Ana spends another night tucked in Faolan’s arms, staring into the darkness, fending the chill from their huddled forms. It’s been days now, since the flood waters took everything from them, and still the dampness clings. She’s not sure if she remembers what it feels like to be warm and dry and safe.
The stars barely break through the canopy above, mere pinpricks of light glancing through the few scattered openings in the dark curtain of trees. The Shining One, too, is hidden by the forest, visible only by an eerie glow which seeps through the heavy boughs. She wanes now, likely only a silver sliver hanging in the night sky, Ana would guess. In a few nights’ time, she will hide her face completely and leave them in darkness.
And Ana can’t sleep, has hardly slept since the river. When she closes her eyes, she’s met with a wall of water—
Creisa. Kinet. Wrad. All the others who died because of her. Because of her delay. Because of her weakness.
Ever since they left Whitehill—before, even—Faolan has made it clear that he thinks her foolish, pampered, and weak. And he’s right. She wanted so badly to prove him wrong—to prove something to herself—but how can she now, when this journey has done nothing but the opposite?
How will she be brave enough to face her fate? To face a man she's never met and knows nothing of besides a name and a politically significant holding? A man none of them have met—not Bridei, nor his Druid, nor any of his councilors—and already her thoughts betray him. A woman of the royal line must hold duty above all else. She closes her eyes and forces herself not to cringe from it. This is the tenant which she has lived by her entire life; now, more than ever, she must hold to it. She must.
But duty has never been so unwelcoming. Ana had thought setting out on this journey was the most difficult thing she'd yet brought herself to do, but she'd also thought— Well, in Bridei’s court, she never felt like the prisoner that she was meant to be. Even in Drust’s, she was treated with civility and warmth and all the dignity due her station. There she had allies, confidants, friends even. Now she cannot shake the feeling that she is a lamb led to slaughter.
That's not fair— She should not think so ill of a man she has not met. She hopes, at the very least, that he is kindly, and that whatever life he offers will make her happy.
She shifts in Faolan’s embrace, turning onto her back so that she can see his face, careful not to disturb the arm slung protectively around her. His breathing is deep, even, steady; it’s a small comfort
A hand comes up to his cheek. Delicate fingers trace his jaw, curling through his dark beard. It’s grown unruly through travel and disaster, neither particularly soft nor clean, but that seems trivial now.
A secret desire builds in her chest, night after night, as she lies awake on the cold ground—to turn in his arms and wrap herself around him; to whisper his name until he wakes; to pull him close and hold him to her; to weep, for once for herself, and to let him console her with his warmth, with his touch, with his body against hers.
Something in her aches for it. For though she is as modest as her station demands, she isn’t stupid; she's felt his desire against her in the early dawn, before consciousness has reminded him to shift just slightly away. He doesn't mention it, so neither does she. Perhaps he believes that she hasn’t yet noticed. Perhaps he thinks it will frighten her, as innocent as she is intended to be.
And it did at first startle her, at least, but it seems a trivial thing to frighten her now. It can be of only little consequence when death’s grip has come so near. She supposes that she'll know the intimacies of men and women soon anyway, one way or another, though that thought fills her with dread. This, instead, burns in her, swelling to a deep thrum in her stomach. If she was a different woman, she would act on the feeling.
But she isn’t and she doesn't; she hasn't forgotten that her betrothed is awaiting their arrival. She owes it to him and to Bridei and to her kin, as far as they might be. And yet still she dreads every day that brings them closer to her new life, even though she knows that they must find safety soon if they are to survive.
Her eyes drift back to Faolan, her gaze lingering on his sleeping face. He is not the man that she thought he was. She had done him a great injustice with her opinion; at court, she’d seen him as someone heartless and shrewd. She’d hated him, if she is honest, shrank from his presence and avoided him when at all possible, which was most of the time. She remembers the feeling of his eyes on her when Bridei called her to explain that she must leave for Briarwood immediately—cold and calculating, dead and unfeeling. But she remembers the softness of his voice when he carried her across the ford, too—the gentle song he’d sung when he thought she couldn’t hear. It's hard, sometimes, to reconcile the two in her mind.
But it occurred to her one night, watching him stare into their little fire, that his gaze is hollow because the only other option is haunted; his mind calculating because that is what it takes to survive. Even now, in the peace of sleep, his face is shadowed with disquiet. She wonders what he has seen that put that line between his brows so prematurely, but then shrinks from the thought. This, here and now, is not the worst of it, and she isn’t sure that she cares to imagine what horrors could turn the man who sings so sweetly of Fairy women and young lovers into the calculating man that he is whispered to be.
It occurs to her now, too, that— He could make her happy, she thinks. She could love him, maybe, even if it only makes sense in this liminal space of survival, where decorum has fallen aside. It can never be, and she knows that, but she can't help but wish. If she gave the word, if she pleaded and begged, would he steal her away from here? Spurn both of their duties, forget this dreaded task, let her be selfish for just this once in her life?
Would he, if she just—
“Faolan—” His name slips out before she realizes what she's doing—uncertainty, dread, panic pushing thoughts into reality. It’s barely even a whisper, escaping into the still air of the night.
But he doesn't stir.
“Faolan,” she breathes again. She isn't sure if her voice shakes or if it's the damp chill surrounding them. He's too loyal, anyway, to abandon everything just for her.
He doesn't wake.
It's better this way.