"Are you done?" Aaron asked her.
His face was steel. She couldn't read if there was the same shock and pain she felt at what they had both seen. If it was there, he hid it well.
"No," she spat.
"If you promise not to go on a wild killing rampage, I will let you go. But you have to swear it on the goddess. Do you swear it?"
Arianna gritted her teeth.
"Do you swear it?" He repeated, equally determined.
She knew he would keep her stuck there all night if she didn't agree. She had no desire to remain in the barn. If she wanted answers, the best thing for now was to relent.
So, begrudgingly, she nodded.
Slowly, as if she were a wild animal willing to attack him at any moment, he lowered the pitch fork. Arianna just collapsed into the hay and buried her face in her bloody hands. There was the blood of the Tiger Lord as well as that from her attack on the farmers, and even some of her own from a split lip she hasn't realised she'd suffered.
More sickness threatened to envelope her.
"Please," she choked. "Tell me what happened?"
Aaron sighed. It was then that Arianna noticed that there were tear marks down his cheeks and that there were dark circles of worry under his eyes.
"The Tiger Lord and his Brother left early in the morning for a scouting trip. Originally it was going to be just the two of them, but the brother convinced him to take a protection party.”
“Who?” she asked.
“The usual crew. Gabe, Harry and Pent.”
Arianna frowned. All considered their best men.
“But we were ambushed. Sixty men. They came at us like a tornado and were unrelenting. We couldn’t keep up with their numbers. We lost the men. It was only the three of us left, and it didn’t look good. Until the brother slayed one of their commanders and the tide turned. It was our chance, and we would have been victorious, had it not been for...for the soldier who...I'm so sorry Arianna."
So Aaron was as crushed as she was. He sunk to his knees with his hands clasped together as if in prayer to the goddess for forgiveness.
"What did he do to him?" she whispered. It wasn’t a question she should have asked, but she found she had to know, as macabre as it was.
"Gutted him, right there in the field. Took his sword, dove straight into his stomach and carved out what he could."
Arianna winced. "How did you all escape?"
"We fought off as many as we could until the brother manager to start a fire and they started to retreat. We grabbed the Tiger Lord’s body and travelled back as fast as we could."
"You let Mags see his body," Arianna breathed in despair.
"It all happened so fast Arianna. None of us wanted her to be there. But she was already waiting for us to return after the Tiger Lord told her what time to expect us back.”
"He's gone," Arianna whimpered.
They sat there in a long, long silence, sharing in each other's heart break, drowning and then living, drowning again and then living, to drown all over again with even more pain.
"What did the men they look like?" Arianna eventually asked when she could stand the silence and the sorrow no more.
Aaron looked up at her with tears in his sky blue eyes that now rocked with shame-filled storms.
"I...they were all cloaked and hooded."
"Did you see a sigil of any kind? A house crest?"
Aaron searched for a thought, until he found one, that had him reaching into his own cloak. In his palm he held a shred of black fabric. There was a crest of gold and silver interspersed threads with a black cat in a pouncing stance. Under it read something in an old language Arianna couldn't understand. She looked to Aaron who shrugged to say he didn't know it either.
Annoyingly, Arianna had never seen it before.
But whoever they were, they had signed themselves up for a world of pain and torment for their actions today. She would make sure of that.
"I'll slaughter them all myself!" she announced, standing up.
Aaron was so shocked he tripped trying to follow her up. "Are you crazy? You'll get yourself killed before you do them any damage."
"You know I could do it."
They squared off for a short while.
"Even so," Aaron relented. "It won't bring him back."
Arianna would have broken at that, had she allowed herself to feel through the rage she was experiencing. But the rage was all consuming. Her mind was churning over several plans, all of which resulted in her slicing out the organs of the Tiger Lords murderers, saving a special treat for the soldier whose hands were covered in his blood.
The image of that made her smile.
"Which way did they ride off?" she asked.
Aaron shook his head.
She went to punch him but he jumped out of the way in time, saving his other cheek from being bruised. "Which way?"
"You're not going after them," he repeated.
"I can, and I will. With or without your help."
"Goddess above! I wouldn’t have given the damn bruised cheek if I’d known you wouldn’t shut up about it!"
Aaron steamed beside her. "It's difficult to see out of my eye now."
"Stop being such a baby."
They were using the largest tree they could find that would support both of their weight but also give them the best vantage point in order to scout the area. Despite his size, Aaron had always been pretty good at scaling trees. It saved them time that he was already capable of doing so. A lot of the time the bulkier men couldn’t make it up. So it helped that Arianna didn’t have to leave him on the ground. Plus, two pairs of eyes were always better than one.
Being out on a mission just the two of them was strange. They'd never really gelled. In fact, they had hated each other from their very first sighting. Everything about him, from his wavy blonde hair to his green eyes and woman-attracting features, brought on a wave of intense loathing. The same happened for him with her, she knew.
However, their mutual loathing did give them a steady stream of competition throughout their training, which, ultimately made them train harder. In class he'd always mock her for being weaker than the rest of them or just a pathetic little girl, a cry baby (even though he had cried more times than her). So it became her mission to get stronger and more skilled in order to sit him on his ass whenever he tried to publicly humiliate her.
By the time they were both thirteen, even with Aaron's size advantage, Arianna had beaten him more times than he her. To which the mocking did not decrease but her own self-assurance increased. Arianna supposed she should be thankful for that, though she’d never thank Aaron directly.
The first blinks of sunlight were showing on the horizon. The yellow sun was a few yards ahead of the orange sun, who always rose later. This created a staggered light effect in the sky, with some clouds glowing golden and other clouds burning a bright red. Arianna would often wake up early to catch such a sight, just to see the effect it had on the land; leaving streaks of colour for miles around, making the earth seem even more alive. The Goddess had gifted them much beauty with their sky of two suns.
But Arianna was not watching the suns rise today.
Her attention was turned on a party in the distance, whose men were wearing black cloaks with gold and silver threaded crests.
Aaron lowered their looking glass.
And just like that, the wariness of their travel was gone and replaced by the preparing adrenalin rush of potential engagement.
"Your eyes are glowing," Aaron marvelled. Many people felt that way about her eyes, the one part of her that betrayed her thoughts. Usually it frustrated her no end. But today she didn't mind the thrill of the chase blazingly in them for all to see. It would be the last thing her victims saw.
She smiled back at Aaron before lowering her mask over her face to conceal her features. The mask had made little sense to her when the Tiger Lord insisted she wear it outside of the forest. Why she, and no-one else had to hide her face, was beyond her. She used to think it was because she was a girl and that it protected her from being an early target. But since she had found that those who fought her often underestimated her because she was a girl, and it actually gave her an advantage.
It was one of the many answers she’d never get with the Tiger Lord’s death.
"Let's go.” Just like that, she became the Tiger Lord’s viper.
They jumped through the trees like expert acrobats. Swiftly and without sound. Until they hovered over the party, who had stopped for some reason. Arianna had them halt, to watch again, to check any details that might impact how they proceeded.
All the figures looked the same, so she couldn't ascertain who the captain was. She'd asked Aaron about twenty times if he remembered any distinguishing marks of the man who had murdered the Tiger Lord. But there had been nothing to set him apart from the rest according to Aaron.
Their strategy would be to kill them all. Leave no one alive.
That didn't displease Arianna at all.
They would have attacked then had there not been movement; a regiment change. Someone was emerging from the carriage they had in their party. It was a fairly standard wooden carriage, not ornate like the ones that usually rode in the direction of the capital city. But Arianna felt her heart swell as the individual who exited the carriage filled her sights.
It had to be him.
Everyone else kept a tight formation in his presence. Whilst he wasn't the largest (he certainly wasn't small, taller than Aaron even) he had that natural air of leadership that Arianna had seen so effortlessly in...
The Tiger Lord.
That had to be the Tiger Lord’s killer!