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DarkFyre Chapter Fourteen

Rael and Silmaria journey dangerous roads.
The wilds of DarkFyre Dale were a raw, wretched place, and never more so than in the grip of winter.

For the first few days they traveled mostly through the open, sweeping meadows and plains of the western highlands. During the all too brief summer months the highlands were an entirely different place characterized by tall, lush green grasses swaying in the cool wind, speckled with notes of color from wildflowers. They teamed with small, secret life. Bees buzzing, drone-like and purposeful, and field mice scurried about in the abundant shelter of the dark grasses. Roaming herds of wild horses grazed over the grass with long, strong legs silhouetted, rising up to powerful haunches as they bent graceful necks down to sample the tasty greens.

In winter, it was different. The flatlands were abandoned and covered over with the unchanging, beautifully dreary snow. The airy powder suffocated the lush green grasses, froze out the flowers, sending the field mice into their burrows to hibernate away the cold. It hung heavy on the sparse, scattered trees and dusted the great boulders that rose like lonely, forgotten sentinels. They were scattered about in groups, cast aside and forgotten by ancient giants that forsook the Northlands long ago in favor of someplace blessedly fucking warm.

Growing up in the Dale, Silmaria thought she understood what cold was. Oh, she’d had a good idea, true. But nothing of her experience of DarkFyre winters had prepared her for the travails of traveling through the wilds. Always before, when she was exposed to the bitter, biting cold, she’d had walls and a roof and shelter to retire to at the end of the day. Even the scant nights traveling to Trelling’s Rest after House IronWing burned didn’t fully prepare her for what they faced.

Now, there was no escaping the cruel grip of the torturous freeze. When they bedded down for the night, they were lucky if they managed to find a stone large enough to offer some cover from the wind that came whipping dagger-like to knife cold down to the bone. Though Rael was reluctant to set up fires, worried that if they were, indeed, being followed the flames would act as a beacon, the cold left them with no choice; it was construct a fire, or freeze to death.

Even sleeping as closely as they dared to the fire, the nights were brutally cold. Rael and Silmaria had quickly set all propriety aside and slept rolled up together with all their combined blankets and cloaks bundled around them as they huddled together for warmth. Silmaria was eternally grateful for the Nobleman during those nights. He cast off an enormous amount of body heat, more than any man she’d ever known, as if he was deeply warmed from within. If not for his body’s warmth, the Gnari girl would have frozen for sure, even with all their blankets and cloaks and clothes. The cold was a constant oppression, and the only reason Silmaria was able to sleep through the misery of their conditions was due to how utterly exhausted she was at the end of the day’s march.

The days weren’t much of an improvement. They walked, endlessly walked, on and on in an unforgiving trudge through snow that sometimes piled up around the bottoms of her thighs. Rael was relentless. He hardly ever tired, and he refused to let her rest or fall behind. Silmaria had complained once or twice, but he hardly slowed his pace at all, reminding her gently but firmly that she’d wanted to come, and he’d warned her. Then he would tilt his head in that way of his, half curious, half cocky, and ask her if she would be okay. Silmaria heard the unspoken challenge in his voice: Can you keep up?

It made her seethe every time, and every time she went trudging along faster, cursing all Nobles and Warriors and stupidly stubborn Knights, sometimes under her breath, sometimes not.

When they weren’t marching on and on until her poor cold feet blistered in her boots, Rael was at work in other areas. When they stopped for a rest, Rael scouted around, usually looking for some kind of vantage to get a measure of their surroundings. A tall, sturdy rock, or a hill overlooking the otherwise flat land. A few times he even made his way up a tree when he found one that grew tall and strong. He surveyed the land around them, took his bearings, and adjusted their course as needed.

Their food was rationed carefully. They both grew leaner during those days of forced marches and less nourishment. Rael did everything he could to bolster their food supplies, stringing up snares for snow rabbits and other small game when they made camp, and ranging for small deer and mountain elk with his bow.

And so their days went. It was near a week before the wide flatlands of the Western Plains began to change, turning into the gently rolling hills of IceMarch Rise. They trudged gradually upward, and trees and woodlands became more common. Tall pines and thick, old evergreens gathered in small, secretive groves on the rocky hills climbing in ever-swelling humps toward the Frostfall Mountains. The days seemed to stretch longer with each dawn, harder and more grueling than the last.

The journey changed Rael, it seemed. Already serious and intense, he became even more focused during their travels, as if all his being were tuned to taking them deeper into the wild and escaping from the Dale at all costs. He made it quite obvious early on that he was to be obeyed implicitly and unwaveringly. He was not cruel, not even unkind, really. He continued to treat her with the same quiet kindness and respect he always did. But there was a hardness to him now, a sternness and demanding quality that would brook no argument and give no rest or reprieve to the pace he demanded until the day was over and he was satisfied they’d covered enough ground. His temper was even and patient as she balked and struggled to adapt to his pace. But he was unyielding, and he smiled less.

Silmaria tried. Truly she did. She put her all into meeting his demands. She rose to the relentless challenge he set forth, putting her heart and soul into keeping up with his pace. She stubbornly pressed ahead. Her will was born of the desire to prove to him she could do it, both as an act of defiance, and also to gain his approval. She couldn’t say which was her true motivation from one moment to the next, but she was determined to do it all the same.

Still, all the determination in the world didn’t make the journey a single step shorter or one bit less demanding. As much as she was loathe to admit it, Silmaria was wearing thin.

“This is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Silmaria admitted quietly one night. They camped high on a hillock, just under the edge of a copse of trees. The canopy of branches would have been great shelter for the fat, falling snowflakes that had been following them the last two days. Only tonight, the sky was empty and clear, the unforgivingly thick blanket of clouds finally giving way to a captivating view of the cool winter sky with its distinctively gleaming stars spread by the thousands like diamond dust cast into the void. The Gnari girl sat, her knees drawn up to her chest, staring up into the sparkling darkness while Rael sat across the serenely crackling fire, running a whetstone along the blade of his greatsword.

“I warned you,” he reminded her, not unkindly.

“I know,” Silmaria sighed. She reached up to idly toy with her hair, running her fingers through the long, dark locks of it to try to work some of the tangles free. “And I believed you. I didn’t understand how…big…everything is. The world is a lot wider than I thought, I guess. I never knew I could hate something so simple as walking so passionately.”

It was true; if Silmaria spent the rest of her life off her feet, she’d die happy. Silmaria had always considered herself to be fit and strong, but after the countless miles they’d covered, her body ached everywhere. Her hips hurt. Her thighs and calves and the soles of her feet hurt, and her back and shoulders from lugging her packs around, too. She wasn’t doing anything especially strenuous, but it was so constant, endless. If they weren’t sleeping, and they weren’t eating, then they were walking, and sometimes they were walking when they did that, too, or at least it certainly felt like it. And walking hadn’t gotten one bit more enjoyable once they started heading up hill, oh no!

Silmaria turned her eyes to him, and caught him with a faint but definitive smirk on his lips. The bastard was smirking at her!

“It will get worse,” he said grimly.

“How?” she demanded flatly.

“IceMarch Pass will be hard going,” Rael explained. “It will take us high into the mountains, where it will be colder. The pass will be steep and treacherous, and this time of year there will be harsh winter storms that will make the weather down here seem mild and enjoyable. Surviving that part of the journey will be very difficult.”

Silmaria felt her stomach go sour at his words. She looked down at her dinner, a bowl of thick stew they’d made from rabbit meat and the last of the venison, and several tubers of roots they had found earlier that morning. All in all, it wasn’t a bad dinner, but now she’d lost her taste for it.

She forced herself to eat for several bites, then in a sudden burst of temper, she tossed her bowl violently into the snow, spattering the soft white with chunks of rabbit and deer. Caught between fear and despair, tears threatening to spill at any moment, Silmaria fought off the impending sobs by leveling a fierce glare at her companion.

“That’s great. That’s just fucking great! I’m already struggling just to get through without falling behind. Now you’re telling me this is the easy part? How the hell do I survive all that! I’m barely keeping up as it is!”

Rael looked up at her then, though his hands never slowed at their work. The firelight caught in his coppery hair, making it shine all the more brilliant, accentuating the wild, untamed locks and the fierceness that his growing beard lent to his face. The flame traced ragged, shining lines up the killing edge of his blade, and his gaze was just as sharp, a flash of silver fire, threatening to burn her if she got too close.

She shivered, and not from the cold.

“Lower your voice. We don’t know what is in these hills with us,” he warned her calmly. She hadn’t even realized she was yelling until he said it. Flushing with embarrassment, she balled her hands into fists, angry, and opened her mouth to shout a retort.

“Be quiet!” Rael commanded, and this time there was steel in his voice. The fire in his eyes blazed bright, and his progress with the whetstone stilled. Silmaria’s breath caught in her throat, and though she couldn’t help but continue to glower at him, neither could she help but obey him.

The whetstone began to move once again, and his gaze returned to his work. “This is hard. I know. It is hard for me, too, and I’m more used to these things. But understand this. You will persevere. You will drive on, because you have no choice. Because there is no other way. We move, and we hunt, and we keep warm, and we make our way to journey’s end, or we die. Simple as that.”

“I can’t do this,” Silmaria said softly with real fear in her voice. She was afraid, angry and afraid, and now tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. This made her even angrier, because she didn’t want Rael to see her cry, and even more afraid, because if she started, she didn’t think she could stop.

“You can, and you will,” Rael replied firmly. His whetstone slid over the edge of his blade, an almost hypnotic undertone to his words. “You are a strong woman, Silmaria. The only woman I would ever take with me on this journey. I wouldn’t have brought you along just so you could die, you know. I knew before we left that you could do this. And I still know that now.”

Silmaria huddled into herself, rocking gently back and forth. Her eyes turned to the fire now, watching the flames shift and sway in their sensual, deliberate way, a dance as old and primal and unknowable and familiar as the world itself. The girl, feeling very small, soaked up Lord Rael’s words as he spoke them in tones of sureness and finality. She hated him then, as she sometimes did, and like usual she wasn’t really sure what for. She hated him for being so hard. She hated him for being so kind. She hated him for being so sure when she felt so lost and confused and hopeless. She hated him for having so much faith in her. For putting his confidence in her and forcing her to be stronger than she thought she was capable of being, just to live up to his expectations.

Most of all she hated him because, somehow, she couldn’t stomach the thought of letting him down.

***

“Teach me to hunt,” she said.

So he did.

The most difficult part for Silmaria was the bow. The longbow Rael used was designed for a man taller than her, and with a much stronger arm; it took all her strength to draw the string and nock an arrow back. A few hours of hunting with half a dozen arrows loosed left her back and shoulders on fire from the strain.

Despite the difficulty, the Gnari proved a natural hunter. After a bare handful of days, she was hunting almost as frequently as Rael himself. Once the Nobleman taught her how to handle the bow, how to identify game sign and how to quietly stalk a kill, Silmaria’s instincts and natural ability took over. Her heightened senses and quickness on her feet helped her to shadow prey with natural grace and poise.

When she stalked her quarry and moved in position to take down her kill, all the rest of the world, the hardships and the struggle, the pain of her lost friends and home, the perils of their journey…all of it faded from her mind. Her heart wasn’t squeezed quite so tightly, and all she lived for was the moment. The hunt. The kill. It was a peaceful, violent sort of exhilaration. She reveled in the thrill of the hunt, and was deeply gratified to be doing something truly useful and necessary to their survival. The pressure of the bowstring drawn taut under her fingers, the arrow knocked back. The solid wood of the ash bow, thrumming with tension and potential. It spoke to her, a promise of food, of value and purpose and power. It was a heady thing, and she savored it.

Soon, Rael had to depend on Silmaria’s tracking skills entirely to hunt; as they made their way deeper and deeper into the hilly country and up to the mountains themselves, game became scarce and hunting was made no easier by the ever-worsening weather. They’d salted and smoked as much extra meat as they could. Rael held those supplies back, staring at the unfriendly sky and seeing nothing but bleak, lean days ahead.

The pair reached the FrostFall Mountains after just over two weeks in the wild.

Silmaria craned her head back to stare up at the massive peaks towering up in a long, jagged row, and felt truly small. She’d never been so close to a mountain before. The steep cliffs were dotted and peppered with the green of scraggly trees clinging to the rocky slopes, their small, powerful, stubborn roots resiliently digging their way into any crack or purchase they could find. Snow capped the upward jutting tips of the mountains, which wore cloaks of snow and thick cloud cover like mysterious, faceless conspirators come for some clandestine meeting at the edge of the world.

“They’re huge… how are we supposed to go on? I don’t think I can climb this,” Silmaria said doubtfully as she eyed the giants arrayed before her.

Rael, standing beside her, gave a thin, amused smile. “You haven’t tried yet. You seem to be doing a lot of things you didn’t think you could. But it doesn’t matter; we’ll be taking IceMarch Pass. It’s a long way through the mountains, and treacherous at winter. But it will carry us through sure and sound, if we’re careful.”

If Silmaria thought traveling the hills had been hard, now she knew better. IceMarch Pass was a narrow slip of a path worn into the mountains. It was just wide enough for a single cart to navigate, if the driver were exceptionally brave, or exceptionally stupid, or exceptionally well loved by all the collective gods named and unnamed. The pass alternated between steep rises and long, stretching gradual climbs, sudden blind turns and serpentine windings in an ever increasing climb. The way was slow, and grueling, and the path was heaped with snow and, as they went higher, treacherous ice. Rael led them at a cautious, calculating pace, giving no window for disaster to catch them unawares.

They followed the pass deep into the mountains. The great stone giants surrounded them, beautiful and terrible. The path opened on one side to drop off into nothingness, a deep ravine gouged into the mountain chain far below, mist hanging in specter-threads over open and empty space, calling.

The craggy faces of the mountains soared, reaching with all their might to the sky, as if the land collected itself in a great surge to reach the sky and kiss the sun before falling back to earth, still and lifeless and complete. The bones of the world were arrayed around them, white-capped and cold and lonely. Silmaria was filled with a sense of something old and powerful beyond knowing in those strange and wonderfully treacherous mountains, and that was comforting and alarming all at once.

After a time, Silmaria decided she would have rather liked the mountains, if it weren’t for the storms. By their second day trekking along IceMarch Pass, the storms had slowed them to a snails crawl. The wind was constant and howling and so powerful it made her ache just to be buffeted by it. They were both wrapped with every bit of winter clothes and heavy cloaks they possessed, but even then the wind cut straight through to chill them to the marrow.

Rael led the way blocking the worst of the elements. Wind, snow, ice and freezing rain whipped all about him, driven by mighty blowing gusts. Silmaria had never been more grateful for the man as she was then; she knew if it hadn’t been for him absorbing the brunt of the storm she would have froze, or been blown right off the mountainside. As it was, she buried her hands under her arms to keep them warm, her teeth chattered violently, and she trudged on through knee deep snow, her head bent as she stubbornly pushed forward.

And so they made their way, forward and upward, as the storm battered at them viciously. Rael pushed on for there was no place to rest, and if they stopped moving, they’d never move again. The snow and ice born on merciless winds felt like razors when they touched any exposed skin. Rael had his hood drawn down and his face swathed in thick clothe, but he was of course unable to cover himself entirely. He squinted out into the blizzard raging around them, eyes narrowed nearly shut and his brows crusted with ice.

He glanced back at Silmaria, small and shaking with the cold as she marched miserably in his wake. His heart went out to her, but they had no time to rest. “You can do this! Keep going!” he shouted to her, and his words were all but swallowed by the storm.

She said nothing in reply, but kept moving, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, just as he did.

Only then, he didn’t. Rael’s foot shot forward, sliding along a wickedly slippery patch of ice. He shifted, trying to regain his balance, but when he adjusted his weight to the other leg it too went skidding out from under him. The big Noble went tumbling forward, fell onto his backside and slipped, uncontrolled, along the path toward the ledge opening into the yawning emptiness dropping to the earth below. Rael cursed and cursed again. He twisted and turned belly down, his hands grabbing at the slick snow and ice and finding no purchase as he hurtled to the edge, his clothes wet and clinging and heavy.

Then there was nothing beneath him, and for half a sickening, stomach lurching moment, he was weightless, floating as airy as the snow swirling around him.

The moment passed, and as all flightless creatures inevitably must, he fell.

In the very last, desperate moment, his frantically grasping hands found hope in the form of the thick, gnarled roots of an old fallen tree still stubbornly stuck in the mountain just below the edge of the path. He gripped the sturdy roots as if his life depended on them, which it surely did, and held fast. Rael’s body came swinging forward, smashing into the mountainside and knocking the wind from him, but he refused to lose his hold.

The wind snatched at his heavy wet cloak, pulling and tugging and swirling it about to tangle around his dangling legs. Rael held on, unable to move, hardly able to breathe as blood seeped from his nose and a cut on his chin where the stone of the cliff had gouged him. He felt immensely heavy, all the weight of his impressive body, plus his sodden clothes and cloak, and the packs strapped to his back, all pulling him down to that exhilarating and all too deadly fall. It took all his strength, all his power to hold to the roots, panting in a cold sweat.

Small, hard fingers gripped his arms with surprising strength. Rael looked up to see Silmaria crouched down at the edge of the cliff, her hood fallen away and her black hair whipping about in fierce tendrils and curls.

Silmaria grit her teeth. She strained to pull him up, and her emerald eyes were wild. “Don’t you dare! You promised you wouldn’t leave me! Now get your heavy ass up here! Pull, damn you!”

Rael set his jaw, gathered his strength, and heaved. The thick muscles in his arms and shoulders strained and bulged and rippled. Silmaria yanked and tugged and pulled, putting all her strength into hauling the Nobleman from the abyss.

It took all their combined effort, but Rael came clawing up from the fatal fall, and at last rolled back onto the path. They both collapsed into a heap, gasping and shaking from the near disaster.

“Let’s not do that again, please? I’m pretty sure I just gave up at least a good five years of my life,” Silmaria shouted as she pushed up from him.

Rael stared up at her from where he sprawled on his back, and despite the terrifying incident, grinned a bloody grin, and then laughed. “Agreed. No more mucking about on the edge of cliffs.”

“It’s not funny!” Silmaria glared, and punched him in the chest.

“It’s not. Only, right now I’m alive, and anything is funny,” Rael replied.

When he got his mirth under control, Rael wiped the blood from his leaking nose and split lip. He dabbed at the small gash in his chin and they rose to continue their way along the deadly pass, their footsteps even more cautious than before.

***

In spite of their brush with disaster or perhaps because of it, like some balancing of fortune and fate, luck was with them just as night fell and it became too dark to see the treacherous path ahead. They happened upon an outcropping of stone jutting overhead above the path. The ledge was low, forcing Rael to bend over nearly double, but it pressed out over the pass far enough to offer almost complete shelter from the blowing ice and snow of the ever worsening storm.

“We’ll stop here for the night. There’s no point trying to push on with night falling,” Rael nodded as they scanned the little alcove under the overhang, finding it mostly dry and free of snow.

“Thank the gods,” Silmaria groaned, and let her packs fall gratefully to the hard packed dirt underfoot.

Rael stood at the edge of the overhang, looking out at the rapidly darkening sky and the heavy, low clouds covering any hint of moon or stars. “If this storm doesn’t let up soon, we’re going have a time of it.”

Silmaria sat on the floor, pulling her cloak in tight and rubbing her hands briskly up and down her arms. “What do we do?”

“Take it as it comes,” Rael replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. “We can’t tarry long. But if we have to wait a day or two for the storm to die down, this is as good a place as any. The worst of the ice and snow is kept at bay. We may even be able to make a small fire, I think. It looks like the smoke should be able to escape well enough that we won’t suffocate.”

“Well that’s reassuring,” Silmaria returned dryly. She shifted her packs onto a drier spot, and began to pull out blankets and her sleeping roll, as well as some of the dried meat, roots, and berries they’d scavenged a few days ago before the storm had barreled down on them and they’d started up the pass. “Do you think we’ll find any good hunting up here?”

“There’s some,” Rael nodded slowly. “Mountain goats, mostly, and some smaller game. We might get lucky and be able to take down some hawks as well. But we won’t be able to hunt a thing until this storm relents. Nothing worth going out there for, that’s for sure.”

Silmaria frowned softly as she contemplated their supplies. “This isn’t going to last us much longer.”

“We’ll make it last,” Rael said firmly.

He slipped back under the overhang, crouched low. Despite the grimness of their situation, Silmaria couldn’t help a frozen smile at the sight.

Rael noticed her smile and shot her a perplexed look. “What is it?”

“You look ridiculous.”

Rael contemplated that for a moment, and then gave a wry chuckle. “I suppose this isn’t my most dignified moment, is it?”

“No, not at all,” Silmaria laughed.

“Being tall isn’t always the wonderful thing people make it out to be,” Rael smirked as he sat down beside her. He pulled off his packs, placing them beside hers, and propped his greatsword and longbow up against the cliff wall.

“Oh yeah, I’m sure it’s awful,” Silmaria rolled her feline eyes. “I bet your head gets cold at such a high altitude and everything. It probably gets hard to breath with the air so thin up there, too.”

Rael gave her a blank stare. For a moment, Silmaria thought maybe she’d truly offended him. Then he smiled. It was a crooked smirk, mirthful and teasing. Silmaria rather liked it.

“You’ve got a wicked tongue, you know,” Rael observed.

“You don’t even know,” Silmaria muttered.

“What?” He asked.

Silmaria realized what she’d just said, and flushed. She was glad of her pelt; if she’d been human, she probably would have been horribly red, all the way down to her toes. “Nothing. You said we can have a fire. Can we have a fire?”

Rael gave her a confused look, but nodded.

As the Nobleman worked with his flint and tinder, Silmaria pulled a blanket around her shoulders and huddled deep into it, trying to keep warm. The temperature was, if anything, dropping as night fell. She began praying that they would make it through the night; and with that, she realized there was a real possibility they would not, and then she started to shake all over again, and not just from the cold this time.

Just as she was about to ask him what was taking so long, Rael sat back and rested his elbows on his knees, scowling. “I can’t see a thing.”

Silmaria gave a start, and she realized just how dark it was. He was right; between night falling completely, the storm obscuring the sky, and the overhang above them, the darkness was so deep there was no way a Human would be able to make anything out. Even with her heightened night eyes, her vision was iffy.

“Here, let me do it,” she offered, and took his hands. He relented and gave her the tools. After a few false starts, a small, precious flame blossomed, licking at the dry wood and illuminating their small little shelter. Rael leaned in and blew on the flame. Slowly gaining confidence, the tendrils of fire spiraled higher, growing and spreading over the wood as small, hot roots of orange and red took stubborn, fierce hold. The wood cracked and crackled, and just like that, the flames were alive.

Silmaria sat back, satisfied with her little fire beyond measure. She held frozen fingers out to the pirouetting flames and gazed into the cycling kaleidoscope of orange and yellow and red, all blending and flaring, spinning in a dizzying array of fascination.

“I’ve always thought fire is so beautiful. I think this is the most beautiful fire I’ve ever seen,” Silmaria said.

“It’s a fine fire,” Rael said as he took some of the cured meat and placed it on a flat rock that he placed at the edge of the fire to give it a bit of warmth. “And right now, it’s the most welcome sight I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Sometimes I feel like it’s calling me,” Silmaria continued as she stared. She wasn’t sure why she was telling him this, only she was starting to relax for the first time in days, warmed by the swelling heat of the fire. Her bones were finally beginning to thaw, and as usual, the nearness of the fire had her mesmerized. Lulled. “Like it’s calling me to dance with it. Let it embrace me and spin me in its arms. I know that’s stupid. I know I would burn up and turn to ash. Everything that feels fire’s touch does. But that doesn’t mean the call is any less promising.”

Rael listened quietly. He sat beside her, staring into the flames with her. At last, he said, “Fire is power. Like power, it’s comfortable. Warm. Inviting. Beautiful. And like power, in the end, it will consume you until there’s nothing left. Ashes and black bones and burnt up promises.”

Silmaria had no words for that.

They ate in silence neither uncomfortable nor wholly companionable. Now that they had settled in for the night, they simply had no energy left for conversation. Instead, they ate slowly and thoroughly, savoring every bit of the meager meal, knowing their next may be even smaller, and the one after that miniscule indeed.

After the meal, they laid out their sleeping rolls and laid down for the night. Once again they huddled in close, sharing blankets and warmth to ward off the freezing cold.

Silmaria pressed in close against Rael, and his thick, powerful arms wrapped her up. She was still amazed as ever by the incredible heat of the man; with the blankets insulating them and the heat coming off the Knight, she was actually comfortably warm in a freezing snowstorm. She’d been pressed against plenty of men before, and never had she experienced a man that radiated the raw body heat Rael did. The Gnari girl curled up against his broad chest, rested her head on his solid shoulder, and let out a soft sigh as she relaxed fully. She was warm here, comfortable. Safe. Silmaria knew that, curled in Rael’s arms, she would make it through another day, even frightful and dangerous as they’d become.

Rael was already close to sleep, holding her close in his warm embrace, one big hand resting on the small of her back as she curled to his side. His breathing was slowing into the relaxed rhythm of rest. Silmaria soaked in his warmth, drawn and lulled by it the same way she was drawn and lulled by the warmth of the fire. She began to drift, secure against Rael’s solid, reassuring form.

A hair’s breadth from sleep, the Stirring overcame her. It lanced through her like an arrow, sharp and startling and painfully penetrating. Her breath hitched, and she shuddered roughly, muscles twitching as her senses came alive, snatching her from the precipice of slumber and giving her a violent, lecherous shake. All at once, she felt the hard, defined muscles of Rael’s defined shoulders and chest, the strength of his big arms, like corded steel wrapping her up.

Every inch of Silmaria’s body quivered, hot. She could feel the pulsing hunger racing through her, spreading and expanding, and every bit of it hot lined to the insatiable, slick ache between her legs.

A whimper tore from her lips, a lame, injured sound of need, a pleading to make the suffering agony end, please gods, make it stop. Hardly aware of her own actions, Silmaria pressed to him, molding her body to his, heedless of the unflattering, uncomfortable bulk of their clothing. She wrapped her legs around the thick solidness of his thigh, hitching her weeping core against his leg. Even fleeting and scant as it was, the friction there was delicious and wonderful. She bit her lip, sleepily cursing in her mind, cursing her hunger, her need, her endless wanton, unrelenting desire that under most circumstances she would have reveled in. But tonight, like this, with him, it was nothing but purest torment. She cursed and railed, and squirmed about, her hips shimmying and undulating despite her very best efforts to be still. The burning in her loins was overwhelming, maddening, a heated need in her cunt that even the raging blizzard outside their meager shelter wouldn’t cool.

“Silmaria. What are you doing?” Rael asked.

She almost moaned aloud; his tone was thick with sleep and low, gravelly. His words ran down her spine and a violently lustful shiver chased down after them. Silmaria couldn’t recall ever being so close to coming undone by such simple, innocent words.

And then those words registered, penetrating the fog of her mind addled by her Stirring. Silmaria came fully aware, and realized while she had been so distracted by the demands of the Stirring and her heated internal conflict, her hand had, quite independent of any conscious decision on her part, made its way into Rael’s trousers. Her fingers were wrapped around the length of him, gripping tenderly and eagerly, and his flesh was growing and thickening and lengthening so absolutely perfectly, just like she wanted, and it was warm and solid and oh so very thick and alive.

She looked up at the Nobleman, staring up into his eyes of quicksilver. He was still a bit hazy, woken so strangely after just drifting off. She expected to see disapproval, outrage, and disgust. She’d hoped, and silently prayed even as she vehemently railed against herself, that she would see lust and desire in his gaze. What she found instead, was an expression of puzzlement, uncertainty, and, heartbreakingly, tender concern.

The look on Rael’s face undid her completely, in a way she’d never experienced before. Somehow, that look of concern and compassion did what no look of contempt or judgment or scorn had ever managed; it made Silmaria so deeply ashamed and disgusted with herself and her traitorous, uncontrollable body that she was near physically sick with it.

The tears came hot on her cheeks. She hated him for making her cry, again! But he wasn’t making her cry, was he? She didn’t know if she hated him, or herself, or just the damnable fucking tears and whatever cruel gods had cursed her with a life ruled from between her legs.

She was sobbing so violently now that she was jerking in his arms. And still, through it all, she didn’t release her hold on his flesh until he gently disentangled her fingers. That just made her sob even harder. His parting his flesh from hers was the gentlest, most tender slap in the face she’d ever received, and it felt like a knife in her breast.

Gods, she was so tired of falling apart!

How could this, of all ridiculous and meaningless things, send her into such a profound spiral? After the Manor. All her friends dying. The terror and panic of being hunted. The hardship of braving the elements on this journey. How could she have so many tears left? And how could she have any for this? It was sex, and it was meaningless. She’d fucked and been fucked, and it was never pretty, and often downright cruel, and she was absolutely no stranger to being used and then scorned, or outright cast aside. And it had never, not once, cut her this deeply. Why? Why now?

Because, for all the callousness she’d been treated with, she’d never before been rejected.

And because, for the first time since Master Edwin, it wasn’t meaningless.

The thought of him was another dagger to her heart, and just when she thought the tears would slow, they fell hot and heavy as ever.

Silmaria was lost in her pain so long, she didn’t know how long she cried. She cried until the tears were gone, until her body had no more to give, and even then she was a pitiful, shaking, keening thing for more than a few moments. When at last some awareness returned, she found she was wrapped more firmly than ever in Rael’s powerful arms. He held her close, and her tears had soaked his shirt just as they did that night in the forest seemingly a lifetime ago. One hand rubbed in slow, soothing strokes along the small of her back, and the other was working at the tense muscles of her shoulders and upper back with strong, capable, patient fingers. He kept her head tucked just beneath his chin, and he was making soft, soothing wordless sounds in his throat. He didn’t try to talk to her. He didn’t rush her. And he didn’t move away.

Slowly, as if fearing what she would find, the Gnari girl peeked up at the Nobleman. His eyes were on her, that intense, focused gaze. There was sympathy there, and she hated the thought that he pitied her. But the upwelling of shame was calmed by the compassion in his bright, sharp eyes, even as it broke her heart all over again.

His eyes never left hers as he slowly reached up and brushed the tears from her slick cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and meant it. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Tell me,” he said softly, and here was no judgment or scorn in his voice. Only a desire to know.

“Tell me your pain,” he said, in gentle command.

So she did.

***

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