“ASH!” Damien shouted at the top of his lungs. He hoped she would hear him from far away as he sprinted toward her house. He pushed himself harder than he ever had before in an attempt to arrive before Calda would. Damn everything if he was too late.
When he arrived at the house, he found it empty. No one had answered the door and there were no lights lit inside. Perhaps Ashlyn had the same idea to go searching for him, or perhaps she had already left Gumber altogether.
“Ash?” He tapped on her bedroom window, peeking through the drapes. “If you’re there, please come out.” Then he looked down, cursing at himself. “I shouldn’t have told her stay away, I’m so stupid!”
He wanted to run from here. Anywhere else was acceptable so long as Ash was by his side. They could live in the middle of nowhere— a cabin nestled deep in the woods. He could make ends meet by crafting and selling his projects. Ash would likely do the same, especially with her talent for potions and the like.
But first he had to find her.
Damien lingered at the house, waiting for an answer. Soon, he heard Calda’s nearby footsteps along the twisting path. Within moments, Damien would be right in her line of sight. It was time for him to leave lest he be noticed.
He skirted his way to the north side of the house before jogging into the open wood. It was lucky he knew these parts well enough; he had Ashlyn to thank for that. As he jogged, it occurred to him that Ashlyn might be just as frightened as he. Perhaps she had left her house to get away, to be somewhere she felt safe from her troubles.
And Damien knew where that place was.
He came to an idyllic spot along the river, the place where they had shared a first kiss. Damien was relieved when he made the shape of Ashlyn’s figure sitting at the base of her waterfall, her face speckled with mist.
When he came up behind her, he realized that the moisture on her skin was not from the splashing of the fall but from the sky as rain droplets. She was so beautiful, her hair soaked with rain, her skin so glistening and free.
Yet she was so morose.
She sensed his presence when he got close and turned her head to face him. Her lips opened as if to speak but formed no words.
Damien climbed up onto the high rock with her, but he was too agitated to sit. He offered down his hand. “Would you come with me?” he asked, keeping his palm open.
Ashlyn looked away. “I came here to be alone.”
After waiting several moments for her to take his hand, Damien gave up the gesture. He didn’t care for the rain pattering down on him, nor the bugs flitting against his neck and forehead.
“I assume you already know what I heard this morning,” he said. “Your mother came by—“
“Yes I know.” She cut him off. “And you asked me to stay away.”
Damien swallowed. “You’re not really going to leave, are you? You’re not going to let Calda and Kallus tell you what to do.”
“Damien...” She rubbed her forehead. “It’s not exactly something I can run away from. No matter where I go my duty will follow me."
Ashlyn looked down, her voice sounding barely audible above the humming waters. "I'm the Sorceress of Lorianthil. I will always have a duty to my people."
"I thought these were your people. I thought you were meant to rule over Gumber like the Sorceresses before you."
"The Sorceresses before me ruled more than just Gumber," she said, rising to face him squarely. "They ruled the entire realm. A realm that is soon to be mine, apparently."
His face shifted into a frown. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner?"
"I only found out a few days ago."
"No," he shook his head, "I don't believe that. I think you've known about this for a long time."
The way she dipped her head confirmed his suspicion. "Well, I never pictured it like this," she said. "I never imagined that I would be confined to the human city."
"The human city?"
"Where the King of Tauros lives. He means to teach me what he knows about ruling."
"Please, Ash, don't go. You...don't belong there. The humans will only take advantage of you. You are kind and gentle...you come alive out here, I've seen it." He gripped her jaw. "Just like I see you now."
He felt his heart pulling him in to kiss her, but he steadied himself. If he kissed her now he would surely never let go.
Ashlyn's eyes were growing red with tears. The rain endlessly dripped onto her face, blending in with the water leaking from her eyes. "Damien..." She moved into him for warmth, burying herself in his chest. "If I asked you to come with me..."
Damien brushed the top of her soaked hair. "I-- I can't. Don't act like there's no choice. We can stay here, we can be ourselves."
"So you would keep me here but you won't come with me?"
He shrugged. "I made a promise."
Ashlyn pulled away, her face growing furious. "And I made a promise to my people! So we are both bound by our own promises."
"Again, stop acting like there is no choice. There is nothing binding you to the human city. You can fulfill your promise here. In Gumber."
"Stop talking like this is easy," she sighed. “It’s not.”
"Good. It's about time you fought with yourself over something."
"What are you saying? You like seeing me this way, all confused?"
"I know you've done exactly what people tell you your whole life," he said. "Trust me, this is not the time to obey."
"Am I wrong? Or did you forget who's conspiring against us?"
"Urrg!" Ashlyn fumed, pointing at him. "I don't see you putting up a fight against Kallus either!"
Damien paused to consider his words. “I’ve seen what Kallus can do. What match am I against him?"
"And what match am I?" she countered.
"You're the Sorceress, you tell me."
"No," she shook her head. "My power is not to be used like that." Defeated, she got down off the rock and began sloshing her way toward the riverbank.
"Ash..." Damien groaned, trailing behind her. Once he felt the dry ground underneath his feet again, he reached out and took her by the hand. Ashlyn stopped and turned around to face him. The look in her eye was frightened, as if she wanted to run away and hide rather than face her adversary. With a single pull, Damien wrenched her close against him.
His arms made her feel safe for the moment. Damien was not one to cry, not one to feel shattered. Perhaps his past life had chipped all that away. But he was suffering, Ashlyn could tell that much. It was in the way his body trembled against hers. The surface of his skin was cold, but it was not the cause of his shaking.
Ashlyn reached to touch his face, to feel the sharp lines of his jaw. His eyes were deep against the mist, almost black. He was young but he carried himself like a man. The innocent boy Ashlyn knew had somehow vanished. She longed to meet his lips, but as she leaned in, the sound of a snarling voice tore through the woods. It carried across the leaves and within the drizzling rain.
"Stop what you're doing!" Kallus demanded.