The morning was cold and unforgiving. Autumn leaves had long since fallen and now winter was fast approaching; frost would soon begin to appear, and thick snow was sure to follow. Most of the forests creatures would begin hibernation, and only the bravest of creatures would dare to endure the harsh weather.
Ainslie was ever so tired. The souls of her feet burned with every step they took and her knees shook with the effort it took to keep moving. The air was dreadfully cold, and Ainslie had no qualms about inching as close to Allistair as possible as they walked side by side, greedy for any morsel of body heat he could provide.
All she had on her feet were a pair of ill-fitted male boots that had been taken from a villager. She wore her ash-covered nightgown, with an overly large coat thrown over the top, which she did her best to wrap tight against her slim, quivering body. She was filthy, Allistair more so as the grime from the previous nights events still coated every bit of him.
The stench of ash and burning embers clung to the cloths, to her hair and skin, and served well to burn into her nostrils with every haggard breath. The stench reeked so strongly, it felt as if Ainslie had never escaped the flames at all - cursed to burn in them for eternity.
Ahead of their small group, Hale’s towering form led them through the woods. His wife - Charlotte - and their unnamed babe, walked at the centre of our group, with Darniel and Samual flanking them. The older woman stumbled throughout the long journey, needing the support of her companions to keep her on her feet. They would only stop when the new babe needed to feed.
They had wasted no time come sunrise, Hale impatient to begin what would no doubt prove to be a long and harrowing journey. Ainslie could see the worry lines that marred the new father’s face, and the dark stains that rested heavily beneath his eyes. Despite this, she didn’t find him to be an any less terrifying sight.
There was something about Hale now, that seemed ever so wild, as if he was barely holding onto his composure by a single frayed thread.
Their home had been destroyed, his wife had barely survived the deadly ordeal of childbirth, and now they had been forced to venture through dangerous woodland in search of shelter.
She had no idea where they were going, or which direction in which they travelled, much Hale seemed confident in his decisions.
When Ainslie thought it not possible for her to take another single step without crumbling to the hard ground, Hale thankfully called for their small group to halt. Night was beginning to fall and it would be foolish for them to continue considering the quickly plummeting temperatures that chilled Ainslie to her very core.
The men made fast work of erecting their tents, and Ainslie watched with fascination as Samual worked to light a fire in the centre of their small settlement. It was only the sight of Allistair’s formidable form stalking through the trees away from them that pulled her attention sharply from the angelic, fair haired boy.
She followed him without hesitation, noting the cautious glance Hale offered Allistair’s departure, doing her best to keep up with his punishing pace.
Ainslie’s thighs and calf’s burned as she hurried through the uneven woodland floor, over gnarled tree roots and bushes of thorns. All the while chasing after Allistair’s dark head of hair.
She had been so concerned with the fear of losing him in the woodland, that she did not hear the enchanting sound of running water, until she reached the very waters edge. A stream, wide enough to fit her lengthways, carved a path through the earth before her; of gentle clear running water.
From her position on the waters bank, Ainslie could see the moss coated rocks, and unfamiliar plants that grew in abundance. The trees had cleared somewhat, opening up the land to a lush field of wild, long stemmed grass. It was startlingly charming. She had almost forgotten why she had stumbled upon this piece of enrapturing nature until indelicate movement to her left pulled her sight and reminded her of Allistair’s presence.
Ainslie felt a heat, so fierce, flush across the entirety of her body, and settle deeply in her cheeks as she spied Allistair removing his stained and bloodied shirt. The once white material - now black and red - pulled back to reveal a pale, dirty chest of scarred skin and dark hair. The large muscles in his torso and upper body contracted with every movement.
He removed the tattered fabric without care - rough enough to tear the fabric should it strain too much against aggressive actions - before moving immediately to his breeches.
“What… What are you doing?” Ainslie found her voice, the words a harsh whisper against the rush of the water.
Startled, as if he truly had not known she was there, Allistair’s head snapped towards her so fast she was sure he’d hurt himself.
“Ah cannae be in this filth any longer,” he grunted, voice hoarse from hours spent in silence. He eyed her body, the blackened ash the covered her head to toe. “Ye should wash off the ash an’ dirt. Can warm up by th’ fire efter.”
His body now bare of clothing, Allistair’s back was turned to her, allowing her eyes to find those harsh scars that marred his muscular back. The sight of them - though not unfamiliar - left her flinching at their brutality. She had nearly forgotten of them. The evidence of her companions tortured existence on this hellish earth.
He seemed unabashed in his nudity, not an ounce of shame in his steps as he approached the river bank.
Ainslie needed no more than a second to consider her next actions. Removing the male coat from her slim shoulders but keeping her nightshift to provide some effort of modesty, she followed Allistair towards the river.
The water was ice cold against her skin as her feet plunged first into the rivers depths, so cold that she truly began to wonder if she would ever feel warmth again. Yet Allistair did not seem to mind the cold. The hulking mass of a man, bathed himself in the water without hesitation, scrubbing furiously at his skin. Ainslie watched, transfixed as she observed the ferocity in which he cleansed himself.
He was meticulous in his methods, determined to clean every small crevice of skin from the evidence of the fire... of the villages. The dried blood, now black more than red, rinsed away leaving only pale skin in its wake.
He dunked his head beneath the water, large hands rising the rub at his scalp; thick fingers threading through the long thick locks of black hair.
Ainslie forced herself further into the river, crouching on uneven stones so that the water could reach her shoulders as she too began to scrub at the grime that tainted her.
When he emerged once again, she found his gaze. Those dark eyes paused on her figure - now submerged in the river - and she saw his lips part and a deep exhale of hot breath fog against the cold air.
Her hair, the fair straw coloured mess was darker now with ash, and lay limp against her cheeks with the dampness. And she knew dirt still covered her cheeks.
He stared, for what felt like an impossibly endless length of time. Until, finally, he broke the eye contact between them and set about cleaning his clothes with just as much vigour as he had himself.
This man, who upon first sight appeared to be a dangerous brute, was beside her now in this river because of her. He had returned to their group because of her, for her.
He was a terrifying sight at all times of the day. A towering mass of muscles, scarred skin, ragged hair and sharp features. Any sane woman would run from such a sight. Yet Ainslie felt no fear in his company.
He was a loyal man, a respectful man; her protector.
He had proven himself to be someone she could place all trust in. By his side she truly felt as if she could not be harmed. But they were in this situation because of her. Out in these woods, without the comfort of Charlotte and Hale’s home because she had lied about those from Bolham who had sought to retrieve her.
It was because of her that Allistair killed those men. It was because of her that Charlotte’s babe was in danger for every hour that passed in the freezing wilderness. And now she feared if they did not find shelter soon - real shelter with food and warmth - they would all be doomed.