The note fluttered from fingertips to the ground, two simple sentences scrawled in charcoal. Keziah read them aloud. “It was him or me. I'm sorry.”
“Ah, no. We're not going to see her for a while, are we?”
“After that? No. Probably not.”
“Good luck then, my friend.” Marima adjusted the baby at her back, who cooed at the jostling. “I hope Akasha had more luck with the Clerics.”
“She's gonna need it out there. Wait.” The pair's eyes locked as they nodded and confirmed each other's suspicion. “Can I smell fire?”
Eyes not yet open, her dream dissipated, and it took Issané more than a full moment to realise she is alone. Inside Tristin’s tent, in his bed, she was naked save for linens, and under a mountain of quilts. The languid voices from her idle consciousness faded, and checking herself, surprised to find she hadn't been messed with while unconcious, she reached under her pillow. A small smile crossed her face at finding her knife there. Bringing it up to her eyeline pleased her even more, once an eyelid could be forced open. He'd cleaned it, and done a nice job too.
A headache from hell dawns the more awake she becomes, and wincing from it, she saw the remains of his vigil at her bedside. A place to sleep so she wouldn't be disturbed while he watched over her, the pitcher he'd used to keep her hydrated. Only water inside, but her head throbbed as though she'd been swimming in cider the entire time she had been asleep. He hadn’t seemed to have taken advantage of the fact that she was out cold for a week, despite obviously changing her bandages. And if he had, she would know it just by looking at him for long enough. She didn’t always need to be cruel to get her information. Just smart. Unsure if her plan to show Axel her vision could be called such a thing, she reasoned that at least it was done with now. Struggling to sit, and cussing to the moons and back, she forced herself up and about again, searching out fresh water and clothes.
Squinting at the sunlight, wearing nothing but Tristin’s boots, the shirt that reached her knees, plus his jacket, and scratching her bare pale arse as she exited the tent, her hair was all over the place.
Stalking straight past him, not at all in her eyeline, a relieved Tristin breathed a low, tense, “Oh, thank fuck.”
“Right?” In agreement, Reed checked her as she looked about the camp for somewhere to piss outside of the fence – distracted from their prior conversation. Laughing at her screwed up face just visible over the top fence rail as she shivered in the cold, clouds of steam surrounded her and she nodded when a relieved expression replaced her annoyed one. Silenced again, they spot her washing her hands, guzzling water from the other barrel, and shovelling food from the pot, searching high and low for bread.
Finding some, she stood, eating, staring at her own shirt, as it hung with the other washed clothes, and she grimaced at it being ruined. Even if she got Reed to stitch it back together again, she doubted she’d want to wear it. Wandering over to it then, in no hurry, she pulled off the gigantic, heavy jacket, finding and yanking her own trousers on. Tucking her new shirt into them, now seized forever, she pulled at it until comfortably slouchy enough and turned back the cuffs. Kicking off his boots and finding her own, she put on her jacket over the top.
Reed laughed when she picked up his things, neatly, daintily, placing them away with the others. Checking in the full length mirror they stipulated as necessary to the camp, Tristin gently joined him when she performed a little dance at the chillier clothes touching her skin, jumping up and down and coughing, trying to warm herself in the sharp morning.
Grateful to snatch up the hot bowl of food in her hands again, and sidling up to the cookfire for more, she looked around her. They’d finished the lean-to in her absence. New fencing reinforced her barrier too. A reminder that she'd somewhat slowed them down, yet she is impressed with it in all it’s glory. As promised, the carpentry was worth waiting for and they’d be warm and cosy throughout the season after all.
They'd done this before.
Jed, hearing their laughter on his way down to the water, yelled, breaking the spell. “Here! Pull in the last of these nets from the river with me, ya loitering shites! You’ve done nothing but sit on your arse watching her all week!” He muttered something about mothballs for bollocks and turned to Issané, waving. “Nice to see you again!”
The yelling made Axel look up from where he was sat, up to his arse in his maps and books, appearing as though he hadn’t moved from his spot in a month let alone a week. Greeting her with an uncertain but warm smile, he tried her. “You good?”
Shovelling seconds of warm flatbread she'd drenched in bacon grease into her mouth, she answered him, cool, without so much as a glance. “Yep.”
“We good? You and me?”
Issané studied him then, over the rim of her bowl, letting him sweat for an extra second or two, savouring the genuine regret in him. “Aye, Axel. I told you.”
You ever use him like that again... Her eyes flicked for a second, from her dish back to him, to the couple of swords sitting beside him. One his, and the one Kayn refused to use – despite his repeated insistence – before focusing back on him again.
“Go on, then. If you can.”
Eating faster, slurping stew and mopping at the gravy with a third folded up hunk of bread from her pocket, she finished in double time. Shoving her dish into Axel’s hand with her mouth still full, she gave a cocky thumbs up before grabbing the blades beside him. Investigating the riverbank where Jed, Tristin and Reed were making their way to the water too, she scanned the area for his location, squinting, fierce, at the sight of her prey.
Axel tittered, soft, as she span on her heel away from him, and marching, she took Tristin’s knife from the sheath at his back as she passed him by. Picking up her pace and arriving at the waters edge, she threw Kayn’s own to land point down, jabbing the steel into the mud in front of her, stepping back, away from it with arms outsretched.
Attention caught, he is amused at her gesture to pick it up. If you can... Getting the measure of the blades she had left, she flipped Tristin’s knife to her now empty right, swapping both blades over and back again and tossing the smaller one a couple of times to decide if the grip should be point up or point down. Still dangerous as fuck, more now than ever, her flow and stance is pure style, all flash, meant to taunt as she took up her position, tilting her chin. ...Fuck-o.
She can’t keep up the act, though, and she grinned, gleeful, bouncing slightly as he stepped towards her, nodding at his acceptance, encouraging him to approach. He smirked back then – knowing he is watched, and likely about to be schooled – and readily took up the dare he was aware they assumed he’d back down from, when he caught Reed on the breeze loudly singing her praises.
“Oh, Tris, you’ll like this. You completely missed it last time. You’ve only seen her sneak attacks on the road. Watch her. Absolutely amazing fighter.” Making their way through the slush, down to the icy cold river, he called out as they approach, betting against Kayn, for all to hear. “Oi, Jed! Ten coins on the black!”
“Haha! Only ten? I’ll take that bet any day of the week. Happy to pay you in fact, I've been waiting for this one a while now. Here, Tris, you’re gonna want to watch this.”
“But... My knife? She just... She took it...” He is vaguely possessive and uncomfortable with her having it, unsure of why to begin with. It was sharp enough to go through an elk like hot piss through snow. And then he understood. She had form.
The two best each other over and again, neither winning outright, as they sparred on the riverbank, clashing steel on steel for well over an hour. Issané not letting up as she provoked him into fighting with her again and again, she didn’t want an apology from him, she wanted to show him all of the ways that she could kick his arse.
There were many. Surprised to find how hard he had to defend himself, he quickly learned she'd the talent for checking him when he least expected it, not wanting to get himself snared on that particular knife. Yet, stopping now and then, it was odd to see her cough without sound coming out. But that mere thing wasn’t going to stop her, and every time he thought she was done, she would come at him again and again. Reed had been right about needing to learn to be faster with his feet. He should have been watching them train, paying attention to what they were doing, and how easy he'd been going on him. And he supposed he could think about conceding that Axel was right about considering progressing his skill more often. Not that he'd ever admit it aloud though.
Finding he no longer had this death wish on her, nor even on himself now, she tested him over and over, grateful to Axel for being able to remove most of the hatred and fear from him, replacing it with security. No longer blinded by wrath and heartbreak, he could see her for what she was. A worthy opponent. A Sanguine. Settling into a pattern together, able to train seriously with respect for the other's abilities, neither outmatched the other on equal footing, and they could both appreciate each other’s power as equals. As comrades.
The others, satisfied no real amount of blood will be spilt today, joyfully turn to helping with the fish. They will be hungry after this, rations still not broken until she was back with them, and they'd spent the week preparing a feast in her honour.
Leaving up the hill once they are done hauling nets, they depart, all except Tristin. Finally noticing him watching her fight, and seeing the look he is giving her, she sweeps Kayn's leg, throwing her weapons down. Narrowly missing his head as they stick into the dirt either side of it, she ends the scrap. Mettle up from the fighting she stormed over, dragging him into the nearest clearing.
Her opponent left behind, the fight forgotten, he lay in the dirt howling with laughter. Watching her go with him, still chuckling to himself as he left to find Axel, he was glad she could forgive him as he‘d been promised. Glad that he'd been right about changing his mind about her.
Evening drew in, and the orange light cast a warm hue on the icy frost forming around them. Staying in the thicket until the cold, almost night air forced them to put all of their clothes back on and go back to the fire, shivering, he stamped his feet watching her dress again. “Mmh, this cold makes me ache. My toes are cold. We’ll go back, eh? The fire will warm us, the wood out here will be too wet for one of our own. We’ll get something to drink too. See what’s made it from the river into in the pot. Sound good? You must be hungry?”
All that did sound good, but she was irritated by the realisation they wouldn't be able to spend as much time out alone now. He was right. It was getting too cold, and harder to find dry wood that they didn't want to take back with them. Cursing herself for not bringing anything to keep them warmer here, she stuck out her bottom lip, petulant. Kicking her own toe at the dirt as he fiddled with his jacket, she reasoned with herself – at least they still had his tent. Still sulking, good as she felt about staying with him, it wasn't the same as being out under the stars.
Turning to stomp up the hill to camp, before she can stalk off, both reluctant to go back, he took her by the hand, his hesitance that making her pause. “Hey...” His own breeze rustled leaves from deep within. Pulling her back in for one last kiss alone, he measured her, careful. Praying he’d read the situation right and that this wouldn't be for the last time, he forged the memory of her into his brain, in case. Now or never. He must tell her. “Issané? I've let you down. I said I wouldn't, but I let him hurt you again...”
Feeling panic, he realised his words were coming too fast, too many. A too sharp tooth digging into his top lip told him he'd stopped just in time. “No, I've got to say this.” He told himself as much as her. “You were in trouble and I did nothing. I was afraid. Too scared to move. It's not good enough. I know I'm weak against them, and I don't want that when you're near me. I put too much faith in them, and I know now that's dangerous. I need more faith in myself, and you give me some of that, but I don't want to take the piss. If I can't give you anything back... If I can't even keep a simple promise...”
She stared, as if all this had been obvious from the beginning, and he understood to change the subject.
“So... Ah... The vision thing? And, blood magic? That means you're an Orc too, then?”
“Yes. Orcs – capital oh, thank you very much – get visions when they're cursed. Why?” Defences went up. “You couldn't tell because I wasn't in my mail? You need to see my armoured helmet before you can believe it? I should have told you about this before? Surprise! This is what we look like underneath the bullshit they spread about us!” Anger flared. “Is this going to end up being a fucking problem?”
“I...” he cleared his throat, “I shouldn't think so...” Bravery took him over at last and he scratched behind his ear and smiled, showing more canines than usual. Way more than any human ought to have.
Issané's eyes went wide. “Holy shit!” She laughed, coughing again. “The stories are true! We were always fated to be together!” She struggled to breathe for laughing so hard. “That's why you can't have cooked bones...”
“A rabid dog bit me, and then Jed did.”
And that was all she had to say. He'd doubted her, worried that she'd be too tough to accept him like this. All that tension melted, the glow in her heart clear to see on her face. She didn’t purposely hide things, he reminded himself. And she wasn't accepting anything purely for his sake. She was one of the only people he'd ever met who genuinely didn’t do that. Radiance plastered across her whole being, and she showed it to him.
Stepping towards him, her smile grew, matching his own beaming down at her before she kissed him again. He lingered in embracing her, enjoying the solitude with her before Jed having a lot to say about them both. Holding on tight, he breathed into her hair and she felt him shiver against her, still struggling to talk. “I.. Issané, I might die inside again, if you're not here. When it looked like you were gone...” He squeezed, and she hacked, wheezing. Apologetic, her hand up indicating he should wait, he flinched at her obvious discomfort. “Did it hurt?”
“Nah. It’ll be alright. It was worth it.” Mischievous, she stage-winked. “Totally got one over on Axel now though, ain’t I? He’s gonna be in my pocket for ages.”
“Look. Be careful...”
“Obbé be damned, Tris! I don’t want to hear it, okay? I was nearly gone that time, and I know it. But that was always the risk, and I knew that well enough from the start of all this too. What doesn't kill you makes you curl up really tight into a ball and sob your heart out, right? What doesn't kill you makes you wish your parents had never met? It is dangerous out here, and I knew what getting involved with Axel's plan meant for me. Who he is, Why he is fighting for this. For us. This is a fight, and I'm in it too. I’ve read the scrolls, I've seen his books. Tris, I know what I am doing. It might not always look like it, but...”
She shrugged the end of her sentence. She would not be lead or corrected, and she will not think nor hear of it again, so the terror of her own knife in her chest could pass and fade in time. Just as all the things that happened like that always would, along with the rest of them. Pushing it from her mind, vividly reminded of something she'd seen in him while he was helping her to heal, something in what she'd said had caused it to flare again now.
Her hand on his chest, halting him again, he was confused by her expression, the spirit gone out of it, her eyebrows raised. “You said it yourself. Kayn was getting worse, and he didn't know, Tris. He didn't know how much you wanted him back with you all again. He still doesn't know that you didn't know how to tell him that. He doesn't know how terrified you were he wouldn't come home one day. You didn't know how to stop him from hurting, and he doesn't know how hard you tried to. He doesn't know how much...” It came to her. “You have a secret. About him.”
“Yes.” Relief took him over for the millionth time that day, and he sniffed back, hard.
“Tris... What did you do?”
He nods. “Something... really bad.”
Thank you for reading, here's my carrd.
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