The next morning, long before sunrise, Raru walked to Heath’s cabin. He was afraid of what he would find. Heath heard his boots and met him on the porch.
“I wouldn’t,” he warned. Raru tried to look over his shoulder as he closed the door.
“Why not?” Fear sparked in his voice. “Is he all right?”
“You go to your men.”
“No, Heath. I want to see him.”
“Let him sleep, Raru.” But Fraul woke from inside and they heard his mumble of “Heath.” Iron sighed, glancing back. He gauged Raru’s face and stepped back inside, kneeling on the floor and restarting the fire. Raru went beside the first cot and put his hand on Fraul’s face. Fraul reached up to push him away.
“Where were you?” he breathed, his eyes lucid, his breath hot. He tried to be angry and was too weak to hold it. Raru didn’t answer, turning to Heath with some anger, as if the healer had some blame in this. But he saw guilt in Heath’s face, unfounded guilt, and Raru closed his mouth immediately.
Heath picked up his coffee, got up, and the front door shut behind him. Fraul had been staring at Raru; now he reached out, inhaled in pain as his shoulder protested, and grabbed Raru by the hand.
“Why?” he demanded with his exhale. “Why not me?”
“Baby,” Raru whispered. “I can’t hurt you.”
“You hurt me already, Raru.” Fraul pulled the hand back to his chest, nose wrinkling, looking to the ceiling. He tried to say more, but instead he closed his eyes and sat through the pain like a stone in the ocean. Raru felt it as acutely as if it was his own body. Now Raia felt far away. He said, “I’m sorry.”
Fraul looked away. His gaze found a cup of water and he swallowed; Raru’s eyes followed his and he reached for the cup. Fraul said, “No. I’m fine.”
He went to push himself to a sitting position, grunted and gave up. The younger man reached out to help him. But even his hands seemed to cause Fraul pain, for he shied away from them with teeth chattering, snarling like an animal. Raru was afraid. He had never seen this. He set the cup down and passed Heath on his way out of the house.
He drank himself into a stupor that day, and the days afterward. He went back to Heath’s in the evening and found that Fraul wasn’t there; the healer said, “I took him back to Feira’s place.”
Raru swayed, caught himself with a step, and turned away. He had no intention of going to Feira’s old house. He was still terrified.
But his feet took him down the road and he entered without knocking. Fraul sat on the couch listless, his eyes watching the woodgrain. He caught sight of Raru and smiled brightly, but the smile faded as the other man lurched inside.
“Sit down, dear,” he murmured. He still looked pale, but was sitting up with a blanket on his knees, a book, a cup of coffee.
Raru took a chair and aimed his ass squarely in the center. Still he almost missed it. He looked up with that hunger, that intensity that usually set Fraul’s blood on fire, and today made him feel weak and hunted. Fraul put his rings on and said, “Go to sleep.”
Raru was hurt for reasons he couldn’t articulate. Like a chided child he curled up sullenly in the chair and slept in the most awkward of positions. Fraul’s heart warmed. Even curled up and drunk, he was lithe like a wild animal.
When Raru woke, he was still drunk. It was dark. Fraul had melted to the couch and fallen asleep all bones and joints. Raru crept to the couch and, when the other man’s eyes flickered open, said, “Can I sleep beside you?”
Fraul’s face was sad. He nodded, and Raru was as careful as he could be in his state. As he slid beneath Fraul, the other man hissed, “Gentle, gentle, gentle.”
“Sorry,” he said, and was about to pause and withdraw, when Fraul put one hand on his chest and pillowed his head on the puff of Raru’s breast.
“No,” he muttered. “I did it to myself.” Raru hugged him with both arms, reminding himself to be gentle, which was not a skill of his.
“I heard the match was good,” he muttered.
“It was. Of course I did not expect to win. It is only the first time, after all.”
Raru nestled his face in the hollow of Fraul’s collarbone, holding him on top of his body. For a few moments they were silent. Fraul let out a shuddering breath and his hand found his own hip. He pressed his spine into Raru’s belly, which was warm and soothing.
In the morning light, hours later, the younger man stirred. His feet were asleep and something told him it was almost dawn. He turned his head and muttered, “Morning.”
“You have to get up,” Fraul sighed. He had known it would be like this. He had woken in the middle of the night and lain awake thinking about this.
“I’ll be careful.”
All Raru had to do was slip out from beneath him and bring him back down to the couch. But every movement was like a razor moving backwards, slowly. He felt Fraul shaking and his suppressed guilt came back. He found himself crying.
“What do I do?” he begged. “Please, please tell me. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Fraul said, “Quickly,” and took his sleeve between his teeth. Raru raked himself out from under the other man. A roar of agony filled his ears. Raru reached out for him but couldn’t touch him for terror. Finally Fraul stilled, gasping, and the crest of the pain melted down into the rest of it.
“Why?” Raru asked, “Why did you do this?”
Fraul turned his face into the couch and breathed, exhaled, inhaled. He said, “Go.”
Raru went about his days as if in a haze. He tossed the flask away when he left the house. He couldn’t trust himself under its influence. He felt a bitter laugh in his chest. He would see it again.
He went to Crowe at lunch.
“Yes?” the general asked, before Raru had knocked on the tent frame. He poked his head into the canvas. “Come in,” said Crowe. “Doing well?”
“No,” Raru said shortly.
“Nor am I,” said the general with a flash of teeth. He tugged aside his shirt and Raru saw a forest of contusions, some purple, some red. The captain folded his arms.
“He did that?” he asked.
“Most of it.” Crowe’s voice lowered. “He should be proud.”
“I’m never sparring with either of you.” Raru took a seat, rubbing his head, changing the subject. “I wanted to check in with you, sir. About Areidas. When we’re leaving.”
“Ah.” Crowe wandered the tent with his hands behind his back, checking maps, toying with the globe. He leaned with one hand on the other corner of the table and said, “I believe we leave in a month. We will continue with the original plan, before Mason’s little revenge journey. Going are your company, Captain Tere’s, and Captain Riksom’s.”
“If he chooses, he will accompany us. I almost thought of putting him back in your company, as a soldier.” Crowe’s canines showed in his smile. “But I thought it would distract you too much.”
“It might, sir.”
“How are you doing, Raru?”
Ire was surprised at the familiarity. He saluted and said, “Fine, sir.”
“Good. You’ll be leading this mission. I don’t want to see you distracted by anything.” Crowe nodded to the tent flap. “Dismissed.”
Raru walked out. He felt better. He would be leading a whole mission. He looked upward, where the sky was a pall of light gray.
Someone passed behind him and he took his gaze from the clouds. Erica smiled.
“Hi, sir,” she said.
“Captain Raile,” he said. “How are your men?”
“Which ones?” she asked. “The short ones?”
“Yes, sir. The short ones.” Both pairs of feet turned for the meal tent. Erica deliberated and said, “Quite well, actually. I have high hopes for this group. Especially the girl.”
“Who would have thought?” he wondered. “A woman training a woman.”
“We might overrun the men,” Erica joked. “And then who will milk the cows?”
Raru rolled his eyes. She said, “By the way, where’s my old captain?”
“Isolating.” Erica’s face fell.
“Right,” she said. “Selene.”
“It feels like the year went quickly. You, me, Captain Tere–we are some of the only ones left.”
“Oh, they’re still around. Iron, Captain Rolfe, Captain Dreaux. All here. Just not…here.”
“Fraul might come with us when we leave, you know.”
Erica’s jaw dropped. “No,” she said.
He laughed and parted the flap of the meal tent, saying, “Maybe.”
In the weeks following Fraul was hard on himself. When Raru wasn’t there, he napped. When he woke, he pushed himself up and tried to stand, and fell hard on the ground. His wrists hurt from all the times he had fallen. He tried to stop catching himself but it was better than rolling onto his back.
With the brace, he found that he could stand within a week. He was going crazy in the house; Raru’s visits were his favorite part of the day. He wanted to get out of this city, to march again, to be with a company on the road again.
Raru found him on the ground one evening, rocking himself, trying to muster the will to stand up. Quite suddenly, he felt himself lifted. Something smelled sweet–not whiskey, but bread.
Raru’s breath was warm on his ear. “Come on,” he said, “I brought you some food.”
Fraul allowed himself to be put on the couch. He looked up at Raru and the other man put the loaf aside and moved close to him, his lips soft, his hands gentle on Fraul’s face and neck. Fraul had no energy to animate himself, so he was grateful when Raru went slowly, and folded his clothes as he took them off. His hunger was gone; he was all love and softness. It wasn’t until he ran his hands down Fraul’s bruised chest that his breath hitched and he moved faster.
Fraul solemnly traced the divots of Raru’s hips, and Raru stopped him, picked him up and brought him to the mattress. They smiled at each other–certainly Feira had never done this huge bed justice. Raru set him down and Fraul rolled onto his back with hands folded over his stomach. Ire sat against the wall, undoing the buckle of his sword belt.
His eyes found a scar in the tight skin of Fraul’s hips as he did, and he reached out to touch it.
“This doesn’t hurt?” he asked.
“The skin has healed,” Fraul said, and rolled onto his side. “Hurry up.”
Raru felt Fraul’s eyes range over him and his skin prickled. Kneeling, he moved over Fraul, turned him onto his stomach, traced his spine and with his hand parted the flesh of his thighs. Raru pushed inward, and his eyes rolled back, and he gripped Fraul’s shoulder. He wound one hand into the tousled hair, but always with one hand he held his own weight up. His movements grew hungry, vicious and possessive, and Fraul at one point laughed and said, “Mercy, mercy.” Raru slowed down. Dreaux exhaled and felt lips on his collarbone, behind his ear, a wordless apology.
There was no pain now, and as Raru moved slowly Fraul felt his body press upward and backward. He reached back to pull Raru’s hips toward him. He wanted no space, no air between them, and Raru’s stomach pressed on his back and his breath came heavy and warm over Fraul’s neck.
“Faster,” Fraul said, and Raru hesitated. He felt they were crossing into painful territory, and Fraul felt his hesitation and pressed backwards all at once, and Raru held onto his hips and sunk into him. He didn’t care for anyone else’s pain and he shoved back and forth, in and out. Fraul groaned and went limp and Raru saw his body a little pale and shaking. Raru gripped him around the chest and came into him.
“More,” Fraul said, and he breathed and kept going. Sweat stung his eyes and he pressed his cheek to Fraul’s back and kept on. He thought he might actually come again when he felt cool long fingers reach back and fumble for his hips. He was gasping, and his body kept thrusting robotically until Fraul gave a pinched smile and said, “Stop, stop.” Raru rolled off him and felt the sheets all warm and wet, and he threw himself back onto the bed with eyes closed. Fraul collapsed similarly onto his side, and Raru reached over for him.
“I love you,” he said.
Fraul smiled. “You…” he started to say, but had to catch his breath. Instead, still breathing heavily, he rolled onto his back and turned his head. His eyes traced Raru’s face from temple to chin, saying, “You’re sweating.”
“So are you.”
“You work hard,” Fraul sighed. Raru snuggled closer and looked up into his pupils, and Fraul laughed at his puppy-like eyes and touched their foreheads together. “I wish you were still my lieutenant,” he said.
“You can call me lieutenant any time you like.”
Raru smiled and tucked his head into Fraul’s breastbone, taking a long hollow breath. And then he felt sad, for reasons unknown.
The morning that they were getting ready to leave, Fraul rose first and Ire glanced over at him in the muted pre-dawn light. He saw the white of the whale bone reflected dully, heard Fraul groan softly as he bent to pick up the two braces against the bed.
He stopped to catch his breath when he had the larger brace buckled. He leaned on his unbraced knee and rubbed the blood into it with his hands. It was a good knee. It had carried him far. Raru rose and slipped into his shirt and buckled his sword and was ready in a few minutes; he crossed into the kitchen to make coffee.
When he had disappeared through the doorframe, Fraul felt the tears come. He dropped his head into his hands and allowed fear to course through him, his shoulders shaking, and he found a pillow on the bed when he could take it no more and screamed into it until his whole body was awake and he saw stars.
Raru heard it and hesitated. He had learned not to rush to the sound of pain. Sure enough, a few moments later, he heard the snap of a brace and Fraul appeared standing in the doorway, his sword on his hip, reaching out for the mug of coffee.
“Ready?” he rasped. Ire nodded and they shouldered their packs. Fraul took a long breath and sniffed hard, filling his body with oxygen, and for the third time he said, “I wish Heath was to accompany us.”
“You’ll see, sir,” said Raru. “It’s quiet without him.”
Fraul smiled. “That’s why I wish he was to come.”
They were about to cross the threshold when Raru put a hand on the door. His eyes gleamed wolflike. He grabbed Fraul up and pulled him close, practically lifting the other man off the ground and pinning him against the wooden slats. Fraul giggled, pushing him away, and then he relented and Ire kissed his neck, his collarbone, his shoulders. Fraul closed his eyes and sighed, feeling hands beneath his shirt. He wished there was time.
“We have to go,” he murmured. “You’re leading the whole thing, aren’t you?”
“Just once,” Raru growled into his mouth, and Fraul smiled and whispered, “It’s always just once.” Raru pulled away disappointed, and they looked for a second at each other, and Fraul said, “Quickly. And gently. I need to walk today.”
Ire grinned and tried not to tear his clothes. They were still against the door. Neither knew the next time they would have this much privacy. Fraul felt hands ranging over his body.
“Quickly,” he whispered, seeing the first rays of gray light through the shutters. Raru, to his surprise, moved downward with his hands around Fraul’s hips. Raru loved hearing the humming sounds, the hands in his hair. He loved especially the look of amusement he received afterward.
Fraul reached out and whispered, “What about you?”
Raru smiled. “I won’t go a month without fucking you,” he said, quietly in case the door was thin. “Silly man.” He put their clothes back in place and helped Fraul up with gentle light in his eyes. If not for the braces, Fraul would have fallen, for his legs had turned to butter.
He covered his mouth and smiled. They left the coffee on the table, locked the door of Feira’s house, and walked through the dawn light with a brisk pace.
“Do you think Kenneth would mind?” Fraul murmured.
“In his house.”
Raru shook his head. “I think Kenneth had a few secrets of his own,” he confided. “I think we all do.”
“A shame, to leave such a good property.”
“A shame,” Raru agreed.
They saw the companies gathering and he separated from Fraul, who wandered over to Leonard. The younger man saluted meekly and Fraul laughed.
“No need, Captain,” he said. “Although I appreciate it. Sleep well?”
“Mostly.” Tere looked him over with Heath’s healing eyes. “You look well, sir.”
“I am nervous, truth be told. I’m glad to be walking next to you.”
Fraul surprised himself; he had been very frank. So he finished his train of thought. “You comfort me, Captain. You remind me of Heath.” Tere looked away and seemed to be uncomfortable, but it was still too dark to tell.
Crowe stood at the front and admonished Raru for his lateness. Raru saluted and said, “I’ve been ready for more than an hour, sir.” The general rolled his eyes.
“Move on,” he said. The captain turned and bellowed for them all to file up. Fraul smiled–that had once been his lieutenant. They took their lines.
The march began at a measured pace. Fraul found solace in staring at the heels of the man in front of him. He wondered what the person behind him saw. Heath had tweaked the left brace so it bent a little, and was less like swinging a board around. Fraul’s limp was imperceptible. He turned his head to see the little cabin with smoke rising from the chimney as it disappeared behind the trees.
He sighed. He had missed marching. He tried to catch sight of the springies but they weren’t up yet; he wished Erica were staying to guard them. He had said goodbye to Nathalie the night before, and as they moved further from camp he felt himself relax. The air was chilled, and his clothes were thick. His pack was light. He looked down at the green knot on his sword and remembered what Raru had said–you didn’t even leave me your knot. He vowed to fix that when he could.
At noon he ached, Lord how he ached. It started in his back. He stumbled and Tere caught him and he thanked the man low, and their column fell back in line.
Raru called for a break. Fraul stayed standing, afraid that if he sat down he would lock up. Tere said, “I brought something for you.”
The other man handed him a satchel of willow bark. “Chew this.”
“Leonard, truly, you are sent by God.” Tere beamed and answered, “Don’t chew it all in one day.”
Fraul took a piece and kept it in his gum all day. It helped. Just before nightfall they struck camp, and he saw Raru’s longing glance at him as the captains conferred. Fraul finally, after twelve hours, sat down. The man who had been behind him sat nearby, a fan of cards in his hand.
“Captain,” he said
Fraul said sadly, “I am no captain.”
The soldiers exchanged grins. “Doesn’t feel right to call you Dreaux,” said the other man. “But if you insist.”
“Please do,” said Fraul. “What do you need?”
“Actually, I was asking if you fancied a card game. Now that you’re back down to lowly soldier.”
Fraul felt the slow smile spread over his face. “I do.”
He had a few coins in his pocket; he gambled with those and with one of his rings. To his relief, he got the ring back.
Ezuran rain put the fire out and they had to put the cards away; the captains moved from their circle to their own tents, and Fraul saw no more of Raru until the next day. He could feel the younger man’s hunger as it built. He hoped Raru would accost him at some point, but Raru was afraid to let down his guard and steeled himself against it. Fraul was proud the more he didn’t see the younger man. He got to know Tere very well.
Tere questioned him, to keep their minds off the walk. On the third day Fraul was suffering badly, but the group around him was like a tangible force that pushed him onward. He could no longer talk and focused on breathing instead.
He found the best way to walk with the braces. He tightened them up so they held his weight instead of his legs, and he only had trouble when the road became steep. Over the potholes, Tere took one elbow and the man beside him took the other; they lifted him clear as day over the holes and said no more of it. Fraul had missed this damned army. It came back to him why he had given himself up. He remembered what he’d said to Raru, in the moments before his hands were bound–if not me, you. But he knew, quietly and in his heart, that his real reason had been himself.
On the fourth night, he sat beside the fire in a circle of men, his mind on his pain. He wanted to scream but was afraid to lose face. Leonard lit a cigarette and said, “Tell us the story, Captain. The men are dying to know.”
Fraul’s gaze focused from its faraway look. He said, “The story?”
Leonard gestured with the cigarette at his legs. “The story,” he said.
Fraul smiled. He saw by the hush that settled over the fire that he had indeed gained glory. Glory, at least in his youth, had been of more value than gold.
He said slowly, “Where should I start?”
The man beside him said, “The battle.”
“Ah, yes.” Fraul took the cigarette Tere offered him and smiled. The tobacco calmed his frayed nerves, his fear of the coming days, his ache for Raru and for his daughter. He smoked and passed it back to Tere.
Those around their little campfire leaned in. He saw their ages in the lines of their faces. Most of them had not known him back then. A few of them were old enough to have known General Hill–the others seemed to have been springies yesterday.
He realized he had been quiet a long time. He sighed and began frankly, “Oreia. We were in Oreia. Were you there, Leonard?”
Tere shook his head. “Just your company and Ashin’s.”
“Lord, how long ago was that?” Fraul smiled. “I am old.”
“Tell us the story, Captain,” said one of the men patiently.
“All right, all right.” He straightened himself. “We were about to reach New Oreia. We thought there was peace. And, of course, we were two-hundred at least. I believe…” He suppressed a shudder in his back and released a grunt of pain. This would be a hard story to tell.
“I believe,” he continued, “that they thought us a threat.” He felt the ears of men around perk up. He started to unbuckle the braces, letting the blood flow into his joints and busying himself with the task while he spoke. He didn’t want to look at anyone. “So they ambushed us just before we reached Oreia’s capital. I forget its name now.”
“New Oreia City,” Tere supplied. Fraul smiled.
“A creative name,” he said, to huffs of agreeing laughter. He cast his eyes down at his legs and slid the first brace off, placing it on his lap. “At first it was going quite well. I believe…” He saw Erica’s face at last, and brightened. “Miss Raile! You were there. How did your captain fight?”
Erica put a hand on the back of her neck as everyone’s gaze went to her. She said, “Quite well, sir. He saved my ass and got his leg broken. Didn’t stop him til afterward.”
“No, I like that about Ashin. He has the anger. What do you call them? Berserks?”
“Berserkers,” said Erica. “Sir.”
Fraul nodded. “Yes. But they outnumbered us, you know. At least two-to-one. And then Raru…” He trailed off.
Tere broke twigs and tossed them into the fire, hiding his nervousness, wishing now that he hadn’t asked for the story. Fraul said, “I thought I might save us. I knew what they wanted. I…well, I did it the way we always do it. I got to the back of their line and surrendered. It was a risk. They might have taken the whole company and ignored me. Or they might have killed me.”
Erica remembered that moment, diluted by the flood of battles in her memory. She said, “We were outnumbered. When they blew the horn, I was grateful. So was Ashin. I was fighting beside him.”
“Ah. Good.” Fraul looked pleasantly at her. Many of the members of her company had also been there, though they had nothing to add to their captain’s telling. “Well, they chained me up and took me off. I had to convince them I was of more value than two hundred men, you see.”
“And how did you do that?” asked the soldier near him.
“Oh I lied. It was different, in those days. I did have some intelligence for them.” His eyes flicked to the shadow of General Crowe, hunched out of the firelight, head cocked toward them. “They said they wanted the companies to weaken the army. I told them that with my knowledge, they wouldn’t need to weaken the army.” He grinned. “I had no such knowledge, of course. I only knew that Ezure would be attacking Areidas soon. I suppose that knowledge was useful to them.”
One of the younger men said with surprise, “And you gave it to them?”
The fire became very quiet. Fraul asked lightly, “What else would I have done?” The man, seeing that he had said something wrong, was quiet. Fraul sighed at their faces and felt that he should set something straight. “For the record,” he said, “I thought Oreians tortured their enemies the way Ezurans do, the way the Ilcoceum’le do. I had seen men come out of it fine. I thought…” He gazed into the fire and was lost for a moment, and then lifted his head and swallowed, addressing the younger man. “I thought I would resist, you see. I had such vain notions of glory and whatnot in my head. I marched off with my hands bound and I was proud.” He laughed, slapping his knee, swore at the pain. No one else laughed. “I was a different person, a different person.”
“How did you get out?” someone asked from far off. Fraul thought.
“Actually, a woman saved me,” he murmured. “There was a fire set in the dungeon. The city is quite near the coast.” He shuddered. “I walked. I walked up those awful stairs and I found a ship that would take me to Ezure. I wonder, now, why I didn’t go home. But I wanted to be with the army.” Many nods. “I…don’t know what happened while I was gone. I believe Captain Feira’s company was overtaken. He was the first to hear that I was dead. Captain Ire…” He trailed off. “Well, it is always painful, losing a captain. However they are lost.” He glanced at Tere. “Am I missing anything about this story?”
The crackle of the fire was his only applause. Fraul grew uncomfortable and, hand on the pommel of his sword, said, “Well, then. I suppose I shall retire.” He gathered up the braces and, his knees bending more readily now, picked his way to the tents. A figure detached from the shadows of the men and Crowe’s eyes followed it like a hawk. Raru appeared ghostlike at Fraul’s shoulder and ducked into the tent after him.
“Eiaveu,” Fraul said softly. Raru’s skin prickled.
“Don’t call me that,” he murmured, and Fraul heard the tears in his voice. Raru was standing with his arms folded, his head brushing the top of the tent. He said, “You left out a part.”
“That I tried to talk you out of it.”
“Yes, while you were bleeding to death.” Fraul smiled. “Sometimes I wish you had succeeded. Perhaps I didn’t have to do all this.” He eased himself onto the cot and Raru glanced at the tent flap, knowing he should leave, knowing Crowe had seen him enter. Fraul said, “Go, Captain. Tend to your duties.”
Raru hesitated, wanting to say more, and then ducked out of the flap. He hated that story. He hated that anyone had asked, that Fraul had somehow become some figment of glory when the real story gave him nightmares.
Crowe caught Raru by the shoulder, materializing from the shadows. “Come with me, Captain,” he said. Raru followed him numbly. Crowe sat down at the chair in his tent and Raru stood, hands behind his back.
“Raru,” the general said. “I want your word.”
“Sir?” Raru blinked and realized that Crowe was staring at him with some expression he had never seen before. It almost looked like worry.
“I want you to tell me you won’t go into his tent again. Not alone.”
Raru’s brow creased, trying to look confused, but the expression felt hollow. Still he challenged, “Why not, General?”
Crowe’s voice lowered. “I won’t protect you, either of you. Tell me you won’t.”
Raru bristled. Who was Crowe to tell him what he could do? But he was a captain, speaking with a general, and he had no choice but to say, “I won’t, sir.”
Crowe relaxed. “Good.”
Raru turned on his heel and left.
About the Creator
Have fun running around my worlds, and maybe don’t let your kids read these books.
(chapters in a series will have the same title and will be numbered♥️)
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