There were three tents set up at the edge of the shelter, where it would be colder and unprotected from possible rain, and space for several sleeping sacks close to the warmth of the blaze. The protection of the shelter’s high roof kept the ground mercifully dry.
Aro went to their horses and relieved them of their equipment before giving each horse a quick rubdown and some feed and water. He noticed Jules’ mare was missing from the group, and looked around to see Suki reclining peacefully some distance from the fire, Jules’ sleeping sack laid out beside her.
That was one way to keep warm on a winter’s night. But I prefer my own personal method, he thought, spotting Anala.
After their somewhat longer stay in Two-Sides, Anala had grown weary of cities and wanted to disappear. Aro had agreed wholeheartedly. They decided to venture to the Lake and the cabin there, heading west before entering Eastwood and traveling close to the Blood Mountains, where the trees grew thinner. It was safer from treecats. They didn’t rest much and so made good time to the Lake, and found time enough to sleep once there.
The cabin was dusty, but in good repair, much to Aro and Anala’s delight. Well past sunset, the last thing they wanted to do after the long day’s ride was fix up an old, unused cabin.
A stable around the side held feed for horses. Aro rubbed down their mounts while Anala took their packs inside to set up their sleeping sacks and get a fire going. A minute later she exited the cabin. “There’d be only the one bed, Aro.”
Aro shrugged. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
Anala shook her head and Aro could see exactly where the conversation was going. He ended the argument before it began. “I know you think a bellica is bound to take care of her troops, especially her second, even if it means compromising her own care, but the flip side is that the major makes sure the bellica doesn’t over-extend herself. Either you take the bed or we share but you’re not sleeping on the floor.” He gave her a stern glare.
She rolled her eyes and disappeared back into the cabin.
Aro shook his head and concentrated on finishing his task in the darkness outside before rejoining Anala inside. A fire was roaring and both sleeping sacks were set up on the bed. Aro smiled inwardly. They’d had the same argument in both Aeril and Two-sides, and he’d won both of those as well. Anala’s stubbornness endeared her to him all the more, no matter how vexing it could be.
She was going through their food pack. Their supplies looked really low. He stretched and sighed. “Looks like tomorrow is reserved for hunting,” Anala agreed silently. She was already in her sleeping clothes, he noticed, and swaying on her feet. “Alright, Sleepy deSleepera, time for bed.” He gestured to the bunk. She gave him a look he couldn’t decipher (but figured it meant she thought him crazy) and crawled into her sleep-sack willingly.
He changed his clothing quickly and crawled in next to her. She was already dozing, but started awake and sat up. “The fire, it needs ta be damped –”
“Relax. I’ll stay up and watch it. Sleep.” He gently pushed her back down, and soon she was snoring softly.
He took the opportunity to lean his head in his hand and watch her sleep in the dim light of the fire. Their nights in the inns had been too dark for him to do so. He was tired, but still had enough energy to stay awake a while yet, and so spent his time analysing and memorising every curve and angle of her face, the way tendrils of her night-black hair curled lightly around her temples, the play of the firelight on her skin giving her that golden, ethereal glow.
He smiled and almost reached a hand out to brush a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and then stopped himself.
Look. Don’t touch. For years he had reminded himself of this key rule. For years he had stayed Taciturn Anala’s major, Stoic Aro.
He loved his bellica with a passion far deeper than runs a major’s devotion to his commanding officer. Years of familiarity had bred affection and understanding between the two of them and, for Aro, a love deeper than the Zameera Sea. Did Anala feel the same way? He doubted it – she’d never shown any sign of more than friendly affection. Then again, neither had he, by keeping a careful guard on his behaviour. At least, she felt that way about no one else, he consoled himself, even if she didn’t feel it for him. When the time came for him to win her affection, there would be no competition.
He lay there, contented and relaxed, watching his love sleep peacefully, until the fire had dwindled down to where he could safely drift off to sleep. He did so gratefully. He was sure to dream of Anala.
Aro woke well rested from the middle of a pleasant dream. He couldn’t remember any details but it left him feeling relaxed and happy. Stretching, he rolled onto his back, pleased to see the cabin hadn’t burned down while they’d slept.
Anala was gone. Gray morning light trickled in through the cabin’s one window. Already the days were getting warmer, minutely so. This winter was holding onto the nation more tightly than the last few had.
Aro was loathe to leave the warm and surprisingly comfortable bed, but nature called; so he wriggled out of his sleep sack and stood. He was a bit wobbly but regained his balance with the ease of years of military training. Still sore and exhausted, he went outside with a clenched walk.
Upon his return from the brief forest foray he felt more awake and aware of his surroundings. The day had dawned bright but cloudy and it was definitely warmer than the previous day, either because of the upcoming spring or because they were by the Lake.
The cabin itself stood within the borders of the Hidden Forest. Aro would have to venture a bit southwest for hunting. It wouldn’t be too dangerous, as the north of Eastwood had fewer treecats than the south. The Hidden Forest had none, since the trees there were not strong enough to hold the animals’ massive weight, and there dwelt very little in the way of prey.
Despite the Forest’s exemption from treecats, not many people ventured further into the forest than to visit the cabin or Lake. Time seemed to shift in those woods, and one could never really see the sun. It was, for lack of a better term, creepy.
There were few edible land animals in west-Eastwood, Aro knew, although theoretically treecats were edible if you managed to kill one, but he didn’t feel like dying today. There was, however, an abundance of edible and nutritious plants, some hardy enough to survive the winter, in the only place within a day’s ride.
As he stepped through the bracken around the cabin, he spotted Anala, fresh from her bath, at the very moment the sun broke through the cloud cover directly behind her and gave her a halo, sparkling off her wet hair. Aro stopped, his breath caught in his throat. How is it possible she gets more beautiful each and every day? He’d seen Anala in the midst of battle, blood streaking her dirty face and caked in her hair, dripping with sweat, and he’d always found every inch of her glowing with an unquenchable fire. He’d been her major for years but he’d never seen her lose that spark and didn’t believe she could.
The sun moved behind a cloud and his breath came back. As Anala turned in his direction, he schooled his face into its usual politely attentive mask.
“Enjoy your bath?”
She nodded vigorously. Even when it was just the two of them, she didn’t speak much, he noticed. Does she think I’d reject her as well?
Probably. From what he knew of Anala’s shrouded past, she’d had little love her whole life. He sighed inwardly, putting his thoughts aside. He was hungry, and was sure she was too.
“I’m going hunting. You want to come?”
A brisk shake of the head was her answer; so Aro gathered up his gear, mounted his horse, and was off.
Aro spent most of the day hunting. The rewards were well worth the effort and risk.
Reaching Eastwood by noon, he’d first found a few groups of poulet, a small flightless bird whose meat was full of protein and whose unfertilised eggs provided a good breakfast; then a den of jackahare, and several copses of witchthorn and some wild tubers, turnips, and carrots. Mindful of the life cycle of the forest, he took from the animals the sick or infirm, and thinned the vegetables, leaving room for the small ones to grow. He’d still ended up with a fair catch. After his light snacking, there was enough to feed them for two days if they were frugal.
They would be. Anala ate sparsely no matter the menu, even with her aunt’s cooking, and, despite his size, Aro needed little food to keep him going. By their standards, they would eat well tonight.
As well, the jackahares he’d caught would yield more than just food: he could dry and tan the hides, with or without the fur, either for himself or trade. The possibilities of jackahare hide were endless or so he’d heard. He certainly had never yet found an end.
He bounded up the steps, kills and harvest in hand, and entered the cabin, ducking the low-hanging doorframe.
Anala sat at the table, staring into the middle distance. Her hand rode her knife hilt, the tip of the blade resting in the wood of the table. Aro set down his booty on the table slowly. Anala didn’t move or notice. Coming around to her side, he noticed she’d carved a word into the table.
Aro inhaled sharply. Why hadn’t he noticed the depth of Anala’s disturbance? She’d been acting strange since Midwinter. Because I didn’t want to. I needed her to be my strong Bellica, imperturbable. That need was put aside now as he squatted beside her so they were at eye level.
He rested his hand over hers, making her put down the knife. Slowly her head turned to look at him, her hazel eyes slightly glazed. He took a deep breath. Time to be her support – isn’t that my job description? “What happened at Midwinter, Anala?”
She shrugged slightly. “Saw me aunt.”
She was evading. As usual. “Why has that upset you so much?”
She looked away, and tried to get up, but he held her hand fast. “Anala,” he said, putting a commanding tone in his voice, “I know you think the whole world’s against you, but try to remember that if it is I’m not part of that world! Tell me – what’s going on?”
Slowly, haltingly, she related all that had happened and the decision she’d made to avenge her aunt.
Now the conversation between the bellica and Ghia on Midwinter Day made much more sense, as did Anala’s behaviour of the past month. Why her aunt meant so much to her when the rest of her family didn’t, he didn’t ask. She’d tell him in due time.
“So this decision to revolt is a personal vendetta against the Empress?”
She nodded and looked at him as if she expected him to break his vows to her and drop it, right there.
“That’s a silly thought, Anala. You said it yourself – death’s too good a punishment for the forsworn.”
“But ye’d be followin’ me into treasonous doings, Aro, and all for personal gain.”
“How is vowing to attempt to change the course of Athering’s history and bring freedom from oppression to her people for personal gain?”
“We’d only be bringing the opportunity for freedom,” Anala countered, and Aro was glad to note she was looking more like herself. “What if Yarrow’d be no different?”
This was new. They’d not yet decided, or even discussed, whom they’d rather see with the Sceptre than Zardria or Zanny. “You’ve decided on Yarrow, then?”
A shrug. “She’d be the only choice, Aro.”
That was true. The people wouldn’t accept anyone else. The courtiers would, but they hardly qualified as people – they’d accept anyone who allowed them to avoid actually working.
“Yet you don’t sound happy about that.”
Anala sighed expressively. “I’d nae trust her. And I nae want ta be wrong, ye ken. What’n if we only succeed in putting another tyrant in power?”
“I suppose it’s a risk we have to take.”
“I’d still nae trust her.”
“Neither do I. In fact,” and he moved his other hand to rest on her shoulder, “the only person in this world I do trust is in this room.”
She turned to look at him. “Why would ye trust me, Aro? Ye know nothing about me.”
“Because I love you.”
He hadn’t meant to say it. Not now, not like this. There it was, hanging between them, tangible. This was the moment that would create or destroy all they had and would–could–have. His heart lay bare to her. Would she draw her sword to cut or to protect?
A long pause dragged out between them, until finally Anala spoke. “Why?”
Aro wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. “Love has no reason, Anala.”
She gave him her quintessential You’re-a-dreamer look: eyebrows raised, mouth quirked slightly. “Not in my experience,” she said softly.
Aro didn’t know what pain existed in Anala’s past, didn’t want to pry – but he did want to help her heal it, to show her what love could be. Abruptly he grabbed her and kissed her, gently at first, then with more pressure as she responded. They rose together till they were standing face to face, and he wrapped his arms around her.
Her signature scent of salt air and lavender, mingled with the smell of forest, drifted into his nostrils and he inhaled deeply. Slowly, caressingly, his hand moved to her front.
Immediately Anala stiffened and broke the kiss off. She reeled and grabbed the table for balance as Aro grabbed her elbow to keep her from falling. She looked down, avoiding his eyes, a flush creeping over her face.
Aro didn’t know what he’d done wrong. He started to apologise, to put his heart on a shelf, to say they could forget the whole thing. Anala shook her head wildly. “No, Aro, it’d not be anything ye did or dinnae do. And I’d not be of a mind to drop it.” She stopped, seemingly unable to continue. He reached a hand out and caressed her cheek, and she didn’t pull away from him. A good sign.
“You don’t have to tell me anything, Anala. And we don’t have to continue, if you’d rather not…”
“I tol’ ye I no want ta drop it. Just…go slow, ye ken?”
He smiled and raised his hands above his hands. “My hands will stay up here until you say otherwise.”
She smiled back at him, gratefully, and grabbed his wrists, pulling his hands down and pressing them to the small of her back. “Here’d be fine.”
“Your wish is my command, My Lady,” he said, and before she could correct the honorific he pulled her close and kissed her again, and then neither of them wanted to speak.
A strange sound interrupted their peace, and it took Aro a moment to realise it was his stomach growling. Reluctantly they broke apart. “Supper,” he said, and Anala nodded in agreement.
They spent less than a tredicem at the Lake, but it was more of a vacation than either of them had had in a while, and neither one took it for granted.
By the end of it Aro had several furred jackahare hides to take home, and Anala had lost the shadows under her eyes. Being of the military, she’d been unable to laze about completely, needing physical activity to keep her sane. Aro had made her restrict it to a run around the Lake each morning, but she’d managed to convince him she needed to do daily calisthenics as well.
He hunted every two days or so, and discovered a winterpear tree his third time out, so they added fresh fruit to their diet as well. Otherwise their days were spent relaxing, talking, and sometimes sparring to keep their skills and swords from getting rusty. This Aro doubted would happen, sparring or no, but it was good practice nonetheless.
When they talked, they talked of the revolution they planned, and, less often, the question of them. Despite the eagerness she showed while kissing him, Anala was full of misgivings about their relationship.
“What exactly troubles you, Love?” he’d asked her one night as they lay beside each other, talking before sleep.
She sighed. “Everyone leaves,” she said simply.
He held her tightly against him. “I’d never leave you, Anala,” he said, looking into her eyes. “You are my sun and moons and stars.” His voice was hoarse, and there was a heavy pause with the weight of his words.
Anala found her voice and spoke. “I’d not be saying ye’d be of a mind to be leaving.”
It was a valid enough fear and one he shared. In their line of work, they faced death constantly. Neither knew when their skill would be outdistanced or their luck run out.
He sighed and tucked her head under his chin. “Even if that did happen,” he said, surreptitiously knocking the frame of the bed with his knuckles, “even if Muerta did come too soon for me, I still wouldn’t leave you.”
“Ye’d be haunting me, then?” she sounded amused.
He laughed softly. “Of course. Who else will make sure you take care of yourself?”
“Ghosts’d be ethereal, Aro. How would ye make sure a anything?”
“I have a very strong spirit, love. I’d find a way.” He kissed the top of her head affectionately.
She snuggled closer to him, kissing the hollow at the base of his neck. Aro felt a wide smile take his face. Despite the subject of their conversation, which would doubtless come up again, despite the dangers their lives, activities, and relationship posed, despite the fact their vacation was coming to an end, he’d never been happier in his life.
Anala’s breathing had changed into the slow rhythm of sleep, and Aro closed his eyes to join her.
They left before dawn the next day. It was a day’s ride through the forest, even after they got onto the Eastwood Trail, so they camped at the forest’s edge that night. They decided to strike out for the Atton Road, a route a bit safer than the wildlands between forest and city.
“And if we meet up with other riders, or a mail caravan?” he asked over their small fire.
Anala shrugged. “It’d be a mite safer.”
“I meant…what about us?”
There was a pause before she answered. It wasn’t a question he’d wanted to address, but it had to be discussed.
“We’d best ta keep it a secret, fer now.” He heard what she didn’t say: I don’t want Zanny to have any leverage over either of us. Now he knew how she felt about him.
He nodded, and they both stared into the fire. He wished they were back in the cabin or that they could’ve stayed longer. Time was what Anala needed to be able to finally open up to him. He’d gone slowly, at her request, and they’d gone a bit farther. His hands were permitted a few more places than her back, and it seemed she was getting used to the feeling of loving touch, something he doubted she’d ever had before.
Was she equally unsure about him? Was that the reason for going slow? When he’d moved a bit too fast, she’d come unglued, pushing him away and putting as much distance as possible between them in the tiny cabin.
“What?” he’d asked, perplexed.
“I tol’ ye ta go slow, Aro,” she said a bit testily.
Try as he might, he couldn’t keep a hint of bitterness out of his voice. “Anala, don’t feel you have to reciprocate my feelings if you really don’t. I said we could stop.”
She looked angry enough to throw something at him, but remained her calm self. “Are ye really so egocentric as to be thinking this has anything to do with ye? I’d’ve never done this before, Aro,” she said and stopped. There were tears in her eyes.
Instantly Aro was filled with remorse. He’d had no idea Anala was a virgin. Even if she’d never been in love before, charnel houses were abundant enough in the city and unisex establishments. Usually a woman of Anala’s age would be more experienced. Whoops.
He opened his arms in entreaty. “Anala, I’m sorry. I assumed, and…”
She nodded and walked back over to him, letting him wrap her in his arms. “This’d not be a battle, Aro. Ye nae have to win me,” she said, and he knew he was forgiven.
He’d slowed down quite a bit after that, and things had gone smoothly between them.
Now that they were re-entering civilisation, he would no longer have the time nor leisure to take down her shields.
It was frustrating.
As if reading his thoughts, she grabbed his hand and kissed him suddenly, as bold as she’d been yet. He returned the kiss avidly, twining his fingers with hers and wrapping his other arm around her.
When the kiss ended she looked into his eyes. She was wearing her “searching” face and Aro knew enough to let her find out how to say what needed to be said.
“Aro…no one wouldna think twice about a bellica and major sleepin’ side by side, ken.”
“Nor would they think twice about a night spent at the pub,” he continued for her, “or about us alone, together, anywhere else.”
She nodded, and they kissed again, Aro letting his lips explore more than just her mouth.
Anala was right. Forbidden passion would be worth it, for a time.
They’d ridden out the next morning and met the caravan at noon, and already were making camp again. Aro was bothered that just two days of riding could tire Anala out so easily. Was she sick? If she was, he wouldn’t be able to do much about it till they returned to the city, where he could ask Ghia to take a look at her. For now, he had to ensure she got her rest.
He passed their sleep sacks to her and she set them up close enough to feel the warmth of the fire but far enough away to lie more in shadows than light. The horses rubbed down, he went to join those sitting by the fire, settling himself between Anala and Jules, who nodded in greeting.
“I see you’ve found a pretty girl to sleep next to,” Aro said to the medic, gesturing to Suki.
Jules gave a half-smile. “Be lucky we’re friends, or I wouldn’t allow such jokes.” He looked back at his horse, who rested peacefully and patiently behind him. “She’s a good horse, and a good friend. I’m quite blessed with her.”
“How did you come by such a fine companion?” the major asked. Medics, even chief medics, usually didn’t have their own horses.
“Family inheritance, of a sort. Suki’s the filly of my mother’s war-mare.”
“Lucky break, that.” Jules nodded in return and a companionable silence fell over the three of them as they sat looking at the fire.
After a while Anala indicated she was going to sleep, with a look that meant he should too. He nodded, telling her he would join her soon, and after watching her go he turned his attention back to the flames.
Jules spoke so softly that Aro almost didn’t hear the medic. “Looks as if you’ve found a fine companion as well, Aro.”
The major looked sharply at Jules and the medic returned his gaze levelly. There was a tense pause as Aro debated if he could trust Jules or not. Finally he let out a sigh and turned back to the fire. “Are we so obvious?” he asked resignedly. If so, they might have to stop altogether – something he didn’t want to think about.
Jules shook his head. “No. I’ve become accustomed to watching such things and knowing when a major’s devotion to his bellica becomes something else.” Jules’ tone had changed, and Aro sensed the medic was no longer referring to him and Anala, but to another bellica-major team. He could guess which one.
“Well, I suppose we have no choice but to trust you with our secret,” Aro said quietly. “Though I could get uptight about your comparing Anala to a horse.”
Jules chuckled. “You’d not be the first.” At Aro’s quizzical look, he explained, “Ghia. She and Suki are very alike sometimes, personality-wise. And you may have to trust Ghia with your secret as well.”
“Why? Will you tell her?”
“No, but if I’ve noticed, you can be sure she will, too. She’s very intuitive. And trustworthy,” he said as an afterthought.
“You trust Ghia?”
“In today’s world, I’d say she’s the only one I do trust,” Aro sensed the truth behind the words. He felt a surge of empathy for the medic.
“Then I suppose I can trust her, too.” Jules looked relieved. “Good night, Medic.” Aro stood up to turn in. To join Anala.
Their friendship was still uneasy but it was beginning to look as if Jules would make a good ally.