Sir Haeveldt of Crealek guided his horse around a forest of evergreen trees. Every step of the destrier released a potent scent of pine. “Our food stores are running low, Dragon. I suppose I shall have to find a village and do some menial work in order to get oats for you and a loaf of bread & cheese for me.”
The chestnut gelding’s ears went back and forth, listening to his rider, as he plodded along the deer path.
“Maybe if I can do enough work, I can barter a night’s stay in a room for me and a stall for you, eh?” Haeveldt sighed at the thought of a soft bed instead of the hard ground. “Oh well, it would be nice, but I can’t really complain. I’m healthy, game is plentiful, and I have you to talk to.”
The knight continued his cheery whistling. Partway through the day, he heard yells and sounds of a struggle. Sliding his sword out of his scabbard, Haeveldt became alert. Turning Dragon towards the noises, he took a cautious approach, pulling Dragon to a walk until he could see what was going on.
A woman had been pulled from her horse, and was on the ground. Three men surrounded her. The bodies of her companions lay stiffening in death nearby. The woman’s attackers didn’t look to be knights, but appearances could be deceiving.
Haeveldt took his axe out of its holder. Using his weight, he urged Dragon onward.
Haeveldt hacked one of the ruffians in the neck with his axe and quickly turned to slash another in the chest with his sword. The third man did an about-face, bringing up his weapon in defense. Haeveldt jumped off Dragon striding up to the man standing in front of the woman.
“Do yourself a favor, and leave, unless you want to meet Zabe today.” Haeveldt told the scruffy man with deerskin leggings and a ragged cape of wolf-fur. He had to be from the Danivan plains from his dress.
The warrior laughed, showing a missing upper tooth. “No Sharlygen warrior backs down from a fight. I am Tabari, and I will kill you today.” He took a step forward, brandishing his sword.
“I am Sir Haeveldt of Crealek, and I say otherwise.” Haeveldt and the warrior crossed swords, the ping of metal hitting metal loud enough to make the lady fall back a few paces.
Neither man said another words as they fought, each trying to wear the other out. Only an occasional grunt or hiss was uttered signifying a strike blocked, or a successful hit.
The two men fought until the sun changed position in the sky, from early morning until mid-day.
The Sharlygen man started to become weary first. He slipped on a defensive move, allowing Haeveldt to make a deep cut to his upper shoulder. Haeveldt recovered quickly, getting in a second strike, this time with a fatal thrust to the chest of Tabari.
Ignoring his wounds, Haeveldt wiped his blade clean on way to see the lady. He halted within proper distance, two arms width, bowing as he was taught as a squire. “Sir Haeveldt of Crealek at your service, milady; are you in need of a healer’s assistant?”
The lady’s voice was soothing as she replied, “I am Lady Raesienne, from a land far north of Helfai. We,” and she gazed sadly at her dead companions, “were enroute to Phaelyng.”
“Phaelyng is quite a distance to travel without an escort. The lands between here and your destination are dangerous, with few settlements. Warlords fight amongst themselves, taking lone travelers for ransom or slaves. I shall come with you as your guard for time it takes to get your there.”
Lady Raesienne cocked her head, giving Haeveldt a second gaze. “How can I trust you, Sir Haeveldt? Just as these men attacked me, you could do the same when I least expect it.”
“Sound reasoning, my lady, and rightfully so; however, do not let my ragged appearance deceive you. My honor is my life. I swear to Thaelia and Kyregat both, that I shall do all within my power to see you safe and sound to your destination. I can offer a drop of blood to the Goddess and the God as part of my vow, should you require a proof of my oath.”
“No, Sir Haeveldt, I believe you are sincere. I do wish to leave this spot as quickly as we can.”
Haeveldt didn’t blame the woman. “Aye, but I suggest we check the bodies for any useful items. If you’re squeamish, I’ll do the deed.”
“I take care of my people if you do the honors on the rabble.”
The two wasted no time checking the dead for anything that could utilized. They found a food cache, a small sack of grain, and a pouch of gold & silver coins. Haeveldt unsaddled all but two extra horses as spare mounts. He helped the lady up on her gelding. Tying the extra horses on a lead line, Haeveldt clucked his tongue to get Dragon moving.
The two kept a steady pace, reaching the Apvastre Valley, the southern-most boundary of Witcenogra. Apvastre Valley was marked by the imposing Dreic Cliffs, made of solid granite. One had to be able to fly to breach the fortress cut out of the rock, only accessible from a hidden trail heavily guarded by Witcenogran warriors.
Apvastre Valley was a paradise; full of lush meadows and spring-fed rivers, with ample game, the Witcenograns allowed visitors to pass through, camping overnight. Any wanderers foolish enough to stop and set up a homestead were strongly discouraged.
Haeveldt didn’t expect the Lady to help with the camp, but she unsaddled her horse and set up a picket line. Raesienne helped settle the spare horses, leading each one at a time to a small stream nearby to drink. After the horses were watered & fed, she pitched a tent.
Haeveldt provided the meal: a fresh rabbit for each of them. While the meat cooked, he couldn’t help but stare at the lady out of the corner of his eye while he cleaned his weapons.
“I see you watching me, Sir Haeveldt. Should I sleep with my eating knife by my side tonight?”
His faced flushed red with shame for being caught. “I forget my manners, Lady Raesienne. I can’t remember how it has been since I was in the company of a gentlewoman. “He turned the rabbits over when he saw the flesh starting to burn. “I am curious you had so few companions for such a long journey. Was one of them your husband, or a relative?”
Raesienne looked down at the campfire. “We started with a full score of men. As the days passed by, our numbers dropped. I watched my men die defending me, two became ill, and one was killed when his horse fell on him. Five knights and Bergra were all that remained when we were attacked just before you came to my rescue.”
“I am sorry your people are all gone.”
Reds and oranges from the campfire reflected in Lady Raesienne’s blue eyes. Tear drops rolled down her cheeks. “My father arranged a place for me with a distant relative, in hopes that my kin might find me a good husband. Our land has been overrun by barbarians – it is no longer safe for civilized people.” She wrapped her arms together. “I didn’t think it would be so cold out here.”
“Winter is not far away. Have you no fur-lined cloaks to keep warm?”
“Most of our supplies were stolen. I’m fortunate to have held on to the tent.”
Haeveldt stood up. He moved over and sat down next to Raesienne. He gently touched one of her hands, rubbing it to warm it. “You should have spoke sooner, Lady, your flesh is cold to the touch.” He unclasped his cloak and carefully tucked it around her shoulders. “This will help.”
“What of you, Sir Haeveldt? Won’t you get cold?”
“I’ll survive.” He leaned down to check the meat. The rabbit was done. Careful not to burn his fingers, he pulled the sticks off the campfire, handing one to his companion. “Eat, and then get some sleep. We’ll want to get an early start in the morning.”
As promised, Haeveldt had the mounts saddled and packed at daybreak. Leaving the picturesque valley, Haeveldt led Lady Raesienne along the Riglesbank River where wild cherry trees and aspens competed for space. Closer to the river, cottonwood trees provided housing and food, to beavers. The trail moved away from the river, gradually rising in elevation.
Lady Raesienne clung to her gelding’s mane as the beast picked his way along the rocky precipice. She kept her eyes glued to the horse in front of hers, afraid to look down at the increasing heights at the edge of the path.
Reaching the half-way point of the ascent, Haeveldt located a diversion on the trail leading to a hidden plateau. He didn’t want to be caught in a precarious position when the sun went down, and it was clear the lady was tired.
Raesienne hadn’t complained, but she was grateful to part from the saddle.
They ate from the food cache. Lady Raesienne bid Haeveldt good night when she closed the flap on her tent.
Haeveldt couldn’t sleep. Images of Raesienne flashed through his brain. “Great Thaelia, why have you allowed our paths to cross? I am a simple knight and she is…beautiful. Her brown hair sparkles with red and gold in the sun. Her blue eyes have flecks of brown and green. She wears her curves prouder than any queen, with a full bosom and hips meant to bear children.” Haeveldt fantasized about being Raesienne’s husband as he walked off his restlessness. When he finally returned and bedded down for the night, his dreams were filled with erotic images of Raesienne.
The following day, Haeveldt and Raesienne made the top of the grade, entering the edge of the Quiver Mountains. Raesienne shivered as she guided her horse behind the knight’s mount, the air temperature dropped considerably from that of the valley floor below. A cool breeze swept down from the north end of the forest, causing the trees to sway gently.
Raesienne looked up and saw snow on the tops of nearby mountains, at least the ones she could see. Most of the peaks were covered by thick, grey clouds.
“Storm’s coming.” Haeveldt called back to Raesienne, “might bring a bit of snow. We need to keep an eye on those clouds.”
Haeveldt’s prediction was correct: half-way through the afternoon the breeze was replaced by a strong current, bending smaller trees and whipping branches back & forth. The blue sky was replaced by a mixture of dark grey, white, and black clouds, with a band of moisture seen falling in the distance.
“We need to get a shelter set up quick before the storm hits. It came on quicker than I anticipated.” Haeveldt called out, “I see a good spot over by those boulders.” He pulled the horses’ lead line.
Raesienne followed Haeveldt. They worked as a team, setting up the picket line, pitching the tent, and gathering firewood for an extended stay. Haeveldt fed the horses a handful of grain then he double-checked the lines and tent. Water drops were coming down when Haeveldt ducked inside to ask if Raesienne wanted for anything.
“Nay, Sir Haeveldt, I’ve all I need in here.”
He nodded. “I will be outside if there is a problem.”
“Haeveldt, you can’t stay outside, you’ll get wet!”
“It would be improper, milady. There may be only two of us, but I have my principles. You’ll be safe in the tent – I’ll watch the horses and be close by. I’ve been in worse conditions.”
Raesienne let Haeveldt close the tent. She felt bad, but at the same, time she understood his reasoning.
Haeveldt dug out an area where a large boulder stuck out over a couple of others. He dug out a bed and packed pine needles to make a soft bed. In his makeshift shelter, he scooped out another hole to build a small fire. Haeveldt pulled out a stick of jerky. He watched the rain turn to snow as he chewed his food. When no calls for help came his way, he settled down on his bedding, rolling up in his furs. Again, Raesienne took over his dreams.
“Raesienne, are you well?” Haeveldt’s voice betrayed his concern.
“Haeveldt?” Raesienne answered back. “It’s so cold…”
“I’m coming in.” He had to pull the frozen tent flaps apart to get inside. Shocked at her bluish skin, Haeveldt swore under his breath. “Raesienne, listen to me. I need to warm you up. I’m going to get some water heating, food, and my furs. Honey, you need to stay awake. Can you do that for me?”
She lifted her head. “I’ll try.”
Haeveldt cleared his campfire, threw wood on it and started the fire. He put water in his pot, with half of his precious dried stew. Quickly checking the horses, he gave each a handful of grain and ran back to Raesienne. He grabbed all of the bedding she had, picking it and the lady up, carrying her to his shelter.
“Lady, I will apologize now for what I must do. Skin-to-skin contact is the best way to get a cold person warmed up.” He gingerly untied the laces of her gown, constantly murmuring apologies as he did. Once Raesienne was nude, he covered her with his furs. Haeveldt checked the stew, finding it still cold. He disrobed, sliding under the furs with her. He gently massaged her freezing limbs, holding her tight against his chest in his attempt to warm her up.
“It’s cold and I’m so tired, Haeveldt.“
“Talk to me, Raesienne; tell me about yourself. Soon, you will be nice and warm.”
“I don’t want to go to Phaelyng. I don’t know anyone there.”
“Go on, keep talking.” His hands rubbed her back and shoulders.
“I have a brother and a younger sister. My brother will lead my people when my father dies. My sister was sent off to marry a stranger, as I, to make an alliance.” She wrapped her cold arms around Haeveldt’s chest. “You’re flesh is hotter than a Yule night fire.”
“Of course it is, you’re near freezing. I need to check on the stew.”
Haeveldt sat up, putting a cautious finger in the pot, finding it just right. He dipped a mug in the pot, filling it to the brim. He brought to Raesienne. Tipping the mug, he urged her to swallow the rich mixture of meat and vegetables. “Please, eat. You’ll feel better, I promise.”
Raesienne obeyed Haeveldt’s plea. When the mug was empty, and her belly full, she was warmer. “Thank you Haeveldt, for my life.” She shifted her legs when as her circulation returned, the nerves firing sharp pins & needles sensations from her calves to her toes. The covers dropped, revealing soft white flesh changing to a dusky rose of her bosom. Raesienne quietly hiked the fur back up, not embarrassed at all, for hadn’t the knight laid against her bare skin to keep her warm?
“I’m going to check on the horses. Will you be alright until I return?” He asked with concern.
“Yes, go ahead. I will stay here.”
“Don’t leave the shelter. It’s too cold outside.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ve no desire to challenge the elements a second time.”
Haeveldt cleared a patch of ground. He salvaged what edible vegetation he could for the horses, that and a handful of grain served as a meal for the beasts.
Returning to Raesienne, he brushed off snow before entering the sanctuary. Raesienne was huddled by the fire, shivering.
“You should eat. It’s not right I partake of the food while you do all of the work, Haeveldt.”
The knight kept silent. He scooped a small amount of stew, wolfing it down. Haeveldt did his best to shake off the cold. When he was done, he rinsed out the mug. “I’m going to get some rest. If the fire dies down, throw just enough wood on it to keep it burning as it is now. We need to conserve what we have until I can get out and cut more.”
Raesienne watched Haeveldt stretch out by the flames. He used no covers, having given them to her. “Please, Haeveldt, come share my furs.”
His eyes told her he was staying away for duties sake.
“Can you deny wanting me?”
“My lady, I was taught to respect women. You are meant for another man, not a simple knight.”
“Propriety dictates behavior at home, but we are far from any village or keep. What happens here will remain buried under the snowdrifts.”
Raesienne pulled back the bedding, exposing her lithe body for Haeveldt’s’ viewing. “Right now, I am rethinking my plans to follow my sire’s orders.”
“Following me as I travel the country is no life for a lady.” He responded, throwing more wood on the fire.
“Haeveldt, I don’t want to be chained to a keep, married, squeezing out babies year after year. I like the idea of exploring the world at your side.”
He moved over, carefully scooting under the furs. “What will you do should you find yourself with a child growing in your belly?”
“There are ways to prevent your seed from taking root.”
Haeveldt look stunned. “No, that can’t be. Why would a female not wish a child?”
Raesienne cocked her head. “She is ill, abused, a forced marriage, needs to let her body have a rest from child-bearing, or like me isn’t ready to have a baby yet. Haeveldt, never fear, when I am ready to have a family it will happen. Quit wasting time and join me. I’m getting cold!”
The knight moved closer to Raesienne.
“Haeveldt, your clothes are wet and cold. Remove them, that we might share our true warmth.”
“You don’t know what you are asking, Lady. I haven’t been with a gentlewoman in a very long time.”
She touched his face with her fingers. “Yes I do.”
Haeveldt shed his garments, hanging each piece up to dry. Sliding back under the covers, he opened his arms for Raesienne.
“I’ve never been with a man before.”
“I’ll take care of you, Raesienne.”
A week later the storm abated allowing Haeveldt and Raesienne to leave the Quiver Mountains. Haeveldt led Raesienne down a winding, rock strewn deer trail. One of the pack horses had died during the storm, leaving one to carry their supplies.
Bitter cold, wind, and snow changed to sleet mixed with driving rain as they descended down to the boundary of Narulek enroute to Seimerki.
An exhausted Raesienne slid off her horse that evening, thankful Haeveldt found a protected grove of pine trees to serve as cover. She unsaddled her mount then went to take care of the pack horse. Haeveldt disappeared bow in hand, within the depths of the forest to seek fresh meat. Just as Raesienne had built a decent campfire, her lover returned with a fawn slung over his shoulder.
“I hope you’re hungry.” He said, setting the carcass down on the outskirt of the camp. He didn’t wait for an answer; Haeveldt completed the preparations of the fawn, skewering it on a large stick. He found a couple of sturdy limbs, making a spit to hold the meat. Once the meat was roasting, he turned his attentions to putting up the tent for the night.
“Let me do that.” Raesienne said, getting up from her place.
“Nay, you’re about ready to fall over from fatigue. I’ll take care of the tent.”
Raesienne reluctantly let the knight pitch the tent. Haeveldt took each horse to a nearby spring for a long drink. When he returned, the meat was done enough to eat.
“Raesienne, eat,” he cut off a piece of the back strap, handing it to her, “and when you’re done off to bed with you.”
“Thank you, Haeveldt.” She accepted the meat, enjoying the taste of fresh game.
They both ate their fill and Raesienne went to sleep with a full belly and Haeveldt curled up against her.
Two days later, the two companions approached a tiny village of Dupris. Haeveldt’s sense picked up a feeling of being watched. Dragon’s ears were moving around, the gelding’s eyes showing a white ring. Haeveldt patted his horse’s neck. “Settle down, boy.”
“What is wrong, Haeveldt?” Raesienne asked.
“Trouble, Raesienne. Stay close and be ready to gallop when I give the word.”
Before Haeveldt could send Raesienne ahead, a gang of ten riders surrounded him and his lady.
“Drop your weapons, knight. This is our land and we don’t allow any to pass without proper tribute.” A dark complected man with black hair and brown eyes sat on his gray horse.
“What is a Sharlygen doing in Narulek?” Haeveldt inquired. “Last I heard, the roads were free to all who travelled upon them.”
“Insolent Seimerkan, I own this road!” The Sharlygen growled out an order in his native tongue, sending his men at Haeveldt.
Pulling out his weapons, Haeveldt yelled to Raesienne to get away. The knight took out two men with massive swings of his sword and axe. Guiding Dragon with his knees, Haeveldt had no time to worry about Raesienne when fight became a melee. Cutting, hacking, and slashing through bodies, Haeveldt was a one-man army. He didn’t stop until he ran out of opponents.
“Haeveldt!” Raesienne kicked her horse towards her champion.
“Raesienne,” Haeveldt said, his body suddenly having no strength at all, “are you hurt?” His vision blurred, he couldn’t take in a breath. In one fluid movement, Haeveldt slipped off Dragon, falling to the bloody ground beneath his horse.
Raesienne yanked her horse to a sliding stop, jumping off at Haeveldt’s side. She fell to her knees. Cradling Haeveldt’s head in her lap, Raesienne kissed him on the lips. “Haeveldt, speak to me.”
“My love, why are you here?” He gasped trying to catch his breath, a little blood bubbling from his mouth. “I ordered you to ride off.”
Tears rolled down Raesienne’s cheeks. “I couldn’t leave you.”
Haeveldt coughed, more bright red foam coming out between his lips. “I love you, Rae.” He wheezed. “Leave me, find an..another.” He closed his eyes and let out his final sigh.
“Haeveldt!” Raesienne screamed in grief. Raesienne stood up, holding the knight in her arms. The woman’s body started to flicker, and Raesienne changed. Gone was the brown haired blue eyed woman and standing in her place was the Great Mother: Thaelia.
“You loved Me without reserve, my sweet, and willingly gave your life for me. You will be honored forever.” Thaelia picked a spot, and a shrine made of marble appeared. She carried Haeveldt’s body through the open door, where a raised coffin waited. She tenderly lowered the knight inside, magically cleaning his body & clothing as she did so. Kissing him one last time, Thaelia closed the lid, sealing the coffin that no one could ever remove it.
She closed her eyes in deep thought. When Thaelia opened them the shrine was a true memorial to the mortal man she had loved. Bas-reliefs in Haeveldt’s image were cut in to the walls, showing how they had met, loved, and how he died protecting her. Even Dragon was included, the brave gelding defending his rider in battle.
“Haevedlt my dearest, to prove to all, how much your love meant to me, your soul will live in the sky, as the Hunter. Every man, woman, and child will look up at the night sky and see your form, and remember you.”
Thaelia left the shrine, calling Dragon to her. The horse stood steady as the Goddess removed his tack. “My child, I honor you for your service.” Thaelia laid her hands upon Dragon’s back. The horse whinnied as a pair of wings sprouted from his back. “Go now, sacred one, and live until I call you to me.”
The horse touched his nose to the Goddess once. Stepping back, the now stallion reared up and leapt upward flying away.”
Before Thaelia disappeared, the souls of the men killed by Haeveldt were sent to Zabe, to be punished for their misdeeds, their mortal bodies hung up as a warning to those who would live in lawlessness.