This inactivity was driving her insane.
Arms crossed, Bharia glared at the open window, the gentle breeze barely reaching the bed in which she was imprisoned. The seasons didn’t change in Queenstor, and it was as warm as it had been seven months ago when first she had been brought to this room and where she was now bound.
What at first she had thought to be inconsequential injuries had turned serious, her left leg broken in three places, her right arm in one, and the wound on her right thigh cut closer to an artery than any healer preferred. She’d spent a week asleep in a glass coffin, an exorbitant cost but as guardian to the princess she warranted such. Broken bones had knitted, flesh had been repaired, and torn muscles had been made strong once more. The coffin had accelerated her healing and when it was determined she would heal without it, she’d been taken from it and placed in this room. And so she’d remained for seven months, inching towards wellness.
These last few days she’d begun again exercises to strengthen her muscles, lax from disuse, but it was harder than she supposed. Her leg would never move right again, the scar tissue too extensive, but the healers had assured her she could compensate for the restricted movement and it would not affect her abilities as guardian. The princess herself still slept, locked within the glass coffin that kept her alive. Stahg had told her the healers looked to wake her soon, that her healing was almost complete.
She glared resentfully at the floor. She had the healer’s permission to walk for minutes at a time, but the effort tired her and the healers wouldn’t allow anything more. She was guardian and should be able to rise beyond the limits of flesh.
The door to her chamber opened. Stahg entered, his eyes downcast. Her heart leapt and then began a rapid tattoo. Starved for the sight of him, she drank him in. They had not spoken much since the attack. He visited her daily, but his visits were limited to less than half of the hour and he had returned to his taciturn self, as if those months they had spent together had never happened. She struggled to sit with her back against the bed head and gave him a tense smile.
He did not return it, his features without expression as he regarded her left ear. “She is awake.”
She frowned. He did that frequently. He never met her gaze direct, always regarding her cheek or her forehead or somewhere over her shoulder. She had not noticed at first, focussed on managing the pain, but as pain receded, her awareness rose and Stahg…he did not meet her gaze.
Then, his words made sense. Her throat seized. “Thalia?”
He nodded sharply.
Emotion welled in her, threatened to spill. She jerked her gaze to her hands, biting her lip to keep it from expression. Thalia was awake. Finally, after all these months, she was awake. “And she is well?”
“Disoriented. Confused. But well.”
Biting her lip harder, she nodded sharply. The small pain distracted her, holding the tears that threatened at bay. Since her accident, her emotions were never far from the surface, erupting at the oddest of times. Thalia being well should be cause for celebration, not a time for tears.
A fiercer pain stabbed her. Pulling back the covers, she rubbed at the scar snaking down her leg from thigh to ankle. The healers had need to cut her open before they could mend her broken bone, setting it with metal and mending her flesh with thread and then the coffin. Strangely, the wound on her right thigh that had almost taken her life was barely noticeable.
Slowly, the pain eased its grip, becoming again manageable. With a sigh, she lifted her hand and stretched her fingers.
Stahg’s eyes were locked on her leg.
Following his gaze, she studied the scar. It was ugly, a riot of purple and red that ruched her skin. They both wore numerous stories upon their skin, a legacy of a life spent in protection and conflict. “Another tale etched in flesh.”
His gaze jerked to hers. She smiled ruefully. Slowly, his expression collapsed. Step staggered, he came to her, laying down beside her on the bed and carefully gathering her in his arms. He buried his face in her neck, his grip almost desperate as his great body began to shake.
Her hand shook as she stoked his back while her other smoothed his hair. She had never seen him so…destroyed. Never. “Stahg?”
He did not respond, instead gripping her tighter.
“Stahg?” Her voice rose, panic striking her.
He was mumbling something into her skin. Straining, she couldn’t make out his words but he repeated it like a chant, like a mantra, as if to assure himself of its truth.
Breath stuttering, her fingers convulsed, digging deep into his back. “Stahg, what is it? What is wrong?”
He pulled back. Tears wet his cheeks, emotion etched deep into his skin. A trembling hand cupped her head, his fingers stroking her skin as if to reassure himself. “You are well.” His forehead touched hers. “Gods damn all, you are well. You almost died. So easily, you could have gotten worse instead of better and then you would have… I wouldn’t… Bharia.” He took a deep, shuddering breath, his hand running over her shoulder, her arm, back and again.
She stroked his back, making soothing noises, hiding her panic as best she could. This was not Stahg. Stahg did not show emotion. Stahg did not worry. He was stoic and unreadable, and she had never seen him so, never seen such naked emotion shape his features.
“You could have died, Bharia.” His voice was stronger now, more the tone she knew. “You could have died, and I would have been without you.” He smoothed hair from her face. “How can I ever be without you?”
“You aren’t without me, Stahg.”
He exhaled shakily. “I love you.”
Her mind froze. She had not— She didn’t think—
“I love you, Bharia. You mean everything to me. I don’t remember my life without you in it.” He took a breath, and it shuddered. “I do not care if you do not feel the same. I had to tell you.”
What—He did not know? How could he not know? “Stahg—”
“Maybe one day you will, but I could not allow another moment without telling you. I would spend every moment of my life with you, should you allow it. I would father your children, should you allow it. I would be by your side, your champion, your friend, your lover, should you allow it.”
A lump rose in her throat, even as it mingled with annoyance. Why now was he verbose, when all his life he had been taciturn? And of course he said perfect, wonderful things, words she didn’t want to interrupt even as she wanted to scream at him to stop, to allow her to tell him she loved him, too.
“I know our lives are not calm. I know you will again face danger, and I would not keep you from it. We are guardians, and it is our duty and our honour to serve the princess. I only—” He took a breath. “It is not easy to see you harmed. It never has been.”
“I do not take unnecessary risks and I know you do the same. My head knows you are cautious, and skilful, and any harm that befalls you is an anomaly. I know this with my head. My heart….” He rubbed a hand over his face. “My heart urges me to keep you safe, even as I know you are not Bharia if you are not guardian. I—”
“I love you,” she interrupted.
His gaze searched hers. In one fluid motion, he cupped the back of her head and his lips took hers.
She returned his kiss, her arms going about him, telling him without words he was her all, her everything, that she never wished to be without him either.
They parted, and his lips trailed over her brow, her cheekbone, her jaw. Her eyelids fluttered as emotion again overwhelmed, such that it almost could not be contained. “Why did you speak now?”
He paused. “I did not mean to burden you. You still heal—”
She placed a finger on his lips. Silent blue eyes watched her. She removed her finger. “Why now? You have these last months said little. It was so I began to believe I had imagined we were together.”
He flushed. “I could not say anything. I could hardly look at you without remembering… And you were healing, Bharia.”
“Why now, then?”
His gaze drifted to her leg. “Your scar. It reminded me…You could have…” Closing his eyes, he drew a shuddering breath.
She cupped his cheek, traced his brow with her forefinger. “So we are together now.”
He leaned into her touch. “Yes.”
“We will tell all.”
His lips quirked. “Yes.”
“Your family, the guard, the warden—” She squeaked as he tickled her.
He stopped immediately. “Did I hurt you?”
“No.” She curled into his side. His hand stroked her back, the fingers of his other mingling with hers. “I will need help.”
His fingers stilled.
“With my leg. The healers tell me the damage will impair my movement. I think they have never met a guardian, but…I will need your help.” Stomach churning, she swallowed the small voice that said she should do it herself, that she was complaining by asking even as she knew she wasn’t. She knew she wanted his help and she knew he wanted to give it. She bit her lip.
Sweetly, he kissed her, soothing her lip with his tongue. His hand, gentle, twined in her braid as he tipped her head back, kissing her upper lip, her lower, soothing her flesh, making her burn.
Pulling back, he resumed stroking her back. “When will you be ready?”
Blinking, she forced her body to calm. They had all the days of their lives to attend to its needs. “Tomorrow?”
His gaze flicked to her leg and the briefest expression of pain crossed his features. “So soon?”
“I do not wish to wait. With Thalia awake, we will need to return to her side soon, and I have been trapped in this room too long.” She traced a path from his brow to his chin, loving that she could do so. Loving him. “Will you help me?
His lips brushed her temple. “In all ways.”