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Her own blood pounded loudly in her ears and her breath came in sharp, whizzing gasps. The forest whipped past her as she ran, only narrowly avoiding the many obstacles in her way. Branches whipped her across the face, the arms and left stinging scratches in their wake. From the burning sensation in the muscles of her legs, she knew she would not be able to maintain this pace much longer.
And still she heard the hoofbeats of the warhorse behind her, drawing ever closer, even as she tried to shake her pursuer off by changing direction all the time. If he caught her, she knew it would mean her death.
Finally, she skidded onto a small clearing and the hoofbeats trailed off in another direction. She stopped, desperately trying to catch her breath and shake off the numbness creeping up her legs.
As her breathing finally eased, she cast a look around the clearing.
And found herself staring at the point of an arrow.
The knight drew back the bowstring further and stepped out from the underbrush. His dark eyes surveyed the clearing quickly before returning to rest on her.
She couldn't contain a tired, humorless little chuckle as his warhorse came trotting out of the trees. Riderless.
In a gesture of defeat, she held her arms out from her body, palms facing up, to show that she would offer no resistance. Whether it would spare her life, she could not know. She had seen this knight before, the one with the dark marks on his high cheekbones and the braided hair. They called him Death among her people. He was the best fighter among the knights of the great wall, whether it be with his bow or the curved sword he carried on his back. They tried to avoid him, for to cross his path meant to die a swift death.
For the moment, though, he stayed his arrow.
They looked at each other for a long moment. She could only imagine how she would look to him.
Her blonde hair was matted with dirt, braided back, but now in horrible disarray. Blue woad stained her skin and dark tattoos marked her wrists and collarbones. His gaze lingered for a moment on the hunting knife at her hip and the quiver of arrows on her back. Her bow had been lost in the woods earlier during the chase.
The silence was unnerving, only broken by the occasional snorts and quiet whinnies of the horse.
Feeling her resolve crumble, she closed her eyes.
„If you're going to shoot me, then just do it, please."
His rough, deep voice sounded distinctly amused as he answered: „You're begging for death?"
She opened her eyes again. His face remained almost impassive, save for the small smile tugging at the corner of his lips. It was not a comforting sight.
„No", she answered. Her hands had started shaking.
He did not relax the bowstring. „What are doing here, south of the Wall?"
„Hunting", she replied evenly, though her heart pounded ever more loudly. „Better game here than in the North."
„What game? People?"
„Deer", she spat back at him. Now her entire torso was shivering, although it was a warm summer's night. „I am a hunter, not a warrior. Have no fear, Roman."
His expression changed from indifference to anger in a heartbeat.
„I am no Roman!" he growled.
„Then I am not your enemy! What reason do you have to kill me?" Her own voice sounded feeble in her ears and the derisive little smile once more curling his lips showed that he felt likewise.
„Doesn't take many reasons for me to kill a Woad."
He still had neither lowered the bow, nor released the arrow. She tried once more, her every heartbeat a reminder of how fragile life was.
„My name is Caillean."
He relaxed the bowstring a little and shook the shaggy dark hair out of his striking eyes. He had the beauty of a predator, she thought, not unlike the hawk one often saw with him.
„Do you think it matters to me to know the name of the person I kill?" he asked her, but there was a teasing edge to his soft growl.
„No", she replied, dropping her arms to her sides, „but perhaps you'll bury me. And I for one like to know the names of the people I lay in their graves. Just in case I should ever dig yours... what is your name?"
He lowered his bow and the relief made Caillean so weak-kneed that she almost fell to the ground.
His capitvating gaze, however, held her upright as if he had grasped her shoulder.
„Tristan", he answered after a moment of silence. „My name is Tristan."
„Tristan", she repeated, trying the name for herself. „A proud name, befitting a mighty warrior. Will you let me go, then?"
He took a few steps closer to her and it felt as if she was near a bonfire. Then he once more drew his bow and a moment later, an arrow thudded into the ground before her.
„Looks like I shot and missed, eh? Better run then."
Caillean hesitated a moment, then she bent down, pulled the arrow out of the ground and tucked it into her own quiver.
„I won't forget this, Tristan, knight of the Wall," she promised quietly. They shared another glance and he nodded once.
„Neither will I. Caillean."
She watched him as he turned away from her, mounted his horse and made to leave.
Before he disappeared into the darkness of the forest, he turned around and looked back at her over his shoulder. She raised her hand in farewell, and although he made no gesture in return, she knew in that moment that they would meet again.
...to be continued...