READ THIS BEFORE CONTINUING
Dio Beckstead's work herein referred to as "Grey-Eyed Justice" is fully protected under The United States Copyright Laws © 17 USC §§ 101, 102(a), 302(a). All Rights Reserved. Placing or posting this story on any website, or distribution of this work in any way (parts or whole) without the explicit consent of the author (Dio Beckstead) is strictly prohibited. Any and all copyright infringements will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
This story ("Grey-Eyed Justice") may contain scenes of a graphical nature which may not be legal in your area. If you are under 18 years of age, or material of this nature is illegal in your present location, please leave now. By continuing to read you are affirming that it is legal for you to view the material in this story; neither you or any family members are an employee of any type of government, law enforcement, or investigative entity; you are not performing any type of research in preparation for any forms of legal action either directly or indirectly affecting the contents of this site; and you are agreeing that the author and this site will not be held responsible for any consequences of you viewing or downloading the story.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental, and no harm or slanderous intent is implied or intentional.
A/N: Special thanks to aj, my favorite editor on the planet! He puts up with more run-on sentences than any man should ever have to deal with ^_^ Thanks also to Myr and gayauthors.org for hosting the best gay writers website on the planet, and putting up with long whiny conversations with me on msn ^_^. Thanks also to all my other beta readers who keep me firmly grounded. And finally, special thanks to TheZot, for being unashamed of ripping anything and everything I write to shreds and salting my wounds with his unique sarcastic wit.
Oh...and thanks to my roomate Kat, who hounds me constantly for more to read -_- I'm only writing this because she's holding my tennis raquet hostage again...
Written and Edited by Dio Beckstead
Edited by aj, Myr, TheZot, Kat
They sat on a small log, overlooking a valley veiled in night's shadow—just Rory and the girl, away from the noise of the celebration going on mere yards of darkness from where they sat. It might as well have been miles.
Campfires burned below, and a great ring of men had gathered to celebrate the coming of age of the town's youngest who, engulfed in dancing and singing, paraded in their midst. The drummers had whipped up a storm of deep, guttural beats for the occasion, while men and boys sang loudly, throwing their bodies and arms in time with the gay throbbing of the music. The old and wise Epheziel Bern'alad had returned, bringing with him the dread of the Choosing. There was only one this year, cause for a great celebration--a celebration of relief, a sending off of the elder and the newly raised, together.
The girl had laced her small arm under his own in an act of supplication. She was smaller than he, delicate looking, with slender arms and long, amber hair; fragile as a sculpture of ice, with the exception of her eyes. They told Rory of her inner strength, her courage, her compassion. Now they were subdued, their inner fires banked with sadness, confusion, and worst of all—grief. It was those eyes he had fallen in love with, and it was those eyes that were now tearing him apart from the inside.
"Rory?" her voice called softly. A girl's voice. A voice far off in the distance.
"Rory?" the voice asked again, timid compared to the clamorous banging in his chest. "When you said you could never love me, you were lying, weren't you? Tell me, Rory: what is it that you're really afraid of?"
Afraid? Rory remembered thinking that over for a long time, letting the silence of the moment drag itself out. He let himself feel the beat of the drums as his heart banged back in counter-point. "Even if you ask me that, the list of things I am afraid of is long. Only the foolish and the prideful fear nothing. I am neither."
"No, but I mean—what are you really scared of? Your father? My father? Is that all you can think of, Rory?" she said, her voice cool. "I loved you. I still love you. I...I was sure you felt the same." She clutched him tighter then.
Rory breathed a long sigh, his eyes dug into the cold frosty ground. "Honestly?" he asked.
"Honestly," the girl affirmed. Rory remembered the girl frowning over at him, her eyes pools of glittering green crystals as they tried to corral his gaze. He could see the doubt, the worry in her eyes, but Rory remembered looking away, ashamed and unwilling to face those eyes. He was afraid of what he might say if he did meet them.
"What am I really afraid of, eh...?" He let the silence drift on. It would be kinder to let her believe you found someone else, he thought. Kinder, but no less cruel.
He couldn't bring himself to say it. Not then, and maybe not ever. But Rory knew what scared him. It woke him in the night in a cold sweat, and made his stomach curdle. He couldn't bring himself to say that one damning word. She would never understand. How could she? How could she ever want to live with a freak like him? How could anybody? She would stay by her father's hearth and home until her innocence was stolen by a man who would never love her as much as he would have.
A man. Not Rory. Another man.
"I'm leaving at dawn; Epheziel wants to get an early start so we don't have to push the horses to reach Gant Point by sundown," Rory said sadly, breaking the silence that had brought the girl to tears as he detached himself from her grip as gently as he could. Two streaks of pain glistened on her cheeks in the soft light of the moon. He averted his eyes; he couldn't bear to look at her, or her tears. "I...I'll come back some day...I promise. " Rory said, his voice breaking up a bit. He had always been a horrible liar.
A soft sob from beside him, and she was shaking softly, clutching her delicate arms around herself. "Oh Rory..." She shook her head, bewildered at the speed with which all hope had ended. "There...there must be some mistake. You're to...you're to take your father's place as-"
"NO!" Rory shouted, his voice cracking through the air as a whip might, stifling her sobbing. "I am not," he continued softly when she flinched away from him; he wrenched his temper once again beneath thorny reins. "I am not who you thought I was. I am Ber-" but he could not say it. Saying it somehow made it all the more real. "Y...you should forget you ever knew me," he choked out and stood abruptly, his soft leather leggings crackling the frosted glaze on the grass as he marched away. His bitterness was the thick cloak he needed in the chill night air. He did not look back.
"I am no-one, nothing," he muttered to the thick darkness between the trees. Fate was cruel. Rory knew that best. He was somehow equal in that knowing; it was coldly comforting. It justified the pain in a way Rory didn't really understand. He would move on, and survive. He would be strong. No—he was strong. He would never be the same, though. Nothing would be, but that was all right. He would survive. He liked horses well enough. It wouldn't be so bad—that's what he kept telling himself as he walked the lonely footpath home.
The one thing—no—the one person I fear the most is not you, or your father--above all else I fear myself. I fear what I will become.
Something less than human: A monster.
Rory looked up suddenly, his vision filled with blue-white radiance. He had been dreaming. No, Rory corrected, not a dream—a memory. He had been there, the last night he had spent at his home in Northland, the night he had said goodbye to-
He refused to remember her name. The memory should have brought pain, but Rory felt so empty he was numb. His father had been right, after all. He remembered how, from where he sat on the cold floor of his father's house, the broad shouldered man towered over him, his beard bristling as he discovered that his son—his son—was a Bern'alad. It would be the first time, and last, that Rory would ever see him cry. Rory remembered his words; they would never leave him. `When all the tears have been cried, the world is once again brighter.' He had been talking to himself at that point, but the meaning had never left Rory. It had been comforting to his father, and he hadn't realized it then, still shocked by the news as he was. They were comforting to him, now.
It was an odd feeling, like waking from a dream, only to find oneself trapped in another dream that, for all he knew, could be masquerading as reality. The boy, Rev, sheathed in other-worldly, whitish-blue flames, stood watching Rory--just watching--those ice-blue eyes of his never wavering. Behind him, the Elementalist who had been clutching the boy about the neck as a shield against the Northman's fury, wrenched his suddenly seared arm back with a choked-off cry of agony. The knife he held between long, spindly fingers clattered to the stone floor, and he stumbled backwards, cradling his injured arm. The Elementalist's eyes were wide, and his mouth skewed to one side of his face—even it had not escaped the flames. It was red, as if sunburned, by what Rory could see in the dim flickering light of the few torches and bits of seared moss that still smouldered in the corridor. Ephram's oiled beard was a mess; the oil had ignited and burnt it away, until naught but bristly stubble remained. His hands kept drifting up to his chin as if in sheer disbelief that it was gone; skin flaked away with every touch.
Rory had to blink rapidly when he looked at Rev; the ghostly conflagration was so bright, it seemed to suck the darkness into itself, gaining intensity as he watched.
Rev had straightened, and his hollowed, food deprived stomach had smoothed itself, filling and healing within the torrential outpouring of elemental magic Rory had forced upon the boy. It was an impossible feat, what Rev was doing right now, and that thought was etched into Ephram's face, pale and drawn before the ghostly flames.
"Impossible!" he croaked above the roar of the otherworld. His eyes darted to Rev then back to Rory, as if he couldn't make up his mind which of the two posed the greater threat. "What have you done? What have you done, Northman?"
Rev's attention was not on the Elementalist, or his sister, who had stopped, flabbergasted, at Rory's side—her slack expression wandering somewhere between disbelief and horror—he focused his perilous blue eyes, magnified by some trick of the flames, on Rory alone.
He had expected disbelief and hatred in those eyes certainly, but nothing quite prepared Rory, especially in his weakened state, for the absolute, unwavering, awe-laced fear that struck him like a blow between the eyes. Then it was gone as Rev whirled to face the Elementalist, who had raised his unburned hand, desperate to ward off the small figure wreathed in flame, the glint of madness in his eyes.
"FATHER OF LIGHT, SPIRITS OF FLAME, INCINERATE THIS CHILD OF DARKNESS WITH PURIFYING FIRE." He was weaving something, but Rory's eyes had blurred; he was only a spectator now. He didn't feel worried--he didn't feel anything. He was too tired to care any more. That last spell had drained him. Why had he done it? It was forbidden, yet he had. He had given Rev power that no single man should ever have. Rev was a pup no longer, but Ephram wouldn't know he was baiting a wolf now. Ephram was Thiian, after all. "COMA USTILO!" Ephram finished with a roar.
Those flames of his leaped from his fingertips as he made a grand throwing motion with his uninjured hand. Even tired as he was, Ephram's theatrics made Rory snort contemptuously. The hand motion wasn't necessary, but perhaps it was how the man had learned. Another piece of the Thiian puzzle to file away for later; what Rory wanted most right now was to sleep. He felt utterly drained and empty.
The blazing balls of scorching yellow and orange, whirling in a tight maelstrom of channelled death, crossed the short distance between the two stationary figures in the blink of an eye. Ephram was channelling the balls of fire so quickly now it looked more like a single stream of flame erupting from his hands, rather than the score of balls Rory knew them to be. Desperate, the man was, Rory realized.
Rev jerked as blazing tendrils of flame poured around him, but like a stream might break around a boulder the size of a mountain, so did the flames. They broke around Rev's shield of blue flames as a current might, but they never touched the shield--it was much too powerful for that. The yellow snakes of fire parted and vanished before they could touch Rev, who settled somewhat when he realized what was happening. He stood there in the midst of the fire, staring at his hands, as if he himself couldn't bring himself to believe what was transpiring.
Panting, Ephram released his weavings of elemental magic and rocked backwards on his heels, his hand again reaching for the smoking remnants of his once prim beard, his other hand finding purchase on the smoking wall behind him for support. But he did not look discouraged--far from it; he planted his feet stubbornly and laughed, a cackling that set Rory's toes tingling.
"A flame shield." He panted heavily as he spoke, and sweat dripped down his reddened face. Rory couldn't decide if that discoloration was a remnant of the burns, or the effort he had just exerted in order to channel that many strands of fire at once. If he'd had the strength, he would have peered into the otherworld ambience to check how strongly the man could grip the plane but it was all Rory could do to just keep breathing regularly, so he discarded the thought. Did it even really matter how strong Ephram was? Rory was certain Rev was stronger now. "This is beyond me, I fear--a flame shield." Ephram repeated harshly, but with a touch of wonderment. "A talent long thought lost; it is spoken of in our annals, but never have I seen one, or heard of a boy who could use one."
That word seemed to startle Rev enough to look up at the Elementalist angrily. "Who're you calling a boy!?" Rev snarled.
Rory felt like laughing. A flame shield? Was that what it was called? The thought of laughter made him groan which, of course, brought the unwanted attention of Ephram's gaze once again. If those narrowed eyes could speak words, they would have run like ice down Rory's stricken throat. As it was, the skin between his shoulders prickled unnaturally.
With defiance and determination etched onto every line of his body, Rev planted himself squarely between Ephram, and Rory's sprawled figure. He didn't say anything, and showed Rory nothing but his back, but it was enough. Rory grinned in spite of himself, and propped himself against the wall to watch. He may have broken his oath, but he was not going to miss this. It was a rare thing to watch a Dernan, a `shadow-bound,' in action. Rev had turned into what the ancient tombs of the north called a Derk, 'a living sword'. It was a spell used solely on the shadow-bound. It was one of many elemental weaves forbidden by his oath and had not been used since the Ghearan war hundreds of years ago, when the foreign mages from across the eastern sea had invaded the icy Realms of the North.
Ephram's face contorted as he opened his mouth several times to say something harsh, but every time he glanced at Rev, his eyes shied away and his voice trailed off hoarsely to angry mutters. Flame shield, he kept mumbling. He straightened, his hand rising with him until it was flush with the blazing ball of blue fire before him. His eyes were hard and cold, set with determination and fury. He was weaving again--Rory was sure--his lips started moving with each small, deliberate syllable he uttered.
"They told me I might run into trouble, but they never told me about the Northman...no, they didn't. I shall have words with them on my return." He was wheezing to himself, a wild, stricken look to his harsh features. "Well, if fire won't burn you, perhaps a taste of heavenly power will! Lord of Storms, Watcher of Winds," he chanted, his eyes losing some of their life as he did. Rory sat up straighter. He had never heard this incantation before; thoughts of the mangled doorway upstairs lent urgency to his hoarse voice.
"REV! LOOK OUT! DON'T JUST STAND THERE--STOP HIM!!"
"Take my body as conduit, my life for the spark of chaos, my arms directed by yours." Of course to Rev's ears, all he would hear was `deis vas nul itar, yar cohiln detude.' A lengthy incantation to go with the weave--it was dangerous. If only Rory had had some power left, he could have...could have...Ephram was so weak. Rev didn't know enough to stop his chanting, though. Rory doubted the boy knew anything about Elementalists. It was a Thiian taboo!
Tired and sore as he was, desperation lent energy to Rory's limbs, he pushed off the wall and rolled across the slimy floor, small rocks poking every bruise and scrape they could find.
Blinding light. Thunder in his ears. To Rory, the world shook and his vision went white for an instant as lightning leapt from Ephram's fingertips. The elementalist roared the incantation over and over again; his power, weak by the standards of the North, was still enough for such a powerful weave.
The lightning struck Rev just as he seemed to realize the danger he was in. He twisted as it came, so it caught him on his left shoulder. The boy was blown backwards by the sheer, raw power Ephram wielded, spinning uncontrollably off at a slight angle to where Rory had been sitting not a moment ago. Rory lost sight of Rev as his vision blurred and he squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his hands over his ears. Debris from the lightning bolt's impact rained down around him, biting bits of rock that tore at his already ruined jacket, and his face and arms. Rory was again glad for the hat, but for a much different reason now. His head spun as if he himself had been struck, and everywhere small cuts and scrapes burned and stung.
He was deafened by the discord of his own breathing, competing with the roar of blood in his ears: the only sounds that remained in the void left by the brilliant bolt of destruction. Rory couldn't help gaping. Smoke rose in a long path that started from the Elementalist, and led in a jagged line past the spot where Rev had stood not moments ago, to a great hole in one of the many cells. The bars were twisted where the bolt had struck, just like those upstairs in the guardroom, and smoke from the impact deep inside the cell rolled slowly out until it melted into the flickering torchlight.
"REEEEEEEV!" Janna was yelling, sobbing. Then she stumbled to her feet, tears rolling down her face, and death in her eyes. "I'LL KILL YOU!" she screeched, as the crossbow that had lain forgotten in her hands leapt to her shoulder.
"Janna, no!" Rory shouted--at least, he thought he had shouted. For some reason the blast made everything but the sounds of his own body dull and hollow, as if he were listening through wads of wax stuck in his ears. She couldn't hear him.
Twang. She was fast and lethal with that crossbow of hers, but Ephram was faster with his shield. "Vox deiras nex!" Rory couldn't hear the words, but he saw the Elementalist's lips move quickly before Janna's finger tightened on the trigger, and his hands rose with a quickness not associated with the exhaustion that rimmed the man's bloodshot eyes. The iron bolt hit the shield and skittered off to batter against the solid rock of the roughly hewn ceiling—a meaningless gesture of rebellion against the Elementalist.
Rory swore and tried to push himself to his feet. His legs felt like jelly, and wobbled unsteadily as he rose. It had been too long since he last wove. Too long. And Rev's spell had exhausted him. He could protect Janna from Ephram's counter-stroke; at least, he thought he could. There was a danger of burning out...and that would mean death for Rory, but he had to take responsibility. His eyes felt as though someone had lifted his lids and scraped sand across the iris, but he willed them to focus as he forced his legs to straighten as if nothing in the world was bothering him. Confident--he must try and look confident and strong. Rory gritted his teeth so tightly he feared they might start cracking, but he stood as tall as he could and sent what he hoped was a chilling glare at the rogue Elementalist.
Ephram's face had only a moment for a triumphant grin before his face paled. His lips were moving again, but this time he did not speak. Instead of focusing on him, as Rory wished, the man's face drained of color as movement drew his eyes to the hole in the wall. Rory's eyes followed instinctively.
There, stepping from the wreckage, over bits of stone and twisted bars of iron, was Rev--his expression unreadable. His clothes, already tattered, looked none the worse for wear than they had thirty seconds ago. He grabbed the twisted iron bars, and hopped through the hole as if nothing had happened. He battled the smile that kept catching him almost unaware and tried frowning instead, the latter especially when his eyes fell on Rory, and a sinister grin reserved for a still-smoking Ephram. The flickering blue flames were gone, but the boy himself looked untouched.
"That...hurt," was all he said.
Then, Rev moved. It was the only way Rory could explain it. One moment he was at the hole, the next standing beside the Elementalist. The path he had taken in the blink of an eye was momentarily empty of the cloud of dust that had filled most of the corridor; it swirled in the void of his passage. Rory couldn't decide who looked more surprised: Rev, or Ephram. His surprise only lasted briefly. He grinned an entirely boyish grin as he watched Ephram turn his head slowly, the tall man's eyes bulging unnaturally, as if not quite certain what he had just witnessed. His hand whipped around, but Rev was having none of that this time around. Apparently the short Thiian could learn a lesson when he was pressed. A weak Elementalist made up for his lack of power by the length of a chant. The longer the chant, the more powerful the elements channelled would become. Ephram was helpless with Rev so close. He wasn't strong enough to weave without words.
With a speed equal to Ephram's bolt not a moment ago, Rev moved as fluidly as Rory had ever seen anyone move; it was almost how he pictured Death might dance at a ball. He glided forward almost faster than Rory's eye could follow, and his leg snapped up and out like an oiled spring, catching the taller man in the stomach and sending him flying backwards before even the wind could rush from his lungs in a dry retch. Surprisingly, Rev was there waiting behind him, waiting with another kick, as if he had been there all along. This one caught the flying Elementalist in the side of the head, and it sent him spinning off in the opposite direction. With a dull thwap, he hit a wall of bars like a sack of grain, and slid to the floor, where he remained in a heap of smoking fabric and battered skin, unmoving. Two strikes. Just two. That was the power of a Derk.
Rory's hearing seemed to be returning, because he heard Janna's gasp from behind him. He had almost forgotten about her in the intervening silence. He glanced back just in time to see Janna, standing pressed up against the wall--unflappable Janna, the woman who had tossed up his kilt without so much as a blush, the woman he had been sure ate nails for supper and quenched her thirst with the blood of mere men—fall to the floor in a dead faint.
Rev was shaking his head, again looking at his open hands and flexing them as if he himself was having trouble believing what had just happened. When he looked up the fear was gone, which Rory was greatly relieved to see. In its place was a stubborn look he had experienced before and a sense of...awe maybe? Those blue eyes that were trying to pry under his skin would make any boulder tumbling down a mountainside wary. Trapped.
"You...you owe me some answers," Rev finally said, eyes never leaving his own. Had they always been so strong? They had. But they were even stronger now. "Just...just what am I?" Those eyes reminded him of the blue flames that had vanished a moment ago, and made his legs tremble and wobble all the more. He must look a fool, teetering as he was. Rory's knees shook with the urge to collapse.
"Answers?" Rory managed, his voice sounding as if a bunch of pebbles were being ground to dust. His throat was arid, and ached when he spoke. "I suppose I do, at that..." he husked faintly. "But not here," he said, glancing worriedly at the smoking body of the Elementalist. "Not here." Ephram was dead. Rory didn't need to look to know, he had felt the man's presence in the back of his mind vanish. Dead.
He turned, nearly falling, and started to totter over to Janna. Surprisingly, Rev was at his side, helping him stay on his feet. Watching him closely, Rory accepted the proffered arm hesitantly. He was absolutely certain the swordsman had been going to kill him when he found out. But the malice had never truly been stoked. In its place was a strange sort of curiosity, and a glimmer of mischief and awe.
Rory's eyes fell on Janna, and with Rev's help he struggled over to her. He could barely see the ambience...but maybe it would be enough to wake her. It was too dark down here, the air too thick, and the smoke was making him choke. Before he said anything further, Rory knew he needed to clear his mind. A short dip in the otherworld ambience might do the trick.
"Well, I guess you kept your promise after all," Rev said, his voice tight, hands clenched at his sides, as he watched Rory try and rouse his sister. "Just...not in any way I'd have expected."
A lot of answers--but not all of them. Never all of them. Not if Rory had his way.
Jaden's view of the chaos filled courtyard was blocked as Sergeant Bernweld hovered over him, hands wrapping the protruding end of the quarrel that had managed to bury itself between his shoulder and collar. The more the sergeant tried to wipe off the blood, the more seemed to flow from the wound. A nervous looking second, a boy really, peach fuzz on his cheeks, stood with another cloth filled with foul smelling herbs to press onto the wound once the man pulled it out. He looked pale enough to faint. And he wasn't the one with the quarrel in his arm!
Reinforcements had come near the end of the battle, led by one of Edmund's men who began to get suspicious when the change of the guard never reported in back at the barracks. Much to Jaden's chagrin, Bernweld had escaped with only a nick on his chin--a mere fifth had escaped the trap while he, a seventh no less, had gotten stuck with iron. If it hadn't been for the day's stubble Jaden would have swore Bernweld looked like he had accidentally cut himself shaving, while he on the other hand...Jaden glanced down at his bloody tunic, shredded across his ribs and torn away from his shoulder so Bernweld could get his meaty fingers closer to his bloody and swollen shoulder; he certainly hadn't cut himself shaving, not unless the bloody blade had been wielded by a sadistic surgeon with an eye for pain.
Bodies littered the ground, cut down as the assassins realized the folly of their ambush, and the hunters became hunted, slaughtered as they fled the small courtyard. Some had made it over the walls with rope ladders and grapples, but the rest who had tried to flee through the gates had met mounted death in the form of three companies of his Father's horsemen, a collection of thirds and fourths mainly.
"Get on with it, Sergeant," Jaden growled through his teeth. His hands curled into fists on the hard, pitted earth where they sat, off to one side of the main road that was now bustling with shouting soldiers and horsemen, and men with bows and torches. His back was propped against the trunk of a scraggly looking tree. Bernweld was frowning at the piece of metal, and kept checking his grip on the blood-soaked projectile. Jaden tried to ignore the man's mutters of displeasure, and shifted his mind--with no small effort--away from the splitting pain, to focus on the Lieutenant, who fidgeted uncomfortably under his gaze. Bernweld hadn't even pulled yet, and already it felt as if the man was delving into his flesh with a red-hot iron.
"Casualties?" he barked, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt the skin around the wound tighten when Bernweld finally managed a semblance of a grip on the quarrel tail.
Lieutenant Tim Thennel was about as reliable as they came, and Lord Edmund's man to the bone. A tall man that even managed to make Bernweld seem short, he possessed none of the deadly grace Jaden normally associated with a fifth of the sword, managing to look clumsy and awkward most of the time. It was all a sham, as far as Jaden was concerned. He had seen the man slice up two of the assassins before they'd even realized he was there, moving from form to form with lethal grace, and without hesitation. The crossbowmen didn't even get a chance to scream as their heads were severed from their bodies.
"Seventeen all told, Sir." He made a sign with his hands silently, his left hand laid over his right fist, indicating his regret. "With respect, we've found twenty dead scattered about the grounds, and several in the nearby stables." If the man's lips twitched when he said that last, Jaden couldn't tell. His voice became pinched for a moment, as if wondering what exactly had happened to the butchered bodies his men had discovered all but torn to pieces, bloody bits of hay and flesh intermingled on the muddy floor, the closed air of the stables thick with the stench of blood.
Jaden nearly snarled as Bernweld's probing fingers suddenly wrenched the metal bolt, which stuck fast in his shoulder. "Stop messing around, you oaf--pull it out before I cut off your balls!" Jaden shuddered as Bernweld paused to readjust his grip before trying again.
"Need a bloody healer...where's Gotfried when you really need that bleedin' excuse of a man?" Bernweld was muttering darkly under his breath—which meant it was loud enough that even the fuzzy-cheeked second winced and shifted around on his feet, probably wishing he was anywhere but here.
Jaden made an impatient motion with his hands, taking Lieutenant Thennel into the motion, urging him on. "And? What of the prison? Where did Janna get off with Ror—with my slave?" he corrected hastily.
It was hard to tell in the dim light, but it looked as if Lieutenant Thennel shifted on his feet uncomfortably, and scratched his head. "My Lord," he began, his voice tentative, "We found...several dead bodies inside-"
"Rory?" Jaden barked before he could stop himself.
Bernweld chose that exact moment to strike. With a grunt he wrenched his fist back, the quarrel firmly clenched in his hand, and ripped it out of his shoulder with a sound that was lost to Jaden's ears as his body seized with pain. Darkness bit at the sides of his vision and he could feel every beat of his heart, his pulse thrumming in his ears. Some idiot was screaming...it certainly wasn't him! Jaden did not scream in pain. Women screamed, boys whimpered; and he was neither!
"Get on with it, boy!" Jaden heard Bernweld mutter worriedly from beside him as he sniffed the quarrel's tip carefully for any residual poison. The man hovered unnecessarily as the second jumped like a rabbit from his burrow. Through eyes blurred with tears, Jaden watched with trepidation as the surprisingly sure-handed second pressed the herbs to his bubbling wound with a pressure that nearly made Jaden succumb to tantalizing darkness. Then he got to work binding the shoulder tightly with ripped strips of cloth, securing the limp arm to his side—not that Jaden was tempted in any way to move it at that moment.
Struggling against the shadows that kept trying to obscure his vision and panting heavily, Jaden turned back to the Lieutenant. "You mentioned dead bodies...Janna?" he managed, and winced as the second tied his first knot. Jaden noticed a stubborn set to the boy's eyes that almost made him laugh. The second looked undecided as to whether he was going to lose his head for not doing a good job, or getting it slung from a pole if the wound became infected, or worse, if he bled to death. Jaden's chuckle was mirthless as he grabbed a piece of the boy's leather jerkin tightly in his hands and assayed a reassuring smile. "Is that the best you've got? Tighter, soldier!" Jaden groaned and his hand whitened as he got his wish, although now he wished he had kept his fool mouth closed.
"No Sir." Thennel knelt so his voice didn't carry. "We found two assassins dead by poison in the guardsman foyer. Beyond doors twisted by foul magics, we found Sir Denneal and his men. M'Lord...there was nothing we could do." At his motion, another kilted swordsman stepped from the darkness bearing several sheathed swords in his arms.
Beside him, Bernweld's face fell; Jaden remembered vaguely the two men had been friends of sorts. Jaden sniffed impatiently; it was all well and good the man was dead. A Swordsman who was lax enough to have fallen into such a trap deserved such a death. Duty shirkers had no business being in the Emperor's Legions, at any rate. This certainly wasn't the place to grieve properly over the swords. Gods! Did every good man lose his head when a couple of men found respite from life? Jaden was as diplomatic as he dared to be with the fool. "That's troublesome news, Lieutenant...now, about my slave?"
Thennel motioned the man away and for a moment; Jaden thought Thennel's mouth down-turned in a disapproving frown, but it might have been the shadows of the single flickering light of the torch. It made the spindly limbs of the tree looks like the grabbing tendril of a monster from stories his Mother had told him as a child to scare him into obeying. Idly, Jaden wondered when those stories had stopped bothering him. He searched his memory. After he had killed, surely. Seeing shadows steal a man's soul from this world had blasted fear of anything else from his mind.
If anything, Thennel lowered his voice further. "We found them, M'Lord. It was betrayal. And with all respects due, M'Lord, Sir Denneal cannot be faulted. An Elementalist, may his soul be burned from this ground forever, tore the hinges off the doors, blasting them down the hall. Denneal and his men had their faces burnt and crushed beyond recognition." His voice was cold, and beside him Bernweld drew up at the word. Betrayal.
The throbbing in his shoulder disappeared with those words, shoved aside by the ice of cold fury. Jaden pushed the fussing second away. Bernweld's trunk-like arm was there helping him to his feet, unsteadily, as his head swam. "Who? I'll kill him myself." There were ways to deal with Elementalists. But only sixths and above were taught such tricks--dangerous tricks. Jaden had killed his fair share of Elementalists in his time. Rogue swordsmen weren't the only thing that he had been sent off to chase before.
At his words Sir Thennel shifted his weight slightly. "M'lord-" he wet his lips, "It was the Elementalist, Ephram."
"EPHRAM!" Jaden and Bernweld echoed each other. TRAITOR! His mind screamed. Had the Eastern Elementalist Coalition finally made its move? They had been bitter beyond belief when Lord Edmund refused them entrance into the Northern Prerogative—the provinces were shut to them, and it brought enmity to the table with their every move.
Lieutenant Thennel forced the next out before Jaden got a good head of rage going. "But M'Lord, he do be dead..." He stopped, and Jaden thought he looked mighty uncertain as to whether he should say any more.
"Out with it, man! Do I have to drag the story out over hot coals and a spit?" Bernweld finally cut in; he had grabbed Jaden's good arm, before he could draw it back and attempt an assault on a subordinate.
Thennel frowned again; this time, there was no mistaking his disapproval. "Apologies, Sergeant. We found the corpse of the rogue Elementalist Ephram in the bowels of the third deep. He was dead when we arrived, Swordsmen Rev and Janna apparently responsible. Janna we found unconscious, but alive; she's being carried up as we speak. Swordsman Rev was found with your slave, M'Lord. Beggin' your pardon, but we knew your orders concerning that traitor and tried to put him under guard, but the Northman interfered."
"Rory..." Jaden let out a breath he didn't realize he had been holding. He shook himself and for once tried to focus on the hot needles pressing into his shoulder. "Where are they now?"
"Still down in the bowels, Sir. They refuse to come up, and..." Lieutenant Thennel's voice became pinched, "My men say Swordsman Rev disarmed three men with apparent ease when the issue was...forced."
"Rev did?" Jaden barked a laugh that sounded empty and joyless in the still encroaching darkness. "Your men are incompetent if swordsman Rev can disarm them, Lieutenant. Discipline them." When the fatherly Sergeant made to move with him, Jaden pushed off his arm, "My shoulder has a hole in it, Sergeant, not my leg," he scolded angrily. The big man grunted, but he still hovered at his side uncertainly, his hand restless on the big sword at his hip.
"With all due respect Captain," Thennel emphasized the title needlessly. "The boy disarmed my thirds with his bare hands."
'And I had always though the man had a level head,' Jaden reassessed his opinion of the tall, sometimes clumsy Swordsman. He mentally shrugged the lieutenant's words off. "I want all available patrols out in the forest—that includes your precious cavalry, mind you. Send word to the estates immediately--my father will want to know what transpired here. Send your fastest riders to the gates and issue an immediate lock-down, on my authority. No one is to enter or leave the city until the assassins are hunted down; Do it now!" That should keep the fool out of his hair for a while.
Thennel bowed his way back into the darkness, and the syncopation of his heavily armored tread beat quickly into the distance, orders snapping from a sharp tongue that, it seemed, ignored no-one he passed. Jaden spared a glance for the second who had treated his wounds; he motioned for the boy to accompany them. Another sword would always be useful. Jaden missed how the boy's face paled even further as he strode towards the prison entrance.
"You didn't have to do that." Rory scolded softly, one eye on the bunch of swordsmen as they hoisted Janna, still unmoving, up on their shoulders gently, and marched away into the darkness once again. Their nervous glances included not only the smoking Elementalist now, but Rev--who stood over Rory protectively, sending scathing ice-blue glares whenever one of the green and gold kilted swordsmen so much as glanced their way. Several of them were still nursing bruised wrists or clutching their sides surreptitiously.
The sword, appropriated from one of the swordsmen who had decided he wasn't going to take any lip from a bratty apprentice, Rev had planted on the rough stone before him; he twirled it idly as he watched the milling men like a wolf might watch coyotes who were in turn eying his meal. The sound of the metal whirling through the air and the tip grinding on the uneven stone sent constant chills running down Rory's spine. The only bright thought those sounds brought was the relief that came with the knowledge that his hearing was finally returning to normal. "They would have listened to me if you had kept your big, gaping mouth shut," Rory scolded.
Rev ignored him, and kept spinning his sword; that only made Rory want to sigh again. Instead, he tried to prop himself up on a more comfortable piece of the rough stone wall, which seemed to poke every bruise and scrape he had managed to accumulate over the course of the evening. His head felt like a leaden block; if he was made to get up, he feared he would collapse again, with legs better suited to a cripple.
After Ephram's defeat, the shouts had been their only warning. When the sounds of trampling feet and the blinding light of torches entered the doorway to the dark, smoky hallway, Rory had thought the newcomers were more men in league with Ephram, but that thought had been snuffed as the torches, held by the familiar green and gold kilted swordsmen with death glinting in their eyes, poured into the third deep. It had taken quite an effort to assure them the Elementalist was dead, and Janna was not. And just when it looked like everything would smooth itself out, Rev had opened his fool mouth when the men had tried to put him in irons. Rory couldn't fault the boy, of course. He himself had vowed he would never have another piece of iron touch his wrists again; the memory of his time chained to a bench still grated him. It was all the name-calling that had been unnecessary. Then the swords had come out...
Rory watched from his vantage point behind Rev as a small commotion started in the back ranks. Like a flower opening, the solid ranks of swordsmen suddenly peeled back and several familiar faces stepped through the press, heralded by a sudden silence as backs straightened and salutes rippled through the crowd. Rory's eyes widened at the sight of two battered and bloody faces, relief battling fear.
Jaden and Bernweld looked as though they had had a nasty run-in with a malicious grindstone. Jaden's stark black, leather armor hung from his waist, pulled down to expose bloody strips of cloth knotted tightly around his shoulder; his face was drawn as he glared at Rev, who had finally stopped making that accursed sound with his appropriated sword, and met Jaden's glare with an arrogant one of his own. Rory watched as the boy's shoulders stiffened and he lifted the sword to what Rory had figured out was a defensive form, his eyes narrowing and full of suspicion.
Maybe it was exhaustion but Rory, for the first time since he'd met the Seventh, couldn't get a sense from Jaden's grey eyes as to what exactly he was thinking at that moment. It was as if, hidden in the shades of grey, his mind was shrouded by an impenetrable fog. Jaden might as well have been wearing a hood, and Rory's head still hurt too much to even think about touching the ambience of the otherworld; to do much of anything supernatural was out of the question.
Bernweld, on the other hand, might have been a book to leaf through at his leisure. He was fingering that huge sword he kept at his waist, and was eyeing the small, defiant swordsman in front of him as if for the first time. His kilt was torn, exposing legs bound with bands of iron muscle, and his armor was scraped and dented, but he looked as if he'd managed to escape the worst of the fighting outside.
Jaden ignored the boy for a moment, and turned to Bernweld. "Sergeant? Go find our prisoner. He should be down the next corridor on the right..." As Bernweld strode off—thunder roiling in his eyes--Jaden turned back to consider the short swordsman. "Drop your sword, Rev--none of that, now. I don't have time for games." Jaden managed to sound arrogant even when he was speaking to an apparent subordinate.
Rory could feel emotions flare up in the small swordsman. "Why? So you can bloody well put me back in that flaming cage? No, thank you." His hand flickered quickly, and the fingers of his left hand danced and twirled. From the bulging of Jaden's eyes, that had to have meant something. The Thiian Captain had mentioned something like this earlier, but it had sounded like another silly Thiian tradition, so Rory hadn't been listening all too carefully. He strained his memory to recall. Something about a language of the hands that swordsmen used. It was gibberish as far as he was concerned.
Jaden's voice was taut, and when he spoke his tone matched his eyes, both cold and intense. Jaden was furious. "You...dare?" Rory had never heard Jaden talk like that. His stomach was twitching as if realizing the danger Rev was in. Rory blinked—the danger Rev was in? With that blooded shoulder he was nursing, Jaden couldn't even use his sword-hand, and fighting against Rev would be ridiculous; a battle between wolves it might be, but not much of one when the challenged was already blooded and crippled.
"STOP THIS, BOTH OF YOU!" Rory bellowed--the effort making dark spots dance before his eyes--and grimaced guiltily when Rev jumped. The boy glanced down with wide eyes at his hands again, incredulous that he had just challenged a seventh ranked swordsman to a duel. Rory took a deep breath and moderated his tone slightly, meeting Jaden glare for glare. "Well, it certainly is nice to see you well, even if you are a little worse for wear... Oh?" he gazed appropriately at Jaden's bloody figure, which didn't seem to faze the swordsman one bit. It was one of his biggest faults—being unflappable like that. He had no right! Rory grudgingly had to admit it was his one and only Northman trait. Very grudgingly. "How am I? Oh, I'm fine! Nothing to it! What's that? You want to know what happened? Here? While we sit in a freezing dungeon? Are you mad!? My ass is ready to fall off if it ever manages to thaw itself, so do what you do best, and Get. Us. Out. Of. Here!" Rory spared a wary glance for the swordsmen at Jaden's back, "And call off your dogs before they get burned by the boy with a big stick again..."
It took a moment of absolute silence, and startled, wide-eyed looks, before anyone recovered, and Rory wasn't about to let them; he was a stone's throw away from slipping into sleep at any moment. Sitting on the floor as he was, words were his only weapon. "I mean, really! You send us into a building occupied by your enemies with only one sword and a crossbow between myself and Janna, and you expect miracles? We fought a bloody Elementalist, Jaden; you know...with fire and lightning and lots of explosions, whilst I suppose you were having fun peeling potatoes outside." Rory watched with amusement as Jaden's face turned a dark purplish colour. Oh, that was good. Now separate him from his command, make him seem outrageously unfair. Even Thiian soldiers are human after all. "Then, you have your prissy little guard in nice, blood-free uniforms come prancing down here and try and put the man who saved both Janna and myself from complete obliteration in chains! Do you not find anything amiss in my little story? Anything that turns your tongue? I hope you do! Or are you wrought so complete of iron that even your heart has been encased? Don't you realize when enough is truly enough? You told me, after all, that you would release Rev once I talked to this bloody prisoner of yours, but matters have changed somewhat, haven't they?" He said bitterly, scoffing not only to Jaden, but meeting his swordsmen's eyes as well. "Rev was under arrest, for what? Injuring your property? Well then! Now he's saved your property's life, so all's square." Don't let him recover. If you give him time to retreat into his 'I'm the commander' shell, you'll never pull this off, Rory!
"It doesn't work like that-" Jaden started harshly, but Rory overrode whatever he'd been about to say. Ignoring the stiff seventh as well as he could under the circumstances.
"Now drop that bloody sword, Rev, and help me get up. We're leaving...now. I need something to drink...and you need to have those...uh...wounds looked at." Well, that wasn't true. But Rev was covered in enough dirt and grime that no-one could prove him wrong until he'd been dunked in a tub and scrubbed for half a day at the least. Out of the three of them, Rev was probably the healthiest.
Rev dropped his sword so hastily it looked like it might have burned his hand. He stumbled back over to help Rory to his feet with surprisingly sure balance for his small frame. Rory put it down to the leftover elements that were still coursing through his veins. Despite his disgust, he was actually curious as to how Rev's body was handling the Ghearan spell. He had to remind himself of the scolded pup who looked about to explode, so he didn't lose focus.
Steadfast, Jaden just looked them over; he didn't budge. Slowly, his face returned to a more normal color. "I see...so you took out an Elementalist? And what's wrong with Janna?" Jaden snapped, "She didn't look like anything touched her. Was that the Elementalist at work?"
"Maybe you didn't understand the first time through, so I'll paint it for you," Rory said patiently. "Let's get out of here first. We all must look like we've marched past the flaming guardians of the underworld. Besides," he glared at Jaden now, putting most of his weight on Rev beside him. It was harder than he'd first imagined, this trying to look intimidating when you were a slave with wobbly legs. "A good story requires a good telling." Well it was worth a shot...that excuse would have earned him a reprieve in the North at least.
Jaden glared at the two dishevelled figures in front of him for a while before the corner of his lips quivered. Is he laughing at me? Rory wondered furiously, as he tried not to blush. Then it was all seriousness again, as Jaden sniffed the air once, his eyes boring holes through Rev. "I suppose..." he frowned, "it does stink down here, doesn't it?" He glanced at the still smoking body of what had once been Ephram, then briefly over at his men, most of whom wouldn't meet his eyes. At least the injured wolf knew when to cut his losses. "I suppose I'll have to wait to find out how you managed to burn him with his own magic..." he nodded to himself and turned to a smallish swordsman who had been heeling him since he had entered. "You--escort my wards with all haste back to the Estates. They are under your charge, so stay with them until I return. Don't let my father near them." He added the last almost as an afterthought.
Rory managed to clamp his hand over Rev's mouth before the boy could manage a retort. Then he had to withstand the furious glare that provoked, as if it were his fault that Jaden and Rev didn't get along too well of late. Thiians didn't appear to need logic, but they were certainly never shy with selfish opinions...
Jaden moved aside, presumably to wait for Bernweld's return with his other prisoner. Rory and Rev stumbled up the stairs together under the watchful eye of several fourths—or thirds, by their kilts—Rory could never remember which the yellow kilts belonged to. Rev cursed his clumsy feet the whole way, which Rory countered by musing aloud about stupid, hare-brained Thiians and their block-headed ways. Several pointy elbows in his side later, Rory decided to enjoy the torturous march in obstinate silence. He found the walk up rather pleasant as he left Jaden behind--aside from the burning in his legs as he struggled up the stairs and his squirming insides as he rehearsed just what he was going to tell Jaden and Rev about what had happened. But, it was much better than being dead--he hoped.
Copper bathtubs, Rory decided, were a marvellous Thiian invention--in fact, he would even go so far to say that they were the premiere achievement of their society. Everything else Thiian was either useless or completely unnecessary, like most of the rules Thiian's 'claimed' to follow, when in reality those very rules contradicted one another. Like some of the swordsmen oaths, one was to follow the emperor's will and commands before all others, and another made the exact same claim when it came to swearing to a Lord for service. Did they...what? Flip a coin to decide who went first?
And Thiian invented the most useless trades, like Librarians! Who had ever heard of a man who spent his entire life herding books? You certainly couldn't milk a book--or birth one, for that matter. And that's just what he did; he spent his entire day moving books from one place to another, or on the off day spent some time reading. It was all very silly. Almost as silly as accountants, whose fingertips were more interested in the hard beads of an abacus and the seductive smell of ink than in the supple flesh of more human-based temptations. Everything Thiian was just so...backwards.
Well, not so with bathtubs, Rory decided--especially when he was up to his pink ears in steamy, hot, bubble-filled water; it helped wash away aches and pains, soaking in a protective warmth that was unlike anything he had ever experienced. Forget the world--Rory at that moment wanted to spend the rest of his happy, albeit pruney, existence lying right here.
He wiped suds from his eyes, and glanced over at the sullen looking swordsman in the adjoining tub. They were in a small, stone room filled with identical tubs of gleaming copper. Extra buckets of hot water sat untended beside their tubs, doing their part to fog the air, while the rest of the room was filled with empty tubs. When the swordsman who had led them back to the Estates had told them to go visit the 'bathroom' and get cleaned up, Rory had never imagined that they actually had an entire room full of just baths! Something like this would never have gained a foothold in the icy steppes of the North. No self-respecting warrior would catch himself dead in a luxury like a bath, much less in another man's presence. Men gathered to drink and brawl--two of the biggest past-times of men trying to stave off boredom of the winter months--but this whole bath idea was making Rory seriously consider rethinking his standpoint.
"You look like a girl with your hair all flat like that and your eyes all wide, looking around and blinking like a bloody idiot," Rev declared as his inky black hair, plastered to his head, popped up over the rim of his tub and he draped his arms over the side, staring at the ceiling with a very self-satisfied grin on his lips. He splashed a good deal of water on the cold-looking stone floor, which was slanted somewhat towards several drains in the centre of the room for just such occasions. Rory felt his cheeks redden and he slunk back down into the soap bubbles, pushing his reddish-orange hair back out of his eyes, and trying to focus on rubbing grime from his skin with a rough, spongy mass he had discovered in the bath with him. Rev wasn't finished poking fun yet. "So you really don't have bathrooms in the North? I'm not surprised, you know; that's why we call you barbarians, after all. Not a spot of culture in the lot of you."
Finally gaining the measure of his reddened cheeks, Rory sat up again, "And I suppose you speak from your years of experience, do you? Seeing as how you're so widely traveled...how old did you say you were?"
"Shut up..." Rev said half-heartedly, and sighed as he slid contentedly back into the water. His cheeks were once again free of the streaks of dirt and mouldy foulness of the third-deep, and thanks to Rory's magic, he looked none the worse for wear. In fact, the only thing that had changed were his eyes. They were...Rory couldn't decide how he would describe them...more mature for one thing. They seemed to have gained several facets of depth and meaning since Rory had last seen him...and he was smiling now. Rev had never smiled so genuinely before. It was always hesitant, as if he didn't deserve to smile. In fact, he was smiling now as much as he used to scowl. Jaden hadn't returned yet, for which Rory was glad; he needed to talk to Rev first. He'd had enough trouble getting away from the cursed, duty-bound Second that Jaden had assigned to watch them.
"Do you hate me?" Rory blurted suddenly. "I mean, you can if you like. I lied to you...and I did something horrible to you. And I shouldn't have—lied I mean, or done that to you, so I understand if you hate me for it. Anyone would--I would, if it were me." Nice speech, Rory. You sound like an idiot. Again.
"Do I hate you?" Rev repeated carefully, his eyes falling to consider the pool of water on the floor that was slowly draining away as he lapsed into silence. Rory, in turn, considered his hands, fiddling with the dirt under his ragged nails, which he had been biting incessantly ever since he had arrived in the Thiian provinces. The silence stretched, and Rory avoided the temptation to check the ambience for Rev's feelings. He would do this like everyone else bloody did this...no cheating.
It started as a low chuckle, which quickly developed into laughter that splashed even more water over the side of Rev's tub. "No—maybe I thought I did at first, but it was stupid." Rev's laughter wound down, and Rory could feel his eyes—a sharp prickling on the back of his neck as the boy continued. "I really did hate you...I screamed at you for a while down there, you know. I mean...I remembered those awful things you said," Rev said, his voice suddenly shaking, but he firmed it quickly. "But then, as I thought more and more about it, I realized why those words got me so angry; that what you said was just what I was thinking all the time. I...I really hated me more than anything else. I hated my stupid block with the sword, and I detested myself for it." Rev took a shaky breath, "I don't hate you. But...you do scare me. I mean...what did you bloody do down there?"
"Something I shouldn't have," Rory said, after a moment's pause. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding. More of his exhaustion seemed to wash away as Rev spoke. I don't hate you. "I know I don't have the right," Rory said, his fists tightening beneath the cooling water, "But I'll ask anyway: can you keep this between us? I'll tell you either way, but-"
Rev raised an eyebrow and his lips thinned. "So you did do something. It wasn't just my imagination, then. This all seems like a really bad dream. I keep wondering if I'm going to suddenly wake up with Janna standing over me, laughing her head off."
Rory couldn't help wincing. "I know, I know. And I'm sorry." He paused and settled himself down into the warm water. "When I was first told what Bern'alad meant in your Thiian tongue, I was given a very odd answer. I was told by Lord Edmund himself that in the Thiian tongue it meant something like 'horseman', which is almost right, but misses a very large part of our identity. You'd be closer to the truth to say that a Bern'alad is more of a 'lonely horseman' or 'exiled horseman'."
"Exiled!" Rev started, "You mean you don't have a choice to...well...do whatever it is you do?"
Two sad blue eyes and tear-stained cheeks surfaced again from his emotional deep. Rory suppressed them with a sigh. He had thought she was out of his mind by now. He had been fooling himself. He was not going to sit in hot bubbly water and reminisce about times gone and past. Not when those memories still stung as they did--he had enough cuts and bruises on the outside without having to deal with the ones on the inside as well!
"At the age of turning, a test is given to any boy or girl by a Bern'alad who returns every year to the village. He designates who has inherited the will of god, and will follow the solitary path of the Bern'alad as he or she did when they were chosen all those years ago. Sometimes, if the village is lucky, none are chosen and a great celebration ensues, but it wasn't to be. I was taken even before my age of turning...I mean...I had talents that no-one could explain, so I was given the test earlier than is traditional."
Rory's finger made small trails in the dense suds on the surface of the now murky water. He let his mind wander. "The Bern'alad are a big secret in the North, but it's not a secret we try and keep. Thiian's just assume we're wonderful horsemen...and the truth of the matter is we are good horsemen...just not for the reasons you think we are. We...I guess you could say we cheat."
Rory looked over, but Rev wasn't budging from his lounging position. He looked relaxed but absolutely intent, as if absorbing every word like a sponge. Rory shrugged, "I guess you don't care much about that. The long and the short of it is, a Bern'alad is equivalent to what you call an Elementalist here, Rev. And..." Rory hesitated before he plunged onwards, it was time to come clean. "and...I used a bit of it on you to provoke you to anger. Although," he said sheepishly, "that didn't work out quite as planned."
"They told me I almost killed you!" Rev said abruptly, and his face darkened. "I don't remember much of anything after you had me on the ground with that staff beside my head...it's all fuzzy."
"And...I'm sorry. I had no right...I thought I could help you. But really, I'm an idiot," Rory finished. "You have every right to kill me, by Northern law, so I really don't mind if-"
"Kill you?" Rev chuckled, then there was the sound of churning water as Rev propped himself up, "I didn't tell you, did I? It worked! Whatever block I had is gone! Didn't you see me earlier against those swordsmen?"
Rory blinked. He hadn't, it had all been one gigantic blur actually. "Err...I think I may have dozed off after you pushed me back against the wall..."
"Well, it's gone. I...it was so easy! It was like they were moving in slow motion. I could see every move they made. It was like I could read where they would move before they even knew themselves!"
"They were moving in slow motion Rev, it's because of the spell—although, your block may indeed be gone...I don't know about that." His teachers hadn't exactly explained what that particular binding did to the subject. In fact, they had really glossed over the entire matter, and only discussed it briefly, with a pained look that suggested a sour stomach.
Rev's eyebrows settled low on his forehead, sullenly. "What? You mean that wasn't me? That...um...flame shield?" Rev said dismissively.
"No Rev, um...it's a different spell, a spell that means I get executed if they ever find out that I cast it. It's a spell from an ancient time, stolen from invaders of our land. It's a spell taken from the black arts of the Ghearan mages, and changed for our purpose. It...it's hard to explain."
Rev was staring intently at him now, "Well, you had best make me understand!" He glared for a moment and then spoiled the moment by biting his lip to stop his laughter bubbling up, "And you know...while you're at it, you might like to explain how an Elementalist like you managed to become a slave..."
"It's not funny!" Rory muttered sullenly. "I took an Oath," Rory managed, before he almost succumbed to the temptation to try and drown himself with the shame he was feeling right at that moment. "They caught me unaware! I'm not supposed to use my magics except in an act of war. It's shameful to use elements against men who can't see the same plane that we can. I...I would never think of using my power like that! In fact, I wish I never had been born with this po-" Rory clapped his mouth shut and surrendered with a short sigh, "Well, I suppose that's neither here nor there, is it? Nothing to do with you," he finished with a mumble. He raised his voice again, trying to sound confident again, and ignoring Rev's mocking eyes that were weighing him. "Getting back to what I wanted to explain to you, without going into what I learned to become an Elementalist in the first place: Picture every single Elementalist as a giant cup. Each and every cup for each and every Elementalist is unique in size and shape, and every single person's grip on that cup is different. Inside that cup is not water, but power--elemental power--that we can use to bend and shape elements on this plane of existence as we will, limited only by the strength of each man's grip and capacity. When we manipulate and shape elements, we take draughts from our own cup, and once that cup becomes empty, we can no longer use our powers until it refills.
"Now, to what happened with you." The bitter taste was back in his mouth, he tried not to look over at Rev, just stared resolutely at the ceiling and avowed to get this all out before he lost his nerve. He always felt uncomfortable speaking about his talents. Had Rev been a Northman, he never would have told him any of this. "Imagine I put a pipe into my cup, and that pipe stretched from myself--who can touch the power inside the cup--to you, who has a cup, but your cup has no power inside because you can't touch the otherworld plane. That's what my spell does, it gives you access to elemental power in its purest form, unadulterated and unchanged. That's how you moved so fast, and that's how you were healed after your lengthy stay in the dungeon, and that's why you escaped untouched after being struck by a spell powerful enough to shatter stone and twist metal. You use that energy in a way that I could never manage without weaving a spell. It's the most natural form of defence and attack that can be used, controlled by your body by instinct."
When he braved a glance, he found Rev's brow was scrunched, and he looked absolutely flummoxed. It was amusing enough that Rory had to stifle a very un-northman like giggle.
"And...this...um...pipe? It's gone now, right?" Rev said. His voice sounded almost torn between hope and dismay; his eyes were wide and showing a lot of white around the edges, a bit like an agitated horse. "I won't turn into an elementalist now, will I?"
"No," Rory said sadly, "That's why the spell is forbidden. You've become something that shouldn't exist in this world; a Derk is what you'd be called in the North: A sword. A living sword. That 'pipe' will never quite disappear completely, like a thread that clings to your skin unseen. It will always be there, but you won't be able to touch elements like I can...rather--and I'm just guessing at this point, but I think the weave magnifies whatever talents you already possess, and I'm sure it's different for every person put under the weave and so bound."
Rev was examining his arms with concern, attempting to locate some clue to this invisible thread Rory mentioned, which of course, Rory found entertaining; he was forced to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. "It won't...hurt me, or anything?" Rev asked, his honest worry silencing Rory's mirth.
"No, no! Absolutely harmless, it's just...well...I shouldn't have done it without you knowing. And getting back to what I said earlier, if you kill me, it'll disappear. It would be fair," Rory added tentatively.
Rev looked stricken for a moment, before he shook his head adamantly. "I...couldn't do that. I mean, alright, I'm not too thrilled to be...whatever you called me...but I mean," His face changed a bit, brightened as he spoke, "It was a big rush-" he blushed, then added hastily "not that I like the idea of being...connected with you...and I suppose I did ask you to help in the first place..." Rev slunk down as his entire head looked like it had been boiled too long in a kettle, "the water's cold..." he muttered. Rory caught himself before he could start humming the tune in his head, 'let the sun rise'. Oh, why not...
"I can do it again..." he said, watching as Rev turned away to splash more hot water into his murky bathtub. That made Rev pause.
"Do what again? Make me..." he shuddered, "fast?"
"Yeah. I don't even know the limitations on the spell...no-one's used it for centuries," Rory admitted, "But if you're willing to try...I am kind of curious...but I'd understand if-"
"Now?" Rev was suddenly sitting up, his eyes glinting with excitement. "I bet I could best Jaden like that-"
"What are you talking about? If you are going to challenge Jaden, do it on your own power. I told you, using elements is cheating. Even Thiians don't like Elementalists; in the North, it's a thousand times a thousand fold worse. My Father once told me that a man who doesn't rely on his own strength is a coward, and I agree. Borrowing power is cheating."
Rev recovered from his shock quickly. A bit of his sullenness was back, and he looked like he was about to argue the point, when the door behind them slammed open.
"You've both been summoned," the tremulous voice of the second announced loudly. "And, I'm supposed to tell you that--'if-you-don't-act-quickly-I'm-supposed-to-grab-you-by-the-ear-and-drag-you!'" He said all at once, and sharply drew his head backwards as if terrified by the very prospect, his eyes never once left the ceiling and his white-knuckles clutched the hilt of his sword for support. Rev had the gall to laugh as he joined Rory in towelling off and hurriedly getting dressed in the clean clothes that had been supplied, which meant another bloody kilt for Rory. He snarled at his smaller companion when he offered tips on how to do up the waistband. Stupid, bloody Thiian inventions. The kilt is a hundred times worse than a librarian, Rory decided. Imagine wearing a skirt in the north!
"Freeze your bloody balls off..." Rory muttered, once it was as secure as it was ever going to be. Rev looked at him and nodded thoughtfully.
"He just might. What are you planning on telling him, anyway? Jaden isn't as stupid as he looks, you know."
Rory jerked up, and the sudden motion made the smallish second jump backwards through the doorway as they marched themselves after him. The cold floor felt like it was pulsing beneath the northman's bare feet. What was he going to tell Jaden?
As it turned out, he wouldn't have a choice in the matter. A certain loopy prisoner was about to make the choice for him.
Long time no see, friends! Yea alright, its my fault. Thanks for all your support regardless. GayAuthors has kindly provided a forum for me. Its empty and loney right now though. Go post if you get a chance: Dio's Forum At least post your thoughts in the chapter 8 thread. I'd love to hear from you. No there won't be another three month wait for another chapter. Expect to see it sometime after the next BPW release, which will be soon as well. Thanks for your patience! ^_^
If you liked this story be
sure to let the author know! Dio writes for free, which means his motivation
is all his own. Letting him know you enjoyed his hard work is the least you
could do! Thanks!
If you want more of Dio's
stories, or want to join his mailing list, or find out what Dio is currently
working on, check out some of the links below:
Dio Beckstead's Website
Dio Beckstead's Yahoo Discussion Group and Mailing List
And I insist you come visit Dio and other AWESOME authors over at gayauthors.org!