“Open it,” he said.
I bent my head and fumbled with the hairy twine that held the wrappings in place. From the corner of my eye kept track of his movements as he stood, putting the pack on.
He said, “I don’t know what you expected to happen next, but it’s obvious it was nothing good. Listen to me now. I’m going to make you an offer, which you are free to accept or refuse as you will.”
My hands stopped working on the package as I looked up. The wind swept over the hillside and stirred the leaves behind him into a silvery-green cloud, and sent fine strands of pale hair drifting around his face.
“Join us. Join me. Become a Hill Guard.”
I felt my mouth drop open. “You – you can’t mean that. I’ve already attacked you once. I’m not safe to be around normal people. I’m cursed.”
“I don’t believe in curses,” he told me, eyes fixed on my face. “I don’t believe in magic, or demons. I believe in choice. Whatever you’ve been told, whoever has hurt you, whatever past haunts you, you can chose to leave it behind. I know it, Frost. I saw who you are today. Your bravery saved those women.”
I began to shake my head, but he held up his hand, silencing me. “With some training I believe you’d be a great warrior. I can teach you to channel this battle rage that affects you. I can teach you to fight your fear and overcome it. But it can’t happen until you take control of your own life. You have to chose to stop running. You have to chose to believe in me.” He smiled, and my breath caught in my throat. “I already believe in you.”
“You don’t know me,” I whispered. The words were nearly swept away in the rising wind. “You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I don’t know you very well, yet,” he corrected, still smiling. “I saw enough today to know that you’re a remarkable woman. Decent, kind and brave. I don’t believe that you’ve done anything truly wrong. I don’t believe you could.”
I had to look away, clenching my jaw. He was wrong, so wrong. Yet... it meant so much to hear someone say that, believe that about me. My own mother would not have made such a claim on my behalf.
I heard the rustle of cloth and the squeak of leather and suddenly he was kneeling there before me, showing me the golden brown and golden and silver-blonde streaks on the top of his head as his long fingers brushed mine aside on the forgotten parcel. He swiftly unknotted the twine, peeling back a layer of sackcloth.
I sucked in a shocked breath as I saw what lay neatly packed beneath it.
My pack. My hunting knives. My snares. My water-skin and dried meat.
My father’s axe.
Everything I owned in the world. Everything I had thought lost, forever.
Trembling, I closed my fingers around the cold steel and smooth wood of the axe haft. “You found it.”
“I’ve been wanting to return it to you. Other things kept coming up,” he said. I felt heat rising in my cheeks as I remembered my repeated escape attempts. “Now you know I mean what I say. You can go if you want and never see me or my men again. I won’t stop you. It’s up to you, Frost.”
His hand closed around mine on the shaft of the axe and for the second time, our fingers entwined. It was so natural that I did not question it. He knelt up so that our faces were level. Our eyes met.
He touched his lips to mine.
It was a brotherly kiss. A mere brush of mouth against mouth. And yet everything went still. The wind seemed to die as golden sunlight wrapped me up, trapping me in a veil of warmth. A songbird trilled, and the noise stretched out endlessly, rippling in silence. I tasted mint, and something deeper, wilder, something I had never tasted before.
Then it was over. His hand released mine, and he stood, towering over me again. I gazed down at my tingling fingers, still clasping the axe handle.
“You know where to find us,” he said. He hesitated for a moment, then murmured. “I’ll be waiting for you.” I listened to his footsteps move away, straining to hear them until they faded, lost in the voice of the wind.
I sat there for a long time, alone among the gently stirring trees. Something stirred and shifted in my chest too, unfolding beneath my breastbone. It ached, but the pain was sweet. Pain meant life. Something I had no name for was coming alive inside me. Something like hope, or happiness, or belief – none of those things, or all of them. I had thought such a feeling lost forever, just like my father’s axe. And just like the axe, it was now returned to me. By Luca.