Hellaness screamed as the cold water splashed up her chest. Tildy giggled like a mad woman and threw herself back under the water to avoid the retaliation she knew was coming.
It was hot that day, and both girls had whined and begged their mothers to be let out to play. Soon the air would turn sharp and biting. They only wanted time to enjoy the sweet mix of heated sun and cool water on their skins. After a bit of coaxing and promises of many chores in the days to come their mothers had agreed. Though they had asked separately it did not take long for them both to tear off into the street giggling as they ran for the river.
Tildy had found this spot a few years back. Here the river wound by the path into town and disappeared into the woods. Shale rock at the bottom made a smooth floor for their play. At the bank, the rock had eroded almost like steps to allow them to walk into the water. Hellaness did not swim well, but here the river ran slowly and it did not rise more than her chest.
"Here comes the power!" She screamed, throwing herself at the shadow of her friend under the water. Both hands gripped cold skin and pulled up with all their might. Dark skin and wild eyes rose from the water, mouth pursed as she held her breath.
"No fair!" Tildy laughed, water dripping down her face as she settled back into the water, head floating by itself.
"How so?" Hellaness lowered herself into the blue of the river and slowly moved her arms to stay afloat.
"You brought me up! I do so much better under the water than on top!" Another laugh ripped itself from both of them. Tildy reached through the water and clasped Hellaness's.
"That only makes it even you moony!" Hellaness leaned back, allowing her body to float a bit. To tell the truth Tildy had always been more at home in the water than herself.
"Don't call my moony witch girl!" Tildy squeezed her hand playfully. Both laughed again, enjoying each others company on such a lovely day. Only Tildy was allowed to call her such a thing. From the villagers, she heard it almost daily. Ever since the plague hall the mutters that had followed her and her mother most of her life had become less and less muttered. Most of the villagers agreed that the apothecary and her daughter were of the different sort and that did not sit well with them. Though they did not call Tildy and her mother witch, there was some talk because of the closeness of the families.
For a time they floated in silence together. Soon they would be too grown to play in the river without fear. Both of them were in their plain clothes, a short chemise overtop of loose pantaloons. Hellaness still had the flatness of a child, but she could see Tildy beginning to flower. Her chemise pulled out more at the top and when wet it clung to her waist in more of a hourglass than hers did. They would both be women in a year or two and made to take on more of the duties suited to their sex. All of their friends would be getting married off and having babies. Hellaness shuddered at the thought.
She did not fear a marriage arrangement. Her mother had never married and raised a daughter alone, much like Tildy's. This led her to believe she was safer from the rules of her sex. No, she feared growing up and liking boys the way the other girls seemed to. Perhaps she will grow old and dumb and marry the butcher's boy Tom? A wave of cold rose up her back at the thought.
No. She definitely preferred this. Just her and her best friend playing as they had for years. If only this would last forever.
The sound of hooves on the cobbled path just along the bank reached their ears. Ignoring it they continued to float, the cool of the river running slowly past their ears and across their chests. Soothing muffled sounds of nature sang to them through the water. Crickets chirped, the wind stirred the grass in small bursts. Somewhere nearby a bird sang to its brothers. Hellaness sighed and thanked the Mother in her head for moments like this.
From the shore, the sound of talking came and Hellaness opened her closed eyes. What she saw at the road made her sit straight up, accidentally dunking herself in the water. Sputtering she rose to her feet, wiping at her face to clear it.
An entire company of men was stopped at the bank, the man in front staring at her as if she had six heads. Instinctively a hand went up to cover herself from their sight. Her small clothes having become rather transparent in the water. Having attempted some dignity in vain, Hellaness took a good look at their unwelcome visitors.
Most of the men were on horseback and in armor. A deep purple cloth stretched across their chests, a gold crest of a sword in a heart placed in the center. The same crest sat on the flags a few of the other riding men carried. A carriage of fine gold and polished wood stood behind them, pulled by the largest horses Hellaness had ever seen. Each one stood taller than nine hands, thick corded muscle twitched and moved under pure black coats. Six of them stood at attention, moving only now and again to adjust their bulk.
Yet the thing that drew her attention was the man in the middle. He was older, a few years younger than her own ma perhaps. Clothed in fine fabrics and leather he looked important. From the way the men in the company seemed attuned to him, she knew he was important. Yet all of that mattered little to her. No, she couldn't help but stare at the perfectly barbered mass of curls that adorned his head. Purple curls in the same color as hers.
"Girl!" he called out to her, his eyes confused under heavy brows. "Are we close to the town of Voynich?"
"Around the bend sir!" Tildy called out, her hand gripping Hellaness's tightly. She too had noticed the strangers hair color. Neither girl had ever met someone with the same color as Hellaness. From her mother's few stories she knew it was a rare one, few even had it where she came from.
"Ah." The man seemed to notice Tildy for the first time, his eyes only moving to her for a second. "Yes, you have all my thanks…." He stopped, perhaps remembering his manners that had been forgotten for the moment. "Pardon my rudeness for I have not introduced myself." Pulling on the reins of his mount, he turned sideways so they had a better look at him. "I am Prince Damonis of Bastmarta. My party and I have journeyed from far across the waters to seek the healer of your village."
Finally finding her voice, Hellaness squeezed Tildy's hand. "Our village has many fine physicians your grace. They work in the Copper district of the town. I am sure they will be pleased to serve your needs."
"Who I seek is no physician, but a healer. I have been told that there lives one in this town." Smiling at them, he reached towards his hip to pull something from his coin purse about his waist. Two gold coins glistened in the sun as he held the up for the girls to see. "A coin for each of you if you can help me."
When neither girl spoke, the Prince's brows drew together tightly. "Two coins?" His jaw clenched as they remained silent before him, their hands intertwined as they each held on to the other. "Fine." The words were curt and mostly hissed. He did not have time for such games. If they would not see the reason of coin he would have to show them the reason of violence. No one ever argued with that option.
With a snap of his fingers, two of the nearest horsed men surged forward into the river on their steeds. Not being faster than a horse, neither of the girls managed to escape. Each man reached down from their mounts and grabbed them up from the water. Hellaness was pulled by her arm, the force of being yanked upward earning a harsh cry from her. Tildy was snatched around the middle and hauled onto the back of the horse with its rider. Kicking at the legs of her attacker Hellaness called out for Tildy. In between blows she rained on the man's hand holding her she saw Tildy land a good bite on the other man's palm as he pressed it over her mouth. A slew of swears flowed from the girls as they struggled.
One of the men chuckled at a particularly impressive string of curses that Tildy threw at him.
"Enough." Again the voice was clipped and tight, followed by the sounds of another horse entering the water. Hellaness looked around to see the Prince riding into the middle of the fight, his steed steady and unflinching. "Quiet them now."
A sickening sound of a blade drew Hellaness from her prying of the fingers around her arm loose. Her voice choked on a particular word and she swallowed hard. Across from her on the other seat, Tildy had a large hand pressed against her mouth, and an even larger sword pressed against her throat. Eyes wide, Tildy looked at her friend, tears threatening to fall.
"Please! Don't hurt her!" Hellaness screamed, trying harder to free herself. Despite his best attempts, the man could not bring her to the saddle for a better grip. Hanging off the horse, her feet barely touching the water she kicked at hit at her capture.
"If you continue to fight I will have him slit her throat." Drawing nearer, the Prince took in the struggling girl. She was young and thin, her body not yet reached maturity. Muscle corded its way through her arms, pulled taught by the weight of her body hanging in the air. Grey-green eyes stared at him from darkly lashed eyes that turned up at the corners slightly. Hair the same color as his own was tousled against her head in disarray and mess of curls.
Curious he leaned down and took one of the closest curls between two fingers. It was not trick he observed. The color was true. Could it really be? The traitor had been with child when she escaped. Was it possible the child survived the ride across the waters and had been born to this filthy land? Defiance shone in the girl's eyes, a grimace of anger and pain setting her jaw.
"Now.." he purred, pulling her chin up to look at him. "You will tell me where the healer is who saved those in the plaque hall." Hellaness opened her mouth to argue but stilled when he raised a finger and the sword pulled tighter against Tildy's neck. It had not drawn blood yet but a swallow too large and it would slice her friend. "I see we have reached an understanding."
Hellaness looked once more at the pleading face of her friend and then looked at the man who held her face so firmly. She stopped fighting. Once he noticed she had agreed to his terms, the Prince motioned for her to be let down. The knight on the horse suddenly released her, dropping her into the river. For a moment she disappeared beneath the water, then suddenly she re-emerged, gasping for air and holding the arm she had hung by.
After allowing her to sputter for a moment, Damonis looked down at her. "Now be a behaved child and tell me where the person I seek is. Remember young one, you make a fool of me.." The sword moved closer, Tildy having to tilt her neck out of the way to avoid its sharpness. "I make a corpse of her."
Silence followed for a moment. Then Hellaness, tired, sore, soaked and scared croaked out her answer.
"My mother is the healer you seek."
The grin on Damonis's face would have turned the hide of the dark father himself.