Roar and Liv / Page 8

Page 8


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“I won’t let you give your life away,” she says. There’s pain in her voice, and I hate that this is the first thing—the first real thing—she’s said to me today.

“I don’t want to give it away either.”

“Roar, I need you to be serious right now.”

I raise my hands in surrender. “All right . . . I’m listening.”

“You heard what Perry said . . . what Vale vowed to do to you if we run. But this isn’t just about defying Vale, Roar. I’ve heard things about Sable. He’s proud and vengeful. People say he got his name because he has a black heart.”

“That’s just talk, Liv. Sable is powerful. Power doesn’t come without enemies and their scorn.”

“But what if it’s true? If we run, we wouldn’t just be going against Vale. What if Sable makes it his mission to hunt us down? To kill you? He has an army of thousands and that’s a fact. That’s not a rumor. I don’t want to be responsible for you living the rest of your life as a wanted man, and if you were ever caught . . .”

She trails off, choosing not to state the obvious. If I take her away and Sable or Vale ever catches me, it’s my life. There’s nothing for me to say so I shrug. I can’t promise that it won’t happen. It might. She’s either going to have to accept it—or not. But I won’t give her false hope.

I draw a breath, listening for sounds around me. The risk of being attacked by bands of dispersed is real out here; we can’t afford to let our guard down. I hear only the sound of leaves rustling with a breeze. The lonely call of an owl in the distance.

All I want is to be back where we were a few days ago on the beach by the cave.

Liv shifts on her feet. “Say something, Roar.”

“I love you.”

The words hang in the darkness, and now she’s the one who falls into silence. That wasn’t my intention. She should be in my arms right now. I don’t know why she isn’t.

I step toward her and find her hand. “I understand the risks, Liv.” I glance toward camp, thinking of the friend I might lose. “And I’m willing to take them. For you. For us. I choose you. Above everything else, I choose you.” Her fingers are cold, so I take them between my palms and then press my lips to them. “I’m ready,” I say, against her skin. “The question is, are you?”

She stares at me.

I wait.

And wait.

“You’re killing me, Liv. Whatever it is, just tell me. What’s in your heart?”

“You are,” she says.

She tells me again, silently.

You. It’s always been you.

I didn’t realize I’d been holding my breath for a few days until now. I pull her against me and squeeze as hard as I dare without hurting her. I kiss the top of her head. “I needed to hear that,” I whisper against her hair.

“When I think about being without you,” she says, “I can barely breathe.”

The coincidence makes me smile. “Keep breathing. I’m right here.”

She leans back. The smile on her lips is there and gone. “I don’t see a way out, Roar. Every choice I have, people will end up suffering. If I don’t go to Sable, what’s going to happen to the Tides? Are they going to starve because of me? Is Mila? Is Talon?”

“No. Your brother won’t let them starve.”

“How? I’m Vale’s solution. His answer to feeding the tribe is me.”

“When I said brother, I was talking about Perry. He won’t let Talon go hungry. Neither will Vale. They’ll think of something. No one’s going to starve.”

Instead of soothing her worries, my comments only make her wince. She’d be leaving everyone behind if we ran. Talon. Perry. Vale and Mila. Even Brooke. She’d lose any chance of seeing them again if she and I defied Vale and disappeared.

I can’t ask her to make that choice.

“You know what I want,” I tell her instead. “Whatever you decide, love, I’m here. I’ll always be here.”

She’s quiet for a long moment, searching my eyes. Stepping right into my soul. “Liv or love?” she asks.

I brush her hair away from her neck and rest my hand there, feeling the beating of her pulse. “Either,” I answer. “They’re the same to me.”

10

We’re running out of time.

I meet Liv’s gaze across the small clearing in the woods, where we’ve stopped for water and a quick meal. I know she’s thinking the same thing.

We’ve traveled north day after day, completing a week, and then a few days more. We’ve climbed steadily and watched the oak trees turn into pines. The rolling hills turn into mountains that pierce the clouds. Now we sit only a few miles from Sable’s southern border. Since the territory is massive, the Horns’ city—Rim—is still a two-day journey from here. But if Liv and I are going to flee, it needs to happen soon.

It needs to happen tonight.

Perry drops his water skin into his satchel and rises from his spot on an overturned log. “Let’s keep moving. I want us on Sable’s land by nightfall.”

“We’ve gone far enough today,” Wylan says, waving a hand at the clearing. “This is as good a place to camp as any.”

“There’s no reason to spend another night on unprotected land,” Perry says. “If we move an hour north, we’ll be better off.”

He has a point. Once we cross into Horn territory, the odds of running into dispersed will drop. But just being this close to Sable’s land has me sweating and feeling skitty.

I look at Liv. I’m not the only one who’s anxious. She’s sitting against a rock, hugging her knees. She looks pale and fragile and fearful, and she is none of those things.

She must sense this, because she extends her legs and straightens her back. “Perry,” she says. “Just . . . one more night.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” His tone is softer with her. He pauses, watching Liv in silence. I wonder what he scents, what passes between them through their tempers, because he nods and says, “Fine. We’ll stay.”

Wylan lets out an exaggerated sigh. “Yesss,” he says. “My feet are—”

“We know,” Collins interrupts. “Your feet are killing all of us.”

Perry tugs his bow over his shoulder. “Wylan, you and I will take first watch.”

“I’ll be right there,” Wylan says. When Perry shoots him a glare, Wylan adds, “It’s not even dark yet.”

Perry starts to say something, catches himself, and leaves without a word.

Since Liv and Perry picked up human scents earlier, we don’t risk a fire. And we’ve already eaten, so there’s nothing to do but talk or sleep. I keep my eyes on Liv while Wylan and Collins prattle on about nothing. As daylight fades and the night cools, I try to read her thoughts, my heart racing though I’m sitting still.

Will she choose love or duty?

A life of hiding in the woods or as a purchased bride?

She has hard choices to make. I want to support her. This is her decision. But the part of me that wants to tie her up and haul her away with me is winning. I can’t stand by much longer. I won’t.

“Roar.”

Perry’s voice carries from a distance, but it’s sharp with urgency. I’m on my feet in an instant, scanning the trees, listening. I hear his feet pounding through the woods before I spot him. When I do, any doubt I have that we’re being attacked vanishes. Perry runs toward us at a full sprint.

“There are at least a dozen,” he says, when he reaches us. “The best chance we have is to outrun them.”

I shake my head. “It’s too late.” I hear footsteps. Behind us. Ahead of us. They’re faint, but they are everywhere. “There’s more than a dozen of them, and they’ve surrounded us.”

Perry curses, and I know we’re all absorbing the same fact: no matter what, we’ll have to fight our way out.

“Which way should we go?” Liv asks me. Her half-sword is drawn. She doesn’t look pale or fragile anymore. Collins pulls his bow off his shoulder. Wylan has turned white beside him.

I listen again, calibrating. Searching for the direction where I hear fewer footsteps. For the path, I hope, of least resistance. “This way.”

We grab our packs and sprint through the pine trees.

Darkness has fallen, heavy and thick around us, amplifying our breaths and our footsteps. We are loud. Any band with its share of Auds will follow us with no trouble. If they have a Scire, then they will track us by scent. Though it’s no time for these thoughts, I can’t help but recall Perry as he told Vale that we’d travel safer without Wylan and Collins adding to our numbers. He was right. If it were just me, Perry, and Liv, I know we could disappear. Perry was right again when he said we’d have been better off tonight continuing north to Sable’s territory. I don’t know why I ever question his instincts. I vow to never do it again.

Perry surges ahead, ten paces, twenty, fifty. He slows and sets up, nocking an arrow to his bow and loosing it. I follow the path of the shot and see his target. A man deep in the murky woods beyond, who flies backward and lands on the forest floor. Perry fires another arrow to the north, and another, but they come on us, steel flashing, yelling, flooding from the darkness.

A man in shredded clothes charges me, his eyes wide, feral, as they catch the dim light of the Aether. He lumbers my way, rash, thoughtless, and slashes at me with his knife. He moves as slow as a cloud. I dodge easily and strike back. My blade finds the artery at his neck and he crumples at my feet.

“Liv!” I only catch a glimpse of her blond hair before another man breaks through the trees, running at me. Swiftly I take him in, gauging his strengths as an opponent. He’s younger and more cautious than the last one, pacing as he measures me back, his feet light as they move in the practiced steps of a man comfortable with a fight. I keep my eyes on him, though I hear Liv behind me, grunting, her sword clanging. I feel my life drain away with every second that I can’t see her.

“Come on!” I yell at my attacker.

He doesn’t make his move and I won’t wait. I can’t wait anymore. I dart toward him and feel a slap on my chest as I plunge my knife into his heart.

Drawing the blade, I spin, spotting Liv just as she jams the hilt of her half-sword into a man’s face. He rocks backward, finished, but there’s another figure behind her. A man, streaking toward her with an ax. She’s blind to him. Doesn’t see him as he runs for her, the massive weapon held high.

I throw my knife.

In the instant that it flies across the night, I bargain with fate.

I’ll let her go. I’ll let Sable have her. I’ll do anything, as long as she lives.

I hit the ax man on the cheek, exactly where I aimed. He twists away and goes down. I hear two thumps: his body, his weapon. He doesn’t get back up.

Liv’s eyes lock with mine, fear flashing in them.

“Roar, go!” Perry yells from uphill. Wylan and Collins are with him. A cluster of men have gathered in the hundred yards that separate us. I count them. Nine.


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