Summary: The scar on Nathaniel’s knee is finally explained.
Note: I’m using ten_by_ten's prompt of “forest” for this one. Also, I'm finding out that Moira was a bossy, sassy little kidlet growing up. I'm kind of liking that. *pinches cheeks*
“Whatever are you doing up there?”
Nathaniel looked down from his perch to see Moira staring up at him from the ground. “Nothing,” he mumbled, tucking away the small book he had brought with him into his jacket pocket. It was late fall and the weather had turned cooler almost overnight. If Nathaniel breathed hard enough, he could almost see his breath in the weak afternoon sun.
Moira jammed her fists onto her hips. “You’re going to catch a cold up there, and then I’ll not have anyone to play with.” Fergus had fallen ill, more than likely due to their romp in the stream that ran close to Castle Cousland. At twelve years of age, Nathaniel had proven old enough to finally stay for a month with the Teyrn’s family. Since their introduction four years ago, Nathaniel had acclimated to the Cousland children’s loud and rambunctious natures, even if he did find himself wishing for a bit of time alone, which was exactly why he had climbed the tree Moira found him upon in the first place.
“And you’ll catch a cold not wearing your shoes, my lady,” he answered, looking down at her bare feet. Her toes were filthy; wherever she’d been must have been muddy, because the hem of her dress was completely ruined. “Whatever would your mother say?”
Moira snorted. “Mama will probably say that she’s heartbroken to be raising such a heathen.” The way she said it made Nathaniel believe it was a common proclamation from the Teyrna, because Moira didn’t seem bothered with the thought that her mother would be upset by the state of her clothing. “But she’s not here right now, is she?” Moira amused herself by walking along the tree’s wide exposed roots, her arms held out to her sides to provide balance. “Are you going to answer me, Nate?”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “I was reading.”
She made a face. “Out here? It’s too nice of a day to waste it reading.”
“And what do you propose we do instead?” He stared up at the sky through the canopy of branches, momentarily lost in thought at the idea that one of the patches of blue that poked out from the orange and red leaves looked something like a charging horse and rider. He must have stared at it for quite some time, because Moira’s voice at his ear startled him.
“Perhaps we can play a game,” she said, hanging upside down from her perch. Her voice was muffled, mostly because her dress had fallen over her head, showing that she was wearing a tunic and a pair of breeches underneath that looked suspiciously like something that had come from her brother’s clothing trunk, especially since the legs of her pants were rolled up numerous times. Nathaniel decided that it was best not to comment.
“Like?” he asked instead, trying not to panic at the thought of Moira suddenly losing her footing and falling to the ground. She shadowed him and Fergus wherever the two boys went, and Nathaniel had long since thought of her as a sort of sister as well as a friend. She was ten, and he often felt that seeing that he was older than she that he should be responsible for keeping her out of harm’s way as much as he could.
That line of thinking meant that he was often as grubby and bruised as she was at the end of the day, but he was quickly discovering that he didn’t quite mind so much, especially since the three of them wound up having such a good time in the process. He treasured coming to Highever, where no one was constantly harping on him to watch his posture and to speak quietly and for the Maker’s sake, don’t do anything to embarrass the family, Nathaniel. A guilty pang shot through him as he thought of Teyrn Cousland – whenever the three of them came back inside dirty and with tangles in their hair, the Teyrn would merely laugh while the Teyrna would sigh in exasperation and order them to bathe. Even though she complained about them tracking mud into the indoor hallways, she would chastise them in such an amused tone of voice that Nathaniel knew that she wasn’t all that upset about things. His own mother would have been furious and Father would have stared down at him in such a disapproving manner that made Nathaniel feel ten times worse than had he taken his hand to him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t love his own parents, but he did enjoy the way that the Couslands had accepted him and his siblings as if they were their own children. He was still as polite as he knew how to be in their presence, but he had long since lost the fear that he would be punished for saying or doing something out of the bounds of the rules of proprietary that his parents had drilled into his head.
“Oh Nate,” Moira said, shaking him out of his thoughts, her braids swinging around her ears as she continued to hang upside down. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?” Somehow, she had managed to tuck her chin under the hem of her upturned skirt so that her face was once again visible and Nathaniel saw how her lips had pressed together in a displeased line.
“Sorry, I was thinking.”
“You do that a lot.”
“One of us has to. You’re too busy running off without thinking in the first place.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “One of us has to,” she replied back, crossing her eyes until Nathaniel cracked a smile. “Otherwise nothing would get done just by sitting and thinking all the time.” She grunted as she swung herself upright, her bare feet dangling close to Nathaniel’s head. “This is boring.”
He reached up and ran his finger over the sole of her left foot, making her screech when he hit a ticklish spot. “I apologize for being such a boring companion,” he said, putting as much sarcasm as he could into his words.
“Then you’re just going to have to make it up to me,” she said primly, climbing down from her branch. “I’ve decided that we’re to play a game of Dragons and Knights. I get to be the knight first.”
“Why is it that Fergus and I always have to play the parts in a game where we get hit with things?” he wondered out loud, not really expecting Moira to answer him. “The last time, you hit your brother with a rock.”
“It isn’t my fault that my aim is so good or that Fergus can’t duck in time, now is it?” she retorted, shimmying down the trunk of the tree until she was close enough to the ground to drop safely down. “Are you going to play or not?”
Nathaniel grinned before climbing down a few branches so he could dramatically jump down in front of her, just like the pirates in the book of stories Adria would often read him did as they jumped down onto their ship’s decks from a high mast. “I’d start running, Ser Knight,” he growled, holding his hands out in front of him, his fingers curled up to resemble claws. “Else I’m going to have a quick lunch!”
Moira screamed in delight, picking up her skirt in her hands as she ran away so she wouldn’t trip. Nathaniel roared after her, chasing her through the trees. Even though they shouted out taunting words to one another, Nathaniel made sure to keep them steered close to the castle. The captain of the guard was always telling the three of them to watch for wolves in the forest, and Nathaniel had heard plenty of stories from Amaranthine to know that the two of them alone would be no match for a hungry wolf, no matter how well Moira knew the forest.
He had lost her around the bend of trees, and he stopped playing long enough to listen around him. He could hear the chirping of birds in the trees above them, but he had failed to hear the crunch of her feet through the thick layer of leaves that carpeted the ground. “Moira?” he asked, looking around. The hair at the back of his neck prickled and his mind went to things darker than wolves or bears that might roam the woods, even in broad daylight. He’d never seen one, but merchants visiting the Keep would tell tales of things called darkspawn that made his blood run cold. “Moira, let’s head back to the castle, all right?” He took a hesitant step forward, then another. “Moira! I’m not playing any longer! Answer me!”
The blow that came from his right took him completely unaware. Something hit his leg with enough force to knock him onto his side, his back banging against a nearby tree. “Ah ha! The dragon has been slain!” Moira crowed, holding onto the thick end of a fallen tree branch as if it were a sword. She’d switched tactics, standing still and quiet instead of running so that she could ambush Nathaniel as he passed her hiding spot. Her stealth had paid off, seeing that he was lying at her feet, completely defeated. “It’s your turn to be the knight, Ser,” she told him, twisting the branch so she could hand it to him, hilt first. It was odd, but the branch was moving with some resistance.
“Ow.” Nathaniel said, his voice unnaturally flat. He sat up and immediately regretted it. Pain flared up from his knee as soon as he tried to move it.
Moira tilted her head. “What’s the matt...” she stopped mid-sentence when she saw red stain his breeches. “Nathaniel, you’re bleeding!” she yelled, dropping the branch, her eyes wide.
“That tends to happen when you stab me with a stupid branch,” he said between clenched teeth. He dared a glance down at his knee and saw that the tip of her branch was stuck in his skin. The wood was partially rotten, but it seemed as if the one strong, sharp piece had pierced his clothes and flesh.
“Don’t move it!” she shouted, kneeling beside him, her hands fluttering above his knee as if she were unsure where to touch.
“Unless you want to carry the end of that branch while we walk back to the castle, then we’re going to have to break the tip off,” he explained, grabbing a weak spot a little ways away from his clothes. Moira made a distressed sound when he snapped off the piece of wood. “Calm down,” he told her. “Just pretend that we’re playing Black Fox and this is an arrow.”
“But the Black Fox n-never sh-hot Karolis,” she wailed, her bottom lip trembling as the first big tears rolled down her cheeks.
Nathaniel sat there and stared up at her, dumbfounded as to why she would burst into tears. Surely they’d gotten worse cuts than this one, even if it did hurt something awful. While she rubbed her eyes with her hands, Nathaniel pulled the bit of wood that had been stuck in his skin out. It was really no bigger than his first finger, but it had been sharp and Nathaniel wasn’t sure that he had gotten it all. “Well, there’s always a first time for everything,” he said, standing up. His knee ached, but he could flex it. His trousers were a loss though; the small bloodstain was spreading and wasn’t likely to come out, no matter how skilled the laundry staff was.
“We have to get you to Nan,” Moira sniffled, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“I can walk,” he said dryly.
“But I stabbed you!”
“It’s just a scratch, really.”
“Nan might have to cut your leg off! Then you’ll have to walk on a wooden leg, like Markus, the blacksmith’s apprentice.”
“I don’t…” He looked down and realized that the side of his tunic was getting wet as Moira silently cried against him. It was odd, having someone like Moira, who normally sneered at a little spilt blood from her own scrapes before continuing their play, shed tears because of some injury that she’d accidentally caused. He tightened the arm he had draped around her shoulder in a comforting hug. “If Nan does, will you carve your name on one of the sides?”
Moira glared at him, her eyes red. “That was not funny, Nate.”
“But I’m serious.” He let go and tugged on her hand. “Come on, we’re almost back to the castle.”
It didn’t take very long to find Nan, especially since Moira had burst into tears yet again when she saw that the bloodstain on Nathaniel’s trousers had grown by the smallest bit. “What have my two ragamuffins gotten themselves into?” her governess tisked, looking down at the both of them.
“Oh Nan,” Moira started, sniffling again and wiping the back of her hand against her nose. “Nathaniel…”
“I fell,” Nathaniel said quickly, cutting Moira off. “We were climbing trees and I misjudged the distance between branches.”
Nan arched her eyebrow as if she didn’t believe him, but she tucked Nathaniel against her side. “Well, let’s see what sort of damage you’ve caused yourself, my lad,” she said instead, ushering the both of them towards the castle infirmary. “And just where have you put your shoes, milady Wild Child? Your mother is going to have fits when she sees you running about in bare feet and twigs in your hair.”
It turned out that Nathaniel’s knee looked far worse than it really was. He had managed to get all but a few splinters of the branch out on his own, but Nan had made sure that the wound was clean after digging around with a pair of tweezers. He had sat quietly through the whole ordeal, but Moira had squirmed and squeaked at his side as if it were her knee getting bandaged up instead of his.
“There,” Nan said, wrapping a bandage over his leg. “It should heal quite nicely if you don’t pick at it, but I think you might have a tiny bit of a scar, just by looking at how you hurt it.”
“That root was pretty sharp,” Nathaniel agreed, nodding. A scar. Wait until he showed Fergus. His friend was going to be so jealous.
Nan glanced at Moira, who looked guilty and miserable before turning her attention to Nathaniel. “A root. Yes.” Nan smoothed her hand over his hair and affectionately patted his cheek. “You’re a good lad,” she told him, her voice soft. “Now,” she told the both of them, clearing her throat. “Lunch is within the hour; I want the two of you bathed and dressed appropriately beforehand. And that means no wearing your brother’s clothing under yours, young lady.”
“Yes ma’am,” Moira said, her tone uncharacteristically meek. Nathaniel watched as Nan gathered up the bandages and jar of red paste she had smeared on his knee that had dulled the pain down to almost nothing.
“I am so sorry,” Moira told him once Nan had left, throwing her arms around his waist again. “Are you mad at me?”
“It was an accident,” Nathaniel said, looking down at the tangled mess of dark curls and braids resting against his shoulder. Sure enough, there were leaves in her hair. “Why should I be mad at you?” This was so odd; Nathaniel didn’t know quite how to react.
“But I made you bleed!”
“That’s what usually happens when something cuts your skin.”
“Will you shut up? I’m trying to apologize.”
“Forgive me. Please, go on.”
Moira scowled, but squeezed him harder. “I just don’t want you to stop being my friend.” Nathaniel was concerned when her voice started to waver again. “I like you, Nate.”
“Well, I like you too,” he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder. What did people do when confronted with crying girls anyway?
She looked up at him, her face blotchy and red. “You do?”
“Of course I do,” he muttered. “I’d be mad at you otherwise.”
She sighed against his shoulder. “He likes me,” she whispered. She said it so quietly that Nathaniel wasn’t quite sure he had heard her correctly. “So we’re still friends?” she asked a little louder.
“Yes, we’re still friends.” Now he squirmed uncomfortably, unsure as to what to say next. “Are we going to sit here forever?” he asked. “Because I heard that the kitchen staff was preparing potato and meat pies for lunch. They’re my favorite.” The handheld pastries were also good for sneaking back to Fergus, who was surely sick of clear broth and plain toasted bread by now.
She looked at him oddly before hopping off the bench they’d been sitting on. “Come on then, Nan said she wants us presentable before we eat.” Before he could react, she went up on tiptoe and brushed her lips against his cheek before running off, her skirts whispering against her legs.
Nathaniel watched her go, a confused look on his face. “She’s stuck on ambushing me today,” he mused to no one in particular, his hand absently rubbing at the spot on his cheek she had kissed. “Girls are so weird.”