This story is by Daniela Llanos and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Some days, Niko wished he could go back to being a cold-blooded murderer. Those days were getting fewer in number but choosing the Godly way was never easy. As he crouched in the bushes, surveying the enemy’s activity, he caressed the intricate pattern on his sword’s hilt. Its curves and crosses were those of his enemy-turned-ally. A shaky alliance it was, yet one that he hoped would bring him out of darkness for good.
He had never cared about anyone else but himself but this time it was different. Helen needed him and if he didn’t pull through, her blood would be on his hands. And his heart.
Leaves rustled around him as a breeze cut through the humid air. Niko took the opportunity to reposition his cramped legs. He had been in the underbrush since dusk, observing the Arwellian camp and he knew which tent held his maiden. No. Not his maiden, he reminded himself. She was no one’s maiden. Least of all a man like him.
He shook his head to chase the heavy thoughts away and focused on the enemy camp. The moon rose, illuminating the clearing while he remained hidden in the deep shadows of the foliage.
In the camp, the rebels’ activity slowed as they slipped into tents without coming back out. Unfortunately, the near full moon put him at risk of discovery the second he stepped out of hiding.
With a barely formed plan, Niko set aside his sheathed sword and dug his bare fingers into the wet earth. The soil was black and he smeared it all over his pale hair and over his sweating neck. The dank smell made his stomach turn as it carried him years back to childhood, to nights locked out of his father’s house. He had relied on the cool dirt to soothe his open wounds as he made dark promises to himself.
For a moment he debated whether to remove his tunic or attempt to cover it. If the golden threads of its cross shone through his ill-prepared camouflage, it would undoubtedly draw attention. Being allowed to wear it was an undeserved privilege he didn’t take lightly. But failure was not an option. He removed the tunic and pressed his lips to the centre of the cross, saying a quick prayer. He quickly buried it in the soft earth, offering it as a minor sacrifice to win the evening’s coming battle.
Niko picked up his sword, inching it out of its protective sheath. Its weight reassured him as his heart pumped harder.
This time, it mattered.
Using his nearly three decades of training, he crept on his belly to the nearest tent, his gaze sweeping the camp as he counted moving shadows.
The tent where she was being held captive stood tall among its beige counterparts. Golden tassels and dragons decorated its fiery red fabric walls. It had once belonged to the king and its presence in the rebel camp was done both to create confusion and to mock the now uncertain rulers of the land.
Niko hugged the shadows and tuned in to low voices coming from just outside the entrance.
“She was a fool to come here alone,” said one.
“King Thaddeus would never let his beloved niece carry out a mission like this,” whispered his companion. “We may face the Korelian army if anything happens to Lady Helen.”
“Aye,” agreed the first.
“Let not a hair on her head be harmed.”
“What about the rest of her body?” This was said with an edge that made Niko’s blood boil.
“We can all taste of her tender flesh in the coming days,” he said. “And our witch’s magic shall erase the memories.”
The conversation ceased at those words. Niko emerged from the darkness and slaughtered both men, their blood quickly soaking into the earth. Grabbing an end of the second man’s shirt, he sliced and ripped a strip of fabric then tucked it into his waistband.
Niko slipped into the tent, muscles tense in case he should encounter another beast willing to defile his Helen. He stood for several seconds, allowing his eyes to adjust to moonlight filtering through the stitches.
Stepping sideways, Niko bumped into something soft and curved. A gasp escaped the figure and Niko reacted swiftly, dropping his sword to pull her into his arms, clamping his hand over her mouth. Her lips were soft, her breath hot on his hand. Through the odour of dirt covering his skin, her scent rose to him, nearly throwing his thoughts into a helter skelter of mindless chaos. That would do no good to save her so he pulled himself together.
“Lady Helen,” he whispered. “It is I, Niko.”
Tension rippling through her as his grip remained firm. Twisting, she managed to grasp his hand, pressing her nails deep into his flesh. His fingers loosened, just enough for her to hiss in the darkness.
“You fool! What are you doing here?” Not exactly a warm welcome, but neither was it unexpected.
“I do not need saving,” she said, “especially from you.”
Her voice was thick with contempt that angered him. The old Niko would not have cared whether she lived or died. Now he was cursed with a conscience that had already started nagging him about the two dead rebels outside. Even worse, he was cursed with feelings he could not explain.
“Get out,” she said, her voice rising. She wriggled, prompting Niko to tighten his grip.
“Not without you.” Niko fought to keep the edge out his voice. He was once again aware of her warmth against him as he bent to whisper into her ear. Tendrils of her hair brushed against his cheek, the intimacy making his adrenaline-fueled heart pump faster.
“You are getting in the way-”
“Of what?” Niko was counting the seconds until someone discovered the corpses he had left outside. Debating with Helen was not part of his plan. “We must leave. Now.”
“You leave,” she hissed. “I am negotiating a truce in exchange for my uncle’s favour.”
Ice worked its way down Niko’s spine. “You are a fool to not see the trap they have set before you.” The rebels meant to use Helen to kill King Thaddeus and his new bride. The war Niko had started had weakened their kingdom’s defences, leaving them vulnerable to threats from these southern savages. And from their earlier conversation, tasting of her flesh was a prize they would partake of. Rage boiled in Niko and his resolve intensified.
“Of course you would say that.” Her voice had risen again and Niko grew nervous.
“I know you don’t trust me,” he whispered, “but you have to believe me, Lady Helen. There is no reason for me to lie. Your uncle sent us both to help their king. These rebels are dangerous.”
“The rebels can be no more dangerous than the man who nearly murdered my uncle. The same man who killed his own king and would have done the same to his daughter if we hadn’t saved her.”
Her words cut through Niko like a dull knife tugging through already bleeding flesh. Tearing and deepening the wound. He wanted to scream at her to stop. But he deserved every bitter drop of regret that filled his stained soul. He had eventually saved King Thaddeus’s life and earned a shadow of his trust. But Helen still refused to believe he had changed.
“I am not the same man I was-”
“You are a liar, Niko.”
Just as she said those words, shouts reached his ears. Without the luxury of time or surprise, Niko made a quick decision. She might despise him forever. But at least she would be alive to do it.
Niko pulled out the strip of cloth he had ripped from the rebel’s shirt. It was damp with sweat but Niko could spare no time to care. Before she could make a sound, he wrapped it around her mouth, tying it with the desperation of a man with everything to lose. Her eyes were wide in the dark as they met his, accusing him silently of treachery. Again.
He slung her over his shoulder and grimaced as she pounded her fists into his back. The enemy entered the tent, just as he slipped beneath the rear with his reluctant maiden in one hand, blood-stained sword in the next.
He was blessed with clouds to hide the moon and aid in their escape as he carried the silently raging woman into the forest. Angry shouts echoed against the trees, drowning out the sound of his hurried steps through thick leaves. Over his shoulder, Helen’s movements ceased. No doubt she was biding her time and he would face her fury when he released her. But tonight he would save her. Perhaps another time she might forgive him.