Paul landed on his arm and he had the breath driven from him. He coughed and sputtered, struggling draw air even as the pain in his arm curled him into a fetal ball once again. The girl was at his side then and he felt her rip open his sleeve at the stitching down the side. There was a small gasp and she pressed warm fingers to his arm. “What be your name?” she asked. It seemed an absurd question while she was kneeling there, his pain making any attempt at speaking nearly impossible. He had to concentrate, drive away that pain in order to form enough coherent thought to answer her. “Paulin,” he begain. “Son of Ga—“
A terrible wrenching pain overtook him as she pulled a large piece of wood from his bicep with a sharp, swift tug. He howled in anguish, turning his face into the ground and crying out that he wished he were dead, anything but that pain. “Your arm is bent up,” she said coolly and then the pain was nothing to the sickening sensation of his shoulder popping back into proper alignment. He retched where he lay and had to pull his head back in order to not swallow it again. His head swam and the world went white with pain. Hoping he would slip into unconsciousness, he rolled onto his back and closed his eyes.
A slap pulled him free from any hope of blissful unconsciousness. The girl’s face was looking down at him and her hands were pulling at his collar and then looping an arm beneath his shoulder. She grunted and he felt himself being pushed up but only for a moment. She let him drop bodily back to the ground. The pain returned and he groaned, clutched at his arm and found that even more painful. He resigned himself to a whimper and clenching his teeth to keep himself from touching the wound. “Your bloody iron chest-thing is too bloody heavy.”
“My what?” he asked, his head swimming from the throbbing in his shoulder. Rather than answer she began looking for how to undo the mail. “You can’t,” he groaned. “We have to,” he bit back a scream of pain as she lifted him by the shoulder to his knees. “Have to get someone to help me lift it off.”
The girl paused here, her hands on the back of his neck. “You are… well never it mind, I can’t bloody well carry you so you’ll have to bear the bloody thing until we get there.” All of those words sounded like word soup to Paul as he stood with her assistance. His sleep had not been restful for a wave of tiredness immediately overtook him. “Where are we going?” he asked, then moaned as he stumbled and his shoulder had weight suddenly pushed upon it. He glanced at her and she seemed to be smiling. Her front teeth were too large for the rest of her mouth. Paul thought she looked like a rabbit. “What are you grinning at?”
Her smile faded but her mirth did not. The corners of her mouth seemed to tighten, trying to contain it. “Tell me!” he demanded, the sudden force of his words causing him to cough, which set off more pain in his arm. She turned to look at him now. Her eyes were dark brown. It reminded him of mud which in turn reminded him of swamps and then the Mossfields and Bearkiller. He shivered. “Never met a bloody noble who was rescued by a girl… nor one who soiled himself rotten.”
He turned bright red. With every step he realized she was right. His underclothes were damp and rotten. Fear had made his bowels loose their contents. Just like I had let loose my honor. They will call me the Thegn of Shit if they call me a Thegn at all.
“Battle, I was wounded.”
“You look no more than a boy in silly armor. Are you sure you’re a nobleman? Where is your shield or sword? All noble fighters have those.”
He bared his teeth and clenched his fists, but the pain made him relax them. “I am a Thegn of House Halloway. My men were attacked by Mossfields and my shield was destroyed by the Bearkiller and my sword…” He paused, turning red. I had thrown it away, he told himself bitterly. Like a coward. “I lost it in the confusion.”
The girl only nodded and then grunted as he stumbled, shifting to keep him upright. She’s strong. The realization came suddenly and when he looked at her again, really taking her in, he was surprised to find that she was nearly as tall as he was. Her shoulders were narrow, a woman’s frame for sure, but there was a wiry strength to her. Her arms beneath his felt like taut ropes and she never tired as they trudged on through the edge of the forest. In the distance he saw smoke from a chimney. “Where are we going?” he asked her, realizing she had never given him a proper answer the first time.
“My grandmother’s,” she said. “We can find water and fresh bandages.”
“I need to get back to my men,” he said instinctively. Do I? The battle may not yet be over or the Mossfields could have won. Once more shame hit him hard and his chest felt like it was full of lead. His cowardice squeezed at his heart like a vice. The girl saved him. “You are not going anywhere like that. You were lucky I happened by, there’s mushrooms out that way you know. Grow there where your big, silly body was crushing them.” She offered another amused smile. “Do noblemen ask maidens for their names?”
“They ask noblewomen for their names, you are just a common girl,” he said. Instantly, he wanted the words back. Yet the harshness of his voice must have been harsher to his ears than hers, as her smile broadened. “Mayhaps I’m a noble lady in disguise? Ya never know.”