"Daddy? Are you sure you've got me?"
"Yes, poppet. I promise. I won't let you go."
Miral was lying on her back, floating in the water. Her head was turned towards mine, eyes wide with fear. She was trying to coordinate her legs to kick through the water while worrying that I would remove my stabilizing hand on her back-- the same hand she was convinced were holding her afloat.
Although I knew she was scared--her big expressive eyes and the trembling beneath my hand giving her away-- she was still determined to learn how to swim; she didn't want to appear weak in front of me. Gods above! I couldn't have been prouder of her.
"That's it, love. Just like walking. One leg and then the other."
"I still don't see how this is sup'sed to work, Papa. You always swim with your belly in the water."
I smiled broadly. She was growing so comfortable in this position that she was busy puzzling out the process.
"Aye. But I'm a fair bit larger than you, love."
"But you're not like the fish at the bottom of the lake; you can't breath water."
"It's just a matter of coordinating your arms, legs, and breathing, bit. And, from the looks of it, you've already got the legs down pat."
"I do?" She questioned, looking down at her legs.
"Yeah. Now we've got to work on the breathing."
"You mean for me to turn over?" Big eyes suddenly locking on mine.
"It's simple. You'll turn on your belly and just float. When you need air, turn your head to the side, take it in, and go back to floating."
She paused, looking into my face. This was the worst part of learning to swim--trusting yourself to take in air when needed it and getting past the terror of not having air immediately available.
"You promise you won't let go, Papa?" Her lower lip trembling.
"I promise, poppet. I've got you. I won't let you slip."
She nodded, turning slowly so that her stomach was now floating on the water's surface.
The hand beneath Miral's belly moved to the back of her neck, holding her down in the water. She struggled against the firm grasp, arms flailing. Moments ticked by. The struggling lessened and then ceased. It was then that I noticed my hands had morphed into that of Crycus'--complete with ornate rings. The image in the water, however, was my face.
I awoke, gasping for breath. Throwing the heavy animal skins aside, I sat up on our sleeping pallet, willing the trembling to stop. In an instant, Kathryn was behind me drawing comforting circles on my back. Neither of us spoke.
This had happened before.
It would happen again.
The next morning, I awoke, ate breakfast, and mounted my horse--all without saying more than a handful of monosyllabic responses to my men. I rode in front of the column with Tuvok and Harry flanking either side. Behind me, above the den of the shifting of metal armor and heavily booted footfalls of the army, I overheard Sorteria and Constance discussing my odd mood in hushed tones and felt Kathryn's eyes burning into me. I knew that she was more than curious as to my sudden morose behavior and it was only a matter of time before she cornered me. She had the good decency to wait until we'd set up camp for the night to pull me aside.
I escorted her on a walk along a nearby river, cautioning her wordlessly not to mention anything serious until we arrived at our destination--a hidden away cave. After ensuring that we hadn't been followed, I motioned her deep into the water-made crevasse. Sitting down on the rocks, I finally allowed myself to show the weariness of this trip. She sat beside so that we were close but not touching.
"I suppose if I asked you what was wrong you would simply tell me you were tired and ask me to drop the subject."
I turned to her, and I suppose the look in my eyes startled her.
"They're haunting me, pet."
I nodded, biting my lip to stop the tears that were threatening to spill.
"We're in our homeland. Last night we were right beside your city-state. It's only natural that you'd be having nightmares. In fact, if you weren't I would be worried."
I shook my head. "It's not just that," I paused, watching her brow knit in confusion. "I've seen things...heard things."
I watched her lips form a thin line at this statement, and I stopped myself before an explanation. The truth of the matter was, as our fleet had cut a swath through the ocean, I could have sworn I had seen dark figures moving through the trees ashore. Rather than raising my hackles as a scout would, this 'vision' was more ambivalent.
As the days passed the sightings would grow in number, and, more often than not, they would occur during daylight.
Now, as we followed the ancient paths carved into the land, they grew in intensity and length. Whispers of movement in my peripheral vision became specters with color and sound. Small figures--one dark haired, one light, were seen weaving through trees. Voices were added on the second day ashore. I swore I could hear Miral's peels of laughter and B'El's answering voice.
On that day, when we stopped for lunch, I had taken off by foot through the thicket, trying to find the children that I had seen playing.
As the space between where the nearest polis was located and our location on the foot trail lengthened, I began to realize what they --these 'children'--were. My suspicions were confirmed the night before as I visited Atreus.
"You haven't been sleeping well for months. You're up at all hours pacing, re-reading her notes to you."
Ever so logical. And true, I hadn't been sleeping more than an hour or so before a nightmare would grip me. Dreams and memories of my family life would twist into something macabre. I'd see myself teaching Miral to swim one moment, and, the next, Crycus' hand holding her beneath the water...the handiwork that morphed into my own.
I never told Kathryn any of this, but, based on her reaction to me as she roused me yet again, I could only guess that she had sussed out what I had dreamt about.
"Are they just hallucinations? Or are the Furies trying to drive me mad? After everything I've done..."
"You've killed no more than any other warrior."
"The gods are fickle..."
"But you have always had their favor."
I closed my eyes. "Then why do I keep seeing her? Hearing her voice? Her laughter?"
I hated the catch in my voice. Hated the look on Kathryn's face when I opened my eyes. The concern there. I gave voice to the words we were both thinking.
"I'm coming unhinged, love."
There were tears in her eyes as she wove her arms around me, dragging herself to me. She held me so close I wasn't sure if it was her or I that was shaking. It only grew more intense when she whispered into my ear.
"I've got you, Thomas. I won't let you slip."
I pulled back from her, nodding my head because, at this point, I didn't trust my voice.
I wove my hands through her hair and brought her lips to mine. The kiss was soft, comforting, and exactly what I needed.
"Are you sure about this, Thomas?" B'El asked fidgeting with the hem of her sleeve. "I am but a farmer's daughter, after all. I am not nearly as educated in the ways of the court as a man of your position is accustomed to having."
She'd repeated this fact to me forty different ways since I had asked her to accompany me to the palace to meet the king. It was standard of a knight to receive the king's blessing for an upcoming marriage.
I stopped us both just outside the antechamber to the throne room. Even dressed in a borrowed frock that was out-of-date with current court fashions (she generally spent more time in a tunic and pants despite the disapproving murmurs from our polis' women) and hair slightly out of place from the long ride, she was a vision.
I cupped her cheek lightly, forcing her eyes to meet mine. "I love you," I said, simply. "If he doesn't approve of you, then you and I will tell him where he can stuff his opinion because I will not give you up for anyone."
The last said a little forcefully. I knew this from the sudden stiffness in her spine and the way that she bit her lower lip. I softened my tone before continuing.
"You're my always. Do you understand me, love?"
It was schmaltzy and I would deny saying it if any of my men were in the room, but this suddenly too vulnerable hellcat had stolen my heart and I would be damned if she was going to feel out of place in front of court members that would soon be of equal or lesser status than she. I was rewarded with a breathtaking smile as her hand found mine, fingers weaving together in a perfect fit.
"Besides, I can guarantee that the king will be as taken with you as I am."
"Ah. Does that mean you'll be spending he whole night trying to fend him off of me."
She smiled that conspiratorial smile of hers that she wore when I was bound to be in trouble soon, and I breathed a sigh of relief. She was back to feeling like fighter that she was. Offering her a smile, I took her elbow and lead her toward the massive wooden door.
"I swear to protect you, my lady," I deadpanned as we entered.
As we traveled toward the palace, my ears were filled with tales of Solomon's new paranoia. Taverns were filled with bards telling tales of double agents, trying and killing competent generals at the mere rumbling that they were thinking of defecting, and clearing out a huge portion of the vegetation near the palace to allow for sparring land and to avoid giving cover to guerrilla forces. So too were the murmurings of the commoners contemplating revolting. How had my former homeland come to this? Dreary and desolate and filled with angry helots.
The moment we passed through the clearing of trees and into the barren land surrounding his stone walls, I felt my stomach begin to churn with fears. I loosened my clasp on my horses' reigns and let her slow to a leisurely pace. Tuvok and Harry slowed to match.
A full candlemark from the gate, HIS coat of arms became visible on two broad banners than hung on either side of the gated entrance.
Half a candlemark from the gate, just as I began to make out the Latin written beneath his crest-- the words of which he had changed when his heart had been turned to the One God-- Kathryn led her horse up between mine and Tuvok's. I watched her squint her eyes against the afternoon's sun to read the words I had long ago learned.
"'Nemo...me impune lacessit?' That can't be right," she said, turning toward myself and Harry for confirmation.
"Aye, pet. It is. Sort of his law code."
I heard a bark of laughter a moment later from Ria. She and Constance appeared beside Kathryn.
"Has a bit of an ego, doesn't he?" She said, motioning toward the crest.
"What does it say?" Neelix asked, and I suddenly recalled that, while an accomplished fighter, he was barely literate in his own tongue let alone that of this foreign king.
"No one goes unpunished who provokes me," I said, softly.
Not another word was spoken until we rode through the front gate.
A/N: Latin phrase on Solomon's coat of arms is a literary allusion to one of my favorite tales-- Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." If you haven't read it, it's well worth to time.