The sun was setting on the horizon, casting a deceptively pleasant glow along the valley laden with snow. Where orange sunlight painted the glistening powder at her feet, blood would be spilled at the morning light.
But for now the land knew only tranquility and sweat.
Her arms strained beneath the weight of yet another feeble attempt to block the knight's blow that wielded the strength and precision of years spent in training where hers had been pouring over her studies and readying for marriage.
"Again!" Sir Nicholas barked.
With an unladylike grunt, she heaved her sword back into position. The man hardly waited for her to catch her breath before unleashing a barrage of strikes. Her muscles, worn from physical and mental exertion, failed her yet again.
"Again." Blue eyes as hard and cold as the metal hilt in her palm, glared beneath wisps of black hair. Despite his stony exterior the knight was handsome.
She ground her teeth and chastised her thoughts for turning to the forbidden.
His blade caught her flimsy offense attack and countered harshly, driving the weapon out of her grasp and sending into the snow.
The man glowered down the length of his sword. "Again."
"No." Her hands slid to her knees. "No more."
The length of her red hair had surpassed her waist. It was curly and unruly. Despite its veil that hung between the two as she kept her form bent, she could see his black boots as he neared her. The toes were scuffed. Idly, she wondered if snow had seeped into the leather as it had done with hers or if they were of sturdy quality.
"You yield your sword, then you yield your life and with your life, your kingdom," he said, his words as sharp as the point of his sword.
She straightened her spine and leveled a glare at the man. "What do you care?"
She'd known him all but a few months, yet it felt like a lifetime. He had awakened something within her, something dangerous. Could he sense it?
Nicholas adverted his gaze as his jaw flexed beneath the black stubble that lined his jaw. "It is my duty to train you and ready you-"
"T'is death you ready me for, nothing more." Her tone was not accusing, but hopeless. At that, he looked at her, a storm brewing in the blue orbs beneath the envious fullness of his lashes.
"You will win."
"If you believe that you truly are a fool, Sir Nicholas."
Rage and something akin to passion flickered across his gaze. Immediately, she regretted her words, but surely he had to know they were fighting a lost war.
Though her words brooked no response, his free hand tightened into a fist at his side as he said, "I will train you."
She laughed, a humorless, gutless sound that even to her own ears sounded animalistic. "Train me? In one eve? Nicholas, it is hopeless. My life has already been lost, this battle lost, and my kingdom-"
"You lose because you don't fight!" His shoulders shook with the accusation, stifling her self pity and stirring the dormant rage within her icy veins. "You say you love your kingdom, yet you fight like you've already lost it. The battle has yet to be fought. You're nothing but a coward."
She flinched as if he'd struck her. His words churned in her mind as her eyes began to sting with tears. She hated their unwanted presence, but they were inevitable as she answered the man.
"I am no coward, knight." She glared at him, voice shaking with the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. "I will stay and fight, knowing death awaits me at his hands rather than run from a lost battle. I've been trained up as a Lady, not as a knight. There is no hope for me."
"There is always hope."
She shook her head, incredulously, causing the crimson coils to fall over her shoulders. "Deny it all you want, but you know it's true. Why stay and train me? Why not leave and save yourself?"
He looked away, jaw flexing once more with irritation.
"Why do you care what happens?" she pressed.
"Because I care for you," he answered, his gaze returning to her.
Her eyes widened at his words, but she denied them purchase in her heart. He couldn't love her. After all, he had practically ignored her until recent circumstances drove them together.
He took a step forward, but she retreated one back.
"That's impossible," she murmured.
"I tried not to at first," he said, expression mirroring the sincerity driving his words. This time when he moved to cross the distance between them, she didn't move. "But it was useless. I can't let you go, Ayra."
He was standing near enough that the warmth of his breath tickled her cheek. If she tilted her chin, their lips might have even brush.
"It's not enough," she whispered, but her hands denied her claim and laid themselves against his chest. The fabric of his tunic was soft and cool beneath her palms, just as she had imagined.
His hands entangled themselves in her hair. Gently, he tugged on the strands, causing her head to tilt back and her eyes to meet his.
"It is enough."
It should have been. She wanted it to be. But she couldn't pretend otherwise.
She dropped her hands. "You need sleep. We should go in and rest while before the army arrives."
"That's it then?" He stepped back, breaking their embrace entirely. When he did, she almost caved, but to do so would be dishonest.
She swallowed the growing lump in her throat and nodded.
His expression hardened. Without so much as a goodbye, he left her standing in the snow outlined by the fading sunset that was to be her last.
The morning air that was overly icy and crisp, hurt her lungs as she breathed in.
Dawn had barely scathed the retreating darkness, but the armies were positioning for war.
Weary from training, her muscles protested with every step. She would have taken her horse, but she didn't want it hurt for the sake of delivering her to death's door.
A gnawing sense of being watched drew her eyes to the numerous gazes in the frontline of her regiment. There, amongst the other knights and squires, Sir Nicholas watched her from upon his midnight black horse. Though he held her gaze, he didn't smile or wave. She had not expected him to, but her heart swelled at the thought of it just the same.
In the middle of the valley where the trees were few and far between, King Darius sat on top his horse painted red for war.
Silence gripped the air as his men took notice of her.
"I challenge the king to a dual," she called, forcing her voice above its usual quietness. The exertion scratched her throat, but she was glad when the words proved unwavering and almost brave to the ear.
The king smirked. "And what, I pray, is the wager you stake your life for?"
She narrowed her eyes at the man. "For the freedom of my kingdom and for the control of yours."
The men around him roared with laughter. His smirk broadened, but he never took his eyes off of her.
"To your death and to my assured victory?" He nodded. "I agree to your terms, Lady Ayra. Have you your weapon?"
She withdrew her blade from the strap on her waistband. Nicholas had insisted on her wearing armor, but she had refused. The armor would only slow her down and the suits were all fitted for a male's body; a misfortune she vowed to remedy if by some miracle God granted her victory.
The king dismounted and walked to the middle of the valley and stood before her holding his sword with one hand and a dagger in the other.
"I vow, m'lady, to make this as slow and painful as possible." He sneered.
Fear clenched her gut, but her anger proved stronger. "Aye, I'm sure it is for every woman that is subjected to your aspirations."
He glared and without warning, struck out with his broad sword. She countered, but it was clumsy and she fell back a step. With every blow, he pushed her further back and gained in speed and power. She had known she could not win, but she had hoped to last longer than she was.
Driving his sword toward her chest he leapt forward before she could dodge. Her blade caught his, but his dagger sank into her side.
Nicholas? She wanted to turn to see who had called out, but Darius held her against him as he twisted the dagger.
She cried out.
"If you had agreed to the marriage, you'd be enjoying my bed," he muttered, spittle flying. "Now, you'll die along with the rest of your men."
Ayra could hardly breathe against the pain, but his threat gave her strength to rear back and bash the pommel of her sword against his nose. He roared and loosed his hold on her. Before she could step away his fist collided with her jaw.
Everything went dizzily black as she fell. When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but the blue expanse above her. Everything hurt. Darkness ebbed at her vision as she turned her head and saw the king's back turned to her. He held his arms up in victory to his men who roared approvingly.
She reached out and her fingers brushed the hilt of her blade. Clenching it, she summomed the last bit of strength within her and drove the weapon in a gap between his breastplate and ribcage.
The king turned, mouth agape, and looked at her with a gaze glossed over by the death that descended upon him. He fell in a heap of metal at her knees.
Commotion overtook the battlefield as confusion and shock rippled across the armies.
She stumbled onto her feet and raised her sword. The pain was great, but she managed to keep upright. Instead of turning to her men, she faced the opposing army and stood over the dead king. Seeing that their cause had ended with their leader, they began turning away, but not without the pursuit of her good men. They passed her and chased after the enemy, disappearing over the mountainside.
She wanted to give chase, but her body collapsed against her will. As it did, arms caught her before she reached the cold earth.
"Ayra." Nicholas scooped her up and began carrying her. "Don't close your eyes."
His voice was raw. Did she really look that bad?
"Armor becomes you," she said, playfully.
But he didn't scowl like she wanted him to. Instead of annoyance, there was panic and despair.
She sighed as a numbness set into her body. She was so tired.
He jostled her in his arms. "Keep your eyes open."
"I love you," she whispered.
She glanced up into his eyes, wishing they'd look at her one more time, but she was too tired to wait.
"Thank you, Nicholas," she interjected, sensing the words he was about to say, just as her eyelids drooped.
"It's a miracle," the physician said, packing up his bag. "The dagger missed every major organ, but the loss of blood alone should have killed you."
"If that's supposed to console me, Everett, I assure you, it does not," she muttered. She grimaced, but forced herself upright in her bed.
The physician regarded her with scrutiny. "You should recover given you stay in bed."
"Lady Ayra stay in bed?" scoffed a figure stepping into the threshold of her chamber. Nicholas's eyes met hers. "Unlikely."
Remembering the confession she had made before slipping into unconsciousness, she looked down at her hands knotted together on her lap.
"I'll check on you again before eve," the physician told her before seeing himself out.
Nicholas approached the side of her bed once the physician had left. "I'm glad you're awake."
"It takes more than a dagger to keep me down."
"So it seems." A small smile played at the corners of his lips. He reached out and took her hand in his. "Ayra, I-"
"I don't want you to feel obligated," she interrupted, "to say anything you don't wish to."
He frowned. "Why would loving you be an obligation?"
"Just because I had said that I loved you, doesn't mean I expect you to feel the same." She paused as realization set in. Had he just confessed to loving her?
Leaning down, he kissed her forehead, his whiskers soft against her brow. When he drew back, he was smiling.
"I love you, Ayra. I'm sorry for not saying it sooner. At the time, I knew I couldn't handle the thought of losing you. I was the coward. Will you forgive me?"
Her heart soared at his words. Instead of answering, she pressed her lips to his.