The next day something was very odd, at least in Leonard’s opinion. He said nothing about it, but he felt the coolness that emanated off Fraul, who was awake before everyone and, as they began to march, did not wish Leonard good morning. The soldier who was often so pleasant was back to his icy ways.
When they broke for lunch, a few men set up a sparring ring. Fraul sat on a hillock just outside its bounds and watched them, knowing he was too weak to join, hungry for it. This was the most inflection Tere saw in his face all day, when he had a mind to look. Raru was somewhere up ahead in the company, speaking with Crowe.
Fraul did not eat. The men kicked the ring of stones away and they all fell back into columns. Step-by-step with his crutches, Fraul walked as though made of wood.
As they reached the forest north of camp, bandit country, their lines grew tighter. The soldiers a few years green followed suit, not knowing exactly why, but in the hills and bends of the forested road the companies lost sight of each other.
An arrow whizzed overhead. Fraul heard the twang of the bowstring, so close was its owner, and he took a dagger from his side and threw it into the trees. He heard a wet whack and a man’s grunt. He smiled, as a whole flurry of arrows came from the trees. Someone up ahead roared a warning. Fraul tried to duck but the brace wouldn’t let him, so the arrow hit the whale bone and barely brushed his flesh. The force of it knocked him backwards and he was ready for the pain, familiar now. He heard someone calling for help. He unsheathed his sword and fell behind a tree, seeing who it was on the ground, reaching for him.
“Captain,” he choked, and Fraul’s eyes were cold. He shifted his gaze to the line of bandits as the man crawled toward him. He looked down, turned the man onto his stomach with his foot, and brought his blade down over the back of his neck. He hoped someone would have done the same for him.
He stepped out from behind his tree and sidled before another, moving closer to the line of bandits across the road. Now he saw Tere, back to a tree, firing arrows. He felt icy heat in his back, the good kind of ice, the kind that told him he was about to stop feeling the pain.
Tere looked back at him and saw his eyes go vacant. Fraul lunged out from behind the trees and drove his sword upward into the chest of the bandit who had Tere pinned in place with his arrows. He wasted no time. Half-hidden by the foliage of the forest and protected by maille and his whale-bone brace, he walked from tree to tree drawing blood. He smiled. At one point, fighting in close range, he dropped the sword and slit the man’s throat with his rings.
Surprise crossed the man’s face, seeing Fraul’s blade spin away. Fraul threw him. He could feel someone watching him and he turned slowly, his gaze laser-focused and sweeping across their lines. His own men were hiding from him. He felt an arrow clip his ribs and he put his hand to his side, flinging the other hand out to catch a tree. That hurt. The pain brought him back a little, and he dropped behind the tree and breathed. Why had he dropped his sword? He saw it laying a few feet away.
He stuck his foot out and tried to drag it toward him. It wasn’t working. He had gotten very close, near behind, the bandit line and now one of them saw him. The man cocked an arrow and sighted Fraul’s heart, and Fraul held his breath because there was nothing he could do. He met the man’s gaze and prepared to step to the side, but his legs were clumsy and the braces made him slow.
One of Leonard’s arrows sprouted from the man’s throat. The man loosed his own arrow just as it did, and Fraul felt it knock against his leg brace and skitter away. He grunted, but met Tere’s gaze across the clearing.
Three of them, taking advantage of his pause, fell on him. He thought he saw a fourth. His sword was still glittering on the ground; Fraul’s rings made blood spray from the first man’s arm. He smiled grimly.
He felt someone grab him by the shoulders and he bit back a cry, daring not to show pain, tasting blood. Leonard was fighting his way nearer, and Fraul heard the tinkle of maille and knives behind him. He assumed this was one of their leaders by his armor. He saw rings, normal round rings, on the fingers that held him back. He turned his head and bit into the man’s hand, and the man roared and jerked but did not release him. One blunt ring sank into Fraul’s cheek though they were not Ilcoceum-made, and the man laughed a little.
“Stupid fucker,” he said, readjusting his grip. Fraul jerked as he had in the sparring match. He was outnumbered. He felt the first lickings of fear and he tried to ignore it, knowing that panic made him clumsy. The leader held him from behind, pinning both his arms behind his back, and a man on each side of him knotted their fingers in his linen shirt. Fraul snarled like a dog and wrenched left, right, almost prized his right arm away. But the pain seared up his limb and forced a cry from him. They had rope. They were tying him up. Someone struck him in the face.
“Just kill him,” said one of them, as the other bandits began to back into the woods.
“He’s valuable. Look, he’s a captain.”
“I’m not,” Fraul rasped, spitting blood. With his arms pinioned behind his back, the bandit leader released him. He tried to keep his feet but couldn’t. He staggered, and fell, and the bandit leader laughed and put a foot on his back. The fear was coursing through him hard and thick like mud. He wanted to call for someone.
“Raru,” Tere called, and Fraul didn’t realize that he was still watching.
The bandits looked up, seeing that the Ezurans were marshalling, and one of them heaved Fraul onto his shoulder with a low whoof. Fraul wriggled and writhed, twisting his fingers and wrists, trying to cut the ropes with his rings, seeing his sword on the ground. Who would grab it after he was gone?
Raru did not wait for Tere and came catapulting through the foliage. Leonard sighed and clomped across the undergrowth as the other man crashed shoulder-first into the knot of bandits. They were scattered like bowling pins and Fraul mutely hit the ground on his stomach, his face grating into the ground. He rolled onto his back but couldn’t untie himself, and the effort made his ears ring and his belly heave. He felt his body trying to shut down and he held tightly onto consciousness.
Raru stomped on the ground, his blade drawn back, a few feet before Fraul. Two of the bandits faced him. Fraul rasped, “Leonard,” and Tere snuck up to him and cut his binds with a swift slice of an arrow head. He glanced over his shoulder as the third and fourth bandits saw their compatriots and pressed inward, surrounding them.
Leonard helped him up and pressed his sword into his hand. Fraul breathed a sigh of relief and their eyes met, and then they all seemed to yell at once and surged outward.
Fraul sank his fist into the stomach of the first in what was almost a killing blow; his sword thunked into the man’s side. He saw the man stumble as he himself had stumbled; he kicked the man’s skull in.
The one against Leonard was skilled with a blade and Fraul, out of the corner of his eye, saw them each block each other. As soon as the bandit turned his back to Fraul, he seemed to realize his mistake, and Fraul thrust his blade between the man’s shoulder blades.
Fraul turned for the next man, but his knee gave out. The brace held it for a moment, and then the brace itself buckled and Fraul ended up on one knee in the dirt. He pressed his sword into the ground to push himself up, and as his gaze lifted he saw Raru–stained with old black blood and bright new blood–his canines gleaming, his lips pulled back. The leader took a step forward. Snarling, Raru raised the sword over his head and swiped at them. The leader turned and dragged his friend up by the elbow, and both jogged off with a few swear words over their shoulders.
With one hand Raru held his sword; with the other he smacked himself in the breast and yipped. He turned around to sight down his company and saw it on the road a ways up. He looked at Tere with a laugh.
“We fucked them up,” he said. Leonard rolled his eyes and stepped to Fraul, taking him by the elbows and heaving him to his feet. Raru came to him and dusted him off, putting the dagger of the bandit in his hand.
“Sir,” he said softly, his blue eyes molten. Fraul sighed.
“Thank you,” he said to them, meeting the eyes of each. “I don’t know what I would have done without you, either of you.”
“I wonder why they didn’t kill you quickly,” said Tere, slinging the bow across his back.
“I believe they thought I was a captain.” Fraul put the dagger in his belt and sheathed his sword with a little click. “Never mind that. Lead the way.”
Raru led the way back down the hill, scrubbing the blood out of his eyes with his sleeve. Fraul smelled the whiskey and the metallic tang of battle on him, and the scent made him shiver. He felt alive.
Tere seemed to feel the charge between them and, on the walk back to the companies, said to Raru, “I hear you both are…doing well.”
“What?” Raru looked at him darkly. “What the hell do you mean, Leo?”
“Ashin heard from Raia that you…” Leonard lowered his voice, smiling. “That you might have a ceremony. Your words are safe with me. I always thought so.”
Raru shook his head. “Fucking Raia,” he swore. Fraul’s brow creased in confusion.
“What did you tell her?” he asked, and Raru breathed with barely a voice, “That I had plans.” He looked at Tere. “Leonard–please. Please, please.”
Tere held up his hand and put the other over his chest. “My word,” he said. “I am no traitor to my friends. I’m very happy for you. Heath or I could officiate. Or General Crowe.” He smiled at the thought.
Fraul breathed a laugh. It was just a pipe dream. A happy pipe dream. His gaze met Raru’s, whose eyes were still that molten blue, and his smile faded.
“Are you serious?” he asked. Raru stopped as if confused and looked back toward him. With a little glance over his shoulder, Tere continued on. They stood together just off the road.
“Do you think I’m joking, sir?” Raru asked.
“No, no, I…I never thought you…” Fraul was all out of words. He laughed a little and rubbed the back of his neck. “I…”
“Your face is turning red.”
“Is it?” Fraul cast his eyes down. He had never thought of this.
Raru was silent, turning to keep walking. Trying to get the flush of his cheeks under control, Fraul followed just behind him, rubbing his forearms where the rope had bit into them. The coldness that had helped him survive the battle was all gone. A part of him wanted it back. He smiled, thinking of Raru howling as he tackled them, beating his chest with one fist as they scrambled off.
Camp smoke wafted over the tree and the drums beat faster, urging the soldiers along. Fraul did his best to stay in-step, but the muscles in the front of his legs quavered in protest. As soon as they hit the center of camp, the lines dissolved–some for the meal tent, the captains for Crowe’s quarters to debrief. Fraul sat by the fire on a stool, his legs stretched before him, one palm on his knee. His other hand felt the bandit dagger tucked in his belt.
When the captains came out of Crowe’s tent, Fraul was still there. Raru went about his day, keeping an eye on him, checking on the company and eating enough for the both of them.
He caught the older man dozing in place, his chin on his chest. His heart swelled for him.
As night fell, Fraul started and lifted his head. Had he fallen asleep for that long? He saw men sitting at tables, playing cards, dozing on the grass. Raru had gone back to his own tent to rest, but in the sunset he emerged with his sword and wandered to the sparring rings.
His eyes ranged over Fraul as he went. Fraul sighed, grabbing the tree branches that had helped him to walk, and used one of them to push himself up. His gaze landed on Thatcher, who saluted.
“Need a hand, sir?” he asked, and Fraul hesitated. Thatcher put his fan of cards facedown and scooted out of the bench seat with a grunt. He went over to Fraul and put out his hand, and Fraul placed his long fingers in Thatcher’s palm and allowed himself to be helped to his feet.
“Thank you,” he breathed.
“Any time, sir.” Thatcher smacked his head in a gentle salute and wandered back to his table. Fraul appreciated him for how casually he did it. He limped to the springies’ side of camp and saw their tents all dark. He realized he didn’t know which tent was Tali’s. He was in too much discomfort to go and ask someone, and he was so close to bed–he figured he might as well rise early and see her in the morning. He felt guilt for this, but she had waited weeks. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt.
Using the branches, he swung his way across the field, taking the shortest route back to the cabin that had become his own. He almost thought of it like home.
When Raru knocked, he was sitting on the couch with coffee, reading one of Kenneth’s books which had pages and pages full of maps. He had the book open to the section about his own city, and he was laughing at the inaccuracies of the maps. He knew those roads better than any map. The town names were all misspelled. His heart ached.
He glanced up as the knock came again–he had been so absorbed, he didn’t realize how late it was.
“It’s unlatched,” he called, and Raru stuck his head in.
“You still awake?” he muttered, and his voice was a little drunk. Fraul nodded, frowning, putting the book aside. He reasoned that this man had put up with innumerable of his faults; he might as well do the same. Besides, it had been so long since they’d had any time together. Fraul said, “Not for long.”
Raru closed the door behind him, went to the lukewarm kettle of coffee, and sat on the chair beside the couch with his mug. He leaned over the book as he took a sip, his eyes ranging over the coastline.
He reached out with one dirty hand and flipped and flipped until he found Oreia. He hesitated, recognizing the shape of the country, not knowing if the word was what he thought. Fraul watched him until he asked, “What does that say?”
“Seeri,” said Fraul around a yawn.
Raru tapped it with his finger, nodding. His hand moved to another word. “And that?”
“Darling, you can read that.”
Raru shook his head. “It’s all scrawling,” he said. He shut the book and took another sip of coffee, kicking off his boots, and Fraul pushed the atlas gently aside so it would be safe from spilled mugs. Raru put his cup down and, leaning forward, caught Fraul’s gaze.
“How you doing?” he asked.
“Not bad. Not bad.” Fraul wondered why they were wasting time with conversation, but he didn’t say so. Raru was gauging his face, his eyes. Fraul looked steadily back into his face and then flicked his gaze with purpose to the shutters. Raru got up to close them, to lock the front door. When he turned back, Fraul had put the coffee and the book on the floor and was sitting with one brace propped on the table, unbuckling it. Raru’s lips parted and the breath came out of his mouth as he got on his knees and his hands overtook Fraul’s. Drunk though he was, the buckles came apart with ease.
Fraul’s brow creased. He said, “Raru, answer me something. Honestly.”
“No, you answer me something,” said Raru, pausing over the second brace. “Would you marry someone like me?”
Fraul hesitated, not liking that Raru was drunk. He frowned and whispered, “I want to know you mean it. I want you to ask me in the morning.”
“Wasn’t it you, just a week ago, all knocked off your ass on tinctures?”
Fraul huffed. “I didn’t know they could take pain away.”
Raru sat back on his heels. His eyes got that molten look and he said, “I’m sober now.”
Fraul held his gaze. “All right,” he breathed, hoping to drop it.
Raru hesitated, wanting to hold on to the topic, and then his lips twitched upward and he undid the hinges of the second brace, sliding it off. He took a little time now, knowing he should be careful, stepping out of his linen clothes and pulling the shirt over Fraul’s head. The house had become dark in the sunset and they felt blindly for each other.
Raru huffed through his nose, wordless and electric like an animal. He pulled Fraul’s face roughly to his, and Fraul’s warm lips snatched away his last bit of patience. He had meant for them both to be naked, but he didn’t get that far. Fraul’s nails dug into his hips and he tried to be gentle.
He exhaled, his breath like an ocean in Fraul’s ear. It had been so long. He started to move in and out and pressed the other person into the couch, half on the floor, and Fraul sucked a breath through his teeth. Raru thought he was saying something but the blood pounded in his ears.
He was getting close. He moved hard and deep now. He heard a groan of what might have been pain.
“Ouch,” Fraul snarled finally, wrenching backward. “Stop it.”
Ire snarled frustration. All he needed was one more second, and he pushed forward as if he could steal it. Fraul’s body contracted away from him and he felt his hair being pulled. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe.
His eyes bulged. He scratched at the hand squeezing around his throat, ringless, and when it released him he coughed and rolled off.
He got to his feet swearing, pacing, spinning to face the person supine on the floor. Fraul rolled onto hands and knees and pushed himself to his feet. His face when it came up was seething, and the Ilcoceum’le he spoke was so violent and fast that Raru couldn’t understand it.
Fraul spat and got to his feet without the braces, kicking his pants off one ankle, advancing on the other man with those quick, hating words. He struck Raru forehanded across the face and made his ears ring. Raru staggered backwards and got a vision of himself striking back.
Fraul grabbed Raru’s chin and drew a hand back to hit him again, but stopped himself. His palm lowered. He was shaking, and he went back to the couch and eased himself down. A little line of blood had reached his inner knee, and made a print on the other leg when he sat.
“Go find Raia,” he spat, breathing hard, his hair in his face, and called Raru a word that was unfamiliar to him.
Raru could not explain himself. He spun, unlatched the door, and closed it quietly behind him. His ears still rang from the strike. He went to the Bazairi den and sat down.
“I mean, it wasn’t that bad,” he was saying to Ashin. “But I don’t know why I…reacted like that. Usually he tells me to stop, I stop.” Their voices were low. Ashin tapped the pipe on the edge of the table and watched the ashes hit the ground.
“You’re both going through a lot,” he said.
“He called me piscin.” Raru frowned, casting his gaze up to meet his friend’s. “What’s that mean?”
Ashin shook his head. “Ask Raia,” he said. “She was a scholar in the devil language.” Their eyes both went to her, a whirl of skirt on the wooden floor. Raru sighed, pulling his eyes away, but Ashin kept watching her.
As if coming from a daze, Ashin broke his gaze off and said, “Have you spoken to him since then?”
“No, not for two days.”
“And you…have you been drinking, era?”
“No.” Raru’s fingers found the green knot which had been Fraul’s, looped on his hilt. He hadn’t had a knot on his sword since he was a lieutenant. Everyone just knew his rank; in reality the knots were an archaic and unnecessary custom. Raru noticed that Ashin was still looking at him, as if for an explanation.
“I…it makes me someone different,” he said glumly. “And I thought maybe it would make him talk to me again.”
“How is he to know you’re not drinking if you don’t talk?” Ashin asked, smiling.
Ashin’s smile faded. He heaved himself up and went to dance. A little grin crossed Raru’s face as he watched.
Most of them had skill developed after a lifetime of moving. The children threw themselves around in ungainly arcs until they found a style and a pace that fit them. Rolfe himself was smiling, twirling, hopping, guarding the space around Raia. She rotated to face him.
Just as Raru was beginning to consider the cup of blackfire Ashin had left on the table, the two of them wandered breathless back to the table and the pile of cushions which was the soldiers’ corner.
Mostly it was manned by Raru and Ashin. Other soldiers dropped by, evident by the awkward slouch with which they watched the dancing, and of course their swords. Even Ashin had a hard time leaving his sword in camp.
Raru stayed well into the night. He smoked shisha. Even Raia noticed he wasn’t drinking, but she assumed well of him and said nothing.
When everyone was slowing down under the veil of alcohol and smoke, Raru bid them good night and caught eyes with those he knew as he ducked out of the door. A plume of smoke followed him outside. He breathed deep, glancing up at the icy stars. His eyes leaned left, deeper into town and the direction of Feira’s house. He sighed. He wanted to try. The next day would be the third day. For two days he had left Fraul alone.
He walked down the road, but as the little cabin came into view, it seemed dark. Raru frowned, steeled himself with a few breaths, and knocked on the door, but no one answered.
He walked back for camp feeling angry at himself, muttering.
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♥️
Trigger warning: drug/alcohol use, sex, dubious consent, cigarettes, other. Take care.