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Lydian Borderlands, AD 802, Spring
The woods grew thick at the base of the mountains. Even in daylight, the branched canopy blocked out the sun, providing darkness and shadows to hide the predators of the forest: wild boar, black bears and Illyrian war scouts.
Prince Luke of Lydia crept silently through the predawn darkness with only his prayers and his wits to guide him, unable to distinguish deep shadow from deepest shadow. He found the rustle of the undergrowth and the damp scent of the rich earth far more useful navigational tools this far from Lydia. King Garren's fortress of Fier lay in the mountains ahead, less than an hour's walk from this valley. It was dangerous territory, but Luke had an important mission.
Spring had left winter behind. The Mursia River churned with the melting mountain snowpack behind him. The sun rose ever earlier, fading distant shadows to light, its faint illumination enough for Luke to discern the outline of the rocky outcropping he sought.
Would she come today?
Luke found a smaller boulder and sat down to wait. He'd seen the mysterious pale-haired woman in these woods the week before, near this same rocky outcropping, but in his eagerness he'd moved toward her too quickly, crackling branches beneath his feet, startling her.
She'd run off, dropping her basket in her haste. Luke had left it where it lay and prayed she'd return for the basket and the early valerian roots she'd been harvesting.
At the thought of the woman, Luke remembered the scar high above his hip, from an injury that ought to have killed him. Even his brother, the renowned healer King John, had marveled that the lengthy gash hadn't claimed his life.
The woman had saved his life after he'd been injured in battle, sewing his injury closed before he bled to death, keeping vigil through the night to be certain the wound stayed clean and free from infection.
Luke needed to thank her, to learn her name, to see her in the clear light of day. Her features haunted his dreams. She had a beautiful, sweet face. Young. Vibrant. Hair so pale it was nearly silver.
No one else knew anything about her. He'd asked the area villagers and the soldiers who scouted these borderlands with him, but they'd never seen her. Some suggested she wasn't young or beautiful at all, but an old hag, her hair white with age, her features distorted by the delirium of his injury. Others claimed she didn't even existthat his feverish mind had imagined a woman when no one was there.
But Luke knew someone had stitched his wound closed. His memories were too deep to forget, though months had passed as he'd searched in vain to find her again. Driven by his quest, he'd traveled deeper into the forestpast the borders of Lydiainto enemy territory.
The week before, he'd caught a glimpse of her through the trees and had held his breath, watching in amazement, half convinced he'd imagined her.
When she didn't evaporate with the mist as the sun warmed the day, he'd moved closer, so focused on reaching her he'd paid little attention to the path. She must have heard the sound of his approach. For one long moment she'd lifted her head from her work and studied the woods in his direction, her face in clear view.
Not an old hag. Not an apparition. She'd run with feet fleet as a deer, disappearing in the direction of Il-lyria, beyond the Lydian border.
He'd returned every morning since then.
Today he waited. Prayed. Songbirds roused and trilled their morning melodies as the fog lifted, mist rising up the mountain to join the clouds and the pink light of dawn.
Luke sat still, silent. He could wait all day. He'd waited most of each day since the morning he'd seen her. It made no difference. With the treaty between the Roman Empire and Constantinople, peace in the borderlands became even more important. The emperor Charlemagne had pledged to fight for Lydia if the tiny kingdom went to war against the Illyrians again. The Byzantine empress Irene had vowed to counter, supporting her Illyrian territories.
If the two empires met in war across these rugged mountains, Lydia would be trampled. His people would suffer. When the walled Lydian city of Sardis had been besieged by Illyrian forces the previous fall, Luke had ridden out to battle beside his brother King John. Both of them had been prepared to die protecting their people.
By God's grace, it hadn't come to that. Rab the Raider, who'd deceitfully killed Luke's father, King Theodoric, was himself killed by his own half brother, Warrick. In the wake of the battle, Lydia, backed by Charlemagne, had forged a peace treaty with Irene of Constantinople. By those terms, the Illyrians were required to give back all the borderlands Rab the Raider had taken from Lydia.
Luke would never forget the horrors of war. He'd seen enough of battle. To keep the peace, he and his fellow soldiers roamed these lands, always alert for any activity that would indicate the Illyrians weren't keeping their side of the treaty.
So sitting on a boulder in the forest of the foothills fit perfectly within the mission his brother had tasked him with. His job was to watch the border. The rocky outcropping was part of that border. And so he sat patiently, waiting.
A tiny wren perched somewhere above him, its song cheerful and long-winded. Suddenly the bird stopped singing.
Luke sat up straight, gripping his bow with one hand, an arrow ready. Something had startled the bird. Wolves, who prowled at night, would have returned to their dens long before this hour, but bears were common in these foothills and active at this time of day. Lynx and wildcats weren't uncommon, though bears were a bigger threat this close to the mountains.
The wren sounded a few questioning notes, testing the air, uncertain. It fluttered to deeper cover.
Leaves rustled near the boulder. Luke could hear the sound, but whatever stirred the foliage lay on the other side of the rocks, out of sight.
Long minutes crept by as Luke pondered his next move. It could be a wild boar nosing about for mushrooms among the fallen logs. The hefty horned animals had thick hides and could run surprisingly fast. It was dangerous to meet one alone. One arrow was hardly ever enough to bring down a boar. Yet who could string a second arrow before the speedy animal struck?
The wren began to sing again, tentatively at first but gaining confidence as it continued. Luke hadn't heard any grunting. Boars grunted. Maybe it wasn't a boar on the other side of the rocks, then. Could it be an Il-lyrian war scout? Prior to the battle the previous fall, the Illyrians had been active in the area. If Luke saw their men venturing this far into Lydian territory, he'd alert his men and King John and intervene before the Illyrians could strike.
He prayed the Illyrians had better sense than to venture into Lydian territory again.
Slowly, soundlessly, Luke eased to his feet, creeping up the craggy incline where the rocks provided silent footholds. He'd be able to see better from higher ground. Besides, if the woman had returned, Luke realized he ought to try to get in between her and the route by which she'd escaped the week before. That way, if he startled her, she'd run toward him instead of away.
The wren's song grew more exuberant. Luke smiled at the sound. The song was a happy one, but more than that, it helped to drown out any noise Luke might make as he crept around the outcropping, pausing frequently, listening, waiting.
The rustling sound continued. Rocks overhung the spot from which the sound emanated, blocking the source from Luke's view. He paused, wishing the creature would back away far enough for him to see it, but other than the constant rustling, it made no move.
Below him the rocks gave way like a cliff. Luke weighed his options. If he dropped to the ground here, he'd almost certainly spook the creature. If it was a boar or a bear, it might charge him. If it was the woman, she might easily run away. He wanted neither of those options.
That left a long trek out of his way, following the bluff as it bent back toward the mountain. He'd have to turn his back on whatever was making the rustling sound. He'd venture far from the spot before reaching the lower elevation and making his way slowly back, giving the creature plenty of time to disappear.
He didn't like either option, but the long trek seemed the most promising.
Cautiously, Luke crept along the rocks, ducking branches, choosing his footing carefully.
He'd nearly reached the forest floor when a solid-looking rock proved to be loose, dislodging under his foot, rattling downward as he slipped and scrambled to stay on his feet.
He grabbed for support, clenched a branch in his hand and steadied himself.
The wren stopped singing. The rustling ceased, as well.
Luke froze, held his breath and waited. Something bolted from the base of the rocks. Unsure whether it was friend or foe, Luke ran for the path, hoping to intercept it, praying it wasn't a predator. He reached the path and faced the oncoming sound, its source still hidden by the thick brush that edged the winding route. Fitting an arrow to his bow, he raised the weapon and took aim, ready to shoot the moment the animal appeared.
A woman cleared the bend in the path, her lovely face white with fear, hair mostly hidden by a headscarf that was coming loose, revealing a glimpse of pale hair.
He'd found her.
The woman screamed.
Luke lowered his bow.
She stood close enough for him to see the arresting blue of her eyes, her white teeth evenly matched as she panted, looking about for an alternate route of escape, the way blocked by dense brush and brambles.
"Good morning." He took a step closer. "I didn't mean to"
She yelped, covered her face with one arm and ducked into the bushes.
"Please!" Luke dived after her. He couldn't let her get away, not without learning her name. He needed to thank her. He needed to apologize.
Spiny branches tore at his leather habergeon, grabbing at the quiver of arrows on his back. Luke tucked his bow under his arm and plowed forward, but the woman ahead of him had the advantage of smaller size and a decent head start. Eyes half-closed, arm up to protect his face, he followed the sound of her retreat, calling after her to please stop.
The sound of her flight stopped without warning. Fearing he'd lost her, Luke charged on, relieved when he caught sight of her pale brown headdress and faded gray skirt ahead of him. She'd stopped running and stood utterly still, facing away from him, staring at something ahead of her.
Luke looked past her to the spot that held her attention.
Full grown, claws raised, half a charge away and angry.
Luke froze. Once the animal realized they meant no harm, it should lumber off to its den and leave them alone. It stared at the woman, seemingly unaware that Luke had burst forth from the woods behind her. If the bear charged, it would charge at her. She was far too close to it already.
The bear lowered its claws. Luke almost thought the animal might be about to shuffle off, but instead it lunged forward, headed straight toward the woman.
Luke had sighted his arrow in an instant, knowing he'd likely get only one shot. The woman turned and ran, the bear too close, running too fast behind her.
Luke let loose the arrow and fit another to his string without waiting to see how well the first had flown. He raised it and saw to his relief that the bear had stopped running, though it hadn't fallen. Snarling, the animal raised its head and swiped at the arrow that pierced its neck.
As the bear reared up, Luke shot again, this time sinking the arrow deep in the fur of the animal's chest. The bear slumped to the ground.
The woman had run off.
Luke took off in the direction in which he'd seen her disappear. He couldn't lose her, not now, when he'd come so close after such a long search. He rounded a clump of bushes, hoping to catch sight of her far ahead, but she'd turned, looking back at the fallen bear.
She spun toward him as he burst through the bushes.
Fear flashed across her face, but she didn't scream this time.
"Please don't run." He extended one hand in a peaceful gesture.
The woman watched him warily, her mouth open slightly, the fear in her eyes fading to something akin to recognition.
Surely she had to recognize him. She'd saved his life. He recognized her, and he'd been on the brink of death, hardly conscious while she'd sewn his side back together.
"I shot the bear," he assured her, glancing back to see the bundle of black fur still unmoving in the clearing beyond. The bear had been poised to strike, one swipe away from defacing the woman's beauty forever. She ought to realize that he'd helped her, even if it was his fault for frightening her into a run toward the bear in the first place.
But when he turned to face her again, she only shook her head.
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," Luke began, but the woman cut him off, talking rapidly in a language he didn't recognize.
It wasn't Illyrian. It certainly wasn't Lydian, nor was it Latin. As second in line to the throne of Lydia, Luke was fluent in those three languages.
If anything, the woman's words sounded like the Frankish tongue Luke's sister-in-law, Gisela, had spoken as a child. She'd taught him a few words, but that had been weeks and weeks ago. He tried frantically to remember.
"Peace," he said, cringing as he butchered the accent.
But the woman stopped talking and listened.
"Peace," he repeated, his inflection perhaps a little better that time. Try as he might, he could only remember one other word. "Cheese."
The woman made a face, half uncertain, half amused.
"Sorry, that's all I know," he confessed in Lydian, then repeated the Frankish words. "Peace. Cheese."
The woman laughed, her eyes alight.
Luke sighed with relief, though questions filled him. What was this Frankish woman doing here on the borderlands between Lydia and Illyria? Her heritage explained her pale blond hair, a rarity in their part of the world, but her background raised more questions than it answered.
"You are good with languages." The woman spoke in halting Illyrian. "Do you know any Illyrian?"
"Yes." Relieved, he switched to the familiar language of his enemies, chastising himself for not trying the tongue sooner in his excitement. "Do you recognize me?"
She looked away, glancing to the carcass of the bear lying still in the clearing, then back in the direction of the village of Bern, where she'd saved his life. She stared that way for some time, not looking at him, nibbling at her lower lip uncertainly. Her dress was coarse, patched, befitting a woman of low station. A puzzle, indeed, for rarely did women of low station travel far beyond their homelands
unless they'd been sold as slaves.
He couldn't bear the thought that the woman who'd saved him might be owned by someone elsenot when he had the means to buy her freedom.
"You saved my life." He stepped forward tentatively, fearing she might bolt again. "Please allow me to repay you."
But the woman shuffled backward away from him, shaking her head, her face pale again. "No," she whispered, "no."