“Will you do me a favor?”
Daniel didn’t look up, only nodding from where he stared down a wrongly familiar road, down a way that he had traveled not long before, through a pass he knew would take them back to the stronghold. He hated every one of them, every stretch of road that snaked across the snow cloaked east. Chief Dravara, he thought, the man in charge of knowing who traveled what path, what guns were fired and when.
He hated knowing.
Some part of him had hoped Aurora would do something. He didn’t care what it was or just what the outcome was. Truly, death beside Aurora was better than whatever one crouched at the stronghold, waiting in the shadows for them to get close enough. There was no favorable ending, not for them.
“What is it?” Daniel asked when Aurora stayed quiet.
“Before we reach the stronghold,” he paused, eyes rising and a concerning smile flickering to his lips, “shoot me.”
“Put a gun to my head and pull the trigger,” he continued. “Put a knife in my belly. Gut me before she ever gets the chance to touch me. Can you do that for me?”
“Shove a dagger through my ribs-“
“Sharpen a branch for all I care-“
Daniel grabbed him by the collar, leaning over in his saddle and struggling to keep his balance. “Enough.”
Aurora’s head tilted, mouth curling into a smirk an inch away from the scowl on Daniel’s lips. He was smug, hiding a brokenness Daniel knew they both saw through. And yet, something about it was almost alluring, confusing as much as it was captivating.
“You’re far too sweet to me, love.”
A blush rushed to Daniel’s cheeks as he let go, leaning back over again and hearing the Aazyra laugh ahead of them.
“Glad you two have some kind of control. Was afraid I’d have to haul you off of each other by now.”
“I could say the very same about you and the bounty hunter,” Aurora called back up to her, smiling still.
Zayne sighed, looking up at his partner. “Can you please avoid speaking to them?”
They rode in silence for a short while.
“Wrap your chains around my throat,” Aurora croaked, “when we stop for the night. Do something, please. I want you-“
Aurora laughed, craning his head back to stare into the tree branches ahead of them once more. “Or what? Will you actually kiss me next time?”
He choked. “Kiss you?”
Daniel didn’t have the courage to ask him to explain, only reaching up to pull his scarf over his nose to hide the red that had moved into his cheeks for a second time.
He looked up. “What for?”
“All of this,” Aurora answered bitterly.
His shoulders rose in a shrug. “It’s not your fault.”
Aurora laughed. “If I wanted you to lie to me, my friend, I would ask. I appreciate it, but I don’t think either of us have the room to tell lies to each other right now.”
“Don’t say that-“
“Tomorrow we will be right back where we started, won’t we? Do you think our rooms were left waiting for us to return?” Aurora asked bitterly.
“We weren’t wanted dead by the Dravara last time.”
Aurora tapped against the pommel of his saddle. “No, I suppose we were just boys then.” He shook his head, laughing. “Look how far we’ve gotten, Daniel!”
Daniel winced at his laugh, glancing ahead of them to see Zayne’s eyes darken in another glare. He reached over to nudge Aurora’s arm with an elbow.
“I’m starting to think I should’ve left you to rot, you bastard.”
Aurora’s expression fell.
“You should have,” he agreed. “It was a fool’s decision to come back for me.”
Daniel cleared his throat. “Well, fool’s decision or not, it was the right one.”
“I hope you’re not lying to me.”
A breeze ruffled their cloaks.
“I would give my life for you or your daughter any day. When we reach the stronghold, I know I won’t have much time. I just want you to know…that I’m truly sorry for the trouble I ever caused you. If Rowena offers you a chance to redeem yourself, promise me…you will take it.”
“No, don’t interrupt me. If this is the end for me, I want you to live. More than anything,” Aurora paused, voice breaking, “I want the people I love to be alright. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Please, if we are forced apart by death or some other distance, just promise me you will-“
Daniel leaned over to clamp a hand over his mouth, ropes tugging taut. He wobbled in his saddle, trying to balance as his head came to rest against Aurora’s forehead. There was a numbness in his eyes, something empty that had faded and since returned.
Aurora was slipping.
“I’m begging you…please, stop talking.”
The hat fell forward.
He took his hand away carefully.
“We’re going to get out of this. You and I,” he paused, swallowing, “we always get away, don’t we?”
“That really isn’t true-“
“We’ll go west again, find your brother, and everyone will be just fine.”
“I can’t, Daniel.”
“Please, just for now, act like you can.”
Clearing his throat softly, Aurora only nodded.
Fear churned in his belly, twisting horribly in his gut and sending shivers down his arms. Something, anything, had to be done. They couldn’t, not while there was a chance, however small, die so easily.
Daniel threw himself sideways, hands clutched tightly to Aurora’s jacket, and the two landed less than gracefully in the snow. A grunt, some stifled cry of pain, and Aurora was scrambling to his feet with Daniel at his side. He heard Zayne shout, turning his horse quickly, but not before the two had taken off into the woods.
The bounty hunters disappeared behind them.
“Are you insane?” Aurora spat.
Daniel was laughing.
Running with hands tied in front of them made the things all the more difficult and the snow that crunched beneath hurried boots clutched at tired legs. The air burned in his lungs and he was choking on the cold, skidding down a ridgeline and cursing when the two went tumbling downward. The snow plumed upward in a cloud, drifting downward to settle back over them shortly after they came to a stop. He felt the weight of Aurora on top of him, bearing down on his chest until he stirred and pushed himself upward. Daniel was pulled with him, helped to his feet while his head spun.
Blood pounded in his ears.
A gunshot sounded from behind him and he heard the bullet glance off a tree nearby, sending splinters into the air and ripping a surprised yelp from his throat. He became aware of a pain in his ankle, something sharp, but the fear still rippling in his blood kept him running. Escape, he thought, as impossible as it had seemed, was their only chance.
The clasp of his cloak slammed back into his throat as Aurora pulled him backwards and down onto his backside. He coughed, wheezing and looking across the expanse of water that stood before him with tear rimmed eyes.
They were trapped.
“N-no, the river isn’t supposed to…”
Daniel climbed back to his feet carefully, reaching down to take Aurora’s hand and running along the bank towards where the river thinned and the shimmer of the water slowed from rapids to a calm stream. If they could cross, if the cold didn’t take them or the current refrained from sweeping them away, perhaps they could lose the bounty hunter. It was the only thought in his mind, the only thing he could focus on.
Zayne’s voice sent terror flashing into his head again and the pain in his ankle only worsened the longer they ran. The water lashed at the bank they ran along, growling across rocky shores and ripping ice from the land as it went. Daniel tried not to think of the cold, the paralyzing chill that would creep up his limbs the moment they stepped into it.
He stumbled, knees crashing painfully into the roughness of the ground them.
“On your feet,” Aurora called, a plea. “Almost there.”
Daniel grit his teeth, pushing himself upward, but not before the sound of the bounty hunter’s gun rang in his ears.
He was breathing heavily, and Daniel looked behind him carefully to see the man was limping. However, his face wasn’t pained and instead Daniel saw nothing but annoyance, irritation at the broken heel of his shoe he held in his unarmed hand.
“Did you really think you could get away?”
Daniel swore under his breath, grabbing for Aurora to help him to his feet and turning his head a second time to spot a cluster of horseman across the water. Blue, saddles and breast collars bearing a mark he knew very well, was all he saw. A lump rose in his throat.
An impending failure twisted in his gut.
“Dravara,” Aurora breathed.
“Correct,” Zayne huffed, hobbling forward. “I was told to bring you back to them. You’ve only made my task much easier. You’re back where you belong. I would say this is nothing personal, but you two have been too much trouble for it not to be.”
Aurora stepped in front of him, jaw clenched. “Piss off.”
The Dravara rode forward, horses charging through the shallows they had intended on crossing only minutes before. Daniel swallowed harshly, wincing and bracing an arm against Aurora’s shoulder to keep his balance.
He didn’t want to die.
Aurora glanced back at him, rage twisting in his eyes, but it was a front, only there to hide the fear. They were glazed, unnatural as much as they were captivating to stare back into. Daniel brought himself to look away, watching as Aazyra walked slowly up behind the bounty hunter wordlessly.
He was terrified. They both were.
“I’m so sorry.”
Daniel winced, balancing on one leg. “It’s…not your fault.”
“Drop your weapons!”
Setting his foot down, Daniel whirled around to face the Dravara, watching as they dismounted, seven pairs of boots striking snow. Zayne scoffed. “Excuse me? I’m under direct orders to bring these men to the stronghold-“
“New orders,” the leading man called. “You’re not doing that anymore.”
Daniel squinted, focusing on the man that walked towards them slowly, the only unarmed Dravara, and a flicker of recognition passed into his mind. The man was an officer, her secondary, and the sight of him made his blood freeze. He was there on the night of Elizabeth’s death. Jackson had shot him. His mind worked, spinning, and the moment he spoke again, Daniel felt like he’d been struck in the head.
“Hooke,” he said, nodding his head. “Former chief officer of the Dravara. I say former because, unfortunately for you, that’s no longer true. I would like for you to drop your weapon immediately.”
“My name is Zayne Crossvale and-“
“I know who you are,” Benjamin continued. “But as men of the resistance, we can’t let you take them any further.”
Daniel’s mouth fell open, a stammer escaping him, but words refused to form.
Aazyra walked forward calmly. “Didn’t think I’d be seeing you all again.”
“We’re you helping him?” Benjamin asked.
“This is an outrage,” Zayne spat, turning to Aazyra. “You were with them?”
“Wasn’t with them,” she mumbled. “Just wasn’t against them either.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, who’re you with now?”
Daniel looked up at the unfamiliar voice, trying not to stare dumbly at the sight of the horsemen in front of them. The woman crossed her arms in front of her chest, staring sternly back at Aazyra.
“No one,” she answered. “Don’t want any trouble. I’ll be on my way-“
“You could’ve gotten those two killed,” the unfamiliar woman scolded.
Benjamin raised a hand. “She didn’t.”
Aazyra jerked her head to the side, motioning towards where Aurora stood. “Kept them alive too. This isn’t my war.”
“This is everyone’s war,” Daniel cut in. “It wasn’t mine either…but it is now.”
Zayne’s pistol landed with a dull clunk in the snow. His hands went above his head, fingers intertwining in his hair. “You’re all criminals. She’s going to find you-“
“You’re going to stop talking if you want to keep breathing,” Benjamin interjected sharply. “Understand?”
The bounty hunter’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, sir.”
Daniel reached out for Aurora, brushing his arm carefully.
Aurora just stared.
“Are you alright?”
His voice came brokenly. “You were with them that night.”
Benjamin frowned. “What night do you mean?”
“Jackson shot you.”
“And I shot him, but what is one bullet between friends?”
Daniel couldn’t bring himself to laugh, only clinging to what loose fabric of Aurora’s jacket he could. There was a hollowness about the way he stared, a numbness that worried him. He didn’t move, not even when their bindings were cut and his hands were freed. It wasn’t until Benjamin neared, close enough to where Daniel could see the few dusty blond strands that remained in his age salted hair, that Aurora even twitched.
Aurora’s hands were grasping for his jacket then, detachment evaporating and a rage twisting in his eyes. Daniel reached to stop him, but Benjamin raised a hand out towards him, calm.
“Your men stood by,” Aurora croaked.
“Easy now. I can explain-“
“They didn’t even try to save her!”
Benjamin was silent.
The words were repeated as Aurora stumbled backwards. “They didn’t even try.”
“This is not the time to be talking about this,” the woman called from Daniel’s side. “I know your brother, Aurora. He’s back at camp with Sarafina and I want you to know he’s alright. My name is Dianna Rikscala. We are friends.”
She reached out carefully, fingers brushing over his bandaged arm. “Now, what’s wrong there?”
“D-don’t...touch me, please,” Aurora breathed, eyes wild and fingers moving to tangle anxiously in his hair beneath his hat. “You didn’t stop them. You wanted me to die-“
Daniel pulled his arms down gently, watching the coldness return to his friend’s eyes and feeling the shake in his limbs. “Aurora, you’re alright. They want to help us.”
He stared back blankly.
“No one wants to help us.”
“You’re wrong there,” Benjamin interrupted. “Not only do we want to help you, we want you to help us too. Would you let us explain?”
Dianna cleared her throat. “You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you and we only want to talk. Can you do that?”
Aurora was quiet for a while and some part of Daniel was relieved they let him stew in silence. He glanced behind them anxiously, eyes scanning over the others still dressed in blue, and then back to where Zayne had taken to kneeling with his hands stuck firmly behind his head. Daniel nudged him with an arm. “It’s alright.”
“Alright,” Aurora repeated, pausing then and shaking his head. “No, I wasn’t agreeing, but…we are alright.”
Daniel nodded. “That’s right.”
A frown appeared on his face again as his eyes went back to the bounty hunter.
“What about him?”
Benjamin reached to motion towards the pistol at his side.
“N-no,” Aurora argued. “Let him live. He was only following orders.”
“He shot Silas,” Daniel reminded him.
His eyes went to the ground. “It still wasn’t his fault.”
“You’re insane,” Zayne spat. “What makes you think I won’t hunt you down a second time once I’m released?”
“Insane,” Aurora repeated, still shaking where he stood. “But right now, you don’t have a bullet in you. It’s going to stay that way as long as you don’t try anything.”
“I saved your life-“
“Saved me?” Zayne mocked. “You’re only making this worse.”
Aurora raised a brow, still shaking. “Welcome to the worst then.”