Copyright Leslie Ann Miller
The scowl on Keen's face deepened as she stood, unmoving, staring at the thick mud that oozed down her pant leg into her black leather boot.
Merlynn pulled her patched woolen cloak more tightly around her shoulders and shook the rain from her hood. Tactfully she suppressed a smile.
Keen pulled her boot free with a loud squelch and stared at Merlynn defiantly. "I don't care if we don't have any silver," she announced curtly. "We are having dinner and staying the night at an inn if we find one."
Merlynn did not reply immediately. She knew from her companion's tone of voice that protest would be useless. She'd only been traveling with Keen for two seven-days, but it hadn't taken her long to learn that the woman was as stubborn as a tree stump in the Bower's forest. Besides, she knew it was partly her fault that Keen's pouch was empty, and she felt terrible about it. "How will we pay?" she finally asked, gracefully stepping around a puddle in the road. "We spent your last coppers in Birchwood."
"Maybe someone will need your healing. Maybe someone will need my sword. I'll think of something, don't you worry."
She sounded so completely confident that Merlynn had to smile. Merlynn had been raised deep in the heart of the Bower's forest by an eccentric old woman named Rona. Rona had taught her the ways of the trees and the Lady's Healers, but Merlynn had never been exposed to many outsiders. When the river had flooded fifteen days ago washing away their tiny hut and drowning Rona, Keen had rescued Merlynn, exhausted and barely able to keep her head above the water, by dragging her bodily out of the Silver River.
And Keen, a mercenary Sword from Gideon, was completely beyond Merlynn's realm of experience. The lady warrior was short and stout, built more like a boulder than a tree, and walked with a limp that got worse with the weather. She wore a thigh-length chainmail shirt under a much-patched red tabard. She was too short to wear her longsword at her side so she had it slung across her back beneath her bulging travel pack. Her brown hair was streaked with gray, and she had a vivid white scar running across her forehead. She also carried a small, battered wooden round shield.
"As I recall," Keen continued, "the road crosses the Silver again not too far ahead. There should be an inn on the other side. It's a little village called River's Bend, I believe."
Merlynn nodded even though she'd never heard the name before. The world outside the Bower's forest was more vast than she'd ever dreamed. As soon as Keen had discovered her talents for healing, she decided to take Merlynn to the King's capital, Gideon, to deliver her into the hands of the Lady's Healers for training. Having no idea what else to do or where to go, Merlynn had agreed to come. But the journey seemed to take forever, and from what Keen had said, they were still less than half-way there.
Still, Keen was right about the river. It was not long before the sound of rushing water reached them through the trees, and when the road turned again, the Silver's gray waters were before them.
"Great," Keen muttered, looking at the swollen waters with the rope running across tied to trees on opposite banks. "The bridge is washed out!"
Merlynn scanned the far bank through wind driven rain. "Is that somebody under a shelter?" she asked, pointing to what appeared to be a temporary wooden shelter set up between two trees with a patch of huddled scarlet underneath.
Keen gazed ahead, squinting her eyes. "It is, and it looks like there's a boat as well. Perhaps they're helping folk across... it's decent of the village to send someone. Hey!! You there!!" She shouted to get the person's attention. "Over here!!"
The huddled figure turned around and stood up. A second figure, this one dressed in green, joined the first. Together they slid down the steep bank to the water's edge.
"Ho!" called the figure in green, and Merlynn realized that it was a woman.
"Are you giving rides across?!" Keen shouted.
The scarlet figure nodded. "For a price," he shouted back.
Keen swore under her breath. "How much?" she shouted.
The man in scarlet shouted something which the wind and rain snatched clean away.
"How much?!" Keen repeated.
"Two silver!" The woman's shrill voice reached them clearly.
Keen swore loudly, no longer under her breath.
"They can't charge for passage on a king's road, can they?" Merlynn asked.
Keen stopped swearing and grinned. "You're right," she said. "This is a King's road!" She yelled. "You can't charge for passage!"
The man appeared to laugh. "King's road, King's bridge," he shouted. "MY BOAT!"
"We don't have any silver!" Merlynn shouted; and Keen slapped her hard on the shoulder.
"What are you doing?!" the warrior exclaimed. "Don't tell them that! They'll never bring the boat across now!"
"But we don't have any silver to pay them!" Merlynn said in surprise.
"That's not the point!" the warrior snapped.
The man across the river grabbed the rope and gave it a shake. "You can try the rope, then," he yelled unsympathetically, "or try the ford three leagues downstream - if the bottom hasn't washed out!"
Keen went red in the face. "Bastards!" she muttered. "Bastards and bitches! As if I could swim in mail!"
"I'm a healer!" Merlynn shouted. "Help us to cross, and I'll give you my service!"
They appeared to have a conference about this, and finally the man looked up.
"Show us your medallion!" he shouted.
Merlynn looked at Keen for help.
"Show him something," she hissed. "Anything... just hold something up! They can't see through this rain!"
"But then they'll cross the river..." Merlynn protested.
"That's what we want!" Keen fumed. "We want the boat on THIS side!"
"But they might get hurt - and the trip will be for nothing because they'll see it's not a medallion as soon as they get here!"
Keen stamped her foot and muddy water splashed everywhere. "So we force them to take us across, you fool! Have you no common sense?!"
"Obviously not of that sort," Merlynn said defensively. "And besides, don't you think they're prepared for that? Won't they just tip the boat over half way and let us drown?"
"They'd drown themselves in this current - and if they think you're a healer, they won't be expecting anything. Now show them something!"
But Merlynn was not going to be bullied. She was just as wet, just as cross, and feeling just as hungry and stubborn as her companion. They would do this the right way. She cupped her hands and shouted, "I'm going to Gideon for more training! I haven't got a medallion yet!"
They heard a harsh bellow of laughter over a gust of wind-driven rain. "Nice try!" the man yelled. "Have fun swimming!" He turned his back on them and started hauling the boat back up the bank. His companion headed for the shelter.
Keen groaned. "I can't believe you just did that..."
Merlynn just stared across the water as the woman settled under the shelter and the man crawled in after her. "They're not going to help us at all?"
"Of course not!" Keen exploded.
"I thought they'd help us if we were at least honest... The Lady expects honesty, doesn't she? And she rewards it....! That's what Rona always said!"
Keen stared at her in disbelief and slowly shook her head. "You amaze me, my friend. You truly amaze me."
Merlynn blushed, but was too embarrassed to say anything. She had messed things up again. How long would it be before the warrior simply chucked her back in the river and went her own way? "I'm sorry Keen," she said softly, and could not meet her companion's eyes.
The warrior grunted and grabbed the rope, giving it a good tug. "At some point in time," she said in a carefully neutral tone, "you will learn that our mortal world is run not by the ideals of the Gods, but rather by the whims and fancies of greedy mortal men and women who are looking to make a living off of somebody else's misfortune. You, as a healer, should understand this concept quite well."
Merlynn puzzled over this for a moment. Healers never required payment for their services. People gave donations according to how much they could afford. Nevertheless, a healer would never get anything if people did not get sick or injured, so in effect, Keen was correct. Healers made their fortune off of other people's misfortune. It was a disquieting thought. "But healers try to make things better..." she said out loud.
"And those two are just trying to make things better as well - for themselves!"
"But not for others," Merlynn persisted.
Keen shrugged. "You have to fight for yourself, girl. In a shield wall you look out for yourself first, and your shield brother or sister second. Healers are no different. You can't do the world any good if you're dead, now, can you? What help can you be if you're half starved and have no strength? And you don't even have a medallion yet! You can't be living by a healer's ideals until you can prove you are one." The warrior looked at her, frowning. "You're going to have to learn how to fight for yourself, my friend. To look out for yourself. You'll have to if you want to survive, healer or no. Sometimes you have to take advantage of opportunities. Sometimes you have to create opportunities for yourself."
"Rona never fought! She'd never hurt a thing! And she never took advantage of anybody!"
"And now she's dead."
"Because a river flooded! I can take care of myself!"
"Like you did fifteen days ago?"
Merlynn's mouth snapped shut.
The warrior chuckled. "Don't worry, girl," she said. "I trained new recruits for Pikeman's lot. You're not the only girl I've met wet behind the ears." She chuckled again, this time at her own pun.
Merlynn started to feel a little better. If Keen had trained recruits, surely she would be used to people making mistakes.
The warrior tested the straps on her pack and made sure her sword and shield were strapped down securely. "Do you think you can cross on the rope?" she asked.
Merlynn looked at it dubiously, but decided that it wouldn't be any worse than climbing some of the trees in Bower's forest. She nodded.
Keen frowned, as if doubting her, but nodded anyway. "All right. Why don't you go first, then."
Merlynn swallowed, thinking that Keen was testing her, perhaps to see if she really had the courage to do it. She stared at the rushing waters, remembering how close they had come to claiming her life only a few short days ago. She grabbed the rope, which was shoulder high, and let her weight hang. The rope held taut and secure. She swung her legs up to catch the rope, then maneuvered herself into a sitting position. From there, she pushed herself up carefully until she was standing with outstretched arms, precariously balanced on top of the narrow rope.
"What are you doing?" Keen asked sharply.
Merlynn realized that she had done something wrong, but couldn't think what. "I'm getting ready to cross..."
"By walking? Like that?"
Merlynn blushed. "Is that wrong?"
Keen's face dissolved into mock wide-eyed innocence. "Oh no... by all means, go ahead..."
Merlynn shrugged off her companion's sarcasm and started across, one careful step at a time. The gusting wind and driving sheets of rain caught at her cloak making it difficult to keep her balance on the slightly swaying rope. Twice she nearly fell, just barely managing to catch herself. Near the center of the river, the rope bowed so low that there was barely two feet between her and the top of the flood, and the sight of the rushing water and loud roar in her ears made her head spin and her breath catch in her throat. Still, slowly she made her way across until finally she swung down gratefully into the slippery mud on the far bank.
She ignored the curious gazes of the two strangers under the shelter, and said a quick prayer of thanks to her Goddess for granting her such a good sense of balance. She was grateful that Keen could not see how badly she was shaking.
Meanwhile the Lady warrior had swung up under the rope and begun to slide across using her hands and legs. Merlynn's heart sank as she realized how much more sensible Keen's method was compared to her own. What a fool the warrior must think her! True it was much slower, but it certainly looked much safer.
At least, it looked safer until Keen started nearing the center of the river. With her heavy mail shirt, the warrior was much heavier than Merlynn, and the rope was bowing so low that Keen's backpack was already touching the water. It was clear that she would not make it across without going at least partially into the flood. Merlynn began praying that the rope would stay taut enough to keep the warrior's head above water.
She glanced back at the strangers to see if they had noticed her companion's difficulty. They were watching, but showed no signs of offering to help with their boat.
Keen inched forward, and Merlynn saw her strong arms lock tight as the flood caught her pack, swinging it violently to the side. It took the warrior a moment before she began sliding forward again. Soon her back and hips disappeared beneath the surface, and the rope swayed as the roaring waters tried to sweep her downstream.
When Keen did not move for several moments, Merlynn realized that something was wrong. Apparently she could do no more than hang on for dear life, gasping for air as the waters splashed around her shoulders and head. She turned desperately to the strangers.
"Please, you've got to help her!" she said, sliding up the bank towards them, pointing back at Keen.
"No business of ours," the man said coldly from beneath his scarlet hood.
Merlynn looked at the woman, but she shook her head. "Pay us two silvers and we'll go fetch her."
"I don't have two silvers," Merlynn said. "Nor does Keen! Oh please, you can't just let her drown! How could you!??"
"We can and we will," the man said dispassionately. "Why should we risk ourselves and our boat for nothing?"
"I'll give you my cloak... my boots... anything!"
"We have no need for your clothes."
"I do have training as a healer... surely there's someone.... somewhere... something I can do!?"
"Nay, girl," the man said, jingling a belt pouch. "We need silver, not labor."
"But mercy!" Merlynn cried, "Oh please, please help her! She'll die if you don't!!"
"Go away, girl," the man scowled angrily with a wave of his hand.
Merlynn could see that there was no pity in his face, and the woman avoided her pleading eyes altogether. Dreadfully, she turned back to look at Keen. The warrior had slid further into the water; only her head, arms, and feet were visible now as she clung desperately to the rope.
Merlynn wrung her hands in agony. She had to do something! She couldn't just stand by watching while Keen drowned! She owed Keen her life... she had to do something, anything! Without further thought, she dashed madly for the boat, throwing herself at the stern to push it down the bank.
"Hey!" the man shouted, leaping to his feet, knocking several boards off the top of the shelter with his head.
Merlynn shoved with all her might and the boat slid through the mud towards the water's edge. Before she could regain her footing for another heave, the man slammed into her from the side, throwing them both sprawling into the cold mud. Merlynn struggled as the man grabbed her head and shoved her face into the mud, trying to suffocate her. She hit him with her elbow and rolled to the side only to be kicked in the ribs by the woman who was standing above her, shouting curses with wild fury. Merlynn kicked her in the shins before the man flopped on top of her again, this time flailing at her with his fists. He was much stronger than she, and between his punches and the woman's kicks, she was certain that she would be beaten to death mercilessly. She could do nothing but close her eyes and try to shield her face from their blows. She begged them to stop, but her cries fell on deaf ears.
Then suddenly the woman cried out in pain, and the man's weight was lifted bodily off of her, and when Merlynn opened her eyes she saw Keen leaning over him as he lay terrified in the mud with her sword in her hand, ready to strike, and a deadly light in her eyes.
"Keen, no!" Merlynn cried through her tears, struggling to sit up.
The warrior froze. "They were trying to kill you, my friend."
"I tried to steal their boat! Oh please, Keen, don't kill them!"
"As you wish," she said, and kicked him hard in the face instead. He collapsed onto his back, senseless with pain, and Keen turned to the woman.
She was lying on her side, holding her arm, and Merlynn could see she was bleeding. "Mercy?" the woman begged.
"Did you show me or my friend any mercy?" Keen asked, but sheathed her sword and turned to kneel beside Merlynn. "Are you hurt?" she asked.
Merlynn shook her head. "Bruised and battered... I'm just so glad you're all right! I thought... I thought...."
The warrior grinned. "When I saw them beating you, the battle rage hit me. There was nothing in heaven or on earth that would stop me from getting to the shore." She absently wiped the mud from Merlynn's cheek. "Are you sure you're not hurt? You look a right mess."
Merlynn smiled and nodded. Her ribs ached, and her arms were bruised; she was covered from head to toe in black mud, and she thought she might have a swollen eye; but she was alive, and Keen was alive, and that was all that really mattered. It occurred to her that she had possibly done the only thing that might have saved Keen from drowning: get herself into danger so that the lady warrior had to save her. It occured to her that Keen's urge to help her companions was stronger than the lady warrior would ever admit to herself.
Painfully, Merlynn climbed to her feet and slid to the woman's side. "Where are you hurt?" she asked.
"My arm has been sliced," the woman groaned. "Please help me... you said you were a healer!"
Merlynn smiled. "I might be persuaded to help you both.... for a price..."
"Healers don't charge for their services!" the man muttered from down the bank.
"I don't have my medallion, yet," Merlynn reminded him, glancing at Keen, who smiled and nodded approvingly. "I'll tend you both for the price of dinner, beds, and breakfast at the River's Bend Inn."
The man moaned and gingerly touched his rapidly swelling nose. "Oh all right," he finally said. "Curse it!"
Keen and Merlynn exchanged grins, delighted at the prospect of dinner and warm, dry beds.
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