19: The Return
The success of our plan ran through my veins, adrenaline pumping, increasing my excitement. I hadn’t seen combat in so long; being stuck as a prisoner within the Naga gang had taken its toll on me, and I felt more tired than I usually would. Dean and I rode on our horses, accompanying the three Naga members assigned to drive the caravan back to the compound. The moon lit the path, and we traveled slowly, the horses sauntering down the road, their hooves packing loose dirt into their hoof-prints.
The moonlight made everything look as if it were bathed in silver. The trees seemed mysterious, shadows playing at the edges of cool, dark, trunks, highlighted by the reflection of the sun that is the moon. Perhaps it was my elation that made that white orb in the sky look as if it were smiling upon us as we traveled, but in any case, I enjoyed the serenity of the night. Very rarely do I feel so content, so accomplished. It was intoxicating.
Every now and then, I’d get a glimpse of Dean, who rode on his horse on the opposite side of the caravan. He looked worn and tired, but every time I glanced over, he caught my eye as well. Was he afraid that I would run away? And I very well could. It would be so easy to urge my painted mare off into the darkness of the trees and escape this very minute.
But I knew that would serve me no purpose. I still had work to do. And, I realized I had no wish to leave just yet. This concerning revelation surprised me. I couldn’t be too attached, a fact I’d tried to remind myself. But I looked forward to delivering our loot to The Raven’s feet, to the joy we would elicit from the others, and maybe even see a smile on The Raven’s mysterious face. And, I couldn’t ignore that my closest friend, Liss, was held prisoner in their dungeon. I hadn’t seen him since Dean had brought me to him, to witness what he offered. I couldn’t leave Liss behind, and I had already subconsciously decided to bring him with me on my escape.
After a couple hours of travelling, my excitement wore down, my exhaustion showing through. I had used magic to boost my strength before, and it was a battle of wills not to pass out on my horse. I found myself lurching forward every few minutes as my body fought to stay awake. I shook my head to rid myself of the fatigue, but it didn’t work.
About the thirteenth time I’d fallen forward and almost lost consciousness, one of the women driving the caravan noticed. There were three people up there, each taking turns driving, keeping watch, and resting. The woman stopped the horses pulling the carriage, pulling the reins tight and startling both myself and Dean.
“Look, Jon,” she said not unkindly, nudging the man sitting next to her, “she’s almost fallen off several times now. We should rest.”
She was right, but I wasn’t about to admit that.
“I’m fine! I’m not tired!” I insisted, lying through my teeth. I was, indeed, not fine. But I would soldier on, as I always do. We had to make it back, and I wouldn’t risk the success of the mission on my own well-being; I could manage.
The man, apparently named Jon, laughed. “You sound just like my three year old,” he said with a chuckle.
I seethed at the comparison.
“Kallie likes a glass of warm milk before bed,” Jon giggled, barely able to get out the words. “Do you think that would help?”
“I said, I’m fine!” I shouted, a little harsher than I intended.
I really did sound like a small child. Chastened, I huffed, crossing my arms before I realized it made me look exactly like a toddler throwing a tantrum. I uncrossed them, even more frustrated with myself.
“No, you’re not fine,” Dean sighed. “Dawn is probably an hour or so away, and we have a couple more hours of travel until we get to the city. We can afford to take an hour to rest.”
I huffed, annoyed that decisions were being made for me.
He dismounted, eyes roving over the neighboring forest. “We can pull over here into the forest, hide the caravan, and take turns keeping watch.”
He nodded to himself and led his horse off of the path and into the thin foliage. He tied the horse to a tree, just far enough away that a casual passerby wouldn’t see us, and then led my horse there as well, even though I was still perched on her back.
Dean looked at me as he lightly held my horse’s reins in his right hand, his body brushing up against my left thigh as he directed my mare. My horse walked next to him meekly, going wherever he suggested with a light touch. He secured her with an efficient knot and held out his hand to help me down.
Did I need his help? No, I surely did not.
But I took it anyway. A small part of me sighed with contentment – the part of me that wants to be near people, to be touched; a part of myself that I rarely indulged. I descended the horse, glad to be firmly on the ground. Still clasping Dean’s fingers, I saw the other three leading the caravan this way, parking it, moving some fallen limbs to conceal it. I let go of his hand. This weak, traitorous part of me whined in disappointment, and I couldn’t stop elicit sigh of frustration.
“I’ll take the first watch.” Dean offered, taking my arm and leading me to sit next to him up against a large oak.
The ground was cold and covered in leaves that had just started to fall from the trees. They littered the earth, providing a thin barrier between myself and the damp dirt. We sat next to each other, leaned against this great tree, and I rested my head against the trunk.
“Thank you,” I breathed.
“You’re welcome,” he responded, a slight smile upon his lips.
I couldn’t help but smile back, tension releasing from my eyebrows, my neck, my shoulders, as I gazed into his eyes the color of a tropical sea. Maybe it was the moonlight, maybe it was the excitement of the evening, maybe it was fatigue breaking down my walls, but I wanted nothing more than to be close to him.
Emboldened, for no reason at all, I inched closer to rest my head on his shoulder. I had to lean down a bit, as we were almost the same height, but it didn’t bother me. He lightly pushed me forward to drape his arm over my shoulder, and I instinctively cuddled closer, grasping at his clothes. I hadn’t been close to someone like this in… ever. He felt warm, his body solid yet soft, his heavy arm pressing over me. I should’ve felt smothered, but I didn’t. Instead, I felt secured, my burdens momentarily forgotten.
The autumn night was brisk, but not cold. The heat from Dean’s body lured me into sleep, and I succumbed to the magical exhaustion I had been fighting off for hours. I closed my eyes, and I felt him brush his lips against my hair on the top of my head.
I smiled into his coat just before I fell into a deep, restoring slumber.