"Kae. Kae, can you hear me? Kaeda!"
Someone's shaking her by the shoulder. Not just anyone, but him. That's his voice. His voice, so full of concern. She must be dreaming. It doesn't feel like a dream though. Everything hurts, especially her head as it's jostled gently by the shaking of her shoulder. She doesn't want to open her eyes, because that was his voice, and that's impossible.
"Kae. Please, wake up."
She opens her eyes and struggles to focus, blinking rapidly until her vision becomes less blurry and she can finally see the face hovering over her. His face. His beautiful face. Impossible.
"Nicolai," She starts to sob, "how- how is this real?" She can barely breathe through the overwhelming emotions trying to implode her chest. So much pain, physical and emotional. She reaches for him and clings to his arms, gasping for breath between sobs. A part of her mind that isn’t too shocked to think is surprised she can generate tears at all with how parched she feels. “I thought you were dead. I sent your body to the Gods.”
“I’m sorry, Kaeda. I don’t know who you sent to the Gods, but it wasn't me. As you can see, I am very much alive. I thought you were dead, just now, when I found you here. Is this all your blood?”
She unlatches her nearly numb fingers from his arm to feel the sticky blood coating her grimy face and staining her messy, tangled hair. She knows there is so much more, on her hands and her ruined dress. How did she get here? How did the night turn out this way? She has so many questions, but she answers Nico. “On my head, is mine. The rest is from the men I killed.”
She notices that her daggers are gone, but she continues explaining, “They attacked the city. They must have come from Mivraga, and they were after me. I can tell you about all that, but first I need you to tell me how you’re alive.”
She’s so dizzy and confused. She can’t stop staring at Nicolai. How could this be happening? He was dead. He was dead, wasn’t he? Yet, here he is with his pale silvery hair curling over his forehead, casting his light green eyes into shadow. Here he is, after all this time.
“We have to get out of here. Come with me to my camp, and I will explain what I can,” he says as he helps her to stand and find her footing. “I think it would be best if you left here with me after we get some rest.”
That's fine with her, the resting and the leaving. The last thing she wants to do is stay here amid the wreckage and carnage, waiting for the soldiers who attacked this party to return and continue their search for her. She’s absolutely sure they were here for her, and they will need to confirm if she has died in the attack or if she’s missing, so they can report to their queen. She needs to get far away from here, and she wants to go with Nicolai. She needs answers.
He begins walking through the city, not even attempting to avoid the blood splattered on the stones, stepping over bodies here and there. She tries not to look; tries not to think about the people who died because of Queen Nola’s desire to add her to her royal arsenal. She’s shown that she will stop at nothing - and if it weren’t Nola after her, it would surely be someone else.
Four years ago, she didn’t know it, but she is too unusual and too powerful to go unnoticed and unbothered. Any ambitious leaders to ever learn of her will want to use her for their own gain. Sometimes she thinks the world would be better off without her in it, but she’s too selfish to give up on life.
She stares at Nicolai’s broad shoulders and observes his confident gait as he leads her out of the city and into the western woods. He looks just how she remembers him, except maybe a little broader, as if he put on muscle. He even moves the same.
As they make their way under the canopy of trees, along a narrow path through the brush, she thinks about the time she’s spent here in Felway and other cities along the way; the years she’s spent grieving the loss of her first love and hiding from those who would abuse her power. It’s been so long since she watched Nicolai's body fade into the light, taken by the Gods. Or not his body. Someone’s body. Where has Nicolai been for the last four years? Why is he here now?
Moving somewhat slowly due to her raging headache and aching body, they travel into the woods for about a mile before veering off a narrow path to his small camp. It's just a bedroll laid over fallen leaves on the ground and the remnants of a fire, hidden far enough away from anyone who might be following the same path they’d taken. It isn’t much, and it’s very clear that he hasn’t been here for long and doesn’t intend to stay.
He pulls his pack off, setting it on the ground near his bedroll, and points to it. “There’s a clean tunic in there," he says. "There’s also a canteen of water and some rags, so you can wipe off some of the blood. We’re close enough to the river that we can stop and get cleaned up on our way out of here. I'm sorry, that’s the best I can do for you right now.”
“I’m grateful for it,“ she tells him, and she means it.
She digs in his pack and pulls out the soft leather rags he probably uses to polish his hunting blades, and his canteen. She uses them to clean off her face and her hands as best as she can. Then, she takes a long, much needed drink. Her throat is so dry, it takes a few seconds before she can even feel the relief of the cool water she’s swallowing. Feeling a little better, she puts the cap back on the canteen - sure to leave some for Nicolai.
Not being a very shy creature, she doesn’t hesitate to pull off her bloodied and dirty clothes to slip into the oversized black tunic he offered her. From the corner of her eye, she notices that he turns away to give her some privacy. Once she’s as clean as she can get tonight, she turns to him. “Thank you, Nicolai. Can we talk now? What is going on? How are you here?”
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