Falling Rain: Part Five
“Is that your house?” Brai whispered.
The trio peered through the brush at a modest cottage perched among the trees in a small clearing. All the lights were dimmed. It looked like the residents were in hiding a safe distance away from the battle.
Toulu nodded and pulled on Arrihaz’s mane like reins.
“You’ll have to walk yourself to the door,” Arrihaz said, lowering until his belly touched the ground to let Toulu down.
The little Quiggle slid down his side onto the ground, looking up at Arrihaz curiously when the Eyrie stood.
“It’ll be easier if we don’t come with you,” Brai explained. “I don’t think your family would be very happy to see a couple of Kass’s soldiers.”
“Ex-soldiers,” Arrihaz corrected.
Brai smiled a little. “Still.” She leaned over and put a paw on Toulu’s shoulders. “We have to get going.”
“But you’re nice!”
“I don’t think they would understand.”
“Okay,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
She grinned. “Be careful, alright?”
He nodded, turning to waddle back to the house. He waved to Arrihaz as he reached the door. The Eyrie nodded back.
He and Brai slipped quietly away. As Brai turned to go deeper into the forest, she stopped when she saw Arrihaz headed in the opposite direction, back toward the clearing. “Where are you going?”
“If we’re followed, someone will find that house and that family will be in danger,” he said gruffly. “We’d lead Kass’s troops right to their door. If we go back this way they’ll stay hidden-- so we just have to find a different route around.”
They made their way back to the clearing, peering out cautiously at the edge of the trees. Arrihaz took the lead, slinking low to the ground and trying to stay hidden in tall grass and brush at the forest’s outskirts. They started to head around the forest rather than through it, hoping to find solace on the other side.
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They almost made it.
They were far enough from the battle over the hills to not hear it anymore, other than the occasional rumble of an explosive going off. More patches of forest were visible in the cascading sea of shadows that night had cast. Their plan was to hide until the troops had cleared out of this area, then move on.
Brai held on to Arrihaz’s tail as he led the way, his sharp eyes more useful in the darkness than hers. The moon, usually their beacon to see by, now cowered behind a blanket of misty clouds. Brai gulped uneasily at the spidery black shapes ahead of them. The forest.
“Almost there,” she whispered.
Arrihaz suddenly froze. She bumped into him. “What’s wrong?” she hissed.
“I heard something,” he growled, perfectly still as he scanned the pitch black field around them.
“Why, Lieutenant Colonel,” a sickeningly syrupy voice cooed. “You disappointed me.”
Brai gasped. “Aradour!”
But that was all she could manage-- in the blink of an eye, she was taken down. A lean shadow brought her to the ground. Arrihaz snarled into action, but was stopped short by Brai’s shriek of pain.
“Now, now,” Aradour said soothingly, “Calm down. One step closer and my claws meet your little comrade's throat.”
Every muscle in his body was on fire. A low grow rumbled through him, but Arrihaz stood still, crimson eyes blazing into the Kougra. He could see her outline now, close in the darkness. Her ears flattened and her tail flicked behind her with a mind of its own. She was pinning Brai down, one paw on the Zafara’s neck.
“Much better. I heard the most interesting story tonight, Arrihaz. I’ve been told that you and Firieq had a little stand-off earlier because you-- now here’s the funny part-- you are turning your back on your army.”
She didn’t give him a chance to respond. At the end of her sentence, she shoved her paw down. Brai sputtered and choked as her air was cut off.
“You’d hurt anyone who stood in your way!” he snarled. He leapt forward, his own claws flexing. Mere seconds before they could make contact, Aradour shot out of his reach. Arrihaz stood over Brai, who gasped to regain her breath.
“And you wouldn’t,” she sneered. “That’s what makes you weak.”
He snorted. “You don’t want anyone weak in your little Meridell-hating club. All the more reason for me to leave.”
“Nobody walks away from our Lord Kass,” she hissed.
Ah, so he wasn’t supposed to live to tell the tale of his successful desertion and inspire others to do the same. He could read the subtext here.
“Why walk when you can run,” he replied dryly.
He lunged. His paws made contact, catching her by surprise, and he smirked in triumph when his claws ripped across her shoulder. Aradour hissed and recoiled, slashing back and catching his wing when he tried to swoop out of the way.
He flapped back a few feet, tearing away from her. She pounced before he could regain his footing, sending them both somersaulting into the few trees marking the outskirts of the forest.
His head smacked into a rock. Suddenly everything started to fade, a high ringing in his ears. He slumped back woozily.
“Arrihaz!” he heard Brai cry, and then he blacked out.
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Waking up to Aradour’s face was the stuff of nightmares. Customary vein-popping fury.
He must have only been out for a few second, but it only took him a few more to realize that Aradour wasn’t attacking him. Instead, she was frozen right beside him, glowering furiously.
“Arrihaz,” Brai breathed, relief coloring her tone. “Are you alright?”
His mind came woozily back into focus. Oh, right. He hit his head. Upon realizing this, he attempted to look down and examine himself. His head disagreed. He winced as the world swirled around him.
“I think so,” he replied thickly.
He was conscious enough to roll away from Aradour, out of her reach. But why didn’t she go after him? He managed to stagger back onto his feet, looking past the Kougra to Brai behind her. She was holding a dagger to Aradour’s side, rooting her in place.
“I had this in my cloak,” she said, grinning, “just in case. Hadn’t been given the chance to grab it until you distracted her.” She winked at Arrihaz.
He smirked, his senses finally aligning again.
Aradour wasn’t very good at being ignored for more than three seconds. “This is between me and you, Arrihaz.”
“I want a word with you,” she said tightly, in a tone of voice that implied “word” was synonymous with “violent slaughter.”
“And I want you to shut up,” Brai snapped, “but apparently we don’t always get what we want.”
Aradour’s eyes tightened. Something sparked in them. She smirked and glanced back at Brai. Arrihaz didn’t like that expression at all. “You were always a great soldier, Arrihaz,” Aradour said loudly. “But does your little follower know what a poor brother you would be? You couldn’t protect her. You would fail her.”
He tensed. “Aradour,” he warned darkly.
“Just like your sister and that human. What were their names again?”
“Oh yes. Nolim and Lara.” She spat their names like venom. “You should tell your minion here how you fought nobly for Darigan, but in your loyalty forgot to defend the two you had sworn to protect. How hypocritical that you should care about anything but the war now, when your own negligence lost you your family. They never would have died if you were there, Arrihaz. If you weren’t out there earning the high ranking that you have now, you might’ve been at home at save them.”
It swirled around him like a swarm of stinging wasps. He had always felt their loss like it was his fault-- the blame had crushed him every day. And now Aradour flung his silent fears back at him, a weapon against his guilt.
She was right.
He had been fighting, for them-- for his family, for all he ever cared about. How could he have known that a few Meridell troops would get up to the citadel and burn down soldier’s houses? No, if he had been there, he could have stopped them. He could have saved Nolim and Lara. But instead, they were gone now. And he hadn’t been there.
It was all his fault.
“It wasn’t his fault!” Brai shouted, jabbing the dagger closer against Aradour’s side. “He couldn’t have possibly known that would happen!”
Aradour cackled at her. “Arrihaz has always been one of us! He’s so busy being an outstanding leader than he has become a failure at everything else. He’s good for nothing more. And now that he’s even failed at being in this army,” she added, smirking coldly at Arrihaz, “he is nothing.”
“Shut up!” Brai yelled. She brandished her dagger at Aradour. “I’m warning you!”
“Oh please!” The Kougra sniggered. “You couldn’t stab me.”
Brai hesitated. And that was all it took. In a flash, Aradour had whipped around and knocked the dagger out of her paw, sending it spiraling far out of reach into the trees. “You’re even weaker than he is,” she cackled, shoving Brai back.
She bashed into a tree, gasping as she was pinned to the trunk. Aradour snarled in her face, pinning her under two sets of razor sharp claws.
Something in Arrihaz’s head clicked into place in a matter of seconds.
It suddenly made sense, what Brai could possibly see in him to have so much faith. He was nothing like Aradour. He had never wanted to hurt anyone. He only did because that was what he was trained and told to do. For Nolim and Lara, his family, because that’s what made them proud. He was protecting them in the only way he could that day.
It had been an accident.
Brai had seen all that. She had seen the hurt, the uncertainty, and even more importantly, the good in him. This war was wrong. They had to stop it. It was leaders like Kass governing perfectly good people and changing them into fighting machines.
Now, with Aradour’s claws on his friend, he wondered if even she could be cruel enough to kill her own soldier and the single kindest person he had ever met. Was she capable of that? He looked into her darting eyes.
Yes. She was.
To be continued...