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.”
As soon as the unexpected words fall from my lips, I know they are truth. Raelin’s sash has given me strength, certainty. It is his world in which I belong. It is his people that I now call my own.
Raelin breathes in sharply and I hope that it is with pride, but I cannot turn to look. I must keep my eyes on Aaron, must show him I am as serious as the hunter’s moon is red tonight.
“Eva?” Aaron says, and with that one word his face slips from man to boy, full of confusion, and an emotion I’d hoped not to see. Hurt.
But his happiness is not my responsibility. He will heal if only he will go, and I intend to make him do just that. I thrust the spear into the ground beside me. “This is the life I want and I will fight for it.”
“You would die for it? For these… creatures?” Aaron asks.
I hold his eyes with my own so that he might see my honesty. “I would. And would you die to save your wounded pride?”
He looks beyond me, at all of the centaurs who stand silent, watching. Even the ravens have stilled their wings in wait for his reply.
I know the moment he decides. I feel the faint vibrations as something inside him breaks. I have stolen from him a piece of his honor. Even when he returns to the village and tells of my abduction, he will know the truth. He stepped down. He was not chosen.
The small part of me that cares for him in friendship aches. It would be too much to bear were I not certain this was best for us both.
Aaron returns his gaze to me. His face hardened, as though we are mere strangers meeting in the woods. “Very well. I do not wish to have a wife so unstable she would think it wise to run off into the wilds with a herd of beasts.”
The centaurs grumble at this but I move quickly. “Thank you, Aaron,” I say and reach for him. He steps back, not allowing me a proper goodbye.
“Come Eva,” Raelin calls, and my name in his voice is like music.
I cannot hide my joy even as Aaron watches, his brows sinking into a frown.
“Leave this boy to his musings,” Raelin says to the centaurs gathered around. “He has lost much tonight.”
Aaron straightens his shoulders and juts his jaw at Raelin. “I am no more boy than you, and I have lost nothing of worth here.”
Raelin remains calm, nodding with a restraint I would not expect in the face of such insults. He knows what has been taken from Aaron this night, and the respect he shows stirs a small storm in my chest. I have made the right choice.
I reach for Raelin’s outstretched hand.
“Not a boy?” Says the one who threw down the spear. His mouth twists into a smirk. “You can’t even hold on to your betrothed.”
Raelin’s gentle smile for me shifts into a mask of anger. My step falters until I realize the look is not for me, but for something over my shoulder.
A frenzy of motion erupts around me. Hooves pound toward me and screeching crows dive into the fray as I turn to look. At first I don’t recognize the face. Aaron is so full of rage he’s become someone else. I am hypnotized by his eyes. I cannot look away. Time slows as he lunges forward.
There is a burst of fiery pain in my side and then I am lifted. For a moment all I can see is red, and I think it must be the moon. I have flown high enough to be encompassed in its beautiful light.
“Eva.” Raelin’s voice comes from so far away. I wish he could be with me here on the moon. We could stay forever.
“Eva, can you hear me?”
The concern in his voice clears the moonlight away and I see his beautiful face surrounded by a halo of red light. My tongue feels thick when I speak. “Yes, my prince?”
His lips break into a smile, but his eyes glisten with tears. “Hold on my love. We will be home soon. My mother, she will know how to save you.”
The treetops are a blur above his head, and I realize he is holding me in his arms and we are galloping through the forest. My betrothed. His shoulders and chest are smeared with red. I reach up to touch his cheek and when I drop my hand his face is red too.
“There is no need,” I say, and curl myself into him. “I am already saved.”
Photo by Black Holes and Astrostuff.
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