Summery- When Elizabeth discovers a wounded man in the forests behind her home, she feels it is her Christian duty to help him—even if he is a royalist. Set after Charles II's defeat at Worcester. Rated for violence.
By Woodstock 1330
Wind wailed through the treetops like tormented spirits. Splintered flashes of moonlight escaped between the bodies of ash and elm as a horse flew up the narrow road. It frothed at the bit, its neck soaked with sweat. Its rider dug his spurs into its flanks, driving the poor creature onward.
Oliver sat slumped across the front of the saddle, drifting somewhere between the conscious world and the darkness just beyond. Every step, every hoof beat sent a wave of pain ricocheting through his body, threatening to wrench him asunder, driving him toward madness. "Please Reid," he managed, his voice barely audible above the thundering of hoof beats beneath them, using his childhood name, "please…"
"We must keep going," Richard's voice was hard, as though he spoke through gritted teeth.
"I can't," he pleaded, "please…"
It took nearly all Richard's strength to rein the horse back, the beast was quite mad by now, beyond exhaustion. He slowed, dismounting to lead it off the path into the trees—poor beast, at this pace it would be dead by morning.
He hauled Oliver down from the saddle, laying him up against the mossy trunk of a haggard old elm. He was strikingly pale in the moonlight, his face shining with cold sweat, his bloodless lips parting to suck in a shallow breath. For all Richard's efforts to stay the bleeding the dark stain had spread from his left side, across his torso. Dead by morning—the thought rang in his ears as if he'd spoken it aloud.
"Reid…" Oliver seized his hand, squeezing it in his clammy one.
"I'm here," he murmured softly.
"You must go."
"What?" the younger man shook his head, his red hair glinting like fire in the moonshine though his face was in shadow, "No—no I can't leave you."
"I promised your brother I'd keep you safe."
"Damn my brother, I won't leave you!"
"Cromwell's men will be scouring the woods--."
"All the more reason for me to stay."
"You can't risk your life for my sake…I won't let you."
"You risked your life for me—"
"No," He interrupted, sounding more like a petulant child than a battle hardened soldier, "I won't leave you."
In a movement too quick for a dying man Oliver had drawn his pistol, leveling it between Richard' eyes, "Go, now," he commanded coldly.
"So help me God I will Reid! Better I than Cromwell! Go! Now!"
Was it fear of his cousin or of capture that made him rise? He did so, slowly from Oliver's side and turned back for his horse. He felt cowardice seeping like poison into his veins as he climbed back into the saddle, "I'll come back for you…" He vowed with one last look at the prone figure on the ground before he spurred off into the night.
Oliver lowered his weapon, his heart sinking with each hoof beat as they grew more distant, fading slowly away into nothingness. The darkness seemed to close in on him now, oblivion—death beckoned with promises of peace, an end to the pain…No! Using the tree for support he pulled himself upright, doubling over, clenching his hand over the wound that would end him. He stumbled forward, one staggering foot in front of the other.
He could still see the eyes of his murderer-to-be, gray and cold as steel as he thrust his dagger deep into Oliver's side. He remembered the shock more than the pain—he'd been wary of the man's sword, ably blocking each advance, but he hadn't seen the dagger coming. A fearsome six inch thing it had been, skillfully crafted for just such a purpose. If it'd stuck him just a couple inches over it would have pierced his stomach, earning him a quicker, if more painful death. This one was slow and tedious…
Oliver's boot caught a tree root and he stumbled forward, catching himself on his hands. He crawled forward, finding another tree to pull himself up by and continued on.
Richard had saved him, little it mattered now. He remembered how the boy had cut down his assailant, seizing his hand and pulling him up into the saddle. His little cousin was loyal to a fault, brash and reckless, which made him seem brave in battle, but he was no soldier. He belonged back home on his father's estate or at the very least in London, dancing, flirting, breaking all the pretty maids' hearts…Exactly where he would have been if not for the bloody parliamentarians and their damned war. Now Richard was fleeing England, doomed to a life of exile in France and Oliver—Oliver was a dead man.
The first hint of dawn was just beginning to show, low in the eastern sky as Richard rounded yet another bend in the path; he'd long ago slowed his exhausted steed to something not unlike a trot. His tired brain hummed with the events of the previous day. The battle had been a catastrophic defeat, their desperate, shambled charge on Fort Royal amounting to nothing more or less than the complete decimation of the royalist armies. At least the King had escaped—God willing.
He could still hear the thunder of cannon-fire, the whistle of musket balls passing far too close for comfort, the clash of swords and the screams of dying men; the sounds echoed maddeningly in his brain. Would he ever stop hearing them? When he closed his eyes would he ever stop seeing the blood, the smoke and fire? Would he ever forget the feel of his sword trusting, penetrating another man's body? God in heaven…He knew even now he never would.
And Oliver—no, no he wouldn't think of him, of his abandoned corpse left to rot away into nothingness amongst the moss and fallen leaves. They were cousins by birth, friends of a sort. It was his older brother, William, whom Oliver had been inseparable with as a child, and Richard had spent much of his own childhood following after them. He'd hero-worshiped them, would have followed them to hell and back if they'd asked it. When Oliver had taken up arms Richard had been only too eager to follow, nothing would dissuade him…He was no soldier, they both knew that. Oliver had kept him alive all those many months and now—No, he wouldn't think of him.
The sun was rising steadily now, casting light at last over the wooded landscape. The sun was nearly at his back, meaning he was headed northwest. North and west to a port city and a ship that would, with any luck, take him far away from here—he never should have left home.
"Halt!" Richard rounded another bend, blinded suddenly by a flash of light he stopped abruptly. He forced his eyes open against the light—a reflection of the sun gleaming off the polished Capeline helmets of two parliamentarian cavalry, guiding their horses onto the path not ten feet ahead of him. "You are under arrest!"
Richard wheeled, spurring his mount, but the poor creature was too exhausted, barely managing a canter. He wheeled again as they came upon him, drawing his rapier.
"Drop your weapon!" One shouted, drawing his also. Richard's blade sang through the air, clashing with his would-be-captor's, the sound of steel upon steel shattering the morning air. Richard parried the returning blow and swung again only to be blocked. The click of a cocking pistol stayed his hand against a third attack.
He looked past his opponent to the other Ironside, narrowing his eyes on the musket trained at his head, "drop your weapon," Richard had no choice; it clattered to the ground between them. "Now, dismount." He hesitated a moment before sliding from his saddle, weighing his options, if he ran now he might make tree-cover before he had time to fire, but they were mounted and he was unarmed save the dagger in his boot…there was nothing for it.
The one sheathed his sword and dismounted, taking a set of manacles from his saddle bag, "you are under arrest for treason to the commonwealth of England."
"Treason! Hah!" Richard spat as the soldier seized his arms, cuffing his wrists before him, "you're the traitors!"
"Careful, dog," the soldier sneered, "you know what would happen to me if I slit your throat?" Richard cocked a brow, the soldier chuckled, "not a bloody thing." He fixed a length of rope around the middle of his bonds, tying the other end to the back of his saddle.
"What of the horse?" asked the one.
"'S Dead on its feet isn't it…" replied the other, glancing over it.
"It'll still make for good eating," With this in mind he tied it to the other saddle and mounted. They set off, not at a reasonable pace for towing a man and Richard had to jog to keep up.
By mid morning Richard was sick from exhaustion, drenched in sweat until it ran, stinging, into his eyes. Road dust, kicked up by the horses, clung to his damp hair and skin, it permeated his nose and mouth as he struggled to breath, caking his throat and lungs so that he gagged, nearly choking on it. He forced his mind to focus, trying to discern their locations, they were headed northward, that much he was certain of, but there were so many twists and turns, so many crossroads, that he lost track…he wasn't sure he cared anymore.
A.N.- The battle being referred to is The Battle of Worcester, a decisive victory for Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army and the end of the Third English Civil War. In case you're wondering "Reid" is a byname for a red-haired person, derived from the Old English "Read" meaning, you guessed it "red", in Richard's case it's a nickname.