The flames burned in all their brightness,stopping anyone from coming even remotely close to me. Through the haze, I could make out Kai starting forwards, then jerking back as the heat drove him away again and again.
“Think! Zarai, think!” I chanted mentally.
Fire did not burn through earth! I grabbed wildly for the floor, scooping up grains of sand like a person possessed.
“Go away! Go away! Leave me alone!” The thoughts flew around inside my skull as I rubbed the sand into my arms and torso. The grains leaking through my fingers almost as soon as I picked them up, my attempts at gathering them becoming weaker by the second. My head was pounding, as if it were about to explode, muscles aching.
My arms slowed down gradually as horrible realisation set in: It was futile. The inferno would have to burn itself out. I stared, resigned at the tongues of fire as they wrapped around my arms, gently wafting in the breeze.
They didn’t hurt me.
A long breath I hadn’t realised I was holding flew out of my lungs in one big gust. The fire caressed me gently, a foreign but not entirely unpleasant sensation relaxing my tense muscles, and the orange-red glow slowly fading into dimmer and dimmer embers till they disappeared into my skin.
I stared at my arms, not fully comprehending that they were gone. I was cold.
Where had this damned breeze sprung up from?
I heard Kai rush towards me, leather boots crunching against the desert floor. He was so close, so very close.
My mind was hazy, but still running overtime, and I was suddenly weighed down with a deep sense of fatigue.The world was in slow motion. I blinked. Why wasn’t Kai here yet?
A small snarky part of me that was somehow still awake commented : “You’re angry with him remember!”
The insignificant though was so comical in our situation that I snorted, but it turned into a groan halfway through as I toppled to my side, face planting in the desert. At this point, I hardly cared.
I let my eyelids droop shut, drifting into a deep and welcome slumber.
My legs started forward, jerking me out of my trance as I reached her.
A vulture flew overhead, then came another and another, circling on top of the dead. A raven cawed as it descended upon the macabre pile, the shrill ugly sound ripping through the desert air. The sky was azure and cerulean, so different from what it had been just a couple of hours ago. The irony of it was not missed.
She looked so beaten, leg twisted at an unnatural angle and hair grey with dust. I tore my eyes away.
I mustn't look at her face.
The little healer was attempting to rise with her, wobbling as he barely lifted her torso of the ground.
In another time, another place, I would’ve snickered at him with mirth.
Now, I just shoved his arms roughly off her, not pausing to apologise as I lifted her clean off the ground.
She was so light.
I barely heard the little man cluck at me disapprovingly:
“Her knee!”, he tailed after me as he supported her injured leg.
I mounted Ebony with her body hanging limply over my shoulder, then rearranged her, cradling her floppy body and wrapping my free hand around the reins.
The healer finally managed to hoist himself onto the mare, gripping the reins as if his life depended on it. I led Ebony towards him and grabbed his reins as well. I glanced up at the sky.
It was in the middle of summer, and the sun sat defiantly in the centre of the heavens.
We had roughly six hours of daylight left, and I automatically calculated that that would be just enough time to get us to the very borders of the Third Kingdom.
“We need to find shelter,” I spoke out loud just for the sake of clearing the riot of thoughts in my head. I spurred Ebony forward, trying to keep my eyes of the girl I held, trying to stop the emotions from clouding my head.
I needed to be rational.
As the horses cantered, the hours morphed into one another, passing in a blur. My brain did not register any of our surroundings, only noticing the occasional pile of rocks that served as milestones for travellers.
The sun was sinking on the horizon when the queer sensation of being watched washed over me. I glanced back, fingers fisting in the reins.
The desert stretched on behind us, stained blue. It was emptier than ever. The breath escaped fro where it had gathered in my lungs, spine relaxing.
At that exact moment, I was met with the Princess’s eyes, staring up at me silently. She held my eyes, not saying a word.
My stomach dropped like a stone, and I tore my gaze from hers, swallowing thickly.
I feigned indifference as I stared stonily into the distance. My shame crept up on me in that stretch of time that felt like eternity. I must’ve looked like a coward to her, a failure.
It was the hardest thing in the realm not to look back down at her and ask of how she felt. Was she in pain?
Instead, my head took over, and I did what the soldier inside of me told me to do. Detaching any remaining emotion from my voice, I announced:
“The city is half an hour away. We stay at an inn tonight.”
I felt her move away from me, sitting up.
In that moment, I hated myself more than anything in the world.