Daegal saw Jelena hesitate in front of the chest. Her rapid breathing and white knuckles on the dark wood of their escape tugged at his heart, and at his memory. Anton had told him of a time in their training when some of the younger men, fed up with being beaten by Jelena, had taken her and locked her in a cupboard. Anton freed her, thinking she’d be furious but had opened the door to a white faced and trembling young girl. Something happened in her childhood, Anton had gathered; but he’d never asked.
Her beautiful face set rigid and harsh with self control. What would it feel like for her to turn to him for comfort? A grin sparked and he pushed it away. It would feel like someone other than his Jelena.
“You know”, he said quietly “It’s a very deep chest. Even your long scrawny legs won’t cramp up in there.”
She took a breath and turned to face him. Something that might have been gratitude flickered in those big eyes that he saw when he closed his own.
“Are you sure your big head will fit though, Daegal? I’m quite concerned about you.”
He grinned. ‘I knew you cared, really. Here, let me be the gentleman for once.”
He gently peeled her hand from the edge of the chest and stood ready to hand her in. She froze, tension running down her arm and into his. Muffled complaints from Malinda that her hair had caught on a splinter floated over to them, as did Alaea’s attempts to convince her brother that he wouldn’t fit in there with her and she would be fine without him.
He pulled Jelena closer to him and, surprisingly, she let him, “We’re all a bit anxious, but it will be alright.” She nodded stiffly and he stroked her wrist, his heart melting. “I’ll have to go in a minute, rescue Malinda from her hair.”
She smiled a bit uncertainly and let him hand her in, her breathing shallow and her legs shaking.
“I have to put the lid on now Jelena.” he said, wincing inside at the panic that darted across her face before her control wiped it away. “I’ll be right back after sorting Malinda out so if you decide you need anything or the lid isn’t sitting right just bellow and let me know.”
She nodded again, her lips tightly pressed together, and he smiled at her.
“That’s my brave girl” he said, and closed the lid on her indignant snort.
The tedium of waiting, holed up in a small cramped space, was shot through by constant worry over Jelena and the fear of betrayal. Despite this, he fell asleep on the wagon trip as the chests bumped and jiggled their way along, waking with a guilty start when they stopped. He had to fight himself not to just burst out of the chest. When he heard Marius’ voice he heaved a sigh of relief and kicked upwards with his feet until the lid came off. He was greeted with the welcome sight of twilight glinting off soft tendrils of mist winding through dark trees. He heaved himself out and into the forest clearing, wincing as cramp hit his calf, limping in a beeline for the chest he had marked down as Jelena’s.
He hauled the lid off and made sure he stood so he hid her from the others. She sat, still and white and quiet, her hands clenched so tightly he’d be surprised if there weren’t nail marks in her palms. A foul smell rose from a puddle of bile in the far corner. She looked up at him through tight wide eyes and his heart stopped at the shame he saw there. He held out his hand and she looked at it, but didn’t take it. He was sure she was trying not to cry.
“Come on then, sleepy head,” he said, “I know it’s comfy in there but some of us have work to do, towns to flee, can’t hang around for you all day.”
She took a shuddering breath and took his hand, for the second time in a day allowing him to help her. Her legs shook slightly as her feet hit the ground and he held on to her hand, stroking his thumb over her wrist as he made inane comments about the trees and complained a bit about the cramp in his calf while they watched Malinda clamber out, fall onto Tiernan’s neck as he helped her and ask for the privy.
Eventually, the trembling in the hand he held stopped and Jelena gently disengaged. She didn’t meet his eyes as she adjusted her vest and tightened her braid. Settling her hand on the pommel of her sword she took a deep breath. He smiled, seeing her poise return. She took a step towards Marius, who was shaking the hand of a large man who bore a strong resemblance to Finn, and then stopped. She didn’t quite glance over her shoulder at him, but he could see the effort it took her and didn’t mind.
“Thank you, Daegal.”
She walked off, straightening her shoulders and holding her head high and he didn’t think he could have felt this proud or this sad.