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The Quest (M) - (5 Parts)


Liberty Belle

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This was (initially) in response to the request for a "Female taking care of sick Male" story. Here's what I have so far. Before I continued, I wanted to try something different -- a kind of choose-your-own adventure story.

So, I'll take the best requests / suggestions for each given chapter, and go from there. I'll give it a shot, anyway. :>

If you want to suggest something, but are embarrassed to post it here, feel free to PM or email me.

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The trees stood quiet in the naked moonlight, each leaf silvered and shivering as the wind passed through them and deep into the woods. Karah adjusted the lay of the arrow shaft on her wrist, muscles cramped from too many hours in the branches, waiting for her prey. Sooner or later it would come, but later was turning out to be the more likely choice, and her back was sorely paying the price.

A nightjar lit on the end of her branch, the bark-like mottling of his wings quickly concealing it from all eyes but hers, as if in their arboreal concealment they shared some private, woodland secret. It rested there for only a moment, blinking blackly owlish eyes at her, before a din from the forest's bowels startled it back into flight.

"Hey-ah!", came a hunter's cry. "Hey hullah!"

Despite the thunder of approaching hooves, Karah knew better than to anticipate the red flash of a fox from the brush, or the volleying barks of pursuing hounds. What emerged onto the wooded road, bursting from cover in a spray of branches and thorns, was a highwayman on a broad black horse, bundled head to foot against both identification and the October wind.

"Hey hullah!" the same voice cried, closer than before, but Karah already had the fleeing horseman trained in her sights. The billow of his wraps made him a challenging target, not to mention the speed of his retreat, but she was a more practiced archer than to be troubled by either.

The crossbow twanged lightly at the trigger of her touch, its path marked by a fleeting gleam as it crossed the clearing, tagging the highwayman neatly between the shoulders. Her mark was off by a centimeter at most, but even that small error was enough to spare his life: he pitched with a scream from the galloping horse, and writhed in the road, grasping for the bloody shaft.

"Fuck," she muttered aloud, quickly releasing her clasp from the belt about the tree's branch, and swinging down with an acrobat's effortless ease. She'd scaled to the forest floor by the time the next, "Hullah! Hey hullah!" came from the woods, signaling that the hunters had nearly caught up.

The highwayman continued to bend and twist just a few yards away, grunting as his fingertips misssed the arrow shaft, and the effort strained his shoulder in the joint. His eyes flashed at her brightly from within the wraps that served him as a mask, gathering into a scowl as he lurched painfully to his feet.

"I'll rip your heart out for that---"

Karah reeled back as he lunged for her, but there was no need: a towering shadow swooped from the roadside brush like a hunting owl, catching the highwayman by the collar of his cloak and holding him there impotently, bootheels kicking and scraping the ground.

Her heart subsiding, Karah offered a nervous grin to her tall protector.

"Thanks Jayne. That was well-timed."

He was just out of the moonlight's reach, swathed in darkness but for the dappling of light across his storm-gray eyes, and his voice had all the richness of soft, worn leather.

"That was the point."

"Hullah!", the hunter cried again, just out of sight behind the trees, horse hooves announcing its arrival.

"You're too late, Avery" Jayne shouted back, holding the struggling highwayman higher as he kicked the earth more violently.

The percussion of hooves lessened to a delicate trot, and from the opening whence the highwayman had come emerged another rider, dressed in the earthy and olive hues of a forest familiar. A wiry man in a feathered hat, the picture of an asipiring Robin Hood on horseback, he was in fine shape for one so recently retired from pursuit.

"Good work, man!" Avery declared, far too grandly for Karah's taste. "I trust you've left him for me?"

"As usual," Jayne grunted, dragging their captive to Avery's side and hefting the man carelessly across the horse's flanks. Only as was strapped in place did he find his voice to protest.

"Take it out! For the love of God, if you're going to drag me around like this, take it out!"

"Take what out?" Avery twisted in the saddle, trying to see what the man was going on about. "What's he saying?"

"The arrow," Jayne said, grabbing the still-protruding shaft and yanking it indelicately from his back, releasing a torrent of fresh howls and kicking and curses. He tossed the bloody arrow to Karah, who caught it neatly in one hand. "Karah deserves the credit. She's the one that brought him down."

Feeling a blush beneath the raised collar of her cloak, Karah stammered laughingly, "But Jayne's the one who picked him back up again."

Avery, evidently oblivious to their complimentary exchange, seemed to hold himself in a position of greater authority where credit owed was concerned. He waited until Jayne had securely strapped the man to his horse before gesturing back into the woods.

"Come, compatriots! The beautiful Rowanna and the good people of the Shire Newberry await our triumphant return! We go!"

And without waiting he spurred his horse into a jostling gallop back into the woods. Without them. As usual.

Karah wiped the blood from the head of her arrow, glad to have it safely returned, and followed Jayne's quiet lead into the underbrush. Their horses -- his a tall brown mare, hers a little dapple-gray gelding -- waited knee-high in blackberries, seeming more put-out that they could no longer graze than that they'd been made to wait in the first place.

"Thanks for fetching the arrow," Karah said, securing her quiver before climbing into the saddle. Jayne was only a moment behind her, clicking his tongue as he brought his horse about and cleared the way back onto the woodland path.

"No use wasting it," he replied, his usual tight-lipped self. Jayne's slow tongue was, in fact, the only one she didn't mind; ever since joining Avery's band of bondsmen (and women) three months ago, she'd felt increasingly isolated and overlooked. She'd hoped for a sense of fellowship among them, but it turned out that Avery, Jayne and Rowanna worked, travelled and lived together without really knowing each other at all. They shared meals in relative silence, and barely talked amongst themselves except to hammer out the detail of each new pursuit.

Avery was perhaps the worst of them, so entrenched in the adulation of the local townspeope (well, the local townswomen) that he rarely acknowledged the skills of those who helped bring him such acclaim. Rowanna regularly fawned on him, which was perhaps why he held her in higher regard, but Jayne and Karah were merely instruments of his success, the shadowy backdrop to his grand and glowing celebrity.

And so they worked, and chased, and camped, and dined, and celebrated, but all without a sense of connectivity or camraderie. At the end of each campaign, it was merely the pay that sustained them, and that often made Karah sad and homesick. Only Jayne, whose reticence and reserve merely seemed a facet of his character, did not repel her with constant boasting and ingenuine flattery.

Their fearless leader was already well ahead of them, but he wouldn't go far. Rowanna had been the "bait" to lure the highwayman onto the forest road, where Avery had picked up the chase and driven him to Karah and Jayne's ambush. Karah was the band's lone archer, and he the muscle, and the combination of all their strengths had so far proven reliably unbeatable. In truth, it was a shame that the overall band was not closer, for otherwise they were the perfect team.

It was still shy of midnight, and the moon rode high overhead, dipping in-and-out between the trees as they followed the path into cover. Karah ached to strike up a conversation, to make the ride go faster, but thus far her many attempts had fallen flat.

"There'll be a good reward this time, won't there?" she asked, heeling her horse lightly alongside Jayne's taller mare.

"I'm sure."

"This is the fellow that's been hounding them for months, isn't it? Raiding all the wagons that come by from larger towns?"

"So they've said."

Well, this was going nowhere fast.

Karah struggled internally with some question that was neither too prying nor personal, but might tempt him with a longer reply. Avery and Rowanna had ridden with Jayne for several years before she was invited into their band, but even they had little to say, when they petitioned his responses at all. She looked aside at him as they rode, his features calm but vaguely stern, as if to ward off the advances of any criminals who might be waiting in the shadows.

Jayne lifted his head, as if with inspiration, and for one brilliant moment she was sure he was about to volunteer some comment of his own. Unfortunately, the expression on his face turned out to herald nothing more encouraging than a--

"WHHFFF!", he sneezed to one side, buffering it against the inside of his arm.

"Bless you!"

He didn't quite look at her, merely catching her in his peripheral vision and responding with a small nod.

"Thank you."

She might have used this as a springboard for further conversation, but the shape of two horses and riders had become visible up ahead, moonlight finally outweighing shadow to make them identifiable as Avery and Rowanna.

"Success!" Rowanna called to them cheerfully, raising an arm and waving excitedly. Though she couldn't be sure, Karah was sure she heard Jayne issue the quietest and most restful of sighs alongside her, and wondered for a moment if the man was sweet on her. Not that it would surprise her: supple and softly curved, with a waterfall of silver-blond hair, Rowanna was a woman of perpetual radiance and grace, and usually captured at least one man to every one of Avery's female admirers.

She and Avery waited at the base of a knotted oak, turning their horses to face their approach. The Highwayman was still belted firmly to the back of Avery's mount, though he'd since given up his yelling and squirming.

"Well run, everyone," their leader beamed, reaching up to stroke at his coarse little arrow of goatee. "Another finely-excuted campaign! Shall we retire, then, to the gratitude of the good people of Shire Newberry?"

Gratitude aside, Karah also wanted a hot drink and a night in an actual bed, though she kept as quiet as Jayne upon his horse. Rowanna had more than enough to say for either of them.

"Splendid work, everyone! I, for one, look with gladness and delight upon those peaceful people in their quaint cottage homes, no longer to worry for the safety of their roads and lands, all thanks to our efforts!" She smiled glowingly upon each of them before drawing her horse about by the reins. "As Avery said, let us return to their cheers and adulation! There shall be much celebration tonight!"

"And hot cider," Jayne murmured, almost to himself. Karah cast him a small, smiling look, though he didn't notice.

The band turned to follow Rowanna's prancing mare down the path, lit by the clearing of branches overhead. Avery quickened alongside her, allowing Karah and Jayne to ride abreast just behind them in an orderly quartet.

Here, Karah mused, was the exception to the rule: as quiet as they were in their own company, in the hours after a successful campaign Avery and Rowanna were usually all too glad to engage one another in sprightly conversation. Ironically, it was the one time Karah wanted nothing to do with them, finding little merit or meaning in either their flirtacious rejoinders, or their grandoise recreations of the evening's events. If previous successes were to be any indication, Avery would spend the remainder of the night (and probably well into the early hours) plying the eager ears of available maidens with his adventures, regaling them right out of their corsets.

"What a fine run you gave that fellow!", Rowanna was already gushing, gazing sidelong at Avery as they rode. "I've never seen such clever riding."

"It would have been all for naught," he replied, "If not for your fine work. You are truly the gem in the hilt of my sword..."

For good measure he reached across, taking her hand from the reins long enough to apply a kiss.

"Ach, f'the love of God," the Highwayman groaned, still slung behind Avery's saddle. "Hang me or shoot me, but deliver me from this tripe."

Karah burst out laughing, quickly capping a gloved hand over her mouth. She thought she heard Jayne snorting in amusement beside her, but as she turned she saw his arm again upraised, nose and mouth buried in the crook.

"-----WHHHFF!" Another sneeze.

If either Avery or Rowanna heard, they gave no acnkowledgement, continuing to bounce back and forth in a world of their own. Karah frowned before taking the matter into her own hands.

"Jayne."

He looked at her calmly, if perhaps a mite surprised by the direct address. "Mm?"

"Bless you."

Again he met it with a small nod, and a simple, "Thank you," before returning his attention to the backs of their guiding companions.

It would have gone from Karah's mind altogether if he hadn't suddenly sniffled.

Not just a sniffle. It was neither a test of the cool autumn air nor the standard, punctuating follow-up to a good sneeze, but something slightly more foreboding. It had a clogged sound to it, as if meeting the resistance of something in his nose, fighting it back into his throat.

And as she eyed him he did it again -- sniffled against something thick. Was he coming down with something?

"Jayne," she began again.

"And there lies our quaint Shire!" Avery cut her off, gesturing grandly to a little Inn nestled just below them on the path. The wooded road fell away into a valley clearing, at the center of which stood the Golden Bull (a name Karah found strangely appropriate), and its outlying village of small thatched cottage. The gaily lit windows dotted the night-dark countryside like a hundred little candles, silhouettes within the tavern window indicating that most of its waking occupants were probably getting cheerfully soused within. "Let us descend at once to join its good people to--"

"WHHHFF!", Jayne cringed another sneeze against his upraised arm.

"--celebrate with them our newest victory!"

Karah alternated a frown between Avery and Jayne, torn between unexpected annoyance and concern. She opened her mouth again to either draw attention to the big man's condition, or ask him about it directly, but Rowanna was again in a lofty world of her own.

"I agree, let us make haste!"

With harmonious cries the two leaders heeled their horses, spurring the animals in a victorious, sweeping gallop down into the valley.

"Jayne," Karah said again, glad to be free of interruption. Again he looked at her, implaccable and without expectation. She said, "Bless you. Are you all right?"

"Tired," he answered, big shoulders barely moving as he shrugged. "It's been a long campaign. I'm looking forward to a night of rest."

"But you... you feel alright?" She gathered her courage, noting, "You sound... a little under the weather. Perhaps you're coming down with--"

"I'm fine," he interrupted, but gently, even kindly. "Just looking forward to hot wine and a comfortable bed."

She hesitated to come right out and draw attention to his sneezing, for he didn't seem the type that liked attention drawn to much of anything about him, let alone a lapse in his usually admirable calm.

For lack of a better segue into the conversation, Karah merely smiled her weak, nervous smile, and hitched the reins in her hands.

"Yes, me too." She spared a look down after their companions. "And we'd better get after them, before they drink up all the ale and the gratitude."

*******

In retrospect, Karah shouldn't have worried: there was enough cheering and libations to go around, well into the night. In fact, as the hour wore past midnight, then nipped at the heels of dawn, she wondered if it might end at all. The Highwayman had been dispatched to the local authorities, the drinks had begun to circulate, and since then she'd quite had her fill of giggling maidens, cheap wine, and Avery's seemingly endless supply of Golden Bullshit.

The quartet was seated around a round wooden table near the tavern's stone fireplace, Karah and Jayne slouched limply in their seats while their companions entertained a group of wide-eyed locals.

"And then," Avery hushed, regaling the assembled maidens with their latest adventure. "As if driven by the Gods, he came barreling down the path, his cloak billowing and black as the night itself!"

A round of gasps issued from the gaggle, then fell silent as they leaned forward to hear the rest.

Karah and Jayne exchanged a bored glance and a slow shake of their heads. This could go on all night.

Rowanna, momentarily extracting herself from the storytelling, turned towards the warrior and the archer.

"It's a story that makes for grand telling, isn't it?" she bubbled, her eyes lit like cabochon sapphires.

"Aye," Karah agreed, supporting her temple on her fist. "...and telling, and retelling, and on, and on, ad nauseum."

For the first time, Rowanna's sweet face dimpled with a suggestion of annoyance.

"Well at least no one else is soured by your mood."

"Give it a rest, Rowanna," Jayne warned, leaning back and slouching down as if with want to fall asleep in his chair. "It's been three hours, and we've been on the road for as many days. We're exhausted."

"Hm!", she chirped, sitting primly forward. "So much for the strong man. I don't see that Avery has any shortage of either energy or endurance, and he's been afoot as long as either of you."

Rankled, Jayne sat forward, closing a fist on the tabletop.

"That's because Avery's horse does all the work for him. If he got his ass out of the saddle once in awhile, he'd..." he stopped, expression clouding.

"He'd what?"

Jayne's eyes closed, his nostrils opened, and with a scuff of chair legs he pushed back from the table, clearing it just in time for a single, raging sneeze.

"IIIIFHHSH!"

The group of maidens startled like a chicken coop, affecting the same fuss of clucking and rubbernecking at the disturbance. Rowanna, seeing a choice opportunity to embarrass him, made a show of brushing at her blouse.

"Jayne! For heaven's sake, cover your mouth -- have you no cooth?"

The maidens giggled, giving him an assembly of strange and even disgusted looks before turning back to Avery's tale. Self-content, Rowanna turned around as well, although not without a simmering smirk to secure her small victory.

Jayne's face darkened, jaw clenching self-consciously as he inched forward to the table's edge and palmed his mug of hot wine.

"…I sat back."

"Don't let her get to you," Karah murmured.

He grunted and noisily sniffled, pausing to rub clenched knuckles to the underside of his nose.

"You are sick," she said.

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Terrific; and I love the background; ye olde inn, archers, riders, the lot.

Well, no-one seems to have suggested anything, so even though I know it may be not well viewed, I suggest that the nasty girl should first get her comeuppance by being overwhelmed by even more sneezes than our hero. In fact, she could get the cold and our heroine could take care of both of them, but here's the twist, she would neglect the girl in favour of the gent. No? well, perhaps not.

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Eee! Yay! I am so happy to see another one of your stories!! (and I JUST noticed that you re-opened a site for your old stories, which I had been GREATLY missing)

I don't really have suggestions, because I would be happy with HOWEVER you decided to go with this. I am always a fan of the "female taking care of a sick male" scenario. Mmmm...

Can't wait for more!

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This is lots of fun! I do hope you continue.

My suggestion is this: they have one more mission thingy and Jayne gets worse--an opportunity for sneezing while hiding, then Avery decides he doesn't need Jayne, because he's so awesome and Jayne's useless anyway when he's sick. Karah takes care of him, and Avery gets his ass kicked cause he really needs a whole team of people.

Hope that made sense...

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Sorry Count, that's the one thing you'll never see in one of my stories. ;>

But okay, so far we've got:

1. Jayne gets sicker (well, pft, of course)

2. Sneezing while hiding

3. Karah-on-Jayne action (Taking care of him, that is.)

4. Avery and Rowanna get some form of payback.

I think I can do that. :> While hubby is watching football tomorrow, I'll get busy. ;>

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  • 2 weeks later...

Okay, here's part 2. Already starting on Part 3, but if anyone has anything to add or suggest, feel free. ;>

I can't seem to do the BBCODE (for italics and whatnot), so to see the entire story in-situ, you can go here:

Nevermind, got it fixed. :>

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"I'll be fine. A little hot wine and a night's rest will fight it off."

But as the night wore on, Karah got the feeling that Avery had other plans for them than rest. Where he got the energy to carry on as he did, night after night, was beyond her; for all the ale he drank and the turkey legs he sat gnawing before the maidens' rapt faces, for all the towns they passed through and the highways they rode, he seemed never to grow drunk, or fat, or tired of praise. Perhaps there was something to Jayne's accusation at all -- if Avery ever left his horse, he might actually require sleep, like the rest of them.

No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than their fearless leader was on his feet, patting the air to quell the sudden surge of soft, disappointed sighs.

"I know, I know, my ladies, but I'm afraid our evening of rest has come to an end--"

Karah and Jayne exchanged looks, and a matching roll of the eyes.

"--for as we have ridden to your collective sides in rescue, and again in triumph, so must we again be on our way."

Jayne gained his feet slowly, shouldering his pack from the floor and leveling a hard look at Avery as the man polished off his grand oration.

"I'll tend to the horses," he said, side-stepping behind Karah's chair. Having no stomach for the swooning, hanky-waving farewells that were about to come, she followed close after.

"I believe I'll join you."

The air was crisp after the fire-heavy warmth of the tavern, and Karah quickly bundled herself in preparation for the ride. They wouldn't go far tonight -- there were a scant few hours left of darkness -- and if history was to be any indication, Avery would have them set up camp by the nearest creek bed, to sleep until nearly noon. They were odd hours to keep, but most of their quarry kept their activities to dusk and dark, and it was the best way to be alert and fresh when duty called.

Jayne led the way silently to the stables alongside the tavern, the mournful sounds of Avery and Rowanna's party still audible through the greased windowpanes. In silence the strong man and the archer untied the horses and led them to the yard, waiting as the animals scraped their hooves impatient frustration.

"The horses need an uninterrupted night of rest as well," Karah noted, glad to see their companion's silhouettes at last rise in the windows, signaling their long-awaited egress.

"Aye. I'm beginning to think that sleeping on my feet is a handy skill to have."

"Perhaps that's how Avery keeps so fresh."

He started to laugh but his smile flagged unexpectedly, and a grimace formed in its place. He was quick to take cover in an upraised arm.

"WHHHFF!", another sneeze.

"Bless you."

"Thank you."

"A night on the road will be no good for you, you know."

"Don't trouble yourself too much over me, sweet," he said quietly, and Karah turned to look at him in surprise, a curious tingle prickling the back of her neck. Before she could properly register the endearment, he was hiding again in the crook of his arm -- "hh'WHHHFF!" -- and giving his head a quick, disarmed shake.

Once again exhibiting their sterling sense of timing, Avery and Rowanna chose that moment to emerge, the sullen faces of so many reluctant virgins still outlined behind them.

"At last," Jayne muttered, climbing resignedly into the saddle.

"Ahhh, it pains me indeed to leave them," Avery declared, raising his arm for a last wave before the door shut firmly behind him. Knowing already the futility of argument, Karah too mounted her horse, turning it towards the familiar trail out of town.

"Then why must we?"

"Why? Because the next adventure, and the next worthy shire awaits us, dear Karah!" Avery paused to help Rowanna to her saddle, lingering an appreciative and not-unnoticed glance as the woman gracefully arranged her riding gown about her legs. Thusly seated he climbed into his own saddle, placing himself quickly and authoritatively at their head. "Now... shall we depart, compatriots? I cannot answer for you, but I for one could use a good night of rest!"

There was not much left of night, but they made what use of it they could. As Karah had predicted, they rode two miles beyond the Shire Newberry's borders, selecting a broad creek bed whose waters had diminished to a narrow trickle. The earth was soft and dry enough to be comfortable, and once dismounted they split duty between unloading the horses, pitching the tents, and setting up a small fire.

The sky was already colored with the first faint tincture of the sun by the time they were ready to crawl into their tents, but they were all long accustomed to falling asleep in the soft, pre-dawn hours. Karah took a corner of hard bread and a draught of fresh creek water before bidding goodnight to her companions, and tying her tent flaps against the light and the cool air.

Arranged four-square around the fire, she could just see the vague silhouettes of Jayne and Rowanna to each side of her, diffused through the walls of their tents. Rowanna's was the most obvious, having gotten into the habit of undressing and bathing by lantern-light, so that her shapely shadow would be in clear and appreciable relief.

Tonight was no different; the moment the other lights went out Rowanna's lamp was lit, and she began the languorous process of undressing, her silhouette like a swan candled in the egg.

Karah rolled to face the other side, trying to put her thoughts in order so that she might get at least a few hours of sleep. By full sun-up the others would be well rested, and she'd need all her patience to endure Avery and Rowanna's doubtlessly brimming enthusiasm.

Though but a dark shape in his tent, Jayne was still faintly, grayly visible through the stretched deerskin, seated upright and with arms rested on his knees, as if he too were watching Rowanna's graceful, ritual bathing. Just as Karah's eyelids were beginning to finally weigh closed, the shadow of Jayne's hand raised towards his face, forefinger articulated as if headed for the spot just beneath his nose.

"Heh--IFSH!", he sneezed loosely, keeping the finger to his nose as he sat up, and sneezed again with tired relief. "Heh-IFSH!"

"Shh!", Rowanna hissed from her tent, her bath evidently disturbed.

"Shh, yourself!" Karah snapped back, then quickly bit her tongue. Rowanna was just the sort to let this go on all morning.

"Some of us are trying to sleep."

"Truly? Do you normally sleep upright, with your hands all over your-"

"-Ladies?", Avery's lantern flared to life. "Rowanna is correct, some of us are trying to get a few hours of rest."

Jayne rumbled from his tent, "It was less resting than something else you were doing, I think. Maybe a little self restraint?"

And Rowanna's voice, sweet and biting, "I thought I detected you at attention as well, Jayne."

Jayne's silhouette buckled as he stifled an unexpected sneeze, "Hnt--KNXT!"

She chuckled, silky and satisfied, "What was that about self restraint?"

"Quiet, now!" Avery demanded, and at last the little camp fell silent, the quiet crackling of the fire taking the place of their warring voices. Karah rolled to her back, restless now, and listened to the pop of the logs, and the whispering sound of her companions as they slowly settled back in for the night. Only Jayne's irregular sniffling persisted, a sound that held her attention for longer than she would have liked.

Again sleep was almost upon her, when his voice from the next tent reopened her eyes.

"Heh--," it was a small utterance of surprise, as a man caught off-guard, and Karah turned to find his shadow backlit against the tent skin, one hand hovering halfway to his face, mouth slightly agape. Jayne hung in limbo for a few seconds, then wrenched upright with a lusty finish, "IFHHSH!"

There was no commentary from either of their companions, to Karah's relief, but she couldn't join them in their apparently sound sleep. Shoving her feet into her soft-soled walking boots, gathering her blanket around her, she emerged into the air and crossed to Jayne's darkened tent. The flaps were only lightly bound, but she touched the brass bells laced through its eyelets, announcing herself.

A moment paused before the leather straps holding the flaps closed unraveled, and he pulled one side back in a silent invitation.

It was strange how warm his tent seemed, compared to her own, though she attributed it to the quick chill of the morning air. Jayne sat comfortably upright amidst a puddle of heavy wool blankets, arms draped over his steepled knees.

"I'll try to keep it down," he said.

"...that... that isn't why I....came over."

"Somethin' on your mind?"

"I'm just...concerned, is all." She hesitated, conscience of any breach of personal space, then laid a palm to his forehead. Perhaps surprised she went through with it, Jayne focused on her, unwavering. They held the look as Karah's hand conspicuously lingered.

"Well?" he prompted.

Karah was surprised at how unwilling her fingers were to move.

"You feel all right."

"Told you. No reason to trouble yourself over me."

"Do you always have this little regard for your health?"

"Do you always keep your hand on a man's head this long?"

For the second time that day he made her blush, the snap-quick withdraw of her hand met by a small, hard, crooked smile on his part.

"It's just a bitty cold, sweet."

"Says you," she smiled nervously, unaccustomed to the sudden, girlish fluttering of her heart. What the hell was wrong with her? "Well... I'll let you sleep. I don't doubt Avery will want us up and moving before long."

He reclined easily, lacing both hands behind his head as he fall back onto the cushion of blankets.

"I don't doubt it either." He watched her unfold herself through the tent flaps as she retreated. "Sleep well."

"And you."

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Chapter three. There's only a little sneezing in this one, but the next chapter will make up for it, and I'm already halfway through. Enjoy. :>

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It was past ten when the sounds of stirring in the camp finally awakened Karah. They couldn't have been asleep for more than five hours, but it was enough to ease some of the previous night's burden.

There were neither shadows nor silhouettes now, but only tawny light through the stretched deerskin tent, and fingers of bright sunlight between the laced flaps. Avery and Rowanna chuckled together nearby, the crackling of the fire renewed as they prepared breakfast. Where the sound of their voices encouraged her to crawl more deeply under the blankets, the prospect of food convinced her to come out.

She robed warmly and snuck out from the tent, gathering her towel and sponge before padding to the campfire. Rowanna watched her from the fireside, tearing off small bits of bread and feeding them through her smiling lips.

"Well, good morning, sunshine!"

"Rowanna," she returned. How the woman managed to look so perfectly put-together at such an ungodly hour continued to mystify her. The possibility that she was a witch flitted through Karah's mind, and she had to put it out of her mind to keep from laughing. "What's for breakfast?"

"Quail eggs and what's left of the bacon," Avery beamed, sitting back with his own pewter plate heaped high. "There's plenty left – shall I serve you some?"

"I'll wash up, and be back shortly," she agreed, turning. "Is there enough water in the creek for a bath?"

"You can try," he agreed slowly. "But Jayne is—mmffhgh."

Karah looked back, boggling, and found Rowanna with a hand firmly clamped over Avery's mouth.

"What?"

"Asleep!" the other woman chirped merrily. "He's still asleep – best not to wake him. Poor dear sounds like he's fighting something."

Karah gave them each a long, slow look, hitching her robes more tightly around her before climbing down the wooded path to what was left of the creek.

The stream of water had diminished since the coming of fall, though it still eddied lightly over glittering river rocks at the hollow of the old bed, winking with shards of sunlight. Karah descended the bank and, testing it with her fingers, found the water surprisingly warm, as if from a hot spring. She gave a cautious glance over one shoulder before shrugging off her robe and kneeling on the smooth stones, plunging her sponge into the water and saturating it as quickly as possible. The morning air was warm enough to be tolerable, but she didn't relish being wet, naked, and unprotected in the woods any longer than was absolutely necessary.

Karah had been a wanderer of sorts before joining Avery's band, but not so long that the act of communing with nature had lost its luster. Even focused on the task at hand, she couldn't help but marvel at the tranquility of the moment: the giggle of the stream, the warmth of the sun on her bare shoulders, the clarion call of birds in the late morning air. A loam-perfumed breeze caused the trees to chorus with whispers, the rustling of hundred crinoline skirts, and she smiled as she slid the sponge down her arm and left a silver trail of water behind.

The murmur of trees died gradually, and as it did there came a desperate, muffled, "WHHFFF!"

She stood suddenly, dropping the sponge and grabbing frantically for her robes, clutching them close against her. Darting her eyes up and down the bank revealed nothing more than the sketchy white trunks of gold-leafed birch, flaming at their bases with patches of brilliant red fern.

"Who's there?" she called out, tremulous.

Slowly, with aching regret, Jayne's voice replied, "It's… me, Karah. I didn't mean to startle."

High up on the wooded bank, the man emerged from behind a thick tree trunk, purposely averting his eyes behind a half-raised hand. Even from a distance Karah could see the flush of embarrassment on his normally composed stoic face.

"Jayne?" her voice cracked. "What… what are you—"

"I came down to… Rowanna said you were still…" his voice knotted with barely-suppressed anger. "I didn't know you were… here, I'm… I'm sorry. I'll leave you."

She was too stunned to call after him, becoming aware of her own trembling only after he'd retreated completely from sight. Rowanna said she was still… still what? Still sleeping?

That evil bitch… she did that on purpose…

Evidently that's what Avery was on the verge of telling her. But she'd been bathing here for ten minutes or more… how long had Jayne been watching before he had to sneeze?

She didn't want to think about it too long, forcing it from her mind long enough to finish her ablutions. No longer a study in simple pleasures, she dried off and climbed into her robe as quickly as possible, face burning with dread anticipation as she climbed the hill back to camp.

No laughter greeted her return, as she might have expected. Instead, Rowanna stood cross-armed by the dwindling fire, watching an evidently tense confrontation between Avery and Jayne at the far edge of the clearing. Jayne had a good six inches over the band's wiry leader, a fact not lost on Avery as he trembled his hands in a placating gesture. Rowanna looked both primly amused and vaguely disappointed that she couldn't hear them.

"I trust you're pleased with yourself," Karah snapped, roughly snatching her pack from the tent interior. She knelt to pack it, shoving her things inside with furious, arm-long thrusts.

"Oh, calm yourself. He's a big boy, he didn't see anything he hasn't seen before." Sidling closer, she crooned, "Besides which, perhaps now you'll loosen up a little. You could use a man in your bed."

"Really?" she arched a look back at her. "I was certain that one whore was more than enough."

Rowanna's eyes flew wide.

"You insufferable little wretch—"

Karah gained her feet, and the two women flew at each other like barn cats. Only Jayne's sudden, imposing intervention between them was enough to prevent a hurricane of clawing, hair-pulling fury.

"Don't let'r get to you," he said dramatically, holding Karah at bay with both hands. Hearing her own words echoed back to her in the big man's solemn timbre brought her up short, and she fought past her own burning anger and humiliation to look up into his face.

"Jayne, she's a—"

"--B'lieve me… whatever way you'd finish that statement, it's already crossed my mind, and probably much worse." He looked over one shoulder, where Rowanna was held in check by Avery's steadying hand. Again to Karah, lowering his voice, he added, "Not that I'm not partial to watching two women tear each other apart, being a man and all, but this's neither time nor place."

The injection of humor, however subtle, was enough to steal the last of her anger, and she withdrew cautiously, letting the tension leave her in a single, bitter sigh. At least she'd forgotten to be embarrassed.

"…Sure."

Jayne watched her steadily as she turned back to her pack, then glared meaningfully at the remainder of their party. Neither Avery nor Rowanna cared to look at him directly.

He sniffled mightily, passing his wrist beneath his nose in a gesture that refreshed Karah's abandoned concern.

"Unless there are any more surprises," he said. "I b'lieve I'll take my turn in the creek."

*******

It was nearly a full day's ride to the next Shire, this one larger and more deeply wooded than the last. Given the morning's confrontations, it was unsurprising that much of the journey was silent, even Avery and Rowanna confined to a peculiar reticence.

Karah would have normally ached for conversation, but a combination of anger and humiliation left her glad for the silence. The twittering of birds and the steady percussion of horse hooves provided a much-needed departure for her thoughts, allowing her to forget the murderous rage that had so possessed her just a few hours before.

Jayne's prediction as to the remission of his cold seemed to hold up, his sniffling persistent, though at least it grew no worse. He was aware of Karah's sly, sidelong glances, just as she was aware of his occasional breaks of composure, when the only thing between him and a good, satisfying sneeze was the casual brush of one forefinger to the underside of his nose.

They came, at day's end, to a pair of heavy garrison-style gates, laid open to the Shire's narrow main road, and there continued single-file between long rows of reed torches.

In an unusual move for her, Rowanna chose to question Avery first.

"Who are we looking for, exactly?"

"I believe that our good host lies ahead, companions."

And there, alone in the center square, stood a paunched man in brightly-colored robes, evidently quite relieved to see them. He stepped forward as they drew their horses in a semi-circle around him, opening his arms in a broad gesture of greeting.

"Excellent, excellent! I'm so glad – no no no – so overwhelmingly glad that you've come. I am Parson Eoman -- please, let me be the first to welcome you!"

"First and only," Jayne muttered tightly, observing the conspicuously empty square. Ever wary of potential ambush, the glaring lack of townspeople put him more on edge than throngs of onlookers ever could have.

"We are grateful for the welcome," Avery began in his characteristic, overblown fashion, going so far as to bow in the saddle. "Though I'm sure our reputation precedes us, please allow me to introduce my fine band of—"

"Yes, yes, your reputation indeed precedes you," the Parson stammered, wringing his hands. "No introductions are necessary, I assure you. If it's quite all right with you, in fact, I'd prefer if we could get on with this."

Jayne pulled his horse alongside Avery, speaking through clenched teeth, "I don't like this..."

"Jayne. Hush," and again, to their host, "Very well, sir, we are here to serve… your missive stressed that this was a matter of great importance, and even greater urgency, so please… do explain what has so thrust your fine Shire into such dire—"

"Six months ago," he interrupted impatiently. "Women in our village began disappearing. It was sparse at first – just a milkmaid here or a fishwife there – only so many to seem that perhaps we were not a shire of particularly good husbandry. But lately… it's become a more regular occurrence, and we're at a loss to explain to the fathers where their daughters have gone, or the children their mothers."

The tale brought all four travelers to unified attention, Avery's enthusiasm suddenly tamed.

Soberly, he said, "Have you any idea where they've gone?"

"Until recently," the Parson replied. "None at all. They were gone without a trace – some of them from their very homes, their fields. Last week, however, my son was walking home a young woman along the main road, where it runs by the wood. The wind took her scarf, and he stopped to retrieve it from the branch where it was caught… when he came back, he saw a black horseman emerge from the woods, snatch the girl off her feet, and carry her into the night, as if cut from the very darkness. We've seen hide nor hair of her since… she must be wherever he took the others."

He continued, "That is why you see this square so very empty, where six months ago it would have been filled with revelers and children. They are all away now, all the women folk, behind the lock and key of every man who holds them dear."

Karah could already see the plan hatching in their leader's head, not so dissimilar as those they'd relied on before, though he conferred with the Parson before setting anything in stone.

"Then the absconder must be apprehended, and if your womenfolk lie still nearby, they must be restored to their households. It is fortunate indeed that you called upon us," his voice again trilled with triumph, "for we shall not fail you!"

Coming about on his horse, he waved an arm at his followers. "Rowanna, dear-lady, you shall be the bait, for I have no fear you shall prove irresistible to this heathen horseman. Once you have—"

"Uhr, sir?", the Parson tried to interrupt.

"—lured him from the safety of darkness, I shall pursue him to—"

"—If you would just… I don't think your plan is quite going to—"

"—where Karah and…Jayne shall, uhr…" He stopped, arm held grandly aloft, and looked down. "Beg pardon?"

"If you plan to use this young lady here to bait him out… well, I'm afraid that won't work."

"My dear sir," Avery chuckled. "Lady Rowanna's beauty has yet to fail to lure any man."

"That may be so, but I can tell you with some certainty that it will fail to lure this one."

"How is that?"

"…He only comes after brunettes."

Again the party fell perfectly silent, and Karah's stomach droped like a lead sinker. Already three leaps ahead of Avery's calculating mind, Jayne twisted his horse's reigns up, causing the animal to whinny and rear in place.

"No," he barked, gray eyes sparking like a clash of steel. "Avery, I don't like it—"

"Hush, Jayne," their leader replied, more quietly than usual.

"Sure as a thief in the night I can see what you're thinkin'—"

"You don't know what I'm thinking," his voice hardened dangerously.

"—and it's a bad idea."

The Parson backpedaled, fearful of Jayne's horse as the animal continued to rear and stamp in agitation.

"I… I don't understand," he stammered. "Why doesn't the other young woman simply take her place?"

"She ain't."

Avery's face burned with the ire of authority. "She is…"

"She ain't doin' it."

"Please," the Parson bleated. "What's the matter?"

Jayne snorted and glared, meeting Avery's eyes in an unspoken challenge before he twisted his horse forcibly to face their host.

"The matter," he said. "Is that Karah is our archer. If she lays bait, that horseman of yours is a lark in the clear air once he's got'er, and Rowanna couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if her life depended on it."

"Sod off," Rowanna snapped. He cut her a look.

"It's true. And not only do I know it, but Avery knows it."

All eyes turned to Avery, simmering in the saddle and gripping his reins as if to milk them. When he didn't fly to Rowanna's defense, she sparked with indignation.

"Avery, I'm a fine shot—tell him!"

"It's dark, Rowanna… there's little moon, the wind is up, and this fellow…he'll be a good rider. A fast rider. He won't follow a straight line."

Only Karah had not weighed in thus far, listening to the others and watching the heated glances they spun at one another like throwing knives. Uncomfortable with the weight of the decision, Avery at last looked to her for confirmation.

"Karah. What do you think on the matter?"

All eyes were on her now: Rowanna's bitter, Avery's grave and Jayne's wild, the whites keenly aglow. Her breath quivered as it left her.

"I'll do it," she said softly.

"Karah--," Jayne began earnestly, but Avery cut him off, circling his horse around to corral their attention.

"So be it, then, she's made her decision. Karah, give Rowanna your bow and quiver. We'll find a place to lay by in the woods, and wait for this Horseman. I only hope he doesn't keep us waiting."

*******

If the ride from camp was quiet, their descent into the black woods was silent as death.

Avery and Jayne rode fore and aft of the party, keeping the two women between them like foals in a herd. Two miles beyond the tree line, following the subtle trail of hoofprints and snapped branches that revealed the path of their quarry, Avery raised a hand to draw them still.

"We'll leave Karah here…"

"I don't like this," Jayne growled.

"You're not paid to like it," Avery snapped back. "Nor are you paid to think, or open your mouth. Perhaps when you're more adept at either I'll inquire after what you like, but until that time you'll do well to remember which of us is the brains, and which is the dumb muscle. Do you understand?"

Karah was never more certain of an impending fight, but Jayne held his temper admirably in check, nostrils flaring and relaxing with slow, angry breaths.

Satisfied he would receive no reply, Avery turned to the two women.

"Karah, you and Rowanna will need to change clothes. Rowanna, you'll ride on with us a half mile, and then on with Jayne another half after that. We'll do this just as we've done before: I'll drive him towards your perch. If you should fire on him and miss—"

"I won't miss."

"--If you should miss, Jayne will take up the pursuit. Our best bet beyond that point is to drive his horse to exhaustion." He looked around to each dark face. "Are we agreed?"

"Agreed," their voices overlapped, disharmonious and sulky.

Rowanna and Karah dismounted, disappearing behind a copse of spindly dogwood, and there undressed and traded clothes. Rowanna was taller and better endowed, and neither fit well into the other's attire, but it was a necessary inconvenience: an archer could not climb trees in a dress.

They returned to find the two men standing by the horses, grim and silent, having evidently eschewed conversation. When Avery led Rowanna aside to fit her bow, Jayne gestured Karah to the base of a bloated beech tree, whose gnarled roots provided a clear and convenient place to wait.

She was expecting it, but the quiet coarseness of his reminder was no easier to hear.

"You don't have to do this." One outstretched hand accepted the delicate weight of her fingers as she gathered her skirts and settled awkwardly among the roots.

"I know."

"Rowanna will miss. You can't trust her aim."

"I know she will." She sank into the puddle of skirts, feeling dangerously small as she looked up from his towering shadow. "I don't trust her."

"Then why—"

"I trust you."

Jayne's eyes were all that could be seen from out his silhouetted form, narrowing slightly as he gave a thick, wet sniffle. Smiling to herself, glad for any brief respite from the fear needling her heart, Karah searched the pockets of her dress until she found a delicate silk handkerchief in one pocket.

"Here…"

"Is this yours," he asked hesitantly, the clogged timbre of his voice suggesting he was again fighting off the desire for a long-waylaid and desperately desired sneeze. Karah smiled brightly enough that he could see it in the dark.

"No, it's Rowanna's."

"…Well," he sniffled quite loudly, palming open the hanky and turning in profile, his voice growing more heady as his nose was finally allowed to have its way. "…In…that case…"

His mouth opened, the handkerchief brought up in both hands, and with a single, hitching breath Jayne finally succumbed to a volcanic sneeze.

"Hh---Hh-WWWHHHFF!"

Slowly straightening, he drew a breath and blew his nose with lusty, head-shaking relief, pushing Rowanna's handkerchief to the limits of its intended purpose. Finishing with another small sigh, wiping delicately at his nostrils, he folded and closed it in one hand.

Karah listened with pleasure as he inhaled deeply through a newly clear nose.

"Better?", she asked.

"In more'n one way."

"Be sure to return that to her, now."

"Oh, I'll make a special point of it."

They shared a smile in the dark before Jayne sobered, crouching down to eye-level at the tree's base.

"You don't have to—"

"I know," she said. "But I want to. Just remember, it's you I'm counting on, Jayne."

His hand slid forward, finding hers, and for a moment they gripped tightly to one another, securing something unspoken. When at last he rose and slipped away into the cricket-loud darkness, Karah felt his absence all too clearly.

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Mmmmm, this is wonderful! After an EXTREMELY frustrating and unsuccessful attempt at my calculus homework, it brightened my day a little to see that you'd added another part. I'm tempted to just extend my homework 'break' and keep re-reading the whole thing. :doh:

But back to work I must go. Can't wait for more though!!

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*SWOON* Ho boy, I am really getting into this story. This may be my favorite contribution by you Libertybelle, and that is saying something since I really love all your stories. Thank you so much!!

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Here's the fourth chapter (and probably the longest thus far.) It's sort of... open ended. So if you'd like it to continue (as she's caring for him, I imagine) please let me know. If you think it should end here, say so too. Obviously, if you'd like it to continue, any suggestions or requests would be appreciated. :>

___________________________________________________________________

It was an uncertain gamble, to be sure.

There was no guarantee that the Horseman was afoot tonight, or that he would even pass this way. When a kettledrum roll of thunder underscored the coming of a cold fall drizzle, in fact, Karah grew certain that it would be a fruitless exercise.

She heard the rain coming, pattering down through the uppermost branches, and leaned more firmly back against the trunk. There was good shelter here, even under the autumn-thinned canopy, but she drew her cloak around her and pulled up her hood to ward off the more chilling sense of being alone in the dark.

None of the bondsmen had said as much, but their efforts in this wood were preventative, not restorative. Whatever foul intentions the Horseman had for his dark-haired prey, Karah doubted they would find any of the women alive, if they ever found them at all; one did not simply collect maidens like so many sheep, corralling them somewhere secret and unknown. If they caught him – when they did – it would be for the safety of those not yet spirited away into the dark, that they might never know such horror.

She reached up, tugging a dark lock of hair from beneath her hood, and smiled dryly.

"More fun indeed."

A shuddering scream sliced through her reverie, and Karah scrambled to her feet in a seizure of fear, staring wildly into the dark.

"Who comes?", she bleated, groping the coarse bark behind her, searching the faceless gaps between the trees. Something murmured and groused into the darkness, but through the soft hiss of rain she could not tell where, or how near. Louder, hardening her voice in the hopes her nerves would follow suit, she called again, "Show yourself—who comes?"

That same scream erupted from the night, so close that she echoed it with a terrified cry of her own, and flattened herself against the roots.

A pair of eyes loomed to life, and behind them a horse's head emerged into the slant of rain and weak moonlight. Karah froze in place as it trod toward her with slow, pendulous steps, revealing the arch of a muscled neck and impossibly broad shoulders, then the robed shape of a rider in a holocaust cloak and ragged robes.

She heard the wet sing of the blade from the sheathe, and at once a scimitar hung above her like a splinter of moon.

"Hullah!", bellowed a voice from the woods, and the Horseman and his mount started and turned as one, alert to the rapid thunder of hooves. "Hey hullah!"

Karah reached wildly for her skirts, the folds falling from the quick grope of her hands.

"Here!", she cried. "He's here!"

The Horseman wheeled on her, moonlight eyes narrowing with sudden realization, and before Karah could react he swung down her like a black harpy, stealing her too easily, too quickly, from the safety of the earth. She heard herself screaming, felt the reptilian whip of wet rags against her face and hands, and the sudden razor-like fleck of cold air against her face as the Black Horse plunged headlong into the night.

Ground and sky and naked trees flashed violently before her eyes, the world jagged as broken glass and shaking her to the marrow. Her hands fought for purchase, and in their fumbling felt the Horseman's robes, the slick, foaming flanks of his mount, but nothing of any substance. The thunder of beating hooves blotted out everything, but every so often she heard Avery's bellowing cry as he rushed in pursuit.

"Hullah! Hey hullah!" Each time he seemed fainter, as with greater distance, and Karah clawed and squirmed wildly, screaming in terror.

The Black Horse cleared a barricade of fallen trees with an effortless leap, her teeth rattling as it hit the earth and broke into a faster gallop.

"Hullah!", Avery shouted again, barely audible for the leagues which had grown between them. He would never catch up, he would never get back that distance---

Something exploded from the brush alongside the Black Horse's flanks, causing it to whinny out another shuddering scream, and suddenly there was another rider behind them, earthen brown with a blaze of moonlit white. She could not see its rider, but Karah would have known that horse from the depths of any madness.

"Jayne!"

The Horseman twisted around in surprise, still bent over the reigns, then whipped the animal's flanks for speed. It banked sharply around a bend before plunging the straightaway, heaving for breath. Again it leapt to clear a fallen tree, and Karah felt her body lift weightlessly from its back before the crushing impact of landing.

She twisted desperately, so afraid to find the path behind them empty, but Jayne was still swift at their heels, clutched in the saddle with unwavering purpose.

The Black Horse was tiring, heaving for breath, no matter the frenzied whipping of its rider. It was too large a beast to carry its own weight so fast and for so long, the violent toss of its head making its path jagged and wild over the rough ground.

Jayne urged his mare with a final snap of the reigns, and at last he was alongside the Horseman, shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes locked and vividly agleam. Karah saw her captor's black-gloved hand reach beneath the whipping robes, and the gleam of the scimitar as he drew it from its sheath. She wrested her arm from beneath her, punching violently at his wrist, and the scimitar flew wildly free, spinning end-over-end into the brush.

The stallion and mare wrestled for space on the path, the Black Horse wheezing and fighting at the bit as he ran. Jayne grabbed the Horseman's reigns, struggled with him for a split second, then caught him beneath the chin with a vengeful thrust of one elbow. Karah heard rather than saw the explosive crack of his jaw, screaming as he fell from the saddle in a tempest of ragged black robes.

The Black Horse whinnied sharply as Jayne jerked back the reigns, bringing both animals to a prancing, staggering halt, then all but threw himself from the saddle. Before Karah could register the feel of his hands Jayne had freed her from the saddle and set her on her feet, his arms suddenly and wholly around her. She collapsed with sobbing relief against his chest.

The big man said nothing – could manage no words – but clutched her to him and clenched his jaw, his own breath heavy and rigid.

She found her composure slowly, tremulously, withdrawing to find his eyes grave with fear.

"Y'a'right?" he said tightly.

"I'm… I'm okay… I'm just… I feel like I've been shaken to pieces."

Remembering her abductor, Karah looked fearfully over her shoulder, certain the Horseman would be standing behind them. The shine of a black boot from the underbrush marked where the rider had fallen, but there was no evidence of movement.

"I-Is he still—"

"Neck's broke. Heard it snap when I hit him."

"You saved me. Jayne." She looked up at him incredulously, but his face was still hard with barely-suppressed anger. "Jayne…"

"Karah," he said grimly. "This is going to get ugly."

"…What do you mean?"

"Hullah!"

They turned as one at the familiar cry, just in time to see their companions crash through the brush, reigning their mounts. Avery's horse was still wheezing for breath after its breakneck run, and he slapped the animal's flanks appreciatively as he climbed down, crossing to Karah and Jayne. Even before he'd halved the distance Jayne turned and strode to meet him, gaining momentum as he went.

"Well! We had a bit of a scare there, didn't we -- but I think it all worked—"

Jayne's fist caught Avery square in the nose, heaving him like a ragdoll to the muddy earth. Rowanna shrieked like a terrified child, while Avery -- prone and bleeding -- groped his face and goggled the crimson fingertips. He looked up in disbelief.

"Wh… what the hell is wrong with y—"

"Get up," he ordered. When Avery merely stared from the mud, he reached down and hoisted him by the collar. "I said get up!"

"Jayne---Jayne, I… I had everyone's best interest in—" he barked in pain Jayne clenched his collar in one hand, crushing him against the nearest trunk.

"Shut up," he growled. "I've heard enough hot hair outta' that mouth of yours to last me into the next life, and now you nearly cost us one of our own. Things are going to change from now on. This is no longer a monarchy, and I won't have you leading us by the nose into whatever danger you feel will bring you the most acclaim."

Avery's lips began to blue. Jayne relaxed his fingers just enough to let a gagging wheeze through his windpipe.

"This is how it's going to be from now on," he continued. "No more sleeping on the ground unless we have no choice. No more of your thick-as-thieves collusion with you and Rowanna—" Having heard enough of the woman's chickenish screeching in the background, he shot at her murderous snarl. "QUIET! I never put a hand to a woman in anger, but I ain't above starting right now."

Rowanna clapped both hands to her mouth, quieting herself to small, fearful sobs.

"Now," Jayne looking back at Avery. "Where were we. Ah right, collusion. From now on we make decisions as a group. That includes the planning of these mad campaigns of yours. When I say no, I mean it, and if you don't care to hear me open my mouth, you can just find yourself some dumb muscle who won't crack your skull open for being an arrogant ass. Finally…" His fingers flexed open, dropping him roughly. "You can have your little trick lay bait whenever you want, but if you ever put her in danger's way again—" one muscled arm extended in clear indication of the wide-eyed archer still standing by the horses. Jayne followed it with a long, grim look before returning his attention to Avery.

When the threat hung unfinished, he stammered, "You'll… what…?"

But there was no tidy conclusion, no speakable certainty of what ends he would meet if he crossed Jayne again: only the man's dark steel eyes, unwavering from their focus.

Avery swallowed and massaged his throat. "…Right."

"Now," said Jayne. "If the group can agree, I suggest we get this corpse back to the Shire so those people can mourn their wives and mothers proper… then get ourselves rooms for the night." Without waiting, he gave them each a hard look in turn. "We agreed?"

"Agreed," Karah whispered, her heart beating high and light in her chest.

"Agreed," Avery murmured, staunching his bloody nose with his handkerchief.

"Fuck you," Rowanna blurted, still riddled with small sobs. He parted from them to fetch the Highwayman's sprawled corpse from the brush.

"Get movin'."

They said nothing as they prepared for the ride back, each party member well steeped in their own thoughts. Jayne hefted the Highwayman to the Black Horse's back, cinching him in the saddle while Avery and Rowanna rode to retrieve Karah's gelding. The archer stood back, clutching her cloak around her, watching the big man as he worked with solemn efficiency. Before the others could return she stepped forward, nervously touching his elbow.

"Jayne."

He looked down, hands still knotting the corpse in place.

"Y'a'right?"

"I should ask you the same."

He snorted softly, watching his work.

"Nothing I couldn't handle." He startled as her hands slipped gently overtop his own, tracing the welts on his knuckles where the clenched reigns had dug into flesh in their wild pursuit.

"Are you sure? Knowing the density Avery's head, you could have broken your hand with that punch."

He chuffed with laughter, turning away to stifle a small, tight cough.

"I don't promise he won't be back to his old tricks eventually, but I may've bought us a peaceful night or two." He sniffled and knuckled his nose, then slapped the Black Horse's side to still its agitated stepping. "Any luck, that's all we'll need."

"Oh? For what?"

"I don't know what bounty he had on his head, here, but I aim to spend a good portion of it on an inn. Preferably one with a good bed." Sensing that she was waiting for him to continue the train of thought, he pretended to recheck the knots, sniffling as he did. "I been feelin' poorly."

"Have you," she feigned. "I hadn't noticed."

"Aye," he smirked and sniffled. "Hide it well, don't I."

"Are you sure it isn't just a bitty cold?"

The question was well timed, as Jayne's nostrils flared up with want to sneeze, and the sudden blink of his eyes and part of his lips seemed the only thing holding it in check. One knuckle switched at the underside of his nose to buy him a little time – just enough to step away from the horses, and her, before taking refuge in an upraised arm.

"WHHHFFF!"

Jayne dropped his arm just a little, blinking and sniffling thickly. He was beaten as he looked at her, already feeling the next sneeze on its way.

"I'm in a misery...ah-----hh'WHHHFF!", again he muffled it soundly.

Karah was more surprised at the admission than his flagging self-restraint, her waylaid concern promptly refreshed.

"Bless you… that bed sounds like a better and better idea."

Before he could agree the other half of their team made a galloping return, leading the gelding by the reigns behind them. They cleaned up the remainder of the battlefield quickly, relieving the Horseman of what few valuables he had on him, then taking the path back through the cricketing woods.

Even at a slow pace they reached the Shire in barely an hour, the way back so much shorter than it had seemed to Karah in her frenzied ride. Jayne made no further effort to conceal the cold he'd been fighting, and like an army kept too long at bay it ran roughshod over his lowered defenses.

"IIFFSSH!", his head whipped down with another sneeze, a hand groggily covering his face only once it was out.

"Bless," Karah whispered, bringing her horse side-by-side to his.

"Don't get too near," he sniffled.

"Sounding like you do? You'll be hard pressed to keep me away."

He smiled – tried to smile – but the flare of his nostrils made the expression too awkward to hold. He started to sneeze again, "Eigh--" stopped its progress with the gentle press of one fist, and turned to the far side. "Eigh-IIFFSSH!" A breath, and again, "Eigh-IIFFSSH!"

"God above, Jayne, bless you! We can't reach that inn soon enough."

The Shire opened before them, torches still lit in the indigo gloom, the paunched and fretting Parson waiting for them in the cobbled square. The fact that they were leading an enormous black steed – bearing what looked like a life-sized ragdoll in a death shroud – brought him forward with an immediate expectation of success.

"Look!" he cried. "Ah, look! You've done it! Is that him, then? Is that the very fellow?"

"It is," Avery said without fanfare, evidently sold on the idea of simply retiring for the night, and putting the entire, abysmal campaign behind them. "This one will trouble you no more."

"Then have you found them? Have you found those who went missing?"

The weighty silence of the party told the Parson what he needed to know, his smile slowly waning as the reality fell over him. After a long moment he closed his hands together and quietly nodded, "I see. I see."

"Our payment is due," Avery said. "But if it pleases you, we would be glad to get off our feet for a night or two before we depart."

"O-oh, of course, of course… please…" he gestured beyond the great fountain at the center of the square, where beyond there stood a three-storied tavern, still lit behind the battened shutters. "The innkeepers will be waiting for you with food and drink, and warm beds for the night. On the morrow, when you're all refreshed—"

"We shall make an effort to find you," Avery smiled wanly, and lightly hitched the reigns.

They were glad to find neither innkeepers nor tavern-goers in any mood for celebration, all of them still grim-faced and gray with worry for their kidnapped kinswomen, and unaware that the Horseman was dead. The rooms were ordered to be made up, and while they waited, Avery and Rowanna settled by the stone hearth to warm themselves and escape the night's events.

Only Jayne had no interest in food, drink, or fireside, stabling their four horses and lingering in the stall with the Black Horse and its grim, motionless passenger.

Karah came out to join him only after making a few arrangements with the barkeep. He stood, stroking the massive animal's soft nose, visibly deliberating.

"Not thinking of giving up your lovely mare, are you," she smiled. He looked up, then chuffed softly.

"Couldn't if I wanted to. She'd follow me anyway."

"Can't say as I blame her." Before he could react she motioned to the dead Horseman with her chin. "What will we do with him tonight?"

"Oh, he ain't going anywhere."

"Is it safe to leave him out here?"

"I imagine it's cold enough to keep him fresh," he said, sniffled, then delicately knuckled his nose. Karah's eyes were keen.

"Then it's cold enough that you should be somewhere warmer." With a boldness that surprised her she stepped close, reaching up to hold the lapels of his cloak to straighten them. "Shall we go inside?"

"Karah…don't," he began warningly, and at once she took her hands back, embarrassed.

"I-I'm sorry—that was… I'm not usually so forward--"

Jayne took her hand quickly to silence her, amusement glinting in his eyes as his expression began to waver.

By way of explanation he said, "No, I feel… I feel a sneeze…"

A different sort of embarrassment colored her cheeks, and she stepped back delicately, smiling. He released her again, holding one arm up as if in careful contemplation of its crook, then buried his face in it tightly.

" Eigh…" he muffled into it weakly, then sneezed with all his strength. "Hh-WHHHFFF!"

Drained, Jayne lowered his arm and again reached for her, holding her entire hand between thumb and fingers.

"Now," he sighed deeply. "B'fore I interrupted?"

"Inside?" she said.

"Sounds a fine idea."

"Some tea and honey?"

"Another good one."

"And I'll leave you to catch up on your rest."

Jayne came slowly to the verge of another sneeze, brow trenching with the effort of fighting it off long enough to say something. Karah knew a losing battle when she saw one, watching him in both expectation and sympathy. He turned his head, lips apart and eyes cloudy, standing for several seconds with hovering desire.

When it wouldn't come, he snorted in frustration and shook his head.

"Goddam' nuisance… when I want to sneeze, I can't. When I'm tryin' my damnedest not to, I…" case in point, his cleared eyes reclouded, "I… —EIIFSSSH!"

As at the tavern table, he pulled back at the last moment, giving himself ample room to double away from her. Unlike at the table, however, one was not enough; he quickly steepled both hands to his face, sneezing as if trying to blast the very cold from his nose.

"IIFFSSH! Eigh… eigh-IIFFSH!", he paused weakly, taking a few bleating breaths before lowering his hands again.

"That's it," Karah ordered, taking his collar and buttoning it quickly closed. "To bed with you – and now."

"Karah," he sighed, looking down at her.

"Come," she pushed him to the stable door. "What is it?"

"Would you take care of me?"

It was not a weak or mewling appeal, but a plain and simple request, the very definition of matter-of-fact. Her bottom lip puckered with want to reach up and kiss him, but she had not yet reached that level of forward, and after a moment of feigned consideration resumed her propelling push.

"How could you ask me such a thing? Am I a nursemaid now?"

He had an idea he was being played, but was careful where he tread.

"You seemed willing enough before."

"And you rebuffed me."

"I didn't want to worry you."

"You seem big enough to worry about yourself."

"I'll promise not to be trouble."

"I don't know, you have a knack for it…"

He felt the urge to sneeze again and used it to his advantage, allowing her to hear the slight tremor of his voice as he hovered his face just above the crook of his upraised arm.

"…Perhaps… perhaps you're right… I'll be a… alrigh—WHHHFF!"

Karah fretted as his balance teetered, hurriedly and firmly wrapping herself about his arm, hastening him to the inn door. He hid a slight grin as he rubbed his nose.

"All right, that's enough of that nonsense—let's see you to bed before you really do catch your death."

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oh please don't stop here. I love your stories. this has been the highlight of my day all week, i couldn't bare it if it stopped just when we got to my favorite part!

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oh please don't stop here. I love your stories. this has been the highlight of my day all week, i couldn't bare it if it stopped just when we got to my favorite part!

I couldn't agree more! Even just one more chapter, as she's caring for him, would be wonderful!

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*passes out* Okay, done. :> I'm glad you guys enjoyed this so far -- it was a fun one to write.

I hope this doesn't kill it :)

_____________________________________________________________

"It's been a good while since I took care of anyone," she warned, nearly tripping up the steps as they climbed to the inn's third floor. Seeing her plight, Jayne picked up the edge her skirts, holding them lightly in one hand.

"It's been awhile since I been took care of."

They reached the top of the stairs and, navigating by the glow of the tavern floor, counted the doors until they found the two, side by side, fitted out by the innkeeper's staff. Karah fiddled with first one key, then the other, pushing the door back to one of the small and ill-lit rooms.

Fires were too dangerous to leave unattended, so as Jayne felt his way to the cold hearth, Karah lit the oil lamps to either side of the bed. It was a small, plain room, only as furnished as one person would need it for a night: bed, night tables, arm chair, dresser and copper tub. There was not even a writing desk to be seen, relying on the certainty that most travelers were poorly equipped for such luxuries.

Having become an expert at lighting damp campfire kindling, Jayne had the fireplace aglow in no time at all, turning his hands before the fire to warm them. Sparse as it was, the firelit room quickly took on a coziness that they had long forgotten.

Karah shook out the match and joined Jayne on the rug by the fire, watching him watch the flames. When she palmed his forehead he looked at her, and his eyes were mercury in gold.

"How do you feel?"

"Cold." He made a show of wrinkling his nose and trying to breathe through it, resulting in only the thinnest little whistle of air through the prevalent congestion.

"Stuffy?"

"Mmn."

"How is your throat?"

"Feels alright. Mostly seems to be in my head." He gave another stuffy, unproductive sniff for affect. "Nose especially."

"I'm going to order a few things from the inn staff…"

"Might want to change out of that," a nod indicated Rowanna's gown, still hanging from her tiny frame. Karah smiled self-consciously and slowly rose to her feet.

"Speaking of which… I'd like you to get naked."

*******

Normally she wouldn't have been inclined to tease a sick man, but the expression on his face had been more than worth it.

Now that the inn staff had responded with hot soup and drinks, and enough steaming water to fill the now fireside copper tub, Jayne seemed far more at ease with the idea of being as God made him in Karah's presence.

The towel draped across the top helped, of course, as did the long soak in the steaming water, and the proximity to the fire. For her part, Karah admired the hard muscle of the man's bare chest and arms, exposed from the water, his expression saturated with drowsy relief.

As she moved gracefully about the room, pouring hot wine into two wooden mugs, he watched her appreciatively in return.

"How's that water?"

"More'n fine."

"Is the steam helping?"

Once again he exaggerated a sniffle, this time with audibly improved results. A moment later he sat up with a look of of startled regret, worriedly caving his hands around his nose and mouth.

"…blast---IIFFSSH!"

The water tossed lightly as he sneezed, and he groaned softly in the cup of his hands.

"Bless."

"Eigh-IIFFSSH!", another sneeze, another soft groan.

"Bless," Karah seemed unsurprised, padding to the fireside with a handkerchief in hand. His eyes were thankful, but she wasn't ready to hand it over. "The steam is making your nose run, and a running nose is going to make you sneeze. Finish first."

"IIFFSSH!", his skin rippled with a sudden shiver, despite the heat, and finally Karah handed over the handkerchief, much to his groaning – then blowing – relief.

"Thought you didn't remember much about takin' care of someone," he muffled into the hanky, then put it aside.

"Oh, I didn't say that -- just that it's been awhile." When he shivered again she stood and turned her back on him, gathering the coarse wool blanket folded at the foot of the bed. "Time to get you out of the water, before it gets too cool… now, ah…" With her eyes shut exaggeratedly tight she turned back around, snapping the blanket open and letting it hang invitingly from her fingertips.

Jayne hesitated before slowly standing from the tub, the gentle rainfall from his bare body dripping back to the water's surface. Only when he reached out for the blanket did he see her cracking an eye open at him, wholly exposed.

"God a'mighty, woman!", he cried, snatching the blanket and binding it suddenly and roughly around his waist. The fact that she was grinning did not escape him, but he was too flustered to register anything but embarrassed surprise. "What did you do that for?"

"Just taking my turn."

"Turn at what," he knotted the blanket thickly around his waist, immediately beginning to shiver all over as the cool air caressed his still-wet skin.

"Oh, I'm sorry – I thought we were allowed to peep at one another unawares."

The shivering descended into a fresh case of sniffles, and he backpedaled nervously, looking for the handkerchief he'd just put down.

"That… that was a mistake…"

"Do you always stay and watch after you make a mistake?"

Momentarily forgetting the hanky, he sniffled and looked at her, abashed.

"How'd you know I stayed to watch?"

Karah smirked, "Because you just told me."

"Shit." A massive shiver rippled over him, weakening him, and his nostrils flared with dread and desire. He had only enough time to cup one hand loosely over his nose, securing the blanket with the other, before the sneeze ripped through him, wrenching him double.

"IIFFFFSSSCH!"

Karah was alongside him before he could even pick up his head, guiding him toward the bed as his whole body broke into small, wild shivers. He sniffled repeatedly, one after another, as she opened another blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, then pulled back the coverlet to urge him beneath.

"Ik--IFSH!" he sneezed loosely into his hand.

With one hand to his nose, he sniffled as she helped him into bed, again as she covered him to his chest, then cringed within the shroud of blankets with another grimacing sneeze.

"Ik--IFSH!"

"Bless you—here—" mercifully she handed him another handkerchief and, remembering her advice, he squirmed down into the blankets to blow his nose. Once the shivers and running nose had abated slightly, the sneezing did as well. His eyes were repentant as he looked up at her, surprised to find the very same expression staring back at him.

"Now why're you looking at me like that?"

"I'm sorry, Jayne."

"You got nothing to be sorry for – I'm the one that's sorry. You had every right—"

"No, I really didn't—"

"You did, because I was the one who started it, yesterday, and I should have known better." Reconsidering, he added, "Well, maybe I knew what I was doing after all, but anyway I should have been decent about it, and less of a…a…"

"A man?"

He tucked his nose into the handkerchief, keeping it there in contemplation.

"Well. I am one'a those."

"And then some."

Jayne's eyes flashed with fresh surprise, and she clapped both hands over her mouth, holding back unexpected laughter.

"Wow," she blurted. "I really am sorry."

"You know," he smirked, finally lowering the handkerchief. "I'm not sure I feel properly represented. A man ain't exactly at his best in a room this cold."

"I'm in real trouble, if that's the case. I'm a pretty small woman."

They stopped, staring at each other in sudden, mutual surprise, and Karah put a hand to her head.

"….I need to stop talking now."

He tucked his chin down, eyes dangerously glinting, but added nothing to either encourage or deter her. Instead, he nosed back into the handkerchief and gave the smallest, most delicate blow.

"Well. I don't think I've properly said so yet, so… I'm sorry. I aim to be a gentleman before I'm a man, but it doesn't always work out that way. No excusing it… but I'm just saying."

Feeling able to go on without further humiliating herself, Karah slipped out of her boots and settled on the bed, tucking her legs beneath her.

"It's fine. I was more upset that Rowanna was behind it than that you'd actually…well, anyway, I was more upset about Rowanna."

He sniffled sharply, underscoring his annoyance.

"She's no good, that one."

"Would you believe I thought you had an eye for her?"

His surprise was softer this time, but no less evident.

"For her? What brought that to mind?"

"It was just… when we'd set out every morning, I noticed you look at her and sigh."

Again he sniffled, this time more out of necessity than irritation. "Oh, It wasn't desire behind it. I just don’t look forward to listening to her mouth all day." Another sniffle, the sudden onset of it causing Karah to rearrange the blankets around him slightly, preventatively.

"You're getting chilled again…"

"Just trying to itch my nose." Another sniffle, this time aided by the slight flare of his nostrils, and a sigh. "Something's tickling it." And yet another sniffle. He bowed his head down slightly, rubbing his knuckles to the tip of his nose.

"Not helping?"

"It's all the way back," Sniffle. "Should've made me sneeze by now but I can't…" Sniffle. "I can't trigger it." He was growing visibly frustrated, pinching his nose and working it roughly back and forth, despite the futility. "Blast…a good sneeze would fix it."

"Try this…" Karah leaned toward him again, this time pulling the blankets away from his shoulders, revealing him nearly to the chest. He caught a breath of surprise at the bite of the air, and within seconds was overcome by a great shiver, quickly descending into barely-controlled trembling.

He chuckled weakly, "Sure enough," and held the handkerchief expectantly to his nose as it began to run.

It was swift but not all at once: the gradually increasing frequency of his sniffles, a little deeper each time, while every now and a big shiver rippled over him. He slowly lost his expression, eyes clouding as the tickle in his nose and the persistent sniffling finally began to affect him. Mindful of how close Karah sat, he inched back against the pillows, holding the handkerchief in place with both hands.

He groaned muffledly and closed his eyes, though the desire remained frustratingly out of reach. "Almost there… I can feel it…" he sniffled, hoping to trigger himself to sneeze, and his nasal passages twitched in response. "Eigh…"

Another sniffle, purposeful, another twitch. "…Eigh…it's right there…"

Karah pulled the blanket away further, another great shiver coursing all over him, followed by a weak, sniveling inhale within the handkerchief.

"Eigh… It's… it's coming… I'm… Eigh… I'm about t…t'sneeze-- "

He grimaced wildly, wrenching into his hands with a final, paramount "HH'WWWHHHHFFFF!"

Dazed in the aftermath, Jayne kept his eyes closed and his nose buried in the handkerchief. The deep tickle was gone, hopefully with no possibility of return, and after blessing him vigorously Karah eased him against the pillows, quickly wrapping the blankets back around him to prevent a repeat occurrence.

With a final, mammoth shiver he relaxed into their warmth, finally opening his eyes just enough to watch her, though he kept the handkerchief in place.

"Better?"

"Mmn."

"You look drained."

"Hard work, sneezin'."

"I'll let you rest."

She rose to leave, but he quickly dropped the handkerchief, snagging her by the wrist.

"Karah, wait—" When she looked at him in surprise, he quietly withdrew. Evidently it was his turn to be forward. "Do you need to go?"

"Do you want me to?"

"I should ask the same."

"I… I'm happy to stay, for as long as you—"

He quickly furled back one edge of the covers, revealing the sheets beneath.

"We slept on the ground OK… I think we can make-do with a small bed."

Karah pulled sheepishly, smilingly, at the ends of her hair, then rounded the bed to crawl under the covers where he'd drawn them back. He sniffled as they sank down deeply, one broad hand grabbing at the small of her back, and pulling her against him. He put his head boldly to the hollow of her throat, hesitating until her arms wrapped snuggly around him, cuddling him close to her.

He tickled her throat with a sniffle, and relaxed into a deep sigh, half-lidding his eyes.

"Better now?" she asked again, this time with a soft laugh.

Jayne grunted softly in agreement, a moment later picking his head up with an expression of cloudy frustration.

"Blast," he growled. "'nother sneeze is coming on…"

"Relax." Easily fishing the handkerchief from within the puddled blankets, Karah held it to his nose, holding it there as he eased out a sigh and lowered his head back down to her throat. Long seconds later a shiver ran over him, his breath sawed in and out, his forehead creased, and he bucked against her.

"WHHFF!" He finished with a satisfied sigh.

"God bless you."

"Mmn." He growled. "Y'can say that again."

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Guest No More Lies

Rather lovely, that. All the details you put into it were fantastic. I don't think I could do that if my life depended on it. I'm just not that creative. Well done! :wheels:

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