Ruby had nodded off throughout the day. The journey had tired her, of course, but this day she had purposefully tried napping when she could, regardless of whether it was five minutes or an hour. She had stayed still and quiet all day long, as normal, while the wagon bounced along.
Night fell, and the men cooked some provisions and drank. Ruby smiled when she noticed which man wasn’t drinking. She had watched each of them somewhat, noticing certain traits and habits. And the man who was to be this night’s watch apparently hated it the most. Ruby had figured it’d be him this night, a thought from several days ago, as they had rotated in the same order for a while. She also knew, from once waking up in a cold sweat with fear in the middle of the night, that this man was especially addicted to his drink. She had noticed on that night last week that he drank on his watch in the middle of the night, when she and all the rest were supposed to be asleep. It wasn’t too much to render him useless, but it contributed to Ruby’s plans.
Soon enough the night had grown, and the men started getting ready to sleep. Before that, Ruby had made herself comfortable near the fire, and had closed her eyes long ago, soon after she had finished eating. Two slept in the cart, and the other was a distance away on the other side of the fire. The one watching that night was careless, as usual, Ruby noticed. She had been complacent for a while, and appeared almost indifferent to her situation to the men. They were well-trained, that much she knew, but still naive in their regard of her.
The night went on. Ruby stayed awake, forcing herself to remain alert even though her eyes had to stay closed for several hours. She knew that time didn’t pass as fast as her patience told her it did, and what may seem like an hour could be as little as twenty minutes. She waited and waited, every so often taking a peek at the fire to see how much wood had been burned. She peeked whenever a new log was thrown on, and took note of how far down the prior log had burned when a new one was used.
She used the fire as a timekeeper of sorts in this way. When she was satisfied with how much time had passed, having seen several pieces of wood devoured, she waited only a short while longer, waiting for the fire to burn until just before the point where the man would put another log on. Of course, this was all tempered by how often the man drank.
Finally the time coincided, and the man had emptied his drink in one large swig containing at least a quarter of what he had continually drank for the night. He rocked a little bit, shuffled the fire a little bit, and looked angry, as usual.
And then he looked away. Ruby fully opened her eyes and rushed forward using both her hands and feet, as there wasn’t enough time to stand. The man heard this and snapped his head around, about ready to react.
Of course, Ruby’s body had been ready for this moment for a while now. Her heart had already been beating like crazy, and her mind was primed to follow a routine she had practiced in her head a hundred, a thousand times. Her reflexes and actions were trained by years of instructors, both private and public. And she was ready to stake her life on moving faster than she ever had before.
Ruby was already at the man’s side and beginning to stand by the time he turned his head around. Ruby had raised the sword before he could reach out towards her. And he was already saying what Ruby was planning for him to say in reaction to her, before he could say the words that had first come to his head.
“Argh!” A brief crack followed immediately by a scream came from him, which woke up the other three men.
They knew that a scream waking them meant their prisoner had done something. The three men immediately got up and looked off in the distance as Ruby disappeared into the forest. They were all about to run after her, their first priority, but the first man, the screaming man, briefly stopped them.
“Help me! My hand! Gah! Help!” The man pleaded with his companions, delaying them for the crucial seconds that Ruby needed. One man stayed, and the other two ran. That’s as far as Ruby knew, for something new was in store for her.
Ruby ran as quick as she could, not stopping for the yells she left behind. It was dark and she felt various bushes scrape her legs from time to time, but she could see well enough to avoid the trees. She ran until it felt like her body wouldn’t let her move any more, and she had to finally stop, a great distance from where she had left, though she could hear the men approaching her quickly. And then she heard it, the brush in front of her cracking.
“Skates or carry?” Va’il asked, appearing in the darkness.
“Carry!” Ruby replied, almost laughing out the word.
“All right, you carry, and then hurry on,” Va’il said. He took a pack off himself and put it around Ruby, and then leaned down while Ruby climbed onto his back.
Va’il jogged on in the darkness, dodging trees with ease and carrying Ruby through the night. The yells of the men became more and more distant as the night continued. By the time the sky had begun to lighten, any distant sound of the men was gone, and for the first time in a while, Ruby relaxed.
“Are you tired?” Ruby asked, as it was obvious Va’il had slowed down a lot.
“It’s all right,” Va’il replied.
“Let me down, I’m more than rested enough. We can switch to skates,” Ruby said.
“I can still hear them.”
“Well I can’t. If they are out of my range, we have enough time to lace up and move quicker, right?”
“I guess so. But we should still hurry. They might be able to track as well,” Va’il said.
Ruby acknowledged Va’il, and was let down. Together they put on the slipskates that Va’il had brought, and then continued on, wordlessly.
The sun was directly above them by the time they took a break and finally spoke again, several hours after they had continued their journey on slipskates. No matter how good the men were at their running and tracking, they would never again catch up to Ruby and Va’il. They would never be heard from again. Taking a moment to rest in the shade, Va’il breathed a sigh of relief, though Ruby spoke first.
“You’re late,” Ruby said. Normally she’d sound half-joking, but there was a serious inflection in her voice.
“You’re the one who said to wait for three days,” Va’il replied with a small smile.
“Don’t do that! I really, really was scared. You, you!” Ruby looked at Va’il, her face dirty from travel, and tight with anger. Va’il dropped his half grin and felt his throat tighten.
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Ruby,” Va’il said. They sat in silence for a while, unable to speak freely, unable to think of what words to say. Va’il remembered something, and turned to Ruby. She looked back at him, her eyes still reddish and her mind a jumble.
Va’il fiddled with his bag, and then held out his palm in front of Ruby. There sat in the palm of his hand a golden ring, Ruby’s signet. She reached up slowly and took it. She held it in her fingers and played with it a bit. She then put it on her finger and held up her hand, smiling.
“That’s how you should always look,” Va’il said, smiling. Ruby kept staring at the ring, but she felt herself blush slightly. She then thought it over again, and looked sharply at Va’il.