When I woke up it was daylight and there was a searing pain in my neck where I had been attacked. For a few moment the bright sunlight blinded me but then I slowly regained my vision and found myself in the corner of a plain building, obviously the hut of a worker. I tried to move but felt searing pain along every nerve in my body and immediately fell back onto the hay gritting my teeth against the agony,
"You won`t heal any faster if you try to move to quickly my lad" came a voice, a female voice.
I looked in the direction of the voice as best I could without setting off the pain and soon a cloaked figure scuffled into my view,
"How did I get here? I was in the forest last night" I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
"Last night?" The woman laughed, "You were breaking fever last night right where you are now." She sat beside me, her face still hidden in the shadow of her hood, "You`ve been here for over three days"
"Three days?!" I shouted as I sat bolt upright momentarily forgetting of my earlier agonies then instantly regretting doing so.
The woman waited patiently while I recovered yet again.
"A local merchant found your camp-site and brought you here after he recognized you. Unfortunately we`ve had a very heavy drift of snow this winter and have not been able to send a messenger out to the King."
I looked at her, "How did you know about that?"
The woman turned to look behind her quickly then lowered the hood. I had been expecting something of an old crone from the voice but as the hood fell the face that was revealed was nothing like what I had expected. Underneath it had been the face of the most beautiful girl I had ever laid my eyes on, and I`d seen a few as they came to see my brother. The sunlight danced and glistened off the blond hair and her skin was so pure and unblemished she could have been a goddess. Then I saw the eyes, the bright green of them. Instant recognition hit me,
"Alisia?!" I whispered
She smiled, "Hello Raven. Its been a while hasn`t it?"
And indeed it had, the last time I had seen Alisia had been when she was visiting my fathers castle and her and I had been playing in the kitchens.
"How come you`re here?"
"Oh I`ve been out here a while. Just generally to get away from father. He`s taken more of a liking to my brother of late."
"What about your mother?"
Alicia looked at me, "She died two years ago. If she were still with us then no doubt I`d be with your Uncle but since she isn`t I just live out here."
"Don`t the peasants recognise you?"
"Of course, but they keep quiet. Its amazing what a few loaves of bread and some beer will get you" she giggled, "How come you were so deep into the woodland?"
I lay back on the hay bed and stared at the ceiling,
"Me and my Uncle had some what of a disagreement over something" I muttered
Alisia gently placed a hand onto the closest of mine,
"How bad Raven? Is it something you can apologise for?"
I laughed shortly, "There`s no need for apologies. Neither of us let the situation go that far. I left the castle with his blessing."
Alisia smiled, "Well that`s good then. How long were you supposed to be out of the castle?"
"Two months is what I promised. I think he was wanting me to go out anyway which is why he let me go so easily. His words were something like `go out get a girl, marry her and be young` which is what I had intended to do before something got driven into my neck"
"You were lucky it was only a shallow animal bite. Its just that where it was made you lose alot of blood"
I turned to Alisia, "It was no animal. That much I remember clearly."
She raised an eyebrow, "Well it certainly looks like any animal bite I`ve seen."
"Not many animals talk Alisia." Then while my mind was back at that night I remembered Arnet, "Did the merchant see my manservant?"
"Arnet? No, he only saw you. And that was only because you were covered in your Uncles coat of arms on your cloak."
My mind wanted more answers but I was still raw from finding Arnet dead. Alisia sensed my emotions and set about dealing with the poultice on my neck which stung slightly as the air came into contact with it,
"Its healing nicely. Can you move now?"
I sat up slowly and apart from a few twinges I made it. With some help I managed to get to the stool which was by the crudely made table. Alisia put a plate in front of me containing a hunk of bread and some cheese as well as a tankard of beer, admitted it was less than what I was used to getting at home with Uncle but at the moment it would do. Just at the sight of it my stomach growled loudly causing Alisia to laugh as I blushed and wolfed the food down.
After I`d had the food I felt more human though slightly tipsy from downing the beer, the work-folks certainly knew how to brew. Alisia watched me as I swayed slightly before my head cleared,
"Anyone would think you`d drank nothing but water all your life" she laughed
"It feels like it" I replied, "How long have I been here?"
"A good few days. I only got back last night. A local farmers wife has been looking after you the rest of the time. But you don`t have say some strange things in your sleep."
I looked up, "Like?"
Alisia smiled as she went about tidying the room and putting fresh wood on the fire, "It`s nothing that anyone knows. Some say that you`ve learned to speak the language of the barbarians either to the north or the west but when the priest came in he couldn`t get out fast enough. He was as pale as anything"
Standing I moved to the door, "Am I allowed outside?" I asked over my shoulder.
"Be back by sundown, we need to make sure you eat. You`ve lost alot of weight and we don`t want your Uncle to think that we`ve mistreated you"
I smiled and reached for the door but it swung open before me and for several seconds I stood there wondering what had just happened. Then like any sane human being I totally dismissed it and walked out side. The air that assaulted my nostrils was rank and smelt of 20 different varieties of animal but yet it was like sweet nectar... I just couldn`t get enough. Walking I noticed that none of the people seemed scared of me which was unusual, instead they treated me as one of their own. Looking down at my clothes I saw why. Alisia was smart enough to hide the nobility. Smiling I headed for the small building which bore the insignia of a church, intending to seek out this priest. Entering the building I found the man instructing what appeared to be a group of novices but then spotting me he bade them farewell and walked up to me blessing himself as he did,
"Good day my son." he said in a rasping voice, no doubt the fault of the incense
"Good day Father. I was informed you came to see me while I was taken ill"
The elderly priest nodded, "Indeed. You had been found by a well known merchant in the parts and he brought you to us as he was passing through."
"I was informed that you seemed scared when you visited"
The man turned sombre, "My child, while you were lost in whatever place you`re mind was you were uttering words which you had no knowledge of. Many of the locals believed that you were uttering the language of the barbarians-"
"But you knew otherwise?"
"My son in my youth I repeatedly went to villages in the north and west to preach the word of our Saviour to the people and their language is nothing like the foul utterances which came from your mouth that night."
I stared ahead at the altar, "So its safe for me to assume you thought that I had been possessed?"
"Indeed my child and under the cover of darkness I drove out the spirits that plagued your youthful mind. And now you stand before me once again in the prime of your youth."
I thanked the man and made my leave but I stopped as he called me,
"Sometimes however the darkness returns to those it once claimed. Beware that you do not fall into its grasp a second time, for there is no escape that time"
My spine tingled with fear, what was he saying? fall into the darkness a second time?. Putting it off as old ramblings I walked back to the house to find Alisia turning small pig on the over fire spit.
"Thought you might a little delicacy before you leave" she smiled.
"Kicking me out?" I asked
"Yes. You`re Uncle is at his wits end. He`s heard nothing from you since you left and is worried that he has lost his only heir and family. So you leave tomorrow for your Uncles castle."
Dinner passed in silence as we both ate the rough bread and meat. Words that I had wanted to say since I`d first laid eyes on Alisia tossed in my mind like a tree in a storm but I held my tongue. After she had cleaned the plates Alisia stood and put on an overshawl,
"Where are you going?" I said half rising
"Home. I`ve spent long enough away tending to you. Mother tends to panic after a few days." She said as she opened the door. Lunging forward I grabbed her trailing hand, her expression startled,
"Alisia, please come with me!" I whispered
Shutting the door she removed her hand gently from my grasp, however I noticed that the tips of her fingers lingered before they left,
"And why should I do that? You have no lands, no title. You simply work for your Uncle." She stepped to me and placed a soft hand against my cheek and I caught the soft scent of lavender, "Raven, we can never be. I know you wished for me but neither of our parents would have allowed it."
"What if I take my family estate back? I will be my own man then. Your father cannot refuse me then"
Alisia smiled but said nothing. In the silence we both knew that no matter what happened we never could be wed. Even if I sat on the throne of all Mercia. I didn`t notice Alisia slip out into the night until I heard the whinny of the horse and galloping of hooves. I battled the urge to give chase and instead sat on the floor against the wall of the hut content to weep my misery alone.