Camelot & Vine (5 page)

I wanted to be brave but I couldn’t stop my
shaking or my uneven whimpers. My heart continued its incessant
banging, out of my control.

At last the warrior leaned against a tree
and removed his helmet, freeing long, golden curls to shine in the
moonlight. He ran his fingers through his hair to pull it away from
his eyes, assessing me with a gaze so direct I sensed a different
kind of danger.

His slow smile told me he knew I had never
seen a more gorgeous man.

 

 

SIX

 


Pandra nos-godhvos?”

The handsome soldier’s smile was no comfort.
Why couldn’t I understand him? I must have hit my head pretty hard.
My forehead throbbed where I’d hit the dark thing and crash-landed.
Something wet trickled into my eye. It was either my own blood or
spray from the murdered man. And I was confused. It wasn’t as if
I’d escaped Hollywood for Mongolia or Burma or the Amazon jungle. I
was in England. I’d been riding a rented horse on a country road in
Wiltshire. I got caught in the rain. Then...what? Lightning, tires
screeching, flight. Flight was the part I hadn’t figured out yet.
One of the parts.

Footsteps crunched on soft underbrush. A
stocky man stepped into the clearing, moonlight glinting blue on
his blond braids as he moved. He spoke to the gorgeous one and they
conspired, watching me like a couple of horse trainers might watch
a mare they were thinking of buying. They needn’t have whispered,
because I didn’t understand them.

Another man trudged into the clearing and
the two greeted him in their odd language, grabbing his arms and
patting him on the back. Then came another and another, most of
them carrying their helmets and clinking as they stepped over the
dead bodies to meet in the middle. Along with their mail they wore
bits of dented armor: a chest protector here, shin guards there.
Some carried bloody axes and swords. Knives and scabbards dangled
from their belts. Sweating, scarred and splattered with blood, they
looked like a Dark Ages film crew after a hellish shoot. Across the
clearing from where I clung to my tree they formed a group and
gaped at me, murmuring to each other, puzzled.

The stocky man with the braids crossed the
open space and approached me, frowning. As tall as he was wide and
built like a Jeep, his cautious steps made his blond braids swing
back and forth from under his helmet. I anticipated every
horror—rape, dismemberment, torture—culminating in slow, anonymous
death.

He opened his mouth to speak.

I cringed and breathed hard.


Matir


His glance shot past
me in alarm. I stiffened.

Something behind me, unfamiliar and damp,
fondled my arm. The warriors remained silent, though their mouths
and eyes opened wide. The moist touch crept up my sleeve and along
my neck to my ear, where a soft nibble set off a static tingling.
For a long while or for a second, ocean waves pounded in my ears. I
shivered so hard my muscles gave way and I clung to the tree to
stay on my feet.

When the static and rushing dissipated, the
Jeep man was talking.

“That your horse?” he asked, his voice
emerging from the noise. His language still sounded foreign and
odd, but I understood it.

I dared a glance over my shoulder. The
rental horse, the one I’d been riding in the rain before whatever
happened happened, browsed the underbrush behind me. Lucy, her name
was—a plain, gray mare. I grabbed her reins and cleared my throat.
“Yes,” I said. It came out breathy and clipped.

“Grand beast,” said Jeep.

“Unusual saddle,” said a broad, tall man in
the crowd. His shoulders drooped as though the whole thing made him
sad. A mumble of agreement arose from the men. Lucy was grand. Her
saddle was unusual.

I reached to wipe blood away from my eye.
Several soldiers flinched, emitting a collective “huh!”

“Do not move!”

I froze.

“Arms to your sides! Slowly.”

In slow motion, I brought my bloody fingers
away from my face and lowered my hands to my sides.

The group had grown to about a dozen men.
The gorgeous one stepped out from the rear. In an accent stiffer
than that of the others he said, “The king ordered me to deliver
you to him.” He sounded French, but his speech was more guttural
than the French accents I knew from Los Angeles waiters.

“Do you go willingly?” asked Jeep.

“It is not her choice,” said Gorgeous.
“Chain her.”

The men shifted uneasily.

“I’ll go.” I figured my other options were
to run and be caught, or fight and fail.

“She’ll go,” said Jeep.

“We cannot chance it, Bedwyr,” said
Gorgeous.

Jeep nodded in acquiescence, so I guessed
that made him Bedwyr.

“Let us finish then,” Gorgeous ordered.

Let us finish?
What did that mean?
Upon hearing his ominous proclamation I clutched Lucy’s reins and
clung to my tree with all my strength, which wasn’t much. How had I
ended up in that forest? Why had I run away from Hollywood? Who
were these creeps? If they were some sort of medieval warfare
aficionados they were taking the game too far.

Jeep/Bedwyr called to the broad, sad one,
“Help me, Sagramore.”

Someone pulled my fingers open one by one,
taking Lucy’s reins and leading her off into the blue-black woods.
The warriors shuffled after her. Bedwyr gripped my left arm. His
nose came only to my chin, but what he lacked in height he made up
for in daunting presence. Sad Sagramore joined us and, taking solid
hold of my right arm, sighed a breath that stunk of something dead.
They unstuck me from the tree like a child from her mother’s leg. I
had no power to resist either of them.

We waited for the line of soldiers to pass,
then the two men ushered me into the woods, them marching, me
stumbling. Moonlight found its way through the upper leaves,
dusting a silver glow onto ghostly trunks. Already frightened into
hiding by the chaos of battle, not one animal chirped or scrambled.
I heard, more than saw, soldiers fanning out among the trees. When
I tripped over a body lying sprawled against a tree, I jumped and
gasped. My captors gripped harder.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

I tried staring at my feet but it was too
late. I’d already seen what I didn’t want to see: the aftermath of
a blood riot, tinted blue with moonglow. In the shadows away from
the path, soldiers labored over corpses in the underbrush, making
soft, clinking sounds while stripping the dead of their weapons.
Torn muscle and viscera dripped purple from between armor plates
and shreds of cloth.

Perhaps I was safe until they delivered me
to their leader. Then they’d have to kill me, because I’d seen. I
had to do something, and fast. My mind raced in all directions.
Birds must have sung. Twigs must have cracked beneath my silly
boots. Surely the air smelled of oak or underbrush or blood. But I
was aware only of the fear ringing in my ears, drowning out the
questions. My head pounded from where I’d struck the dark thing,
but the fear was worse. It gripped me like a hand, clutching my
heart and squeezing the blood from it.

At the forest’s limit we climbed a short
rise to an unpaved country lane, where men loaded booty onto a pair
of wooden wagons parked near the trees. Late fog clouded the dark
lane. No street-lamp lit the way, no farmhouse slept alongside the
road where it snaked off through the mist, no cars came, their low
beams searching for a way through the earth-borne cloud.

“Climb up,” said Bedwyr, offering me a seat
in the nearest wagon, the bed of which was so full of booty it
didn’t rock with my weight. If I wanted the piled swords to point
away from me, my only option was to sit behind the driver facing
the rear, between a row of shields and a heap of mail.

As if it were as light as a T-shirt, Bedwyr
removed his chain mail and laid it in the wagon bed. He climbed
aboard after me and squatted at my side. Chains clanked against the
outside of the cart as Sagramore took them down from their hooks
and handed them over the edge to Bedwyr.

“What do you call yourself?” Bedwyr asked,
taking the chains in his big hands.

“Casey.”

He began wrapping the heavy iron around my
ankles. “Mistress Casey,” he said, “I regret the chains, but we
can’t have you flying away. Wrists.”

I extended my hands.

Bedwyr exhaled a surprised “Oh!”

“What is it?” Sagramore peeked into the
wagon.

“Nothing.”

Another soldier came to line up more shields
with the others in the wagon bed, making two rows: one of round,
plain shields, the other of oblong ones, with bronze plating and
jeweled designs.

Bedwyr collected himself and continued
looping my wrists, which fell into my lap with the weight. He
finished by attaching my leg chain to the cart with an
old-fashioned padlock and a flat key, which he pocketed in a pouch
at his belt. He cleared his throat.

“Your pack.” He pointed to my new fanny
pack, belted at my waist. “I’ll take it.”

“All right.” I could barely hear myself.

Sagramore peeked over the wagon’s side once
more, this time to witness the removal of the pack.

I turned as far as I could to give Bedwyr
access to the plastic clasp at my hip. Its mechanism must have been
unfamiliar to him. He worked on it for half a minute before giving
up and reaching for his knife. I froze. With an expedient motion,
Bedwyr slashed the belt without even grazing my sweater. He then
offered the pack to Sagramore, raising it between two fingers as
though it were toxic waste. Sagramore waved it off, refusing to
touch it.

Bedwyr raised the pack to the moon’s light,
gazing at it as though trying to guess what it was made of or what
it held inside. He finally tucked it into his belt without opening
it. “Now,” he said, “give me your word you won’t try to
escape.”

Even under the circumstances I had to bite
my lip. My ankles were piled so heavily with iron that I couldn’t
move my legs. Chains weighted my hands, making it impossible to
lift them from my lap. No savior came along the road.

“You have my word.”

It seemed to satisfy him. How my word could
assure him any more than iron chains I didn’t know, but I’d say
whatever he wanted to hear. Just the day before, I had sworn off
lying, but honesty was not useful in the situation. And unless the
circumstances changed, what I told him was the truth.

The moon veiled itself behind a bank of
clouds, lending barely enough light to separate Bedwyr’s silhouette
from the wagon’s. Breathing heavily, he climbed down and trudged
off with Sagramore to where the horses grazed a few yards away in
the mist alongside the road. Even in dark and fog, Lucy was easy to
spot among the animals because she was a full hand taller than the
others. Though she wasn’t really mine, it was a relief to see
her.

Considering I was so weighted with chains
that I could anchor a ship, I didn’t understand why two men guarded
me. But although they stayed by the horses, Bedwyr and Sagramore
were my personal sentinels. While we waited what felt like hours
for the others to finish their bloody work, the sky faded from
black to purple and the mist began to dissipate. An occasional
shout floated up from the woods when a soldier made a discovery—a
bit of money, a fine knife—but mostly the looting was a methodical
business. The men did not sneak, nor did they hide. They’d killed
everyone within earshot except me.

I shivered in the early morning cold. The
loose-weave sweater I’d bought the day before was just another
mistake on a long list.

Stepping out from among the trees, two young
warriors carried a blanket-shrouded body toward the road. Without
speaking, they settled it into the bed of the cart next to mine.
After tucking it in, they stomped back to the forest and soon
returned with another wrapped corpse. This they placed on the wagon
bed next to the first, alternating feet and heads like gift-wrapped
goblets. One of the warriors took off his helmet and sighed. The
second man removed his helmet as well and rested his hand on the
other’s shoulder. He looked to be the younger of the two. With
their dark hair and matching mustaches, they could have been
brothers. Not looking at each other, they left their helmets on the
wagon and returned to the woods.

I had nothing else to do but watch them. The
third body was the last. When they finished loading the wagon, the
older one sat by the side of the road and hung his head. The
younger strode by my cart and gave me a gentle smile, the only
person besides Grizzle to have done so.

The young soldier’s smile did not, could
not, make me feel safe. The previous night I’d thought a ride would
bring me quiet time to think about why my life had fallen apart.
I’d gotten about as far as I could get from Hollywood and I needed
to figure out what to do next. It had never occurred to me that a
lonesome ride on a rental horse could place me in the hands of a
gang of sword-wielding barbarians.

I didn’t remember closing my eyes.

“...examine the saddle,” Sagramore was
saying. “I’d like to copy it.”

“The woman is harmless then?” a younger
voice asked.

They hovered next to my wagon but I couldn’t
see them over the side.

“Don’t know,” whispered Bedwyr. “She’s odd.
Her mail’s forged of gossamer. Her fingertips are painted blood
red.”

“I wonder why the king wants her,” said
Sagramore.

“Lancelot said—”

“Oh,
Lancelot.

Someone spat.

“He wouldn’t lie about this, Sagramore,”
said Bedwyr.

“Hmph.”

“The woman wears trousers,” the young man
whispered. “She’s brazen.”

“Indeed,” said Bedwyr, “everything about her
is strange.”

“If she wasn’t important she’d be dead,”
said the young one.

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