already know that.”
“Why would I care what your name is?” she retorted in a curt voice. Caelum’s eyes widened under the bag at her words. She had no idea who he was?
“Well, I mean, what if you ever need to find me again?” he ventured with faux sincerity. He didn’t see her roll her eyes, but he could guess
“Trust me, I will be actively avoiding doing just that from here on out.” Leah said as she tugged on the reins to slow Zephyr to a walk. By her estimate they were about halfway to the edge of the forest and she had taken the long way, so unless he was really good they should be fine. She pulled the hood off of his head. Caelum blinked his eyes a few times to adjust them to the light while the girl get off of Zephyr to lead him down a windy path that, if he had to guess, deer often used. Caelum also dismounted and walked alongside the strange girl. They walked in silence for a good ten minutes before he had to break it.
“Thank you, for, uh, saving me and everything.” Caelum didn’t expect to get an answer, “Also, if you would like a reward then I’m sure that my father would be very happy to give you one.” Again he received no answer, “I also have a favor to ask.” At this he saw her raise one eyebrow.
“I know I don’t deserve to ask a favor of you, but hear me out. This could be mutually beneficial.” Leah turned to face forward again. “I’m going to take that as an ‘I won’t kill you for talking’. The thing is that there is this sort of contest among the nobles and various members of royal court. Basically it’s a tournament of fighters, anyone that they can find, to see who wins.”
Hearing this Leah frowned and was getting ticked off. She wondered if he honestly thought that he could use her in such a way.
“I know it sounds rather barbaric, but the winner receives a large money sum, total amnesty from past crimes, and may chose to become part of the royal guard.” Caelum told her as though these were the best gifts that one could be bestowed with. Leah knew that she didn’t need any of these things, but she did know a certain family that needed help with money. She had never been able to pay them back for being so good to her when she had been lost and afraid, but now she could.
“What’s the catch?” Leah asked, hiding all of her hope behind a practiced voice of indifference. Caelum beamed.
“Well, you would have to live in the castle for the duration of the contest, which is roughly a month, and you aren’t allowed to leave. Since many of the contestants end up being criminals guards escort all contestants when they are moved in the castle, though I may be able to get you out of that after a few days. And . . .”
“And what?” Leah questioned waiting for her thoughts to be confirmed.
“Well, it’s a competition for men because they’re normally the best fighters.” Caelum put his hands up in defense and quickly backtracked at the dirty look that she shot his way, “I didn’t make the rule, and I wouldn’t be asking you this unless I though that you could beat them all. Besides, I assumed that you were a guy for a while there, I probably would still if I hadn’t seen the dress on the floor—not that I was looking for it.”
“So I just have to masquerade as a man for a month and then the money and amnesty is mine?” Leah asked Caelum who nodded.
“Well, you also have to win the competition.” Caelum clarified, Leah waved her hand at the obvious detail. She had done it before, she could do it again.
“I’ll think about it.” Leah answered platonically. The two of them came across a road and she handed him Zephyr’s reins, “Follow this road East and you’ll come to Krey.”
“If you do make a decision, meet me near the edge of the forest by the East road at sunrise in two weeks. The contest begins the day after that.” Caelum told her as he mounted the horse. She nodded and turned back into the forest without a word. Leah heard Zephyr’s hooves fade into the distance and began walking in a straight path towards her home with her thoughts weighing heavily on her mind. Could she do it again? Technically speaking she knew that she could, but the other half of her brain was screaming that this was a bad idea waiting to happen. There were so many unknown variables, but if he was telling the truth then she could solve not only a good amount of her own problems, but Mr. Purcell’s problems as well. If it got to the point where she wanted out she could always just escape. She had done that before as well. Leah knew that in her heart the decision had been made. She would pay back the debt that she owed the Purcell family and gain her amnesty in the process through this contest. She was going to become Levi Harlocke one last time.