The day had been a long one. He had spent more time in the saddle than he ever had before and the only thing Leonas could think about was getting out of the dirty clothes that he’d worn for the past three days and washing the sweat and road dirt from his tired body.

He slipped away from the camp after gathering enough wood that no one would say he was shirking. He grabbed up the leather camp buckets and headed down to the stream he could hear just beyond the tree line. If anyone asked, he could say he went to gather water.

He did fill the buckets and set them in a shady spot so that they wouldn’t become tepid during his bath. Then he shucked off his clothes and, after folding them neatly and setting them near the buckets, he slipped into the stream.

The water was cool but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. Sighing deeply, Leonas eased himself deeper. The cool water eased his aching muscles and he began scrubbing the road dirt from his body. The water wasn’t deep enough that he needed to worry about his lack of swimming skills. In fact it was just deep enough that he could practice, as Kazimeras had told him he should.

Leonas stilled when the soft tread of boots reached his ears. He sunk deeper into the water as the unmistakable sense of another national avatar reached him. It tickled in the back of his brain like a feather lightly brushing somewhere deep inside his soul. He turned toward the sense as the boot steps drew near.

Their eyes met, and for a solid minute neither moved. Leonas shook slightly in the water. The other boy was dressed as a warrior might. He knelt beside the stream and took a long drink before returning his gaze to Leonas.

“Hello,” the boy said softly. He stood slowly, the way one might if one spotted a deer in the forest. “What’s your name?”

“L-Leonas… of Leituva,” came the shaky reply. He felt helpless, staring up at the taller boy in his armor; a sword-belt secure on his waist.

“I’m Henryk of Lenkiya,” the boy replied. “What are you doing in the water?”

“Bathing?” Leonas replied in a voice that hardly carried as far as the bank. “We’ve been traveling and… my hair’s a mess… I was filthy with road dirt and sweat.”

“You think you’re filthy,” Henryk replied. Before Leonas’s astonished gaze, he shucked off his armor and clothes. Before long, he was naked and slipping into the water with Leonas. He was very muscular, as one might expect from a warrior. He was also covered in a multitude of bruises and gashes.

“What happened to you?” Leonas asked. He gasped when Henryk eased closer to him in the water.

“A battle,” Henryk replied. He turned his back to Leonas and asked, “Is there something in my shoulder? It hurts a bit.”

Leonas licked his lips nervously and edged closer to examine the muscular back and shoulders before him. “I can see a cut,” he reported. He reached up and gently prodded the gash. It was deep and as Leonas inspected it, he saw something glinting back at him. “There’s something metallic inside it.”

“Can you get it out, do you think?” Henryk asked. “I’d hate for the wound to heal with it still in there. That kind of thing might affect my range of motion.”

Leonas prodded the wound further and then nodded. “I believe that I can get it out. I just need the proper tool.” He half swam to the shore where his clothes waited. He rummaged in his tool belt until he found a pair of small forceps. Then he returned to Henryk.

The taller boy tensed when Leonas slipped the forceps into the wound but seconds later he relaxed as Leonas eased the piece of metal free. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was the broken tip of a lance.

“Thanks,” Henryk said, turning to give Leonas a sunny smile. “You know they say there are lots of bandits around these parts.”

“Really?” Leonas said. He looked around nervously. A sudden noise in the bushes sent him scooting back toward the far bank, and Henryk. He had about enough time to realize there was an armed stranger standing not two feet from them when a hand went over his mouth and fingers pinched his nose. Then he was underwater and, as panic set in, limp in Henryk’s arms.

Before he could even begin to drown, they were in the brush at the edge of the stream. “Sorry,” Henryk breathed.

Leonas shook his head and ducked back against the taller boy. Suddenly, he was acutely aware of the fact that they were both naked. The bandit seemed not to have seen them and merely knelt beside the stream to drink as Henryk had done only moments ago.

His breaths coming in short pants and shaking more and more intensely, Leonas shrank against Henryk until the man turned to leave. The bandit paused then turned to look back at the stream critically and Leonas realized the problem. He’d seen their clothes and was now well aware that he wasn’t alone.

“Come out where I can see you,” he ordered, drawing a short sword.

Leonas almost screamed in terror at the sight of the naked blade. Henryk covered his mouth and hissed, “Quiet. He doesn’t know where we are, just that we’re here.”

Tears filled Leonas’s eyes and he swallowed thickly as Henryk eased his hand away. He couldn’t still his shaking and finally simply ducked his head against the taller boy’s chest. The bandit continued to scan the stream, especially the margins that were shaded and covered by reeds and trees. He willed the waiting to be over; for Kazimeras to come and rescue him. He cursed himself for his own foolishness at leaving the security of the camp.

Suddenly, Henryk released him and he floundered for a moment, confused and near hysterical. As his feet hit the soft earth, Leonas half-stood and turned to see that Henryk was holding the bandit back with a stout branch. “Get help!” he shouted.

Sobbing, Leonas bolted from the stream and ran back to the camp. “Kazimeras!” he screamed, nearly tackling the almost king of his newly forming country.

“Leonas, what in the world?” the man started. He swung the cape off his shoulders and knelt down to look the young nation in the eyes. “What’s happened?”

“The stream… I was b-bathing… another n-nation came. He said there were bandits and then – then… He needs help! He protected me, gave me a chance to get away. He needs help.”

“Wait here,” Kazimeras said calmly. He gathered the men with him and headed off into the forest; back from whence Leonas had come.

Shaking and sobbing, Leonas sank to the ground. Suddenly, he was held in a gentle embrace. It took him only seconds to recognize Rasa, Kazimeras’s wife. She held him as she might one day the child she carried in her womb and whispered soothing words into his hair.

Slowly his sobs eased to soft hiccups and he raised his head. “I was so scared,” he whispered.

She smoothed his hair away from his eyes and nodded. “I know, Leonas,” she said. “But you’re safe now and your friend will be too. Kazimeras will see to that.”

As if mentioning his name called him, Kazimeras returned to the camp then. He carried the still form of a blond haired boy who looked just slightly older than Leonas. “Henryk!” the smaller nation screamed.

“He’s hurt but alive, Leonas,” Kazimeras assured him before he could become hysterical again. “Get yourself dressed and meet me in my tent. The healers will see to your friend but I’d like a word with you.”

“Y-yes, sir,” Leonas said softly.

He stood and headed to his own tent. He was well aware of what the soon to be leader of his country wanted to say to him. He could sense it as he could the heightened anxiety of the camp.

He’d been foolish to go off on his own. He’d put the troupe in danger from retaliation by the bandits in a time when they could ill-afford such scrutiny. He’d also drawn the eyes of another, apparently more powerful, country to them. It may be that the two countries might become allies but it might just as easily mean that they would be conquered before they’d even fully formed their country.

He dressed quickly and efficiently in clean clothes from his traveling bag. With a sense of dread, he left his tent. The camp was full of hustling soldiers and hurrying healers. He wrung his hands as he made his way to Kazimeras’s tent. He could feel the man’s frustration like a palpable thing.

“My king,” he whispered as he peered inside. At Kazimeras’s curt gesture, he slipped inside and knelt down before the human. “I well know my folly,” he said in a voice that hardly carried.

“Good,” Kazimeras said sharply. He took a few deep breaths, obviously trying to calm himself before he spoke. “Leo, we can’t afford this kind of situation. We don’t have proper houses yet. There isn’t even a palisade to hide behind.”

“And we have women and children with us,” Leonas said miserably. “It was foolish and thoughtless. I should have… st-stayed at c-camp.”

“Don’t you start crying,” Kazimeras snapped. “If you start crying I won’t be able to scold you and you need to know… Leo, you are to remain with me or another of my men at all times. Is that understood?”

Leonas nodded and rubbed his eyes. “As my king wills, so I do,” he agreed. A part of him wanted to bolt from the tent but he knew that would be against the orders he’d just been given, so he stayed where he was.

In time, Kazimeras returned to his work. He focused on organizing his troops. Perhaps they could make a crude palisade before the bandits or soldiers neighboring countries found them. Leonas knelt in the center of the tent, sobbing silently, hardly aware of the work going on around him.

“Hey,” a soft, familiar voice said. Both looked up to see Henryk standing in the doorway of the tent. “Wanted to tell you thanks but you look busy,” he continued. “Leonas, why are you crying?”

“I… I’m not,” Leonas said, looking away.

“But you are,” Henryk said. “You are kneeling before your king and sobbing as though your heart was going to break.” He knelt beside Leonas and said, “I would know why? Are you worried about the bandits; that they’ll attack your camp because your people rescued me?”

Leonas nodded and glanced up at Kazimeras before adding, “And – and your people too.”

“Why would my people attack you when you protected me?” Henryk said. He stood and looked directly at Kazimeras as he asked, “Do you think my people are without honor and would attack someone who’d defended me simply because they aren’t strong? We’re soldiers because we have to be; to defend from the bandits. We’re not land-hungry. We won’t harass you.”

“Thank you,” Kazimeras said softly.

“If you’ll allow, we can give aid. We are neighbors, after all.” Henryk tilted his head and smiled over at Leonas. “We have portable palisades. Pop those things up in hours instead of days. They won’t hold back a full onslaught but they’ll stop the bandits in their tracks.”

“Really?” Leonas asked.

“If your king agrees,” Henryk said. “I can go and make the arrangements. My own people are not far off. We were in the area, trying to get the bandits under control.”

Kazimeras frowned as if considering for a long time. Leonas stood and smiled tentatively at Henryk. He’d been hoping that they could trust the other boy – and his people. “Very well, and thank you,” Kazimeras said finally.

“You’re welcome,” Henryk replied. He sketched a gracious bow before continuing. “I do beg a boon. May I bring Leonas with me? I swear to you that he will come to no harm and will return safely to you on the morrow. It would help matters if he met my own monarch.”

Kazimeras nodded and looked at Leonas. “You feel that this young man is worthy or our trust?” he asked softly.

“I do, my king,” Leonas replied.

“Make ready to depart then and Godspeed,” he said firmly.

“May the winds follow us at our coming and going,” Henryk said softly as he took Leonas by the hand and led him out of the tent. “He’s intense,” he said as soon as they were out of earshot.

“He’s a good man and will make me a good king,” Leonas said softly. “His parents raised us both. When he saw his people persecuted by their lords he sought a way to help them. That’s what brings us here.”

“Your people come from further away then?” Henryk said. “His parents found you as they traveled – as they entered your lands?”

“I woke and they were there. I toddled out and they took me into their home – their caravan anyway,” Leonas said. “They’d lived as nomads since leaving their homes in the old country. We still do, though we’re moving toward settling permanently. Besides the bandits…”

“No one else really lives here,” Henryk said. “The ground is fertile enough. The problem is the bandits and the woodlands. My people are farmers. They want grasslands, not forests that they have to tame down in order to plant.”

“My people are craftsmen and scholars,” Leonas said softly.

“Then that’ll be great we can start trading with each other and work together to build better countries.” He bounded over to the horses. “This’ll be great, Leo, you’ll see.”

As he followed the exuberant boy toward the tethered beasts, Leonas couldn’t help but agree. This was the beginning of what would be a wonderful partnership, he was certain.