“Eva, no!” A voice interrupts this perfect moment. The centaurs flock around their prince, arrows drawn on the imposter. “Eva, please.”
My body seizes. I know this voice. It is a voice that does not sound like the songs of birds. A voice that I do not long to hear. It is a voice I do not love.
The voice of my betrothed.
When I turn and find him standing there, pale and stubborn against the tall grass, irritation thrashes in my belly, familiar and frenzied. It’s the same feeling I’ve had for him since the day my brother told me we were to wed, but this time it dances with something else.
I take one step toward him and no more. “Aaron, you must return to the village.”
“I won’t.” Without moving, he has narrowed the distance between us.
There is a difference in the way he speaks and I think I have just seen him transform from child to man. All the pieces of him are the same, but they are somehow more solid than before. Though he has not yet grown a hair on his chin nor slain his first boar, I think it would be difficult to call him boy ever again.
“You must.” I do not hesitate. My words fly from my lips like arrows. “This is my choosing.”
“And this is mine.” He shifts and I see that he holds a spear at his side. The granite tip burns beneath the moonlight and I know what it is that spins in my belly, an awkward and eager partner to my impatience. It is fear.
Behind me, the centaurs have grown uneasy. I hear their hooves tearing open the earth and stamping it shut again. I am afraid they will soon lose their patience.
I fill my fist with Raelin’s green sash and raise it before me. “I do not choose you, Aaron. I never will. I am sorry for your pain, but it will pass if you will only go.”
His face pinches together and he shakes his head once sharply. His hair spills forward, dusky and wild, the only part of him I ever came to love. “You are bespelled, Eva. I will not leave you in the clutches of these beasts.”
The growls that crawl around me are not quite human. I hold my hands out as if to catch them and feel the rumble of them between my fingers.
“We do not bespell our wives.” The voice flies over my head. I only know it is not Raelin’s. “We have no need.”
“Because you would steal them from their beds, instead like the cowards you are? Poor, defenseless girls?”
My tongue trips over the insults, unable to pick one to rebuke, but Raelin is faster than I and his voice opens over the valley like sunlight. “You are brave to stand at the mouth of so many arrows and speak your truth, but you must recognize your defeat before it is eternal.”
The warning is a courtesy not given to many who confront the centaurs. But I can see it alone is not enough. His fingers are tight and anxious on the spear.
“Aaron, please,” I say hoping he will hear me. “My mind is clear. Lend me the honor our friendship deserves and believe me.”
The space between us grows heavy with silence. I do not know what Aaron will do now. I hope he will choose to leave, to accept my decision as final and return to the village to tell the tale of my abduction. It is always a tale of abduction, though I am certain I cannot be the first to seek the centaurs out.
All around us, the crows are impatient. They fuss and clatter their beaks at us or the moon for disturbing their peace, but the line of Aaron’s shoulders is persistent. He raises his spear.
“It is my right to challenge the beast who would steal my betrothed.” I see no trace of the person I’ve known. This Aaron, this man, is proud and fierce and unrelenting. “Put down your arrows and face me.”
I turn and press my palm against Raelin’s chest. He does not try to escape me and his eyes are hard and regretful. Already he mourns the life he will take from this field.
One of the others, a dusty roan with a wide forehead and a mouth that I think must always be happy, sticks the butt of a spear into the earth beside Raelin. Without thinking, I reach out my hand and take it.
“I am that beast who would steal your betrothed!” I take three steps away from the centaurs. Aaron’s eyes are wide as the moon. “I am a daughter of Epona and I accept your challenge.”
Part 3 by Valerie will be up on Friday!
Photo by Black Holes and Astrostuff.