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Eliza Isley, First Bird's Song
My quill scratched against the parchment as I dragged its inky tip over its surface. The light from the fire made dancing shadows play across the room. Sighing, I slumped down further in my chair and continued to write, not because I wanted to but because I had to. If these reports weren’t turned in exactly on time, someone (most likely Kendall) would petition us to be kicked off the council. Since our footing with them was on rocky ground at best, I wasn’t going to be taking any chances.
The flap to the tent opened, and in walked a man around 16 and a half with auburn hair cropped short at his ears, beautiful green eyes and freckles across his nose. When he’d been younger he had been rather gangly, but now he’d grown into his body and moved with languid confidence.
“Atlas.” His name escaped my lips in an exhale. I’d been so worried about him. Leaping out of my chair so abruptly it nearly upset my ink bottle, I ran to him and wrapped my arms around his neck. Tears stung my eyes. “Atlas,” I repeated, “You’re back.”
His hand stroked my hair gently, and his voice was rough. “I promised you I’d come back, didn’t I, love? I always keep my promises.”
I let out a shaky breath. For the past four months, I’d been morbidly fantasizing about how many different dangers there would be for my boyfriend out there. Nightmares plagued me and I had rarely gotten a good night sleep without him by my side, a warm sense of security. After my relief cooled down a bit, anger roared in my ears. I stepped quickly out of his arms and met his immediately confused eyes. “You b****rd. You quit writing letters two me two months ago. People have sworn they’d seen men of your description lying dead next to the road, trophies of bandits. In your last letter you didn’t seem hopeful and then...you stopped writing me altogether...do you know how worried I’ve been? Four months, Atlas. Four! I’ve had to take care of the council, all the politics of the clans and the looming threat of war! Do you know what kind of committment and emotional toll that takes? I could have used some help-no, I needed your help. I can’t believe you just stopped writing. Four. Months!” I ranted, throwing my arms in the air.
Atlas had the nerve to chuckle. “Some things never change. I’ve missed you Eliza.”
I glared at him, even though my knees wobbled when he said my name. “For your sake I hope that your mission was at least successful. Very successful. Or next time I’m riding off to take care of trouble, and you can deal with the council and jealous mistresses and scandals! I’m tired of it, it’s just not me to sit home and quietly care for the work.”
“That’s one of the things I love most about you. You’re always set in your ways, even if they’re impossible to deal with at times. I told you already that this wasn’t the kind of work I wanted to put you through.” He said, taking my hand.
I let him. I felt myself beginning to soften at his touch. “I could’ve handled it. Maybe next time-”
He cut me off gently. “We have talked about this before, love. I know you’re fully capable, but there are some people who don’t care. They’d think me a coward and you a hartlett for running off and leaving me behind. Besides, this is messy work. I would’ve rather stayed home, myself.” Atlas looked queasy for a moment. “You know I’m not a fan of unnecessary violence.”
Nodding, I lead him over our small cot and we sat on it. I really missed beds, but this was more handy for rapid packing and evacuating. “Tell me about it.” I prodded him softly.
Atlas shuddered and buried his face in my shoulder. “I don’t want to think about it.” He said, voice muffled by my shirt. “I never want to think of it.”
Breathing slowly, I ran a hand through his hair, tugging gently on odd locks, just for the fun of it. Having Atlas here with me, alive and breathing, was amazing. He was amazing. Everything I’d been doing before now didn’t seem to weigh quite so heavily on my shoulders. Bending my head rather awkwardly, I kissed his soft cheeks. “I wish you didn’t have to go. I wish I could lock you away and erase the past three years from your life. The trouble...the heartache...”
“And you?” He lifted his head and looked at me, face close to mine. His breath tickled my cheeks. “I’ll take all the trouble and heartache in the world as long as I get to come home to you, Lizzy.” Atlas only called me that when he was teasing me or was telling me something emotionally deep and serious.
It automatically raised a blush to my cheeks. I still felt like the fumbling bear next to Atlas, and to this day didn’t understand what he saw in me. “Well I’ll always be here, as relative a ‘home’ as this may be.”
“I was thinking about that, actually.” Atlas said after a pause.
“Thinking about what?”
“Home. This...this place is great, but we’re just camping. It’s not home.” He answered, turning his face away from mine. “I was just thinking that maybe after this thing with the King blows over, we can run away somewhere. Get a home. Someplace beautiful and stable. You deserve a real home.”
“I disagree.” I said lightly, watching the light move across his face. In the low firelight, he seemed to be glowing, as though a light was burning inside him. “Home is wherever my heart lies, and you already have that. My home is wherever you are, Atlas. Now that you’re here...this can be home again.” When Atlas turned to me, a smoldering look in his eyes, I swallowed and tried to make a joke of it. “Besides, we can’t just run away and abandon everyone. We started this, we’re in it for the rest of our lives.”
Atlas didn’t seem to take this as a joke, because he continued to stare intensely at me. Finally he said, “I don’t think that I’ve ever met anyone quite like you in my entire life.”
Frowning, I tried to remember what apparently profound and unique thing I’d said-I drew a blank. “How so?” I finally asked, phrasing it carefully.
“You just...there’s so much love...ugh, I haven’t had to word such feelings in four months. Whenever I’m talking to you, I get tongue-tied.” He blushed at that, or it was the heat from the fire warming his cheeks. “If a person can crack that titanium shield you’ve set up for yourself, you’re such a warm, loving person. It’s indescribable. If only you’d let more people see that side of you, you’d be more adored than the Queen! I still remember the first day we met, you know.”
I did. How could I forget? “So do I.” I brushed a stray bit of hair out of his eyes. “You’re not alone in feeling like that, Atlas. Well, you don’t have a shield, I suppose, so it was different for me. You dogged my heels with your friendliness, it was so hard not to trust you...of course that only made me more suspicious.” A grin quirked my mouth.
Atlas, however, wasn’t grinning. “I haven’t met anyone like you in my entire life. Your passion, your drive, your stubbornness and refusal to believe anything anyone tells you unless you’ve done it for yourself. I love the way you lose yourself in a song, and how when you fight it’s never in haste. Your courage, your dedication, even your family and your flaws! I love them all, because they make up who you are. I love you, Eliza. And I want to know...” Moving with breathtaking grace, Atlas moved off the cot and came to kneel on one knee before me. I felt my eyes widen as he took my hands in his. “Would you do me the honor of marrying me? Of promising to always be my home? To promise forever you only read in children’s tales? I don’t know what life would be without you, Eliza, and I can’t remember it before you. And I-humbly offer myself to you now.” His voice cracked just slightly at his last statement.
I felt my throat close with tears and I stood there, foolishly blinking for several moments. “Of course.” I said, barely able to get the words out without bursting into tears. “Yes, I’ll marry you. I thought you knew that.”
“I had to be sure.” Atlas was beaming at me, and I felt the same giddy expression appear on my face. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me. There was no sense of urgency like our last kiss; this one was joyful and free, reminding me that there is hope for the future. The kiss swelled with promise and I broke free to catch my breath before leaning in once more.
“I don’t have a ring.” Atlas admitted sheepishly a few minutes later. I was sitting on his lap and his arms were wrapped around me, warm and loving. “I hadn’t planned on proposing until I saw you sitting there.”
“Oh...I didn’t know it was an impulse thing.” I tried to mask my disappointment, but he could tell. Atlas could always tell.
“No! I mean, I’d been thinking about it for a while, but when I saw you it was cemented in my head. You had to be mine. The thought of not being able to wake up to your face every morning, kiss you just to catch you off guard, hear your barbing remarks...it killed me.” Atlas grinned and chucked me under the chin. “Lizzy, you’re one of a kind. More than that. You’re completely unique, like a snowflake. Only less delicate.”
I laughed at that. “A snowflake with chain-mail, maybe.”
He laughed, too, and I spent the rest of the night leaning against my boyf-fiancee. It made me feel so old, to be getting married. But I knew it was right. People were usually married when they were only two years older than us, so we weren’t rushing into it that much. Besides, you’re expected to settle down soon after the journey, anyways. The two of us watched the sun rise in the dawn, our first dawn together as an engaged couple. Marriage had always been an unspoken certainty between us, but it felt so much better to have it spoken and official. As the sun slipped higher and higher into the sky, I leaned up and kissed the bottom of Atlas’s jaw, feeling the slight stubble.
“What was that for?” Atlas asked, eyes kind and a small smile on his lips.
“For nothing.” I replied, “And everything.”
Atlas’s arms tightened around me, and as we kissed, the first bird of the morning began to sing.