In the camp of the undead soldier, torches blaze with great fury as though an anger hides on the wind, whipping embers and dragging flames into the air with great points that swirl in funnels toward the blackness of night.
The air is dense with the fire’s heat, but the ground grows cold and there is a damp chill in the air that makes mortal flesh yearn for shelter and comforts. There is nothing like that in this camp, however — no relief or fellowship, at least not for her. She pauses in the distance and takes a last look at the velvet blanket of sky above and beyond, speckled with celestial diamonds. She must force her heart to stone. As much as she wishes to recall their time in the pale caress of the star-cast glow, she leeches the feelings from her very bones. The sun and moon have danced across the sky many times since that time, and he has changed from light to dark; from red to black.
She knows that once her feet make way, her advance cannot stop, and when she is in their sights, only fate can intervene. Doubts manifest in her mind despite their bond. What if he has forgotten? What if he has finally cast off the shell of his old life and committed himself to such aspirations of supernatural power?
She sucks in a breath and fills her lungs to bursting. If these are her last moments in their world, she would be resolute and unyielding. There would be a force in her presence and perhaps she might finally shed her fear — not of ghosted warriors or their creator’s fate, but indifference. The final blow that is accompanied by unflinching, hollow eyes, that previously for her, were reservoirs of compassion, solace, and dependability.
Her march forward begins, boots crushing against stone so loudly as though her feet are invoking thunder. The smoke of the camp makes an assault on her eyes; even from a safe distance and she can smell the leftover scorch of timber and flesh. Death has covered this place with its wing, and it crouches in wait to wipe clean this unsuspecting land; however, as she nears these bringers of despair, she senses an echo of hope — something old and distant, something trembling deep within the earth. In the face of that which has gone into motion, new life will persist – regardless of intention – but this is not the end of all things — not for her; not for him.
The ring of steel and pull of taut bowstrings welcomes her arrival. Grunts and threats follow; outrage in broken, dead languages. The blood beats in her ears like a war drum and a scream rises in her throat; it hangs there chambered as she comes full stop at the wooden gate.
Within, there is a frenzied scramble and jostling for position. An open gate might mean her immediate dispatch, so she prepares herself. Her hand she plunges low inside the pocket of her cloak, and she grabs fast at the item within. It is the only thing that might earn her safe passage.
The gate’s lower portion forces along the dirt with an outswing, and as it does, she squeezes her eyes shut, her anxious tears burning at their corners. At least one hundred dark warriors — she can count that many voices on the wind. Beyond them though, is a slow beat; a deep and steady thrum — old like a mountain’s roots. It’s in this sound that she knows him. He’s here, just like she thought he would be, tending and leading his legions.
Once the mouth of the gate opens wide, she thrusts her arm toward the sky, the relic from her pocket, cool in her hand and glinting in the moon’s glow.
The front-line soldiers pause in recognition. A steel star, forged in time long past and once masterfully welded onto the chainmail armor of their revered forebear.
She makes to speak, to state her purpose, but she is paralyzed in position, her eyes darting from face to face, and heeding hundreds of threatening orbs that burrow into her with malice and ill-intent. The scream that’s chambered in her throat makes an audible warning, but in that moment, one of the soldiers speaks:
The warriors jump to action — one group musters toward the interior of the camp and another four surround and herd her inside the gate, which a final group closes behind them.
She is encircled by hate. Her hand closes around the star so hard, its points dig into her palm, and warmth drives onto her fingers from the blood it spills. She casts her eyes downward to the muddied earth and watches as her life drips away and swirls into the dirt.
His footsteps are known to her, and her body eases as he ceases his arrival only but a few strides from her. She continues to consider the bloodied ground at her side because she feels his eyes and knows intuitively that they are the same as she remembered — shallow tide pools on a hazy blue day. Her heart swells with the knowledge that despite what he has become, he is still here, and he knows her beyond his silence and stoic nature.
“My lord,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper.
The surrounding soldiers hiss through their teeth and back away, but he advances toward her to close their interaction away from the rest of the world. His disciples he waves away with a simple gesture, and they disperse leaving quiet in their wake.
“You should not be here,” he responds, lowly. His voice evokes the sway of autumn leaves brushing one against the other on a cool breeze. “Look at me,” he commands, and she does, beholding his face after so many winters languishing — riding on the endless tides of time.
She knows his visage well. Every line, groove, scar, and mark are paths to the safety of the memories they have made, somewhere in another life. He is astonishingly present, but the sun has grown low and casts long shadows on his tired, ruined heart. It won’t be long before the darkness masters him. But her spirit persists to draw him back from oblivion. It has every time. Through seasons and storms; fires, plight, and tremendous, ageless longing. It burns patiently in the home she’s made for him — rooted there within her soul.
To his tent he leads her, drawing open the leather flap and beckoning her inside. Onto a small, crude table she casts the armor adornment, colored deep red as anointed by her blood. He places his hand on it and pushes his eyes closed, worrying cautiously at his lower lip.
He changes course and approaches her.
“You kept it. Even after all this time,” he observes, his voice tinged with surprise.
“A gift should not be so easily abandoned.” She watches him intently. His skin is paler than she remembers and his hair longer, but his brow is as prominent as ever and the shape of his long face and petal lower lip unmistakable.
He moves to assist her with the removal of her cloak. She nods, and as he works, she analyzes the hole in his mail where the star once resided. It simulates a deep cavity through which his inner self has been wrenched forth. Now though, it is ragged, the metal around it worn and slightly rusted, his leather breastplate scuffed and eaten through in places. His entire appearance calls for a barrow, as though he is a formerly interred warrior, resurrected for some devious purpose at a demon’s command.
She catches his right hand in her own as he places her cloak on a short bench next to the table. Beyond them, a small fire burns in a stone circle, venting its force through an opening in the top of the tent. The remainder of the interior is sparsely furnished with roughly assembled chairs, a host table, and a cot for sleeping, all covered with hastily cut leather and furs.
He hesitates to look at her, and she touches the red gauntlet that shields his left hand and forearm. She overturns it and releases its clasps, and as she does, he grimaces. She waits for his authority, and he nods, allowing her to remove it, which she does and casts it aside.
His wrist he rotates uncomfortably, injuries long ago sustained becoming apparent once again in the firelight. She rests her hands on his breastplate over his chest and he slides his cold hands to her neck, upturning her face. The motion reminds her of their short time together before corruption and chaos would rend them apart.
“Have you come to join me?” His words sound strange as though they are not his own and she turns her head to the side to eye a dagger that sits on the table next to the bloodied steel star.
“This is goodbye then, is it?” He asks, returning to himself, and lowering his face near to hers.
“You would know.” She replies with an edge, which makes a muscle in his cheek flinch.
“Much has changed,” he responds, smoothing back strands of her hair from the side of her face. She walks her fingers up the seams of his leather armor. He is bound and tight; sinewy and caged in all of his ambitions.
“Including your name?” She pauses.
He observes the regret welling in her eyes and he presses his front to her as though to distract her from continuing.
“Do you even remember?” She asks, but he scoffs and pulls away, lifting the dagger from the table.
“You should ask me if the moon forgets the sun, or the sand the surf. You’ve come here to remember me to myself, or perhaps me to you?”
She shakes her head, for she is but one person riding the current of their time, unable to unravel the past or prevent the avalanche of heartache that is to come. His is a storm that cannot be stopped, and he was forecast to forever change this land. No force in the world would prevent it.
“I remember when you were something else …” her thoughts remain unfinished because his rage bears down against them. He uses the dagger to slice into the palm of his hand.
“It matters not. I am this,” he shows her the miscolored blood that cries from the fresh wound.
“I am this … now.” He softens and takes her hand, squeezing together the essence of their lives, a red and sour mélange, as a tear spills over her one cheek.
She closes her eyes and reaches up tentatively to feel at the edges of his ears. He exhales deeply and leans in, placing his mouth to the flesh of her neck where he can taste the sensation and memory of her from a time long ago. Her touch on him is warm like the comfort of the sun after a storm.
He whispers as the fire spits and the night reaches its longest point, “Remind me …”
She whimpers as he places his lips on her mouth, reacquainting the delicacy of their intimacy and the force of their heat. She breathes in his air as she struggles to free him from his buckles and chains.
They are unmade in their instants of passion, all pain set adrift and the divide between them mended. He rubs the point of his nose against hers — recalling for the first time, a life that was once his so long ago.
She beckons him to the cot to lay with her, and he does — sleep entrancing him.
Time passes in the changing shadows of the tent, and she makes ready to depart because she knows that an army is coming.
“Dawn approaches,” she says. “There is no return from today.”
There is a charged silence between them before he speaks again. He touches her cheek, regret splashed across his face.
“I cannot conjure love enough or trust,” he laments. “Before time turns our hearts to dust.”