He had failed.
He never failed.
There were words spoken, a mantra, a chant, a definition of his very existence since the day he was born. He had lived by them, grown up with them shouted into his ear or whispered in dismay after a scolding. It was simple. There was no failure and anything that approached it would be done over again until it was done correctly. Even if his hands blistered and his head swam with exhaustion, it would be done again.
The Crossvales don’t disappoint.
It left a foul taste in his mouth. The weight of disappointment made his shoulders sag, bending his spine and leaving him slumped against the tree he was tied to. He didn’t try to escape, not after an initial struggle that only resulting in humiliation. The ropes were tight without contorting him into some uncomfortable position.
They were civil.
That only infuriated him further.
“I need to speak with him.”
His attention rose at the voice, eyes narrowing and lips curling up into a distasteful sneer. The men that had been nearby, his guards, left without another word and he was left alone, tied to a tree with Aurora standing over him. Zayne didn’t know how to feel.
For a time, he settled on focusing on the rage twisting in his gut.
“What do you want?”
Aurora didn’t answer, only staring down at him from beneath the wide brim of his hat with something of a frown. “You have such a hostility towards me and I just saved your life. That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
Zayne scoffed. “Are you here to say something actually useful or are you just here to torment me?”
“That depends on your definition of useful.”
“I’m here with a proposition,” Aurora continued.
Zayne was silent.
The hat tipped forward.
“I’ve seen enough people die because of the Dravara and your-“
“My failure,” Zayne spat. “That won’t please Rowena, will it?”
Aurora paused, shaking his head. “Your lack of success in bringing Daniel and myself back to the stronghold won’t make her happy. You’re right. That’s why I’d like to offer you a second chance. If you refuse-“
“You’ll kill me,” he chortled. “Believe me, I’ve heard it before.”
Again, the man paused, puzzled. He knelt down. “You will be set free if you refuse.”
Zayne blinked. “How do I know you’re not lying to me?”
The hat was removed from his head with a sweep of Aurora’s hand, coming to sit beside him softly in the snow. “I give you my word.”
He laughed, unsure as to why. It seemed his only option, the only thing keeping him from breaking down in some shattered lack of composure.
“You just can’t let me die, can you? I-It’s pathetic,” Zayne huffed. “You’re only trying to redeem yourself-“
“Men like you,” he hissed, “they try to gain some moral higher ground. Do you honestly think that setting me free will make you a better man? You’re insulting me, degrading me, in even suggesting that letting me ride back as a failure is any less cruel than killing me.”
“You’re not going to redeem yourself-“
“I said it once and I’ll say it again, I’m not trying to redeem myself. You hurt me. You shot my brother. Right now, despite what you did, I’m trying to offer you a second chance. I’m trying to redeem you.”
Zayne straightened himself against the tree. “Why do you care what happens to me?”
“I’ve known men like you who didn’t know any better than to follow what the Dravara told them. You thought you were doing the right thing, the most honorable thing you could. I know how important that is to you-“
“You can’t even begin to understand how important it is to me,” Zayne quipped. “If you had any idea, like I said before, you would have shot me already.”
Aurora nodded. “Which is why I’m trying to understand as best I can.”
“If you join them-“
“Them?” Zayne wondered aloud. “Aren’t you with them?”
Aurora’s shoulders rose in a shrug as he smiled bleakly. “That’s something I haven’t decided for myself yet.” The smile faded. “If you go to the Dravara, Rowena will kill you. If you run away, you will be a fugitive just like Daniel and me. Alone, you won’t be able to-“
“Are you honestly suggesting that joining the resistance is any less humiliating than running away on my own? Either way, I’m abandoning my task and,” he paused, scoffing, “all things considered, I’m deserting my country.”
“You would be joining a cause. I don’t see that as deserting anyone or anything.”
Zayne’s eyes narrowed. “And how do you know their cause is any greater than the Dravara’s?”
“I have witnessed what the Dravara do. Will you just give me the time to explain why Rowena wants me dead?”
“Why should I believe you?”
He shrugged for a second time. “I have no reason to lie to you. It doesn’t gain me anything and it certainly doesn’t protect me. Right now, you’re no threat to me considering how…tied up you are at the moment.”
“I don’t expect you to believe me.”
Aurora cleared his throat. “For a time, I was with the Dravara just as most have been. I was an officer alongside Daniel. For almost ten years, I was one of them and, despite hating every moment of that time, I stayed. As far as I was concerned, my sentence was only temporary and soon I wouldn’t have to even think about the east again.”
“You do mean four years, don’t you?”
Zayne frowned, perplexed.
“Everything was temporary in the Dravara and I didn’t consider the weight of my decisions until one day while Daniel and I were on patrol. I met one of the creatures and, while I knew no one would believe me, I knew what I heard. The…beast spoke.”
Aurora reached down for his hat. “I knew something was wrong. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t killed by something that I had been told would kill me on sight. That day was only the beginning and it wasn’t until a short while later that I really understood what everything meant. Daniel and I rode to the Rift in order to find out just why I was spared. I don’t remember much of that day, but I remember the conversation I had with the creatures.”
He stopped there and rocked backwards with a groan to sit. “My knee,” he explained apologetically, “it bothers me.”
Aurora swallowed harshly. “The faeloren, the Rift creatures as you know them, used to number in the thousands. Shaah, the leader of the only remaining clan, asked that I help him. I agreed.”
A weak scoff.
“Help with what exactly?”
“As it was explained to me by the faeloren, they have been hunted by the Dravara. If you question their truthfulness, I spoke to Rowena about it and she confirmed it herself. They have been murdered for something they didn’t do. She blames them for the death of her father, an accident. You understand how truly insane that is, don’t you?”
“How can you-“
“Rowena herself admitted to killing them.”
Zayne was quiet.
“The Dravara have been lying to us. She has used you just as she used Daniel and myself and any other member of the Dravara. I’m only asking you consider believing me. Ask anyone here and they will tell you the very same things I have.”
“Is that all?”
“You’re free to go.”
Once again, there was not a word spoken between the two.
Aurora moved forward, a sigh on his breath as he moved to saw through the ropes binding him there. Zayne could feel the cold of the blade in his sleeve, inching it downward slowly with every twitch of his arm. He eyed the throb of a pulse in Aurora’s neck, waiting.
The ropes fell free.
A rustle in the bushes stopped him.
“Your horse is fit for travel. You will find your weapons returned in your packs.”
He glanced behind him, subtly slipping the knife back into his belt. “And what about her?”
Aazyra blinked, not saying a word.
“Her decision isn’t mine to say,” Aurora answered gruffly.
Zayne climbed to his feet stiffly, waving away the hand that was offered to him. His eyes were downcast as he walked to the horses, wordlessly cursing the man that stood between him and his former companion. His hand dug for his pistol, fingers sliding to grasp at the sleek metal as he pulled it free.
“Do you believe me?”
He didn’t answer.
His hold on the pistol tightened as he turned, weapon aimed between a pair of impossible eyes. Aurora’s smile was unsettling.
Zayne’s lip twitched. “Do you really want to die?”
It came as a warning. “Crossvale-“
“If you kill me, I’ll die knowing a truth you refuse to believe.”
Zayne stammered, cutting himself off and briefly letting his eyes close as he struggled to refocus himself. The trigger was so simple to pull. He was one click and a miniscule explosion away from being a success.
Even more off-putting than the smile on Aurora’s face was the disappointment plastered across Aazyra’s. His arm fell. Zayne grit his teeth, emptying the revolver into the ground and letting the spent shells fall with a hiss into the snow.
“Those were supposed to be for you.”
“I never took you for a poet.”
Zayne turned back to his horse, climbing on without a word and hearing the sounds of others rushing towards them. He didn’t look up. His heels pressed into the sides of an impatient horse and they were flying away a moment later across the snow and towards a wooded road.
Aurora faded from his sight for what he hoped would be the very last time.
~ ~ ~ ~
“I’m surprised Crossvale even listened to you at all.”
Aurora let a sigh escape him, shuffling in the snow and shaking the shiver from his spine as he turned to face her. She stared off after the bounty hunter, horse at her side already pawing anxiously at the ground.
The tenseness in the air was gone, fading with every disappearing hoof beat.
He was gone.
“What are you going to do now?”
Aazyra snorted. “Guess I’ll be going after him. He’s going to get himself killed-“
“And you fancy him,” Aurora cut in.
A glare. “Should have left that vexing knife in your arm.”
He laughed, taking the hat down from his head to sweep it down in a bow. “I’m quite grateful you didn’t.”
The woman’s eyes rolled as she signaled her horse to the ground and climbed onto its back. “How did you know he wasn’t going to shoot you?”
Aurora held up a shaking hand. “I didn’t.”