Gentle Warrior(6)

By: Julie Garwood

The companion saw the glint of metal and, not understanding her reasoning, knocked the knife to the floor with the back of his hand.

The dogs began to growl but Elizabeth quickly silenced them and turned to face the knight. Her voice was gentle and devoid of all anger. “Though you have no reason to trust me, you need have no fear. I was merely going to cut his shirt.”

“What is the need?” the knight demanded with frustration.

Elizabeth ignored the question and bent to retrieve her dagger. She split the shirt at the neck and tore the garment wide with her hands. Without looking at the angry companion, she commanded that he bring her cool water so that she could bathe the sweat and heat from his lord.

While the knight relayed her orders to the sentries outside the door, Elizabeth scanned her patient’s arms and neck, looking for possible injuries. She willed her eyes to travel lower and felt her cheeks grow warm. Knowing that she blushed at the sight of his nakedness made her angry with herself, though in truth she had never seen a naked man before. Although it was the custom for the daughters to assist in the bathing of the visiting gentry, her father held too much distrust with the appetites of his friends and decreed that the servants would do the assisting, not his daughters.

Curiosity overcame embarrassment and Elizabeth quickly looked at the lower half of his body. She was mildly surprised that he did not display the fiercesome weapon she had heard that all men possess, and wondered if the female servants she had overheard had exaggerated, or if all men were built like this one. Perhaps he was defective.

Elizabeth concentrated on the task at hand and crossed to her chest. She removed clean linen and tore the material into long strips. When the water arrived, she began to sponge the warrior’s face.

He is as still as death, she thought, and his ragged breathing is much too shallow. He carried an angry red scar that began at the edge of his left eye and curved, as a half-moon, ending somewhere behind his ear, well hidden by the black, slightly curling hair. With the wet cloth she gently traced its jagged outline, thinking that the scar did little to detract from the leader’s appearance.

She washed his neck and chest, noting still more scars. “He has too many marks to suit me,” she voiced aloud.

Elizabeth stopped sponging when she reached his waist. “Help me turn him,” she said to the companion.

The companion’s patience was at an end, his frustration evident with his bellow, “By all the saints, woman, he needs not a bath but a cure.”

“I would know that the blow to his head is all he carries,” Elizabeth replied just as loudly. “You have not even taken the time to remove his battle clothes.”

The companion’s response was to fold his arms against his chest, a fierce glare upon his face, and Elizabeth concluded that she would get no assistance. She gave him what she hoped was a scathing look, and then turned back to the warrior. She reached across the bed and grabbed the unresisting hand with both of hers. Though she pulled with all of her strength, the warrior did not budge. She continued to pull, unconsciously biting her lower lip in her effort, and thought she was making progress when the hand she held jerked back to its former position. Elizabeth went with it, and ended up draped across the lord’s massive chest. She frantically tried to pry her hands free, but the knight now had a firm grip and seemed, even in sleep, disinclined to cooperate.

The vassal watched Elizabeth’s puny attempt to free herself, shaking his head all the while, and then yelled, “Out of the way, woman.” He released the hold and roughly hauled her to her feet. With one sure movement, he flipped her unresisting patient over onto his stomach. Irritation turned to horror when the vassal saw the blood-covered undershirt stuck to the warrior’s back, and he stepped back in shock.

Elizabeth was most relieved when she saw the injury, for this was something she could handle. She sat on the side of the bed and gently pried the material from its festering imprisonment. When the companion could clearly view the extent of the diagonal gash, he raised a hand to his brow. Unashamed that tears filled his eyes, he whispered in an anguished voice, “I never thought to check . . . ”

“Do not berate yourself,” Elizabeth replied. She gave him a sympathetic smile before continuing, “Now I understand what is causing the fever. We will need more water, but this time it must be hot, just to boiling, please.”

The vassal nodded and hurried out of the room. Within minutes a steaming kettle was placed on the floor next to Elizabeth. In truth, Elizabeth dreaded what she must do, had seen her mother do countless times in the past for those with similar injuries. Repeating a prayer for guidance, she dipped a clean strip of cloth into the kettle and grimaced from the discomfort it caused her hands. She ignored the pain and rung the cloth of excess water. She was now ready, and yet she hesitated. “You will need to hold him down, I fear,” she whispered, “for this will pain him considerably . . . but it needs be done.” She lifted blue eyes to meet the vassal’s anxious frown and waited.