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Tasia watched him as he spoke. The more he explained, the more it made sense. And it was sad, she found herself thinking. His story was not one for bloodlust or murderous intent born from him simply wanting glory. It was to help and to protect his family. She eyed his cot and sighed a little, her obedient size relenting as she shifted to sit with him.
His question on her past startled her. Did he not know?
[b “My father is Lord of the Valley. I’m an only child. I was given to my previous masters as a handmaiden, to gain security for my family, to secure their status and apparently it’s an honour to serve.”] She murmured thoughtfully before taking a drink.
[b “I was nine.”] She continued.
[b “I kept thinking I would go back, return home but I never did. And I realised it was all just a game, some big political game of every family wanting status and betraying each other and murdering. I was protected, by my status as handmaiden to the Lady of Fellwood. Not that it helped my cause much. I stopped wanting to go home after a while. The masters of my life never harmed me enough to leave physical marks. I was told I would marry a knight of prestige.”] She drank some more after that.
[b “Things became a little crueller. Not like battles, or wars. Some men came to me at night. I’m not sure who they were. Soldiers perhaps? Yeah”] The wine was making her slightly loose lipped on things she would never dream of uncovering. Physical marks were notnher concern, rape left no physical scarring.
[b “I don’t have to elaborate on what happened when a man comes to a woman’s room at night. After that I was ‘spoiled’ for the Knight. I fell out of favour, as did my family for some reason.”] She ran a hand through her short hair.
[b “The Lady of Fellwood kept me close after that. Her husband wanting me dead for bringing shame.”] She muttered and shrugged.
[b “My father of course must have written to your commander. And here we are.”] She said quietly. She looked to him and smiled a little, attempting to lighten the atmosphere as she did so.
[b “My family is in danger, I know that. They will go to war with Fellwood, if it hasn’t already happened. And if it does happen and my family are slain, you will no receive payment for my return.”] She pointed out.
Brynden met her gaze as he drank from his own wineskin. The question he dreaded came at last. It took him a while of thinking and a loaded silence to formulate his answer. With a deep breath, he set to it.
[b ''Once, I was like you. I hadn't fought and I hadn't killed. I was going to be a scholar. You see, my father was a nobleman, a [i visconte], what you here would call a viscount. I was his second son and my brother was every bit the fighter I am now, and more. He was set to inherit. I believe I was thirteen, maybe fourteen on that day. The land I lived in was one torn with warfare and politics, and though we were not exactly mixed up in it, my father was the king's confidante. A rival noble seperately hired two mercenary companies to attack eachother, feeding them lies, but they were both told they'd meet eachother at my father's estate. It was looted and burned to ashes. Luckily, my parents and siblings survived, but we were crippled finanically. I met Evin, then. I think he comes from around here. I went with him. I've been at this for near eighteen years. I've killed a good few score of men, Tasia, and I see their faces every night when I sleep, but I do not feel guilty. It was my choice to come here, and that choice was easy - I could fight for money or beg for it - and killing those men was an even easier choice. They'd die or I'd die. I have no difficulty with it and no remorse, anymore. Now, I'll tell you one thing, and that is that Brynden is the name Evin gave me. He reckoned that my father's enemies might not be happy to know that one of his heirs is still out and about. I'll tell you no further of my history.'']
He concluded his story less than ceremoniously, but when she apologised, he waved it away. [b ''Not to worry. Curiousity is good.''] He took a long drink. [b ''You will have to fight again, but you will have more training and I will be on foot. I can stick by your side, or you by mine, however you wish to phrase it.'']
He looked her in the eyes for a few long moments, before reaching to his left and patting the ratty blanket covering the straw-filled mattress. An invitation. [b ''Come. You know of my past, now tell me of yours so that we may speak as friends.'']
[b “A month?!”] Tasia was shocked at those words and she sighed softly. When she felt his arm though, she did ease up but soon his fingertips left her arm and she watched him. She supposed some warning would have helped, it would have felt impersonal to ask his permission however. She gave him an apologetic look and was still confused at how he could act so... unbothered by everything that had happened. She eyed him over as he closed the tent and lit the candles as she sat in her own cot.
[b “My day?”] She was unsure if he was trying to toy with her or if this was part of his game in making her seem like his squire.
[b “I killed a man. I don’t even remember how. His side... I think? He came at me, beat me up bad, like a cat playing with a mouse and then I just saw the opening.”] She looked down to the wineskin and the memories of the battle were horribly fresh in her mind as she took a long drink from the liquid. She hissed our a little at the taste and looked to Brynden.
[b “Why doesn’t it bother you?”] She asked him,
[b “I haven’t seen death like you have. But surely you were new to this once. Does it not shock you?”] She asked him. Maybe it was the years he had spent doing this. Maybe the more it happened the less of a shock it was but Tasia couldn’t imagine being able to simply take a life for money. It was different if it was life and death or someone she cared about was in danger, but for gold? She didn’t think she could. She would never be like Brynden and she wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.
She averted her eyes, as if ashamed of asking him these things because she knew she sounded shameful and pitiful.
[b “Apologies.”] She mumbled quietly and sighed out as she ran her fingers over the wineskin.
[b “Will I have to do it again?”] She asked him, not looking at him because she had almost died this time. If Brynden hadn’t come crashing over she would be dead and Brynden might not be around next time to rescue her from the fray. Her body wasn’t used to taking a beating and battering, her bruised cheek and bust lip were a testament to that. The cut on her shoulder would scar, she supposed. She shook her thoughts back to reality and finally lifted her gaze to look to Brynden.
Brynden brought a thumb up to wipe at the corner of his mouth when she mentioned his face. Of course, it did little against the dry blood. He gave a light shrug before finding a proper seat by his table. There was one other chair on the opposite side of the table. While Tasia was away, he took the liberty of finishing the wineskin with a few large gulps, before cleaning the gash on his cheekbone and finding the mirror he used to shave. With a different needle but the same thread, he set to stitching it himself. A bit clumsier than it had been when he saw to Tasia, but he did the job and he did it rightly.
She found him in his tent just as he cut the end of string. He turned to her and nodded a greeting, all the while seeming the happiest man on earth. [b ''Not too much is just enough.''] Once she handed him his bowl, he tore into it, tearing chunks off the bread to mop up the last remnants of stew. His chin was now adorned by dried blood, breadcrumbs and bits of stew. He crudely wiped his mouth with his sleeve, something she could easily assume a man like Brynden rarely did, before he mustered together his reply. [b '"Fairly often. Once or twice a month. Mostly, it's skirmishes. Sending out twenty of ours against twenty of theirs. Raiding farmsteads or small, undefended towns. We try not to kill when we do so, but if it's needed, we will. Listen, Tasia, you got the short end of the dung-covered stick with this contract. You'll see how the poor became poor and vultures like ourselves get rich. If-.. If I can lighten the burden for you, tell me.'']
Before he knew it, she was on her feet and working away at his face. He took her forearm to push her away, but then she could feel his fingers slip off. He remained tense, but he let her do her thing without protest. Though it felt like a dent in his dignity to be cleaned by another, he could not deny how useful it was. He waited patiently for her to finish. [b ''You've my thanks. Warn me, next time, because surprising me could end poorly.''] He stated, matter-of-factly, before getting up himself and bumbling around until he found two more wineskins. He pressed one into her hands before seating himself on the cot with the other. He changed his mind and stood up, closing the flaps of the tent using the loops and wooden buttons attached. He returned to his seat on the bed only after lighting the candles in his tent. When he sat, the wooden frame protested with a creak, alluding to its age.
[b ''Tell me the story of how your day went.'']
Tasia followed Brynden and for once, she heeded his orders without making a remark or a show of disobedience. She looked away when he killed their wounded, a pang of sympathy for them as she took what she could from them with shaking hands. She looked to Brynden, this wasn’t something she was at all used to. She had lead a very sheltered life, only hearing stories. This was reality. And it was terrifying.
Tasia removed his armour with gentle hands, wary he had been beaten and battered too. She did her best not to allow her eyes to linger on his form, figuring it would be rather unbecoming of her and she swallowed a little when he handed her the wine. She drank from it, faced scrunched in distaste at the burning liquid but she knew what Brynden had to do. The surgeons would figure out she was a woman if they saw her bare skinned. Tasia blinked, slightly confused as he cut her sleeve and she felt rather embarrassed with skin showing, clearly not something she was used to either.
She gripped his knee with some force, probably not a lot to Brynden as it happened. She bit down a little to stop herself crying out because a woman's cry would be easily heard and she looked to Brynden as he finished, inhaling deeply. She nodded her gratitude and slipped on an over shirt to cover what was left of her dignity.
[b “Of course.”] She said, looking to his sewing skills before covering up. Brynden didn’t do a bad job and she figured he’d done that before. She got to her feet, eyes meeting his for a split second.
[b “You should... your face, I mean.”] She said and looked to the cloth. She’d have offered to clean him but she decided it was best not to overstep. She turned and went to seek out food. The food was still something to get used to. Stew and hard bread, hardly something decent but right then her body just wanted food.
Tasia brought back the bowls and looked to Brynden, swallowing slightly.
She still felt somewhat like his servant but he had proven he could at least be a mighty foe on the battlefield.
[b “It’s not much.”] She mumbled and sat where she could, she was going to be sore for a few days. She looked to the stew and then to Brynden. She wasn’t keen on the food but it didn’t stop her wolfing it down in a rather unladylike fashion as her body focused on regaining lost strength.
[b “The battles happen often?”] She asked him, wiping her mouth and wondering how much more of these things she would endure. She wasn’t strong like Brynden.
[b”Here.”] She set aside her bowl and shifted to the water and the cloth. Soft hands hesitantly wipes the blood and dirt from his face, careful in case he pushed her away because she didn’t know if squires did this for their masters or not. But he had helped her, she could at least return the favour. Her touch was soft and gentle, careful to be light and not press on any tender spots as she finished and set the cloth once more into the bowl of water, casting him a sheepish sort of smile before retreating a couple of steps, concerned he would be angered with her.
Apart from his bit tongue and a shallow gash running over his right cheekbone, he was unharmed. He felt a rush of relief when she stood and spoke, and when she staggered into him for support, and he instinctively coiled one of his arms under her left armpit and over her right shoulder, holding her steady. His relief was short-lived as doubt set in. Had he made that split-second decision of going on a break-neck charge just to rescue her to preserve his reputation as an efficient man, who got the job done and who'd never fail to uphold his end of a bargain, or was he taking a liking to her? He hoped for the first but dreaded the latter. It was a harsh life he lived, and being unfeeling and uncaring was his best armour. The confusion and fatigue weighed heavy on him. He took a moment to collect himself before he released her. [b ''Now we get to the easy part, or perhaps, the hard part. We collect our dead and wounded. We loot their dead, we kill their wounded, and then loot them. I suggest you stay here. I'll look over your wounds later - the surgeons would be too risky. They'll have you figured out in a hot minute.''] He cleaned his blade on a dead man's tunic before sheathing it, instead drawing a misericorde. [b '"Stay close to me, but look away when I do what's needed. You can help in the looting, of course.'']
And that is how he took her around the field, stooping over every man left lying or crawling on the field, giving them a swift jab to the heart through their armpit, and then stripping them of valuables, while every foe who had survived and was in a decent state retreated back into the castle. Dozens of prisoners were taken. Soon, the pair had amassed a decent score. The Captain bellowed his orders and Brynden gestured for her to follow. [b ''We're looking at a siege here. The men will be preparing our camp and fortifications. As my squire, you don't have to help.''] He lead her to his tent, erected by the rear guard while the battle went on. Once inside, he went through the motions of removing the armour before she did the same for him. His off-white tunic was slick and heavy with sweat, clinging to his body. He had her sit and wait on his cot while he prepared a bowl of water. Once he had done so, the least unpleasant part of the day's business began.
He first cut her sleeve. [b ''You'll have a new one. Worry not.''] He assured her, before tossing it aside. He wet a cloth in the bowl, using it to clean her wound carefully. To kill time, he passed her a wineskin. [b ''Fortified wine. You'll need it. Drink heavily.''] He was quite a sight to behold, ragged and covered in sweat and dirt, dried blood running in erratic trails from both of the corners of his mouth down to his chin. He pushed his hair back before offering her a smile. In a show of sympathy, he took her hand and put it on his knee. [b ''Squeeze. This is going to hurt.''] With needle and thread, he sewed her wound shut to the best of his ability, before finally heaving a sigh. [b ''That's that done. Change and fetch us some dinner, if you would.'']
Tasia had never been to battle in her life. She had heard stories and she was worried, despite what Brynden said as he sat atop his mare. And the clash was far worse than she had ever expected.
Everything was whirl of screaming, clashes of steel rang through the air and Tasia was doing her best to use what little training she had been given. This was a massacre. Beside her, two men fell and somewhere along the lines her spear had broken with the force of driving it into one man’s horse. After that she had only her blade as she parried a man, lunging and his sword holt jerked up and split her lip open, bruising her cheek almost instantly. She could feel her feet sinking into the mud as the man battered her, relentless until she saw an opening. Brynden’s training had paid off because as soon as Tasia saw an opening, she drove her blade through the man’s side, his last parting blow a thin cut to her shoulder. She screeched slightly and stepped back as the man slumped over, feeling lost amongst the fray as she carried on.
Slowly the battle seemed to die down, becoming less and less with each moment. Tasia was exhausted, streaked with blood and dirt, her body aching from the battering and the cut on her shoulder weeping blood, but not deadly. She didn’t hear Brynden’s about, she only felt the vibrations of the approaching horse as she turned her gaze to it. For the briefest of moments, she just stood, rigid to the spot, too exhausted to fight anymore.
And then there was another clash, shouting and she was shoved backwards, landing amidst the blood and dirt. She stared up, dizzied and squinted as she realised Brynden stood over her and the two clashed once more in a rather breathtaking fight. And then it was over. The enemy was dead with Brynden’s blade through his eye. Tasia took a moment to grasp her bearings, watching in shock as Brynden killed his horse to save her the suffering of a slow death. She felt sickened, and she knew nightmares would plague her for the rest of her life.
Brynden hoisted her up and she staggered slightly, limbs heavy as she steadied herself against him. She was breathless, in some form of shock from everything and she knew she couldn’t weep for the fallen men. Brynden’s voice was like an echo in her head, faraway sounding as she stared at the remains of the battle. Some were still alive, crawling through blood and over bodies, screeching and gasping. This was war then. This was battle. Tasia swallower thickly, her pain forgotten as she looked back to Brynden, wordlessly. What could she say right then? After some moments she finally caught her breath and readied her thoughts.
[b “Thank you.”] She said to him. She’d have been dead by the man’s hands if Brynden hadn’t interfered right then. She was shaken, which was to be expected. She’d never seen anything like this before and it shook her even more to know Brynden did this as a job.
[b “Are you alright?”] She asked him, looking him over. He was breathing, battered and bruised and bleeding but he was alive. She never thought she’d be pleased to see his face. Tasia wooed dirt and blood from her face. Did men brag about this to each other? Killing and dying? She failed to see in glory in what had happened here today but she kept quiet instead. Her shoulder injury was mostly masked by the armour she wore but her undershirt was sticking to her with congealed blood. Her face was less masked, the bruising and bloodied lip evident mark. But she was alive.
What happened now? Did they just leave?
Tasia turned to look back at Brynden, questioningly with a dazed look in her eyes. She was no killer, whether she’d taken a lives or not, she wasn’t cut out for this.
[b “What now?”] Her voice was cracked with tiredness and she was struggling slightly but she didn’t want Brynden to notice that she was struggling right then. She didn’t want to appear weak.
Brynden was about to reply to her statement with a caustic answer when the Captain entered. He gestured for her to continue removing his armour with a motion of his head. As she asked her question, the Captain replied. [i ''You go home when we get to your home. We intend to pick up as many lucrative contracts along the way as possible. We have to earn money, and just bringing a mewling woman to her father isn't enough to keep us armed, fed, and on the march for the time it'll take to get to him.''] After that, Evin spoke in his own language to Brynden, who was eager to engage in conversation. Tasia heard mention of her own name several times.
When the Captain left, hardly opening the flaps of the tent to accomodate for his long, thin silhouette, Brynden turned to Tasia, who he had allowed to eat, drink and rest after she removed his armour. [b ''It seems we've a contract, Tasia. We're to storm a castle a league North of here. We'll depart soon and march through the night, that we may come upon them in the early hours of dawn, when the sentries are tired. The Captain has informed me that the men have seen us train, and that, to make sure no suspicion falls on you, you are to join the battle, as well, rather than stay behind.''] He remained silent for a while, allowing what he'd just conveyed to settle, but he would continue before she could speak. [b ''You'll be on foot, as fighting on horseback is a wholly different skill to master, and I fear you would not survive in a clash of horsemen. Stay in my sight, and I'll make sure no ill befalls you.''] With that, he dismissed her, offering her a pat on the shoulder as she passed. He geared up for the march after having a meal on his own.
When they did march out, he sat astride his mare, Tasia marching by his side. He had helped her select her equipment, armour included, leaving her with spear and blade. He looked down at her, periodically, examining her expression. [b ''You have no need to worry. Fighting is not as hard as it seems - of the men here and likely half of the men we'll face, most have not received nearly as much practice as you have this day. The first time you kill a man might be hard, but it gets easier with time. It is them or you, Tobias. Keep that in mind.'']
When the castle came in sight, it became clear the defenders had heard of their arrival and marched out to face them. They stood arrayed before the moat, men-at-arms, knights and farmer levies all. At the sight, the Captain gave a single shout from the front of the line which Brynden echoed. As one, men began beating drums and blowing on bagpipes' blowsticks. the skirl of the pipes soon filled the air, bringing a smile to Brynden's face. He gave Tasia one more look before he donned his helmet, the great plume adding a foot to his height. He spurred his horse forward through the ranks, shouting orders all the while.
The mercenaries had arrayed themselves in an orthodox line of battle. The charge was sounded on both sides and men began to march. Brynden was now on the left flank, looking over to check on Tasia every half a minute. He could see she was stood between Wyl the Wild and Harron Houndsbreath, and for now, he was assured of her safety.
When the ground had been reduced to sludge by sweat, blood and the excrement of the dying, the fight near done by his estimates, he looked for her again. He had removed his helmet and surveyed the slaughter when he saw her, alone, on the outskirs of the battle. Three men were dead around her, of whom one Harron. By her posture he could tell she was hurt, but she'd survive. Then, he saw what he dreaded, an armoured knight atop a massively muscled warhorse charging towards her, full tilt. He spurred on his own mare, shouting for her to get out of the way all the way, but his voice was drowned out by the sounds of battle.
It seems as if time slowed to a halt as he lowered his lance, his shouts of warning devolved into little more than a bestial roar. He already could tell he would not be fast enough to place himself between her and the rider, but he could try. In a bout of desperation, he tried to hurl his lance at the warhorse's legs in a hope to cripple it, but it fell far short. He spurred on his mare again, forcing it to give Brynden everything.
This ordeal had taken a whole ten seconds. Brynden was not in time to get between the horse and Tasia, but he was just in time, nonetheless. Before the outstretched lance could impale his ward, his mare slammed into the warhorse's side. Brynden had pulled his feet from the stirrups already, and now they went down in a flurry of horses and steel, Brynden being flung over the flailing appendages and pained whinnies. He rose, quickly, blade in hand, and moved over to Tasia, blood leaking slowly from between his lips. The knight had found his way from between the horses, and armed with an axe, now came for the two mercenaries.
It took little thought to push Tasia back, onto her rear end in the mud, as he engaged the knight. He'd quickly rid the man of his axe, but he drew a blade and the deadly dance continued. [b ''Feather the bastard!''] He shouted, several times, until a number of crossbow bolts finally came and punched through the man's armour, incapacitating him long enough for Brynden to mercilessly force his blade through the man's visor and into an eye. He moved past the man, towards his horse, and stroked its mane before driving his bloodied sword through its heart. Both of its front legs had been broken. Then, he returned to Tasia, hoisting her towards him.
[b '"By the Gods, you're safe.'']
Tasia could feel her whole body ache as she drank the water and looked to Brynden as he spoke. Her now short hair stuck to her forehead with sweat as she struggled to her feet. She followed Brynden, no energy to argue as he asked her what her story was.
[b “Right on the mark, sir.”] She said as she looked to him when he mentioned the Captain.
Tasia just wanted to fall into bed right that moment, at this rate she would have preferred the old masters.
[b “Excuse me-“] She wiggles slightly when he took off her armour and she sighed, huffing like a brat as she gave in. Brynden knew how to make this convincing and honestly, each piece of armour removed only unveiled more bruises on the part of her skin that were uncovered. Once Brynden was finished, she adjusted the clothing, a stark bruise forming on her cheek from a failed block earlier in the day. She supposed she had asked for the training though. She looked to him. She had taken armour off of men before, the same as she had removed dresses from women, it had been her job since she was twelve.
[b “You would do well to remember that I’m not a boy, no matter how much you want to pretend.”] Her voice was low, [b “I bruise and break easier.”] She said as she reached up to undo some of his armour, hissing in annoyance as her body screamed protest.
She was gentler than Brynden, mostly because anytime she had rushed at the house she had been punished. She knew Brynden was no Lord, and he was no King or man of high status but old habits died hard.
[b “What does the Captain want?”] She asked him and the tent opened and in stepped the captain himself. She rolled her eyes a little and set aside Brynden’s armour. She hated this, every inch of her ached like she had been trampled by a horse, she had lost all of her hair and given the clothing she was wearing, she really did look like a young boy.
[b “How long until I go home?”] She asked the Captain and glanced to Brynden.
[b “Not that Brynden hasn’t been…. Accommodating.”] She chose her words carefully because no matter what she felt right then, she knew it was down to pain and exhaustion. She had to keep telling herself that everything he was going was for her benefit. If she was left alone then she surely would have been taken advantage of, or beaten to death. She didn’t expect any luxuries here but a little compassion wouldn’t have gone amiss. So far Brynden has been hard and cold, a horrible mixture for a a young woman who’s entire life had been stolen away in and instant and now resided with men who terrified her.
When she had armed herself, he adopted a sideward stance. [b ''You must focus on avoiding the enemy. Staying a live is better than killing your foe only to be cut down.''] He stressed. And then, the battering began. Brynden delivered a veritable flurry of blows, the clangorous din of wood on wood indicating that she had succesfully blocked or parried him being rare. He peppered advice at her throughout the session, and kept up for a good while, only stopping when he was satisfied her arms, thighs and torso were bruised beyond recognition, and he could see the tears forming in her eyes.
He finally let up, panting, his hair clinging tightly to his sweaty forehead. He wiped his brow with the back of his glove. [b ''Next time, don't clench your jaw so hard, Tobias. You're wont to shatter your own teeth that way.''] When her retort came, the question asked [i ad hominem], he could not help but smile at her. [b ''A good question, and it seems you know mercenaries well enough. Me, I'm all three. A bastard-born son of a minor lord who killed his dog of a father and fled his home.''] He spake convincingly, and every bit of his mimicry would reinforce the lie. He had little use sharing with her his past, for now, and would only do so should it benefit him. A young page-boy came running, handing them both waterskins, and Brynden drank greedily. He gestured for her to follow him.
He made for his tent, chatting all the while. [b ''And you? The [i son] of a nobleman who did not wish to bear his offspring's presence, so he shipped you off? But still, an heir is a valuable thing in times as tumultuous as these, so he'd pay dearly , of course, to keep his darling boy - and more importantly, his legacy - secure. How far off the mark am I, Tobias?''] He opened the flap of his tent and spurred her in with the flat of his wooden sword. Inside was Captain Evin, sat carelessly on Brynden's bed. He studied Tasia, long and hard, his thin lips drawn into a wry stripe. [b ''The Captain has decided to grace us with his presence to answer your questions. I'd ask away if I were you.''] With that, Tasia found Brynden would soon rid her of her wooden sword and stow it away, before he'd begin to remove what pieces of armour she might have worn, as men do to one another after combat.
Tasia watched Brynden. Usually she was quick to judge a character, quick to work out their intentions and their wants but she was struggling with him. He killed for money, unsurprising in these times but it did shake her faith in him slightly. She was sure many people wanted the escaped handmaiden slaughtered before she could drip feed secrets, and if the price was right, she knew her head would be removed from her before she could object. At least she was going to learn to defend herself with his help. She sighed out when he mentioned masquerading as his squire.
[b “Very well.”] She said, surgeons and such seemed a little intense but she would do as she was instructed.
[b “I am nothing if not a servant.”] That remark was more cutting than she intended as she got to her feet and paused for a second to ponder a name.
[b “Tobias.”] She said before dismissively saving a hand and daring to venture sleep. It didn’t come easy, tossing and turning much of the night as she struggled to come to terms with everything. As much as she did not like serving others, she knew it was her only way to survive.
At break of dawn, she was up and changed, briefly forgetting her hair had been raggedly cut off. She stepped out the tent, looking to the green to see Brynden. She sighed and approached him, having to force herself not to curtsy to him out of habit.
The weight of the sword took her by surprise as she swayed slightly with the weight of it. She had no doubts Brynden wasn’t going to go easy on her, after all they had to put up the illusion she was a humble squire. At least she would have a story to tell if she ever made it home. She set her pale eyes to Brynden’s.
[b “Forgive me, [i my lord], I am not well versed with conflict.”] Perhaps she meant to remind him and although she was polite, she was still frustrated. The sword seemed too heavy, even if it was a practice one but she found her hands. She had seen how some guards of the House had carried them and she attempted to clumsily mimic them, pointing the blade at Brynden. It was evident she had never practiced. As a child she had only ever been allowed to do archery under her father’s watchful gaze, nothing else. And even then she wasn’t sure she could remember much about her lessons as a child.
Then again, what would happen if she just left? She pondered in a flash, probably be hunted down and outridden before the night was out because even horse riding was foreign to her these days. She snapped out of it.
[b “Why a mercenary?”] She asked, wanting to pull some information as she kept a close eye on his lessons.
[b “Mercenaries are runaways, bastards or criminals, usually. So which are you?”] Tasia was perhaps trying to look bold, unafraid as she shifted her feet to move around him. She wouldn’t win a fight with him, he would easily best her but if she could at least act confident and remind him that she was not just a servant anymore. Her chains had been broken long ago.
He wasn't a particularly skilled barber, but then again, the ragged, wild haircut would fit right in with the unkempt, dirty men who paid little attention to their personal state and hygiene. He was silent throughout his butcher's work, after which she finally found her tongue. [b ''Tasia. You're welcome. You may call me Brynden.''] After having handed her her meal, he sat on one of the few stools in his tent and drew his blade and a wetstone, setting about the mind-numbing yet strangely therapeutical process of sharpening it meticulously. It was an elegant blade, a slender one, which did not look out of place amongst his possessions. She could see the armour on the rack behind him, light mail and plate, all beautifully engraved and adorned, with crimson tassels embroidered with silver silk attached underneath the rondels. It was crowned by an armet helmet, plumed with a great bush of red and white feathers, a suitable display of splendor for a man such as himself.
He looked up, his dark, smooth voice barely overpowering the rasp of wetstone on steel, replying to her in a clear bass. [b ''I do not know how much your life is worth to my Captain, Tasia, nor do I or any of my brothers in arms know of what schemes took place in dark halls or narrow hallways. We are not here for politics - we are here to kill, and to make money.''] He explained, managing to deliver his blunt statement quite carefully. They locked eyes, and her brow raised. Brynden answered with a false smile so convincing that she'd be hard-pressed to believe him not to be a schemer, of sorts. Through his body language, he made it abundantly clear that he did enjoy her conversation at least to some degree. [b ''You wish to work? Good. You cannot and shall not be a leech on the company without providing - be it through helping out the surgeons, who do the bloodiest of jobs, or through digging latrines so the men can spew their bowels out after drinking bad water. Work, you shall. Defending yourself is another matter entirely, you'll likely remain in camp with the other camp followers if a battle is to take place, with a small rear guard. If you insist on learning how to wield a weapon, however, fetch a spear and a sword from the quartermaster tomorrow. The former is a simple weapon which requires little practice, but if you wish to learn how to use a blade, I'll have to teach you, and teach you myself I shall. You will masquerade as my squire. What is your name, [i man?]''] He asked, deliberately and thoughtfully stressing his words to make it very clear to her what he'd implied.
It wasn't long after that he had sent her back to her tent with little words, the one beside his, that he might intervene in the night if someone were to sneak in. A quiet night followed, and at dawn, Brynden stood waiting on the green in the middle of the camp, where a makeshift fighting ring had been set up, large enough to allow grown men to bludgeon eachother with practice weapons. When she came to him, at last, he handed her her practice sword - a wooden blade, of similar shape and weight as a real one. [b ''Let us commence.'']
Of course she was frightened, even if the treatment in her previous employment had been poor, she had been shielded from the men and it had offered some form of protection. She was silent as she watched Brynden, he seemed to be the one in charge of this whole thing and she watched him go through the pavilion and listened to his words. When he returned, she was alarmed somewhat by the skinning knife, even more so when he took her hair and bunched it. Tasia was not a woman who would weep over the loss of her hair but it still hurt more than she cared to admit as her light hair was cut and ragged. She wanted to protest but her voice had fled her beneath the grey eyes of the man. She figured she would do as she was told here, the same as she had done in the house, she swapped one master for another; at least that's how she felt right then. She had seen the carnage of wars, albeit from a safe spot within the house, but her father had warned this time the house would be laid siege to and she would not be spared, regardless of her having no involvement. For a second, the woman seemed lost, well, she was lost. She was very far from home and any pleasant company and friendly faces. Her father likely wouldn’t recognise her, she’d been taken as a child to the service of the her former masters, barely twelve. She was fully grown now.
When Brynden finished, she ran a hand through what was left and drew in a shaky breath. The food and drink was welcome for now at least, her gaze flickering to Brynden. Hair would grow back in time, no use getting upset about it, despite the fact she look remarkably different without her long locks hanging down her back.
[b “Thank you.”] She finally spoke, finding her voice and inspecting the man before her. His sharp features reminded her of a stag, as did his attitude. Fierce, proud and with some mystery. Tasia had no experience with men, as much as she wanted to point out she could defend herself, she knew that would be a lie. The most she knew was how to serve others and treat some injuries, it was unsurprising she was scared of what could await her. These were men, hot blooded and ferocious. These were not noblemen or gentlemen, then again, she had seen even the richest of men act like a gutter rat.
[b “Tasia.”] It felt better introducing herself properly than Brynden simply knowing about her from her father.
[b “How much is my father paying you, for my safe return?”] She asked. Evidently she was smart enough to know that everything came with a price these days, nothing was free. She had seen schemes, coin passing hands and plots being put into motion. She was not stupid or foolish to think Brynden was doing this out of the kindness of his heart. Pale eyes surveyed the area, she didn’t particularly want to be here, she could have used the stallion to ride for as long as she needed. She supposed her father was a wealthy man.
[b “I’m not sure what my father told you, I’m under no illusions that my masters were kind people. And I’m sure you know most of the schemes that went on in that house. There are things even my father doesn’t know.”] She muttered before taking a drink. Handmaidens saw everything, they heard every conversation and felt every tension. Pale eyes met with Brynden’s grey ones and she raised an eyebrow, she was well spoken, her time as a handmaiden had educated her on how to speak.
[b “If I am to travel with you, I don’t doubt there will be dangers. I’ve heard the stories, creatures and men with dangerous intent, will you teach me to at least defend myself? I have spent too long relying on others for protection.”] She pointed out and set her cup aside. Water was fine for her, she never drank alcohol, she’d served it most of her life. She supposed she didn’t look particularly pretty anymore, her hair short and cropped around her face, eyes tired and waning, her clothing was dirtied. Her father had been clever enough to tell her to not wear her dresses, so she hadn’t. A loose off colour shirt and riding trousers had done the trick with boots.
[center [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBF-3DgciSc ♫]]
He passed through the aftermath of the day's carnage, his dark leather jackboots oft failing to find purchase on the ground, muddied by sweat and blood. The sword in his right hand was still awash with crimson ichor, his hair stuck to his forehead, and his eyes stung by salt. He passed men here and there; surviving comrades, who he'd give a nod or a pat, or even a debonair greeting, whereas fallen foemen unlucky enough to have survived their grievous wounds were granted mercy in the form of castle-forged steel. His captain had brought him to these lands with a purpose: they were to let their purses grow fat by fighting another man's fight, and if they had to turn their cloaks to do so, then so be it.
That had been what happened. Brynden had no clue for what young lordling they had marched out, but when they found their company and their noble contractor's forces vastly outnumbered, they were quick to turn on him. They wreaked havoc in the young man's rear lines when the charge came, decisively finishing the fight. Those who could, ran, and those who could not would soon have no need to worry about their continuing survival.
That evening, after all wounds had been washed and men were busy sharpening swords and axes or otherwise repairing their kit, huddled around their cooking fires, Brynden was ordered into the Captain's tent.
Brynden entered, saturnine and august, relatively so to the company present in the tent. Eyes so grey they'd give the winter sky a run for its money flitted about the large pavilion, to find the Captain, Evin, in conversation with two of Brynden's fellow serjeants. He beckoned the tall, swarthy man over with a wave of his hand and explained his conundrum, as a page boy handed Brynden a cup of wine with more resemblance to vinegar than anyone would like. [i ''Brynden, good of you to join us. Here, I've a letter from some man, Dregory, or the like. Matters little. He speaks of his daughter, see, some lass serving as a handmaiden in a castle, nearby. Luck would have it that we, brave dogs of war that we are, happened to clap that castle's owner in irons earlier this day. Our man Dregory claims he has sent word to his daughter to flee, and promises us a fat sack of coin to keep her safe. I want pickets in the forest in anticipation of her arrival, and I want you - Brynden - to lead a small party of scouts to intercept her, least some bored nobleman's servants stumble across her and decide to have some fun.'']
That had concluded the meeting. As Brynden and his fellows left the tent, they were given a final [i ''And no hair on her head is to be hurt!'']
Soon, accompanied by ten men, of which four skilled trackers and hunters, he was out in the dark woods. The sound of songs and laughter slowly faded behind him; he was wary of every sound and even the tiniest movements startled him. Had he been less arrogant, he'd admit his fear, having been raised on tales of deadly lindwurms and nasty goblins.
They had known she was there before she realised the inverse. Her horse came to a skittering, panicked halt as it nearly collided with Brynden's piebald mare. His men lit torches, casting long shadows on Brynden's face and a bright, orange glow on that of the lady. To his disappointment, he saw what he considered little more than a frightened girl, unfamiliar with the world and with life. He stared her down as he reached over, his hands ushering her stallion's reigns out of her hands. [b ''Miss Dregory?''] He asked, needlessly, in the common tongue. Without speaking, he guided her towards the camp, where at one point he barked an order to his own men in his foreign tongue, an elegant language. He seemed impatient, at the least, as he helped her out of his saddle and brought her into a pavilion.
[b ''You are in a camp full of men - Tasia, was it? - who haven't felt the touch of a woman in months. Men, who with curved dirks, are not afraid to slit throats, cut purses, and more crucially, take what they want. We are to keep you safe, however, and see you reunited with your father. To that end -''] He spoke as he busied himself throughout the pavilion. When he returned to her, he had rid himself of his great, leather coat. He was a sight to behold, hair loosely bound back, sharp features accentuated by firelight. He clearly had an expensive taste, betrayed by the telltale cloth-of-gold embroidery on his short-sleeved, navy blue tunic. He wore a golden torc around both of his forearms, and an engraved silver ring on his right hand - which she could now see was holding a skinning knife. [b ''I have to ask you to be still. Weep not for dignity lost, for this is far better than the alternative that would otherwise inevitably await you.''] Pulling her hair taut, careful not to hurt her, with his left hand, he'd set about his work, determinedly trimming down her hair until it looked passable as that of a man, after which he finally offered her food and drink.
A most hospitable man, to be sure.
A letter had been such a rare thing for the female to receive. No less from her father. At fourteen she had been sent to serve one of the greatest and most powerful families the lands had ever seen. It was beyond all comprehension but she was all well treated, for the most part. As long as she was quiet and obliged her mistresses whims.
Tasks was older now. Twenty eight, had spent most of her life in seclusion serving whatever command was ushered to her. The young and clumsy girl she had once been had been put aside some time ago. She had long hair that was usually tied up and had become fairer and more mature in her features. Her pale eyes were a direct match to her father’s pale ones.
The letter had gone unread for most of the hot day and it was only when she had retired for the evening, did her nimble fingers finally manage to undo the sealed envelope. There was talk of a war but the walls were thick here and she had been kept mostly in the dark. The contents of the letter were dark and disturbing. Her own family, her family name being pulled into the war and Tasia’s life was at risk if she stayed in plain sight.
Escaping such confines and deserting her duties was not something greatly admired by people. But if her life hung in such balance then she had no choice. She had no worldly possessions and she dressed as plainly as possible. A cloak wrapped thickly around her shoulders and a cream oversized dress. She did not want to draw any attention as she scraped her hair back from her face.
The letter had told of the thick forests a short ways from here, at least by horseback and that would mean stealing. Tasia has never been a bad soul, she had asked for very little in her short time but she knew her father would not be so light about death and her life hanging in the balance.
A black stallion, perhaps slightly older than others and one she was sure would not be so greatly missed was her chosen steed as she mounted and pulled herself up, the letter and some water was all that was tucked close to her person as she spurred the horse into action. Under cover of darkness she went mostly unnoticed as she swallowed her fear and her nerves.
After an hour, perhaps more, she reached the forests and dismounted, catching a glimpse of a distant fire burning. That must be the mercenaries her father was talking about, at least she hoped so or she would meet her end soon. She looked to the stallion who seemed wary of the forest at nighttime with its thick trees and Tasia drew her hood up. She was not a fighter, she had never learned in all her years how to wield a blade or fire a bow. It wasn’t something she was accustom to.
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