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 The firelight cast flickering illumination over the girls countenence. Her face was only half visible, one side lit by the dancing flames and the other hidden in shadow. It didn’t matter. He knew her features as well as he knew his own. He knew the line of her jaw, the curve of her cheekbone, the shape of her ear, the curl of her hair, the cast of her eyes, nose, mouth. He especially knew her lips, the way they sometimes curled upward into an unconscious half smile when her thoughts were filled with something she’d read in one of the many books she lloved so much. He knew the way they flattened into a thin hard line when she was angry. He knew the way they quivered when she was fighting back tears, or far more often, trembled as she tried to hold back a laugh at something someone around her had said.

“ You know that I can tell you’re staring?“ Her words, equal parts question and accusation, cut through his musings like a knife sliding through butter.

Clearing his throat subconsciously he replied, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’ll stop.“

She shifted her position on the leaf strewn ground, Pineneedles crunching beneath her as she did. She was turned more directly toward him now, her face no longer partly cloked in shadow. His eyes rested only briefly on the long jagged scar that cut a nearly symmetrical line down the middle of her left cheek. She spoke and his gaze returned to her lips.

“it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, not any more. I’m used to it, people staring. They think I don’t notice, that I can’t tell. But there wrong. That’s what bothers me. They stare, thinking its safe to do so because I am unaware of it.”

“I wasn’t staring at you because I thought you wouldn’t notice. I knew you would.“

A wry smiled pulled at the corner of her mouth, “then you were staring because of my scar.”

“I wasn’t staring at your scar.“ The words were out of his mouth before he could decide whether or not speaking them was a good idea.

She tilted her head in a quizzical motion, abrief look of surprise crossing her face. “You weren’t? Then, why were you staring?”

“I…” he trailed off into silence trying desperately to come up with the right words. I was staring at you because you’re beautiful. I was staring at you because since the day we met I couldn’t look anywhere else. I was staring at you because I think I’m in love with you.

Before he could work up the courage to say any of that, the fire let out a sharp crack and released a shower of sparks into the air. She leaped to her feet with a cry of alarm, stumbling hastily back from the roaring flames. 

He stood up quickly and hastened to reassure her. “ Julieonna its alright. The fire needs more wood, that’s all, it crackles louder and gives off more sparks the further it burns down. I know it often seems like a living thing but it’s not. If it were, it would have enough sense to conserve its energy and make the oxygen it needs to burn last longer.“

Her look of fear turned swiftly to one of amusement. “I’ve never heard someone describe a fire like that. You sound as though you both admire and feel contempt toward it.“

“Who wouldn’t admire it. Its beautiful and powerful and has the potential to be both life-giving and life ending. But fire, by its very nature, is a thing of endless and unquenchable hunger. All it knows how to do is burn and burn until there’s nothing left. It has no sense of self-preservation, of self-control. In a way I suppose I do feel contempt toward it for that.”

She still seemed amused, but when she spoke her tone held no mocking edge, and he sensed that ridicule was not her intention. “Has it never occurred to you that not being in control is the very thing that allows the fire to have such power? After all, if it concerned it’s self with anything other than devouring the wood and other fuel it needs to survive, then would it not die all the faster.”

He paused before answering. Her expression had turned from amused into something else, her tone becoming harder and more serious. He sensed that she was speaking of something more than just the fire. He sensed that she was trying to tell him something without actually saying it allowed. He sensed that he should’ve been able to tell what it was, decipher the deeper meaning behind her words. But try as he might, he was unable to.

He was still pondering his reply, when Julieonna suddenly world toward the forest behind them. She turned so abruptly that she slipped on the Pineneedle covered ground and nearly lost her footing. 

He circled the fire between them in one fluid motion. Reaching her side and placing a steadying hand on her arm he ask, “Are you all right?“

Emotions flitted across her face so quickly that he barely registered any of them. Shock, alarm, uncertainty, fear. No sooner had one expression appeared then it vanished replaced by another. They changed so rapidly that he couldn’t be sure if he was interpreting them correctly. 

“I’m fine,“ she said answering his question and interrupting any attempt he might’ve made to decipher her face further. “I thought I heard something in the forest thats all.” Her voice was calm enough, her tone perfectly steady, but her words did not match her expression. The look of disquiet on her face was one he felt sure he was not misinterpreting.

Gazing over her shoulder into the Forest which lay just beyond their small campsite, he searched the dark trees for any sign of movement. He had, as he always did, made sure to keep one eye away from the fire light, thereby ensuring that should he need to survey the night beyond the circle of its borders, he could do so without being temporarily blinded by the darkness. Now he surveyed that darkness and saw nothing except the outline of trees, rocks, and fallin logs.

“I see nothing out of the ordinary,“ he told her, giving The dark trees one last probing glance.”

“It was probably just a small animal foraging for food,” she said stepping slightly away from him. It was only then that he realized his hand was still resting on her arm. He removed it And returned his gaze to her face. Despite the deliberate casualness of her tone, he could clearly see how unsettled she was. It was written in her expression, in the turn down lines at the corners of her mouth and the unease that lingered in her dark gray gaze.

“Even so,“ he said in an attempt to reassure her, “I’ll keep an eye out for anything unusual when I gather the wood.“ He cast a meaningful look at the fire, which had gone from roaring to sputtering in a matter of minutes. Then remembering that she wouldn’t be able to see it, he added, “I think I’ll do that now before the fire dies.“

“ of course,“ she said her tone one of sudden realization, “the wood.“

Having the distinct impression that he was missing something he inquired, “are you sure you’re all right? You seem…“

“ I’m fine,” she reiterated, her tone more insistent now. “You go gather wood and I’ll stay here with dolce and Pearl.”

He didn’t know what it was that troubled her, but that she was still troubled he had no doubt. He didn’t like the thought of leaving her alone while she was so unsettled. But if she wanted to stay it wasn’t like he could force her to come with him. Besides, he could find plenty of wood without venturing far. There were several down trees close to the clearings edge.

“All right,“ he said trying to disguise his reluctance,“If you’re sure.“

She gave him a tight smile which, he noted, did not reach her eyes. “I’m sure.“ She went and sat by the horses, kneeling to pull a currycomb from her saddle bag. She stood up and began brushing pearls coat. Pearl was her white Pelfrey and dolce was his black Arabian.

He was about to leave the clearing but her voice stopped him. “Gabriel?“ She said his name softly so much so that he wasn’t sure he’d heard it at all. He turned back toward her and found that she was facing him. She wasn’t looking directly at him, she never did. She’d told him once that her ability to tell where a person was standing had as much to do with their proximity, clothing color, and the lighting conditions, as it did with pinpointing the direction there voice was coming from.

“Yes?” 

She was silent for several long moments. When she finally spoke her voice was surprisingly gentle, almost tender. “Thank you. I just realized that I never told you that. Your help these last few weeks has been invaluable. I couldn’t have done what I said out to do without it and I want you to know…“ She hesitated as if second guessing whatever it was she had been about to say. 

In the months that followed he would look back on this Conversation and wonder. Was what she said next actually what she had intended to say? Had there not been something else she’d wanted to tell him, another way she might have ended that sentence. But like so many other things about that night, he would never know.

“I want you to know what an indispensable asset you have been. You’ve been my steadfast companion, my ever willing guide, and above all, a dear dear friend. I just wanted to say thank you to you for all of that.”

An invaluable asset, a dear friend. If he’d harbored any doubts about whether she might return his feelings, well, this certainly confirmed them all. He supposed he shouldn’t have hoped for anything different. After all, she was a client, all be it one the likes of which he had never encountered before. 

Her father had paid him handsomely to accompany her on her travels. “You will go with her wherever she asks,” he had said, “teach her the customs of the people in the ways of the land through which you pass. But you will not impart any opinions you may hold about either to her, not unless she asks you of them. You will be A companion for her, a chaperone of sorts.”

If her words were any indication, he had at least done his job well. The Thought brought him little comfort however. She had called him friend, he supposed that was something. 

“Gabriel,” Julieonna said breaking into his train of thought, “say something please. Have I offended you in some way?”

“Of course not,“ he replied hastening to reassure her that she had caused no offense. Which she hadn’t, at least, not in the way she imagined. You’re words caught me off guard that’s all. I’m always happy to help you know that, And I’m glad to hear that I’m doing a good job of it.“

When she replied it was in an overly bright tone. “Right then, off you go, that wood won’t gather itself.“ She returned to brushing her horse without another word.

He was gone for less than five minutes. Finding kindling suitable for the fire was as simple as he had expected, and he encountered nothing unusual along the way. When he returned to their campsite it was with arms full of logs and a heart full of determination. Client or no, friend or no, he needed to tell Julieonna how he felt. If he didn’t he would never know whether there would have been a possibility of her feeling the same. Even if she didn’t, she had a right to know that he did.

He stepped into the circle of dying fire light, and the world stopped. Everything, the shifting shadows of the trees, the dancing flames, even the wind, it all just stopped.

Julieonna lay face down in the dirt, the wooden shaft of an arrow protruding from between her shoulder blades.

He wasn’t aware of dropping the wood, he wasn’t aware of pulling out his knife, of scanning the clearing and surrounding trees for possible attackers. All he was aware of was dropping to his knees beside her. 

He turned her over gently, wiped the dirt from her face. Her hair was matted with leaves, The skin of her forehead and cheek rubbed raw from scraping against the forest floor. And her eyes…

Julieonna’s eyes might not have been able to see as well as most peoples, but they been by far the most expressive pair he’d ever looked into. But now they were completely blank, holy devoid of emotion, utterly lifeless. She was lifeless, she was… She was dead. Julieonna, his Julieonna, was dead and now she would never know how he felt about her.

Another man might have given in to the black gaping maw of despair which threatened to swallow him whole. Another man might have indulged in grief,, might have let it carry him away on a dark tide of nothingness. Another man might have allowed himself to feel, truly feel, the loss. But not Gabriel.

Gabriel Rose slowly and deliberately to his feet. He scanned the clearing again, this time taking in everything he was seeing. A broken stick here, a turned over rock there. He would find the people responsible for Julianas death, he would find them, and then he would make them rue the day they’d been born.

July 03, 2020 03:59

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