Claire knew she looked as bad as she felt. But she didn’t care. She was too tired to care. Exhaustion stung at her eyes and made her whole body feel like lead. Lifting her arms was almost too much for her to bear. Between the worrying and the threat of nightmares, she’d hardly gotten any sleep at all before Marla had woken her up for the ceremony. Soon after that, it had been a whirlwind of commotion as the men saddled up, preparing for the journey ahead.
Claire had been fortunate enough to get Azra, the horse she had tried to steal in the middle of the night. The poor soul was stuck with Claire for the entirety of their mission. However, Claire was more scared of it than it probably was of her. But those fears turned out to be unfounded as the day grew older. The horse was gentle and tame, responding to even her slightest of gestures. Miles apart from what she’d been expecting, or what she had experienced in the past. Only the best for the palace, she supposed.
The sun had just been peeking up over the eastern mountains when they had set out. The city had slowly started to come to life. Curious eyes were few and far between. But then they must have been used to the comings and goings of soldiers and the like, because most of them hadn’t seemed to give Claire and the men a second thought.
The rest of the day passed by uneventfully. They rode south along the Mascan Causeway. Paved with stone, the road was a feat of engineering as impressive as anything she had seen on her travels so far, stretching the kingdom all the way from the north to the sea in the south, ending at their destination, Et Tessera— the Terraced City. Claire could only imagine what the bustling port would look like. A great city by the sea, it was something she’d always dreamed of seeing at least once in her lifetime.
From there, the plan was to hire a boat that would take them the rest of the way to Linesbrough, the small town where her mother may be hiding. It wasn’t a sure thing, but it was a possibility, and that was all she needed. A new flame of hope burned inside of her. She was going to find her mother, even if she wasn’t in Linesbrough.
And then after that— well, she hadn’t exactly thought that far ahead. The task of finding the rest of the ‘Star Children’ just seemed too monumental to even consider at the moment. One step at a time.
It was around late afternoon when the thrill of a new adventure completely wore off. The vast fields of green were slowly giving way to trees and rocky hill. Claire sighed. If there was anything in the world she didn’t want to see more of, it was trees. The road wound its way through them, shadows forming thick and dark, like a dim, never-ending tunnel. Her disappointment, however, was dwarfed by the growing pain in her back and, er, lower places. Something the other men must have been used to as they showed hardly any signs of torment. But even the throbbing starting in the lower parts of her body seemed like nothing next to the growing exhaustion. She felt like the living dead, hardly able to focus on anything at all. Most of the day passed by in a haze. Her head ached like she’d banged it against a wall. But even though the experience of riding a horse was overall painful, and a bit frightening at times, it was also sort of soothing in its own way. The back and forth motion, the rhythmic clop of the horse’s hooves on stone. Claire slumped further in her saddle, her eyelids growing heavier, until finally she closed them. And it felt so… nice. Just to rest them for a few moments. Darkness took her then, slipping over her like a warm, comforting blanket. The pain and aches and weariness slowly started to fade away. The change was so swift she didn’t even notice that it had happened. One moment she was awake, and the next she simply wasn’t.
Further and further down she sunk, the first glimpses of a dream forming, when it was all interrupted by a firm hand on her shoulder. Claire jerked awake, her heart racing. She leaned sideways in her saddle, saved from an embarrassing, and quite possibly painful fall, by the strong grip.
“Careful, my lady. You lack the balance required to sleep in such places.”
Claire knew who it was without even looking. And she was sure he wore his smug grin as well. She straightened up in her saddle, gripping the pommel extra hard, trying her best to gather herself before looking at him. She was still awkward around Farron, even resorting to avoiding him when she could. Just like old times.
“Thank you,” she said, throwing a quick glance his way, trying her best to make it look casual. She sighed inwardly, knowing the incident would just be another thing to add to his growing list of times he had saved her.
The horse he rode looked like it was specially bred just for him, all black with a shock of white in the shape of a diamond on its forehead. The saddle and reins were all black leather, befitting his somber attire. She wondered briefly how many blades he had hidden on his poor horse. Knowing the elf, the animal was just as lethal as he was.
He rode next to her in silence, no doubt watching to make sure she didn’t keel over again. The rest of the men surrounded her, two in front of her, two in the back, with the captain leading up front. The elf stood out as usual, a stark contrast to the other horses of grays and browns, his dark clothing against their earthen tones. The men had been silent for most of the day, no doubt nervous about their new companions, and one especially. She’d noticed all day the glances they had given the elf. The captain in particular seemed to keep a hawk’s watch on Farron. He was untrusting and stern, and she was sure the two were going to get along even better than him and Aeron had. It would make their trip more eventful, that was for sure.
Almost as if influenced by her thoughts, Farron spurred his horse forward, riding up to the captain.
“We should stop for the night,” he said loudly so they all could hear. “The sun will be setting soon anyway.”
Captain Hamza Bahadur turned and looked at him, his eye glaring. He was not a man that liked to be ordered around, at least not by anyone that didn’t have the words king or council in their title. With his eye patch and gruff disposition, he seemed like he would be more suited to leading a band of thieves than a captain in the king’s guard.
Farron said something else to the man, but it was too low for her to hear. They both turned and looked back at her. Claire stiffened in her saddle, uncomfortable any time that man’s attention was on her. He was intimidating, to say the least. And he didn’t seem to be very fond of her, either.
“We’ll make camp for the evening,” the captain shouted, though he didn’t seem happy about it. He started to veer off into the trees.
Claire had never been so happy to hear those words in her life. Finally, she could get some much needed rest, as long as the nightmares remained at bay. As she followed the captain she wondered if he had ever known happiness in his life. Or if he even knew how to smile.
Claire didn’t think it was even possible to wake up earlier than she had the day they had set out on their journey. But it was, and she was forced to. It was either that or be dragged behind a horse for the rest of the day. Unwilling to go through the embarrassment, let alone torture, she had gotten up. And although tired, she was not as exhausted as the day before. There were no nightmares. Either the necklace was working or she’d been too tired to dream.
The day was turning out to be as uneventful as the previous one. But she remained on high alert. The Syndicate was out there, somewhere, surely watching. Waiting. For what, she didn’t know. Perhaps the guards were a deterrent, or maybe the elf now that they knew what he was capable of. They wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack him again, would they? She remembered the king’s words, that desperation can lead to rash decisions. If they wanted her bad enough, they would.
There were no reports of centaurs in Derenan. It seemed that scourge was concentrated to the east, along with the elves and the General. Exactly where she was heading. But at least she could sleep easier knowing only one group was after her at the moment, whatever consolation that was.
It was later in the day, after they had set up camp for the night, that she was finally able to get some privacy from the guards. She’d wandered off into the woods a little bit, still within shouting distance of the camp, but far enough away where she could get a few moments to herself. She could hear the men start to loosen up a little, laughing and talking as they built a fire and put the horses up for the night.
Claire took a deep soothing breath and unsheathed her dagger. It had been so long since she had practiced with it, it felt somewhat foreign in her hands. She looked at the blade and pommel, slightly melted from her encounter with the Maelin. It was still sturdy however, and even though it had been a gift from the elf, she couldn’t bear to part with it.
Something that she knew she would eventually have to do with the elf himself. No matter how much she wanted him to stay, he had to leave. To escape the clutches of the Council and his brother. To escape from her. The longer he stayed by her side, the more likely he was going to get killed. The Council may have given him a thin veil of protection when he had sworn an oath to them, but Claire hardly thought that was enough. He was too big of a thorn in their side to keep him alive. The last barrier between them and her. And as much as they seemed pleased that he had finally given in to them, she believed they wanted her more. That or he was going to get himself killed defending her from any of the other groups that wanted her.
Either way, he was a dead man. The sooner she could drive him away, the better.
Claire swung her dagger out as a pang of sadness welled deep in her gut. Was she really willing to say goodbye to him? Just like that? If he left now, she would probably never see him again. If it was to save his life, she was fine with it. Or she should have been. She was still being selfish, hoping to keep him by her side through all of this.
She stabbed her dagger at the air. Unsure what to feel. Anger, sadness, guilt— they all seemed to meld together in one big black mess inside of her.
“You always did lack form,” came a familiar voice.
Claire jumped and spun around. Just because it was familiar didn’t mean it didn’t surprise her. Her heart beat harder than usual because she still wasn’t sure how to face him. Especially alone.
“You’d think I’d be used to the way you do that,” she said, her voice breathy.
He leaned casually against a tree, his usual grin in place. Not awkward at all, or at least he hid it well like all of his other emotions.
Claire’s shoulders fell slightly. He had much more experience hiding his true feelings than she did. She was still trying her best not to run every time he came near her. Which she was failing at miserably even now. She didn’t want to have to deal with this. It seemed too soon still.
“Well, it’s not like you ever offered to teach me,” she said, straightening her posture and lifting her chin.
He raised an eyebrow and started to walk towards her.
Claire fought every fiber in her being not to turn and run. The closer he came the stronger the feeling to flee became, until finally she pointed her dagger at him, halting him in his tracks a few feet from her. She fought to control her face, trying her best to force a smile, but knew she was only half succeeding.
“Have you?” she continued with her earlier question.
He opened his mouth and started to say something, but stopped when his eyes rested on her dagger. His expression changed almost immediately, his eyebrows scrunching together in a scowl.
Before he even said anything, Claire knew what he was looking at: the damage that had occurred during the encounter with the Maelin, the melted hilt, the markings along the blade. But before she could sheathe it away from sight, he snatched the blade from her hand and held it up for closer inspection. Claire tried reaching for it, but he quickly sidestepped out of her way.
“Do I want to know what happened to this?” he asked, more distressed than she thought he would be. It seemed he liked blades more than she had thought. Or was it the fact that he had given it to her, and now it was in such a sorry state?
“It’s still in one piece,” Claire tried to defend herself. “I’ll have you know that that thing helped me defeat one of the legendary Beasts of Old.” She put her hands on her hips.
He looked at her sideways, a questioning look in his eyes.
“With Lianna’s help of course,” she admitted. It was more like her who had helped Lianna. The woman was terrifying.
“I see.” He tested the blade in his hands and swung it a few times. “It’s still sturdy, I suppose.” He offered the dagger back to her, handle first. “It’s a shame, but I guess it did its job. I’ll just have to remember not to get you such a nice one again in the future.” He smiled.
Claire sheathed the dagger. “Good,” she said in a huff. “Then don’t.” She spun on her heel and started to stomp away towards the camp.
The seriousness in his tone made her stop. Slowly she turned to face him, scared at what she might find. He had sought her out for a reason, and she doubted it had been to tease her about her dagger. She waited quietly for him to start, the awkwardness settling in again.
“I don’t want… this.” He motioned between them. “You running away every time you see me. Again.”
Claire looked down, avoiding his gaze. She was caught. Guilty. Adding to the shame was the fact that she had done it before. Again and again. It was childish, she knew, but at times she just couldn’t bear it.
He sighed, then chuckled lightly, though it didn’t sound happy. “You can barely bring yourself to look at me once again.”
Heat rushed to her cheeks. “Fare,” she began softly, “it’s not…” But she couldn’t think of what to say next. It’s not what? It was exactly how he said it was. He knew what she was trying to do. She had done it before, after all. And she wasn’t about to tell him otherwise. She wanted to push him away. Had to.
“Look, I understand how you feel. I’m not going to force myself on you. I just—”
He broke off and Claire had to look at him then. He was as open as he’d ever been. No careful masks, no arrogant grins, just him, and it surprised her. She had thought he would have been more guarded than ever.
“It’s just, I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be someone I’m not. The past few years especially. You are one of the few people I’ve ever started to open up to.” It was his turn to look down as if he were embarrassed. “I don’t want to lose that just because, you know…”
Claire remained in silent shock. To be revealing even this much was hard for him. He wasn’t the type to write sonnets about his feelings. All he was asking for was civility. How could she deny him that? “Alright,” she said finally, though she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t thought about saying the opposite. It would break his heart even further, but it would make her task much easier. But she relented. She hadn’t grown that cold and heartless yet.
He seemed to relax after that, a slight smile appearing on his face. “Then I call another truce.” He held his hand out for her to shake it.
Claire eyed it nervously, knowing it wouldn’t be the best idea to touch him right now.
“I won’t bite you, Claire,” he said, amused. But she could have sworn she heard a hint of hurt in his voice.
Reluctantly, she reached out to shake his hand. Her breath caught as it touched his, the familiarity of it rushing through her. The warmth and comfort of it. She hoped he didn’t catch that, but she knew he had. His eyes were on her, watching, studying her reaction closely. She shook once and quickly withdrew her hand, fighting the urge to wipe it on her pants. Not that he was repulsive, just that sparks were still there, and the longer it lingered on her skin, the more she wanted to touch him.
“Like I said, I won’t force myself on you, but I will win you back.” The sureness of his statement grabbed her attention again.
“You think so?” She raised her eyebrow and crossed her arms. “And how do you plan to do that?”
He grinned. “Why, like I did the first time around: with my charm.”
Claire laughed then, her mood lifting. “Then I shall try and resist. I seemed to do quite well last time, after all.”
His humor faded a bit as he thought about that.
She smiled and turned around to head back to the camp, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Had she finally gotten him? If she were persistent, she would be able to resist him as well as she had the first time around. But she knew that wasn’t true. Already it was a battle. And it was only just beginning.