We've been riding for hours. My eyes are heavy and my back is sore from the saddle—so sore I can barely turn my neck to study our surroundings. The trail we take is empty for the most part, hardly anyone travels from the mines to the capital, except to deliver prisoners from the dungeons. But no one comes by today. It's only us along the empty dirt trail surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees—the staple to this kingdom.
The taste of the air is different out here. I can take deep breaths and each one is filled with fresh grass and summer flowers swaying in the afternoon breeze. With the gentle lean of the horse and the clop of hooves, peace surrounds us like a bind and I've never loved it more. My heart is full and my nerves have dropped to such a low that I don't feel the pain anymore. I don't think of Silas or the fight in the courtyard or even Celestine's grief when we said goodbye merely hours ago.
All I think about is the freedom around me. The happiness, the safety, the distance. Arego is far from here and it will take half as long to arrive in Fosux—we'll stop at night and camp somewhere off the trail. There is no civilization out here except for small farms with sheep, cattle, and the occasional herd of goats. Anyone outside their cottages watches us pass before disappearing again, into the depth of the forgotten trail.
Renit and I haven't spoken except for when he asked if I needed to stop. I didn't but he had to relieve himself so I figured I should do the same. Otherwise, he hasn't tried to reason with me other than the occasional sigh and clearing of his throat like he wants to speak. There are so many things to say but not a single one of them is perfect for right now, this isn't the right moment.
"Do you need to stop?" Renit asks me again.
I turn to him and shake my head. "No, I'm fine."
"Can we talk then? The silence is boring me." He tips his head back to look at the blue sky, cutting through the trees we pass under on the side of the trail. My back, once sweltering with heat, finally cools off underneath the shade of the trees.
I snort and look back to the trial. "You've never been one for talking, why start now?"
I can tell my attitude is annoying him because he stiffens but forces himself to relax before bursting entirely. A small roll of his shoulders is all it takes. If I could just force him that one step further so he stops trying so hard to please me, this could all be out in the open. Every last second of it, and we could break out in a battle right here on this empty trail. At least I think we can, until I remember the titanium band around my wrist.
"Because there are things we need to talk about. There are things I need to tell you," he confesses easily. He's never been so forward so I oblige him and usher with a hand for him to continue. With a questioning glance, asking me if he should, he shakes off my raised brow and clears his throat. "I know I haven't been entirely kind and there are reasons why. None that are your fault, there are some thing in my past that I can't get over."
"Start by telling me the person you lost. That seems to be the main reason why you hate me so much." A pebble skitters from underneath the horse's hoof, kicked to the side. It lands on the side of the trail, in a clump of bright green grass. Celestine would love to tend to the nature out here.
"I don't think that's the best topic for right now, we can save that for later." The hint of irritation in his voice takes over and my lips curl into a small smile. Urging for those answers is exactly what he doesn't want to give. I avoid his eye and stare straight at the trail ahead so there isn't any reason for me to understand the annoyed expression on his face.
I click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. "Then I don't want to talk about this with you."
"Roux, please," he snaps. He reins himself back in before I have the chance to say anything. Renit is trying harder than he ever has before, as hard as I did at the beginning. Still, a wall separates us—a line I don't want to cross. And with his resentment, that line has faded. "Fine, I'll tell you. I just…no one else knows about this other than those in the castle. So forgive me if I—" He doesn't have the chance to finish as something whizzes through the air from a tree and hits him directly in the shoulder.
Renit lets out a screech of pain and grabs onto the arrow sticking from his shirt. Toppling to the side as the horse skitters in fear, he falls off and slams onto the dirt trail beneath.
"Renit!" I scream. In seconds, I dismount and run past the terrified horses, dropping to my knees at his side. "Take off the band, take off the band," I urge. I feel around in his pockets as he rolls back in forth in pain. I can't find the key. That's the only chance we have if someone plans to kill us.
Someone, an attacker. The arrow pierces through his flesh and a cloud of dirt rises up around us from the impact he made on the ground. My hands shake as I worry about the next arrow to fly through the air—we might not be as lucky with vulnerable spots.
"Run," Renit groans. "Get out of here while you still can." He pushes me away with his free hand, covered in blood but I remain—nearly pushing him away so he'll stop.
"No, I'm not leaving." I surge for my satchel at the same time an arrow comes for me and sticks in the dirt where I was a moment ago. Whoever is out there, they're not afraid to kill either of us. The sickening sense that Renit will die from this is enough to make my mind whirl with the mistakes I've made. If I never betrayed his trust in the first place, that titanium band wouldn't even be on this journey with us. I've never been entirely free and now, that will cost us.
Renit is stocked with weapons but in the blindness of the moment, I go for my own instead of the sword at his hip or the bow at his back. Partly because if I move him, that will cause more pain. And there's no telling who our enemies are and what their motives stand with us.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Fosux was so close, yet so far. We needed answers and once we got them, the journey back to the castle was supposed to be the most grueling part. I'm not ready to die here and I'm not ready to let Renit either as he brings himself to a sitting position and faces who is approaching.
Three people, all with bows. Black cloths cover the bottom halves of their faces and conceals their features except for the haunting determination in their eyes. I look like a fool with my dagger out in front of me, my only weapon with the crumbling prince at my side. Somehow, he finds the will to stand as his shoulder bleeds from both sides. The arrow is sickening to look at, the tip carved with his flesh and blood.
He attempts to reach back for his bow but one of the archers facing us quickly points another arrow—directly at his heart. "Move and you die," he says, muffled underneath the cloth.
I'm so stupid. Why did I block him out? He wanted to try, he wanted to talk to me and I was the one stupid enough to shut him out and make him beg. There's no time to beat myself up for it now. If I keep doing that, we'll both be dead. And there isn't a chance of Renit unlocking the band in time, they'll shoot him before he holds the key in his grasp.
I move in front of Renit, blocking him from another arrow. If one hits him in the heart or in the abdomen, that will be the end of my prince. His warmth presses into my back and he unsheathes his sword, prepared to fight. "Foolish prince, you should have worn your armor," I hiss.
His voice is shaken and it breaks my heart. "Not the time." I don't want these to be our last words.
I back him away, slowly, steadily, as they advance. There is nowhere to go and I don't know how to fight. Basic moves, nothing to save me against three people trained to wreak havoc in ambushes. "We're going to run as fast as we can," I whisper. As long as none of them are witches of the ear then our plan is just for the two of us. "Don't run in a straight line."
"I know how to run," Renit growls. He presses into my back, using me as his crutch. Our attackers stop at the sight of our retreat. There's no one and nothing out here but an hour ago we passed a small cottage with cattle. If we can get there…
I think we're in the clear until Renit releases another cry of pain. I whirl, disrupted from my thoughts, as another attacker thrusts a dagger into his thigh.
The prince drops to the knee and I attack with my fist, connecting with the man's face. He's taller than I am, much taller, and he grabs my wrist with one hand and slaps me across the cheek with the other. I twist to the side, landing on the trial next to Renit who nurses both his wounds. I shake off the pain in my cheek and press my palms flat onto the dirt trail to ensure I'm not floating.
"Looks like we found the bounty," an attacker muffles underneath the cloth.
"Please," I tell them. "Please don't hurt him." I crawl to Renit, wrapping my arms around his good shoulder and clamping my hands against the side of his neck. His pulse races underneath my thumb.
The man who initially shot the arrow, the one covered in a disguise to clothe himself like a tree, lets out a slow chuckle. "We're going to do more than hurt him, darling. He's the prince of this hellhole and we promise he'll pay for what he does to the innocents."
Renit breathes heavy against me and my heart shudders. He won't last long like this, not with those wounds to keep him down. There are four attackers in total and I can't stand against all. Renit's sword is limp in his hand and I take that as my chance.
The initial attacker steps close enough to cast a shadow over us. In a move I haven't yet practiced and am sloppy at best at, I lean back, driving my boot into the man's knee. A brutal popping echoes through the air followed by his agonizing cry and Renit can't move fast enough to stop me as I grab his sword, let him drop to the trail, and drive the blade through the crumbling man's abdomen.
All of it happens so fast that I don't believe I've actually done it until blood is pouring onto my hands—leaking from Renit's sword. The squelching rattles in my skull and sounds through his ribcage and back out the other side. Everyone freezes, even Renit. But he keeps a firm grip on the back of my tunic so they don't take me.
I realize very quickly the mistake I've made. They could kill me right here with a dagger to the heart. This armor is strong but it is not impenetrable from the tip of a sharp arrow. I look back to the other two archers, one a woman, but they don't move. The bows are slack in their hands, blinking as their fallen comrade as they wait for their orders.
Blood drips onto my hands and the man I just impaled releases a groan from his throat before dropping to the ground in a heap. I let the sword go with him as my shaking hands are too unsteady to keep a strong hold. I can do this. I can fight my way out and plead for the help Renit needs. Rage floods me and without my power, there's not much I can do.
With Renit crumbling on the trail, I will myself to stand on shaken knees and face those around me.
Arrows are pointed at my skull and to kill me is between the release of two fingers. I still have so much I want to say to Renit, I want to thank him for giving me a hint of a life, in the twisted way it happened. If it wasn't for Outbursts, I would be oblivious to the life I could have with someone I care about. We're not there yet but this is the closest I'll ever come to consider myself worth the relationship. Renit is worth all that—once he tries.
I was foolish to drag out the silent punishment for so long and I'm paying for every wasted second with him crumbling behind me.
I'm ready to turn on the attacker behind me, the one who drove his hand across my cheek and likely gave me a bruise. A slow heat builds inside my body and for a second, I think it's ferocity. Then, my body is burning and there's a fire smoldering inside me. The pommel I was holding onto releases from my spazzing hand and I scream, scratching at my skin to release that fire.
Renit pleads for them to stop but the smoke finds its way into my throat and I can't breathe. Every attacker standing with us on this empty trail grins as I drop to my knees, coughing and choking on the smoky air in my lungs. I ran into a burning building before and faced the wrath of smoke and a fallen structure. This—this will kill me.
With my palm pressed flat against the trail, I look up through my blurred vision to catch a flash of orange hair. Familiar. I want to recognize it but the smoke in my throat won't let me. "Pull through it, Roux," Renit encourages. He grips the side of my face in his hand. If the last thing I see is his face then I'll be fine with that. As long as he returns to the capital, alive and well.
As I heave, Renit uses the rest of his strength to clamp his hands around my waist to pull me against him as the light leaves my eyes and that blurry figure steps forward. He's stopping me, not to kill me but to protect me from what I might do next. My boots dig into the dirt, kicking, as I scratch at my neck to release the air inside. Pressing my back against Renit's chest is the only place I can go and he grips tighter onto me to avoid screaming out in pain from what my movements are doing.
Renit's shouting is all I hear. He wraps around me—we've gone back in forth in protecting one another. Within the souls of the people standing around, he's attempting to stop the arrows and any other powers that might attack. If this orange haired man with the fire was hiding in the trees, there's no telling who else is here.
This is it, this is the end. There is nowhere else for me to go and my freedom, as quickly as it arrived, is now locked behind a titanium door. I hate myself for not being able to do more. I should be able to do more but my body is weak. The only thing I have going for me is the power of ground and it would have protected us. Trust ruined this.
All of this came because I had to start a fight. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that. This could have happened under better terms and I would have fought my way out—for us.
As my eyes roll into the back of my head and Renit whispers reassurance in my ear, the fire power finally seizes inside my throat. I can breathe again. Renit's shouting is convincing enough to force them to stop. Beheadings, brutal beatings, and murder had to be in the mix of his threats. I grip onto his good knee and breathe heavily to catch my breath, only to find it clouded with smoke and Renit's blood—it's dripping onto me. Yet he doesn't let go. I don't want him to.
Their faces come to light just as the closest attacker, the man with the fire, steps forward with his sword. He braces his hands on his knees and squats down to face us, a gentle cocking of his head being the only sign of emotion he wants to show. "Please," I beg. Tears cloud my eyes and blur him again but that orange hair…I've seen it. "Take me instead, don't kill the prince."
The man's voice is low and I let out a strangled sob at the sound of it. "We're not going to kill you, Roux. Cooperate and we won't do anything."
I'm flooded with so many emotions—fear, joy, anger, and relief. I want so badly to wrap my arms around him and remind myself of Arego but he's speaking too quiet so only the two of us can hear. At the sound of my name leaving the man's lips, Renit's arm tightens around my waist. Those blue eyes stare back at me with such relief that I'm alive and they crinkle into a smile, the show of happiness underneath the shield he's created.
I give Renit a look, silently telling him to follow my lead, and he watches me cautiously. "If you don't kill the prince, we'll go willingly," I confess loud enough for everyone to hear.
"You'll have punishment to face for killing one of our own," another attacker snaps. An older man, he steps forward with his bow and points it directly at me.
"We'll discuss that later," Bren orders. "If you want to get caught on this trail, then do it. But we have our prize so let's move out, shall we?" I'm taken back by how official he sounds. Is he running this entire operation? Whatever this operation is.
Renit grabs my arm. His face is turning a deadly shade of pale. "Roux, this isn't smart. Run and leave me," he whispers.
"She won't be running, prince." Bren sneers at Renit and I glare at my best friend without question. Even I didn't know where my priorities had gone but now I know—they belong to Renit. My oldest friend looks between the two of us with a question in his eyes and something cold casts over his visible features.
The prince is my future. And Bren knows.
His eyes dart to the arm around my waist, tightly holding me, and the ring on both of our fingers. The last thing Bren understood was that I was seized by a witch of storm and taken to the capital with my family. He doesn't know the fate of my parents or Celestine and when he finds out, Renit will receive more than a glare.
I turn to my prince. "Can you stand?" I'll scream at Bren later for even thinking of hurting him.
"They're rebels, they'll kill you and use me as bait. You need to leave." Renit grips onto my wrist and forces me to look into his eyes. I've never seen such fear.
I lean to the side and kiss him on the cheek, close enough to his ear. The female archer groans in annoyance.
Renit's hand tightens on my wrist, not in rage but in surprise. I pull away just enough to whisper, "Remember what you asked of me at our engagement celebration? We'll protect this kingdom and always find a way back to each other." His nostrils flare with the realization that I'm not going to listen. I ignore Bren's shadow casting over us. "You asked me to stay by your side until the end of our existence. That is what I am going to do and no matter what you say, I am not going to leave."
He huffs a shaken breath and nods. "Fine."
I take both of his arms and he winces as the arrow in his shoulder plagues every movement. Again, I'll scream at someone later. Renit stands but leans on me for support as the wound in his thigh is bleeding through his pants. While Bren clamps shackles onto Renit's wrists followed by my own, I glare at him.
I glare because I thought him to be dead and here he is, threatening to kill me and my betrothed. My childhood friend leads us forward, towards a prison wagon disguised to look like bushes on the side of the trail. We should have been more careful. I should have been watching for any movement or anything out of the ordinary. This is my fault.
My stomach churns with fear but I'm too busy helping Renit inside to vomit. This is it. This could be the end for both of us—if not one. But I know one thing more than all, is that I will go down fighting, protecting my heart that belongs to the prince.