Sonea was fuming. She was sitting with her back against a huge boulder, her fingertips twitched involuntarily as she watched Akkarin pacing restlessly. The sun traveled across the clear blue of the sky.
In the last four days she and Akkarin had traversed the unwelcoming mountainous terrain in the area parallel to the North Pass and the Fort. Despite Akkarin's earlier assertion that the Ichani wouldn't expect them to stay so close to the pass, they soon encountered signs of the Sachacans' passage and camps. This discovery disturbed Akkarin, he began to suspect that these tracks weren't of the Ichani looking for them, but of a greater force preparing to invade Kyralia. That forced them to detour around and only travel under the cover of darkness.
One day, they narrowly avoided being seen by a slave picking berries in a valley they stopped at for the day. After that they moved higher up to escape detection. While lower down the summer was in full bloom, so high up the winter still reigned. Sonea was miserable; it was freezing and wet. Akkarin cautioned her against using any magic. He said they ought to conserve their strength as much as possible. She could understand the wisdom of that, but she started to resent his unflinching determination when they stumbled upon a raging blizzard. She dreamed about hot, steaming baths she used to enjoy at the Guild. He laughed when she mentioned that to him.
The night after they argued over Sonea's return to the Fort, she wanted to give him the power she had regained that day. He refused at first, saying that it would make little difference. It led to another heated discussion which was resolved only after she had threatened him that she would drench him with stagnant, smelly water from the slough nearby. After she had attacked him with a barrage of magically-directed snowballs during the snow storm (to warm up, of course), he couldn't have any doubt that she wouldn't hesitate to use magic for that purpose. Sonea discovered that the best way to make him be somewhat reasonable was to provoke him with some silly prank that would make him forget their situation. Akkarin accepted her power, in the thrill of victory she gave too much. He sent her to sleep with a mischievous smile. Sonea hurried to remind him that he should wake her up when it was her turn to keep watch.
In the morning Sonea came to realize that she would have to fight for every tiny thing. She was furious, the first thing she did was confront him about his contrary attitude. He offered her a few pathetic excuses that made her roll her eyes in disbelief. Eventually, she took pity on him, Akkarin looked haggard and exhausted. Sonea resolved that she would take the first watch on the next stop to ensure he got some sleep. That was the day they had to return to nocturnal activity. By then, Sonea's climbing skills improved to the point where she didn't lag behind so much anymore. Traveling in silence was menacing and grim so she tried to engage him in conversation about carefree times in Kyralia, but his mood was too dark for that type of chatter.
She tried not to imagine what thoughts made him frown so much. What did he fear would happen to them?
At first light they decided to make camp. Sonea gave him her power, but this time she took care not to exhaust herself. She needed strength to stay awake. Akkarin stared at her in confusion as she sat cross-legged under an outcropping of rock they stopped by. She explained that she would keep watch while he slept.
"Your concern is appreciated but unnecessary," he told her stiffly.
Sonea ignored him. She folded her arms as a sign that she wouldn't be argued with. The healers at the Guild constantly warned the novices of the dangers of using magic to stay awake for too long. She was going to insist that he rested.
Instead, he folded into a ball beside her, wrapped his arms around his knees and stared into the distance with haunted eyes. He was brooding in silence for maybe half an hour, then he shook his head to throw off creeping drowsiness and started talking. Akkarin told her about his days as a novice, of the pranks that he and Lorlen had played on their teachers and classmates.
"That reminds me of Regin a lot," Sonea observed at one point.
He found that extremely amusing.
"Lorlen would surely agree," he remarked.
On demand, she recounted a few of her more daring adventures in Harrin's gang. When she told him that she had stopped hanging out with Cery and the others because her aunt had convinced her that honesty was valuable his face drained of all humour,
"And here you are, a lawless outcast," he said bitterly. "Because of what I did to you."
Although she tried to reject his guilt, to convince him that she had no regrets and that she was proud of him, and of herself as his companion and helper the lighter atmosphere was gone. At noon he took over the watch. She was appalled that she had fallen for his trick. He talked his way out of sleeping with his funny anecdotes. She couldn't believe she actually provided some fire to this venture. Unwillingly, she gave in to her own weariness.
After more than a week without any serious sleep (she supposed he had dozed on horseback just as she had done) Akkarin was barely himself. Sonea suspected she was seeing the first symptoms of his healing powers failing to diminish his overwhelming mental fatigue. He was slow and irritable. Sonea preferred to stay out of his way for the moment. The sky was overcast, without the moon to guide their way every step was precarious. Once, Sonea suggested they stopped and waited until it got a little lighter, but Akkarin refused. She couldn't help thinking that he was afraid he would fall unconscious the moment he no longer needed to put one foot before the other. Sonea couldn't make sense of his struggles. Didn't he trust her?
Somehow, they avoided falling to their deaths, stumbling along the steep ridge in the blackest hours of the night. At first light Sonea halted, Akkarin looked at her fierce expression in obvious dismay. He must have realized she wouldn't be swayed. After giving him her power, she sat against a stone boulder and glowered at him as he paced to and fro before her eyes.
"Are you afraid I would betray you to the Ichani?" Sonea finally exploded. "Is that it?"
Akkarin paused, he blinked at her in genuine shock. His eyes almost failed to open again.
"Of course not," he sighed tiredly. "What makes you think that?"
"You're making yourself sick, Akkarin," she said, her voice rang out with worry and concern. "I'll keep us safe, I promise. You don't have to resist sleep," her eyes burned earnestly. "You can trust me."
Akkarin's brows knitted together.
"I trust you, Sonea," he said quietly. "As no one else."
She looked into his eyes. He seemed very vulnerable and defenseless as he met her gaze. He stood lost in thought for the longest time, but eventually he sighed in defeat and looked away.
"Ah, you're right," he muttered.
He took position against the same boulder, just a few paces away from her. He leaned his head back, sighed and closed his eyes. It took only seconds before his breathing became deep and measured, and his face relaxed. At last, Sonea thought in relief as she watched him sleep after so long.
The peaceful and serene atmosphere brought about by Akkarin's capitulation didn't last as long as Sonea would wish. After a mere couple of hours Akkarin moaned. His face became tense, his eyes roved uneasily under his closed eye lids. An expression of pain and fear twisted his features.
A nightmare, Sonea realized with dismay. Suddenly, she understood that his resistance didn't have anything to do with her or their enemies in the real world. Unfortunately, Sonea could do little to protect him from the wraiths of his unconscious mind. Should she wake him? She watched his anguished face, unsure of what to do.
Then, Akkarin shuddered violently and his eyes snapped open, wide and haunted. He saw her watching him anxiously and his face hardened.
"Sonea," he said darkly.
"Yes?" she asked apprehensively.
She was afraid of talking to him in this situation. It was so clear in his expression when he woke up that he hated her witnessing these signs of weakness. However, he wanted to discuss a different topic.
"We cannot delay any longer," he muttered darkly. "We must return to Kyralia."
Sonea stared at him in surprise.
"Has the Guild called you back?" she asked doubtfully.
Akkarin frowned and shook his head.
"No," he sighed. "But if we wait, we may lose our chance to reach Imardin before the Ichani do."
Her eyes became round.
"How will we get past the Fort though?"
He smiled wistfully.
"That would be impossible," he said with conviction. "However, the South Pass isn't guarded, we'll go there."
"And the Ichani?"
Akkarin's face grew serious.
"From the tracks we've seen, they intend to attack the Fort," he muttered.
Sonea drew in a horrified breath.
"And they don't know!"
"What is worse, Lorlen stopped using the ring so I cannot warn him. That worries me, he isn't the sort of person to hold grudges, but now it seems he started."
"Hold grudges?" Sonea hissed, her mind filling with scenarios. "What did you do?"
Akkarin blinked at her innocently, surprised at her tone.
"I don't think I was overly offensive," he said dryly. "I merely refused to console his troubled heart after your fight with the Ichani. He still believes you're dead. They all do. Except of Rothen, of course."
"Rothen?" she asked in confusion. "What of Rothen?"
"Ah, I didn't tell you," he remarked. "After my conversation with Lorlen, I decided to let your mentor know that you were fine," he grimaced. "I've caused him enough grief already."
Sonea was touched.
"Thank you," she said thickly.
Akkarin regarded her solemnly.
"Don't go weepy on me," he teased.
She blinked, trying to keep the sudden moisture in her eyes from spilling over.
"Me? Weepy?" she sniffed.
Akkarin's mouth curved upwards at one corner. He leaned closer to her, and wiped a trickle of tears from her cheeks with his fingers. As he did, he cupped her cheek in his palm, his warm touch sent a shiver of pleasure down her spine. They stared at each other, transfixed in this moment of closeness. Sonea's eyes were bright, and her desires were mirrored on his face. Her mind shut off, she couldn't think. Everything was consumed by unbearable longing. They were only inches apart, and she loathed the distance between them. It happened without a conscious command; her lips pressed against his, and she closed her eyes in contentment. A hand on her cheek tightened, and his breath came out in a moan of pleasure. It was bliss and madness at the same time as their lips moved in synchronization.
After a moment, Akkarin pushed her face away.
"Stop. Stop this," he breathed, his lips trembled. His hands gripped her arms tightly to stop her moving any closer.
"Why?" Sonea asked breathlessly. Her heart was hammering in her chest.
"This is wrong," he closed his eyes.
Sonea sighed and leaned back against the rough stone. He let her go, as if she was a poisonous reptile. She needed a moment to gain control of her unleashed emotions, and it appeared that Akkarin was similarly affected. They sat in loaded silence, glaring in opposite directions.
"Get some sleep, Sonea," he ordered eventually.
She looked up, his face was an emotionless mask. She schooled her own face into a serene expression.
"I wish to discuss something first," she said formally.
Akkarin looked at her sharply.
"And that is?"
Sonea hesitated a moment. Was she brave enough? She took a deep breath and plundered on.
"I think I'm falling in love with you," she confessed and watched his eyes grow wide and wary. She hurried on before her nerve could fail. "And I think that is true for both of us."
Akkarin turned into a statue of marble, he grew so still. Sonea waited for him to say something, but his only reaction was silence. Did she read him wrong? No, the longing and desire she glimpsed in his eyes couldn't be false. She crouched before him, trying to peer into his eyes. He avoided her gaze.
"Akkarin?" she whispered. "Am I wrong?"
He frowned, his forehead lined in worry, but he didn't respond.
Sonea folded her arms across her chest and sighed.
"I didn't think so," she shook her head and laughed self-consciously. "So, what do you suggest we do in this situation? I don't see why we should hold back."
She was gratified to see how his eyes bulged in astonishment at her implied meaning.
"Yes, we feel for each other," he said in a hard voice, regarding her with chilly eyes. "But there's more to consider."
Sonea raised her eye brows.
"I'm too old for you," he said predictably.
It was such a weak argument that Sonea snorted in derision.
"Women in the houses are married off to older men all the time," she reminded him.
Akkarin grimaced, obviously struggling to come up with something more convincing.
"I'm your guardian," he declared soberly.
"Not anymore," she pointed out.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"But if we go back…"
"Will we cause a scandal?" she chuckled. "I'd say they're getting used to that."
"That wouldn't be fair to you," he mumbled darkly.
"Akkarin of Delvin, you are impossibly obstinate," she said crossly. "Especially when you know you're wrong."
He blinked innocently.
"Me?" his lips curled into a playful smile, an expression absent from his features for years. "Well, if anything, we should wash first."
Sonea sniffed and grimaced.
"Good point," she agreed.