In Another Life

  • Kaidan strode blindly through the woods. Birch branches swinging in the river’s breeze whipped at his face and chest, but he didn’t slow. Closer to the river, midges swarmed around his nose and eyes, but Kaidan didn’t raise a hand to wave them away.


    Ten years he’d been on his own, since Brynjar died. Eight of those years he remembered; three he remembered with a sense of accomplishment, if not outright fondness. He’d disentangled himself from moon sugar and sujamma, from cults promising answers and gangs promising wealth. He’d made his own mistakes—he wasn’t fooling himself, not anymore—but in all that ten years, one common thread wound itself through every misstep.




    Kaidan trusted the wrong people.


    He wasn’t sure why. Bad judgment, he assumed, and a certain predilection for shortcuts and rule-breaking. Put a smooth-talking ne’er-do-well in his path, and Kaidan tended to trip over him.


    Or her.


    Livia’s alchemy garden came into view, and Kaidan’s heart beat faster. Just around the corner, there she’d be, picking flowers like some innocent country girl, like sugar wouldn’t melt in her mouth. He took a step closer, and frowned. Livia’s basket and cuttings lay at the garden’s rocky edge, but she was nowhere in sight.


    She’d told him at lunch that’s where she’d be for the rest of the afternoon. And she’d not meant the vegetable garden, because he’d have noticed her coming out of the woods. He stepped over a tall bunch of prickly-looking pink flowers and picked up speed on his way to the front of the house.


    A rush of wings sounded behind him, and the scream of a hawk. Kaidan turned his head to watch it fly into the forest canopy, and then grunted as he ran into something.


    Something soft. Soft hands splayed over his stomach. Soft curls draped over his arms, arms that—like a man obsessed, like some ensorcelled thrall—he wrapped around her, holding her, protecting her from the fall that should have resulted from their collision.


    Kaidan closed his eyes and breathed deep of her scent—sunshine and berries and earth. The warmth of her body seared through his already burning skin. Her breath whispered over his chest, along with the faintest hint of wine. Kaidan shivered.


    In another life, he’d draw her close, close enough to feel her heartbeat under his. She’d tip up her chin and smile, her eyes sparkling liquid and dark under sooty lashes, and he’d plunge into those still, cool waters and gratefully drown. He’d delight in his head going under and never once look to the surface.


    And his gaze would lower to her mouth, and he’d crush her lips against his, growing drunk on berries and wine and—


    Kaidan opened his eyes. In another life, Livia would hold a power over him that might put the divines themselves to shame.


    In another life…


    Livia’s hands trembled. She lifted them slowly away from his chest, and pushed a curl back from her face. Kaidan stared at the streak of earth on her cheek and marveled at the way it highlighted the pale smoothness of her skin.


    She giggled softly, and Kaidan looked down. Dirty handprints marked his stomach. Kaidan shivered again as Livia gently brushed the dirt away with the back of her hand. She flicked her gaze up, her eyes wide and her pupils dark and round, even in the sunlight.


    “I, ah,” she stammered and gestured over her shoulder, “I heard you shout, and went to check you’re alright. Did you need something?”


    Livia stepped out of his embrace. Kaidan let his arms fall to his sides, and his heart fell with them. Something smoky and shimmering, twining just out of his sight took its place. The hawk cried again on its way back over the river, and Kaidan and Livia both turned to watch it fly.


    For the life of him, Kaidan couldn’t remember why he’d run from the woods all the way to the garden. He’d been working, he knew. He remembered the axe, remembered the hawk, the river. And the heat of her body on his.


    And something dark, something…


    Kaidan pushed it away, whatever it was, and wiped a rivulet of sweat from his temple. The river…that’s what he needed. He imagined himself stripping off his boots and leggings and scooping Livia into his arms and carrying her into the cool water. Taking a break from the summer heat. He shuffled his feet. “I was thinking—“


    “You know, after we’re done, we should go swimming,” Livia said, looking up at him sideways, her face glowing with sun and a wide smile. “There’s only around two weeks in Skyrim where the rivers aren’t freezing cold, so we might as well take advantage of it while we can.”


    Blood drained from his face and shoulders, pooling in his chest. It ached and swelled and rose again, winding dark and cold back up his spine, roaring in his ears. Kaidan stared into Livia’s eyes, and all he could see was shadow.


    In another life, things might have been different. She might have been perfect for him—anticipating his every thought as only fated lovers do. They’d laugh at their perfectly synchronized minds, and strip to their skins and swim, luxuriating in each other and the river’s silky waters. And when they got too cold, they’d lie together on blankets near the shore, baking in the sun.


    But in this life, Kaidan put no stock in fate. And so many coincidences were nothing short of suspicious.


    Livia’s smile faded. “Kaidan? What’s wrong?”


    He turned stiffly away from the river and stepped into a patch of shade near the house. Livia followed. “What were you doing at that prison?”


    Livia took a small step back. A pinecone crunched under her heel, and she stumbled and righted herself. “Kaidan, I—“


    “I wasn’t completely lucid when they threw me in there,” Kaidan said softly, “but I remember the gorge, the empty forest. They said I could yell all I wanted and no one would hear me. So I’ll ask you again.” He gave a little shake, somewhere between a shrug and a shiver. “What was someone like you doing in a place like that?”


    Livia huffed and crossed her arms over her chest. “Someone like me?”


    “Look at you.” Kaidan mimicked Livia’s movements, and shrugged again, the action belying the ice in his heart, the burning pit in his belly. He’d played his hand; there was no turning back. “You’re quite the healer—a rare gift. Your home’s a tiny slice of paradise in the place I love most in the world—and you want to take me swimming.”


    Livia opened her mouth, and Kaidan held up a palm to stave off her protest. “You cook like an artist—all my favorite foods. You’re kind, patient…beautiful. And,” he said, keenly aware of the absence of her body against his, “you fit in my arms like you were made to be there.”


    “I’m not kind, and certainly not patient,” Livia said, her eyes brittle and wary. Her fingers tightened over her biceps. “And from what I remember, you were the one holding me.”


    “You didn’t complain. Looking up at me with those eyes… looking at me like…”


    “Like what?” Livia took another step back and shoved her hands into her dress pockets. “Kaidan, what are you doing?”


    “Asking questions. Like I should have done in the first place,” he said. Anger flickered. She was avoiding his question, trying to lead him away from what he knew was true. “You’re perfect. Too perfect. Too bloody…right. They did a good job—you’re probably the only woman in the world who could get me to do anything you wanted. Say anything you wanted. And you’re the one who finds me.” The shadow in Kaidan’s mind twitched again. “In the middle of nowhere. In a pile of stones that should have tumbled down years ago.”


    Livia repeated his words without sound. Her eyes lit up with cold awareness. “You think I’m one of them.”


    Kaidan let his gaze flicker between her and the house, the river, the garden. It lighted on a little statue next to an apple tree—some sort of adorable, miniature bear standing on its hind legs. Nothing was this perfect. “I was right before. I have to be.”

    One of his gauntlets clanked against Warnulf’s dusty bunkhouse floor. Kaidan swore and knelt to scoop it up.


    “I’m not your enemy, Kaidan. I’m not.”


    Livia’s wide, brown eyes had filled with tears then, like dark forest pools, their depths unfathomable, unknowable. She’d not made it easy for Kaidan to walk away.


    “I will never hurt you.”


    But walk away he had. And as soon as he packed his armor, he’d walk away from the Rift—as much as he loved it—and never look back.


    He slowly rose, slapping the dusty gauntlet against his leggings. The bunkhouse door creaked open, and Kaidan placed his hand on the hilt of the sword lying on Warnulf’s dining table. The caretaker stood in the doorway, his old, warrior’s body tense, his eyes narrowed and wary.


    Kaidan tucked the gauntlet into the bulging pack next to the sword. “She told you, then?”


    Warnulf nodded and leaned against the door jamb, his arms crossed over his chest. Kaidan kept stuffing pieces of his armor into the pack, and waited for the lecture he knew was coming. Or the impassioned defense of Livia’s virtue. Kaidan expected it. But Warnulf’s silence stretched across the bunkhouse, sharp and tight, pulling at Kaidan, at his skin, his spine.


    Kaidan slipped the last bit of armor into the pack and tied it closed, yanking the strings so hard one broke. He sighed and tucked it behind the knot. “Well?”


    He glanced up, but Warnulf’s red face and neck and clenched jaw had him casting his eyes back down at his fingers, fidgeting with the straps on his pack. “She…she had no business being anywhere near that prison, of ever finding me at all.” A floorboard creaked and Kaidan grabbed the hilt of the sword and held it across his body, one hand grasping its sheath. “You have to know—“


    “Who the fuck do you think you are, lad?” Warnulf stepped toward the table, his eyes never leaving Kaidan’s. His voice was sharpened steel. “Did you wake up in chains in that comfy bed? Did Livia keep you confined until she knew whether you weren’t some murderer or ravening lunatic?”


    Kaidan backed up a step and twisted his hand around the hilt. Warnulf let his gaze drift to Kaidan’s sword and huffed. “That was my advice. Why I watched you. Until I was sure you wouldn’t hurt her. You’re not a killer. A bloody-fucking stupid shit, but not a killer. No more than Livia’s a Thalmor agent.”


    Warnulf spat on the floor, as though he couldn’t stand the taste of the word in his mouth.


    Kaidan shook his head. “This isn’t about me. If she…” he swallowed, and took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly. “If she had nothing to hide, she should have answered my question.”


    “Did you give her a chance?” Warnulf looked pointedly at Kaidan’s pack. “Or just run away?”


    Kaidan glared, dropping his hand from the sword’s hilt, and stooped, looping his arm through his pack’s wide, leather straps. He straightened under the weight of his pack and skirted around the table, and wordlessly strode through the open front door.


    Footsteps sounded on the plank floor behind him as Warnulf followed. Kaidan blinked in the bright sunlight and took one step toward the road. And stopped dead. Livia sat on a stump near the stable, her eyes red and puffy, her arms wrapped around her knees.


    A sense of emptiness settled around him, and Kaidan swallowed and fought at the doubt that assailed him—that would assail him every time he looked at her. Every time she looked at him. If he stayed, he’d lose himself forever. He’d keep falling, deeper and deeper, into her trap.


    A tear rolled down Livia’s cheek and she raised a hand to brush it away. “Please, Kaidan. You shouldn’t leave like this. You’re not—“


    “Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t matter.” Kaidan stared down at her, hoping his face remained smooth, expressionless. Hiding the bone-cracking terror he felt at leaving her. “And you can tell your masters whatever you want.”


    Livia’s face began to crumple, and Kaidan forced himself to look away. He heaved his pack higher up on his shoulder and started walking down the western road.







4 Comments   |   Paws and 1 other like this.
  • The Sunflower Manual
    The Sunflower Manual   ·  August 19, 2019
    Oof, I didn't expect Kaidan to collapse into himself like that. Well, maybe I did, but not so suddenly. Poor Livia's got enough on her plate already figuring out the whole dragon business, and now Kaidan's just made it that much worse. Not that Kaidan him...  more
    • ilanisilver
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Oof, I didn't expect Kaidan to collapse into himself like that. Well, maybe I did, but not so suddenly. Poor Livia's got enough on her plate already figuring out the whole dragon business, and now Kaidan's just made it that much worse. Not that Kaidan him...  more
        ·  August 19, 2019
      It’s going to be a hard road for both of them. And Livia’s hasn’t really even begun. She’s just having dreams. Her real nightmare’s going to to come in a few chapters. I talked to a few people with PTSD to gauge his reactions, and I mean, PTSD isn’t a one...  more
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  August 19, 2019
    Wow! Kaidan totally noped. Nope, nope, nopety nope. Once again, I can't say I'd not do the same. As vulnerable as Liv is right now, Kai has faced torture and unimaginable despair for a huge length of time. His psyche is wounded, and that's not something a...  more
    • ilanisilver
      Wow! Kaidan totally noped. Nope, nope, nopety nope. Once again, I can't say I'd not do the same. As vulnerable as Liv is right now, Kai has faced torture and unimaginable despair for a huge length of time. His psyche is wounded, and that's not something a...  more
        ·  August 19, 2019
      Exactly. I’m halfway through the next chapter, and yeah. Exactly. I hadn’t planned to make him leave, but the more i got into his head, the more that was just the only option, besides the super cheesy romance novel option where they lunge at each other an...  more