Brighid crept silently as far into the wood as she dared. If she failed to relieve herself soon she feared she would burst at the seams. If she hurried, she could do so and manage a quick wash in the stream before anyone else had the same idea.
Jesu, she was tired. And hot. And hungry. But none of those things were new to her. She had spent the better part of her life struggling for survival and it no longer gnawed at her as it once did. As situations went, this one was not so bad.
The other recruits did not like her, but that was fine with her. She had neither the desire nor the need for them. Being an outcast, being shunned, worked to her advantage. It would keep them from getting too close or asking too many questions, neither of which she could afford if she wished to make it to Scamallhaven without revealing her great secret.
And Sir Roran seemed a decent sort of fellow, really. Strong and handsome as he was quiet, Brighid sensed instinctively that he was an honorable and fair man. There were much worse things than being in service to a warrior-knight such as he, and she was far safer hiding in his shadow than anywhere else on her own.
She quickly stripped down to her braies and waded into the creek to wash off the worst of the sweat and grime, then re-fastened her bindings, pulling them nice and tight. She might have been petite by nature, but the generous swell of her breasts and hips was hard to hide. At nearly nineteen summers, her womanhood was in full bloom. Definitely not something she wanted to reveal to a camp full of men and randy lads, no matter how honorable she thought Sir Roran to be. Males were still males, rutting fools from the very moment their voices deepened and their smooth skin began to roughen with growth.
Aye, it was better to be the lad they all scorned, the focus of their constant taunts and stares. She had no doubt they had been looking for an opportunity to catch her on her own and do more than spew their contempt with only words. Given the looks in some of their eyes, they wished to drive home their disdain with a few well-placed fists and feet as well. Brighid shivered at the thought and hastened to finish quickly before her absence was discovered.
Even as she pulled up her braies she heard their voices sounding closer with each moment. Brighid shook as much dirt from her clothes as she could and scrambled back into them. With years of experience behind her, she nimbly slipped up into the branches of the nearest tree before anyone could discover her secrets.
“I’m sure he came this way,” one boy’s voice said as several pairs of feet moved noisily through the brush. The one called Kieran, she thought. A braw lad, with hair the color of flame and a great rash of freckles about his nose. Brighid allowed herself a rare smile. As superior as they thought they were, they didn’t know the first thing about stealth as they spoke in loud whispers and stomped about like a great herd of cattle. Then again, they probably hadn’t had to steal for survival like she had.
“We’ll find him,” said another, “and we’ll teach the little bastard a lesson or two about making us look bad.” That was Ian, the lean, wiry one that seemed to have become Kieran’s shadow.
“Ye risk the wrath of Sir Roran,” someone warned. At least one of them had a working brain bigger than the size of his fist, Brighid thought wryly as she reached down into her deep pockets.
“Shut it, Cam, and keep yer eyes open.”
* * *
“Methinks your squire is the target of an ambush,” Sean noted calmly, as he saw yet another form slink off into the darkness.
“Aye.” Roran had been watching them disappear one by one a few scant minutes after his squire had. He’d heard the muttered whispers and taunts throughout the day; it had been impossible not to, though thus far he had not acknowledged it. He found it quite useful to watch and listen, for he’d found that to be the best way to get a good measure of the young men who were now his responsibility. Their behavior would serve as an indication of who would become the leaders, who were the thinkers, who were the natural followers.
“Well?” Sean asked. “Are you going to put a stop to it?”
Roran exhaled. He had been wondering the very thing himself. If he went to the boy’s aid too soon, it would only embarrass him and set him even lower in the eyes of his peers. His squire had been the subject of muttered taunts and jibes thus far throughout the journey; he had become something upon which the others could focus their complaints. Mute as he was, he could not answer them audibly, though Roran wasn’t certain he would even if he could.
The lad hadn’t seemed to be affected at all, acting as if he was as deaf as he was mute. Roran respected the boy’s fortitude upon the road, but how fair were the odds of at least four bigger, stronger lads united against one incapable of even calling out for aid?
He did not have a chance to think upon it for long, however.
“Jesu! What the devil?” Sean said as the first shout came from the forest. It was followed by more in short succession. Before several minutes had passed, the four who had snuck into the woods earlier suddenly came dashing from the trees back toward the fire, nursing small injuries to their heads and faces.
“No,” Roran said, leaning back and hiding his smile. “I don’t think I will.”
Later, when they had settled around the fire, the sound of snoring rose above the crackling embers. Roran felt the slight rush of air behind him, and knew that his squire had returned unscathed.
“Go to sleep, lad,” Roran said quietly, feeling a surprising wave of relief. Only then did he allow himself to fall into a light slumber.
Copyright © 2016 Abbie Zanders.
Written by Abbie Zanders.
All rights reserved.