The Westwatch River babbled in the distance over a set of cascading rocky falls. Gnarled juniper trees shaded the eastern shore; a red sun set in the west, staining everything gold and orange. Valtteri passed Aria a water skin.
“I expect it’ll just be us tonight,” he said.
The mage had vanished north as soon as they stopped to make camp, heading for a small river outpost in hopes of contacting any fellow mages before their party entered the Western Realm, where mages were generally outlawed. Katya and the bearded guards had crossed the river at a shallow point, hiking in the direction of a secluded crag of jagged rocks.
“Is she going to be with both of them?” Aria asked, following the group’s progress until they disappeared.
“I suspect so,” Valtteri said. He assembled Aria’s tent in a weary sort of way.
“Do men…like that?” she asked quietly.
Valtteri laughed. “Some do. Don’t worry, she’ll get sick of them soon enough. They’re both morons.”
“Maybe that’s why she doesn’t like me,” Aria said, crouching to help him assemble the tent. “She must think me incredibly naive.”
“There are worse things by far than being naive.”
“To the experienced? Maybe not. But I’m not as clueless as she thinks.”
“I learned quite a few dark things at Alistair’s hand. I may not know about sex, but Katya would be surprised.”
“I hope Alistair begged your forgiveness for putting you into those situations.”
“He begged for a lot once he was sober.”
They stepped back to admire the finished tent. A fire crackled nearer to the river—the mage’s one contribution before he departed for town.
“What do you fancy for dinner?” Valtteri asked. “I’m not much of a fisherman, but I could probably take down a few rabbits.”
Aria tipped her chin towards the river. “What about that?”
A deer had ambled near their camp to dip its snout in the calmer water before the falls. Aria thought it very brave to stray so close.
“Did Alistair teach you how to skin a deer?” Valtteri asked humorously as he quietly detached a bow from his pack. Their horses grazed the plain several kilometers to the west.
“No,” Aria said. “As the royal princess, I planned to leave such grunt work to you.”
Valtteri passed her the wry look she’d grown quite fond of in their travels before dropping to one knee and nocking an arrow. The deer continued to drink from the river, oblivious to its fate.
“Two coins says you miss,” Aria whispered.
Valtteri grinned as he drew his shot. “Hush.”
Naught but the river and the crackling fire disturbed the silence. Valtteri grew very still, lining up his shot, until he inhaled steadily; with a thwick, the arrow sailed. It hit the deer square in the back of the head, just where the neck met the skull.
“I can’t believe I bet against you,” Aria said. The deer collapsed against the rocky shore.
Valtteri rose to his feet in one fluid motion, tossing his bow over his shoulder. “Lesson learned, then.”
She stifled her smile when he flashed her another grin before trotting towards their kill. In a few minutes he had tossed the deer over his shoulders and hauled it back to camp for skinning; Aria sat beside the fire to watch him work.
“Where did you learn to hunt?” she asked.
He removed a small moonsilver knife from the belt on his light leather tunic. “My father threw me into the legions green, but they taught me what I needed to know soon enough.”
“Your shot was perfect.”
“Lucky positioning. I’m mediocre with a bow at best. One of my younger brothers is a prodigy, so I know my place.”
One of the horses whinnied in the distance. Valtteri stiffened immediately; he sheathed his knife to reach for his sword.
“What?” Aria asked.
Shaking his head, he looked east. The sunlight of a few minutes earlier had vanished, and their fire made it difficult to see in the distance. Aria followed his gaze east, squinting; another horse whinnied.
“Get in the tent,” Valtteri said. “Don’t come out unless I ask you to.”
His voice had a commanding edge that Aria obeyed without question. She scurried inside and huddled atop her fur bedroll, one hand clutching the dagger at her side. Valtteri stood halfway between the fire and the tent; she heard his blade sing as he drew it from its sheath.
Several sets of heavy footsteps approached from the east. Aria heard them skirt her tent—rather boldly, she thought, since they could probably see Valtteri with his sword drawn by now.
“Evening,” a deep-voiced man said. “Those your horses grazing?”
“Yes,” Valtteri said. He didn’t sound scared at all. “Five of them. The sixth should be just north with my mage.”
“A mage,” the man said silkily. “Well, I suppose I should be scared.”
“He’ll be back shortly,” Valtteri said. “In the meantime, though, you can go ahead and fear me.”
Laughter. Aria thought she could distinguish three, maybe four people.
“Where are the others?” the man asked. “We don’t like to leave things sloppy.”
“If you intend to rob us, go ahead,” Valtteri said. “We carry nothing of value.”
The man snorted. “That blade is moonsilver. There was armor on a horse back there with moonstone in it. That kind of coin could keep us happy for years.”
“You’re going to have to kill me to acquire it. You won’t succeed.”
“Oh yeah?” a woman with a mocking voice asked.
“That’s what I said,” Valtteri replied lightly. “Go bother someone else.”
“You’re alone,” another man said. “Seems like easy pickings to me.”
There were footfalls, and suddenly the flap of Aria’s tent was swept aside. She knew she looked rather pathetic kneeling on her bedroll with her dagger drawn.
“Look,” the woman said, ogling Aria. She had a missing tooth and a shaved head. “Look at the quality of her clothes. She’s a noble.”
A man with a scarred face and thick beard peeked in. He leered. “This is getting interesting.”
“Leave her be,” Valtteri said forcefully. “Lay a finger on her and you lose your life. Walk away, and I’ll spare all of you.”
The man’s leer grew wider. Reaching through the flap, he grabbed Aria by the collar of her cloak and yanked her from the tent; she stumbled and fell to her knees in the dirt outside.
Two other men stood to Valtteri’s left. Jaw locked, Valtteri didn’t look at her; instead, he canvassed their surroundings, as well as the positions of their assailants.
“By the gods,” one of the men said. “I haven’t seen a lass that pretty since I went to the whorehouses in Tower of the Moon.”
“Thanks,” the woman said nastily. “You were just trying to fuck me last night, you know.”
“A cunt is a cunt,” he said. He stepped forward to bring Aria to her feet, expertly disarming her of her knife in one quick, fluid motion. “What’s your name?”
“Fuck you,” Aria said. She sounded braver than she felt.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Terrible manners. Are you sure you’re a noble?”
“Let her go,” Valtteri said. “Walk away from this camp now.”
“No,” the men said, all at once. One of them held a loaded bow.
Valtteri flicked his eyes over each of them in turn. When he landed on Aria last, she understood the command.
Flinging her legs out from under her, Aria hit the ground just as Valtteri swung his sword. The newly sharpened blade cut through the torso of the woman and the man who had dragged Aria from her tent in one swing. The man with the bow stumbled back two steps and released his shot; Valtteri thrust his sword forward to impale the bandit holding Aria’s knife at the exact moment an arrow pierced his left shoulder.
The archer tripped backwards once more as he loaded another shot. Aria grappled with the hands of the dead man next to her to find her blade; across from her, Valtteri hit his knees with a groan.
Aria yanked the knife free from the dead man and flung it at the chest of the archer with as much precision as she could muster. It hit him in the stomach, and his second shot went awry.
“Aria,” Valtteri choked out. He tossed her his own moonsilver knife with his uninjured right arm.
She caught it by the hilt, planted herself on her knees, and took aim at the archer again. He struggled to remove the blade from his stomach.
This time, when she threw, her aim was true; the knife hit him right in the heart. He keeled over backwards, his body hunched awkwardly in the grass.
Aria let out a choked whimper. Valtteri’s first two strikes had sprayed her with blood, and more pooled on the ground; she crawled towards him, her hands slipping in crimson puddles.
Valtteri gripped the arrow lodged in his shoulder with one hand, his teeth clenched. She grabbed his right arm.
“What do I do?”
Valtteri closed his eyes. “Break the shaft as close as you can to my shoulder. Then we’ll force the head through the other side. Two smaller wounds to bind and I’ll lose less blood.”
“I’ll do my best,” she said.
He nodded his assent. Aria scrambled to his other side—but when she lifted her hands, they shook violently.
“Fuck,” she murmured.
“You’re in shock,” Valtteri said. He had opened his eyes again. “I need a steady hand.”
She took a few deep breaths, but they didn’t seem to reach her. Her heart pounded in her chest. Then Valtteri groaned, and something in Aria snapped; another deep breath, and she forced herself to steady. She braced one hand on the plane of his chest and grasped the arrow with the other. He, in turn, held the shaft in place for her to snap.
“Good girl,” Valtteri said, holding her gaze with intense blue eyes. He had watched her steel herself with something like pride. “Now break it. Then use your finger to force it out the back of my shoulder.”
She nodded, her throat tight. “You’re lucky he shot you so high…”
“I know,” he said. “And we’re both lucky we have a mage to fix this mess. You’re going to do great.”
She resisted the urge to laugh hysterically. “How motivational.” Grabbing the lower part of her cloak with her left hand, she shoved it towards him. “Bite this.”
He did as she ordered. Aria repositioned her hands, counted to three, and snapped the shaft with one violent movement; the fabric of her cloak muffled Valtteri’s scream. Blood leaked from the wound, and the pain of torquing the shaft turned him a sickly white.
She met his eyes, knowing she looked terrified; remarkably, though, he watched her with encouragement behind the pain. A moment of perfect understanding passed between them—and then Aria shoved the head deeper into Valtteri’s shoulder.