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Fear and Devotion

By James Wilson All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Fear and Devotion

Jilias took a steadying breath and tried to will her hands to stop shaking.  She was filthy, covered with mud and worse.  From the corner of her eye she could see a splash of blood on her skirt–Davie MacBruin’s blood.  He’d died right before her, killed by the Highlander brigands.  Jilias knew that the robbers held Dame Roberta a prisoner, but she and Catherine had fled into the thickets, and, so far as she knew, both had escaped capture.

A few choice oaths came to mind as she considered her situation, but she didn’t say them–proper young ladies never swear.  Her new Sabarran riding habit was ruined, and worse, cumbersome, making it very difficult to move through the thickets.  If she hadn’t been very afraid of making a noise, she would’ve torn off the silly petticoats and flounces at once.

She froze as a twig snapped nearby, then sank ever so slowly back into the mud.  With exaggerated caution she crawled under the thicket, and then held her breath.  Boots tromped suddenly right past her, then stopped.  She could see them only a few feet away.  Thick boots, with tartan-cloth wrapped around them.  She took a long, shaky, silent breath, hoping it wouldn’t be heard.  The boots stamped away and Jilias trembled with relief.  

Her heart pounded worse than ever, for despite her delicate upbringing she knew her fate if she were caught.  Only fifteen, she knew she was beautiful–it was no time for false modesty–and alone in the woods.  To an outlaw she would make an irresistible temptation.  She hoped that Dame Roberta’s age would protect her, for that worthy woman had passed sixty.  Since Jilias had heard no screams, she prayed that her hope was not vain.  If captured her friend Catherine would suffer the same fate as Jilias.  Almost as young and at least as pretty as Jilias, at eighteen her additional years would be no protection against the wild brigands.

Jilias could not understand why Highlanders had attacked at all.  Every Highlander she had ever met was in her brother’s service.  All of them were fine gentlemen and ladies in the essentials.  A bit rough in manner, perhaps, but every one the soul of honor.  What clan could these ruffians come from?

She crawled from under her bush and rose, slowly.  Her midnight hair had become as bedraggled and muddy as the rest of her.  She supposed her face would be smudged or even black with all the dirt.  She wanted a mirror, strangely.  Since she had a few minutes, or so she hoped, she decided to get rid of her petticoats.  The expensive riding habit was buttoned down the front, fortunately, so she unbuttoned it and slipped out of the mud-heavy dress.  It took some time to untie her petticoats, but at last all three of them lay on the ground, leaving her in only a chemise over her underclothes.  She debated for a moment whether to put the ruined dress back on, and at last slipped back into it, mindful that the sight of a lacy chemise could only make matters worse with the brigands.

She felt much better without the petticoats, and a bit proud of herself when she remembered to hide them in the thicket, shielding them so that even she couldn’t see them from a few feet away.  She looked at the little dagger she held in one shaking hand and then at the muddy flounces on her riding gown.  She shook her head.  It might make too much noise to cut them off.

"I'm never wearing a Sabarran gown of any kind again," she swore in a whisper, "so long as I live!"

She thought for a few minutes about her route.  Which way?  She knew her location somewhat vaguely, and from the sunlight that slanted through the tree-branches she determined that her bother's manor lay eight or ten miles to the west, where the sun glowed red above the horizon.  She shivered.  She hoped somebody friendly would find her before dark.  She felt already frightened enough.

She looked around, careful not to brush against the thickets as she turned.  She saw nobody through the trees, and heard only the birds and the wind in the trees.  She slipped her small dagger, a gift from Damon, into a loop of her sash, making it more easily accessible.  Then she turned her attention to the trees, thickets and fallen branches, looking for a good, strong stick.  She needed a cudgel, as Damon called it.  It took several minutes, and she swayed carefully through the underbrush as she searched, but at last she found what she wanted: a solid stick about four feet long with a knob at one end.  It remained attached to a tree with its nearer end almost out of reach, but she rose on her tip-toes and wrenched it free after several attempts.  The branch above swayed and creaked alarmingly, but as she held her breath the noise ceased, and she took another look at her prize.

Jilias pulled out her knife and scratched away the bark on the thinner end of the branch until it seemed smooth enough, then she returned the dagger to its loop and took the sturdy club in both hands.  She smiled as she looked at it.  She felt so much better!  Damon had been right about that.  A good weapon does increase confidence.  She only wished she had brought her slim sword along, the gift of her sister-in-law Valarey.  She had never considered that it might be dangerous in this part of Weald.

She gave her new cudgel a swing, just to test it, and it slipped from her fingers, bounced from a fallen log, and then flew right at her face!  She caught it, to her own surprise, just before the gnarled end hit her in the eye.  She gave a rueful chuckle, then gasped in horror. 

Above the tangled fern-brakes a Highlander ruffian stared at her.  He wore a tattered brigandine with a sash of some unknown tartan over one shoulder, but all Jilias could see were his eyes.  She gave a startled little shriek, cringing back away from him, and winced as he opened his mouth to shout.  Then he closed it, and his eyes took on a greedy look that Jilias understood only too well.  His face and burning eyes seemed to fill the world, and Jilias felt her heart hammering at her ribs like an animal seeking escape.  She shrank back, her cudgel forgotten, as he pushed through the brush, and she tried to think, desperate to remember everything Anne and Damon and had taught her about fighting.  She gasped as Damon's rich, cultured voice suddenly came to her, almost as if he were standing beside her.

"Don't hesitate, my lady," she heard him say, "and don't stop to think.  When you see your chance, you take it!"

She gripped her cudgel tightly, knuckles white, raising it to her shoulder.  She suddenly regretted removing her petticoats, for her legs felt very cold as she knew what was about to happen.

"Come on, lassie,"  said the Highlander, his voice low and rough, "I’ll no harm ya!  I jus’ want tae be friendly."  He smiled an evil smile.  His hot eyes told the truth, and Jilias’ fear rose high enough to choke her.  She trembled violently, but her club rose a few inches higher.  Her breath came in quick little gasps as his burning eyes grew closer, closer.  Then suddenly her mind broke free of fear.  She had a choice: to submit, or to struggle.  A small part of her argued that it wouldn’t hurt as much if she just submitted, but she ignored it.  Jilias knew only a little about fighting, but she had never been taught to supinely surrender, so she didn’t.  He stood only a few feet away, and the brutal hunger in his eyes changed her realization to action in an instant.  She swung her club, intentionally missing but causing him to flinch back, and then shifted her right hand to the center of the branch and thrust up at his throat.

She could not tell who was more surprised when her blow connected, and the shocked robber fell, choking, his hand clutching at his neck where the rough wood had pierced it.  She gritted her teeth to keep from shrieking her triumph, but she didn't stop.  She hit him again and again, till her club was bloody and he stopped moving, stopped choking.  She stood above him, breast heaving, and gave him one final whack.  Her mind burned with triumph, and she remembered the other things that Damon had taught her, and set to work spoiling the fallen.

She slung his baldric over her own shoulders after shortening it considerably, and felt relieved to find that he had only a small, light claybeg instead of a larger war-sword or claymore.  It looked pathetically ill-kept, splotches of rust visible on the blade, but she held it by the pommel and rapped it with her knuckle and it seemed to ring true.  She would have to use it two-handed, but that didn't matter.  She didn't know enough of the sword art to use it one-handed anyway.  His belt she had to wrap around her waist twice, but from it depended a heavy dirk, with a beautiful carnelian forming the pommel.  She checked that weapon as well, and saw that it had silver-inlaid runes cut into the fifteen-inch, watered-steel blade.  She wondered how he had come by such a weapon, and then snorted.  He had stolen it, of course.  She sheathed the dagger, fighting the feeling of safety that the weapons gave her, and looked in the pouch that also hung from the belt.  It held a few rags and two copper pennies, and for a moment she felt a twinge of pity for her fallen foe.  

She started as she heard a gurgle from her enemy, and turned to see that he still breathed.  Blood spurted from his neck, and she turned away, gagging on bile.  She whispered a cantrip to keep herself from vomiting, and shivered as the magic took effect.  She couldn't afford to be weak!

She turned to leave, but then she heard Damon's voice again, as if he were standing next to her.

"It is not a question of chivalry, my lady,"  he’d said, "anyone who would attack you has already proved himself a villain and a coward.  It you managed to knock him senseless, you must and should kill him."  

She had shivered at his words, and she shivered again, for it seemed much worse to contemplate the reality.  She shrank from the bloody deed, despite the bitter hatred that she felt.  Even if he lived he could not follow her, and he seemed likely to die any moment.  She simply could not steel herself to kill the man in cold blood, so she slipped away through the trees, slowly and carefully.  She hoped, and felt reasonably sure, that she approached the little lynn she and Catherine had come to see.  She loved waterfalls, and by all accounts it was remarkably beautiful.

She expected that any search party would hunt for her there, and that Catherine would likewise make for it.  She wished desperately that she and Catherine had stayed together, for she had never felt more alone.  She had killed a man, or very likely, and the horror of it threatened to overcome her triumph.  She had always been very sheltered, and how could she not be?  Her father was Count of Ghendd, her mother the Marchioness of Selle.  She had been protected, and even the instruction she had received from Damon, her brother's squire, and from Valarey's targessa Anne, had been more play than serious.  Nobody expected her to join the military Sisterhoods.  Nobody expected she would ever need to defend herself.  She felt rather annoyed about the whole thing, and let that feeling build into outrage, the better to avoid thinking about her fallen enemy.  They should've prepared her!  They should've taught her about how to survive, just in case!

She picked her way carefully through the trees, glad that the bigger trees near the lynn allowed so little undergrowth.  She started when a drop of water touched her cheek, and looked up with a frown.  She couldn't see the sky, but it did seem a little darker, and a rumble of thunder warned her that rain would soon be falling in earnest.

She hurried on.  She could do nothing about the rain.  

Just as the rain began fall she heard a muffled curse, and a woman’s terrified whimper.  She froze, oblivious to the drenching downpour as her ears strained to hear more.  The woman’s voice, muffled, was saying no over and over–she recognized Catherine’s voice, though she never afterwards understood how.  She turned towards the sound and drew the dirk, hitching the sword up behind her like a claymore.  A tiny meadow opened before her, and she saw a dreadful sight.  One of the ruffians carried Catherine over his shoulder, crossing the grass to a copse that stood at the center of the meadow.  

Jilias took two steps towards a game trail and then rushed towards the ruffian's back, the long dirk ready in her hand.  The robber threw Catherine down, lifting her skirts and tearing at the petticoats with a muffled curse.  Catherine moaned and sobbed in despair, her eyes closed, her hands tied, and Jilias let the sound fill her with anger.

This time she didn't hesitate for even a moment.  She held the dagger like a sword, and as the outlaw turned as he hear her footsteps she struck at the carotid artery just as Anne had instructed.

Hot blood sprayed her face as the Highlander threw himself back with a gurgling gasp, and as he turned blood spattered over Catherine as well, and she opened her eyes with a gasping shriek.  The ruffian's hands clutched at his throat, vainly striving to hold in his life, and Jilias leaped atop his chest and stabbed at his throat again, under his clutching hands.  He went limp, and she leaned forward, closing her eyes for a moment as her heart again threatened to break her ribs.  A coldness took her, shielding her from the pain of killing, though her breath still came in ragged gasps.  She felt a sudden shudder through the outlaw's body and rose, her eyes narrowed, but he was dead.  

She walked calmly back to where Catherine lay with bound hands and a gagged mouth.  With the bloody dirk she freed her friend, untied the gag with shaking fingers, and they embraced.  Catherine sobbed out her thanks while Jilias felt as though her heart had become encased by ice, beyond emotion.

"Come," she said, "we’ve got to get to the lynn.  That’s where Damon…where any searchers will be sure to find us."  Catherine nodded, and her shaking hand clung to Jilias’ as they fled across the meadow.  They stopped for a moment to wipe some of the blood from their faces, then hand in bloody hand they slipped through the trees.  The found a path that led in the direction they wanted, or so they hoped.  The rain pounded down, and they ran swiftly, cold and wet, trusting that the noise of their passage would be covered by the rainfall.

A red gleam behind them warned that the sun neared the horizon, and they still had not reached their destination.  The imminent dusk filled Catherine with dread, but Jilias held to the armor of emotionlessness and led Catherine down the trail with as much speed as possible.  With a suddenness that startled them both Jilias suddenly pulled them down behind a gorse bush and then crawled forward to where they could see a clearing up ahead.

They saw horsemen ahead, many horsemen, and they wore the same strange mixed tartan that Jilias recognized from both of her defeated foes.

"Hail,"  called a voice, and Jilias saw her brother’s steward, Rogier de Falmore, riding into the clearing with a few others men-at-arms.  Opposite them sat at least twenty grim-faced, red-and-orange kilted riders.  One of the Highlanders rode forward.

"Hail,"  he said, "terrible weather, think ye not?"

"It is,"  said Rogier, "and my master’s poor sister is out in it, together with her waiting gentlewoman and Lady Catherine of Tarenish.  They went riding some hours ago, and we cannot find them.  Have any of you fellows seen them?"

"Who is your master?"  asked another of the Highlanders.

"The Duke of Traws,"  said Roger, "also the Baron of Armouth and Thane of Weald, where we are now.  I believe he is just called Laird Rhen in the Highlands.  Have you come to take service with him?  We have many Highlanders among us.

That brought a stir of consternation to the Highlanders, and hope flared in Jilias’ heart.  

"Don’t they see us?"  whispered Catherine, "can’t they take us home?"

"Shhh!"  hissed Jilias, "there are too many..."

The Highlanders attacked without warning.  The surprise was complete;they cut Rogier down before he had half drawn his sword.  His companions fell only moments later, and in less than a minute the fight had ended.  Only one of the Highlanders died in the exchange.  Jilias bit her lip at the tears that started.  Rogier was a loyal and brave man, and she’d liked him very much.  Weald wouldn’t be half so well looked after now that he was gone.  Catherine began to hyperventilate, but just in time Catherine got her hand over the scream that would have surely burst forth.

"We must find ‘em,"  said one of the ruffians, "if Laird Rhen hears of this we’ll never live a week!"

"How can he not?"  said another, "we’ve got this baggage."  He gestured to Dame Roberta, bound and gagged and mounted behind him.  Jilias gasped in sudden fear as she saw her battered duenna.

"Cut her throat,"  said the first, and Jilias felt her icy armor shatter.  The outlaw turned and cut the old woman's throat casually, as if it were not a terrible deed.  He cast Dame Roberta to the ground where she choked to death in moments.  Jilias bit her lip till the blood came, willing herself not to scream.  Hatred burned at her mind, and a desire for vengeance so hot that her chilled flesh suddenly felt fevered.  The sword on her shoulder beckoned, but she closed her eyes and tried to bring reason back to her mind.  Her few hours of training would not make her a match for twenty brigands and murderers, and her wrath would not help her.  If only she had been raised in the Sisterhoods, like her sister-in-law!   Valarey wouldn’t cringe in the dark, wishing for vengeance.  She’d have joined the fight and killed every one of the rogues before they knew what hit them wielding sword and magic together like Saint Arya herself.  But then Valarey wouldn’t have needed to join the fight.  Those cowardly scum would’ve blanched and fled at Lady Valarey’s name almost as quickly as they would Laird Rhen's.

"Fan out, lads,"  said the first ruffian, who appeared to be the chief, "we need tae find them lasses.  If we dinnae it’s all our necks.  Find Ewan and Griff and Rob and that balmy Utto.  Back here in an hour, find them or no.  Quick now!"  Jilias had just enough presence of mind enough to get herself and her companion under the bushes before two of the ruffians rode past.  When they were gone Jilias looked out and saw that the clearing had emptied.  She half-dragged the weeping Catherine from the bushes and hurried down the path.  It couldn’t be a mile more to the dell, but it took them most of an hour.  They halted on the edge of the trees, where a thick sward lay across a narrow little valley.  Despite her fear and the gathering dusk, Jilias felt a little awed at the beauty of the place.  Red-spotted ferns grew in wild profusion along the banks of a pool and the stream it fed, almost obscuring the water.  A waterfall, white against the dark hill, tumbled from stony heights forty feet above.  Evergreens shaded the ridge from which it spilled, and also the lake above that fed the waterfall, Jilias knew, hoping she’d live to see it.  The beauties of Weald surprised everyone, for it had long lain under the power of the Warlock of Dun Heath, but Rhenand's valor had ended that wicked warlock's life, and Dun Heath had flourished into a land famed for its beauty instead of dreaded for its dangers.

She led Catherine down the slope to the pool, just as pretty and idyllic even in the twilight as Damon had promised.  She waded in quickly, dragging Catherine with her.  Slowly they crossed the pool as it got deeper and deeper.  They gasped at the water’s temperature, and at last were forced to swim, clad as they were, and after a few moments struggle got their footing again just below the waterfall.

"Come on, Kitty,"  said Jilias, "Damon is the only one who can find us here, and we're already soaked through anyway.  And it'll wash off the blood."  

Catherine nodded shakily, and together they plunged under the falls.  It took less than a second to pass through the white curtain, and they found themselves standing in a shallow pool behind the cascade.  The cave behind proved large, and a few feet from the water, even dry.  So much they could see vaguely by the light that came through the waterfall, which faded fast as the great moon hurried to replace the sun in the sky.

They waded ashore and sat gasping as the darkness grew.  Jilias felt exhausted, and now they were thoroughly wet and alone, and they would have to sit in darkness till Damon came.  She didn't think she'd be able to manage a candle-flame spell, so weary did she feel.  She shivered, and Catherine hugged her.

"Thank you Jilly,"  she said, "you saved me.  I can never thank you enough."  They kissed each other and cried, for both were aware of what a narrow escape they’d had, and that the danger remained very near.  

Just as the light failed completely, Jilias saw something that immediately dried her tears.  A large chest sat against the cave wall, quite a way back from the water.  She steeled herself and whispered a candle-light spell, placing the little illusion of flame on a rock, and by its light she opened the big chest, and found within a treasure trove.  It held three tunics, several pairs of hose, and blankets!  She also saw three pairs of boots, all too large of course, a little hatchet, and even an otter-skin cloak.  Nestled among them she found a pouch with two small mage-lights within.  She set one on the stone she had used for her spell, and it provided a much steadier light, as crystals holds magic far better and longer than living limestone.  Her spell had already turned part of the two-foot boulder into sand.  

Shivering both with cold and fear, the girls removed their wet clothes and dried themselves with a blanket, then donned tunics and hose.  Though much too big for them, dry clothing seemed a true blessing.  The clothes smelled like Damon, and Jilias flushed guiltily as she recognized the scent.

Turning back to the chest, Jilias found another small wooden box within, and in it she sighed with relief to discover several pounds of cured meat.  She handed a piece to Catherine and they chewed, chewed, and chewed some more.  Neither had ever eaten such food before, but it tasted heavenly.

Both of the girls shook with exhaustion, the cold, and the emotions of their situation.  As they bundled up with all of the blankets well back in the cave, the horror of the day came back to them, and tears dripped onto the woolen blankets.

"Come on, Kitty," Jilias said as they snuggled together with at least six blankets around and beneath them, "we'd better not think about it."  She sniffed.  "They'll be here to rescue us before long."

"When do you think they’ll come?"  asked Catherine in a weary voice.

"I don’t know,"  said Jilias, "those robbers killed Rogier, and they’ll try to kill Damon and anyone else they meet.  But don’t worry, Kitty.  Damon will come.  We may have a little wait but he’ll come."

"You love him, don't you?"  Catherine didn't really ask.  She knew.

Jilias let the silence grow for a while, then she smiled.

"I do love him," she said softly, "he’s so noble and good, just like my father and brothers.  And he's already a knight, at only seventeen!  He wants to be an Errant for a year or two, and I can wait…maybe."

Catherine startled them both with a giggle.

"You forgot to mention that he's handsome," she said, "you remember two days ago when we caught him practicing in the Heathlynn yard?  Such pretty muscles!"

"Very," said Jilias, remembering and blushing as she did.

"He's not very rich, you know," Catherine teased, "Dinraidd is only a tower-house, a what do you call it?  A peel, that's it, it's only a peel right now, and the estate is more plan than reality."

"I have my own manor in Selle," said Jilias with lofty disdain, "not to mention quite a bit of money for a dowry.  It'll be enough, if I have him."

"Shameless!" Catherine sounded truly outraged, but Jilias knew better. "I didn't know my best friend was such a hussy!"

"Not hussy enough," said Jilias mournfully, "I guess I'll have to let him be an Errant for a while, but I really don't want to.  Really."  Catherine laughed almost as if they hand't seen Dame Roberta and Rogier de Falmore killed only two or three hours past.

"I know your Damon is as brave as a lion, for my father said so not three weeks ago.  My father really loves your brother and all his former squires.  He ordered me to capture Sir Gildon a few months ago, but so far I haven't been able to manage it.  I think Sir Gildon intends to remain a Knight Errant forever."

"This is only his fifth year," said Jilias, "and my brother kept at it for five years.  I doubt Sir Gildon will be able to avoid a banner forever.  You heard how he immediately fled the moment he heard Prince Stephen was looking for him after the Battle of Nine Knocks."

"Yes," said Catherine, "and he didn't stop, either.  He rejoined Sir Haragal and went all the way to the Rythe just to avoid becoming a banneret."

"He'll have to come home sometime," said Jilias with a laugh, "and that'll be the end of that.  He's already a banneret, and the Chapelines will make him a Guardant too as soon as he comes back into the Empire."

"I need spies," said Catherine, "maybe then I'll be able to corner him."

They laughed at that, but soon grew sleepy.

"I haven't seen your manor in Selle," said Catherine sleepily, "is it a nice place?"

"Oh yes," said Jilias, "it's got a lovely manor house, and very fine orchards.  I could live there if I never married.  You don't need to worry about money and lands so much if you don't have children."

"I don’t know about that,"  Catherine yawned, "but it is nice to have a place to go, if you ever need it."

"That’s why my grandfather gave it to me,"  said Jilias, "and it is a pleasant place to visit, too.  I’ve often wanted to spend a summer there, watching the trees and flowers grow, but I'm still too young.  I have an excellent steward taking care of it until I'm reckoned old enough."

"Perhaps you’ll spend next summer there," said Catherine, "with Damon.  But I don’t think you’d spend much time watching the trees and flowers grow!"  She laughed wickedly.

Jilias had to laugh as well, and was relieved as much by her own as by Catherine’s merriment.  

"My real fear,"  she said seriously, "is that he’ll never ask me.  He probably thinks he’s too poor and that I’m above him or something, since my father is a Count and my mother will be a Duchess someday, and his father is only a knight.  I don't care.  I don’t want any riches if I can’t have him."

"I’ve just thought of something,"  said Catherine, giggling, "you’ll be Lady Jilias Kjoya de d’Larcy."

"Oh!"  exclaimed Jilias, "I already thought of that.  I’ll just go by Lady Jilias Kjoya d’Larcy."

"You really do want to marry him, don’t you," said Catherine, her smile becoming kind and hopeful, "well then may the Dancing Lady bless you,"  said Catherine, "but I think you may need to start a new tradition."

"What?"

"You say he think’s he’s too poor?  Well, you’ll just have to ask him."

They laughed at that, but almost immediately they both began to cry.  Jilias felt like she had somehow betrayed her duenna by giggling and laughing, not knowing how the release of tension will often result in such behavior.  She’d never been through a truly tense situation before.

"Come, my love," whispered Catherine, "it won’t bring her back.  We’ll tell Damon and my father.  They’ll do for these rogues."  She kissed Jilias and wiped away her tears, though there were still tears on her own cheeks.  

"I know," said Jilias, "it’s just the thought of her lying out there in the rain, alone.  I can’t bear it."  The two girls embraced, and shook, sobbing together, and soon enough fell asleep.

A sudden feeling of danger woke Jilias much later, like soft wings beating at her face.  Light filtered in through the waterfall, giving the whole cave a dim, eldritch look.  She didn't remember turning off the mage-light, but it no longer glowed.  She didn't know why she felt afraid, but she knew to trust the good spirits when they warned of danger.

She saw a dark shadow coming towards the brightness of the waterfall.  She woke Catherine quickly, and drew her sword while Catherine took up the dirk.

The water parted and a man waded through, his red, black and orange kilt swirling in the water about his thighs.  He held a notched sword, and his brigandine showed the metal plates in many places where the canvas covering had been slashed.  Bright blood streamed down his left arm, which he cradled against his side.

"So it’s ye,"  he said huskily as he came through, "weel and weel!  Here ye are, after all.  Well, ye pair of fine, well bred uppity ladies, ye’re about tae learn wha’ every lass must."

Jilias tried to keep her sword from wavering as she answered.

"I killed two of your men, blackguard,"  she said, "and I’ll kill you too."

"I’m sorry tae tell ye, lass,"  said the brigand, "but that tom-fool of a Griff didnae die.  Weel, not then, anyway.  He still lived when the Duke’s men caught us.  Now, weel, I reckon he’s dead."

She recognized him as the one who had given the order to kill Dame Roberta, and hot anger flashed through her.

Jilias started to lunge forward, but Catherine clung to her arm.

"Wait, Jilias,"  she whispered, "we’ll get him when he comes close."

Jilias didn’t think it was terribly good advice, but she couldn’t break away without exposing Catherine to danger, so she waited, sword ready.

The ruffian came nearer, sword dragging on the floor.

"D’ye wish tae spit me with poor Griff’s sword?"  he bellowed, making both of the start, "weel, here I am, ye whores!  Come on then!"

"We are not whores,"  said Jilias, summoning what dignity she could.

"So say ye now,"  said the Highlander, "but wait till ye’ve had a taste of the flesh, then whores ye’ll be, sure as sure!  I’ll calc ye both good,"  he leered at them, "like that lusty old harpy we had last night."  

Jilias stiffened in horror, though she had never heard the term calc before, but Catherine lunged past her.  Jilias charged as soon as she realized what was happening, but the flat of his sword hit her in the head and she fell, her head ringing and her vision blurred.  She clung to her sword and turned over, trying to get back into the fight, but she couldn’t move properly, and saw nothing but stars.  She could hear Catherine screaming in terror, but her eyes couldn’t see so far.  Then there was a great thud, and a ringing voice filled the cave.

"Stand up, villain!"  it said, "can you not fight a man?"

Her eyes cleared a little and she saw Damon standing tall and wrathful before the waterfall, while the fallen ruffian fumbled with his sword.  Catherine lay on her side, hose around her ankles, and Jilias crawled over to her, aching to comfort her in some way.  She held the other girl tight and turned to look at Damon again.

He wore a coat-of-plates with his own charge upon it, and a longsword shone bright in his hand.  Though dripping wet and wearing leather trousers slashed and torn, he looked so noble that her heart gave a throb.  His short black hair stuck out at odd angles from the force of the waterfall, and the fierce look in his eyes as he glanced at her brought an answering savage smile to her lips.  She helped Catherine pull up her hose, watching the two men with confidence.  She noticed one oddity.  Damon had a rope coiled around his waist.

The outlaw leader righted himself and came slowly towards Damon, sword held low.

"There are two whores,"  he said, "och, I’ll take the one and ye can have the black haired wench."

"I’m not here to talk,"  Damon snarled, "best say something wise, you craven cur.  They’ll be your last words."  He backed up a pace.  "Jilias,"  he said, "is this the one that killed Dame Roberta?"

"No,"  Jilias said, "but he ordered it.  And he told us that they ravished her."

Damon glanced at her again, and the cold fury in his eyes reassured her. Damon would not lose.

The rogue clansman attacked while Damon looked away, but Damon waited for such a move.  The two swords clanged and parted, and the ruffian kicked out with a booted foot, catching Damon in the knee.  Damon rolled with it, however, pulling back quickly, and the punched the Highlander in the face with the pommel of his sword.  The outlaw fell, his face bloody, teeth spewing from his mouth.  Damon snatched the fallen sword and tossed it aside, then unwrapped the rope from around his waist.  The Highlander squealed in terror as the end came away a noose.  Damon kicked the ruffian in the face, then looped the noose around his neck.  Then he hauled the line up over his shoulder while the Highlander clawed at the rope and choked.

"I’ll be back in a few minutes, ladies,"  Damon said, saluting with his sword, "once I’ve dealt with this offal."  Then he plunged back through the waterfall, dragging his captive with him.  

"Honey, honey, are you okay?"  Jilias asked, "did he, did he..."

"No,"  sobbed Catherine, "no, but only just."  She buried her face against Jilias’ breast.  "Thank Three and your Damon," she gasped out.  They waited there, huddled together, and heard a horn-call from without, even over the roar of the cascade.  

They only waited a few moments before Damon returned.

"Lady Jilias,"  he said, "there are two score Shaw reivers coming, and they have proper clothes for you as well as a couple of Sisters to bind your hurts.  My squire Rodrigo is already raising a pavilion for you, so that you may dress yourselves properly.   In a few minutes it will be ready.  Do you wish me to stay?"

"Please do,"  said Jilias, "I cannot thank you enough for your timely intervention, Sir Damon.  You were just in time."

"Thank Three for that,"  said Damon, "I had feared all night that I would be too late, especially since I found Dame Roberta.  Three above, Lady Jilias, it has been a long night, and no doubt even longer for the two of you.  There were close to a hundred of these stinking MacRibes, and we had a hard fight.  A dozen good men died fighting them, as well as Rogier and Dame Roberta."

"MacRibes?"  asked Jilias, "who are they?  I’ve never heard of that clan."

"It’s not a clan, exactly,"  said Damon, "you may not have noticed that they all wore different tartans.  The MacRibes are bandits, the worst of every clan, the scum of the Highlands.  I believe that 'ribes' mean tatters, and they are a scourge in the lonelier parts of the Highlands.  This rabble, somehow, decided that Odonne would be ripe for the picking.  We showed them that they were wrong."

"Are they all dead?"  mumbled Catherine.

"Yes, my lady,"  said Damon, "twenty-four of them were hanged, the rest were slain a little more honorably than they deserved."

"Did you...is he..."

"Yes, my lady,"  said Damon, "I hanged your...assailant.  He is quite dead now."

Catherine shuddered and nodded.

"I can’t thank you enough, Sir Damon,"  she said, her voice trembling.

"There is nothing to thank me for, my lady,"  said Damon, "killing filth like him was a duty...a pleasure.  I am only sorry that it was such a close thing.  I would give my soul to have caught him short of your hiding place."

"You may as well tell us, Sir Damon," said Jilias, who scented a good reason behind his wish, "what was it that kept your from doing just that?"

"I wasn’t fast enough, my lady,"  said Damon, suddenly a little sheepish.

"What was it?"  Jilias persisted. "Did your horse break his leg?"

Damon looked up sharply, and nodded.

"Yes, he did, my lady,"  he said, "about a mile back.  A stupid trap I should've expected.  Rodrigo's pony was only lamed, and we were neither of us hurt, but it delayed us terribly.  Rodrigo and I ran here as fast as we could, and almost too late.  If I had been a second later, well, I never would’ve forgiven myself."

"You did just as you should," said Jilias, "and better than any other man could."

"Thank you, my lady."

He turned as a horn call sounded.

"May I carry you, Lady Catherine?  He asked Catherine's permission, returning dignity to her with his respect.  "The pavilion is ready."  He stooped down and lifted her up, and quickly wade out through the waterfall.  He was gone for a few minutes, then returned, concern in his eyes.

"Are you really okay, Lady Jilias?"  he asked, "I found your petticoats in a thicket, and a great deal of blood on the ground a little way off.  Are you hurt or wounded?"

"No, I am well,"  said Jilias, "I beat one of them half to death, but I could not take your advice and kill him.  A stout cudgel is a fine weapon in need,"  she said, giving his words back to him.  He smiled, though his eyes were still touched with sadness.

"I was so worried, my lady,"  he said, "you came here on my advice, and I feared, I feared..."

"You were right to fear, but I am not harmed," said Jilias, "you saved us, Sir Damon.   Just as I knew you would."

He took her hand, and almost kissed it.

She became suddenly aware of how she must look.  She stood in hose baggy from the knees down, and the overlarge tunic had slipped from one shoulder.  Her hair she didn't even want to think about.  She must not look very alluring but timing seemed much more important.

"My lady,"  he bowed very slightly, "may I carry you out?"

"I must thank you first," said Jilias, "properly."

"What do you mean?" Damon said, frowning in confusion.  Twisting her hand in his, she pulled him to her and kissed him, her face burning with shame at her forwardness even as she acted.  

"I’m sorry,"  she said, pulling back, "I shouldn’t have done that.  It was most unseemly, but I’ve been so close to death and worse..."

"My lady,"  said Damon huskily, "my lady, my lady, my…  You must know…I cannot, I will say more.  Dinraidd is a ruin, barely habitable.  Oh, Lady Jilias, if only..."

"Damon,"  Jilias said, very calmly, "say what is in your heart.  All men say that you are fearless.  Show me."

Damon’s eyes held a hurt in them that smote her heart.

"I love you, my lady,"  he said, "I have since I first met  you.  Your brother, my beloved lord, told me long ago that he wanted me to court you, that he wanted me in your family.  When I was fourteen it seemed merely unlikely, rather than impossible.  Now, though, I…I am so far beneath you, my lady.  Your father is a Count, your brother is  Duke, and your brother Sir Brian was just created Count of Kaelmir.  I dare not ask my heart’s desire, but because you charge me, I shall.  I want you for my wife, Lady Jilias.  I love you, and will forever, whatever you decide."

He could not look at her, and Jilias knew a thrill of triumph even as she felt her own answering love swelling within her.  She knew he was fearless in battle, he had fought monsters and demons as well as men.  Yet he looked truly afraid, and she was mistress of that fear.  Her compassion would not let her enjoy her power long.  

"Damon, dear Damon,"  she said, "did you think I cared more for wealth than for your kindness, your loyalty, your courage?  We will not be poor, my love.  I have money, we each have estates, but we will have more than all that.  We will have a love that shines like a beacon, like my brother and Valarey."

"You mean..."  Damon’s eyes closed, and he shook for a moment.  "My love, my sweet,"  he said, "I would’ve suffered ten times as much for you as I have in the last day!  I don’t know what to say...it is too much."

"You could kiss me and seal the bargain,"  said Jilias.

Damon did, then lifted her up and carried her towards the waterfall.

"It would not do, my lady,"  he said, "to be closeted thus overlong.  Your virtue is safe with me, of course, but after this affair I would not be suspect."

"It won’t be long, my love," whispered Jilias in his ear, "before I will be yours and yours alone.  Take me to Dinraidd as soon as you may."

And he did.

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