“You aren’t like she said you would be.”
Aurora didn’t respond at first and for a moment he assumed the man had been asleep until an impossible colored eye peered out at him as the brim of his hat rose. A smile flashed across the man’s face, something weak, before it drifted away to the sleepy frown it had been before. He shifted where he sat, eyes flashing down to the sleeping form of the blond man beside him, and very carefully straightened himself against the tree he was tied to.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he had spoken the words, why they rolled off his tongue and fell out into the air in a puff of his breath. The air was colder, the wind bringing a chill whenever it swept down into the shallow alcove they had taken refuge in for the night. East, he thought. They were getting closer.
“Don’t tell me you’re disappointed.”
Part of him wanted to take back the words he had said, turn over and pretend to give up on starting a conversation he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to have. It wasn’t common that he spoke to captives, prisoners and enemies of the land, his land. They were where they deserved to be or on their way, escorted in chains to the place they belonged.
“Where you expecting something different?”
“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I certainly just wasn’t expecting you.”
The man looked proud, not scared, and he only smiled again. “Should I be flattered or offended?”
Zayne looked down, picking away at the chipped polish of his nails and allowing his shoulders to raise in a shrug. He hadn’t known what to expect after only a short conversation that had truthfully intimidated him than anything else. However, that had happened before and as long as he received his information, was given his task, he could allow it to roll off of him.
“I expected someone difficult and you’re…”
“Haven’t I been difficult enough for you?”
He glanced up. “Most tend to bargain for their lives, beg for a change of heart. You haven’t done that.”
“Perhaps I’m too proud,” the man suggested.
Zayne frowned. “I assumed it was stupidity.”
Aurora laughed at that. “I supposed that is partially to blame as well.”
It bothered him, the nonchalant air about his tone, the way his eyes squinted in a smile, lips drawing upwards. Nothing about it seemed forced, unnaturally genuine for a man that had held a gun to his head days earlier. Unsettling, he decided, that’s all that Aurora was.
“You didn’t let me finish a moment ago, but you’re too calm for this. You know very well that she intends on killing you. If you haven’t attempted to bargain with me, are you honestly hoping she’ll be more likely to listen?”
He seemed to think for a moment, only nodding his head along with nothing in particular until finally he swallowed and breathed out a simple, “No.”
A snort. “Excuse me?”
Zayne cleared his throat. “Are you dying? I would think that an illness or something-“
“I’m not dying,” Aurora chuckled, “not anymore.”
“Many men are dead long before that heart of theirs stops beating.”
He shook his head. “I don’t follow.”
The smirk that appeared on his face turned sour then. “For someone who has no regard for the fate of his prisoners, you are terribly curious about me.”
Zayne’s eyes flashed to the ground as he straightened himself. “Seeing as we are the only two awake and there is nothing else to do, I didn’t see the harm in conversation-“
“Bounty hunting,” the man hummed. “Now, I’m sure you have a far more interesting story to tell than I do. A man doesn’t simply come by a job like that, not without first making your name well known-“
“My name was already well known.”
Aurora smiled. “Strange, isn’t it?”
“You flaunt that name around like it’s something to be proud of…and yet, I’ve never heard of you. It was only when we were captured that I even knew what a Crossvale was.”
He bit his lip. “I could say the very same to you. I never knew about you before the task was given to me.”
“Task,” Aurora hissed. “You say that like you aren’t just as responsible for my death. You’re removing yourself when, truly, there is as much blood on your hands as anyone else’s.”
“I don’t kill people,” Zayne snapped.
“You nearly killed my brother.”
Zayne clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I only meant to wound him.”
He cleared his throat. “Your brother is one of them.”
“T-the resistance,” Zayne huffed, cursing his stammer. “I’ve heard about them before.”
Aurora was quiet for a moment, stretching his legs out to cross them at his ankles. He smiled, eyes rising to the swelling darkness above them. The man still looked tired and Zayne supposed that the constant fear, if that was something he felt, would be draining. He had never felt guilt for completing tasks assigned to him, but something seemed wrong about the scenario as a whole.
“Have you had a change of heart?”
Zayne’s head snapped up and he tried to look appalled. “Never. I wouldn’t dare turn on an employer. There’s no…” He trailed off briefly, lips pursing. “That is how you lose a reputation and everything you’ve worked for. Doing that would mean turning my back on everything I’ve done and everything my father did for me.”
“Ah,” Aurora sighed. “Of course, and how tragic was his death for you? How much did you swear at his grave that every day you would work towards avenging him? I assume-“
“My father isn’t dead,” Zayne snapped.
The man across from him fell silent.
“I owe him for my upbringing, my home in the capital and even the safety of my mother. That isn’t someone you can turn your back on either.”
Aurora’s head fell back against the tree, hat tilting at a rakish angle. “Continue.”
“I said, continue. As you said, there is no harm in conversation. Unless you have changed your mind on that as well-“
Zayne’s arms crossed in front of his chest, breath trickling out between gritted teeth to cloud in front of his lips. “I haven’t changed my mind on anything.”
They were silent for some time and he reached for his bag, digging around until he managed to locate something to eat. Their supplies were still plentiful and with the east rapidly growing closer, he wasn’t concerned with running out. Hunting, however, wasn’t exactly an option for him.
He crunched down on a section of the oats, sweetened with honey that kept the small stacks together. Aurora’s eyes rose questioningly. “Would you have any to spare?”
Zayne hesitated for a moment before breaking off some of it, rising slowly to his feet and shuffling across camp to hand over a ration. He sat down again heavily, teeth snapping another cold hardened portion in two. It wasn’t until Aurora made some sound of disgust that he looked up, eyes falling over the dissatisfied squint in the man’s gaze.
“What is this?”
Aurora didn’t look convinced.
“It’s just oats and honey and bitter seed.”
“No one is forcing you to eat it.”
The chunk was tossed back to him, landing beside Zayne’s leg in the snow.
“Why haven’t you and your companion hunted yet?”
Zayne leaned forward, sweeping it from the ground and tucking it back into the small bundle it had come from. “A personal choice and one that shouldn’t matter to you.”
“Elaborate, won’t you?”
None the less, Zayne answered. “I,” he paused, closing the cloth and tucking it back into his bag, “don’t eat meat. In the south there are traditions and one of them includes-“
“No creatures being treated unfairly,” Aurora cut in. “While I don’t know for certain, I’d say killing a beast for food isn’t unfair. It was certainly a better death than I was offered.”
Zayne shifted under his blankets. “Did you talk to Aazyra-“
“Do all southerners avoid it?”
He shook his head. “My father did, but my mother,” he paused, laughing quietly, “she was a wolf.”
His mother had stayed south, never moving far from their home and, more often than not, refusing to leave at all. Zayne never understood that and he never had the courage to ask, but he supposed it wasn’t his place.
“Your father is a bounty hunter too?”
Zayne looked up, nodding. “He was.”
He only hummed in answer.
Aurora smiled. “Me too.”
For a while, they were quiet and Zayne reached beside him for a half frozen waterskin, tapping the sides against the ground and hearing the shifting of ice inside. He unscrewed it, raising it to his lips and gulping down what he could. Despite the cold, the chill in the air and the ice that fell against his tongue, something else accounted for the shiver creeping up his spine.
“Your companion, where does she come from?”
“South of here,” Zayne answered. “That’s all I know. She claimed to be part of the Dravara, but just why she masqueraded -“
“It’s safer, give yourself a wrong name and…wrong everything, harder to track.”
Zayne’s head snapped up and he shifted sideways, frightened by the additional voice and peering sideways to where the woman propped herself up on an elbow.
“Simple, don’t get as many questions.”
“Was that difficult for you?” Aurora asked from across the way.
Part of him wanted to be annoyed, but something that resembled relief bubbled up in his chest, also pity. He shook his head, half smiling. “Well, that clears my suspicion of traveling with a dangerous criminal.”
“Don’t you people hunt down people like me?” she laughed.
“Dangerous criminal,” Aazyra snorted. “Worst thing I’ve done is steal that horse of mine.”
He blinked. “Horse thievery is a serious crime-“
“Crossvale, you’ve got to of the most wanted men and you’re worried about a horse thief now? Remind me just how you’ve gotten this far,” Aazyra mumbled, shifting down in her blankets to hide most of her face. “S’vexing cold here.”
Aurora leaned his head backwards, hat falling and landing with a quiet hush in the snow. “Don’t worry. By my best guess, we are getting close. The two of you will be south again and…”
He trailed off.
A laugh, something panicked. “And I suppose I won’t.”
Zayne pitied him in some regard. The man was broken, snapped in a way he didn’t and never could fully understand. He knew that. He accepted it. He didn’t understand why some shred of his conscience felt weighed down by it.
The word fell away when his eyes fell over her sleeping form, eyes shut and nose hidden beneath the wool of her blanket.
“She’ll kill you.”
Zayne frowned. “She’s my partner-“
“Not her,” Aurora breathed. “Rowena…she’ll kill you.”
He scoffed. “Why would she do that?”
“You know about me.”
He shifted nervously. “As if you’re so important-“
“Do you know what torture is, Zayne?”
Fear crept its way up his legs, from the toes of his boots and into his chest where it lodged, swinging off his ribs and freezing in his throat. He pulled his knees to his chest, internally blaming the cold.
“The pain isn’t the worst of it.”
“If you’re trying to scare me…”
He didn’t know what to say, how to say it, and instead the words were never finished, left hanging in the air between them.
Aurora sat up, expression dropping. “I’m trying to warn you. She promised you pay, a small fortune by my best guess. You won’t ever receive a single eldune, not ever. Rowena will kill you, but you will suffer first.” He paused, eyes flickering up to meet his. “I did.”
“Y-you must have done something to deserve-“
“Deserve it?” Aurora croaked. “If I did, I was never the one to truly pay for it. Instead, a boy died in my place, a child, and all because of a mistake…a lie that she told. The Dravara aren’t protecting us; she isn’t protecting us-“
“Are you trying to-“
“Again, I’m warning you.”
The fire crackled between them.
“A destruction of everything you knew, everything you thought you knew, and rather than focus on the pain, you cling to what parts of yourself still remain until everything is gone. That,” Aurora paused, drawing in a shaking breath, “is what torture is.”
Zayne didn’t have an answer.
Instead, he only rose to his feet, avoiding Aurora’s eyes and only moving to shake Aazyra’s shoulder gently. She grumbled something, blanket moving to cover her head.
“I-I heard something. Come with me.”
The blanket was peeled back and she yawned, blinking sleep from her eyes and climbing clumsily to stand. She reached for a knife, twirling it in hand, gloved fingers fumbling over the frostbitten hilt. They were gone then, out of sight.
Come morning, he thought, the things Aurora said would be forgotten.
It was intimidation.
That was all.