The day of the summer solstice, she manages to lose her mount (he's heard her whistle, he doesn't blame it but now that means he's her ride there.) She gives a cheeky smile and he sighs before moving back in the saddle. "I whistled," she begins and Ronin already knows it's a lost cause.
His bird is seasoned (he got him when he was promoted to general), so when he occasionally grips a little too hard on the reins, he doesn't even notice. Tara does. "You're so serious, Ronin." She chides him, her small fingers closing around his wrists. "Don't pull so hard."
Courage, Ronin, he tells himself as he slips his fingers through hers. Friends can hold hands (but he doesn't want to just be friends, and would lay himself across the border of their lands in a bet that she doesn't either.) "Meet me at the edge of the forest tonight."
"Why?" She laughs, "Are you going to teach me how to whistle?"
"I want to talk about something."
"Or we could talk about it now." She points out, managing to turn around in the saddle without knocking them both off. He tries to shift himself backwards to allow for the closer distance, but realises quickly, there's really nowhere else to go. The bird shifts in annoyance at its passengers playing musical saddles, and soon they are in breath's width of each other.
Tara looks accomplished.
"I would," He begins, leaning in until their foreheads are touching and her eyes flutter shut. "But someone lost their bird and made us late." He jerks the reins sharply and pulls them into nosedive, and she clutches his arms so hard there are crescent shaped marks for three days afterwards.
She refuses to stand next to him at ceremony as punishment and Finn eyes him with amusement when he shuffles in alone for the tail end of the speech.
The queen is old and brittle, and Ronin, even in all his loyalty, wonders how she made it long enough to select her successor. She wanders around for what seems like eternity before picking a pod, and Finn shifts with impatience beside him. "That's the one." Finn whispers in his ear. "She'll pick the heir next."
The crowd ripples with soft chatter and he catches Tara talking with the flower djinn that everyone whispers will be the next queen. It isn't long before the queen ambles over and presents the pod to the djinn, and Ronin readies himself to kneel to his new lady.
But then the monarch changes her direction to the left and he can only watch as his world falls apart at the seams.
Tara waits at the edge of the forest until dawn.
He never comes.
Ronin manages to avoid her for three weeks until his shift for the guard duty arises. It's eleven minutes past the time she should retire and he hopes, maybe, she has changed plans.
But then soft footsteps reach his ears and he wonders why he even tried hoping.
She's beautiful, though he's always known that, in her new queen attire and he stares for longer than he should before clearing his throat."Your majesty," He breathes, dropping to one knee.
"No, Ronin." Tara falls to her knees before him, reaching for his hands. "Not to you, not ever."
He wants to comfort her, take her hands and laugh about the time she couldn't mount her bird properly or when they cut lessons, but now she's the queen and everything is different.
"Things don't have to change, we can still be like we used to." She tells him and he wants to believe her, but Ronin has grown up quickly in the time he has lost her. He knows better. The general rises and offers his hand to her, releasing it quickly when she reaches her full height.
"Everything changes. The forest changes, and," He traces her collarbone where her uniform would have reached, now where the leaf hemline begins. "You will change as well, my lady. You already have."
He remembers the girl that joined leafmen training with him boasting that she would be giving him orders one day.
Ronin never thought it would be like this.
"Not here," Tara tells firmly, taking his hand and placing it over her heart. "Tell me I'm wrong and I won't talk of it again, but tell me I'm wrong because I am, not because you think this is."
"I am a commoner, your majesty." He tells her, pulling his hand away.
"There are no commoners to me, Ronin, least of all you. If queens are allowed to fall in love, or is that also forbidden, Ronin?"
The general inhales sharply, thinks carefully, and weighs his choices before answering. He thinks again of the girl before she was queen, when she was just Tara, when they would race birds and spar with sticks and smile like it was the sincerest way of communication. He loves that girl, and more importantly, loves his queen. "I would never tell you how to live your life, your majesty."
"But you would advise me."
"I would," He admits slowly, knowing full well no matter what way this conversation were to go, it will still not end in his favour. "I would advise the queen to review her choices carefully."
"And if your queen has?" Tara challenges, and a frown settles once more upon his face. She hates that frown that has stolen his smile, hates the face that has defeated written all over it. "Say it then," she breathes, "Tell me what you what you wanted to tell me all those nights ago when you promised to meet me."
He meets her eyes, and wishes more than anything, things were different. "You know what I was going to tell you."
"I have waited years for you, Ronin. I have waited and waited for you―"
"You know I can't, Tara." His voice is hollow, and even as he whistles for his mount and her eyes burn with anger and unshed tears at his cowardice, she forces herself to think that maybe it's time she believes it too.
The day she was scared the most was not the day she died.
It's the third season of her reign and when word reaches her that her general has gone missing, it is old news. The trees told her, the flowers console her and the vines strangle and clench with her worry. The boggins, they say, and she is filled with anger over what they have taken from her forest and her heart.
The troops assemble, gleaming with armour and weapons and infallible pride for their lady and their land and leave to find him.
She would feel it if he were dead, the forest would feel it. It would wither and decay with her sorrow. The last queen's words echo in her head that a queen's life is a lonely one. She shouldn't have pushed, shouldn't have assumed. You fool, she thinks angrily at what her arrogance has given her.
Word begins to spread like tiny weeds that grow and strangle other plants that Ronin has fled his duty.
She waits, and the sentries return with nothing. Another fleet leaves and she returns to her duty, because her duty is to the forest, and not one man (but she waits for the day where she believes matters are as simple as that.)
He returns three days later with Finn, half dead and comatose.
"Broken ribs and rot, your majesty." The healer tells her, the old djinn taking her hand and patting it kindly.
"I want to see him."
The djinn looks uncomfortable at the request. "It would not please your lady. It is unkind to the eyes, but if you insist." Tara does, and is led to a small room in a hallowed out tree.
He looks frail, so unlike the strong man he is, with spider web gauze stained with dried blood around his ribs and blackened skin staining his arms. Nausea descends on her as she takes a seat next to his bed.
It smells like death.
She takes his hand, kisses his wrist and feels hot tears at the edge of her eyes when she feels a slow, but steady pulse beneath her lips. There's still hope, she thinks, and is thankful, so thankful, for another chance.
It is two more weeks before he opens his eyes, and when she visits, he calls her name so softly she can barely hear him.
"I―" She stops, so many things she wants to tell him, how sorry she is, how she wants to turn back time to when they were still them and not a queen and her general. But she can't turn back time, and she can't abandon her people.
"He ambushed us on a scouting mission, he had one of our own already there. I had to wait until the soldier could move again before I could plan our escape. Of course then this snail found us, and a slug that claim they know something about pods, and we had to get them out of there too and..." He trails off because he had thought switching subjects, pretending that talk never happened would be easier, and it isn't. "I'm sorry," He offers, quietly, taking her hand.
"I never should have―"
"No, Tara," He says firmly. He wants to tell of his thoughts when he thought he dying, that if he had the chance, he'd take it, he'd tell her. "I'm sorry for pushing you away and I'm sorry for not doing this when I should have." His fingers twine around hers and he reaches up to tilt her chin, waiting, watching for her to change her mind, and when she doesn't, he kisses her.
Mub, the slug that he begins to wish he left back in Wrathwood, hits on Tara exactly once.
He pulls him aside, whispers four words to him and the slug shrinks back and gives him a sideways glance that reminds him of a sparrow that has dropped a worm midflight.
Ronin feels slightly accomplished the rest of the day.
It's hard to keep his thoughts collected when on guard duty. It's peaceful now with rumours that Mandrake has found a mate, and Ronin is content with the quiet time while he has it. They sneak kisses when they can, hold hands when he thinks no one is watching, and she tests his resolve every chance she can.
She sneaks her fingers against the inside of his thighs during dinner and he nearly flips the table in surprise. He chokes out a poorly thought excuse (he thinks maybe he said something about hearing a raven, but can't remember) and she smirks at him the rest of the meal.
"The queen requests you meet in her chambers, sir." A soldier tells him on his way to his mount, and for a moment, he is concerned he has slipped, or that someone, somewhere has seen them. He really just wants to leave before he runs into a smug Finn who will probably question him for the next forty minutes about dinner. But the soldier looks genuine under his scrutiny and when he dismisses him, he scurries off as if he had expected to be punished for something (Ronin knows that this particular soldier was late for scout duty ― he lets it go.)
When he reaches her chamber, she is turned from him, talking to a violet. (She's started that recently, and he's walked in on a few conversations at his expense.) "Ronin," She calls, and he thinks he should know better than to think her unaware. "Are you going to stand there all day?"
"I have a lot of admire from here."
She laughs, and it sounds like bells on a clear day. "Perhaps then when you are done, you would help me undress."
He freezes mid-step towards her and thinks of all the reasons why this is potentially, if not indefinitely, a terrible idea. "Your hand maidens would disapprove."
"But they aren't here, are they?" Tara challenges, her head held high and proud before turning and lifting her hair for him.
His hands that are sure and steady in battle are clumsy as he messily unties the knot of vines and leaves. Her breathing is steady, her skin smooth underneath his fingers as she hums lightly. He wonders if she would be able to undo it with her ability, or if it only worked when the plants were alive. Was the dress alive―He paused, realising he had only worsened the knot with his ponderings and gets back to work. When he is finished, after what feels like the most agonisingly long minutes of his life, he takes a step back a respectable distance and takes a steady breath. In, out.
"Was that so bad?" The queen asks, as she tends to the flower.
Ronin is not stupid enough to answer in so many words, and prides himself for looking away from her. "I believe a hand maiden would have sufficed."
She smiles again, closing the distance between them, and he is reminded of the fine line they walk.
"The people are enjoying the summer solstice, who would want to miss the celebration?" She returns to her violet at the last moment, touches it softly, and watches, satisfied as it blooms within her touch. "Yes, no one except for Ronin. He's too serious to enjoy things like these."
His frown deepens further, if possible, and he crosses his arm in a silent rebuttal. "You should at least have guards by the door."
"I have you, don't I?" She whispers something to the flower as a goodbye and leans into him, her breath hot against his neck.
You'll always have me, he wants to tell her, but instead, touches her cheek and lowers his lips to her forward. It's all he can give, and less than she wants. "I must go. The entire group will be telling tales with ale around a fire, and I will be lucky if I see half of them tomorrow morning."
"Stay," Tara says, taking his hand, her eyes dark and unafraid. Her slender fingers twine with his and raise his hand to her heart.
"I can't." Her fingers loosen around his and for a moment, he foolishly believes, for once, he's won against her.
"Even if your queen commands?"
"A queen wouldn't command an unwilling person."
She returns the smile, broadly and unapologetic. "No, I wouldn't, because I don't think you are unwilling." He opens his mouth to make a dry quip about her motives during dinner and how this relates very strongly to their current conversation but she kisses him hard before he can begin.
When she steps back, she smiles again, a smile full of love, so much love he thinks that one heart could not possibly hold so much of it.
"Only for tonight."
"If that's what you truly want, Ronin." She says, and when she lifts her gaze to his, the leaves of her dress unfurl and pool around her feet.
"No," Ronin breathes, his hands tracing her bare arms to her wrists as she leads him to her bed. "It's not."
He kisses her forehead after he gets his breath back, and rolls himself over to her side.
"You lied about your dress," He finally says, and she shakes beside him with laughter.
"How else would I get you here?" Tara asks, no longer content to simply lay there and lets her hand drift down his body. (He's thankful he's not near a table, and bites back a groan.)
"I would still be here." He tells her, steadying his voice even as she continues lower, and watches as her face softens and when their foreheads touch, kisses her as deeply as he can to tell her all the other words he cannot bring himself to say.
The edge of their land is a desolate place. His hummingbird tenses under him and he understands his fears, and pats him lightly on the neck. Deep down, they are all scared, but patrol is patrol and no one skips duty, not even Ronin.
They fly in impeccable form today, and he thinks foolishly, it might be a perfect day, but then an arrow catches one their birds and as the rider plummets to the ground, Ronin is reminded that nothing is perfect.
The boggins come in the hundreds, and even as his troops are picking them off, it seems like a futile effort.
And it is futile effort until he spies Mandrake out in the open, easy to pick off as the boggin takes his own solders down like flies. It would take them months, if not years, to find a suitable replacement for leadership. His son would be too young to take the throne; they would be lost without a leader.
His form is perfect as he notches his arrow, fingers to his cheek, and lets it fly.
But as a female boggin pushes Mandrake aside, he realises sickeningly, he's miscalculated one thing. Her head snaps back as the arrow buries itself into her neck. She drops like a stone into a pond, and even if he wanted to, Ronin knows nothing can be done. It's a fast, merciful kill, even if it's for the wrong person.
Ronin feels sick. The ground trembles with dark lord's anguished cry, pebbles, twigs and rotting flesh and bones sliding and collecting into pools of rot. He turns and whistles for his bird, grabbing the saddle and mounting in one fluid movement.
Mandrake's rage in unquenchable.
He finds his men strewn about like pieces of glass after shattering a window. The troops rally and aid the sick and bury the dead, and even after finding his losses are less than originally thought, his heart is heavy.
"Another soldier, sir."
The man has a shaggy brown hair, and if he wasn't on his death bed, Ronin probably would have contemplated berating him over his appearance. His eyes are hazel and sunken and even a blind fool could see he wasn't long for this world.
The general kneels and takes his hand, tells him to name any last requests, because in the end, that's all he can do.
He tells him about his wife and son and all the things he wishes he could have seen. His breathes are ragged and Ronin has no delusions that this death isn't a slow and painful one. When his last breaths come, he begs him in a quiet, broken voice one last request. His fingers slip to the ground and Ronin rises with what seems like the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He collapses into her waiting arms, and she cradles him, kissing away his pain and when that isn't enough, offers herself to him in a way only he will ever know.
That soldier's son is named Nod, and even as Ronin thinks, what kind of name is that? and Tara somehow reads his thoughts and gives him a vine slap across his calf for the trouble, he still knows it's his duty.
Nod is loud and boisterous, and in-between his complaining about how hummingbirds are for girls ―Ronin glares at him hard for that― and that Ronin is not his dad and never will be, somewhere, deep down, Ronin feels there's a sense of promise for this boy.
He trains him hard until neither of them move properly by the end of the night (he is too old for this) for weeks, and weeks, and when Nod is accepted into the leafmen, Tara finds his hand in the crowd and tells him she never had a doubt.
Both Ronin and Nod admit years later to each other that, they in fact, did.
"Are you asking me to marry you?" She raises an eyebrow like it's a fine art, and smiles wide.
"I'm not insinuating you need a king, or a consort―" He fumbles over his words in a way that reminds him of Nod, and that itself is embarrassing enough to make him stop right there.
His heart drops, he's such a fool, she's a queen and he's just a soldier. "I should have never asked. Forgive me―" She kisses him, and he thinks it is salt to a wound, but kisses her back fiercely because even if he can't have her hand, maybe she can still have his heart.
"I can't wait," She breathes, forehead resting against his. He can't even bring himself to frown at her twisted words as her smile is infectious. "Why so serious, Ronin? Did you really think I would say no?"
"Yes." He chokes out, takes her hands and kisses her knuckles, and smiles so brightly, Tara can't even place the last time she has seen it.
They go in secret to Nim to get married. It's quick and simple, but it's theirs, and that's all he needs. The caterpillar is overly excited and to Ronin, is a giant ham throughout the entire affair, but he ordains them (even if he isn't certified, he still isn't sure whether he is or isn't.)
"And according to the law, you must consummate―oh." The little yellow bug looks up from the scroll with suspicious look at the leafman.
Ronin has the decency to look embarrassed. "I didn't think everything was recorded."
"I think this calls for happy hour!" Nim announces, thankfully disregarding the comment as lit fireflies scatter into the night. No one questions happy hour, and the citizens pour in like ants to forgotten food. The music is loud and for once he's thankful because he uses it as an excuse to ignore Finn when he pesters him about the stupid smile he has plastered over his face.
The leafman watches his wife greets her subjects, and after the party is finished, returns her to her room. "You aren't staying?" She teases, slipping her hands between the pieces of armour and loosening them.
They're still the in the hallway, and he's fairly sure he can hear the clicking of her handmaiden's heels. "Your handmaidens are coming," He points out, as if he believed that fact alone would persuade her.
"To my chambers, not yours." She rebuts, and he can already picture the panic, if in the morning, no can find the queen.
"I think that is terrible idea, your majesty." Ronin breathes, pulling her closer to him, helping her small fingers undo the clasps.
She smiles as she kisses his neck, before peering up at him with eyes that no longer had any right to look as innocent as they did."And yet no argument, Ronin?"
He kisses her hard, cupping her face with one hand, the other catching her tiny wrist. "Not this time." The general says, taking her in his arms before launching himself out the window. Her shriek of laughter disappears into the night as his hummingbird rights itself underneath their weight.
It's a full moon that night ― and as she arches and shudders beneath him, he tells her he loves her for the first time.
She chides him that it took him so long to finally say it, and as she coaxes him onto his back and nudges his hips with hers, tells him she's known longer than he has.
After all is said and done, the forest saved and balanced restored, his heart is empty.
When he returns after escorting the queen to her chambers (new ones, she's a child, he doesn't want memories of Tara, of them or their love making every time he frequents her room) he returns to his own room.
It's small and bare, and doesn't feel like home. He doesn't bother drawing back the covers before falling into the bed. He's sore, tired and lost and when he reaches under his pillow and feels a pressed flower he nearly throws it away out of anger.
Instead, he cradles it in his hands and reads the message attached. It has three words, not the three most would assume for a last goodbye.
Smile for me.
Suddenly, he's angry, angrier than he had been at Mandrake or at himself for letting her come to harm. She knew this was coming, she knew and she let herself be taken. She left him alone and lost, and knew all along.
He doesn't sleep that night, instead stares at the night sky and replays memories upon memories in his head.
The second time he visits the professor's, it is to discuss acorn helmets. Nod thinks this a hilarious notion and voices it throughout the entire trip there until Ronin points out M.K might be offended. The rest of the trip involves imitations and variations of his slow motion talking and fumbling that break the two men into laughs.
It turns out the acorn helmet isn't as ridiculous as they think, and after, more so because of Nod's insistence, their visits become more and more frequent. They leave the young couple to themselves (Ronin still teases Nod afterwards to the point where the poor boy can hardly get his bird to fly straight) and the two older men talk. The professor, though a stomper and yes, slow and bumbling, is an interesting man. He talks of armour, weapons, rules and one day, his wife.
It's a rainy day, not that it matters, when he brings it up. He talks of their marriage, their divorce (Ronin doesn't know that word) and how he thought everything would be better if he just gave it time.
"Maybe it she had had longer-" Bomba begins, and his face crumbles to the point where he can continue no longer. He presses his long fingers to his face, wiping his tears and leaving his face an unflattering red against his ginger hair.
Ronin thinks a long time before speaking. He thinks of all the time they could have had, all the things he could have done differently. If he was faster, or stronger, maybe―
"Maybe is a terrible word," He tells the man, finally, and when he looks into his eyes, he sees an understanding.
The professor talks of his wife. He shows pictures and videos, and while their kind has no such technology to that effect, Ronin in turn describes his queen in every detail. They talk about trivial things, memories, times when she had made him mad enough to storm off and not return until dawn and when he confesses that he misses her ―he misses her so much― the tears that land on his fingers are no surprise.
Bomba smiles, a sad, broken smile, and offers his fingertip. The leafman takes it, and falls to his knees. He sobs until there are no more tears, until he feels sick and weak and when he finally rises, he feels that maybe in losing something, he has gained instead.
He thinks of Nod, his soldiers, the professor and his strong willed, compassionate daughter, his new queen, struggling to find her place ―how she was trying so, so hard―and Tara's beautiful forest and how she would be happy to see it now ― to see him now.
Ronin smiles, and finds it's not nearly as hard to do as he thought it was, and can feel it in the wind, in her invisible touch, that's all she ever wanted for him ― to find peace and to try, once again, to be happy.
There's that smile, he can almost hear her say, and he believes it.
I had this stuck in my head after my sister told me they were 'totally married'. I feel like I'm the only who thought they had a relationship pre-movie as opposed to simply dancing around each other until the movie takes place.