The sun shone gently through the thin canopy of the trees, dappling the forest floor with pools of light. Its warmth was muted by the cool breeze that rustled the leaves and lifted the loose strands of hair from Nysse’s temple as she stalked silently forward, her bow readied in one hand, an arrow nocked loosely.
The pup at her side scrambled through the leaves, a little too playful and noisy. Nysse hissed at him, a tiny sound combined with a gesture from her free hand that he was just starting to learn how to recognize. He paused and tilted his head before slinking more carefully, his pawfalls light and soundless once more.
From his perch high above, Rhese grinned and leaned forward to watch their progress, resting his elbows on his knees. His vantage in the ancient oak let him watch the pup’s training as well as keep an eye on the boar that was their quarry, his snout peacefully rooting in the undergrowth a dozen yards ahead. He was a grandfather beast with an impressive girth and vicious tusks, the kind of creature who had fought and won many disputes. Scars marked his hide, the trophies of his long, successful life. Nysse had chosen a tough opponent for today’s training.
Rhese wasn’t concerned for her sake. Nysse was strong and sharp and capable, as at home in the forest as he was. The boar was no real threat to her. The reason he lurked in the trees was young Naharu at her side. The pup might have been the largest of his litter, but the druid (who was beginning to feel alarmingly like a father to Nysse’s little wolf pack) had his concerns about his intelligence. Naharu was never the fastest to pick up on her training, preferring to beg treats and cuddles. And the boar had at least twice the pup’s size over him.
So Rhese watched carefully from above. Just in case.
The huntress and her pet stalked forward until their prey was in her sights. She didn’t so much as disturb a leaf with her breath as she lined up her shot carefully through the cover of a young tree’s foliage, targeting the boar’s flank. Today was a test for Naharu, so a swift, painless kill was not the beast’s fate. It was regrettable, but necessary.
Rhese admired the graceful line of her back, the steady strength in her slender arm as she exhaled and loosed, her arrow, as always, flying straight and true. It buried itself deep in the boar’s flesh, and as the creature squealed in pain and rage, Nysse stepped from cover to give him a target.
“Haru!” she called, pointing at the target. “Distract!” The pup blinked at her for only half a second before growling and leaping forward. But the boar was already fixed, his tusks lowered threateningly. He charged at Nysse, forcing her wolf to dodge out of the way.
Rhese shifted to his feet, readying himself to move with a little frown. But it wasn’t necessary, as Nysse tossed herself into a smooth roll, the boar passing harmlessly by her. She rose with an arrow nocked, already sighting her next shot.
“Clear!” she cried, but Haru ignored the command, snapping at the boar’s flanks as it grunted and swung around, trying to slice at him with its tusks.
“Haru! Clear!” Nysse repeated the order, her arrow tip following their erratic dance. Again, she was ignored, and the curse she spat under her breath was loud enough to carry up to where Rhese waited, his knuckles turning white as he gripped a nearby branch.
After another few seconds of being unable to line up her shot, Nysse growled with annoyance and lowered her bow. She put her fingers to her lips and blew a shrill whistle, immediately gaining the attention of both Haru and the boar.
Rhese grimaced. That look on his mistress’ face boded ill for the pup.
Naharu turned immediately at the signal, putting the boar at his back, and Rhese didn’t even take the time for a deeper grimace. With the speed of thought, he was a silver-furred streak leaping at the black and grey wolf pup just in time to tackle him out of the way of a vicious goring. Haru paid for his childish mistake with only a shallow slice across his flank and a surprised yelp.
Rhese paid for it by getting bitten on the foreleg by a startled pup.
As Nysse’s arrows finished the boar, he shifted, wincing and patting the pup. “It’s okay, Haru. You’re okay.”
Naharu, for his part, tried to apologize by licking at Rhese’s arm. The druid hissed and forced himself not to shove at Nysse’s little charge, accepting his apology despite the fact that he was making it hurt worse.
The huntress trotted over, her eyes wide. “Are you two alright?” She snapped her fingers for Naharu, and the pup slinked to her side, his belly dragging on the leaves. He was apparently intelligent enough to know that he’d gotten himself in trouble, Rhese observed with a smirk.
As Nysse carefully examined her charge, the druid pushed himself to his feet, brushing leaves from his hair. “He’s fine, lovely. The boar just grazed him.”
She frowned at her pup, and Naharu tried to hunker even lower to the ground. “Thanks to you, Rhese. It’s less than you deserve, foolish boy,” she scolded the wolf.
Sympathetic, Rhese tried to tuck his bloodied arm behind his back, but he was too slow. Nysse glanced over, catching a glimpse of the canine puncture marks. She grit her teeth and pinched the bridge of her nose, taking a few deep breaths.
When she finally spoke, her voice was deceptively calm. “Naharu. Go home.”
The pup didn’t need to hear that particular command a second time. He beat a hasty retreat, tail between his legs.
Rhese winced to watch him go, but it wasn’t until Nysse came over and took his arm that he softly pointed out, “I frightened him quite badly when I pounced, you know.”
She sighed, nodding. “I won’t be too hard on him when we get back. But look what his carelessness did…”
“Nysse, love, I can h-” Her hands were warm and gentle on his arm as she stripped off his gauntlet and glove and probed at the punctured, torn skin. The touch was worth the pain, and Rhese bit his tongue against what he’d started to say, letting her minister to his wound in her own way. Instead, he enjoyed their proximity, resting his other hand against her waist as he watched the sunlight dapple her distracted face.
The slight blush that rose in her cheeks told him that perhaps she wasn’t as oblivious as she pretended while she worked, and he grinned, leaning down to kiss her cheek.
“Rhese…” When she grumbled his name, he only smiled more deeply, his eyes mischievous. He knew why she grumbled, of course, but nothing said he had to admit that fact.
“Yes, my lady?” He smiled with all of his innocent charm in place, watching her work and rubbing lazy circles at her waist with his thumb.
She didn’t bother to answer, pulling bandages from her pack to wind around the wound. He was learning that, in her timid way, silence was an open admission that she didn’t really mind his attention in the slightest. Quite the contrary.
But she still never asked. Instead, she buried both her affection and her embarrassment in work and duty.
“Will you help me butcher the boar?” she muttered, releasing his arm and stepping away. Rhese grinned and let his hand fall away, well resigned to her ways.
“Of course, lovely.” He drew his dagger as she did, and together they settled in to quiet, companionable work.
A couple of hours later, Nysse complained good-naturedly as they trudged along the path through the forest and the ripening afternoon. “She didn’t even let us in the door.”
Rhese smirked, shrugging slightly. “Rhoe has always preferred the wilds to stay in the wild, lovely, and not in her house. She likes tidiness. And you have to admit, we are a sight.” Grimacing, he twisted in an attempt to assess the blood staining the side of his tunic. “I can’t believe one of the blood pouches leaked all over me. Next time, you carry the kill.”
Nysse snorted and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “I’ll carry it right after you teach me how to turn into a stag – well, a doe. Until then, it’s a job better suited to you.”
Sighing, he led the way off the path and lifted a tangle of hanging ivy out of the way to reveal a picturesque little grotto. “You only appreciate me for my forms…”
Nysse opened her mouth for a rejoinder, but forgot to actually speak as Rhese stripped off his stained tunic, laying it across a rock at the edge of the little pool that formed the heart of the serene space. The sunlight through the rustling leaves danced across the muscles of his strong back as he bent down to pull off his boots, revealing yet another of the handsome druid’s best assets for her appreciation.
Though she could feel her cheeks warming, she sighed happily and leaned against a tree to appreciate the view as he worked at a tangled lace. He moved like the cat he sometimes was, all coiled power and quiet grace, his big hands still deft and nimble. All too soon, he had his boots off and was wading into the water.
Nysse was almost disappointed until he ducked under the surface and came back up, turning around to face her. The sunlight gleaming off his bare chest, the muscles of his arms, his shoulder-length silver hair made him look like some sort of gilded deity, the sun god to balance masculine day against Elune’s silver, feminine night.
Ducking her head, Nysse pressed her hands against her burning cheeks and chastised herself for such blasphemous thoughts. Rhese was no god, but an elf like any other. Except more handsome. More charming. More caring.
… and mine.
The huntress grinned to herself at that thought, raising her gaze… Only to find him watching her, amusement plain as the daylight on his face.
She coughed and turned away, busying herself with taking off her boots. “How’s your arm? Does it still hurt? You should probably try to keep the wound out of the water.”
He chuckled softly, and she heard a small splash of movement. “I wouldn’t worry about that, lovely. I healed it a while ago.”
“Oh,” she blushed even more, feeling foolish and overly warm. Her boots slipped off easily enough, one and then the other landing in the grass. Still, she didn’t look at him.
“Nysse.” She ignored his call, focusing her gaze on a little flower near her toe.
“Nysse…” She suddenly found a bit of moss on the tree beside her utterly fascinating.
“Nysse, my lovely. Will you please look at me?” he said it softly, gently, in the same tone of voice she might have used on a frightened pup. It was too cajoling. Gulping, she did as he asked, her gaze finding a relatively safe resting place on the hand he held out to her.
“Come and wash.” Rhese watched her argue with herself without a word, that adorable blush high on her cheeks. He sighed in frustration even as he adored her for it.
“It’s not that difficult,” he smiled, stepping farther back into the water. “I promise.”
She blinked and raised her chin, treading barefoot through the grass toward the water’s edge. Of course it wasn’t that difficult! Except that the pool, which could have easily fit the two of them and seven others, looked small. And her hands itched to feel if the water had cooled his skin or if he was as warm as she felt. And he was watching her with that sweet, heavy smile that made her feel like hiding and kissing him at the same time.
“You can, you know.”
Nysse snapped her head up at his whisper, blinking as she took his hand. Had he-?
“Whatever it is that you’re thinking about behind that blush, my lovely… You can.” He didn’t release her hand after she was waist deep in the water, instead, pulling it to his lips to kiss her knuckles, pulling her just one step closer. Close enough to touch him. “I’m already yours.”
Rhese watched his beautiful huntress consider that, watched the play of emotion across her face as she decided if it was as true for her as it was for him. She couldn’t do it without blushing, and he feared what that meant. But he didn’t move, waiting for her choice, for her acceptance. There were many things he could badger and cajole Nysse for, but this was not one of them. He wanted – needed – her to choose him freely as much as she needed to do so.
Slowly, she reached up and cupped her palm against his cheek, managing to whisper, “I was thinking about kissing you.”
The admission made her want to drop her eyes, but she forced herself to raise them to his, instead, ignoring the heat in her cheeks. She saw his smile, this one small and quiet and transparent, not full of his usual swagger and charm. It gave her courage.
“I was thinking about whether your skin would be warm or cool from the water.” She let her touch skim away from his cheek, over his strong jaw and the muscles of his neck, trailing his collarbone to the banded muscles of his chest. She felt him tense, saw his throat move as he swallowed. Nervously?
Nysse smiled, watching her fingers slide across his skin. “It’s warm.”
“Yes.” It was all he said, his hands moving to rest on her hips.
Warmed and emboldened, she raised her other hand, tracing them both across the planes of his chest, the lines of his ribs, the taut muscles of his stomach. He hissed a bit under his breath, and she wrapped her arms around him, laying her cheek against his skin with a little smile. She wasn’t so innocent that she didn’t know why he made that particular sound.
Rhese chuckled softly, rubbing his hands along the smooth line of her back. “You haven’t washed, yet,” he muttered.
“Mmmm.” Nysse paused, self-conscious once more. She glanced up shyly, pulling away a bit to examine his face. There was no mockery there, none of his usual teasing. He just watched her, his lips quirked up, his gaze filled with something simple, something undemanding. The huntress watched those golden eyes, sliding her hands back up to his face, and made a choice.
“I might need some help,” she whispered softly, stretching up on her toes and pulling his lips to hers. It was only a tentative kiss at first, her burning cheeks distracting her. But Rhese slid his arms around her, his hands resting in that delicious place at the small of her back. And he tasted like the forest felt: familiar and comforting and intoxicating. Nysse wrapped her arms around the back of his neck, and they pulled each other closer.
There was no more room for embarrassment after that. For them, there was only the green-gold sunlight, the cool water, and the sweet joy of discovery.