Zaria watched the progress with the army. She shuddered at the thought that it was essentially her army. Thirsten had told her as much the day before. She looked at it with new eyes. She hadn’t really considered it her army until Thirsten had said it in the meeting at the enchanted table and everyone present had acquiesced. She didn’t know how she felt about it. Rishtah joined her at the balcony.
They stood in silence for a while before Rishtah said, “It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?”
Zaria didn’t say anything for a minute before revealing her true feelings. Rishtah had become a best friend, a confidante. “I don’t want it,” she shook her head, turning to her friend.
Rishtah cocked her head to the side. “Don’t you want to save your loved ones she has taken?”
Zaria contemplated her answer. “Of course I want them back. I want nothing more in this world.” She paused. “But to be in charge of this much death and destruction- it’s too much for my heart to handle. It seems evil.”
“Zaria, listen to me.” Rishtah said, taking Zaria’s hand. “Awen is evil. She will not stop. She will destroy everyone and everything in her own path of self-destruction. She already has, and she will continue. We need to stop her.”
Tears started falling from Zaria’s eyes. She didn’t want this responsibility. The idea of so much blood on her hands was too much for her. She knew people were going to die and it hurt her. She knew some of the people she sat next to and trained next to weren’t going to make it.
“This needs to be done,” Rishtah said softly, taking Zaria in her arms. They stood there for a while as Zaria cried. “How about we take a short break for a while? I found this place that might be relaxing to you.”
Zaria nodded and dried her eyes. Rishtah led her underground and they came to a hidden grotto with springs. “Is that a mud bath?”
Rishtah laughed. “It is, and it feels wonderful.” There was a small mud bath with dark brown muddy clay next to a small waterfall surrounded by exotic looking ferns. It was amazing to her that there could be such opposite ends of the spectrum, with this heated sauna of a room with a tropical feel and snowy cliffs several hundred feet above her head. It looked like the waterfall was a place to rinse off the mud. Stone steps led upwards and Rishtah told her a natural hot spring was up there. The hot air suddenly made sense.
“Thirsten told me that this used to be an active volcano. It has been dormant for many thousands of years, but the magma is close enough to the surface in the cave to make it feel so warm,” Rishtah explained as they disrobed and climbed into the mud bath. They pinned their hair on top of their heads and rubbed the mud into the skin on their arms and faces. They sat there for a while quietly, listening to the waterfall. Zaria really didn’t want things like this to be destroyed because of Awen, or the people. It was something she turned over and over in her mind, especially ever since Thirsten had brought her up to the snow. Eventually, she would do whatever it took to get her family back, even though she hated what she had to do in order to get them back. After all, she had a wedding to attend. Her own.
Tears slipped past her mud mask, making small tracks down the now hardened plaster. Rishtah had her eyes closed so she cried quietly. She missed Gareth so much it hurt. She missed her sister. She just wanted everything together and whole again. She could feel the broken pieces of the universe within her.
“When are we going to be ready to move out?” Zaria asked suddenly, an edge to her voice.
Rishtah opened her eyes and looked at her for a moment. “Probably just a few days. The branch leaders are in the process of telling their troops exactly where they are going. They are also being informed of the terrain and any challenges they will face, since many of them are not from here. We’ll have a final meeting the day before we leave to make sure from the leaders that everyone understands what they are to do.”
“Okay,” Zaria absently said. She frowned. She wanted to leave sooner, but it couldn’t be helped. “I’m ready,” she said, steel in her voice. She would be strong. She would not back down or back away.
Rishtah was nodding. “Good. Let’s rinse off and jump in the spring.”
Zaria smiled, excited for this natural hot spring. They got out and walked to the waterfall, rinsing the mud from their bodies. It felt glorious, and Zaria could already feel how soft her skin was from the clays and minerals. She felt refreshed and ready to relax even more before the big day.
When Awen had run out of Gabriella’s room, she had forgotten to lock the door, or even close it. It was wide open. She stood there staring at it. She could go rescue her daughter and Aria’s fiancé, Gareth, and her husband. Or she could run after Awen. She felt sick with indecision. Awen’s freaking out meant there was still love there. She thought about what would happen if she got everyone out. Nothing would end. All of this destruction would continue and nothing would change. Or she could go after Awen, talk some sense into her, and save everyone. But she could fail, too. Maybe Awen was too far gone. Tears of frustration fell and she angrily wiped them away. Maybe her desire to go after Awen was because she was weak, and had nothing to do with saving anyone.
She walked to the doorway. She could turn right. Or she could turn left. Her body was shaking as she took another step forward. Her heels were flush with the doorway. Another step. She was in the hallway. In front of her was the curved stone wall of the turret. She was somewhere on a middle level. Awen was at the top. She remembered which way she came from when they brought her up here, so she knew which way was down and how she could get to the dungeons. She stopped and looked both ways.
And then her foot moved on its own it seemed. Her body turned and she took a left. She paused and took a deep breath, then continued on. The stairs were endless and she started counting them. She lost count but kept going. She finally reached the end of the stairs. The corridor was short and the door stood open.
Gabriella could smell the coppery tang of blood and her mouth fell open at the destruction before her. Broken glass was everywhere and tables were overturned. The blood red fabric that had lined the walls was torn down in shreds. Gabriella carefully shuffled on the floor instead of walking so she didn’t walk on the glass. Her slippers mostly pushed the glass out of her way. She found Awen at the foot of her bed, naked and covered in blood. A corpse lay at her feet. Awen saw her and covered her breasts with her arms, her head falling and her hair covering her face. Gabriella made her way over and cleared a place for her to sit. She put a finger under Awen’s chin and saw that she was…crying.
Awen tore her head away from her and kept crying. “I don’t want you to see me like this,” she whispered.
Gabriella looked at the corpse and her stomach turned. She looked away from it and put her arm around Awen’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” she whispered back. “I love you still, and I always have. I’m so very sorry everything has happened as it has. There’s nothing I can ever do to take anything back. All I can do is be here now.” At first Awen stiffened in her arms, then slowly relaxed into the embrace. They sat like that for a while before Gabriella said that they should get cleaned up.
They got up and walked to Awen’s bathroom. It was black marble with veins of white everywhere. Blood red decorations and towels completed the dark look. The giant tub sat atop a few stairs that Awen sat on as Garbiella started the water. She chose a lavender and chamomile milk bath. Gabriella lit some beeswax candles, then guided Awen into the bath. The water turned pink as the blood mixed with the milky water. They sat facing each other, and she dipped a small towel into the water to wet it. She rubbed a bar of soap in the wet cloth to get some lather and took Awen’s arm. She didn’t say anything, just let Gabriella do as she wanted.
Gabriella softly washed Awen’s arms. Awen tensed a little when the cloth was rubbed gently over her breasts but didn’t move or say anything. She relaxed when Gabriella moved away from that area. She felt kind of awkward. She didn’t know what to say and Awen wasn’t speaking. She decided to let the silence continue. If she didn’t know what to say, she wasn’t going to force herself to and probably say the wrong thing.
When they got out of the bath, Awen let her dry her off. They put on robes and stepped their way through the mess. Gabriella led her back to her room. Awen stopped a guard on the way and ordered him to clean her bedchamber. They settled into Gabriella’s bed facing each other. Awen was letting her in, in a way, and she didn’t want to ruin it.
“Are you happy here?” Awen asked after a while.
“Yes, I just wish I had been with you the entire time,” she answered, longing to reach out and touch her. But she wanted Awen to make the first move.
Awen was quiet for a long time. Then she asked, “Then why did you leave me?” so softly that Gabriella thought she had imagined it. Her heart broke as she looked at her lover’s face. It broke into a million pieces all over again.
“I didn’t want to do it, I swear to you,” she said brokenly as tears ran down her face. “My father, he made me. He threatened me when he found out. He threatened us, and he threatened you. He-“ Gabriella couldn’t continue. She put her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath before opening her eyes and saying, “If I didn’t comply, he told me he was going to torture you and make me watch. He said that he would kill you in front of my eyes. I thought—I thought it would be better if we never spoke again. At least then you wouldn’t be dead.” She could barely bear to remember that day. It had been the worst day of her life.
“Yes, I suppose so. But look at who I became,” Awen said sadly.
“If I could change things, I would have ran away with you. I just didn’t see a way out,” she thickly said, trying to stop the tears. “I would have found a way.”
Awen didn’t respond right away. “Ever since—you’ve been back, I—I’ve been questioning who I am,” said haltingly. “I never really thought about it. I just did things. I took this castle because I thought you would be here and we could be together again. And then I thought you were dead so nothing mattered at all.” Awen paused, looking away. “Now—I feel like there’s a light in the darkness. But I don’t want to open up to you, I don’t want to release that light. If I do, I’m terrified of what would happen. It would be too much for me to bear, everything I’ve done.”
“I’ll help you through it,” Gabriella told her, wanting to convince her to stop all of this killing and death.
“I don’t think it would be enough. I think I would lose my mind. What’s left of it, anyway,” her mouth twisted up in a sardonic smile. “I paced your room every night for so many nights, wondering if I should let you in or not.”
“You’re letting me in right now,” Gabriella pointed out.
“I suppose so. In a way. But I can’t allow for you to be my light. I can’t let myself get that close to you again.”
Gabriella swallowed thickly. She didn’t know what to say to that. “I’ll take what I can get, I guess,” she finally murmured, smiling sadly and closing her eyes. Everything had made her feel exhausted. In her hazy sleep, she felt Awen gently stroking her hair.
Awen waited until Gabriella was sleeping to touch her soft hair. She could already feel her heart breaking. Feelings had started oozing back into her life, and she didn’t know what to do. Anger and hatred were easier. Not only her heart, but her mind was falling apart too. “What do you do to me?” She whispered, wanting to cuddle but not wanting to disturb her.