She stood in the rain, in the chill, relentless rain, in a long pale dress, a girl without a name.
Or perhaps she had a name, but she could not remember it.
She could remember nothing.
Not how she’d come to be lying alone on the side of a road through a dripping, wet forest, not why her gown was torn near to shreds and hanging upon her thin body.
Not why she had bruises on her arms and neck and thighs.
Not even who she was.
She only knew that her voyage to this moment had left her bloody and battered. The hesitant fingers she trailed over her rain-damp cheeks told tales of raised scars and sore spots where bruises formed. Wrapping her arms around her frail shoulders made healing welts she hadn’t been aware of smart afresh. The invasive drizzle targeted every bared spot of skin upon her. Every shiver pained her aching body.
She needed shelter and warmth, but darkness was falling ever deeper and the rain obscured both stars and moon, rendering it nigh on impossible to see beyond ten feet. Her body was stiffening with the pervasive chill, making it hard to walk.
A tentative step onto the muddy road shot pain through her limbs.
Halting, wincing, she peered at the swampy road through her blood-streaked hair.
Please, she begged. Please help me. Someone.
But was no one came, her only companion the impersonal touch of the rain—
She dragged up her weary head.
The spraying, squishy clop-clop of horse hooves galloped along the road.
“Stop!” she called at the unseen rider in the darkness, her voice hoarse, her bony arm barely able to lift, wobbling. “Please, I beg you!”
A startled whinny rode the night as the yet invisible traveler dragged on the reins. The silhouette assumed edges and slowed as it approached through layers of darkness and rain.
She strained toward him and discovered that hope hurt. Breathing in stormy air and shivering anticipation hurt. Both burned a path straight down to her lungs. Even the inside of her ached, as if she had been tortured inside out.
A colossal but emaciated warhorse emerged from the misty drizzle, its rider just as gaunt, his arms bared to the elements by a sleeveless jerkin with no doublet beneath.
He dismounted close enough for her to make out details: his face sharp-featured like a hawk’s, a jagged scar slashed across one cheek, an arcane symbol branded the other. A strip of cloth slanted across one eye, tied over the black hair plastered to his scalp.
His gaze alighted on her—
And he collapsed.
She was supposed to be dead.
His knees caved – he had no breath, winded from the shock to his gut. His knees spattered mud and his fingers mashed into it, dropping him into obeisance before the princess.
It was beyond belief, but it was her.
Gone her fine damask clothes, her lush figure. Gone the haughty air that had won her so much antipathy from servants. Not even her silken slippers remained, her bare toes squelching into the same mire he knelt in.
Gone her flawless skin – skin that, once upon a time, no one had dared to mar.
Now someone had attempted to carve away every last vestige of her.
There was no reason he should recognize her.
No reason save one.
He had loved her.
She dug her hands into his wet hair, the shock of her touch vaulting through his body… even now, after all these months… after all her cold rejection.
She dragged his bowed head back. “You know who I am?”
With her fingers tangled in his hair, he stared up into her delicate, scarred features – features that someone had tried to destroy and failed, because he could still see their beauty.
He would always see their beauty.
Then her question sank into his awareness.
What had she said?
She abruptly jerked her hands back. The mouth he had so longed to kiss trembled with fear. “I don’t know who I am.”
Her words struck him so hard he reeled, dizzy, blinking rain from where it dripped off his lashes. “You don’t know who you are?”
A small, stiff shake of her head. She looked away, biting her quivering lip and denying him her yet lovely eyes. “Do you… do you know me?”
I know you, he could say. You’re the princess and I was your father’s watchdog. I protected the sanctimonious tyrant who called himself our kingdom’s ruler but who so antagonized the people that the peasants rebelled. They murdered him and his queen despite how I tried to save them, then they left me to die at the feet of my master and mistress’s slaughtered bodies.
They left me with only one eye.
He’d regained consciousness in a mess of corpses while the marauding rebels still swarmed the castle, laughing and making bawdy jests, shucking dead nobles of their jewels and slitting the throats of the last noblewomen they’d raped.
He had a knife in his eye and they’d thought him dead—he should’ve been dead, but he hadn’t been, and after they departed, he’d jerked the dagger out, staggered to his feet and gritted his teeth against the upheaval of his gullet. His hand had staunched the blood flow from the socket but he kept swallowing, swallowing, the pain and throb from the eye unbalancing him. Lurching around the room, he had looked for her body.
He hadn’t found it.
Even knowing he had to escape, he’d pawed through the carnage, his good eye scanning the bodies, terrified he would find her.
Terrified he wouldn’t.
He hadn’t. He’d given up hope.
Now she stood before him, all that had gone before wiped from her consciousness.
He blinked, raindrops sliding into his parted lips and flavoring his tongue with freshness.
All that had gone before was wiped from her consciousness.
She looked to him to tell her the truth.
And he could tell her the truth, at least the truth as he guessed it: that the peasants who’d killed her parents must have taken her captive and tortured her. Tortured her until she’d shut off her mind rather than remember.
He could tell her the other truth, too.
You’re the woman I love. I’m naught but a landless swordsman, forced to wander town to town seeking whatever employment anyone will offer, but I would protect you with my last breath.
There is nothing for you back at the palace. Come with me.
Stay with me.
She stared at him, licking rain off her lips. A shiver traveled her body and she wrapped her too-thin fingers around her shoulders, hunching inward. “Sir?”
There was a third option, as well.
He could lie.
Looking up into her tortured face – the face that was still more beautiful than any other he’d ever beheld – he swallowed.
He told himself there was no other choice.
“Do you not recognize me?” He shot to his feet and took her icy hands in his now feverish ones. He pulled her close to his chest, where she smelled of fresh rain and washed-away pain and sweet hope. He looked straight in her eyes, but his words – for a moment – wrecked on his trembling excitement – fumbled – but then they burst free. “You don’t recognize your own betrothed?”
Her hands jerked slightly in his but she didn’t break his hold, not disbelieving, not yet.
Believe me, his earnest eyes told her. Trust me. He shifted closer.
She blinked up at him, drizzle gemming her eyelashes and her cheeks, her eyes bewildered and unsure. “Your betrothed?”
His mind worked quickly, his words growing stronger as his resolve intensified. “I’ve been searching for you for months. That’s why I collapsed when I got close to you—I couldn’t believe… You were abducted by bandits who torched our home and stole everything we owned.” It wasn’t even that far from the truth, he persuaded himself.” I’ve been searching for you ever since…” And that was true – the sincerest truth of all. His heart had been searching and hoping for the impossible for an agonizing eternity.
“Can I kiss you?” His hoarse tone broke, barely audible above the patter of raindrops, the gentle whinny of his horse. “Let my kiss betray my honor.”
Her lips parted, mute, but she jerked her chin in a nod and he couldn’t contain himself any longer.
He buried his hand in her tangled, matted hair and kissed her full on the mouth with all the pent-up passion he’d suppressed inside for years.
Exhilaration, terror – a chaotic mesh of emotion tore through him and shuddered into her. He thought his heart might burst from his chest. He was petrified that she might fragment under his touch like a wraith he had summoned briefly into life.
But she didn’t. She was solid, yielding and exquisitely real in his arms. She kissed him back with unpracticed lips that told him so much it broke his heart a little more, adding to the web of cracks she’d already left there.
Rain poured through their hair and between their lips, pressing their drenched clothes to their hot bodies.
He forced himself to pull back but kept her hips close, her body cradled so near their mingled breath curled into entwined vapor. “Do you believe me now?” he murmured against her lips.
“How can I not?” She cupped his cheek – the side branded with her father’s crest – then dug her fingers into his wet hair and tugged his head down to hers. “Remind me again who I am.”
For more short stories, click here.
I did more teasers! I’m addicted, what can I say? This time they’re for my epic fantasies.