Finally, here is the epilogue. Thanks to everyone who've been reading and reviewing since I started this fic-it's been really appreciated! :) Now it's finished, and I can finally hit the 'complete' button on it. Well, it's been quite a ride, and I hope you got as much out of reading it that I did writing it. ;) So thanks again everyone for reading!
Anna awoke to darkness.
Curled in Jarred's arms, she fought back a shiver. Even after so many months imprisoned, the darkness still terrified her. Unlike the typical darkness of the night, it was filled with malice and carried the stench of despair. It was dark, so dark. Pitch black. It felt as if she was suffocating, though she knew she could not possibly be. Her heart raced; she pressed a hand to her mouth, to keep down the cry that she could feel rising up her throat. It was the way of the air, to cause such a reaction. It did not mean that what she felt was reality.
It was not as severe as it was outside, where harsh winds buffeted and blew. She only knew because Jarred had told her. Inside it was as tranquil as the slightest breeze on a pond, but outside it tore and whipped at one until it threatened to consume one's spirit completely. Despite this, she felt it slowly eating away at her mind, embedding thoughts she could barely stand to think of. Jasmine's small, torn body lying in a pool of blood in First Wood, her eyes gazing up at the forest canopy with the blankness that usually accompanied death. Jasmine, screaming, sobbing as a monstrous beast lunged at her, sharp teeth ripping into her flesh. Jasmine, alone and afraid. And Jarred, trapped in the Arena, fighting for his life against a reptilian monster with slits for eyes, long claws and razor-sharp teeth. A monster which would tear the life out of his body. A part of her desperately prayed she would be dead long before it happened, but a larger part of her knew that it was a selfish thought to have, and pointless anyway—dead or alive, she would not leave him alone when that day came at last. No matter how much it hurt, she would be there. There was no question of it.
Grey Guards could be heard in the corridor, marching and keeping watch over their master's prisoners, grumbling as they did so. They considered it a waste of their time, and a source of constant boredom, to guard hundreds of slaves who were weak and good for nothing anyway in their eyes. Why could they not be more involved in their lord's plans, instead of being reduced to mere guard duty? Surely they were more deserving of it than those slippery Ols who were always monopolising the master's attention… Ols who never bothered to hide their arrogance and bloated egos when speaking to them of the Shadow Lord and his orders. Stupid, mischievous creatures! Stupid, useless ticks! Even now, she could hear their cruel words, words which made her want to hammer her head on the stone cold floor at her feet.
Beside her, Jarred stirred in his sleep. Slowly she turned to him, reluctant to disturb his much-needed rest, but knowing that she must. Dawn was fast approaching, and the Grey Guards with it. The Guards came each day, at the exact same time, to collect slaves for the Shadow Arena. Occasionally they even chose some for hard labour, though that was only if the work outstripped the number of worker slaves available. It was best to be awake and prepared for what could happen.
'Jarred?' She touched his shoulder, willing him to wake up. 'Jarred, they are coming. You must wake up!'
He must have heard the fear in her voice, the near-hysteria, for his eyes snapped open immediately. Anna's heart ached unbearably at seeing the pain and exhaustion in them.
He ran gentle fingers through her hair, which was now streaked with grey. It pained her to know it, to know that part of her was tarnished so much. She had lamented it once, but he had just assured her that to him she would always be beautiful, and that it did not matter if her hair was greying. But somehow it did matter. The Shadow Lord had taken so much from her already—her daughter, her home, her peace-of-mind. Must she suffer this loss as well, however minor it might be in the grand scheme of things?
'It is still beautiful, Anna,' Jarred said softly. She felt tears burn in her eyes at the words, and hurriedly blinked them away.
It had been three months since they had entered this small grey cell in the Shadowlands. Three months, and they had been reduced to tired, gaunt versions of themselves. With only one large bowl of food and water allowed each day, to be shared among the prisoners, they were kept on the edge of starvation, though not so starved that they could not function. Their bodies had adjusted to the lack of food, but it still weakened them, especially if they were forced to go without. Perhaps it was what the Shadow Lord wanted, to prevent the slaves from acting up, or perhaps it was just due to the cruelty of the bored Grey Guards. Whatever the reason, it was hard to bear, especially whenever Jarred felt it needful to give her his rations, fearing for her as he did. Though she would protest, she could never dissuade him, though it shamed her to see him starve himself for her sake. Still, the one time he had been taken for manual labour, she gave him her own rations and went without.
'We—we must be brave…' she said, and felt her voice tremble as she did so. How could anyone be brave when facing death?
Jarred said nothing, but Anna could see from the look on his face that his thoughts were in line with hers.
The Guards entered the cell. She gripped Jarred's hand tightly, and felt him return the pressure.
'I do love you, Jarred,' she whispered.
'I love you, too,' he whispered back.
She closed her eyes, and waited. Surely… surely they would pass them by. Surely they would not choose Jarred! Silently she prayed, with all her heart and soul. Please fate, let me not lose him!
Hands grabbed at her. Hard hands, cruel hands. She heard Jarred swallow back a hoarse cry. She opened her eyes, and felt her heart freeze within her. Of all things she had expected, it was not this. She had been so sure that Jarred would be chosen first! It was Jarred, after all, who was the survivor. Not her. She was only a healer with a gentle nature, completely unsuitable to be thrown into a gladiator's arena to fight to the death. Never in all the years she had lived had she expected them to choose her before Jarred.
They roughly hauled her to her feet; almost numb with shock, she did not resist. Black dots danced in her vision, and she felt herself sway on her feet. Fate be merciful, she prayed desperately. Be merciful to us all. If she were to die, then so be it. But please fate, let it be quick!
They dragged her toward the door, and as they did so, she felt compelled to look back, one last time. It was the cruellest thing, to see Jarred's face. It was drained of colour, almost bone-white. The look in his eyes was that of a burning man, and it tore her to pieces to see it. If she could make it better, give him words of comfort—but she could not, and it would be no good in any case. Nothing could make the pain easier to bear. She could only hope that whatever happened, fate would be merciful to both of them.
They left the cell, and she prayed with all her heart that she could have courage. That she could face her own death with dignity. That Jasmine could survive in the Forests and grow into a young woman whose merit was beyond reckoning, and live on in a happier and free Deltora. If the people dear to her heart were safe and at peace, then she knew her own spirit could be at peace when she died.
She closed her eyes once more, and tried to be brave.