“Hmm?” Rough as sand, his deep voice cut through the silence, but she didn’t startle.
Instead she asked again, “Will it always be like this?”
He wanted to lie to her.
Yes—that was the word she wanted to hear, the promise he should make, even though it would be impossible to keep—it will always be this way.
Instead, he buried his face in the fragrant tangles of her golden hair, breathed her in and said, “I wish I could freeze this moment.”
She stretched her legs, the ball of her foot trailing the muscled length of his calf before drifting back downward again. “You can,” she told him. “Close your eyes.”
“My eyes are closed,” he snorted amusement, drew back from her hair and nestled deeper into the pillow beside her, “but I hardly see how that is going to help.”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you. There is no one in the world I trust more than you.”
“Close your eyes and listen to my heart.”
His eyes were closed, even though she didn’t believe him, but he squeezed the lids a little tighter just to make her happy. She couldn’t see him, not laying the way she was, but then she started to turn, wriggling her small form until they lay face to face.
“Your eyes aren’t closed,” she scolded.
“They were until you started dancing around!”
Fingers sought flesh, tickling just beneath her ribs and making her squirm and squeal so loudly half the village probably heard her shrieking, “Stop!”
The sliding length of her leg slipped over his hip, her agile body bucking and twisting and stoking a fire inside him that nothing in the world could quell but her depths. Teasing fingers became slow caresses that drifted down her hip.
Her hand rose to stroke through the braid of his beard before she crawled fingers up his chin and found his cheek. Leaning inward, she pressed her soft lips against the corner of his mouth and said, “Close your eyes, Dareth.”
It was his last memory of her. The final moment he carried into his own final moment.
Smoke pushed through the cracks in the door, and when the battering ram came knocking again it shoved great black blooms of whooshing through the soldiers. The men in front blasted backward with the impact, one of the clutching his chest where thick splinters of wood jammed through the links in his mail. Already there were six of them down, the first two with wounds superficial enough to send them to the back of the barricade.
The commander called for them to surge forward, to hold the gates no matter the cost.
For King Uldre and Queen Alderay!
That cry no longer carried the impact it did hours earlier, when the battle was new, and they were arrogant and stupid and sure they would win. They all knew better as the bodies began to fall around them, and when the fled into the keep to bar the gates and protect the king against an onslaught there was no stopping, each and every one of Uldre’s men realized their fate.
At least he would die knowing she still lived, that by the time the smoke of the fires ablaze in the surrounding village reached her, she would know she had to flee. He imagined her rising with the sun, prompted from bed with the crowing cock. She would go out and feed the chickens, collect their eggs and look to the eastern skies for signs of danger.
Maybe she would even think of him, close her eyes the same time he did and wish him well when Death came to claim him. He hoped he could feel her then. The warmth of her spirit, the hush of her breath across his cheek, the rhythm of her heart.
Bodies crowded in around him, shoving him toward the front of the line. He saw destruction through the cracks, smelled burning hair and flesh, charred metal and wood. His hands and chest fell against the wood, and there was no turning back.
Dareth closed his eyes and braced for impact, and let thoughts of his love carry him away.