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I landed on solid ground a few seconds after my fall, and for the first few minutes I lay there thanking God that I was alive, and not wanting to ever touch a rope again. But I had too. Steven needed me.
With a sigh, I heaved myself up off the rock ledge and found Steven’s smiling face a foot from my own. “You did well Milady,” he said. “Now let’s see if you can tie knots as well as you can gracefully fall.”
I rolled my eyes at his attempt at teasing. “Unfortunately, my ability to fall gracefully and my ability to tie knots well are about the same. I’m horrible at both.”
Steven grinned, but then winced suddenly. My face paled when I glanced down and saw the unnatural angle his leg was at. The leg twisted sideways and backwards and was obviously causing the poor boy a great deal of pain. I sucked in a breath of air and looked up at Steven’s grim face.
“Now you can see why I was unable to climb that rock over there and reach the bottom of the rope,” Steven said ruefully, bravely trying to mask the anguish in his eyes.
I stood, and helped prop Steven against me with the help of his good leg. One side of the ledge was flat, and the other half slanted steeply upwards, but the floor was rough and was obviously impossible for Steven, in his current condition, to climb. Wordlessly, I tied us together with the rope that hung against the floor of the highest part of the ledge. Apparently, William had been generous with the rope’s length when he had tied me up before sending me down to Steven. No wonder I had been six feet above the ledge when the rope ran out of slack.
At my request, Duke began to pull us up with some help from William. I wondered through the mist of pain if I would have any skin on my hands at all by the time we found the princess. I held onto Steven as well as I could with one hand, thankful that his foot had been broken, not his arms, for at least now he could hold himself on once I helped him tie the rope around us both.
The climb up was almost more nerve-wracking than the descent had been since I no longer had Steven beneath me to calm my nerves. My hands hurt so much that I was afraid they would let go of the rope and we would both fall to imminent death.
Minutes later, though to those of us hanging over the pit of blackness it seemed like hours, William grabbed my hand and pulled me onto firm ground. I lay there panting, only vaguely aware of my teacher also pulling up Steven and talking to him in a low voice. Water was poured down my throat, and I swallowed it greedily, suddenly aware of an overwhelming thirst.
“Go easy on that Meg,” William cautioned. “Save some for Steven.”
Ashamed, I stopped and sat up, my head swimming. I was leaned against the mountainside, covered in the same blanket I had found on myself the previous evening. I noticed with surprise that the storm had stopped sometime after Steven and I had made it to the ledge that provided us some momentary safety.
Steven lay next to me, also propped up against the rock face, and his ragged breathing and pale countenance pulled a shocked gasp from me. William met my eyes across his body and shook his head grimly.
“We’ve got to find shelter and get him warm or we’re going to lose him,” he said seriously.
I gasped in dismay. “One of us will have to stay with him while the other looks for the shelter,” I said.
“You’re in almost as bad shape as him,” William replied ruefully. “I’ll go scout out a place for us to rest. I trust you can keep yourselves safe should the need arise.” He patted the sword at my side meaningfully and gave me the arrows and bow he unstrapped from Duke’s saddle so I could have them nearby.
With one last look around us, his face full of concern, he walked along the path and disappeared from our sight. I sent a prayer for his safety upwards even as I tightened the hand on my sword.
“Milady?” Steven looked sideways at me.
“Call me Meg,” I told him, then added worriedly, “Do you need anything?”
“No,” he answered, with a slight shake of his head which caused him to wince. “I just wanted to say thank you…for going down there and risking your life for me.”
I smiled at the boy warmly. “It was worth it in the end. God protected me.”
“I thank Him for that,” Steven said in relief. He looked down at his leg in disgust. “Now I’m going to slow you and William down in your search for the princess. Maybe you should just—”
I cut him off. “No! We would never dream of leaving you on your own! Especially in this condition!”
“I was going to say,” he finished quietly, “that you could put me on a horse and send me back to the castle.”
William’s voice came from behind me, making me spin around. “She’s right Steven,” he said. “We would never leave you. Or send you back alone. You may think you could make it, but you wouldn’t. You lack the strength.”
“Did you find shelter?” I asked, recovering from my surprise and willing my heart to cease beating so quickly.
William nodded. “Yes. There’s a small cave less then a mile from here. It looked uninhabited, and though it’ll be a bit cramped, I think we’ll survive.”
I glanced towards Steven. “Do you think he can make it?” I whispered.
“I think so.” William’s eyes were filled with concern. “But we had better be quick about it.”
Together, we tied Steven securely onto Duke’s broad back and led our horses along the ledge. After a few yards it widened into a safer path before rising sharply into the sky and creating the mountainside pass again.
I led Duke around the various boulders that lay scattered throughout the valley, and led him carefully over a mountain stream that trickled over our path and fell through a crack in the other side to create a beautiful waterfall. Steven’s breathing sounded labored in my ears, and I sent my worries upwards to my heavenly Father as we continued our trek towards the promise of a few hours of peace.
Soon enough, William called back to me that he had re-discovered the cave, and I gratefully led my exhausted horse through the narrow opening. William carried Steven off of Duke, and laid him on the blanket he had spread on the damp floor of the cave. I removed the saddles, bridles, and bags of equipment for our travel to a spare corner before tying the horses outside the cave to a sturdy-looking tree.
I entered the cave again, let my eyes adjust for a moment, and was able to see for the first time how small it truly was. The cave that William had found was about ten feet wide and maybe seven feet tall, with a sloping floor that was moderately clean, considering it had probably been the home of a wild animal at some point. I noticed William had cut his brother’s breeches above his knee and was regarding the malformed leg sorrowfully. I came and stood behind him, hoping to offer my assistance.
William turned when he heard my footfalls, and studied my face for a moment. “I’m going to have to straighten his leg,” he stated matter-of-factly.
With a short nod, I stood straighter. “What can I do?”
Steven’s face was almost gray now, and beads of sweat had formed on his brow. He was showing signs of a fever and muttered something incoherent, tossing his head restlessly.
“You’ve got to keep him still,” William said. “Once the leg is set, it will need to be kept straight. Before I do anything, I’ll cut a few branches to use as a brace. While I’m gone, there’s some wine in the saddlebags. Make him drink some of that. It’ll ease the pain a little.”
I bit my lip and nodded again.
“You also might want to cover a smaller stick with cloth so he doesn’t bite his tongue off while in so much agony.”
I shuddered at the thought, nodding once more before he disappeared from the cave to find branches that would be sturdy enough and straight enough to act as a brace for Steven’s leg once the bones had been lined up again. I hurried to do as William had instructed me. The wine was easy enough to find, but it was another thing altogether to try to get a feverish Steven to swallow enough to ease his pain. Finally I managed to force half a cup down him by the spoonful. It would have to suffice.
Outside, near the horses, I was able to find a small chunk of wood that was thick enough for the other job. With nothing else handy, I wrapped my own favorite lace handkerchief around the stick that I always carried in my pocket. It would be ruined, but at that moment, I really didn’t care about anything other than having Steven back on his feet again. Even the princess fell from my mind and the war that my brother and the king were possibly giving up their lives in.
William came back within a few minutes and stripped the branches of all leaves and smaller twigs, leaving only the main branch. He nodded grimly at the stick I had chosen and covered with my handkerchief.
“How much wine did he take?” he asked while busily working on getting Steven as immobile as possible with what rope we had.
“Only about a half glass,” I informed him. “It was hard enough getting that much down.”
“It’ll be enough,” he said shortly. “He may be sick after it’s all over, so its good he won’t have much in his stomach.”
My own stomach turned at this possibility, but I only nodded in reply.
William shot me a concerned look. “Can you handle it?” he asked. “You could wait outside—”
I shook my head. “No. I can handle it.”
William didn’t look entirely convinced by my show of bravado, but he merely turned to Steven’s leg and motioned for me to put the stick in his mouth.
Gently, I pried the boy’s mouth open and pushed the stick between his teeth. Steven’s eyes opened for a moment, they looked so much like William’s…but roved around the cave wildly for a moment. He fought against the bonds, and then suddenly went limp. I held his shoulders to the floor as firmly as I could without hurting him and braced myself.
Purposely I looked away as William suddenly put pressure on the bent leg. A resounding snap sounded throughout the small cave, and Steven let loose a scream that I would have been hard put to beat in pitch and volume even as muffled by the handkerchief clad stick it was. Perspiration dripped off the sides of his face, and he struggled within the confines of the rope. His shoulders shook in my grasp, and my tears fell to mix with his sweat. To see anybody in this much pain…it was almost too much for me to bear.
William waited until Steven’s struggles had faded before putting a hand on my shoulder gently. “It’s over.”
I let out a shuddering sigh and turned to look at William’s handiwork. The leg was straight now, and the sticks tied around it firmly with the rope that had been keeping Steven’s hands to his sides.
I looked at Steven’s face. That was a mistake. Pain was etched in every line, in every shadow, and his eyes were closed as if he was dead. His breathing was so shallow, I almost thought he was dead, but his chest rose just enough for me to see that he was indeed still with us.
“All we can do now is pray,” William said.
Hearing the pain in his own voice made me loose myself completely. The trickle of tears that had come during the short operation became a torrent. I covered my face in my hands and rocked back and forth in agony. Why? I asked. Why did this have to happen? Why did Steven’s horse not warn him as mine did? Why did he have to fall? Why did he have to break his leg? Why can’t we just find the princess and everything end happily as they do in minstrel’s tales?
I was vaguely aware when William drew me into a comforting hug, and I continued my waterfall of tears into his understanding shoulder. Then, I felt his shoulder on which I was leaning also shake, and I knew we were both crying. Together, for his brother.