Tahl was beginning to doubt the cave he remembered from his childhood was there when he and Inar found its opening.
"Come on," he said, helping push her inside and away from the frigid elements. The blizzard had been raging for almost an hour, and they were both nearly frozen. Inar trembled as he led her away from the cave's opening and into a corner where the harsh wind couldn't hit them.
Tahl's father has shown him this cave when he was a boy, and he knew several hunters in the area used it to seek refuge from bad weather – which happened often in this far north in the world – so it was usually stocked with firewood and kindling.
Luckily, today was no exception. Tahl began throwing the dried leaves and branches into the fire pit and worked on starting a fire. Once he had, he moved Inar towards it.
She was still shaking. Tahl felt bad; he knew he shouldn't have taken her out with him. But she insisted and was better at identifying the medicinal herbs than he was. Also, he was looking forward to spending some time with his best friend. He'd hardly gotten to spend any time with her since he'd been back from training with the Guard, and it'd been almost five years they were last together.
As children, Tahl and Inar were inseparable. Her family had taken him in after his parents were killed, and she became his best friend.
"Come here," he said, pulling off her gloves and began rubbing her hands between his. Her skin was like ice. "Oh my god, here."
Tahl pulled his outer fur and wrapped it around her.
"No, I'm fine," she tried to sound convincing, but failed.
Tahl just smiled and went back to rubbing her hands. Since he'd joined the Guard, he'd put on several pounds of muscle and had been well-fed. No one was well-fed back at their village of Sansdranaar, especially not if you came from a family with five children like Inar did. She needed the extra warmth more than he did.
"Better?" he asked after several minutes.
She nodded. "You can have your coat back."
"Nah," he smiled, and sat down next to her; he still had several layers on.
"How long do you think it'll last?" she asked.
Tahl let out a deep breath. This blizzard was bad; it would probably rage all night. "A while." Inar only nodded. "Are you warm now?"
Tahl looked at her and smiled. He'd been looking forward to spending time with her, catching up after their years apart. But now that they had nothing to do, he didn't know what to say.
He finally laughed to himself and drew a curious look from his friend. "Oh. Nothing," he dismissed his behavior. "I guess…I guess I was just really looking forward to catching up with you…and now I don't know what to say?"
"Really?" She was genuinely shocked by this.
"Of course. Is that so hard to believe?"
"Yes," she said too quickly.
Tahl looked hurt. "You can't still be mad…"
Her look confirmed that she was.
"Inar, I had to…"
The only fight they'd ever had was when he told Inar he'd joined the Winter Guard. Inar was furious. She screamed at him for being stupid and selfish. That'd he'd only get himself killed. He knew she'd be upset. He told himself that was a big part of why he didn't tell her until the day he was scheduled to leave. If he was honest, though, he probably didn't tell her because he didn't want her to talk him out of it. Tahl was terrified, but he knew he had to join. As he thought about it now, he realized how it must have hurt her.
"I'm really sorry…"
"No you're not."
He looked confused and a bit irritated. Did she have any idea how hard his life was? How much work he did? How much danger he faced? He only did it because someone had to protect their realm. Somebody had to fight for them. Protect them. He wasn't going to let what happened to his family happen to hers. Tahl still felt ashamed for how he'd run off the night the Blontik attacked his parents. He was only six at the time, but he still sometimes thought that if he'd stayed, he could have saved his parents.
He wanted to tell her all this, but she cut him off. "If you were really sorry, you wouldn't go back."
Tahl laughed; he guessed she had a point. "Fair. But I have to go back. Someone has to…"
"Has to what? Get themselves killed?"
"No," he said, and more sternly this time. She was beginning to get to him. "To protect you."
Inar laughed this time, and that annoyed Tahl even more. The Guard fought for the King of Terratern, and his interests were rarely in line with his subjects'. If Tahl really cared about protecting those he loved, he would have stayed home in the village. The Gretskenasts sacked it often enough. They were mercenaries, pillaging and plundering the countryside for their own gain. They were a more significant threat than Blontik, Inar thought.
Blontik was their neighboring kingdom, and it'd long been a rival of Terratern, but Blontik hadn't posed a threat in years—not since Tahl's parents were killed. Inar knew the only reason he joined the Guard was because he wanted revenge. He wanted to kill the men who slaughtered his parents. She understood this, but she was devastated that he'd abandoned her to do it.
Life had been hard since he left. Her parents of course didn't stop him from leaving. He was 13 when he joined the Guard, and old enough to make his own decisions, but Inar knew how much her family could have used his help on their farm. All her siblings were still young, and Inar did the best she could, but she knew how much better things would be if they'd had someone else helping—especially someone as strong and smart as Tahl.
"If you really cared about protecting people, you'd have stayed here," she scoffed, her tone bitter.
Tahl's eyes fell heavily on hers. "To what…protect you from pig thieves?" he began to laugh. "The Gretskenasts aren't a real threat…"
Inar's anger spiked. The raiders had attacked her village a week ago. Her father lost a month's worth or crops. She was getting so upset, she threw his fur coat back at him and began loosening the scarf around her neck as her temper flared.
Tahl didn't know about her family's loss, and he almost found her reaction humorous. The Gretskenasts raiders were a nuisance, but they rarely did serious damage—mostly just stealing grain stores and chickens in the night. But he didn't know they'd been becoming more violent and destructive.
"If you want to scare them off, you need a dog, not a soldier," he kept laughing. Didn't she know he had more important things to do…?
But as she moved her scarf, he saw the dark flash of a bruise on her neck and immediately rushed to her side. "What happened?"
She tried to swat his hand away, but he was already gently removing the thick wool she had looped around her neck. "Oh my god, Inar…"
The flickering light revealed a dark bruise. It snaked around her neck and was a mess of blotchy blacks and blues and greens. Someone had clearly tried to choke her to death. And from the looks of it, they almost succeeded. Tahl gently lifted his fingers to touch and then hesitated as he brushed her skin. She flinched.
"Sorry," he whispered. "Inar…"
Tears slid down her cheek as she shut her eyes and shook her head.
Tahl cursed himself silently. He knew the Gretskenasts raiders were trouble, but they usually didn't hurt people. He could hardly believe what he saw. He began removing her jacket, his hands lightly tracing the bruise down her neck.
"Nothing," she said. She didn't want to think about it, talk about it.
"This doesn't look like nothing," he said, his tone serious. He wanted to know what happened.
"No you're not."
He missed the venomous stare she shot him, and the second round of tears that streamed down her cheek.
She quickly brushed them away, hoping to do the same at the emotions that were welling inside her.
"Hey, it's okay," he said, gently pulling her to him.
"No it's not!" she pushed at him, unable now to stop her emotions that now clawed at her—not sadness, but anger. She was angry she was crying, angry she had a reason to. Angry Tahl was seeing her cry, and she couldn't stop herself. Hot tears poured off her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," he said, his hot breath hitting her neck as he took her in his arms.
She brushed away more tears and turned away. She didn't want him to see her cry. "What do you have to be sorry about," she scoffed, "the Gretskenasts aren't a real threat…just harmless…pig thiev…"
She began to choke on her sobs. The memory of the men breaking into her family's stores…how she ran and tried to stop them…how they knocked her down…how the one man choked her. His bloody eyes were burning into her mind, she saw them every night when she tried to sleep.
He cradled her cheek in his hand and brushed away her tears, wanting nothing more than to make her feel better.
She wanted to push him away, she wanted to tell him to stop, that she didn't need his pity or sympathy. But she liked the way his skin felt against hers. He felt so warm and surprisingly soft. Inar hadn't cried once since the attack, and suddenly, she couldn't stop the tears from flowing.
Tahl pulled himself next to her and held her in his lap as she began to cry more heavily. He held her and softly told her it would be okay. Even though, inside he was burning with anger.
Several minutes passed, and Inar cried every tear she'd held in. Not just from the attack, but from how hard everything was. Because of how cold she was and how hungry and how tired and how scared. And she wasn't crying now because she felt this more profoundly than she had at any other moment over the past weeks or months or even years, but because she finally felt safe, like she could let down her guard and not be strong for everyone.
Tahl held her, cradling her softly, and when she finally settled, he took her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the forehead.
The night his parents were killed, his mother had told him to run. He turned back when he heard her scream and saw the men struck her down. Tahl'd run to the woods and hidden, he was so afraid. Inar was the first person who found him—later the next evening. She brought him a jacket and food and told him he didn't have to be afraid. And she didn't just say it, but she somehow made him believe it. She sat with him and held his hand. He hoped he was doing the same for her now.
"Sorry," she said.
"Don't be," he smiled softly, hoping that made her feel better, and passed his thumb across her cheek again, wiping away the last few tears.
Inar pulled herself up and nodded. She couldn't believe it, but she actually felt better and she was a little sorry she'd been so hard on him.
When she calmed, he passed her his watch pouch. She took a deep sip, and he was surprised when she went immediately back into his arms, but he happily held her.
After several moments of silence, he asked her, "do you want to tell me what happened?"
She unconsciously held him tighter. "The raiders came," she said with measured breath, "about two weeks ago. I was coming in from the field when I saw them break into the store room. I tried to stop them…"
Tahl shook his head. He couldn't believe how foolish she'd been. "They could have killed you."
"And taking all our food wasn't killing us? What do you think will happen to us this winter if we don't have enough food?!"
She pulled herself up and looked at him with renewed fire in her eyes. He was reminded of how spirited she'd been as a kid and recalled many of their adventures together. He knew she had a valid point, but he didn't like to think of her throwing herself in danger.
"And what, you thought you could reason with them?"
"I don't know…I wasn't really thinking."
Tahl laughed slightly; such was the story of her life.
"I just want you to be careful, alright? Men like that, they could," he gulped, "they could really hurt you."
He hoped she understood his point. She wasn't a girl anymore. He noticed how she'd changed the second he saw her. And he'd been in the Guard long enough to know what most men were thinking when they saw her.
Despite having been underfed most of her life, Inar'd developed fairly well. Her breasts were large enough to be noticeable if she was only wearing a few layers and her hips gave her figure a nice curve.
And if she wasn't beautiful, she was certainly striking. Nearly everyone from their village had fair hair. Colors ranged from sun-blonde to sandy. Some had hair the color of hay or light honey. Tahl had this coloring and his hair was a medium blond, but Inar's hair was raven-dark. People born with this coloring were called the Children of the New Moon, believing they were born on the blackest nights when there was no moon and that was how they got their coloring. The old stories also said these children had special powers and could do secret things in the darkness. It was, of course, superstition. But Inar's dark hair contrasted sharply with her fair skin and gray-green sea eyes.
Tahl was certain all men noticed her, many, probably, wanted her. He hated to think what the raiders might have done to her and didn't know how to convey this too her. Even though she'd developed, she was still young.
Was she sixteen yet? He thought to himself, ashamed he couldn't quite remember.
"I just want you to be careful. These men, they could have…"
"I'm not a child, Tahl, I know what they could have done."
She involuntarily shuddered as she recalled the Gretskenasts raider who slid his hand under her skirt, how she screamed and he covered her mouth, how she bit him. That's why he tried to choke her.
A fire started to burn in Tahl. He knew there was more to this story than she'd ever tell him. He had to do something about it.
"Alright, come here," he said, getting up. "Come on."
"I'm going to teach you how to fight."
"What?!" She almost giggled.
"You're right. If you let people steal your food, you'll starve. And knowing you, you'll just keep running at danger whenever you see it, so you need to know how to protect yourself. Come on." He motioned her to her feet.
Inar stood up by looked at him skeptically, but he began to teach her a few moves she could use again someone twice her size. Moves he learned when he was still young and scrawny in the guard. Inar wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight against anyone who knew what they were doing, but since no one would expect anything from her, Tahl hoped it'd be enough for her to surprise them and run to safety.
"No," he laughed after he told her another move, "You have to mean it."
"But I don't want to hurt you," she insisted.
Tahl looked at her like that was impossible. "Come on, just try…"
She suddenly wrenched his thumb forcefully and he had to drop to his knees to relive the pressure. He hadn't expected her to be that strong. "Alright, stop. Damn. That was pretty good," he said, getting back to his feet. He was impressed. "I'm going to give you one of my weapons when we get back into town and I'll send your family some money…"
"No, you don't have to…" That was too much, she thought.
"Don't be silly," he said, "You are my family. And you're right, I need to do a better job protecting you. I might not be able to do much while away in the Guard, but at least I can…"
Inar cut him off, throwing her arms around him in a big hug. "Thank you," she mumbled into his chest.
"Don't mention it," he said as she pulled away from him. He smiled at her grateful face, happy he'd done something to cause it, but his eyes caught the dark bruise on her neck again and he felt a familiar anger boil in the pit of his stomach again. He pushed it down, but he wanted more than anything to know what exactly these men had done to her. He wanted to make them pay.
She felt his eyes on her and grew self-conscious. Her hand went to cover her neck and she stepped back.
"Sorry," he said, realizing how he made her feel. "Does it still hurt?"
She shrugged, and he swore, his anger tearing at him.
Inar looked at him uncertainly, not understanding.
"Sorry," he said, pulling her back into his arms, wishing there was something more he could do to make things right.
She let him hold her for as long as he wanted. She liked feeling the warmth of his body, the strength of his muscles, the reassuring beat of his heart. She knew she could trust it.
She looked up at him as he loosened his hold, and her took her face gently in his hand again, though this time, instead of kissing her forehead as he did before, his lips found hers and they met in a kiss.