For @kalendraashtar 🤗
Claire had arrived at the village three days prior and the tension that ran through it was palpable. She’d heard the stories of how the little hamlet had sided with one Earl over another. Two brothers vying for power; one ascended, the other roamed the lands wreaking havoc on those deemed his brother’s sympathizers. Rumours had the wannabe-Earl headed for them next.
She had only meant to stay a day or two before moving on, but there were more people that needed her help than she had anticipated. Rumours or not, she was more than eager to be gone; the villagers’ fear seeped through her, Claire had resolved to leave early the next morning, come what may.
They heard them just before daybreak.
A high pitch, blood curdling screech pierced the early misty dawn. Claire sat bolt upright, the sound going straight up her spine, making her entire body unpleasantly tingle. There was a moment, where the entire world stopped in silence. For a heartbeat after the cry, nothing moved, nothing breathed, nothing dared. Then the screaming started.
It was sheer pandemonium. Everyone seemed to burst out of their beds and crofts at once and ran every which way, but the marauders were far too organized for the farmers and crofters. They fell where they stood, no match for the violence that befell them.
Claire kept to the shadows, skirting her way tightly along the houses, trying to make it to the safety of the treeline and beyond, from whence the marauders had come. She tried to focus on the directions the sounds came from, but it was no use, there was just too much noise and carnage to focus on anything but keeping her heart from exploding out of her chest.
She found herself outside a stable, the horses frightened, neighing frantically, kicking at their stalls trying to get away from the shouts outside. Take a horse! she thought, you’ll get away quicker! But no sooner had the thought entered her mind, when a group of men burst into the stable, dragging women in with them - spoils of war. Claire pushed back into the shadows, praying they’d swallow her whole.
They spoke a tongue she didn’t recognize, a deep guttural sort of language, as rough as the men themselves. they were big and utterly savage. One man stood apart; a giant of a man, towered over the others, as drenched in blood as the rest. Something about him drew her gaze. Bloody sword in hand, shirt half-torn down the front, a gaping wound beneath, he had no woman of his own and didn’t seem all that pleased with those that did.
One of the other men pushed a woman toward him, forcing him to grab her by the shoulders and set her aside. He said something, fiercely glaring at the other man, who had stepped forward, his back to Claire, and stood an inch from him - he would have blocked out any other man from sight, large as he was, but he was no match the giant Berserker - glaring back. A fire blazed outside the stable, silhouetting the redheaded giant in a fiery haze.
His eyes suddenly flicked up over the man’s shoulder, as if he could feel the intensity of her gaze on him. His eyes locked with hers, fear paralyzing her to the spot. His face was a iron mask, she could read nothing whatsoever on it. Then, with an infinitesimal of head shakes; don’t scream, it said, gesturing her to the deeper shadows on her right. She did as he bid, crouching low into the corner and held her breath.
It felt like a lifetime, hands pressed against her ears, filled with pain and misery before the group was done and had moved on, but Claire had been too afraid to stand back up, to move, to even open her eyes, till she felt the gentlest of touches. Hands on her elbows urged her to her feet, yet she still didn’t dare open her eyes. A hand moved from her elbow and light a feather, brushed an unruly curl back behind her ear. A voice deep and soothing said something she didn’t understand, but knew from the tone of his voice, he meant nothing threatening. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked up into the face of the bloodied Berserker.
He spoke again, but she shook her head, “I don’t understand you,” she said, barely above a whispered breath. He looked surprised. It wasn’t something he was expecting.
“Don’t…” he said halting, “Don’t be afraid. I mean you no harm.”
She stared at him astonished. No one here spoke her language - herself only speaking their common tongue in bits and pieces, ‘where does it hurt?’ the only thing she truly needed to know how to say after all, to heal.
“What do you mean to do?” she asked shakily. His hands on her elbows tightened a fraction. She was still in her night shift, the cold morning air and the shock of the dawn’s savagery, had her shaking uncontrollably, yet she could feel the heat emanating from him and seep into her, as if he burned from within.
“See you safe,” she said, looking over his shoulder. Voices and hurried footsteps sounded from outside, moving to and fro. “If I can.”
“Why would you help me?”
He looked down at her, eyes soft, almost pleading. “There’s been enough death and pillaging tonight. If I can save just one, I will. They will not dishonour you, I won’t let them.”
She felt truly safe for the first time since it had all began, something about the young Berserker comforted her.
“You aren’t like the others. You’re not one of them, are you?” she said with a surety that surprised even her.
“You ask a lot of questions, do you know that,” he said, smiling a crooked smile at her that she couldn’t help but return.
Then they came. Footsteps rushing back into the stable. They had no time whatever to conceal themselves; the men upon them in a flash.
“Do my eyes deceive, or has young Jamie found himself a woman,” said one of them, voice dripping with contempt.
“This is none of your concern,” the Berserker replied, turning to face them, shielding her from view at the same time. He felt her fingers take a handful of the back of his shirt, holding fiercely to him.
“Easy! It isn’t like we’ve come to watch - though I have half a mind to - just glad to see you’ve taken to our ways at last. Your uncle will be pleased. Just remember to leave some for him when you’re done,” he smirked.
Claire had understood not a word of their conversation, but felt the burning fury of the Berserker’s last word and whatever the men he faced saw in his face was enough to have them back away from him and out of the stable. She kept her hands on his waist as he turned back to her. “What did you say to-” but her question was cut off as her hands came in contact with the wound across his torso, making him wince. “You’re hurt, “ she remembered, stupidly, peeling the blood soaked shirt away from the wound, her fingers already drenched crimson.
“It’s nothing. We need to get you away from here! Now!” he said urgently. She could see his mind working as he thought of an escape route.
He closed his eyes trying to control his racing mind and heart. The men would have told his uncle already about the woman. And he knew his uncle well enough to know he’d covet her for nothing more than to spite him - to take what was his. He needed to get her away before they returned.
“Come! This way!” He said, and not waiting for any more questions, he grabbed her arm and rushed them out the stables and into the rising sun.