01 - A Twist of Fate

Not that many would be out and about in these predawn hours, but Aurora made sure the shutters was closed tight before she called on her magic to produce a cup of strong, hot tea. Things she needed were summoned to her hand as she drank it while preparing for the harvesting she needed to do before the sun rose.

She paused, looking around the small cottage she had now been in for a two cycles of the moon. It was nice as cottages went, with two stories and shutters and coverings on every window. Special candles and a spell kept pests out. A ward kept out any intending harm; they just suddenly remembered they needed to be elsewhere. She had brought the furniture with her from France and it was well made, sturdy but pleasing to the eye and comfortable. A few books, rare and valuable things in this place and age, sat on a shelf above the door that led to her kitchen. The rest were hidden upstairs, along with the accumulated wealth of her first century in this world. She had long since given up on her parents coming for her and her siblings any time soon. She had to prepare herself for the long wait. It was why she was back in this area; now that everyone who had been alive when she first called this area home, she had returned. When enough time had passed, she would return to Calais, the place she had first appeared and would always return over the centuries as she waited. In her heart she knew it was a vain hope, but she waited and hoped nonetheless.

There was also the visions. The visions that told her that her siblings were in this same room, this same world. The visions that guided her to where she needed to be. The visions of a manor over which flew a hawk.

The town was currently a quiet little place with nothing of note to draw attention to it beyond its proximity to Sherwood. Aurora liked it that way. The Church hadn't even managed to get a real foothold here yet. Many people still practiced the Old Ways, and a few somehow managed to practice the Old and the 'New' together. Aurora didn't like this Christian faith. It was violent and judgmental and was the sole reason she couldn't go through life as a single woman interested in an education. It was already scandalous to some that she could read and write. She generally didn't bother telling them that she could speak six languages.

Sighing, Aurora set her mug down and slipped out her backdoor. Joined by her faithful dog, the petite woman headed into the woods with her basket and silver knife. She spoke softly to the dog, not wanting to wake her neighbors. Stepping inside the treeline, she held up her lantern and made her way to the spots she had marked earlier in the daylight. Lavender and periwinkle, yarrow, thyme, mint and acorns; many acorns. Ivy, vervain, eyebright, groundsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder-tree, and the young shoots of the hawthorn.

The light from the lantern reflected off the red gold of her hair like a halo, and she sang quietly under her breath the old welsh gathering song she had been taught when she lived the first time in Sherwood.

Julian slipped in and out of the trees of Sherwood like the legendary Dark Man himself. He had arrived some weeks back, and was now so enamored of the woods, he had taken to quietly patrolling the game trails, and the small roads that ran in and out of it like little dirt tributaries. He had provided game to a few of the scattered villages and to those settlements that barely qualified for that lofty classification. Julian was surprised that his gifts were so readily accepted, as he would have checked for poison or for the more subtle disease or parasite left in the meat, but not every place was Amber; Thank the Unicorn for that. He was not one to wastefully hunt, but his love for it kept him active in that time, and while he took down more than he could eat, at least none of the meat was wasted.

The Prince had decided to establish himself as a local Lord, a member of the landed Nobility, with a small holding not far from Sherwood. He had a handful of retainers, a few men at arms, which suited him fine, several horses, and a small herd of sheep kept primarily for trade. He had yet to participate in any tourneys, though he had been lured into an Archery Contest, wherein he took to his new home an arrow of pure gold. He was new to wandering in Shadow, having left Amber shortly after taking the Pattern, and had felt no particular need to establish an alias. There in England he was Julian, Earl of Huntingdon, sometimes Lord Julian Longbow, and thought to be something of a recluse who spent more time in the company of trees than people. The rumors were not entirely wrong.

Julian walked quietly down the game trail, having found a new part of Sherwood to explore. It brought him close to the edge of the woods, not far from a small town that had yet to benefit from his presence. He paused, and crouched in the darkness when he saw the light ahead. He hoped it was a will-o-wisp, the fey creatures that some of the older villagers whispered about, as he believed it impossible for him to get lost, and he was far more interested in the adventure. He was almost disappointed when he realized that it was just a lantern, though only almost. Bearing the light was a striking woman, lithe and graceful, with shimmering hair of coppery gold. He smiled as she gathered herbs, and silently approached to within five strides, before speaking.

"Should not a Lady be escorted into the night? These woods are not without bandits and brigands, I fear."

She nearly jumped out of her skin, cursing herself for sending her dog off to sniff out yarrow for her. But there was never anyone in these woods when she came in to harvest. The crouching redhead whirled around, wide-eyed, with enough force to make her noticeably unbraided hair fan out. The silver dagger in her right hand came up defensively in the direction of the voice.

"Should not a gentleman know better then to sneak up on women in the woods?" she asked tartly with more bravery then she was actually feeling, her heart pounding in her chest. "Step into the light so that I may see you for the scoundrel that you are."

Julian smiled, and looked off towards where he had seen her dog. He stepped into the light, and leaned casually on his longbow, his hands conspicuously empty. A quiver was on his back, and a slim long-sword at his hip. He wore a beard, seemed rather clean for a woodsman, had long dark hair to his shoulders, and sparkling blues eyes that were clearly filled with amusement. "Scoundrel is it? You wound me, m'Lady. A scoundrel would have silenced yonder hound, thrown a sack over your head, and carried you off like a very pretty sack of potatoes." It was hard, with the beard, to tell if he was smiling or not. "I was right. I wagered when I spied you a moment ago, that you would also have lovely eyes. You do."

It was hard to tell in the light, but she may have blushed. She did sniff indignantly at his obvious amusement as she turned to finish harvesting the plant she had been working on.

Julian watched her move, and actually chuckled loud enough to just barely be heard when she sniffed. She ignored him and placed the herb- roots and all - into her basket before standing and facing him. She was all of 5'3" and that was with her boots on.

Her look was frankly appraising as she studied him. She could think of worse fates then being tossed over those shoulders. "So do you," she finally said with a faint hint of a French accent.

He raised an eyebrow when she took the time to look him over, meeting her gaze just as frankly. His voice certainly sounded as if he were smiling, "You are very kind to notice."

Then she coughed quietly and bent for her basket and lantern, moving with a silent and
willowy grace. "As you have no plans for kidnapping me, if you will excuse me, I need to find some elder and willow bark."

She turned and started heading for the stream that ran through that part of the woods.

He watched her raise her lantern again, and followed along at the edge of the light. "Why do you assume I have no plans to kidnap you? It could be that I merely differ in method from that of the standard scoundrel. I might be a brigand or bandit, or even a nefarious highwayman." He looked about them, "Though I am lacking the highway for the latter."

"Kidnappers do not talk this much until after they have secured their prey," the redhead said matter of factly as she paused to pluck some acorns from the ground.

"They do not?" The woodsman asked, "Perhaps this was to be my first abduction." He noticed her picking up acorns, "You can make a very good bread from those."

"You also are far too clean to be a brigand." Clearly this was no shy young maid. She wrinkled her nose in a fetching manner when she turned to regard him. "Though your beard does give one pause…"

Julian plucked at his leather jerkin, and scratched at his neatly kept beard. "Despite warnings that it is not Christian to take so many baths, I baptize myself daily, whether I have sinned or not." He raised his eyebrow at her last words.

She blinked once then continued walking, weaving through the trees as one who knew where she was going. She paused at a rowan tree and ran a hand over the bark slowly. Setting down her basket and lantern, she carefully broke the bark covering and expertly peeled off a section. She pretended to pay him no mind, but Aurora was very aware he was still there.

Julian found himself amused by this woman, with an attitude far too great for her petite and comely form . He crouched, his powerful frame moving with predatory grace, and whistled for her dog, producing a bit of dried meat for the hound. His bow was balanced across his knees, and the ease with which he assumed the pose made it seem like he could remain in that position for hours if he chose to do so. "Truly, m'Lady, what brings you out alone at this hour? Surely these herbs can be gathered just as easily by day."

She looked over when her dog trotted up and huffed when it was taken in by nothing more then a strip of jerky. "Stupid dog," she muttered.

Julian chuckled again and scratched the animal between the ears as it took the jerky, "All dogs are fairly simple and honest creatures. Just like their ancestors, the Wolves."

The young woman wrapped the bark in a piece of clean linen and set it in her basket. "Some herbs are best gathered at night when they are at rest," she explained. She reached up and carefully picked a few rowan leaves. "And the trees will have time to form a barrier at the places I have harvested from them before the sun rises and their sap flows too quick and attracts insects." She peered up through the tree canopy. "Curses. The sky is already lightening."

She gave him an accusing look as if this latest development were all his fault. Then she picked up her basket and snapped her fingers for the dog to follow as she quickly continued her trek to the banks of the stream where the willow grew.

"I am fairly certain that cursed ball of light rises every day at roughly the same hour, give or take a bit of time depending on which solstice is closest." Julian brushed his hands together, and rose to his full height, which would have towered over the woman were they standing side by side. "Are your errands almost done?"

"Do not let me keep you from anything," she replied with no little sarcasm from the darkness without slowing her hurried steps through the trees.

Julian studied his nails, "You are not. I am waiting for you to be done so that I can abduct you after all." Pale blue eyes rose to study the Herbalist, "I thought I would let you finish your errands before throwing you over my shoulder and carrying you home." He gestured to the east, "Since time is of the essence, and I'd hate to spoil your work."

Her snort carried back to him, but she didn't say anything. A moment later, her dog set to barking and he heard her across the quiet of the forest. "Hush. T'is only a snake, you silly thing." There was a pause. "Alright…. so it is more then one… Come here, Cyrano. Now. Heel."

Julian circled around, "Adders. He's lucky he was not bitten." He crouched by them, despite the hissing and the fuss they were putting up. He clucked his tongue and shook his head slightly, "Minding their own business. This one here has had a meal, and this one is about to molt. No wonder they're five kinds of aggravated." He used the end of his bow to very slowly tuck them back under the hollow made by the roots of a tree, possibly talking softly to them or possibly singing. He moved slightly, his back to the hound and the girl, and moments later the hissing stopped, and he rose to his feet and took a single large and quiet step backwards. "There now, you can be about it then."

He turned to her, "Will you need to store your herbs? Or shall I abduct you from here?"

She went from looking at the snake's nest to the tall dark haired man. After a silent moment she shook her head and rolled her eyes as she stepped away to cross to the willow. "Calming a few snakes hardly gives you abduction rights," she said over her shoulder. She pushed the overhanging curtain of branches to one side and stepped underneath to gather her bark.

Cyrano gave a growl at the nest before turning and trotting off to join his mistress. "Next time I tell you to heel, you will listen, will you not?" he heard her ask softly. The dog woofed lowly as if in reply.

"M'Lady, if they were rights, it would hardly be an abduction." Julian answered readily, "And then where would the fun be?" He parted the branches with his bow, but did not step into the space beneath them. "I give you my word that the abduction will be to your advantage. Cyrano can come along."

She placed her latest harvest in her basket, sighed and rose to her feet with the basket hanging over her arm. "You are certainly an odd sort of kidnapper," she informed him briskly. "But I fear I must delay your plot awhile longer. I have to store these things, you see."

She smiled sweetly for a brief moment, tucked her basket under her arm and swept out from under the willow with Cyrano on her heels.

"If it is worth doing, it is worth doing with a little courtesy." Julian smiled and let her walk away. He faded back into the woods and let her continue. Julian followed her at a distance, and stopped at the edge of Sherwood, watching her continue on. "I will wait here. If being spirited away is of any interest to you, return. I will not wait for too long, however."

"Well, I intend to break my fast," she replied so her voice would carry. "And what I must do with my harvest is not a quick thing." She took a few more steps across the field and sighed again. Would it be so bad to let herself get to know a few people? She had tried the isolationist persona before, and had mostly been unhappy. She looked down at Cyrano and then turned back to face him.

"What is your name?"

"Aah, I intended to break mine as well, with you across the table, but alas." His blue eyes were bright in the light of the slowly rising dawn. "Some call me Julian Longbow." Julian inclined his head, "And yours m'Lady? I dare not inquire of your neighbors, as your name is likely to be hidden behind rumor, conjecture, and assumption."

She smiled crookedly at that. "Ah, but you would be mistaken, Julian Longbow. The women cluck over me sympathetically and the men offer to do the chores I cannot. My name is Aurora, and since my neighbors are known to me and you are not among them, my house is closer then yours-unless you have been hiding in the woods these many days."

"Enlightened neighbors." Julian replied in his quiet, if deep, voice. "Aurora, after the Goddess or the Lights? Either would suit you."

Her free hand racked back the wild tumble of red-gold curls from were the breeze had blown them across her face. "Calming a few snakes could earn one breakfast. If one were interested…"

He stepped out of the woods. "One is interested, I should think that was obvious by now" He strode towards her, and out of the woods she could take his full measure the closer he drew to where she stood. He was very tall, and powerfully built, with the broad shoulders of a fighting man. He was wearing leathers that were too fine for a simple woodsman. His arms were bare, a bit hirsute, and rippling with muscle. He wore simple leather bracers to protect his forearms from the bow's string, a matched pair that could indicate he used either hand for archery.

He gently took the basket from her, holding it in the same hand he held his bow, and offered her his arm as if she were a lady at court. Julian looked at her expectantly.

Aurora blinked up at him a moment, looking suddenly a bit less sure of herself. He was very … tall. But it passed swiftly and she laid a pale slender hand over the bracer of his offered arm. She gave him a hint of a smile that promised to be glorious when she allowed it to fully bloom.

"I live there." She gestured with her free hand towards the 2 story stone cottage that was between Sherwood and the town. It was one of the older houses in Nottingham. But it was in good repair and had character that the newer buildings lacked. Smoke curled from the chimney and he could tell even from the distance that the small garden in back was well cared for. Flowers bloomed bright in the front yard.

Julian nodded slightly and walked her towards the cottage. His eyes took in the scene, especially the blooming flowers, and he glanced to Aurora briefly. He brought her to the front door, and waited for her to open it, offering her the basket. "You've a lovely garden. I have tried at home, but I have not enjoyed half of your success." He studied her for a moment, "You keep this place on your own?"

"Yes," she replied with a wary edge to her answer. "The old potter down the lane sends his son, young John, over a few times a week to see if I require any assistance, and the blacksmith's wife sends her man over every few weeks to see if I need anything repaired."
She opened the door, and stepped inside and held the door for him to enter. The front room was light and airy. The wooden floor where it was bare of rugs shown in the morning sun that was beginning to come through the windows. The whitewashed walls were broken up by windows and a large fireplace, and very little else. Bundles of dried herbs and flowers hung from the rafters near the fireplace, in which burned a low fire. There were a few tools of the herbalist on the mantle. The furniture was well made, comfortable, inviting. A desk sat in the back of the room scattered with parchments. There were even a few large books stacked on a shelf over the door that he could tell led to a kitchen, from which he smelled baking bread and ham. The room may have looked bare at first glance, somehow seemed just right once Aurora stepped into it.

She closed the door behind him and removed her boots before stepping further inside so as not to track dirt over her floors. "Be comfortable," she offered. "I started things before I went out, so it will not be long."

Julian stood near the door, shrugged elegantly, and dropped to one knee to remove one boot, and then the others. He straightened, and leaned his bow against the wall to the right of the door. He unbuckled the strap to his quiver, and set it beside the bow. He undid a couple of buckles, and leaned his scabbarded sword beside his bow. Only then did he step fully into the room. He was wearing warm socks underneath the boots, and when she walked away to see to the food, he took to browsing through her herbs by sight.

Cyrano padded over to the other side of the fireplace and drank from a wooden bowl of water. Then he walked over to the rug in front of the fire, circled three times, then flopped down with his head on his paws to watch this large man prowl the room while his mistress banged around in the kitchen.

Most of the plants were common to the area and easily identified. Some were from further north. A few he knew were native to France.

Aurora came out a few moments later. Her hair was now twisted up out of the way and held in place with a silver comb, uncovering the creamy length of her slender neck. She offered him tea in an earthenware mug of a local design. "One should not have to wait for their tea," she said with a smile.

Julian stopped near the dog, and bent over to pat Cyrano on the head. He was leaning over a group of French plants when Aurora returned. He straightened and turned to her, ducking under a rafter; he made the room seem smaller than it really was. "Thank you, m'Lady. I would have waited for anything you were willing to share with me." He smiled in return, and gave her a nod, before trying the tea and sighing softly. "Far better than the cold water of a mountain stream."

"Oh, I am not certain I would go that far," she chuckled, ducking her head as she turned away to return to the kitchen. That she had a separate place for cooking was not a common thing for the area, and an examination of her walls revealed the one separating the two rooms was much newer then the rest of the house.

A wafting breeze curled around the large room. Cyrano's head perked up and he rose, shook himself, and trotted off in the direction of the aforementioned kitchen. "There," he heard her say. "Your food is outside." Cyrano barked happily. "And I will thank you not to be trying to sneak it back in when I am looking elsewhere. Stop that right now. Your puppy eyes have no power here."

Julian smiled and sipped his tea. He considered the new wall, but said nothing, turning to watch Aurora walk back into the kitchen. He chuckled a bit, "One can learn a lot about a person if one observes how they care for their animals, especially their dog or horse, I find."

"Cyrano is quite the charmer," she replied from the kitchen. "Or so he believes."

He drank more tea, and wondered about this rare woman, and how she was getting by on her own in an increasingly misogynistic culture. He walked over to the desk, and had a look at the parchments. He admired the fact that she was also a apparently educated woman, which only made her seem more exotic. Julian eyed the herbs, if she was French, she had an interesting story to tell.

A quill tray at the back of the desk held an assortment of feathers, nibs cut down and stained from use. There was a wooden cup holding an assortment of tiny paint brushes on one corner. Among the parchments, which were mostly sketches and descriptions of the local flora, along with what parts of the plant could be used for medicinal purposes, he discovered pages of a similar nature and varied ages, written in French, Latin, and Greek and illuminated with painstaking care in the styles fitting the language and the flora. There were pages of flora and fantastical fauna of strange shapes and colors that looked like scenes from some ancient mythology that he was not familiar with; or perhaps an imagination that no one had been able to suppress. There were pages of notes in Latin, half formed borders sketched around them in a manner that suggested doodling more then any firm idea put to paper.

The sounds in the kitchen changed to that of crockery on wood and he knew she was setting the table and it was almost time for food.

Julian's eyebrows rose at the varied languages, and the drawing of fantastic creatures. He moved to the kitchen entry, and with one of those hard to see smiles, said to Aurora. "Ipsa scientia potestas est." He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "Your work is very impressive."

Startled, the wooden bowl holding fresh ripe cherries clattered to the table top. Aurora's gaze snapped to him, assessing his expression. He could tell by hers that she had forgotten her papers were out. Mentally, she was in the middle of cursing herself for her forgetfulness, when it dawned on her that this man had known enough to at least get the gist of what he had been looking at, and he had spoken to her in Latin.

She pushed a stray tendril of glinting red behind her ear as her assessment of the woodsman changed. "Mer — thank you. One of my tutors when I was younger was a young monk with a bit of a rebellious streak." She gave him a quick smile and turned to finish setting the trestle table whose surface gleamed in the light of the sunrise streaming in the open back door, through which he could see a brick oven a little away from the house. The
room was simple but laid out for maximum efficiency. There were many shelves along the walls, and lots of counter space to work on. Copper pots shone, and she had a collection of measures and cooking utensils made of both wood and iron. An iron rack was set over a small waist high fire pit that she had done her cooking on. A shelf held a collection of small
lidded jars, labeled with the names of dozens of herbs; larger ones held a small assortment of teas. A door to one side likely led down to her root cellar. It was a well equipped and comfortable room; one it was easy to imagine she enjoyed spending time in.

Aurora set a tray containing a loaf of bread so fresh he could see faint curls of steam rising from the thick slices on the table. There was what looked like pear butter and honey along with it. Already there were thick slices of ham, boiled eggs sliced and sprinkled with cheese. There was table ware; knives with carved bone handles and metal blades, bone spoons
with delicate flowers carved in their handles. But it was the narrow two pronged forks that really drew the eye. He had not seen fork one in this country.

"Sit," she instructed as she set a small tray of table seasonings, including salt and difficult to acquire black pepper on the table. "Do you need more tea?"

"I did not mean to startle you, Aurora." Julian intoned, his deep voice almost an amused purr. "More tea would be fine, thank you." He took the indicated seat, the wood creaking under his weight very slightly. "It would seem that your rebellious monk has taught you very well. I counted at least three languages, the Classics, Greek and Latin, as well as French. I can hear the latter in your voice." He held his cup in one hand, and ran the fingers of his free hand over the handle of the fork. "I've not seen one of these since I was in Italy, some years back." Julian regarded her for a moment, "Are you what the enlightened might call a Natural Philosopher?"

"There are very few areas of study allowed females," she sniffed. "My parents, and …" she paused and pursed her lips into a line for a flash of an instant. "My late husband were more enlightened then most. His heirs, not so much. It is why I am now in Nottingham."

She gently took his mug from him and refilled it. Returning it and the honey jar to his place setting before she took her own seat.

"I have not been to Italy. Is it nice?"

Julian nodded, "A mind is a mind, man or woman, it would be a shame to let one as broad as yours go to waste." He gestured, "How came you by your lands and home? It is unusual for a woman to own property, especially one that is both unmarried and not of the Peerage. Not to mention, French."

"I am usually better at hiding my origins," she admitted with a faintly accusing look in his direction. "The land and dwelling were part of my late husband's estate. How he came by them, I do not know. His children were not interested in them, and I wanted to be as far from his sons a possible. So here I am. I am able to get away with being on my own for a
few years because I am a widow. No doubt they will start trying to marry me off to their sons soon enough."

He had a bit of his refill, "It is the honey that does it. I had forgotten how good that could be in strong tea." He nodded after a moment, "Italy is a beautiful place, and well worth the visit. You would do well there, I think. There are more places there where the minds of Men are not so narrow."

"I will get there some day," she smiled and started to serve herself from the platters.

Julian regarded her calmly when she gave him that accusing look. "I am well traveled." He informed her, his expression difficult to interpret. "Sons?" Julian raised an eyebrow, "I would never have guessed that such a lovely maid was also someone's Mother. Was it marriage that brought you to England?"

She twitched. "They are not my sons, m'lord Longbow. They were both older then I am. It was a second marriage for him. He was — old. It lasted a mere two winters. That was in Calais." Her fork dangled between two fingers as she looked out the open back door at sky painted pink and orange with the sun peeking over Sherwood's tree canopy. "Nottingham is my … retreat. A chance to start anew."

Julian sipped his tea, and once she had served herself, fixed a plated for himself. "He must have paid quite a brideprice for you, Aurora. I am surprised that you did not flee the arrangement." He began to cut his meat into bite-sized chunks. "Though, as a dowager, you have done quite well." He ate a bit, and washed it down with his tea, and turned to watch the sun rise over the trees as well. "You've a very fine house, and an excellent view." Julian's eyes remained on the Forest, "What brideprice would you demand now, I wonder?"

She gave a startled laugh. "I think, as a widow, I cannot demand such a thing," Aurora replied as she turned her attention to cutting her food into pieces. She paused to consider him a moment in silent assessment before continuing. "Nor is there anyone to demand it in my name. No — Julian, next time I will marry only one that I wish. Because it is what I wish."

Julian turned back to her, silent for a long moment, his blue eyes reflecting the light of the rising sun. "Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium." He intoned the words seriously. "It can be dangerous for a woman alone in the world. If ever you need anything, you can look for me along the East Road, there is a homely house under the sign of the Hawk there. If I am not there for a meal, or rest, someone there will know where I am." Finished with cutting his meat, he set the knife down, and used his fork with more table manners than a woodsman should have.

Aurora blinked, staring at him for a very long series of moments. It took everything in her not to shiver when he spoke of his house. The hawk. "You are an interesting man, Julian Longbow," she said quietly. "You make me almost regret foiling your abduction plans."

Julian raised his tea to his lips, "I am hoping that by the time I take my leave, it will have blossomed into an honest regret." He looked out the window, "Dawn and Twilight are my two favorite times of day in the Forest." He appeared thoughtful for a moment, and asked, "Have you seen the Concessio ei data qui componere haud valet?"

Aurora's brow furrowed and she paused in the spreading of pear butter on her bread. For all her knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants, she simply did not move in the circles that would have had access to such a tome so recently translated into Latin and read in the West. "Nooo… But if the title is anything to go by, I would like to."

"I have seen it in Arabic, thirty volumes that some hereabout would doubtless consider a kind of heresy." Julian told her in his deep and patient voice. "It is beautifully illuminated, as well as practically. A stunning work, dense and difficult to read at times, but well worth the effort." He smiled slightly, "You are clearly well-born, Aurora, if not high-born. How is it you find yourself here in Nottingham? Far from France, Step-Sons, and the kind of civilization where your education would be prized and not reason for worry." Julian ate a forkful of ham as he looked at her.

Her eyes narrowed, and he could see a warning spark of anger in their green depths. "I am failing to see what my being here has to do with a set of books. Julian. I have told you how I came to be here. Are you sitting at my table, breaking bread with me, and accusing me of a falsehood?"

Julian straightened and set down his fork, "Aurora, if I meant to call you a liar, I simply would." His blue eyes found her green gaze, "You are a fascinating and intelligent woman. I have not been here an hour, and I can already tell that this cottage is the bushel beneath which you quietly hide your light." Julian took up his tea, "I did not mean to question your history, but the choice itself. Nottingham has its charms, but it is far from being a center of reason and philosophy. You could easily be at home somewhere more civilized, where your education would be valued rather than questioned." He sipped his tea, "Somewhere with a library perhaps, with the very volumes I have mentioned, where the intellect is more highly valued than what is beneath one's robes."

Aurora snorted in disbelief; another sign that she was not a coddled and delicate woman, but a free thinker with a rebellious streak that would surely get her into trouble one day. "Julian, you are by your own admission a well traveled man. Exactly where have you been in recent years that is large enough to support such a library that allows women and where the Church does not have a strong foothold? Where a woman can live on her own without being the property of a man? Where I would not be automatically suspected of consorting with demons because my hair is red? France's enlightenment is being extinguished by the day and the Church rules Italy, Wales and Greece."

She threw a hand towards the open door. "I do not require the hub of civilization. I wanted the peace of this place. A place where I can work on my own things, my own research. It will be years before the Church creeps in far enough to this place to chase away those who still practice the Old Ways. I have time to learn from them, to know what they knew before the One God pushes that knowledge from the world and it is lost forever."

Julian smiled, "Africa, Byzantium, Andalusia, Sicily, a Caliphate here, a Sultanate there. You are a resourceful and willful woman, I feel certain you could have found a place, if such was your desire." He softly added, "À coeur vaillant rien d'impossible."
She raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing.

He nodded towards the other room, where he could see his sword and bow. "Men at arms may not live well, but they often do get around." He turned his sky blue gaze on Aurora again. "I, too, have come to Sherwood for a little peace. The Church will have larger concerns, before they sweep away the traditions here. The Moors actually support public libraries in their communities — free knowledge does not seem to be a value of these Followers of the Christ." Julian continued to eat, "England is far from the influence of Enlightenment, I rather expect for the Church to solidify their empire, before seeking to secure the fringes. We are far from the influence of Reason here."

"We *are* Reason here," she remarked dryly. Aurora delicately bit into a cherry and watched him across the table. She couldn't quite recall ever meeting anyone as tall as he was, or with such wonderful — shoulders, or eyes quite that shade of blue. He was perhaps the most well formed male she had ever laid eyes on. Realizing she was staring - and her mind was going places it shouldn't, she cleared her throat quietly and gave her attention back to her eggs.

Julian went on eating, his expression inscrutable. He either had failed to notice her staring, which seemed doubtful, considering how alert he seemed to be otherwise, or he was being very polite in order to spare her the embarrassment. When she cleared her throat, he looked up briefly, and there might have been the hint of a smile, but again his beard made that difficult to discern.

"What do you do when you are not skulking through the woods planning abductions of defenseless females?"

His pale eyes gleamed in the light, "Now, you were hardly defenseless. You had a dagger and a good dog with you, though neither would have been of much assistance." Julian paused a moment to drink his tea, and answered. "I skulk through the woods hunting. For deer usually, but boar and bear will sometimes do. Pheasant and quail in a pinch. I also enjoy fishing."

"That is the extent of your activities?" she asked incredulously. "You are teasing me, surely," Aurora decided. "If you are a mere woodsman, I am the Queen of May, and since you are very obviously not just a woodsman, you must have other activities, other interests beside hunting."

"Well, Your Green and Radiant Majesty, I take the time to dress my kills, and deliver them to some of the villages and settlements in and around Sherwood." Julian ate a bit more of the ham. "I recently participated in an Archery Contest, wherein I was the victor. I mean to trade the rather useless golden arrow that was my prize for armor and barding, so that I might enter one of the tourneys looming on the horizon." He leaned towards her, and lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I have been charged by the Sheriff, and by extension the King, to watch for poachers in the Forest. There is some suspicion that the King's deer are being hunted by more than just His Majesty and his Courtiers." Julian raised an eyebrow, straightened up in his seat, and returned to his normal mode of speech. "I also read voraciously — in several languages, when I get the chance." He smiled, clearly amused, "You should visit me sometime in Huntingdon, the Earl's Keep is where I am quartered." Julian paused, "I am a very good woodsman, and the Earl has a shockingly extensive Library. Doubtless it will be called subversive one day."

"Does he now?" she said with a trace of amusement in her tone. "Perhaps I should be making the Earl's acquaintance then and not his woodsman if I wish to gain access to this scandalous collection of tomes." She looked off at the mid-distance. "Perhaps I should invite him to join me for a midday meal…"

"The scandalous ones are kept in a small room behind one of the shelves." Julian pithily replied. He had another forkful of eggs and ham, "Would that be midday — today?"

She glanced outside at the sundial in her back garden and then shifted her eyes to the sky. "I see no reason to delay," she responded matter of factly. "Perhaps I can find something to insure he is more inclined to share this wondrous treasure trove with me." Aurora tapped a finger to her chin as if pondering on the matter. "You will be delivering this invitation for me, milord Longbow?"

"Consider it delivered, my May Queen." Julian finished his plate, and set it aside, with his utensils atop it. He folded his hands atop the table, and leaned towards her slightly. He met her eyes, his gaze intense, the weight of all his attention clearly on her. "I accept." His lips parted slightly, as his eyes took a moment to rove over her lines, before returning to her green orbs and arching an eyebrow. His words were clearly spoken, though they were accompanied by a rumble deep in his chest that was part growl and part purr. "What shall we do until midday?"

Her eyes moved slowly back to meet his across the table. Even as the color rose faintly in her cheeks under the intensity of his gaze, she curled an eyebrow upwards. "Is His Lordship proposing something — improper?" she asked tartly. She had clearly figured it out before now. He was clearly educated, well read, traveled, too clean and his clothing of too fine a quality to be a woodsman. She didn't know much about weapons, but she suspected those were too finely wrought. Though she had never met a nobleman that was so — defined.

Julian smiled, a pleasant expression when he allowed it to come out of hiding behind his beard. "It pleases me that your education has not made you so jaded that you do not blush under a man's direct attention. You do so prettily." He picked up his cup, and finished his tea. "No, I was not proposing something improper. However, if you have something in mind, I am certainly willing to listen." The Earl of Huntingdon, for he could be none other, regarded her with an expression that might almost have been innocent in its impassivity, but for his eyes, there was heat in their pale blue depths, interest, and even a little mirth.

She ducked her head and made herself busy collecting the dishes into a stack. "I do not believe anyone could call you coy by any stretch." Aurora stood and picked up the stack. "But if you will recall I do have a basket of things to deal with this morn." She paused; she was not going to start treating him any different now. "And since I cannot very well do that with you lounging underfoot, a strapping woodsman like yourself should have no problems chopping firewood."

Julian got to his feet when she began to stack the dishes. He watched her move, and at her request, replied, "As Her Majesty wishes." He loped through her house, to the front door, where he retrieved his boots. Near the back door, he stomped into his boots, laced them firmly into place, and found the ax. He eyed the blade critically, before he stepped just outside the back door, walked a few paces to where the wood was stacked, and plunked the ax into a stump. Julian looked up at the sun and the clear sky, and then began to undo the laces and buckles holding his leather in place. He returned to the kitchen, stripped to the waist, revealing a hirsute chest, and a powerful form that rippled with muscle. Julian place his leathers, and the cotton he wore close to his skin, on one of the kitchen chairs, and then returned to the outdoors. He did not glance her way as he did so, and simply took up the ax and went to work.

Soon she could hear the rhythmic sounds of Julian chopping wood with almost military efficiency, every log split by a neatly place blow.

Aurora had been returning to the kitchen with her basket when he stripped door bare from the waist up. She froze like a trapped rabbit, wide eyed, lips parted slightly. She didn't dare move or attempt to speak, certain that she would trip over her own shadow or make some embarrassing sound. Later she would swear her eyes had glazed over as well; that is was like he had cast some spell that rooted her to the spot until he was out of sight.

In her life she had been married twice thus far, neither by choice, but by necessity of convention. She hadn't loved either of them, hadn't desired either of them. Certainly neither of them had such an effect on her, left her feeling fevered and with this insane desire to run her hands over the planes of his chest.

She finally shook herself out of her stupor and went to gather her things to prepare her harvest for storage. She groaned quietly when she made the mistake of glancing out the window. Serpent tails, but this wasn't why she had thought the visions drew her to Nottingham! Gods' garters, he was built like some god. Did he not know how indecent this was? Aurora turned from the window and smacked herself in the forehead.

"Focus, you silly girl," she muttered, and moved her things to the table instead.

After listening to the steady thump of the ax for twenty minutes, she sighed. She would be a poor hostess if she didn't offer his water about then. Aurora muttered to herself as she went down to the chill of the root cellar and exchanged finished infusions for a large horn of chilly water.

It took her a few minutes of standing at the door watching him, watching the way his muscles rippled in his back, before she could make herself move and approach him.

Julian did not cease his work when she stopped to watch him from the door, and gave no sign that he noticed her there. His skin was covered in a fine sheen of perspiration, the sunlight glinting golden off his lines, defining his build all the more starkly as muscles bunched and worked with every rise and fall of the ax. His hair was beginning to cling to his neck and shoulders, and when he did finally turn to her as she approached, it framed his face, and turned his eyes into blue flames. He set the ax in the stump, and nodded.

Julian took the drinking horn from her hand without a word, and tossed half its contents back in one long pull. He then upended the rest over his head, taking a sharp breath as the cold water hit his skin, and rolled down his back and chest. "My thanks, May Queen. I shall have this done in short order." He met her eyes, "Is there anything else that needs to be done?"

The tip of her tongue wetted her lips instinctively, and when she realized she had done it, she nearly blushed to the roots of her hair. Aurora coughed lightly and turned away to look out over the rest of her garden. Her response was delayed further by half a beat because she had to swallow the reply of "me" that was coming unbidden and would have been terribly improper; though she was beginning to think 'proper' and 'Julian' did not often work in the same sentence, she was *not* that kind of woman.

She wiped her hands on her apron just to keep them from reaching up and slicking his hair back from his face. "I, ahh.. well, the back gate has been giving me trouble…"

Julian noticed both the wetting of her lips, and the way she blushed. He could not avoid it, as he was looking her in the eyes when it happened. He pressed his own lips together, to hide his own response to her apparent interest, and presented her with the horn. "Thank you." He said in the same tone with which he had addressed her at the end of their morning meal. "I will see to it, as soon as I am done here." Julian turned to take up the ax again, and just before the first swing fell, he added. "You should take advantage of me while I am here."

She blinked at him in astonishment, not sure she had heard what she thought she had. A strangled sound escaped before she could stop it. Aurora quickly took the horn with a hand he could tell was shaking before she moved at a decidedly hurried pace back into the relative safety of the house.

The horn was dropped on the table as she scurried up the stairs to her room. "Sacred scales," she muttered, leaning against the wall of her bedroom. He was going to be the death of her and she just met him. Taking the time to get herself back under control, the shaking young woman splashed water on her face and examined herself critically in the mirror. Two could play at this game.

She tossed her over-gown over the back of a chair, cinched the waist of her under-gown with her long leather belt and quickly braided her waist length wild curls into a neat length down her back. She smirked at her reflection and then returned to her kitchen. She needed to start lunch.

Julian finished splitting the wood not long after she had departed. His machine-like consistency made short work of the stack of logs, and he was already working on stacking the wood in the rack near the back door. He moved split wood by the armload, not being modest about his strength, and after he dumped them on the ground, he took the time to stack it call neatly. When he was done, he stretched like lion in the sun, arching his back, before he walked out to the rear gate. Julian tested the swing of the gate, and ultimately lifted it from its hinges, before walking back to the cottage, where he appeared in the rear door.

"Have you any tools?" He asked, eying her appreciatively.

She straightened from where she was bent over pulling things off a low shelf and continued looking through jars and pots on a higher shelf, standing on tip toe and stretching up to continue her search. "I have a few," she replied without turning. "In the stable on the east side of the cottage."

Julian made a thoughtful sound as he watched her stretch to reach the high shelf. He might have growled, but he spoke right on the heels of the sound, making it difficult to tell. "I found your lovely hair to be quite fetching when it was loose." His boots bumped the threshold as he turned, but she might have heard, "Plenty to hold." As he walked away to the stable to find the tools. Moments later, he was working on the gate, straightening the pins, and the iron that held them.

She peeked out the window briefly when she heard him at the gate. A smiled played at the corners of her mouth as she went on with preparing lunch. "Imagine how much fun it is to loosen it back again," she murmured while deboning the roasted chicken from last night. Lunch was nothing fancy, mostly left over from her dinner last night. But it too hot to serve him a hot meal in the middle of the day after he had been working.

Julian was far more like his Brother, Gerard, than he was like his Brother, Caine. He liked working with his hands, and had picked up a lack of shame about doing so from Gerard. He was far from dim, quite the opposite really, but the simplicity and elegance of repairing a gate, splitting wood, or even swinging a blade into an inattentive enemy, had always appealed to him. He also enjoyed knowledge simply for the sake of knowing a thing, though he'd never be the surgeon Gerard was, like Benedict, he knew as much about deconstructing the human body as he did about reconstructing it. Balance in all things, the Eldest of his Brothers had told him, and he thought he might have found a bit of that in Huntingdon. There were physical pursuits, which primarily involved his animals and the outdoors, and mental ones as well. He had read twenty-six of the thirty volumes he had described to Aurora, as well as the countless others on his shelves, and had put his lessons to practical use; such as repairing a simple ironwork gate.

When he returned to Amber, and he knew that he would have to some day, he hoped that he would be able to make a place for himself far from the interference of siblings and court. Where no one would frown at him getting his hands dirty. Julian set the gate into place, and when it swung open and shut with balanced ease, he smiled and latched it, before gathering the tools to return them to the stable. Once again, he stood framed by the door, he shimmered with perspiration and now there were smears of dirt or rust in places on his chest and arms. "Anything else? If not, I shall make use of the rain barrel."

Aurora looked over from where she was preparing their plates and then looked away twice as fast, already feeling the heat in her cheeks and kicking herself for taking away the shield her loose hair would have provided. "No.. um… you should wash up," said the obviously flustered Aurora. "Lunch is almost ready."

Julian nodded, and walked around the corner of the cottage where he had noticed the rain barrel. He pulled the cover off, looked left and right for a bucket, then shrugged and dunked his head into the barrel, holding his breath for a moment. He pulled his head from the barrel, and tossed his head back, sending water spraying from his hair as he shook his head vigorously. He used his hands to scoop water up, and rinse off his arms and chest, and finally his face. Julian shook his head again, and walked back towards the door.

"Might I trouble you for a towel?" He was dripping wet, his hair flattened by the water, his beard glistening, with rivulets running down his chest.

She froze, stared, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "A moment," she returned with a husky edge in her voice. The young red-head edged stiffly past the door to the sideboard. From a drawer she pulled a towel of thick woven cotton. She shook it out and started to walk over and hand it to him. She must have realized her own shortcomings because she ended up tossing it to him instead.

"Please replace at least your undertunic before sitting to the table, Your Lordship."

"Of course, I'm not a barbarian." Julian caught the towel, and stepped away from the doorway to dry his hair and them his arms and chest. With his back to the cottage, a small smile crept across his features. He stepped back into the house for the cotton tunic that went under the leathers, and shrugged into it. Julian hung the towel outside in the sun to dry, and returned to take the same seat he had occupied for breakfast. "Well, m'Lady, you have been most hospitable. Would you allow me to repay you with a hearty supper?" His blue eyes glided over her, until he found her eyes. "Supper, and a peek at — books — you have never seen before."

She paused beside the table, plates in hand and looked at him a long moment. "Perhaps," she said carefully. " Though your home is hardly a short walk from here." She set the very full plate of cold herbed and roasted chicken, buttered wheat bread made from flour far finer then was available locally, slabs of two different types of cheese and local variety of peas with leeks in front him. The flatware was already on the table. She set her own plate down and then filled the wooden mug at his place with cold apple cider before she took her own seat. There were some sort of pastry dumplings in a bowl in the center of table, and he thought he could detect the scent of plums from them.

Julian took up his fork, "I could always abduct you, if that would make your decision easier. I've jerky enough to get Cyrano to follow, and I would even give you time to prepare your cottage for your absence." He began to cut and organize the food on his plate onto the trenchers, before he brought both pieces together, with one slab of bread beneath the meat and cheese and peas, and one on top. "You are correct, however, it is not a short walk. If we cut through the forest, we will shorten the journey. There is a settlement where we might be able to borrow a plow horse, though we would have to share the ride, m'Lady." Julian drank half his cider, before taking a bite of his chicken and cheese.

"I have a horse," she informed him. "T'is why I have a stable. She is out in the field." Aurora looked at him warily and blew a quiet breath through her nose as she sprinkled extra pepper on her peas. A very large part of her was yelling that this was a very bad idea. But he knew exactly what carrot to dangle. "I am quite certain that you have already done dreadful things to my reputation if any of the townsfolk spotted you in the back; what with you half naked and all."

"I thought the stable was — fresh." Julian said, "I was not sure that you were not hiring the horse out. It is not uncommon around here, where some cannot afford ox or horse for their carts or plows." He continued to eat, observing Aurora's huff as she prepared her own food to her liking. "At least it was the more proper half. Sweat ruins the leather, and it would have been far too hot to work in." He had another swallow of the cider, "It was honest work, and you were busy with your own tasks in the house. I doubt that I have seriously impacted your reputation." His meal hid the small smile, before he explained, "If we leave after the meal, we should make my home by supper. I will have Paulette fly ahead, she's been circling since sunrise."

She looked at him blankly. "Paulette?" Her flawless brow furrowed faintly. "A hawk?"

Julian smiled, clearly pleased, "Yes. She's well trained, and if I attach a message to her leg, will fly to my home." He sighed and shook his head, "She's a bit too — easy, anyone with a mouse on a string or a bit of fresh fish could woo her to their arm. She is very bright, for all her inappropriate friendliness."

"Sounds like my dog," she muttered.

Julian ate a bit more, and finished his cider. "Supper will be waiting for us thanks to her." He met her eyes, "Are there any arrangements you need to make before I abscond with you?"

"I believe I should probably change clothes. I am being abducted by an Earl, after all." Aurora rose and retrieved the jug from the counter and refilled his cider. "And the fires in the brick oven, my cooking pit, and the fireplaces will need to be smothered."

"True, but as you can see, I do not stand on ceremony." Julian continued to eat, "I will handle your fires." He drank more cider, and looked up at Aurora. "Do not dress too well, we still have a bit of road to travel ahead of us. Bring a change of clothes if you like, there will be time to wash before supper." Julian smiled, "Perhaps something in green, to bring out your eyes."

She gave him a narrow look over a last spoonful of peas. "Hmmm…. " Aurora finished her much smaller portions and then stood to bring a small pitcher of cream to the table and sat it beside the pastries. "Finish at your leisure, please. I will be back down in a bit."

With that she left him to his lunch. He could hear her light tread ascending the stairs to her bedroom.

Julian considered the Hunt as it stood so far. He thought that the chase was going quite well. He had decided, sometime between watching her gather herbs, and the moment she brought him a horn of drinking water, that he wanted her. Any game worth the catching, was worth the chase. He smiled and continued to eat, tilting his head to one side as he heard her move lightly about the second floor. She was petite, but very well formed, a fact she had chosen to display when she tightened the belt of her robe. She was shapely, he could tell, classically so, like the women of ancient Sparta — beautiful, graceful, lean and lithe. He might have already kissed her, were he not enjoying how pretty she was when she was flustered. Julian's thought turned to what was hidden beneath the yards of cloth, and that wild mane of red-gold hair, and growled quietly at the back of his throat. He finished his meal, and his cider, and got to his feet. He took a deep breath, considered getting Aurora to his home for a proper bath, and grunted as he tried to push the idea from his mind.

He looked up at the ceiling, sighed, and went about the business of smothering all the fires safely. With that done, he got back into his leathers, and quietly walked out into the field to retrieve her horse.

Aurora glanced out the window as she pulled a fresh chemise over her head. Julian's long strides covered the distance quickly. Cyrano trotted merrily beside him. "Idiot dog," she sighed as she pulled the nearly sheer linen over her hips. She turned away to consider her wardrobe and wrinkled her nose. She carefully selected something nice to wear for dinner; there was too much fabric in a bliaut for her taste, but nothing would display her assets better then the yards of rich purple silk once it was on her. She made a face at the sheer silk of the white veil and packed it anyway; she didn't have to wear it. A few select pieces of jewelry were retrieved from their hiding place and packed as well before she finally laced the dark green linen over-gown up.

She considered herself in the mirror once again. "You are a foolish woman," she told her reflection sternly. "This could end very badly for you if you are not careful. So— keep your wits about you and try not to think about what is under those leathers." She paused and looked contritely at the ceiling. Too late.

Faint memories of home that grew fainter with the passing of each decade gave her images of how things could be between a man and a woman. She had yet to find what her parents had. Her eyes went to the window again, to see Julian leading her mare towards the stables, then she took a deep breath and picked up the saddlebags with her change of clothes and headed downstairs.

By the time Julian returned to the kitchen, the mare was hitched just outside, and was saddled and ready. He was talking to the horse, and slipping Cyrano a bit of jerky now and then, as he pleated the mare's mane. The tail looked to have already been taken care of, since they were likely to guide the mare down a few tight game trails. "She's a fine horse. Good natured." He stopped what he was doing, and met Aurora at the door, taking her saddlebags from her, so that he could secure them to the saddle. He was wearing his sword again, and his bow and quiver were over his shoulder.

A Ride Through Sherwood

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License