As we walk, I study Kai's appearance. He looks exactly the same, and yet changed. His hair is the same, long and dark, tied out of his face with bits of string and braids. His dark beard covers the Eln scar across his left cheek, while the scar higher up on the right side of his forehead is obscured by locks of shorter hair falling over it. He was always strong and lithe—kept so through archery and his trade of carpentry—but he looks bulkier now. He's acquired more muscle since we parted. I won't say I'm averse to that change.
His eyes are so solemn now. He was always serious, but he could joke and carry on as well. He made me laugh as I never had before. Now I see sadness in his gaze, as well as in the worry lines that have developed along his forehead and by his mouth. He told me once that he could not live if something happened to me. The truth to those words is evident even in his physical appearance.
Kai follows me to the water's edge. Neither of us has said anything, but we know that the time has come for us to talk about what happened after we parted at Dearth. My heart aches to remember that day.
The siege against Dearth lasted all through the winter. The Eln armies were patient. They held us gently captive, waiting for our resources to run out, while they systematically took possession of the rest of the land. During this time there wasn't often a need for our entire army to be on the alert, since there wasn't any actual action. Kai had some downtime most days, and we always spent those times together. Though we only had one little room to call our own, it became our home. We also spent as much time with Albert, his wife Ruth, and their children as we could. We were our own little family, and it was precious. Those times were precious as we made a point to treasure every day of our five months together.
A week before spring, the Eln army amassed at Dearth's walls. Now the battle would begin.
It was early, early morning when word began to spread of the impending attack. Kai and I woke to a banging on our door. He went quickly to answer it and received word that he was needed on the wall.
I sat up in our bed, groggy from just waking, my hair a mess around my shoulders. I studied my husband as he turned around to face me. He looked so strong just then. He had steeled himself for this day, even if he had never spoken to me about it.
I rose slowly and went to our window. He kept his bow and arrow hanging there, and I gathered them for him.
"You only have twelve arrows," I whispered softly, my fingers dancing over the feathers as I tried to concentrate on counting them. One, two, three, four… God, let him shoot straight, steady his hands, don't let him die.
"I have more in my bag at the station," he replied softly. I could hear him pulling his pants on, his belt jingling, metal on metal. I couldn't bring myself to look at him. I didn't want to see him, ready for war, ready to die for us.
"You must go with Ruth and the children down below the city," he continued. "You'll be safe there."
I don't want to be safe without you.
I shook myself out of my despondency. I had to be strong for him. It was the least I could do when he was so strong for me. I swallowed my tears, ignoring the burning in my throat as I turned to face him.
"You'll need food." I laid the weapons on our bed and went to the cupboard where I kept our rations. I emptied the shelves, packing everything in a bag for him, along with a warm shirt, some bandages, some loose strings to tie his hair back. My fingers seemed to work mechanically as I tried to recall every moment of happiness we'd had together, struggling to block out the crushing sadness that now worked upon my soul.
I shuddered when Kai came behind me to wrap his arms around me, stilling my hands with his and holding up my left to study the ring he'd given me. Squeezing my eyes shut, I leaned my head against his shoulder as I desperately tried to keep my tears at bay. Lord knew we'd run out of water soon enough—crying would do nothing but dehydrate me sooner.
"Do you know," he murmured in my ear, pressing his lips to the lobe, "how scared I was the day I asked you to marry me?" I pressed harder against him, absorbing myself in him. How could we be separated? We were one.
"I had loved you for so long," he continued in his calming, deep tone. "I missed you so much while I was away fighting." I could feel him swallow. "You have no idea how happy you have made me."
I couldn't hold back a sob then. Kai responded by pulling me even closer, and I could feel his own tears in my hair. We cried for the loss of our families, for how happy we had been together, for how we had to be separated now. We both knew that one of us would die today. We wouldn't be together like this again.
Kai turned me gently to face him and pressed his lips to my forehead. "Promise me you'll keep yourself safe," he whispered.
I nodded, not having the heart to ask him to promise me the same, knowing he couldn't say it truthfully.
He held me tightly in his arms for one last embrace. "I love you, Amy," he whispered.
"I love you, Kai."
"God is faithful."
And then he was gone.
Dearth fell on the last day of winter.
"How did you get out?" Kai finally asks, his voice broken as he breaks through my thoughts.
I feel a chill as I listen to the intense sorrow in his words. I cried for him every day since I thought he died. I ached to feel his arms around me again, to hear his voice, to know his touch. How could I think that he didn't feel the same?
"I hid myself beneath the bodies of the dead," I explain simply, not wanting to break down in tears so soon in the conversation. I don't want to say anymore about the way I survived. I still have nightmares. "And you?"
"I was unconscious for two days from my injuries," Kai recounts. I turn to look him, wondering what injuries he sustained. He sees the question in my eyes. "A boulder fells on my leg. And another struck my head." He leans down to stick his fingers in the water. "Albert found me on the third day and brought me safely to the Elves. They offered medical care to anyone who had survived the fall." He gestures in the direction of the camp. "We were all that was left of the armies. Thornton gathered us, and we realized that there was no hope for reclaiming our land, at least until we had brought the remaining citizens to safety and had recovered ourselves. So for the past couple of months we have been scouring the lands, searching for survivors. We haven't found many, but there are some who made it beyond the border, to where it's safe. They've begun rebuilding there, forming a colony, a safe place."
He gestures for me to sit on a fallen log near the stream. He sits on a boulder just before me so that our knees are touching as he grasps my hands in his. I'm done in when I look up and see the tears in his eyes.
We hold each other for a long, long while, just reveling in being together again, safe for now. How often did I dream of this, knowing it would never happen again? And yet here we are.
"Why don't any of the men know you were married?" I ask after awhile.
Kai pulls back, and for some reason I see a sort of fear in his eyes. He drops his head to stare at his feet.
"I have missed you so much, Amy," he begins softly. "But…" he tenses as if in shame for a moment, "I admit, I have tried to hide it. I had no one to share in my grief save Albert, and he has lost his family too. More than just a wife, but his children as well…" He lifts his head now to look into my eyes again. "I didn't know how to speak of you without weeping."
Tears fill my eyes again at the thought of his weeping. I always cry my eyes out when he's sad, empathetic wretch that I am. I laugh and try to lighten the mood a bit. "Well, your Abelard has certainly received an earful about you since you died. I basically recounted to him every memory I had of you."
Kai laughs with me at this. "I'm sure he was a good listener." We begin to laugh even more now, because we're both alive and together, because I was talking to a horse, because Kai wasn't talking to anyone. I can only imagine how we must look. Hopefully no one sees us—we'll be committed to an insane asylum upon our crossing the border.
This is what it is, to be happy again. Kai has always been the one to lift my spirits. As a child, my second cousin, Frank, had his way with me for years and years until, when I was fourteen, my eldest brother Henry finally discovered us. He would have killed Frank had not his best friend, nineteen-year-old Kai, been there. I could see the rage in Kai's eyes too.
I was forced to confess everything in a public trial, after which Frank had his thumbs removed and was exiled from the village and those nearby. We received news six months later that he had died in a bar fight after killing two other men and wounding a third.
After the greatest shame of my life, Kai often kept me company, making jokes and showing me magic tricks until I laughed again. Everyone else blamed me for what had happened. Kai treated me only with love, grace, and respect.
I was eighteen when the dark ones came, bringing with them Aswangs and ghouls and all manner of unspeakable things. Kai was twenty-three then. He enlisted and went off to fight the demon armies, along with all six of my brothers and several cousins. He came back three years later, the only survivor apart from Albert. The war had been lost, and Dearth was the last great city that still stood. Kai came to warn our village and lead us to the safety of Dearth.
The first place he came, after collecting his aunt and uncle, was to my home, to warn me and my parents. Even as I rushed to my room to gather my things, this struck me as strange. Why was Kai so worried about my family? He was Albert's best friend. Why wasn't he helping Albert gather his family together? Five children was quite a brood to keep watch over.
We could take only what we could carry. Kai's aunt and uncle loaded themselves into their wagon, and my parents joined them. I was given a horse to ride, but I'd never ridden fast before, not on my own. I didn't know if I could make it safely.
Kai came to me softly, awkwardly taking my hand in his own. "You can ride with me," he offered quietly. I nodded my thanks, and mounted his horse with him.
Our goal was to cross Skosken Glen, a stretch of flatland two miles wide, before the opposing armies met at the center and began their confrontation. If we could only make it to Harper Valley at the base of Dearth, we would be able to get far enough away before the fighting began. But that was not to be.
For their great wars, Elns possess huge structures that shoot boulders and massive balls of vines lit afire. Just as Harper Valley came into view, the wagon was hit by fire. Nothing remained of our families, and there was no time to stop and collect anything that had survived. Kai and I rode on. I was blinded by tears and buried my face in the back of his jacket, while Kai urged the horse on, faster, faster, leaving our pain behind.
We reached Dearth with the hundreds of others who had fled their homes. The leaders were preparing for a siege the likes of which they had never faced. They tried to keep up a brave face, even though their armies were greatly depleted and the flocks of civilians would soon reduce their resources to the breaking point. Kai offered himself as an archer while I was given a position in the medical center. Over the next months I would sit with many of Kai's fellow soldiers as they finished their course here with us.
Several days after our arrival at Dearth, Kai asked me to marry him. In the next months of our marriage, even in the midst of such a great time of sorrow, he made me laugh again.