In the quiet, sheltered darkness of the smuggler's hideout, there was little indication of just when the morning light had finally crept over the horizon. No, it was the nagging chill of the cold ground, and the lack of the warm body he had drifted off beside that finally stirred Hafred to wakefulness. The dim, diffuse glow scattering in from the veiled, distant entrance offered just enough contrast to reveal Jenrea's absence. He bolted upright in a panic.
He didn't bother to do more than hastily tug his trousers on, before stumbling out of the dark hideaway. Hafred was halfway out of the main cave before he finally heard the soft, sweet sound of Jenrea humming, and the occasional splash of someone in the shallow stream outside. Those were not sounds of distress, and Hafred's worry subsided immediately. He slowed his pace as he came to the curtain of overhanging vines, and peered into the comparatively brilliant, sunlit world beyond.
The sun was not yet high enough to peek over the trees, but its warm glow still streamed through the forest, stretching long shadows from each trunk and branch it passed. Not twenty feet away, where the babbling brook widened into a small pond, Jenrea lay half submerged in the clear waters.
She was nude, back turned toward him. Her simple outfit was left in a pile upon one dry, flat stone. The golden glow of the sun's merry rays shone off her fair skin, while her raven locks were soaked through, and clung along the slender curve of her back. As Hafred's eyes drifted along her body, memories of the night before returned in a rush, and his cheeks heated with a faint blush.
Her soft humming, a sweet sort of tune that she always seemed to sing to herself while working, faltered as she half turned to see who was watching. Although the pose revealed the full curve of one breast, it was her eyes that first captured his gaze. For a long moment, he stared into those deep blues, and when she smiled to him, he couldn't help but return it.
"Good morning, sleepy." Though her voice was hushed, it still carried over the babble of the water about her. She rose from that shallow pool, and stepped toward him. Water coursed in rivulets down her body, making her glisten like a jewel in the sun's slanted rays.
Finally Hafred stepped forth from the cave, and cautiously picked his way along the edge of the stream. When he was near enough, the innkeeper's daughter took his hands in hers, and drew them toward her slim waist. He took the hint readily enough, settling his hands against her damp skin, and dipped his head to capture her lips for a tender, lingering kiss.
The sweetness of her lips, the warmth of her touch dispelled what subtle fears he'd had that the night before was a dream. He held the kiss, and groaned as Jenrea's hands drifted up along his bare chest, tracing the contours of each defined muscle.
When at last their lips parted, the smith's apprentice pressed his forehead to his lover's.
"Can we stay like this forever?"
He desperately wanted to answer her with a yes, but the weight of responsibility would not be denied. Even if, somehow, they could ignore what had happened with the prince and his search, if somehow the squire's daughter had given up the hunt, they should still let Garn and Innkeeper Rothal know that they were safe.
"Would that we could, my love, but-"
"Yes, I know. 'Tis a silly, selfish fancy, but I wish it were possible." She smiled up to him, then nipped gently at his chin. "Still, we can stay a while longer, can't we?" Jenrea punctuated her words with a slow drag of her nails along his chest.
Between her wanting gaze and her teasing touch, there was no way Hafred could refuse her request. "Perhaps just a little while," he finally relented, then slid his hands in a slow caress along the bare curves of her hips.
His assent to her whim was rewarded with a little giggle, and the scrape of her nails over the still bandage-covered contours of his abdomen, where they lingered. When Jenrea's expression turned to worry and threatened to disrupt that close moment, Hafred grasped her waist and lifted her bodily from that stream.
There was hardly any pain at all, the poultices Crow's wife had dressed his wound with appeared to have done their job well. He wouldn't be surprised if some sort of magic was at work, knowing those two.
With little effort, Hafred hoisted her onto a raised rock beside the stream. Although dry, the stone had been worn smooth by past floods, and Jenrea offered no complaint as she wriggled back upon the sun-warmed surface. Instead, her deft hands worked on relieving him of his hastily donned trousers. Once loosened, she pushed at the fabric with one foot, guiding the material down his legs.
Already rising to the occasion, Hafred dearly wished they had the time to truly savor the morning together. Still, he could certainly enjoy what precious moments they had before duty required they be on their way. Little time was wasted, between the parting of Jenrea's smooth, inviting thighs and his own shift to slide between them. His lips teased and tasted her skin, trailing from the top of one collarbone, and down the exquisite curve of one full breast.
She was soft as velvet under his hands, and her body welcomed his readily. Their lovemaking was different, out under the morning sun. There was none of the cramped confines, none of the stress and worry of discovery of the night before, none of the uncertainty of one another. Although time was not on their side, Jenrea's own movements urged a slower pace, and he was more than happy to oblige.
With her skin still damp from the stream, she still tasted as lovely as ever. His lips closed about one pert nipple, to tease that stiff peak with a suckling kiss. And then, the other was offered equal attention. As her toned legs wrapped about his waist, he plunged ever deeper within her wanting body. The slick walls clutching at his cock offered little resistance.
The soft, needful sounds she made at his penetration, and each movement thereafter, were as wonderful as the feel of her beneath him. Every musical little moan, every breathy gasp she produced stirred him to quicken his pace. The sun warmed his back as certainly as her body warmed the rest of him. When her nails once more drew welts across his shoulder blades, this time Hafred slid his own hands up to grasp her wrists, and guide them to the stone above her head.
She shot him a playful look as her wrists were pinned, and gave a token tug. Hafred simply smiled as his lips left her skin, and sought her mouth instead. His kiss stifled her moans, but the way her hips rose to meet his was ample indication of her approval.
He was close, and clearly Jenrea was as well. Neither had the experience, the will to try to prolong their joining, and that place and time was not the best to start. It was Jenrea who peaked first, crying out into his lips as she ground herself up against his firm body. The way her core worked the length of his shaft soon had him following over that ecstatic brink. He broke the kiss and stared down to her eyes, though he found them closed.
The breathless lovers slowed their pace as Hafred's spend filled her once more. He braced himself on one arm, supporting his weight above her, as she cradled his body with her legs. A contented smile lingered on Jenrea's lips, though it was a long while before her eyes opened to his.
"We must go now, mustn't we?" Though the adoring smile never left her lips, her words were pouting enough.
Hafred nodded. "We must, my love. We must tell the village what has happened, seek out the Sage, and perhaps see how the Prince fared."
Jenrea sighed, and nuzzled in against his neck, wrapping her arms about him. He slipped one arm about her, and held her for a minute, maybe more. Finally, she pushed lightly at his chest.
"Let's get ready, then." Her voice was near a whisper, her disappointment palpable.
Reluctantly, he pulled away from her, to dress and gather some things from the smuggler's hideaway.
The sun was higher in the sky by the time the two departed their sanctuary. Although he'd only hoped to fetch a bottle of wine or so from the hidden stash within the cave, a cursory search had turned up a pair of stout axes, one of which he'd turned over to Jenrea, the other he kept himself. They'd make adequate weapons, especially when paired with his knife, and appropriate tools, if they had to blaze a trail through the woods.
Not that he was looking forward to any woodland crossing. He had little clue which direction the village was at this point, and even the ominous blot that was The Broken Stone was out of view, leaving them with little in the way of recognizable landmarks.
There was the stream, of course, and he was counting on a bit of an assumption. He hoped it was either the stream that ran through the middle of the village, or the one that ran past the outer fields, before the Squire's manor. Either way, if they followed it downstream, they should reach familiar terrain before dark. Unless, of course, it was another stream entirely, but he didn't want to think about that.
The gravel banks of the stream made for relatively easy travel, although the meandering course of the stream necessarily lengthened the hike, wherever their trek might ultimately lead.
At least the journey was a peaceful one, for the first few hours. A cool breeze rustled through the trees and followed the path the stream cut through the forest, while the occasional bird sang from the branches nearby, or darted overhead. The overhanging limbs were enough to shade them from the sun's rays, but still sparse enough that their way was brightly lit.
For a while, the two lovers made small talk as they trod along, but soon settled into the simple joy of one another's presence. It was not until noon, as Hafred's grumbling belly reminded him, that the peace was broken. Just as he was about to suggest they rest a while and fish, or at the very least try to hunt something, there was a sound from directly ahead. It was a distinct splashing and clattering of something, or someone, staggering through the shallows of the stream.
Hafred shifted his grip on the axe he was carrying, a quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that Jenrea was doing the same. The fact that she was perfectly capable of seeing to her own defense brought a smile to his face, and he shifted his stance, creeping further up along the bank. Perhaps he could remain unseen just within the treeline, and get the jump on whoever lurked before them. Jenrea soon followed, as quiet as he.
The two were as ghosts, or at least he liked to think they were, and though their new path slowed their progress, he was confident they would catch up to whatever was making such a splashing racket. The timing of their approach, and a sharp curve in the stream meant that they would be quite close to their quarry whenever the duo broke from the trees.The closely spaced trunks and low branches blocked all view, until finally Hafred cut across the curve, stepping out of the trees with axe raised.
The rush of danger, the pumping of his heart, and the violence of his sudden appearance from the treeline almost ended in tragedy, for it was no enemy he faced when the source of those splashing footsteps came into view. It was not Marissa, nor one of her twisted beasts, but rather the tall, powerful figure of Zara Blade.
The blonde woman staggered and limped, favoring one leg. Her leathers were slashed in places, revealing bronzed flesh and shallow cuts and scrapes. Her hair was a tangled mess, as if some unruly wind had tossed it about. The side of her face, and the arm at that side were reddened and blistered, as if burned.
She was obviously in pain, and yet staggered onward. As Hafred cautiously approached, he finally caught sight of the limp form of Cordelia, Zara's lieutenant. She lay unresponsive in Zara's arms, in as rough shape as the taller woman. From where he stood, Hafred couldn't be sure if she was alive or not.
Zara did not seem aware of his presence, and continued to stumble forward, eyes fixed in a distant stare. It was not until Jenrea, having finally come upon the scene, called out to her that she came to a stop.
The blonde stood still for a moment, then slowly turned her head to look back to Jenrea, and Hafred by extension. Tears welled in her eyes, before she spoke in a voice that threatened to collapse into sobs, "I need to get her to the village, to a healer."
Hafred took a step forward, but was pushed aside by Jenrea as she ran toward the bandit women. Her worried expression was almost as heartbreaking as that of Zara. Hafred slowed his approach, giving Jenrea time to look Cordelia over.
Jenrea fussed over the lieutenant, listening for her breathing and her heartbeat, then motioned for Zara to carry her to a dry spot on the bank. As they lay the redhead down, Jenrea shook her head. A few tears rolled down her cheeks.
"She's still alive, but I don't know that she will last until we get to Ingley. If only the Sage were here." She laid her hands against Cordelia's cheeks, as if she could somehow mend her by touch alone.
Hafred stretched as he neared. If only the Sage were present indeed. Or even the man's wife. He still couldn't believe how well he'd recovered from being shot in that brief time since they'd treated him. The shift of his weight caused his satchel to catch at the hilt of his dagger, and he reached down to right it, only to freeze in place.
The potions. The Sage's wife had given him potions. Quickly, Hafred opened his bag, and sure enough, beside the wine bottles he'd salvaged from the smuggler's hideout, there were those three strange, glowing vials he had nearly forgotten about.
"Jenrea," He hesitantly started, "You've worked with the Sage to heal folk before, have you not?"
She nodded. It was true, to a point. When folk fell ill, or were injured beyond what a basic splint or bandage could fix, the villagers would often send for the Sage's assistance. Usually it was delivered through the intermediaries of his wife Scarlet or Jenrea, administering whatever aid the Sage had sent along with them.
Hafred drew one of the potions out as her hastened his steps, and knelt near where Jenrea and Cordelia were settled. "Is this-"
He hardly got the words out before Jenrea's eyes lit up, and she snatched the bottle from his hands. "Where did you get this?! Oh! Oh this is exactly what we need! Help sit her up, hold her head."
At Jenrea's commands, Hafred and Zara propped Cordelia upright, and steadied her head. Jenrea opened the bottle, and as they supported the redhead, she carefully let the glowing liquid trickle between the bandit's lips.
"There, that's it. Swallow it down." Jenrea cooed the words to the unconscious woman, and Hafred watched in amazement as her throat worked to swallow the offered potion. It must have been instinct, yet he couldn't help but think it was in response to Jenrea's words.
Over the next minute or so, Jenrea carefully fed the rest of the enchanted liquid to Cordelia. At no time did the lean woman awaken, yet there was a visible spark about the burns which riddled her body. Her breathing grew more steady, stronger and deeper. At last, Jenrea handed the empty bottle back to Hafred.
"She should be alright, now. Let's carry her back to Ingley, let her rest on the way." She brushed her hands over her skirt, and rose to her feet.
Hafred glanced across to Zara, whose eyes shone with tears. The tall woman kept whispering "Thank you," over and over again, as she began to gather Coredelia up in her arms. It was as if she had been infused with newfound strength, and Hafred was happy to let her take charge of her companion. Instead, he merely stowed the bottle, rose and picked his axe up once more.
Jenrea was already a fair way down the bank at that point, seeming much cheered by the act of helping Cordelia. "Well, come along! We have lost time to make up for."
Shaking his head, Hafred followed with a grin, and Zara was not far behind.
With all the excitement, they had missed lunch, but Jenrea seemed insistent on pressing on toward the village. Even burdened with her unconscious lieutenant, Zara's long legged stride devoured the distance, so Hafred was left to tighten his belt about his grumbling belly, and continue onward.
Though they took a few necessary breaks, the trio made good time, and as the sun began to sink toward the trees once more, the distant towers of the Squire's Manor peeked over the woods. Although Hafred couldn't stand the Squire, and his daughter had proven both unpleasant and dangerous, the sight of those spires was still welcome. It meant that they would be at the village any moment.
As the forest opened up onto the fields surrounding the village, Cordelia began to stir. Zara seemed almost reluctant to let her down, but after a whispered exchange between the two, the blonde finally lowered her to her own feet. Although still weak, she kept up well enough as they made their way toward the cluster of buildings that served as the village center.
Hafred marveled for a moment, at how well the Sage's potion had worked. No doubt it was a stronger version of whatever Scarlet had dressed his own wound with. The effects were most striking when Cordelia and Zara were side by side. Both women had suffered similar wounds, though Zara was arguably better equipped to handle such damage. Now, Zara looked as ragged as before, while one could hardly tell Cordelia had ever been injured.
The long walk had been tiring, and it was well into late afternoon by the time the four neared the smithy and inn. Even from a distance, the cacophony of some large scale commotion was evident. Men shouted at one another, threats and orders were tossed back and forth, and the occasional clash of metal on metal, or more often wood against wood echoed through the dusty dirt streets.
A look of recognition swept across Zara's face, and she began running toward the sounds of battle, while Cordelia shook her head. The redhead shot an apologetic glance to Hafred and Jenrea.
"I'm guessing that our guys decided to take matters into their own hands."
"Your guys?" Hafred called out at the bandit woman as she ran after her boss, but received no response. He redoubled his pace, as did Jenrea.
The smith's apprentice was unprepared for what he saw when he rounded the corner into the village's main road. A few dozen ill equipped men and women were facing down the handful of King's Men who'd come into town with the prince. At the side of the soldiers were Garn and Jenrea's father Rothal. Both of the older men were in hastily donned mail, with swords and shields at the ready. The soldiers and townsfolk had retreated into the shelter of the churchyard, not far from the Tepid Toad.
The bandits had clearly suffered more than a few casualties, but the soldiers were looking wearied and worn themselves. Hafred wasn't certain, at first, why they didn't simply storm the church. It was only when one of the bandits stepped too near, and a bolt of white light lanced downward from the church's steeple, that he noticed the gray cloaked figure clinging to the peaked roof. Crow's bolt of energy slammed into the ground, sending up a shower of charred earth and a thick, acrid stench from the point of impact.
The man who'd been targeted yelped, and leaped back into the ranks of his fellows.
"Stand down! Stand down!" Zara bellowed as she ran forward toward her men, arms waving.
Her actions triggered no immediate response, at least not until they were backed up by the piercing, higher pitched cry of Cordelia, "She said stand down!" At that, the bandits immediately began to withdraw from threatening the church.
Hafred turned his gaze back up to Crow, and frowned as he saw the young sage weaving his hands in the air, as if ready to cast once more. Hafred darted forth, waving his own broad hands back and forth above his head. "Hey! It's ok!"
He was pleased to hear Jenrea join in his cry from just on his heels, and the sage ceased his own movements there atop the church.
The bandits, now under Zara's command, made no effort to stop the two as they ran past, and toward the church. Garn and Rothal stepped out of the line of soldiers. While Rothal moved to embrace Jenrea with one arm, Hafred found the eyes of grizzled old Garn fixed on him in an almost accusatory gaze.
"What's the meaning of this, boy?"
"Sir!" Hafred began, out of habit. "I went to recover Jenrea from the bandits," he guessed that Crow would have explained that much. "When I arrived, she and the bandits were all under attack by Marissa of Ingley!"
"What do ye mean, under attack? The Squire don't have that many men to command. Not that he'd send them to clear out bandits even if he did..."
"No, sir! It was just Marissa. She used some sort of magic."
Garn's eyes widened at that. "Magic? The Squire's whelp, a magic user?" He gazed back across to where Zara and Cordelia were ushering the rest of their men back from the church. "And what's the deal with her?"
"She's alright. She's their leader. Jenrea convinced her to help against Marissa, somehow." Hafred frowned, and knew his explanation sounded as weak to Garn as it did to his own ears, but he honestly couldn't explain the situation any better than he had. As Garn turned a dour gaze to him, he continued, "At any rate, she's proven herself, fighting against Marissa so Jenrea and I could get here safely. Has the Prince returned?"
Garn shook his head grimly, before exchanging a look with Rothal. The innkeep began to lead Jenrea into the church, before Garn clapped a hand on Hafred's shoulder. "Maybe ye better come inside, and start from the beginning. Sage Illuminous told us some things, but I'd rather hear yer view of things."
Hafred dipped his head in a nod, then followed the old man inside.
The interior of the little church was a welcome, restful respite from the long hours of walking which had consumed the past day. Scarlet was settled on one of the long, low benches that served as pews, mixing a familiar looking salve, no doubt to treat any of the men at arms who might have taken wounds. The buxom beauty turned her eyes up to Hafred as he entered, and offered him a soft smile, before returning to her work. The priest was nowhere to be seen, though Hafred half expected that the holy man was purposefully avoiding being anywhere near Scarlet.
By the time Hafred dropped his weary body into one of the pews, Crow could be seen descending the stairs that offered access to the steeple. It seemed the group was all set. At Garn's insistence, Hafred began the tale of the night, from the moment he'd left the village the prior night.
It was a long story, and the dour Garn and taciturn Rothal listened grimly. When he mentioned going after Jenrea, she piped up and began to tell her portion of the tale. Hafred welcomed the rest, and took a cup of tea from Scarlet when she came by to offer it. Throughout it all, Crow and Scarlet had remained quiet, even though both had heard most of the story before. When Jenrea began to describe some of the things Marissa had done, however, the young Sage began to press for more information.
"So you say she conjured forth flames from her very hands? Did she say anything beforehand? Move her hands in a certain way?"
"No sir," Hafred answered, "At least not that I could see. It was like a lash of foul temper made manifest, like her hate was reaching out to burn anything near."
Crow's eyes narrowed, and he knelt on one of the nearby benches, so he might lean close, staring as if he could see into Hafred's soul. "And of the beasts she conjured? Things... Jenrea said they were plant and animal at once? Perhaps you could give a better description?"
Hafred couldn't. He tried, but how would one explain what he had seen? There were the beasts that were obviously made of leaves and vines, but moved as if the greenery were muscle and sinew. Then there was the twisted creature that had been made of the unfortunate bandit woman. The image of the woman whose very flesh had run like warm wax, only to be remade in an image of corrupted nature was hard to even pull from memory, much less put to words.
Between Jenrea and himself, however, they managed to satisfy the Sage's curiosity. The young wizard straightened and nodded, before pacing slowly. He had already made his decision on whether to believe them, and what they might have seen. Of that, Hafred was certain. It was likely just a matter of figuring out what to do next.
He was content to let the man think.
Minutes passed, with the Sage's slow, methodical steps upon the wooden floor all that disturbed the silence. Even Garn kept his mouth shut, and just watched the Sage suspiciously. At last, Crow turned to face Hafred and Jenrea.
"This woman, Marissa, she is definitely no enchantress. If there is truth to what was uncovered at the witch's ruined house in the Dark Grove, she must be the missing daughter, an untrained witch herself. She wields the forces of nature and life as if they were an extension of her own self, likely bolstered by whatever negative spirits her unfortunate situation might have attracted. She is, in a word, dangerous. But this also means she is not who the prince was looking for."
A chill settled in the pit of Hafred's stomach, as the Sage confirmed what he had suspected deep within. He glanced across to Jenrea, who met his gaze with a worried look. He smiled, meaning to reassure her, before asking, "What do you mean?"
Crow turned his dark eyes from Hafred to Jenrea, then back. "It means that she is not the Enchantress the Prince seeks. It means that, of the two girls who ended up adopted in this very village all those years ago, Marissa of Ingley was the daughter of the Witch of Dark Grove."
"And that means..." Hafred trailed off as he looked back to Jenrea, apprehension gripping his soul.
"That means that Jenrea," Crow gestured to the dark haired woman with a sweep of one spindly hand, "bears the blood of the Enchantress that Witch warred with, at least according to your story. She is the Enchantress of Ingley, the one the Prince seeks."
The chamber fell silent for many minutes, as if all of the assembled were unwilling to follow such a somber pronouncement. Finally, Jenrea sniffled, and spoke with a hint of a sob, "B-but I don't want to be an Enchantress. They're evil."
It was Scarlet who spoke next, her voice ringing with a certain authority. "You aren't, Jenrea. Nothing about you has changed." The former whore strode toward Jenrea with a practiced confidence. "Your blood does not define you. You alone decide who you want to be. You may have been gifted with powers you don't understand, but they do not bind you to act a certain way." She approached the younger woman, and lay her hands on her shoulders. "What do you want to be, Jenrea?"
Hafred watched Jenrea with an uncertain gaze, and when Jenrea met his gaze, he quickly schooled his own expression. He didn't want to make her feel worse about the situation, after all.
"I want to be as I always was. I want to help people, to make my father proud of me," As she spoke, her voice grew less timid, more sure. Her gaze lifted to Scarlet's. "I want to marry the man I love, raise a family, and live a long, happy life."
Scarlet smiled to the younger woman, and gave her shoulders a squeeze. "Then that is what you will do, sweet Jenrea. And let no one convince you otherwise."
Nervous laughter gave way to genuine mirth after Scarlet's words, and Rothal stepped up behind his adopted daughter. "Jenrea, you always make me proud," he spoke in a soft tone, before the two embraced.
Crow cleared his throat, then, and all eyes turned to him. "I hate to be the bearer of further worry," he spoke in a more solemn tone, "But there is the matter of the Prince, and Rufus. Neither man has returned from the Squire's estate. We should have heard back from them by now."
The assembled grew silent once more, before Hafred stepped forward.
"Then I shall go get them."
"And I as well!" Jenrea stepped up beside him, with a smile that made Hafred feel a thousand feet tall.
From the doorway, a hoarse voice croaked out, "We will join you." Cordelia leaned heavily against Zara Blade's side, apparently still wearied despite the repair of her physical damage.
"Nonsense." Scarlet was quick to interject, and bustled toward the two bandits. "You still need tending to. You'll do no one any good if you just go out and die. Crow and I will tend to your wounds." She looked back to her husband for acknowledgement, before finishing, "And then you can go."
"That sounds like a plan," Garn's voice rumbled forth, and Hafred almost jumped. It was so unusual to hear the old man approving of anything. "We'll get the rest of the men in tip top shape, and follow ye all along."
"Must they go alone?" Rothal's worry over his adopted daughter was clear to all.
"She is an Enchantress," Crow stated, "There are few mortal men who can stand against her voice, even as unpracticed as she is. And Hafred will be there to protect her from those who might. The Prince might be in dire peril as we speak, and with all due respect, the rest of you aren't exactly in fighting condition at the moment. It will take all my energies and a bit of time to restore you."
Rothal did not seem pleased, but finally he bowed his head. "Very well then."
The old smith chuckled. "We'll leave it to the young ones then." Garn then clapped his hand on Hafred's shoulder, before whispering to him, "But before ye and yer lady friend head out, come to the smith with me. I got something for ye, something yer father wanted ye to have."
Hafred blinked in surprise, then nodded at his master's words. "Of course, Sir. And... I will do my best."
Garn walked Hafred, and Jenrea by extension, to the door. "Oh I know ye will, boy." He turned a merry, knowing gaze across to Jenrea. "I got no doubt about that."
Jul 18, 2018 in romance