93 93. Lorna
Lorna pulled the hood of her cloak in closer as she rode along-side Gareth on the dusty path. He never strayed far from her side these days, and for that, she was grateful. The conventicle was due to arrive in a week's time, but they had enough time to go out on a short scouting mission.
Autumn was well on it's way to Ovandale, she noted, as a cooling breeze cut through the light fabric of her cloak. Ibudal's climate seemed to be different than here, the leaves would not begin to turn there for another few weeks, but already Lorna could start to make out tinges of red and orange in the trees along the dirt road.
Autumn had always been her favorite season as a girl, but her appearance did not as she grew older. Lorna started to resent nature's ability to shift and change while she remained forever stagnant. Both her looks and circumstances were fated to stay the same under the Ibudali army's contract.
Now, as her horse galloped in even time with Gareth's, Lorna found that she was looking forward to the changing of seasons. Since arriving at Agremonth and then Ovandale, it was becoming easier to shed the weight of what she once carried. The mark that detailed her neck, so noticeable and glaring, was gone and with it, the constant feeling of being trapped.
Every decision was now hers to make. Gareth may be at her side, but at any time, if she decided she didn't want him there, Lorna knew he would take his leave without argument. As she let her eyes rove over his sculpted shoulders and up to his strong jaw, Lorna doubted she would ever feel that way though.
The wind whipped his sandy-colored behind him, and in the waning afternoon light, she thought he looked every bit the honorable knight from her childhood storybooks. When their horses rounded the next bend, Lorna's let out a soft 'oh' at the sight before them.
The sea before them was vast and shimmering, stealing the breath from her lungs. Gareth slowed his horse at the edge of the road to take in the view, and Lorna followed. He dismounted from the saddle and held out his hand to help her down from her horse.
Lorna accepted gratefully, they had been riding for weeks now, but she still felt sore from the saddle. Her tolerance was increasing day by day, but a helping hand was always welcome.
"The town is not much further ahead, according to the directions Nim gave us. It's beautiful here, though, isn't it?" He said softly.
Lorna nodded and walked with Gareth to the edge of the sand. Usually, when Gareth stopped like this, he wanted to talk about something. She couldn't imagine what though, it seemed they had discussed every topic under the sun since Talmot had been killed. Knowing that the general's body lay cold and unmoving an ocean away had opened the floodgates for Lorna. Words started tumbling out of her mouth when she first sat with Gareth and had slowly ebbed as her body and will became stronger.
Then he had begun talking with her. She listened to stories of his childhood and time with the Ibudali army, about finding Nim and traveling the world with her in the last few months. Lorna had never enjoyed listening to others speak, always content to be the center of attention, but with Gareth, her ability to hear others grew.
Lorna thought she would never grow tired of hearing Gareth's voice, but this afternoon he was quiet. She watched as his muscled legs forced their way through the sand and tiptoed behind him. Some things were still ingrained from her time with Talmot, and treading lightly was one of them.
Some habits were harder to break, as well. Lorna was still working on not flinching when touched as well as keeping her chin held high. When Talmot amended her contract, Lorna had lost something of herself in the coming weeks. She began to focus her gaze on the ground, and it just seemed more comfortable to watch where her feet were going. The alternative meant enduring looks of either pity or disdain, depending on the company.
Slowly, and with Gareth's help, Lorna was regaining her lost dignity.
They stood in companionable silence for a time, content to watch the waves roll into the surf. Gareth turned to smile down at her, his blue eyes meeting her brown ones with affection. He didn't touch her often, knowing how it sent a wave of panic through her, but his expressions were always kind.
"Where do you think you will settle once we have won the war?" he asked her.
Lorna swiped at a lock of vibrant red hair that had blown into her eyes, "I am not sure yet. I suppose I hadn't thought of it. Either that or I don't expect to survive."
Gareth chuckled, "So grim, Lorna. Of course, we will survive, and we will win too."
Lorna pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him, "How can you be so optimistic? The odds are decidedly against us and both in numbers and skill. It is a virtually impossible task to free the witches in Ibudal and usurp the King."
"Overthrowing Undair may not be necessary. Caroline could be successful in petitioning him for their freedom." Gareth was still smiling, and as much as she found the trait annoying, she also found it equally endearing.
"Doubtful," Lorna snorted.
"Then why fight at all, Lorna? Why ride with me to recruit men and women to join our cause? If our endeavor is so futile, why not hide away in a cabin somewhere in Mera? After everything you have been through, no one would blame you for seeking out a quiet life."
Gareth eyed her with a steady gaze, studying her face. Lorna wondered what he was looking for behind her eyes, and she supposed it was nothingness he found. The darkness of a cold void still lingered within her but slowly dissipating with the fire lit within her. She felt his fingers brush against the back of her hand, and even though her heart began to race with anxiety, she did not pull away.
Staring into Gareth's eyes now, she realized they were more of a gray than blue, like the sea before them. "One does not need to be optimistic to carry hope," she said so quietly it was almost a whisper, "I have spent my life as a tool. My only use was for another person's gain. First the Academy, then the army, and finally Talmot, used me as they saw fit. This cause we are fighting for is bigger than you or I, and even if our chances are small, it is still worth fighting for."
"And dying for," Gareth said simply.
Lorna refused to look down when his hand encircled hers tentatively. She couldn't imagine the brave man before her being nervous, but perhaps he had not always been the warrior that stood before her. She could feel a slight tremor move through their interlocked fingers. Lorna wasn't sure how long they stood hand in hand by the sea, but by the time they were back on their horses and riding into the town, the sun was almost completely hidden beyond the horizon.
The seaside village was still bustling even in the evening hours. Fisherman from the docks were ambling about the town square while women ushered children inside for baths and bed. They would begin recruiting in the morning, Lorna supposed, but there was still a chance Gareth could plant the seed of rebellion in Ibudal in the minds of those drinking at the inn.
Lorna let Gareth help her from her horse again. This time the panic at being touched slightly lessened. They handed the reigns off to the stablehand who smiled at them both broadly, bidding her goodnight with a slight bow.
Dressed in a simple dress that Nim told her belonged to her granddaughter, Lorna thought she was the person anyone would bow to but felt her heart warm none the less at the gesture. As Gareth followed her into the inn's common room, Lorna noticed for the first time that no one's eyes drifted to her neck, searching for the tattoo the had defined her for so long.
A stout woman with a hook nose and rosy cheeks greeted them while wiping her hands off her clean white apron. She gave Gareth an appraising look followed by a small smile and then greeted Lorna as if she were a long lost cousin.
"'Allo dearie and welcome! The name's Martha. What brings you to ma' inn tonight? Would you be likin' a room for you and yer 'usband?" The innkeeper grinned.
"He's not-, I mean-" Lorna stammered. She couldn't deny the warmth growing in her chest at the woman's assumption.
"We are not married," Gareth said, the laughter in his voice breaking through his words.
"Two rooms then!" Martha yelled, but after giving them both another glance over, she changed her mind. "One room, two beds!" and gave Lorna an exaggerated wink before scuttling off to prepare the lodgings. This time she joined in with Gareth's laughter
"Here," Lorna said quietly enough that only Gareth would hear her.
"Here, what?" he asked, leaning in with his face so close to hers she could make out the stubble of his beard beginning to grow in a light brown that was nearly blonde.
"When we will the war, I want to stay here. In Ovandale," she told him.
His fingers interlocked with hers again, and this time the panic was only a slight nagging tucked far away in the back of her mind.
"Me too," Gareth told her before they ventured off to their one room with two beds.