At fewer than three leagues, Emri collapsed, sending her to the soft cushioning of the forest duff. Nora spotted a den tree a few yards from them and dragged Emri the remaining distance before situating her inside the small cleaned out hollow.
Nora looked at her with absolute anguish; her trembling hands hovered in the air. She wanted to touch, to give any type of comfort she could provide, but everywhere her gaze landed, bloody, tattered, or bruised skin appeared. She clenched her outstretched hand and finally cradled her neck.
Emri looked at her and smiled reassuringly as she placed her good hand over Nora’s. “Hey, it’s gonna be all right, y’know. Just a setback is all.”
“I would hardly deem this a setback, Emri. We have no horses, no supplies … you can barely stand, let alone walk.”
She stayed quiet for a long while as she absentmindedly toyed with the tattered fabric of Emri’s cloak, thinking. Night had yet to fall, so her gaze wandered about the surrounding woods. At least the woodland’s previous eeriness had dissipated. No more were the lifeless trees overtaken with rot or disease and the wildlife mostly hidden. Here, on the southern edge of the dark forest, life thrived, and it was beautiful.
“You healed me,” Nora began as she studied her own scarred hands, reliving the memory of the day Emri saved her. “Can you not heal yourself?”
“I didn’t heal you. I can’t mend wounds. I can only soothe … ease nerves. My energy doesn’t allow for the physical repair, only emotional—mental. I haven’t even felt an energy source out here. These bands may be as useless as a canteen with no water.”
“These need to be cleaned. I will go gather supplies for the night. We should be fairly safe here.”
“I’m just glad the weathers warmed up. I didn’t know how much more I could take of the cold and damp.”
“Well, I will get a fire started and then we can go through our supplies. But let us get you tended to first.”
Eyes followed the ever growing shadows as the sun steadily retreated behind the horizon. She had already counted the number of bristle tail squirrels, the different songs of the winter birds, and even sang an old poem her mother used to recite to her when she was ill. She found it comforting, and it passed the time as she waited for Nora’s return. It at least kept her mind off the constant throbbing of her limbs. What she wouldn’t do for a flagon of wine, or better yet, a warm kettle of her own mulled wine. It warmed her spirit, calmed her mind and, best of all, dulled the pain. It really was the “Gods’ Drink”.
But the more she yearned for the red drink, the more painfully aware she became of the fact they had nothing to quench their thirst. The taste of blood still lingered over her tongue and she desperately wished to be rid of it.
She heard the snap of twigs and the crush of leaves. Her instincts screamed fear as her heartbeat doubled in speed. It was fight or flight, and as of the moment, she could do neither. But before her mind got too carried away, she saw the edge of a dark moss green cloak. Nora rounded the tree with her leather pouch at her hip and arms full of small broken logs and branches. She bent over not far in front of Emri and deposited her stash of wood before kneeling at her injured leg. She pulled various leaves, herbs, and salvaged vials of salves and oils from her purse.
She helped Emri out of her breeches, and lifted the fabric of her braies to expose the worst of the gashes. Two desperately needed sutures to keep infection at bay. The rest could be managed through basic hygiene and cleansing of the wounds. But in this ruthless environment, those were laughable needs.
Regardless, Nora threaded her bone needle with what silk she had.
“Thank you … for saving me,” Emri spoke as she met Nora’s grief stricken gaze. She lifted her hand and cupped her cheek, trying to smooth away the worry lines that seemed to have appeared within the last few hours. She tried to manage a smile, but after a painful snag, her face contorted with the sting.
“You need not thank me, Emri. As many times as you have played the hero, well, my turn came today. I would not have left you. Not again.”
“I’m sorry ‘bout Uajo.”
Nora did not reply. Her face remained neutral, hard at the edges as her hands continued their work. “I’ve stripped lives from people. From families,” she responded, voice tight—unforgiving. “What is a horse compared to that atrocity. Besides, we knew the risks before stepping outside the gates. We also understood what would have become of us had we not left. There was no option, Emri. We are at the land’s mercy here. We did what we had to do to ensure life … for us and everyone else. To guarantee survival.”
Emri nodded and seemed to consider the statement. Life, living, and surviving. Interchangeable terms to many, yet worlds apart. “Y’know, people talk all the time ‘bout doin’ things to live—survive. I’ve spent my whole life surviving. It’s often confused with living, but they aren’t the same. Not anywhere close. I’ve seen a glimpse of living, and I sure would prefer that over the other.”
“Were you not happy?” The timbre in her voice soft, inquiring.
“I was alone. Loneliness, at least for me … it was crippling. Overpowering. I mean, I had Ryker, friends, and a few bedfellows, but … there was always something missing. Ryker came from a good home in the Gray. Most of the women I was with came from the same. Not once did I find anyone from the Black. No one understood my previous life. They sympathized, of course. Pitied me, because of stories they’d heard or read about … book knowledge is laughable,” she added as an afterthought. “I was detached—indifferent. I was in good-standing with my superiors. With those around me, my community. Had a good home, nice things. I was just … empty.”
“Your … suitors,” she began, trying to choose her words with care. “Did you not have a fondness for any of them?” Wondering why in the three the young woman had been so unhappy—forlorn.
“Not really, no. I never allowed myself to,” she admitted with no hesitation. “The only woman who ever came close was … her name was Mary. I was with her for over two years. We were close and we understood each other. Understood what the relationship was and was not. There was no desire for anything more, at least not for me. We each filled the gap for the other. We both were simply lonely, and we became each other’s company. The sting and affliction of the worlds seemed to diminish when there was a warm body in your bed. Someone to distract you from the heartache of being alone. I cared for her, and would have done anything she asked of me, but I didn’t love her. Not the way I should have, at least, considering our relationship.”
“Did she love you?”
Emri looked past Nora and saw that the shadows of the trees had moved a good two feet. The sun was just on the horizon. Nightfall was about to take them.
“What about you?” Emri asked after a beat.
“I had no time for such petty dalliances. More was always expected. It wasn’t just a quick bed. They always wanted more, and I simply did not have the desire nor the time to spend on such paltry games,” she explained. “Of course, there was outrage that I had not yet married. I am afraid if I had seated the throne longer than I had, marriage would have been indefinite. But my eight year imprisonment, well, let me just say the guards did not value my wishes.”
Emri’s immediate response was to clench her fists in anger. To strike something—expel her fury. But her heart acted before her mind and she found herself crying out, her injured hand taking the brunt of her outburst.
Nothing was spoken for a while as darkness masked the shadows; the faint glow of the setting sun diminishing with each second.
Twilight found both women settled within the hollow of the tree, a blazing fire safely within their grasp. The evening was cool but comfortable as Nora held Emri close. For once she was the protector.
“Will you tell me something?” Emri suddenly asked. They had been entranced with the sounds of the night: the crackling and occasional pop of the flames, the hoot of a forest owl, and the lullabies sung by the night insects. Both women were relaxed and groggy.
“What do you wish for me to tell you?”
“Anything really. Your life after the … accident … before even. Just anything you wish to tell?”
The hands encircling Emri’s waist tightened their hold. The motion was not lost on the younger woman.“I see. And you? Might I hear the same from you?
Nora felt her nod against her chest. She inhaled a shaky breath as she smoothed the fabric of her cloak with equal trepidation. She moistened her dry lips then spoke, “My childhood … my life really is full of trials, experiences … stories that could entertain even the most hardened of souls. They are not pleasant, and are even harder to speak of, but they are my past. My experiences are what have shaped me, and no matter how desperately I pray, wish, or hope, they will never fade, never leave me.” She paused as cool hands reached up and covered her own, stilling their tremulous movements. Nora smiled sadly as she reclined Emri more against her front and interlaced their fingers. “They are a scar. Permanently branded upon my heart. Forever there. A constant reminder. It is why I never burdened you with my past as a child. You were younger than I, and dealing with great issues and hardships of your own. A person encounters much in five years, and who would I have been to fraught you with my own when you had so much yet to experience.”
“Do you remember that first day we met?”
“Course.” She went to feel for the bump at the back of her head but winced when she felt a sharp pain rip through her shoulder. The warm liquid from the reopened wounds inched down from their holdings.
“I had been looking for someone. I left the company of my keeper in search of a young man.”
“His name was Davon. He was a few years older than I, and the bastard son of my mother’s kitchen maid. Kept to himself. Quiet. Well-mannered and respectful. Everything a Queen expected and demanded of her laborers. But his fault lay in caring for me. He was a fool … but very kind. He often looked at me with the most caring expression, like he could see beneath my carefully constructed armor. I would always return the look with abhorrence and disgust—that was expected. A laborer fawning over royalty—scandal of the greatest proportions. Nevertheless, inside it tore me apart because no one ever looked at me in such a way. No one had ever smiled at me that way.” Nora recalled fondly. Smiling at the memory.
“What happened to him?” Emri asked.
“He was killed, by my doing.”
“Milady, we found this boy in the tunnels below. We think he might have been trying to flee, and he had this,” the guard stated as he pulled a silver and jewel hair barrette from his pocket. “I just imagine he was to sell it.”
The Empress seethed and struck the young boy with the back of her hand. “He must have stolen it. My Nora would never be stupid enough to give something so valuable to such filth. She’d expect to be punished greatly if she did.”
“How did you come across this jewel, lad?” the master guard asked the boy, but after no response, the guard restraining him slapped him in the back of the head.
“Answer him!” the guard demanded.
The boy was shaking, but finally found his voice to answer. “I found it on the supper table, Milady. I was going to return it to the princess at first sight.”
“Fetch my daughter. We’re about to clear this up.”
The Empress stared down the power lad as if she could twist his neck with one twitch of her eye.
“Mother?” a young and timid voice rang out from the corridor. The sound of her heeled shoes clacking against the stone echoed off the bare walls and became louder as she grew closer. “What is this?” she asked as she entered. “What’s happening?”
“This boy was found attempting to flee the palace with your prized barrette, my child. He claims he found it.”
Nora’s back straightened in panic as she answered, “I must have left it on the table after supper.”
A hard fist came into contact with her cheek and the force knocked her to the cold floor. The accused tensed almost daringly and the guard reprimanded him with a swift blow to the face.
“How could you be so careless with something so valuable?! Have I taught you nothing, you ungrateful child!”
“I STOLE IT!” the accused boy yelled out and the room went silent. Nora looked on in horror as the young boy just sealed his fate, and saved Nora from hers.
“What did you say?” Kali whispered.
“I lied. I stole it from the princess as she was seated at the table. I was serving and took it while she wasn’t lookin’,” he stated hastily; voice shaking with terror.
“Take her back to her chambers. She’s not to leave for the night. As for him … take him to the woods, kill him, and leave his body for the crows,” the Empress spoke calmly.
The guard was taken aback with such a grisly punishment for the young lad, he was but two years older than the Empress’s own daughter, which put him at fifteen. But the guard would always obey his Empress. “Aye, My Lady,” he stated and hoisted the boy up to his feet before placing a hangman’s hood over his head and leading him out.
“Mother, please, don’t!” Nora had cried out as she was escorted from the room. Her mother had simply answered with a wicked smirk.
“I’ll never forget that look in his eyes as the guards tore him away,” she said as she continued her recollection of the story. “He understood what he had done, and I did not see once speck of regret on his face. I should have saved him. But my words likely would have meant nothing. My mother was a cruel, cruel woman who found pleasure in other’s fears—suffering. I have no doubt he would have been killed that night, regardless of what I would have said. My mother was out for blood, and he was the unfortunate soul who was captured first.”
“The day you saved me from that pack of feral dogs, when my neck was slashed open and I had bite marks everywhere. Even on my face. I was bleeding out, and your eyes were wide and fearful. You didn’t think you’d ever stop the bleeding. Do you remember it as vividly as I do?”
“I could never forget that day. I was terrified of what might happen to you. And your mother … I didn’t know what she would do to you. In my heart … I expected you to die.”
Tears spilt freely over both women’s cheeks. Emri hadn’t meant for such a dark and heavy topic to emerge, but she should have expected it. After all, Nora had kept silent for a reason. She had wanted to protect Emri from her past. Possibly even from herself.
“I should have,” she said. “You should have let me die that day, Emri. I knew what life awaited me. I was not stupid. No matter how many elaborate plans we made to escape, it would have never come to pass. My mother would never have allowed it. That night, after my return home, I was tended to and put to bed. No emotion had graced my mother’s face. It was unusual because normally a constant scowl was always present, but it was unnerving that night. My keeper, Dane, who usually kept watch over me, came up as I was resting, and he sat at my bedside and talked with me for a few moments,” she said and began to tell Emri all of what happened.
She flinched and her eyes slammed shut at the memory.
“Evening, Milady,” a soft voice spoke. Dane entered the room and came to stand by Nora’s bedside. “May I?” he asked and Nora lifted her bandaged hand as a sign of affirmation. He sat down at the edge of the bed and shifted somewhat nervously. He fiddled with his hands for a beat before he spoke. “I trust you and Emri put up a good a fight. I’d say with the way ya look you certainly did. I would hate to see those beasts.”
“They were all slain,” Nora said.
“That’s the Blackheart in ya. Never givin’ up, and fightin’ with all yer might.”
“But I didn’t kill them, Emri did.”
“Ah, a true savior, that girl is. Saving her Highness, from a ghastly death. But, I’m certain you fought them bastards off with everything ya had, Princess. I’m very proud of you,” he stated as his chin quivered. Nora looked at him questioningly, but he dismissed her when he reached over and placed a hand over her own. He closed his eyes as he spoke with much emotion. “You will be a great empress, Milady. Your heart is so kind and your soul gentle. Your people will adore you. Fear and respect you, yes. But they will love you greatly. You are a rare kind, Princess. Don’t ever forget that. You will be great. Far greater than your mother will ever be,” he whispered the last, only intending it for Nora’s ears, but he was certain it fell upon prying ears, as well.
Then two loud knocks at the door sounded and he rose; placing a soft kiss to her hand and bowing to her gracefully. “I’m sorry I failed you, Princess. I hope ya find it in your heart to forgive me one day,” he said with finality, but Nora called out to him.
He turned. “Princess?”
“You will still help me with my bow tomorrow night, right? It does not lack much and then we can test it out in the fields.”
“If you’re feeling up to it, Princess, I’ll be there,” he reassured as tears gathered in his eyes. “Goodbye,” he said and walked to the door. His step was firm and unwavering.
Nora had been genuinely confused with the whole visit. Dane rarely visited outside of his duties. She looked up as he unlatched the door and pushed it open. One step was taken into the hallway, and before Nora could blink, an arrow pierced his head.
There was a sickening cry as Nora watched in horror as her confidant and friend’s limp body fell to the ground with a nauseating thud. Her eyes never left his body, even as they dragged him away. But as soon as he was out of view, her mother came to the door.
“I hope you learned a valuable lesson today, my dearest Nora. Your actions will always have consequences, and there will always be others who pay for them. Some, with their life. Just keep that knowledge with you at all times, I would detest someone else having to pay the price for your mistakes like poor Dane. Good night.”
“Gods …” Emri stated in horror.
During the recollection, Emri had situated herself so she could face Nora.
“That was the last day I saw you. I never ventured out from the palace walls after that.” She stopped, forcing a sob back down her throat. “I hated you … for saving me that day. I did for a long time.”
The admission struck Emri into a stupor. What was one to say to that? She opened and closed her mouth several times waiting for the appropriate words to come out, waiting for anything that would have eased the tension that had settled over them. Instead, she opted for the simplest gesture—comfort, a kind hand to her arm.
“I never would have had to see Dane die like I did. He didn’t deserve that. I never would have watched my mother kill others in the name of senseless pride. I never would have known she … killed you or your family. I never would have taken the throne and became the one thing I had always loathed. I never would have been the infamous High Empress who people spat upon at the very utterance of her name. I would have never been imprisoned—never hated, and I would have never felt the pain, anger, hostility, and rage that I feel today. But that day … I would have died happy—content. Because that’s how I felt then. I was innocent and had outlandish plans with my best friend who I adored … whose family treated me better than my own mother.” Her words seemed harder and harder to come by. And with each passing moment, Emri felt an even greater pain settle in the pit of her stomach, the sting worse than the deepest of her wounds. But she feared these wounds would not heal easily.
She listened as Nora continued. “Instead, you saved me and unknowingly set me on this destructive path. That day you condemned me to this fate. A fate worse than death. I hated you then, and I think a very small … a very small part of me continues to do so. And I abhor myself for feeling this way because you are such …” The words caught in her throat as her lips and chin quivered in a violent motion. She shifted suddenly, leaning forward to touch her hand to Emri’s face. Graceful fingers stroked the damp hair from her eyes. They sparkled in the dim glow of the fire. “You are such a wonderful person. You are … everything. Everything to me.”
At that simple, yet grand admission, Emri leaned in the remaining distance and, with her good hand, brought Nora in for a heartfelt kiss. Just the gentlest brushing of lips.
But it was enough for both to taste the lingering salt of each other’s tears—evidence of their burdens, and how it felt to be free of them, if not for but a moment in time.
“I’m sorry, Nora,” Emri whispered against her lips. She pulled away, remaining close enough to see the beautiful coloring of her irises in the soft light. “Gods! I’m sorry you had to witness such things and feel such things. I never wanted that for you, the Gods know I didn’t. But I never would have forgiven myself if you hadn’t of lived. I don’t regret that day … and that’s so selfish of me. But because you lived … because you lived, I was able to find you again. I found you,” she repeated as Nora shuddered violently; suppressing a cry as her whole body convulsed. “And who knows, the Gods always have a twisted sense of things when it comes to this but, perchance some good will come from our suffering. Perhaps it’s fate’s way of working everything out for the better. Maybe we both have a fighting chance now at happiness. And … I—I may not be the giver of such joy for you … but maybe we can lead each other in the direction of it.” A warm, gloved hand caressed her cheek and she leaned into it. “I would have slain your mother had I known. The Gods know I would have.”
Nora looked upon her with great respect. “You would not have, though. That is who you are. What separates you from everyone else. She was my mother, and regardless of how sick and evil she was, she was still just that—my mother.”
“I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t ever apologize for such words, for they come from your heart, Emri. You were always my protector, and I am honored by your words regardless of how inapt you see them to be. She was my mother and guardian for twenty of my years. She was all I knew, and I did love her once.”
“That still doesn’t make it right, what she did to you. And I do believe that if I had been present and witnessed her abuse toward you, I would have stopped her.”
“You were but a child, Emri.”
Emri frowned and whispered, “As were you.”
In the minute distance they shared, it was heard loud and clear. Emri gave her a soft smile before she rested her forehead against Nora’s. The woman gasped at the close contact, but Emri simply regarded her without prejudice and placed a chaste kiss against her flush forehead. Emri pulled away and whispered her fingers across a wet cheek before she met a now mahogany pair of eyes.
The caress revealed so much and it had Nora’s head spinning with too many clouded emotions and feelings. But at least she felt something. She hungered for so long to feel something—anything, but the paucity of feeling. And it was everything she expected. Too much yet too little. Exhilarating yet suffocating. Wonderful yet terrifying. Much time had passed since anyone had embraced her in such a way. Full of tenderness and care. Her breath hiccupped as her chest filled with vigor and she found her own hand rising to cup a damp cheek that mirrored her own. As she stared into darkening green eyes, her heart swelled; the feeling overwhelming. She grasped at it because while it mended itself, repairing a life of emptiness, it shattered anew, because the woman settled within her arms had all the power to completely break her. Yet nothing but love shone through. And that hope, that twinkle and softness in her eyes, was enough to allow her this moment. This moment of pure unadulterated joy as it would surely end sooner rather than later.
“Why do you always look at me in such a way?” Nora asked softly as her thumb stroked the skin beneath Emri’s eye, her chin quivering. “With such gentleness. Why do you fail to see me as everyone else does?”
“Because I see all that matters.” And Emri kissed her with all the undying passion her tender and aching body would yield. The kiss reflected all the emotions stashed away. Second by second, as the kiss deepened and wondering hands paid close attention to damaged flesh, defenses were chiseled away. Chip by chip until something whole—undiscovered took shape, and it was beautiful.
“Would you come away with me?” she asked breathlessly. “When all this is over?”
“Emri … I—”
The sudden sound of quick movements within the dark forest stole their breath away. They didn’t breathe or even blink. They sat as still as a frozen lake on a windless day. The only sounds were of those around them.
Nora bid for her heart to still, afraid its furious beating could be heard by whatever beast surrounded them. She was certain Emri felt it
Never before had she felt so useless. Holding a wounded woman in her arms, cloaked by the debilitating shroud of darkness. Whatever was out there held the advantage because Nora, foolish as she was, didn’t even have enough foresight to bring her bow and arrows into the hollow. She just doomed them both.
A loud scream shot straight through their bodies, sending pinpricks from their heads down to their toes.
The noise grew louder—deafening. A large shadow caught Emri’s eyes and she held Nora with every ounce of strength she had. Secretly, she grasped the handle of her dagger, ready to fight and defend until her last breath.
She pressed her lips to Nora’s ears and without thought, mumbled words—a language only spoken by the Gods of Thrice.
“Maay la Nineteh o Thiice sho nos compaasun, un deemned wurthe, caary a suuls furht.”
“May the Gods of Thrice show us compassion, and if deemed worthy carry our souls forth.”