Part VII: Secrets
Daran had barely time to register Ashen's words, when suddenly he was falling forward, instinctively protecting his head with his arms as the soldiers all fired. For a few moments gunfire was all that sounded in the small clearing, and Daran lay gasping in the grass when it finally died away. When he looked up there was a thin cloud of white smoke curling around the soldiers, making its way towards him and behind him.
He knew what he would find, but still he turned anyway, and gasped and covered his mouth with his hand. Ashen was lying flat on his face in the grass, his clothes a torn and bloody mess. He was lying perfectly still, one arm sticking out at a somewhat odd angle. It too was bloody.
Daran gagged, mind reeling. Ashen couldn't possibly have done what he had done; there was no way that was his lifeless body lying there, mutilated and in a still expanding pool of blood.
The Feranzean officer strolled easily towards Ashen, prodded him a few times with the tip of his boot, and then turned him over. Ashen moved like a log; a dead weight. Daran almost couldn't swallow a sob. The soldier squatted down and delicately searched the torn remains of Ashen's chest, coming up with something more or less round and on a chain. He pulled it free, wiped it on the grass, and with a grim satisfied look he nodded and pocketed it. Before it disappeared from his sight for ever, Daran could just make out severely dented metal, and a flash of golden red hair.
The soldier seemed to hesitate for a moment, when rising again, but then sneered and said, 'Nah, just let him rot here,' which elicited a laugh from his men. From the forest beyond Ashen's body three more soldiers emerged, each carrying a wooden and metal pole, which had to be the guns that had killed Ashen.
He couldn't help it this time, and let slip something between a sob and a gasp, which attracted the officer's attention.
'Never seen someone killed before, monsieur?' he said coolly.
'No,' Daran tried to say but the words wouldn't leave his throat. He shook his head instead. He tried standing up and found that his legs did indeed support him.
'Right, why don't you tell us what happened.' It was an order, not a question.
'He hid somewhere on my cart – I didn't even know he was there,' he said. He'd had time to think about this, at least. 'His contract was only until Berlia, and as far as I knew I'd never see him again. But a few miles out of Berlia he suddenly appeared, overpowered me and took my knife from me. He told me to keep going, and when you and your men appeared… well, you know the rest.'
'Yes,' the officer said, eyeing him a little suspiciously. Daran didn't have to try very hard to appear shaken and quite distressed by everything, and apparently it was enough to satisfy the man.
'Alright,' he said. 'I can only suggest you be more careful who you hire for your caravan. The bastard was right in one thing; my Lord would hate to see Mahon & Son destroyed.'
'I'm not the only one who keeps it running,' Daran managed to say.
'Just as well, I imagine. Do you require any assistance before we head back?'
'No – Yes, during the chase one of my wheels was damaged. Perhaps your men could take a look at it? If my horse hasn't pulled the thing apart entirely.'
'They're not carpenters,' the officer remarked pointedly, but nonetheless instructed several of his soldiers to search out Daran's cart and check it. Daran decided to follow them; as much as it hurt to leave Ashen there, even though he was now but a shell of the man he'd known, he could hardly stand the sight of his body. If he stayed too long he might betray himself by breaking down.
His cart was easily found, his horse now calmly grazing the undergrowth, and though it indeed turned out to be broken, one of the soldiers quickly stripped down some branches and strapped them to the cracked legs of the wheel.
'It'll hold for now,' the man said with a thick Feranzean accent. 'You need to have it properly fixed, though.' Daran nodded numbly.
'I will,' he said. 'Thank you.'
'Have a pleasant journey,' the officer said, coming up with the rest of his patrol, and with a curt nod to Daran mounted. Daran watched them go and managed to wait until they had disappeared around a bend in the road and all signs of their presence were gone before he narrowly missed grabbing the cart for support and collapsed in the middle of the road. Trying to see through tear-blurred eyes, he suddenly found it very hard to breathe. Why? Was all he could think through the haze. Why did it have to happen like this? Why couldn't he have helped Ashen better? He had been so sure they'd make it, one way or the other – and now Ashen was dead, lying broken in a forest clearing. He gagged again at the thought, and clasped a hand over his mouth. Ashen was dead, and he was positively falling apart; it shouldn't have to be this way!
Still gasping for breath, he wiped moistness from his cheeks and realised he couldn't leave Ashen there. He didn't understand why Ashen had told him not to come back, but there really was no question about it. The least he could do was give his body a proper burial.
He tried to get his breathing back under control, and after a few deep, slow breaths his stomach stopped clenching as well. Rising unsteadily, he brushed some dirt off his knees and stumbled towards the horse. It seemed perfectly fine and calm now, and he supposed it was up for continuing the journey. He climbed onto the driver's seat, turned the wagon around and, his hands still shaking, carefully made his way back to the clearing.
Waking up dead was definitely worse than waking up with a hangover, Ashen decided, groaning. He seemed to be little more than a ball of pain, and could hardly breathe – every movement set off the pain even worse, and his lungs seemed to be on fire. He managed three or four breaths before the pain became too much and he blacked out again.
The second time the pain wasn't much lessened. Either he hadn't been out very long, or his injuries were simply that bad. He opened his eyes, trying to remember what exactly had happened, and winced. His injuries were simply that bad.
The shooting, he remembered the shooting. It had felt strange, that such small sounding explosions could cause such excruciating pain, even though he had witnessed a few tests back in Feranza, and had seen the damage on the dummies. He didn't doubt his own body looked like that now and really, he was lucky that he was able to breathe at all. How long had it taken him to come back? Lungs needed time to heal, but they were essential for the rest of him to get well. He knew his body would heal as much as it could before jerking him back to life, but right now it felt like only the bare minimum had been repaired.
That was something he'd never thought about. Would his body actually heal better when he was alive, and probably conscious? Perhaps that was the reason he was difficult to kill in the first place.
He feared, though, that this time would be much like his trek through the Gerneian forests, so very long ago, before the slavers found him – he was still losing a lot of blood, he'd wager his ribs were shattered in more than a few places, and before long something would come and try to eat him. He wasn't leaving this clearing for days, if not weeks, and not moving an inch if he could help it for most of that time.
If he concentrated, sometimes he could feel his body heal. A warmth that was pain nor fever crept through his veins and, this time, centred in his chest. Breathing became easier by the minute. It still was a struggle, though, and one too deep breath triggered a coughing fit that was too much to bear. More pain flashed, and his mind returned to that stretched and thin state that meant that he was dying – again. Knowing it was not to be helped, he sighed out a last breath and gave in.
A strange creaking, jingling, neighing sound woke him up, and panic flashed abruptly. Had the soldiers returned? He'd thought, when he had woken up alone, that they had been satisfied with his death and decided against dragging his body all the way to Feranza. But had the officer changed his mind? Would he want to present his head to Calvin, as proof of his death? He was pretty sure he couldn't survive decapitation.
He struggled to stay still, and cursed himself for coming back at what seemed exactly the wrong time. He could hear his own rattling breathing, though, and anyone coming too close would see his chest moving – perhaps if he just didn't breathe, but then again, dying made him twitch, and that would be suspicious-
'Oh, God, Ashen!'
Thoroughly surprised, Ashen's eyes flew open, struggling to focus on Daran's face hovering above him. Immense fear and relief rushed through him, and he couldn't help sucking in a great rush of breath. Gods, that hurt.
'I can't believe…' Daran stammered, his gaze darting all over Ashen's chest. Ashen could see Daran's violent emotions clearly on his face; a sense of relief almost enough to drown grief, seasoned with a sick-to-the-stomach kind of feeling at seeing the mess that was his upper body.
Why had Daran returned? He had told him not to – but had Daran ever listened or considered Ashen's own opinion when he thought he was doing something for Ashen's good? And now the man had seen him killed, and returned to life. There'd be no avoiding the questions, eventually, and eventually Daran would regret ever helping him, feeling disgusted and scared.
'A miracle,' Daran whispered, and suddenly jerked into action. 'I'll… I'll try to bandage your wounds, and I know a village with a healer a day away. Hang on until then, and she'll take care of you. God, I can't believe…' he repeated, trailing off and suddenly disappearing out of Ashen's sight again. Ashen closed his eyes again, knowing that trying to keep track of everything would be too much to ask of himself. He dozed off again a little, before Daran returned, but once the man touched him he was wide awake, and gasping out in pain.
'I'm sorry,' Daran grimaced, and Ashen almost tried to tell him that he didn't need to bother. If he did insist on staying, he could just make camp here and guard him until his body healed…
Which would effectively ruin all chances of Daran thinking this was in any sort of way normal. He'd take him to a healer, would he? The healer might see, might know, but maybe then he wouldn't seem to heal so… so…
Daran very gently lifted him up to get the bandages all around his chest – what where those bandages made from, anyway? – but pain still sparked brightly, and for a few moments he could handle nothing but trying to keep breathing. When he came back to himself Daran had almost finished dressing him in makeshift bandages, and was looking quite bloody himself.
'I'll have to lift you to get you onto the cart,' Daran said, rubbing at his face with the back of a hand and still managing to smear it. 'I'm afraid it will hurt.'
Ashen tried to nod; speaking was out of the question. He wasn't sure his nod had succeeded, but Daran gave one back and moved to lift him up very carefully. Ashen cut back a groan, and once in Daran's arms was surprised he wasn't dead or dying again – until Daran stumbled, lost his balance and tightened his grip on Ashen. The pain lasted only a brief moment before everything blacked out again, and Ashen welcomed the cool, calm darkness of death over bright, fiery pain.
He woke up in something warm and soft and moving. Letting himself adjust to the feeling, he didn't question for the moment why or how he was moving. As sight and hearing returned to him, considerably less dulled by pain for once, he realised he could make out something green and sun-and-shadow blotched above him, the sound of birds and the creaking of wood. He was being jostled only slightly, and the rocking motion was soothing; though his chest still ached and sparked with every bump in the road, it was bearable, at least.
So Daran had managed to get him to the cart, then. That was… good, probably.
'Ashen?' Something must have alerted Daran he was awake again, and the cart slowed to a halt. Daran's upside-down face appeared above him, again looking so deeply flushed with relief. 'Thank God, I thought I'd lost you again. Are you comfortable?'
Ashen nodded, almost wincing at Daran's words. Better to hope the man never figured out he had lost him again.
'Good. Now you rest, you need it. I won't stop for the night, and if we're lucky we'll be at the village somewhere tomorrow morning, or early afternoon.' A pause. 'Don't die on me, Ashen. Please.' Those words had been said so softly he barely heard them, and before he could think about them, Daran moved back to the front of the cart and they started moving again.
The warmth was still there, in his veins, mending, working. Wearing him out to make him better. Sleep was a good idea, and, lying in warm, snug blankets and being rocked by the gentle movements of the cart, not difficult at all.
He was in the grip of a fever the next time he woke up. The warmth within had increased to heat, he felt like he was lying in a bath of lukewarm water rather than dry blankets, and his head was swimming mightily. There was also something to do with balls and strings of yarn, or possibly fluffy cotton, growing and dwindling, and yet all the while staying impossibly small and enormous at the same time.
Something was missing, though. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something just wasn't there, that had been there before. The pain was still quite present, though farther off, beyond the delirium. He was hurting, yes, possibly dying again, yes, but he just didn't care.
Fever meant healing, though. Fighting. Staying alive. He hoped he did.
'Here.' Soft, mumbled words, far off like the pain, and something pressed to his lips, something moist and fragrant. Daran. Ah, that was it, they'd stopped moving. But hadn't Daran said… Drinking was more urgent than thinking, though, and with all the yarn and cotton the thinking wasn't really going anywhere anyway. Warm, refreshing fluid filled his mouth, and he swallowed – or tried to, because he suddenly realised he wasn't very good at either breathing or swallowing, now that he tried to do both simultaneously. Coughing hurt enough to cut through the haze, and he tried to hold his breath, suppressing the urge, and that hurt even more.
'Shh, careful,' Daran said, removing the cup or bowl or whatever it was. A hand, a deliciously cool hand rested on his brow, and then another hand wiped away some of the sweat. 'Do you think you're up to a little more broth? I think you need it.'
Managing a nod, Ashen tried again, and this time with success. For a brief moment he was filled with three different kinds of warmth. Daran murmured some kind of praise, and the hand that was still feeling his forehead turned somewhat… what? Gentler? Caressing?
But then it was gone, and with the fever and the broth and the fact that he was being rocked again, there was no time to think about it anyway.
'Good lord, what happened to him?'
Daran made a face as he carefully lifted Ashen from the cart, nodding towards the door; Ashen groaned a little.
'I'll explain inside, Eichne,' he said. 'He needs your help, and he needs it now.'
Eichne nodded and went inside ahead of him, where everything stood ready, down to fresh sheets on the bed in the corner – Daran had sent the village children with word of his coming as soon as he'd reached the village's edge.
He put Ashen down on the bed, removing the blankets. The bandages were by now a red pulp, but at least Ashen was still breathing, even if he was so feverish that he was babbling again. He moved aside to make room for Eichne, who watched Ashen incredulously.
'He was shot,' Daran said, and Eichne traded staring subjects.
'Shot? What kind of bow could do this?'
'It's a new weapon from Feranza. It uses explosive powder to shoot small metal balls. He was hit at least five times.' Eichne made a disgusted face, shaking her head in disapproval.
'I'd gladly be out of a job if people would just stop trying to kill each other,' she said, and sank down on the bed to examine the bandage, picking up a knife to remove it.
'It's a miracle he's still breathing,' she continued. 'How long ago was this?'
'Almost a day. And a few times he wasn't. Breathing, I mean. Eichne, will he be alright?'
'Well, given that he's survived so far without much proper care, I'd say he's got a good chance. Not out of the woods yet, by any stretch, but a good chance. And… What's this?'
Eichne leaned in to take a closer look at Ashen's chest, having taken off the bandages and started cleaning the wounds. She then looked up at Daran, frowning.
'There's scar tissue here, Daran. Fresh scar tissue, but it's definitely more than a day old. Are you sure it's been only a day?'
'Yes! I drove all though the night.'
'Take a look then, was it this bad yesterday?'
Daran moved to look, his stomach clenching at the thought of having to look at the mess that was Ashen's chest, but puzzled and intrigued.
There was less blood now, but the skin was as torn as it had been yesterday. Bits of white rib glistened through at places, but the edges of the wounds, which had looked almost scorched the day before, were now fresh pink and slightly elevated.
'I don't think it looked like this yesterday, no,' he said, frowning. 'But then again it wasn't very clean and visible. This isn't normal?'
'No, it is not,' Eichne said with a frustrated gust of air. 'It definitely is fresh scar tissue,' she continued, touching the pink ridges. 'He's healing incredibly fast, if his injury is only a day old. That looks more like a week's worth of recovering. I don't understand…'
Daran shrugged; what did it matter if it was normal or not? The faster Ashen healed, the better; as impossible as it might seem.
'Well, I'd better get him bandaged up. But it doesn't look like he'll need much of my help. I'll just give him the time to rest and heal, and I'll try to keep his strength up…' She paused and looked up at Daran. 'Speaking of which, why don't you get some rest? You must be exhausted.'
'I don't think I could sleep. Not with Ashen…'
'Alright, suit yourself,' Eichne nodded. 'But in case you feel you're about to topple over, I've got a spare bed in there.' And she pointed to a door on the other side of the room; it was slightly ajar and Daran could just make out a bed behind it.
'Thank you, but not yet.' Eichne nodded, already turning back to Ashen. She rolled him over, with a bit of effort, to get at the injuries on his back, muttering angrily at whichever murderous idiot would do something like this to someone, and then muttered some more when she discovered more scar tissue.
Daran sank down into a nearby chair; he was tired, but sleep was impossible and out of the question. Through bleary eyes he watched Eichne dress Ashen's wounds, but he veered up when she suddenly froze.
'Oh, no, you don't!' she said through clenched teeth, and cursed, checking Ashen's pulse before grabbing his face and pressing her mouth to his. Daran blinked, uncomprehending for a moment until he heard her exhale forcefully. His chest tightened and his heart pounded loudly; Ashen had stopped breathing again.
Anxiously he watched as Eichne tried to pour the life back into Ashen, and after a few torturously long heartbeats he finally saw Ashen's chest rise without Eichne's help. Sighing heavily he relaxed again, while Eichne shook her head.
'That was close,' she said. 'I don't know how he's survived so far, even if he heals that fast. He should have been dead long ago.'
'Thank God he isn't,' Daran muttered.
'I don't think God has much to do with this,' Eichne mumbled, but ignored Daran's curious look in favour of getting Ashen bandaged up. Finally she straightened and stretched her back.
'Well, that's it,' she said. 'I'm sure he'll need a change soon, but this will do for now.' She moved to the table where she washed her hands and underarms in a bowl; her apron was quite bloody as well. Brushing a few strands of dark blond hair out of her face, she continued without looking at him:
'I have to tend the garden, and go round Viktor's. Shall I tell him to expect you there?'
'I'd like to stay here, if you don't mind.' She turned, nodding, and Daran saw a smile around her lips.
'No, not at all. Just don't get in my way. If he stops breathing again, or if the bleeding suddenly becomes much worse, ask the neighbours to send for me. They'll know where to find me. In the meantime, even if you won't sleep, try not to worry too much and think of yourself for a moment. Worrying is not going to make him heal faster.'
'I know,' Daran sighed. 'I can't help it, though.'
'Try,' she said, and rested a hand on his shoulder for a moment. 'I won't be long.'
The small house was quiet and peaceful, with a fire crackling softly in the hearth, and only one window open to let in the outside world. Daran could hear voices in the distance, probably sounding further away than they were. Ashen was silent now, and still. Just the barest movement indicated he was still breathing. But at least he was breathing, and Eichne seemed to think he'd make it, if not through her efforts…
With a sigh, Daran buried his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes. It was no use trying to make sense of all this now, not when he was tired and worried like hell, and probably still in shock. It was bad enough to have to believe Ashen was dead and then seeing he was alive after all without trying to explain why. And he was struggling to keep his eyes open; weariness was threatening to overcome anxiety. Resting his chin in his hands, he opened his eyes wide and stared at Ashen, at that strangely handsome face, now pearled with sweat and looking far too pale. His usually light blond hair was lying in dark, moist strands around his face, spread out over the pillow. It was caked with blood, too, around the edges. He'd have to ask Eichne to clean that, or do it himself… but not now. He'd need to unload his cart as well, at some point, and have it fixed. But not now.
He fought a yawn, with little success, and still fighting off sleep, he continued watching Ashen.
The sound of a door closing jolted him out of sleep, and for a moment he felt horribly confused and disoriented. Blinking, he took in a sturdy wooden roof and walls, and a bed in front of him, occupied by…
Daran jerked up and cursed himself for falling asleep, instinctively reaching out for Ashen to see how he was doing. The peaceful sleep of before had been replaced by more sweating and delirious rambling.
'What's that he's saying?' Eichne asked right behind him, and he jumped again; that door closing, that must have been her returning from her errands. 'It sounds… foreign.'
'It's not, actually,' Daran said, wiping away the last traces of sleepiness in his face. 'It's Ancient Gerneian. He does it when he's drunk, too.'
'Ancient, Gerneian, really? I didn't know people still spoke that.' She moved around him to check on Ashen and returned to the table where she drenched a piece of cloth in fresh water. 'Here, dab his face with this. It'll help keep him cool.' Daran nodded. 'So, where did you acquire such an enigmatic friend, Daran? He must be a new acquaintance.'
Daran paused for a moment, then returned to pressing the cloth against Ashen's forehead and cheeks. How long had it been? It seemed like forever…
'We met… almost two weeks ago, I think. Well, more like one and a half, maybe. We shared rooms at that inn in Elmwald, and from there… he just stuck around.'
'Don't you mean you stuck to him?' Eichne said with a faint smile. 'I seem to remember feeling a little harassed, at times, some odd twenty years ago. Your father got quite exasperated at me complaining all the time.'
'Yeah, well…' Daran trailed off. So what if he hadn't given Ashen any choice about accepting his friendship? 'Somehow I think that if I hadn't… stuck to him, he'd be off far worse, now.'
'Worse than this?'
'Yes.' Not having made it out of Berlia, captured, sentenced and dragged back to Feranza, to a death far more certain than this. He doubted the Feranzeans would have risked hanging Ashen again.
'Good thing he's got you, then.'
'I don't know about that,' Daran flinched. 'I made a fine mess, even if his enemies think he's dead and he's got a chance at a new life.'
'Don't berate yourself, Daran. I'm sure you did what you could. Now, why don't you go unpack while I change his bandages? I think I saw some bloody clothing lying in your cart, and the cart itself looks pretty beat up as well.'
'Yes, I'd better take care of that,' Daran sighed and rose, stretching and groaning as muscles and joints protested. Taking one last look at Ashen, he left him in Eichne's capable hands while he went to look after his cart.
'You saved my life.' Startled, Daran's eyes flew open. Ashen was sitting up in the bed, looking alive and well – more than well, as there was no evidence of scars or fading injuries on his chest, just a light layer of muscle rippling as he moved, leaning over to look Daran in the eyes.
'You're awake,' Daran said, unnecessarily. Ashen smiled and blinked slowly.
'Yes. Thanks to you.' Almost imperceptibly, Ashen moved even closer, his breath ghosting over Daran's face. 'Thank you…' And then there was a light kiss pressed to his cheek. He turned his head in surprise, and caught the next once on the lips. The shock jolted him deeply, but Ashen only smiled, he felt, and didn't pull back. His lips sweetly caressing Daran's, they parted slowly to let out a moist tongue to tickle sensitive skin. Daran's eyes drifted close, and he shuddered; this was already more than he'd ever expected, and surely if he tried to act now it would only scare Ashen away…
But then Ashen was sitting in his lap, striding his legs and pressing close, their mouths still attached, and somehow they were truly kissing, now; hard, possessively, taking and giving. Ashen pulled back, gasping out his name, his hands clutching in his shirt. Daran's own hands were planted firmly on Ashen's hips, pulling him in close, ever closer; Ashen groaned passionately.
And groaned again, this time more harshly. Daran moved his hands upwards, trailing over smooth skin, warm and slick… slick?
Ashen's weight shifted suddenly, and Daran looked up to see the man's head fall back, eyes half open and pale and unseeing. And then he looked down again to see a chest dripping with blood, with dozens ragged holes arranged in rough circles that were darker even than the fresh blood coming from them. Something hit his thigh, and as he stared the little round bullets were pushed out of Ashen's chest, and Ashen jerked, gasped in a rattling breath, blinking slowly – and then jerked again and stilled. He became heavy, so very heavy, and with his hands slicked with blood, Daran couldn't hold him. Ashen started to slip away, off his legs, towards the ground which was no longer the ground but something darker, deeper – something never-ending, never satisfied, claiming Ashen just to throw him back and reel him in again. And all the while Ashen's dead eyes stared right at Daran, right through his soul, and he tried to hold on, tried to keep Ashen with him, keep him safe, but this was a power beyond him, unrelenting and all he could do was watch as it tugged Ashen farther and farther away from him...
'Ashen!' The scream woke him and he shot up, breathing heavily and his chest pounding with the remnants of passion and fear. He was cold, so very cold, despite the blanket that he only now noticed was draped around him. But cold and blankets weren't important now, he turned to his left, where he knew the bed stood, and was immensely relieved to see Ashen lie there, not quite peacefully, but alive, breathing, and not dead or dying. Reflexively, he looked at his hands; they were clean, of course. No traces of Ashen's blood, but he imagined he could still feel it, sticking to his fingers, pooling under his nails as he dug them in, trying to hold on…
'Bad dream?' Eichne's voice cut through his hazy thoughts, and he looked up. The only light in the cottage came from the fire; the windows were dark, the shutters drawn. Eichne had draped a blanket about herself as well, tucking it safely out of the way while she worked on preparing some herbs or some other ingredient for a salve or poultice.
'Yes,' Daran mumbled, wondering what it meant. It was fading quickly, but the image of Ashen's dead eyes staring at him remained, very vividly. It was probably that he had been so very worried, and sick with grief, and hadn't given himself time to let it all sink in.
There was a silence, in which he heard Eichne breathe in a few times as if to ask something but thinking the better of it. Daran ignored her, looking at Ashen, tugging up the blanket that had slid down with his feverish squirming. His fingers ghosted over the bandages, which Eichne must have refreshed while he was asleep, and the naked, glistening skin of Ashen's shoulders above them. There was still dried blood in his hair, and Daran rubbed a few strands between his fingers; the blood crumbled and smeared under his touch.
'You love him, don't you?' For a second time, Eichne managed to surprise him.
'What makes you think that?' he asked, not quite looking her way.
'Well, the way you keep touching him is a big hint. That you seem so adamant in trying to save his life could be mistaken for friendship – but what finally convinced me is that the first half of that dream didn't sound so much like a bad dream at all.'
'Dreams are hardly evidence of love,' Daran said, flushing.
'No; but I've known you for almost twenty years, Daran, and I've only seen you like this a few times. So, putting it all together…' She trailed off, giving him time to answer, but he didn't. 'He doesn't know, does he?'
'No, and it stays that way.'
'Are you afraid it will scare him off?'
'No… maybe. He's still mourning the death of a lover – a young man, so in theory the concept shouldn't scare him. But with everything that's going on in his life, that I think is going on in his life… I don't want to burden him. I just want him around.' Eichne shook her head.
'So you'll just pine after him in secret?'
'Eichne, you don't know him. I hardly know him, but I know I'm the first friend he's had in a long time. He told me so. And with a man whose friendship is that hard to get…'
'You're afraid to try out how difficult it would be to win his love,' she finished the thought.
'Yes,' Daran said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. It was one thing to privately decide he'd have no chance with Ashen but to drive him further away, but to hear someone else say it…
'Well, if you ask me, you're going to have to tell him eventually. Secrets like that are unhealthy for any kind of friendship.'
'I know that.'
'I take it he's not your first? You never mentioned…'
'No, he's not. And, well, I was always here for only a few days each year, I didn't think you'd find stuff like this very interesting.'
'Of course I do! I'm human, I want to know about the love lives of my friends. Besides, more exciting than two young people going all puppy-eyed at each other, their parents having a few discussions, and then a nice wedding – and before you know it there's offspring – it doesn't get around here.'
'What about you, then?' Daran asked, glad to be changing the subject. She sighed.
'Well – let's just say that now I know why it never worked when I made puppy-eyes at you,' she said. 'But no matter – don't you go start feeling guilty. That was years ago, and I've moved on since then. And who knows? Maybe one day a handsome stranger passes through who won't mind staying.' She smiled. 'Now, I suggest you get some more sleep; he probably won't wake up for a good while, and if you insist to spend all your time by his side, you might as well make sure you're well rested when he finally does wake up.'
Nodding, Daran sagged a little further in his chair. It'd be better if he accepted her offer of a real bed, but there was no way he was leaving Ashen like this. Maybe once he'd healed more..
The thought trailed off as he drifted off into sleep again.
Awareness seeped in slowly. Vaguely, somehow, he expected to feel movement, but the bed he was lying in was utterly still. There was light; fickle, flickering, yellow lamplight. When he opened his eyes all he saw for a moment were the beams of a roof. He moved his head, frowning, wondering, and suddenly everything returned to him.
Daran. Escaping from Berlia. The chase. Taking Daran hostage. The shooting. Waking up to Daran finding him alive and carrying him away – to where?
'Well, look who's awake,' a light female voice said and when he turned a little more he could see the rest of the room he was lying in: smallish, with a low roof and several doors and shut windows. A table, a hearth, and two or three chairs scattered around the room. By the table stood a woman with short blonde hair, and the table was littered with books, herbs, various tools and one big cat.
So Daran had taken him to a healer.
'How do you feel?' the woman asked, approaching him.
'Much better than the last time I was awake,' Ashen said, breathing in deeply and feeling relief at how easy it was. He'd healed almost completely, except for a slight dull ache in his ribs and the memories of the pain.
'I'll say,' the healer said, tugging down the blankets and gently feeling his chest, wrapped in bandages. 'You haven't bled for days, but to be on the safe side… Incidentally, it may interest you to know you've taken not even two weeks to heal from wounds more ghastly than anything I'd ever seen.'
Ashen said nothing; what could he say?
'What are you?' she continued, taking up a knife and carefully cutting away the bandages, looking him briefly in the eye but then concentrating on her task.
'Human, as far as I know,' Ashen said, feeling a light chill that was not entirely due to his chest bared to the air. He'd known this moment would come and it wouldn't be the first time, either, but still it made his heart skip a beat in trepidation.
'Really? From the way I barely even had to try to revive you when your heart gave up – the, oh, two or three times that happened – you could have fooled me.'
Scowling, Ashen looked away, and caught sight of his chest, scarred thickly in odd patterns. So, apparently not healed completely, and it was more confirmation of his fears that whatever kept him alive had its limits.
'The thing is, whether you're human or not, you shouldn't be alive,' the healer continued, 'and I have no idea why you are. It certainly had nothing to do with my skill in healing, though Daran has chosen to believe that it does.'
Daran. He was still here?
'He… he doesn't think there's anything odd?' he asked tentatively.
'Of course he does,' the healer said. 'From what I can tell, he probably witnessed you coming alive again. But he ignores it, for – for a myriad of reasons.'
'You're friends?' Ashen hazarded a guess, and was rewarded with a fond smile.
'For years,' she said. 'Which is why I think that keeping him in this blissfully ignorant state – even if it is of his own doing, partly – is a bad idea. You two keep too many secrets from each other. That's not healthy for any kind of relationship.'
'Is he here?'
'I finally got him to sleep in a proper bed,' she nodded. 'Stayed by your side almost the entire time. I'll go get him.' She paused. 'Look, I'll keep your secret safe, if only because I wouldn't know what else to do with it, and no one would believe me if I went and told on you anyway. And I won't tell Daran, either. But he deserves better, Ashen. He deserves the truth.'
Before Ashen could react she rose, taking the remains of the bandages with her, and crossed the room to quietly open one of the doors. She spoke softly, and then Ashen heard Daran's voice – and how ridiculously good it felt to hear it. Barely a second later, Daran emerged from the room, looking sleepy and dishevelled but he brightened up considerably when he saw Ashen.
'You're awake!' he said, rushing to Ashen's side. The healer quietly left thought another door, after giving Ashen a pointed look. Ashen pulled up the blankets, but not before Daran had flinched at seeing the scars. Not that Ashen blamed him; it did look horrible.
'You came back for me,' he said; it was the first thing he could think of, and the moment he'd said it he regretted the accusing tone. Daran blinked, straightening a little and tensing before visibly making himself relax.
'I came back to bury you, actually,' he said. 'The way those soldiers treated you… I just wanted to pay you my last respects.'
'You shouldn't have,' Ashen said, and part of him was seriously wondering what he was doing. 'I mean… I'll just get you into trouble again. That's all I ever seem to do.'
'Hell, Ashen-' Daran broke off what he was going to say to ball his fists and sink down onto a nearby chair. 'I don't care! You're my friend, and when my friends get into trouble, I help them. Would you really rather die than let someone help you?'
'I wouldn't have… I can take care of myself, Daran. But the people close to me…' He took a deep breath and forced his next words out. 'Everyone around me dies, Daran. I can't… I can't protect you from that.'
Daran said nothing for a moment and just stared at him thoughtfully. He rubbed his face with a hand, something Ashen suspected he'd been doing a lot lately.
'Because you lost your family?' he asked finally. 'And Caeli?'
'And a lot of other people,' Ashen said, looking away at Caeli's name – which made him realise he was not only not wearing his clothes, Caeli's medallion was also gone. 'Where…' he said, his hand instinctively going to where the medallion should have been lying on his chest. He turned back to Daran, who had a strangely hurt look on his face.
'I'm sorry,' the merchant whispered. 'The officer took it – as proof that you're dead, maybe? Or because he thought it was valuable… The only reason I still have your things is because they were in my cart and the soldiers didn't search it – or didn't find it…'
'Oh,' Ashen said numbly, suddenly feeling very cold. The medallion – the only thing of Caeli he had left – gone.
'I'm sorry,' Daran said again, which made Ashen look up. He shouldn't feel like this, so broken and lost and shattered, not when it had been so long ago. Not while Daran could see it. Clenching his right hand into a fist – his left arm ached, and it too was scarred – he desperately sought something to distract himself.
'The healer – she's a friend of yours?' he asked. Daran nodded.
'My father always took this route as well, and Eichne and I more or less grew up together – even if we saw each other only once a year. She's really good,' he said, indicating Ashen's chest. 'I hate to think how you'd have looked if I hadn't brought you here.'
Probably not much different, Ashen thought. And Daran really seemed to not have noticed or ignore that it just wasn't normal for people to heal like he did. But to tell Daran…
It would drive him away, he was sure of that, and he'd just told Daran he'd be better of without him tagging along. And yet he didn't really want to lose Daran. He'd been so glad, so happy, to see Daran's face through the mist-fingered haze of death, so glad to know that he wasn't alone and that it was this man, who could at times make him forget to mourn Caeli, who was with him.
Make up your damn mind.
'You… won't your sisters worry and wonder what's keeping you?' he asked, shaking his head to try and clear it. 'The healer… Eichne said I've been here almost two weeks, and if you're not back in time…'
'I've sent letters ahead,' Daran said, smiling reassuringly. 'They will arrive when I should have, and they'll know not to worry. After all, the danger is gone now, right? Calvin's men went back home. As far as the world's concerned, you're dead. Free to start a new life.'
'A new life, where?' he asked. Really, only the options he'd discussed with Daran a few days earlier were still open to him. In Feranza, Gerny and probably Holan as well he was too much of a recognisable face. The Empire, Lusitania or Castagonia, or the Danelands and further north or east – there were still so many places he hadn't been before.
Except that he didn't really want to go there. He was tired of running and hiding and starting over. It was always the same, always lonely, and nowhere he went would ever be a home. His first home, he wouldn't even be able to find anymore, and the second one, the last one, he could not return to. For at least a very long time, if ever.
'Why not come with me?' Daran said, shrugging but watching him tensely. 'Be my guest for a while. Ludmilla won't mind; she loves having guests, and I think she'll take to you nicely.'
'But…' How could he ever explain to Daran that even without Calvin, it would always be dangerous? Yes, no one was after his head anymore, at least not that he knew of. But there was always the risk of being found out, not in the first place, now, by Daran.
'Please?' Daran asked. 'It will give you a chance to build a new life. And don't say you'll be taking advantage of me; you didn't ask, I offered. And you can't really go on like this.'
'I…' Maybe for a while, then. It was true that he couldn't go on like this. He had only the money he got from his bank, which, though not unsubstantial, would run out all too soon if he was forced to build a new life with it. But once he had the means to support himself… he'd have to go.
'Alright,' he said. 'But only until I can afford a place of my own.'
'Sure,' Daran smiled and seemingly on an impulse grabbed his hand to squeeze it. He let go almost as quickly, and instead ran it through his hair. 'Oh – Are you hungry?'
Blinking, Ashen realised he was; he just hadn't noticed it. He nodded.
'I'll go find something to eat for you, then,' Daran said, rising from his chair. 'I'll be right back.'
And while Daran crossed the room and left it, Ashen drew up the blankets in his arms and hugged them, trying not to – he wasn't moping. He was happy to be alive, and to have a friend like Daran. And he'd always known he couldn't hang on to Caeli's portrait forever, so there was no need to mourn its loss, either.
If only telling himself these things actually made him feel them.