Wind whipped the hair around Desmond’s face into a tangled mess, but the lingering strands did nothing to stop his emerald gaze from locking with hers.
“Why?” she gasped, hands across her stomach. Pulling them away, she stared at the red that dripped from her fingertips. Blood. Everywhere. Hers.
The clanging of metal-on-metal echoes throughout the valley. Grunts of physical exertion and the occasional muted clunk of wooden shields interrupt the general calamity. The sun beats down on the refugees mercilessly; ripples of heat emanate from the caravans and distort Ariana’s vision as she passes. Without pause, she wipes the sweat from her brow against her bunched up sleeve.
“Nice work back there.”
She jumps at the sound and nearly connects her wild swing with the man’s jaw.
“Woah, woah. I meant no offence!” The man to whom the voice belongs holds up his hands. Ariana relaxes her shoulders and huffs,
“Who the hell are you?” she furrows her brows.
“Name’s Desmond,” he offers a lopsided smile. She raises her eyebrows and they scream, am I supposed to be impressed? “You new here?”
“I joined last month. Carver said he needed all the men he can get.”
“And women,” Desmond grinned.
“Yeah, and women.” She rolls her eyes and begins unlacing her bracers. They near a tent and she stops so abruptly Desmond nearly walks into her.
“So, uh,” he runs a hand through his tangled hair, “maybe we could practice tomorrow?”
She snorts, “yeah, maybe.”
Steel meets steel in a shower of sparks.
The impact sends the blade flying from her hands; it lands in the sand with a subdued thud. Desmond watches it as it descends and turns back to Ariana to find a dagger pointed at his throat. Eyes widening, he smiles,
She tilts her head, “Cheated? I’m just prepared.” She lowers the blade and returns it to the concealed sheath on her thigh. “Besides,” she saunters over to the dust-covered steel, “I hardly doubt our enemy will play fair.”
“True, but –”
“There are no buts in battle.”
Desmond mumbles something under his breath and she turns her head his direction,
“What was that?”
“Nothing! I was just…agreeing with you.” He flashes that lopsided smile again and she rolls her eyes,
“Sure you were.”
Screams. Smoke. Fire.
Ariana stumbles out of bed in time to find her mother lying under a collapsed beam by the remainder of the house.
“Ariana, darling, there you are.” Her words are weak, soft. Ariana wastes no time running to her mother’s side, clawing desperately at the heavy chunk of wood. Her lean body stands no chance against the rubble, and she succeeds only in eliciting a cough from the old woman’s trapped body.
“It’s useless, dear. Please, take my ring and run. It’s not much, but, I’d rather you have it than some filthy, king-serving bastard.”
Ariana’s eyes well with tears now, but she slips her hands under the beam once more. Sweat collects against her forehead and stings the edges of her eyes. It is only when her mother holds out a shaking hand that she pauses. Reaching forward, she gently takes the ruby-entwined golden ring and slips it in her pocket. She grips her mother’s icy hands and kisses the back of them.
“I love you,” she murmurs against the woman’s skin as a tear falls in the shadow of the kiss.
“I love you, too, my little Ari. Now go, run! Before they find you. Don’t stop until –”
A thud echoes over the crackling of the fire and her mother’s hoarse voice manages to shout,
Ariana shatters the glass with her elbow, her adrenaline blocking all signs of pain as the blood begins to trickle down her forearm. Her feet touch the ground just as the door finally gives way; she sprints for the line of trees on the dusty horizon. She glances over her shoulder in time to watch the blade catch a glint of moonlight before it comes down on her mother’s –
Heart pounding, covered in sweat, she sags her shoulders as she takes in the outline of familiar shapes in the dark. Her tent. She’s in her tent. Gods be damned, she’s in her tent and she’s alone.
She twirls the ring around her finger until she eases herself back to sleep.
“Do you mind?” He points to the open spot beside her and she scoots over to make more room. He plops down his makeshift bowl and earns an angry glare when some of the contents splash on her forearm. “Sorry,” he reaches forward to wipe it, hesitates, and lets her do it instead. After a few agonizing moments of silence, he clears his throat, “so, uh, good training session last week, huh?”
She grunts as she shovels the last bit of slop, or as Carver and his men call it, lunch, into her mouth. Satisfied, she pushes the bowl away and leans on her elbow.
“Yeah, pretty good. I didn’t even have to pull my dagger on you. Must be getting better.”
“Me? Or you?”
Try as he may, Desmond is unable to stop the grin that spreads across his lips. He runs his fingers through his hair, and for a moment, he thinks he catches the inkling of a smile on her lips as well. Any trace of movement is gone a second later, and he finds himself glancing around the musty tent serving as mead hall.
“Well,” he lets his gaze fall on the strands of auburn hair that frame her sapphire eyes, “I suppose I’ll have to actually try from now on, huh?”
She clicks her tongue, “I suppose so.”
“Ariana Gaulderson,” the voice rolls over the hills like thunder. “When you came to us nearly a year ago, alone and haunted, the only surviving member of your village and your family, I must admit, I did not know if you would have the strength or the courage to endure.”
Ariana stood, chin up and shoulders back, her typical white cotton tunic and brown leather trousers traded for something a bit more formal. Red-trimmed black leather adorns her body; an empty scabbard hangs loosely at her side. Her plaited hair, uncharacteristically pulled back, adds an intensity to her otherwise neutral gaze.
A small crowd has gathered, as they always do when new recruits are initiated. Desmond lingers among them, neither too far away to be unseen, nor close enough to be deemed hovering. He fidgets with the thin, leather band across his wrist, a recent gift from the soon-to-be-initiate. He closes his eyes and recalls the time he was in her place, though it feels lost and distant. The booming voice breaks his concentration and he opens his eyes once more.
“However, you have proven your worth. By the power invested in me by those who have gathered here, and by the will of our everlasting brotherhood, I, Frederick Carver, pronounce thee, Ariana Gaulderson, an official member of The Darkwood Rebels.”
Ariana steps forward until she stands but half a foot from Carver, who, ominous in his oversized cowl, would appear to engulf her entire figure if not for her proud stance. She kneels, head bowed, and holds up her hands in supplication. Turning to one of the men on either side of him, Carver retrieves a rather scuffed blade with an intricate carving of a twisted tree for a hilt.
“We cannot offer much in these troubled times. Food is scare, we are always on the move, and the King’s army is never too far behind,” the crowd’s solemn silence testifies to the truth of these words, “yet we can offer this – we stand together, a band of brothers and sisters against the chaos. With this sword, the carving forged by one of our own, we officially welcome you to fellowship. Rise, and join us.” He lays the sword against her open palms and the metal is cool to the touch. She looks up, briefly smiles at the rare grin on Carver’s face, and pushes herself to stand. She nods, accepting the blade and properly sheathing it. She takes her place among the crowd and watches in piqued interest as Carver repeats the process for four other similarly-clad initiates.
A hand touches her shoulder and she jumps, her hand instantly reaching for her thigh.
“It’s just me,” the familiar voice allows her to relax her shoulders and she lets go of the grip of the concealed blade.
“Don’t startle me like that,” she warns for the tenth time.
“Don’t be so easily startled.” Desmond tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear and smiles. She smiles back and leans in to his kiss, gently cradling his head with her hand. When they part, she analyzes his features and furrows her brows.
“Nothing,” he allows his arms to hang loosely about her waist.
“Desmond,” she lowers her tone. “Don’t try this with me. I can see it in your eyes. What’s wrong?”
He sighs, internally cursing her hawk-like observation. “It’s just…the army. They’re closer than usual. Much closer.”
“Did you see them?”
“No, one of the scouts just brought back a report. I overheard him telling Carver.”
“Well, we were set to move tomorrow, and I’ve already got my belongings packed,” she glanced over at the meager pile in the corner. “If we have to leave a little sooner than planned, so be it.” Her calm smile washed over Desmond’s nerves like an ocean wave and he lost himself in the current.
Two bodies, tangled, hot and sweaty beneath the tent, and none were the wiser.
Fire crackles through the air and smokes clogs the lungs. Gasping for breath, Ariana and Desmond lean against each other as they stumble from the tent, wobbly steps hindered by the cloud of darkness.
It only takes a few moments to get to the edge of camp, but already the silhouette of the moon is shrouded by smoke.
“Run,” he yells, pushing her forward. “Run!”
“Forgive me,” he whispered, his voice nearly overcome by the wind. Her dagger slipped from his hand and fell to the ground with a dull clang, muted even more by the intensifying rainfall.
She glanced down at him, and only then did she notice the red that soaked through his tunic and splintered out like tree branches. He held his stomach, clenched his jaw, and refused to make a sound as the consciousness slowly left his body.
Their bodies lay sprawled on the ground, hands overlapping, but the marching army made no notice as they dragged the corpses across the harsh terrain, leaving only two ruts in the mud, soon to be washed away by the storm.