A/N: I appreciate the reviews very much. I hope you all enjoy this chapter! I apologize for the belated update.
The snow had become salty in his mouth, its taste elevating with bitterness and a sickening hint of sugar. His forehead was bonded to the snow, swaying from side to side to remove the ache bouncing around his skull, but the cold did nothing to cease the throbbing pain of his swollen face.
"Up," he heard Sir Peder order distantly. "Up, Cadwgawn. On your feet."
I can't, he thought to himself, swallowing another mouthful of bloody snow as he buried his face deeper in the ice to stop the misery of his most recent injury.
He felt the tip of a metal boot probe him in the side, metal clanking against metal as the person's foot hit the iron of his poorly wrought cuirass.
"Cadwgawn!" Sir Peder's voice was louder and harsher this time. "Get up!" He was jabbed again in the side with the same foot, and now fed up with the annoyances, he rolled over so that he was on his hands and knees and unceremoniously vomited onto the sleek white ground, blood mixed with his spittle.
"For God's sake," Sir Peder muttered angrily from afar, and Cadwgawn could have cared less about the mark of disapproval. He staggered to his feet, his limbs weak and shaky and raised his head to both his opponent and the knights who were teaching them the art of combat.
"That's great, Cadwgawn," laughed his adversary. "Just look at that puddle of blood and God-knows-what on the ground. Have you ever seen anything more disgusting?"
"Enough, Reis," commanded Sir Mathieu, the other knight who supervised their training. Both he and Sir Peder lumbered through the sea of snow, their armor gleaming brilliantly in the sunlight and making their persons appear more superior than ever to Cadwgawn's glazed eyes.
Reis shrugged and cast his weapon carelessly onto the ground, the heavy, iron blade skidding through the powdered ice and leaving a vague trail of crimson on the palette of white. He removed his gauntlets and rubbed his freezing, dry hands while inspecting them for any purple bruises, and seeing that his talented hands remained clean of any affliction, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared at Cadwgawn and the knights with the sheerest mask of boredom on his face.
"Where do you hurt, Cadwgawn?" asked Sir Mathieu, grabbing Cadwgawn's face brusquely and turning it from side to side to see if there were any clear wounds on the boy's face.
"My head pounds against my skull," answered Cadwgawn dully, gratefully pulling his face out of the bone-cold clutch of the man's metal hand. "And my forearm bleeds."
The two knights exchanged looks that Cadwgawn, unfortunately, could not read, and he stood there, suffering the persistent pulse undulating within his head with a faltering consciousness.
"We'll get a nurse to tend to your wounds, Cadwgawn," said Sir Mathieu, and Cadwgawn noted the look of grim disappointment on Sir Peder's face. "We trust that you can get to your quarters on your own, and if not, Reis will accompany you there." Immediately, Reis' expression rebuffed such a suggestion, but his own look of insubordination was countered with the knights' fiercer glare of finality, and the lad had no option but to obey the order.
"Come, Cadwgawn," mumbled Reis dismally, taking hold of Cadwgawn's arm and pulling him through the snow. And when he knew they were out of hearing range of the knights, Reis added, "You're no better than a toddler whining about a scrape on the knee. I fought you for barely ten minutes. Ten minutes. And you fell down like a log!" He shoved Cadwgawn forward harder than before so that his spineless foe stumbled in the snow and narrowly missed falling again. "I wanted more training, you cur," continued Reis, his eyes sparking with rage.
As if born with such a sense, Cadwgawn became aware of Reis' rising wrath, and on instinct, picked up his pace swiftly, but Reis had anticipated the flight of his cowardly partner and lunged towards him, seizing Cadwgawn's neck and hauling him down hard onto the ground.
Cadwgawn's eyes widened at the livid vehemence present in Reis' flickering blue eyes and responded with the first natural reaction his mind could think of: a stiff blow to the face.
Reis was knocked backwards, releasing Cadwgawn from his grip, but his "brother" could not make any effort to run away. Uttering a cry, Cadwgawn doubled over in the snow, clutching his left calf, which he figured was sprained in Reis' tackle. Again, he wanted to sink himself in the snow, to drown the burning pain in a severe cold that would numb him, but no amount of the ice seemed to ease the pain.
With a wincing face, he gathered himself and wobbled to his living quarters, dodging the startled looks on the faces of busy servants and other pages in his way. His feet tapped through the tall, narrow hallways of Lord Fychan's castle, the weak, flickering candles hung on the walls guiding him through a dimness that was overwhelming his poor vision, and a consciousness inside of him feared that he was leaving a fresh trail of wet footsteps and drops of blood behind him for his seething friend to follow.
He collided into the thick wooden door of his bedroom, his fingers reaching blindly for the handle. Upon yanking the door open, he nearly fell into his room, managing to cling to the wall of his door to keep his body up while also pushing the door closed with his back.
Assured of safety for a brief moment, he scanned his room quickly, looking for any sign of a human being. There was none—just the dancing flame of a short, stub of a candle sitting on a dresser and the utter stillness of his sad, sagging furniture.
Expelling a sigh, he shuffled over to his bed and collapsed onto the mattress, still fully garbed in his heavy armor, and the mud, blood and water still glued to his worn boots. Debility fell fast upon him, landing hard onto his fatigued spirit and forcing him into a deep, undisturbed and undeniably appreciated sleep.
He sat upright in his bed, his back supported by a stack of stuffed pillows, and his left leg propped up on a few cushions as well. The one window to his room served as the only pathway for pure, natural sunlight to greet him, and fortunately for him and his state of immobility, such a reunion with the daylight came frequently.
His lips, chapped and dry from his bout with Winter, remained closed as the young maid tended to the gash on his forearm—a gash so expertly marked by Reis' hand so that even armor would not protect him from the attack. The wound was craftily cut right where his armor had a gap, and he questioned the reliability of protection against a foe who could already see at first sight the weak spots of vulnerable flesh.
A sharp pain zigzagged up his forearm and he snatched his arm out of the maid's gentle grasp, looking at her with an intense look of irritation.
"I'm sorry," she said, bowing her head a bit. "I should have warned you that the medicine might sting." Her small white hands reached out for his arm again timorously, afraid that he'd strike her for her fault.
"It…It didn't hurt that much," replied Cadwgawn, hoping to remove the apologetic mask from her face while simultaneously saving his own pride. If he expressed pain every time he was hurt then he wouldn't make for a very good knight at all.
He let her take back his arm and she commenced pouring the herbal remedy onto his mutilated skin, clenching his teeth as the medicine burned through. But he made not a sound for fear of startling the young maid again.
As she finished with the medicine and wrapped his arm with a clean, white bandage, the door to his room swung open, and Reis paraded through, seemingly in the process of removing his armor.
"Hullo there, Cadwgawn," he said, sitting on the edge of his own bed and chucking off his metal boots. "I'm telling you, without you as a training partner, well, I'm sure your little mistress there will be very busy tending to a lot of wounds on the other lads. They are like pillows. So easy to punch." He showed the logic of his comparison by taking his own pillow and giving it a good whack. "See?" he chuckled.
Cadwgawn made no sign of approval at Reis' sorry attempts to humor him. However, the young maid standing by his bedside tried to hide her smile unsuccessfully, and Reis' quick eye caught it with satisfaction.
To evade any future embarrassment, the girl curtsied the proper farewells to the two pages before exiting the room, leaving a frowning Cadwgawn alone to converse with his grinning brother, who was now free from his armor and lazily pretending to doze on his bed, one arm cast over his eyes to block out the sunlight flying through the room's sole window.
"For trying to kill me but a day ago, you do a very good job of acting as if there is no conflict between us," muttered Cadwgawn, getting the gall to become more aggressive now that the girl had left the room.
"It's called forgiveness, Cadwgawn," sighed Reis. "For being the quieter one, I thought you'd understand that concept rather thoroughly."
Not when I've been bombarded at all sides by pugnacious idiots like you, thought Cadwgawn, rubbing his bandaged arm for the sake of seeming occupied in something else other than Reis' well-delivered point.
Reis, finding that silence would be all that would come from his friend, continued with his speech. "I only remember cutting you on the arm. Why's your leg injured?"
"I twisted my ankle when you hauled me down into the snow," replied Cadwgawn sharply. "Right after you called me a cur for not being able to fight you back."
Goaded by the mockery, Reis sat up in his bed and eyed Cadwgawn coolly, his eyebrows initially furrowing with anger, only to uncurl at a pleasing revelation.
"Well," began Reis, giving a yawn and stretch, "it appears as if you aren't hesitating to be hostile now, Cadwgawn. Do you find it easier to duel with words rather than weapons? Because I'm sure that if we were back in training outside that you'd be fleeing from me. Or is it because you're already injured and you wrongly believe that I won't hurt you in your wounded position?"
Cadwgawn looked down at himself, becoming aware of his bruised ankle and bleeding arm and then coming to the difficult agreement that he was only being brave enough to battle Reis verbally because he knew words hurt less than physical injuries and that Reis wouldn't dare try a punch at him in his current, disabled state.
What knightly quality is that?, he questioned himself, growing bitter at his own stupidity and cowardice. To think that one has an unlimited circumference of protection because one is wounded and at an advantage because of such illness. He looked at Reis, who was now smiling, and felt all the more miserable for his actions.
What I've been doing is nothing but cowardice, he reasoned, running a hand through his hair in his frustration. At one point, he gripped his curly locks and pulled, desiring to feel the strain of the hair strands getting yanked.
"I'll fight you tomorrow," he said softly, unsure of himself as he made the decision.
"That's noble of you," simpered Reis. "Unfortunately, Sir Mathieu has ordered for you to be in bed for the next week. I'm sorry, my friend."
"I'll fight you anyway," persisted Cadwgawn, returning Reis' stare. "Will you back down from a challenge?"
For the first time, Reis smiled at Cadwgawn out of the joy of having him as company, and he extended his hand for shaking, saying, "Never."
And the duel was set.