Isa held herself rigidly as the wolf approached her.

Relief softened her posture when it stepped into the glade of moonlight. In the beast’s furry face, pure gold eyes gleamed at her. Those eyes were like shards of a blazing autumn sunset. Those eyes were ones she knew well.

It was Arden.

Confusion overshadowed the relief. Why was he braced in an aggressive stance, hackles raised and teeth bared at her? A low growling hummed steadily from his throat.

Too late, she realized he was growling at something behind her. Something slammed with stunning force into her back, sending her rolling through the dirt.

Disoriented, she pushed herself up onto her arms, her head spinning. Cold fear shot through her as she saw Arden’s graceful wolf body arcing through the air towards a hulking battle cat.

The huge black feline swiped at him with a massive claw. It was a terrifying, muscular creature, almost the size of a horse. Arden snarled and snapped, keeping his distance, then lunging for the cat’s throat at unpredictable intervals. The battle cat spat and hissed, infuriated, as Arden avoided the heavy blows aimed at him.

Isa’s breath caught in her throat as Arden lunged again. This time, the cat was quick. With an enraged yowl it caught Arden in mid-air, sending him flying into the broad trunk of a nearby tree.

Isa winced as she heard Arden’s body thudding hard into the wood.

He staggered to his feet, winded but undeterred. He flung himself against the cat.

Surprised, the great black cat was overpowered by this sudden and ferocious retaliation, and Arden’s teeth sank into its velvet throat. Its monstrous body moved no more.

Isa breathed freely again, as Arden stepped away from his fallen opponent. She suddenly registered a stinging pain in her upper back. The fabric of her gown felt warm and wet against her skin.

Arden shifted back to human form as he hurried toward her, and his first words confirmed her suspicions. “You’re hurt.” his dark golden eyes were hard as polished metal as he held off his worry.

Isa slowly levered herself off the leafy ground. She knelt upright in the dirt, using her much-practiced breathing technique to control the pain.

She felt Arden kneeling behind her. His rough and calloused hands were at their gentlest as he peeled off the shredded fabric.

He inhaled sharply as he uncovered her wound. “You need a healer.”

“I am a healer,” Isa said faintly.

“Yes, but you can’t treat yourself like this. What are you doing out here anyway?” Arden added.

Isa sighed. “Let’s just say you were right about my temporary allegiances.”

“I see. I’m taking you to Lex.” Without another word, Arden swept Isa into his arms as if she were a small child. Isa gripped him tightly, startled. Recovering, she looked into his impassive face with incessant silver-blue eyes.

“Lex?” she demanded. “Lex who?”

“Lex Lonewolf. Yes, he’s alive. La Luna knows how, though.”

Isa’s eyes shone emerald green. “I know how,” she said softly. “You went out looking for him, didn’t you?”

Arden’s stony facade flickered. “No. He’s always been resourceful. He pulled through.”

Isa smiled despite the pain searing across her back. She let her head rest against Arden’s chest. “You went to find him,” her tone was almost smug. “I know you did.”

“I think you’d better stop talking and rest.” Arden said coldly.

Isa shrugged. “If you think so, my love.” her eyes were already drained of their vibrant green colour, a strained grey overtaking her crystalline irises. “Is it far?”

But she was asleep before she could comprehend Arden’s answer.

§§§

Isa’s eyes fluttered open to see the featureless interior of a military tent. The walls of heavy brown cloth fell unbroken all around, but the flap at the far end of the tent let forth torrents of harsh sunlight.

Isa remembered her injuries. She got up with deliberate slowness. Dull throbs of pain shot across her upper back and her left shoulder.

Isa sighed as she noticed that the entire bodice of her gown had been ripped off, and her corset removed. She was covered only by the stained and tattered skirt of her ruined gown, and a simple cotton tunic that certainly didn’t belong to her. Her torso was encased by bandages, and the white wrappings extended across her left shoulderblade and ended halfway down her upper arm.

“Alright, Countess?”

Isa looked up to see Arden seated on the floor in the corner of the tent. Dark circles gathered under his eyes.

Isa got to her feet unsteadily. “Were you watching me sleep?”

“Yes.”

“Because my injuries were that bad or because you just like to?”

Arden shrugged brazenly. “Both, I think.”

Isa sniffed, feigning annoyance. “Well, I’m alright now. Where did you put my corset?”

Arden pointed. The bloodied corset lay beside Isa’s sleeping mat.

Isa pulled off the cotton tunic. Her back and shoulder protested painfully, but she ignored it.

Arden watched her, exasperated. “Why don’t you leave the tunic on?”

Isa adjusted the corset against her battered torso. “I’m not wearing that hideous tunic. I’d sooner die of cold.”

“You very well might.” Arden pointed out.

Isa ignored this. She turned her back to him, gesturing to the loose lace ties trailing down her exposed back. “Lace me up so I can go outside.”

Arden got up and approached her languidly. His eyes briefly skimmed the additional bruises she had sustained from being mauled by a battle cat. The discoloration stood out lividly against her milky skin. He sighed.

He lifted her dark hair off her back and banked it over her right shoulder. Deftly, quickly, he laced her up.

Isa turned to face him, smiling. Bruised and battered and clad only in a tattered skirt and a bloodstained corset, she looked like some macabre goddess of war.

“I require breakfast.” she declared, her eyes shifting to turquoise. A vivacious, playful colour. Her health had not forsaken her despite her ordeal.

Arden gave her an almost-smile. Warmth touched his eyes, softening the hard gold, but didn’t reach his lips or lift the heavy shadows that always hung over his features of late.

“Of course, Countess.”

He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and escorted her out of the tent and into the camp.

Several fires burned around the clearing, the men crowding round them all busily cooking or consuming their breakfast.

Arden wound his way towards a smaller fire at the far end of the woodland clearing. Two people were seated by it; a tall man and a short woman.

Isa recognized the woman as Eryna Vlair, Arden’s right hand, who turned to look at her curiously as they approached.

The man said something to Eryna, his tone conveying mild irritation. He flipped his long, low ponytail over his shoulder. His hair was completely grey despite his obvious youth, which added to the rakish quality of his good looks. Noticing Eryna wasn’t listening to him, he followed her gaze and locked eyes with Isa. He grinned wickedly.

“Arden. Who’s your friend?” he called as soon as they sat down.

“This is Countess De Lang. She’s our source of information within the Humanist Alliance and the Silver Sisterhood.” Arden said.

“So, she’s our spy?” the grey-haired man simplified.

“Oh, no. Spies are paid.” Isa said, meeting the man’s eyes and turning up her chin. “I’m a defector.”

“You’re the one who diverted General Lasata’s forces when we invaded Madathra?” asked Eryna, leaning forward on the log she perched upon.

Isa nodded to the distinctly feline woman.

“Impressive.” the grey-haired man said, his appreciative gaze lingering on Isa’s roguish outfit.

Arden passed a bowl of porridge to Isa, looking exasperated. “Valerian. Behave. We have much to discuss.”

Isa accepted her breakfast with a grateful smile.

Valerian ignored Arden. He leaned forward, trying to catch Isa’s gaze. “Your eyes just changed colour.” he blurted.

Isa gave him a playful smile. “They probably did.”

Valerian looked intrigued.

Isa absently tugged a lock of her ebony hair out of her face, tucking it behind her noticeably pointy ear.

Valerian snapped his fingers. “You’re an elf! A crystalline elf. That’s why your eyes change colour.”

Isa smirked at him.

“I haven’t met many elves, De Lang.” Valerian told her.

Isa raised her eyebrows in mock severity. “You’re not going to address me as Countess?”

Valerian smirked back. “No, I’m not.”

“If you two are done flirting,” Arden interrupted. “We do have work to do.”

Isa turned and smiled at him, her eyes deep blue and full of charm.

Arden gazed back with a smile barely restrained. Mild envy was tempered by amusement in his guarded yet expressive eyes. Her flirtatious antics were familiar, comforting.

And that smile she was smiling. Her eyes cycled through a range of vibrant colours. Happy colours. Turquoise, azure, violet. The colours that he associated with her warmth, her energy, her love.

Colours rarely played a part in Arden’s life these days. Everything was either indifferent grey or burning gold, alternately draining him or challenging him. His comrades supported him, of course, but there was something in Isa’s vibrancy that could never be found in Eryna’s trusting loyalty, or Valerian’s brotherly warmth.

Isa was life itself; she was beauty incarnate.

And by her side, Arden could at last remember what he was fighting for.

§§§

From Untitled upcoming novel by Helen Cryestira Viorel

Written 13th of March 2018

Dedicated to myself, and to the real Arden Atanasov

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