The next installment of the continuing story of Allyandrah and Kru’Nah.
This week’s prompt is: Faced with his or her worst fear, does your character run or stand and fight?
The next morning, Allyandrah and Kru’Nah set off. The temperature had plummeted overnight and they bundled themselves up as tightly as possible to walk. They stuck to the woods, Kru’Nah taking the unfamiliar rear position. For a moment, it struck him as odd that he, the Prince, would be following a slave.
“Not a slave,” he said quietly to himself. “My love.”
Kru’Nah often checked his vectrometer to ensure they continued in the right direction. To his continued surprise, Allyandrah walked true and straight, never veering from northeast despite their incessant weaving through the thinning trees. Mile after mile, they walked steadily, silently. Kru’Nah had a vague idea of where he wanted to go, but his plan wasn’t fully formed yet.
Finally, after many hours and as the sun began to dip low in the sky, Allyandrah stopped among what appeared to be the last of the trees.
“We should make camp,” she said.
Kru’Nah bristled slightly at her giving him directions, but he quickly reframed his mind again, pushing out the idea of her having been a slave and him a prince. He was surprised by how deeply ingrained his training really was. When he thought and fantasized about being with Allyandrah, he was never troubled by her station, but now that it was reality, he had to continually check himself.
Allyandrah had no more than spoken before she began to collect Hornothol branches for a fire. She worked quietly for a few moments, keeping one eye on Kru’Nah, who stood regally in the snow watching her work. Her love and excitement at being with him was tempered by her weariness. Annoyance began to grow as she did all the work.
Dumping an armful of branches on the ground near him, Allyandrah looked at him for a moment, pursed her lips, and walked away to collect more.
“What was that look?” Kru’Nah asked with more severity than he’d intended.
Allyandrah felt the jolt of accusation and immediately retreated into her slave mindset, dropping low to the ground in a bow. “I regret my impertinence. It was not my place.” She recited the apology by heart, having learned the basic gist of its meaning through experience. Her heart hammered in her chest, waiting for the inevitable beating.
Kru’Nah sighed, annoyed at himself. He walked over and gently placed his hands on her shoulders, feeling her start slightly at his touch. He stayed there for a moment, unsure what to say. He was fighting against a lifetime of training.
Finally, he spoke softly. “Allyandrah, I will never beat you. You are not my slave out here.”
Slowly, Allyandrah lifted her head and rocked back onto her heels. She gazed up into the penitent face of Kru’Nah.
“We have much to unlearn,” he said, standing and offering his hand. Taking it, Allyandrah stood. “Would you like to start the fire while I gather more wood?”
“That’d be good,” Allyrandrah said. Without another word, she walked over to her pile of wood and began arranging it to start a fire. Kru’Nah continued to watch her for a moment, impressed by her deftness and skill. It seemed that she knew exactly how to do everything, whereas his own usefulness out here was limited. He felt strange depending on someone else in such a primal way. Finally, he turned and began to dig under the snow for hidden branches as he’d watched Allyandrah do.
Soon, a large fire was blazing radiating warmth and the two had filled their bellies with food and hot water, melted from the abundant snow. Kru’Nah and Allyandrah huddled together, one cape wrapped around their backs and the other around their fronts, nestled into a shallow snow dugout. Both shivered violently despite the large fire.
“I hate this,” Allyandrah said through chattering teeth. “I never been this cold in my life.”
“It is much warmer back home, certainly.” The difference in their speech was startling to him. He realized he hadn’t consciously noticed the difference before. A slave’s lack of education was apparent in the way they spoke and he’d never given it a second thought until now. He wriggled himself out of their capes and set several more large branches on the fire. As it grew, spitting resin everywhere, he settled back into the capes, feeling much warmer.
As they continued to sit not speaking, he noticed Allyandrah’s breathing become slow and regular, her body limp against his, an indication of her sleeping. His wrestled against his fatigue for as long as he could before also finally drifting off to sleep.
A low swishing slowly roused Kru’Nah from his sleep. A vaguely familiar sound, though he couldn’t immediately place it. The fire had long since died down and a chill had crept back into his body. Allyandrah continued to breathe slowly. It was just nearing dawn, the sky beginning to surrender the deepest darkness of night. All his senses returning, he now felt wide awake, turning his head this way and that to locate the sound. He nudged Allyandrah.
“Hey,” he whispered. “Wake up.”
“Hmm?” Allyandrah slowly stirred as he continued to nudge her. The sound he now recognized as wilderness soldiers. He’d spent enough time with them to know this sound. They must have been instructed to find him. Should he surrender and bank on his mother’s mercy for him or force them to kill him by not surrendering? Allyandrah’s purposeful movement shook him out of his contemplation.
“What–?” Allyandrah started to say, but Kru’Nah clamped his hand over her mouth.
“Don’t say anything. Just get up and stay silent.” The pair clumsily shuffled around trying to get their capes back on. He hadn’t anticipated the word getting out so quickly and their tracks were surely fresh and easy to follow in the snow.
“What’s going on?” Allyandrah whispered.
“They found us,” Kru’Nah whispered back.
Allyandrah finally heard the sound of the shuffling snow. Her eyes grew wide in terror and she began to shake, this time in fear and not from the cold. Surely she would not be pardoned a second time. Turning to look at Kru’Nah, his face betrayed his indecision. They hadn’t pushed hard enough. They trusted too much in the wilderness. They underestimated the queen. Allyandrah began to back away slowly from Kru’Nah and the sound of the incoming soldiers. Kru’Nah turned toward her.
“Allyandrah,” he whispered fiercely, holding out his hand.
Allyandrah slowly shook her head as she stumbled and fell. Pain crushed her chest and closed off her throat as she watched his understanding grow. He knew she was leaving and he knew she was leaving him behind. Tears spilled out of her eyes and she tried to breathe as she eased backward, going beyond the last of the trees. His mouth formed the word “No,” and his eyes begged her to stay with him. He reached out more insistently to her and she paused for just a moment before turning and sprinting away, leaving her heart and her love back in that small grove of trees.
Allyandrah’s mind whirled as she ran, trying to make sense of her decision. To stay with him would mean certain death of her body but to be away from him was death to her soul. Slaves’ lives weren’t supposed to be complicated like this! Tears poured from her eyes as she ran, trying to choke down breaths. She quickly turned west, hoping to find more trees in which to conceal her tracks. Bravery was no longer her concern. Survival was.
Kru’Nah watched as Allyandrah back away from him, his heart ripping out of his chest as she backed away, as though on a tether to her. “Please, no,” he whispered. She turned and ran, taking his heart with her, quickly disappearing from sight. Only her footprints gave any indication which direction she went. He stood there, frozen to the ground, his mind spinning.
“You there!” A firm voice broke into his thoughts. He turned and tried to plaster his royal face on over his brokenness, even though his face was mostly concealed by his furs.
“Show yourself!” The voice barked again. Kru’Nah knew for sure now. It was Commander Tra’Khil.
“You would dare speak to me in such an insolent manner?” Kru’Nah’s voice grew stronger as he spoke. He hoped that the cracked first syllables wouldn’t give him away.
“Sire!” Commander Tra’Khil and all his men immediately dropped to one knee, right arm crossed over their chests, heads bowed.
Kru’Nah tried to think quickly. He turned his back on the bowed men and shuffled through the tracks left by Allyandrah. When he felt he’d gone far enough, Kru’Nah turned around and, making a new set of tracks, walked back to the men still bowed low to the ground.
“You may rise,” Kru’Nah said, channeling all his frustration and disdain at the events of the past few minutes on the small group of men in front of him.
Slowly the group of men arose, none daring to look directly at Kru’Nah.
“Why are you you here?” Kru’Nah finally asked, staring down Commander Tra’Khil.
“We have been tasked with finding you,” Commander Tra’Khil said.
“Am I lost?” Kru’Nah challenged, his anger rising along with his voice. “Am I lost without my knowledge? Does an unlost man need finding?”
“No, sire,” Commander Tra’Khil replied, his voice slightly uneven betraying his discomfort. “The queen believed you to be lost or kidnapped, so we were commanded to find you, excuse me sire, to search you out.”
Kru’Nah laughed a cruel laugh, his mother’s laugh. “Who exactly would kidnap me?”
Commander Tra’Khil continued to stand perfectly still even though Kru’Nah was sure he was sweating in his suit. Mentally, Kru’Nah commended Tra’Khil for his composure.
“Sire, we were not given such information.”
“Not officially. I’m no idiot, I know there are many unofficial lines of communication. Why are you here?” Kru’Nah tried to clasp his heavily mittened hands behind his back, but they would not grip each other, so he simply held them there.
A slight shift from Tra’Khil. Kru’Nah smiled to himself. He had won.
“Sire, it’s believed that it has something to do with the slave girl.” Tra’Khil tried to keep his voice steady, but the bitterness of the resignation of such information was evident.
“My mother believes a slave girl kidnapped me?” Kru’Nah knew a response was unnecessary with such a ridiculous question and notion. If he was lucky, it would put them off searching any further for Allyandrah. Royalty certainly had its perks at times, even if it meant dealing with his mother. He screwed up his face in annoyance at the thought of her.
“Sire, shall we return to the outpost before the squall hits?”
“What squall?” Kru’Nah asked with concern, his thoughts turning back to Allyandrah.
“A squall is coming in from the west, sire. We’ll be lucky to reach the outpost before it does.”
Looking up at the brightening sky, Kru’Nah could also read the signs of the incoming weather. He and Allyndrah had been fools to not see them. Holding out his hand in the direction from which the men had come, and away from Allyandra’s tracks, he indicated to move. The men obediently turned and walked away. Kru’Nah resisted the impulse to glance behind him one last time, even with all their backs turned to him. He couldn’t afford to make the slightest mistake now.
Allyandrah had to stop running. Her lungs burned and she was drenched in sweat. The sun was now high in the sky. She must have been running for hours. The terror she’d felt as she left her dearest Kru’Nah behind had now faded to deep regret and sorrow. She should have trusted him to keep her alive. Slaves, however, were unaccustomed to trust.
As she looked around, a strange wrinkle the smooth snow caught her eye. Glancing behind her, for what reason she didn’t quite know, she set out toward the wrinkle. She had nowhere to hide out in the open. Her love was once again lost to her and this time it was her fault. What did she really have to lose?
As she approached, she saw the wrinkle was not a wrinkle at all, but some kind of house, blending in almost perfectly with the surroundings. As she approached, a fur-clothed figure stepped out. Allyandrah spread her arms out wide and knelt down in the snow, bowing her head. She tried to listen for the approaching footsteps.
“Who goes there?” A voice called out instead. It was old and weary.
Allyandrah looked up to see that the figure hadn’t moved at all. “A banished slave,” she called back.
The figure stood still for several minutes, clearly trying to make a decision. “Alright, come in,” it finally called back.
Allyandrah couldn’t believe her luck. She quickly stood. Her body was rapidly growing cold with her lack of movement and she nearly ran to the door. She was completely unprepared for what waited inside.
As she stepped in, she was greeted by a stuffed Hornothol bear. The giant bears were white and had claws the length of Allyandrah’s hands. She took several steps back and stumbled into the door, causing her host to burst into laughter.
“It’s dead, love.” Allyandrah finally recognized her host as an old man. “Come, let’s get these clothes off of you before you roast to death.” He helped Allyandrah out of her furs and out of her soaked underclothes.
“What are you doing getting yourself so wet! You’d have died out there tonight!” He shook his head incredulously at her.
“I was chased,” Allyandrah said noncommittally.
“Well, that would do it.” The man’s hair had long since turned white and his skin was old, but it was clearly iridescent. Who was he?
“Come, don’t stand naked by the front door, you’ll die of cold here too. Let’s get you some clothes.” He shuffled away and Allyandrah followed obediently, unbothered by her naked condition. As a slave, she was used to it.
He found her some thick, warm clothes, which she gratefully pulled on. He then led her into a sitting room and offered her some hot tea and dried meat. Allyandrah ate greedily, even as she tried to restrain herself. There was something about him that gave her permission to be greedy, but what it was she couldn’t quite tell.
“So now,” he began. “Tell me why you’re really out here.”
Allyandrah’s eyes grew large and she choked a little on the food in her mouth.
“I’m not going to hurt you, slave. That much I promise, otherwise I wouldn’t have shared so much precious food with you,” his eye twinkled as he smiled at her. “I’m just a lonely old man who would like to hear a good story. I think a story of how a slave made it this far north ought to be quite a good one.”
Allyandrah took a deep breath and cleared her throat. She started by telling him that she was a slave of the queen, how she’d met Kru’Nah, the tale of him saving her from the forest fire, how he’d persuaded her to come north, then followed her, and finished by sharing how they’d been tracked and found and her running away.
“I don’t know what they did to him.” Allyandrah dropped her head into her hands and began to sob uncontrollably. The old man rose and sat next to her, gathering her into his arms. She’d never known such tenderness and it caused her to sob even harder, an entire lifetime’s worth of hurt and pain rolled out of her in the arms of a complete stranger, her tears soaking his shirt.
At long last, her sobs subsided and she simply lay in his arms as he stroked her hair.
“Well, then,” he spoke up a while later. “We should figure out how to get you back with my grandson.”