Ravens, Owls and a Nightingale by Quatorze 34. Resolutions and Reflections
34. Resolutions and Reflections"What the –"
For a moment Karos just stood in the middle of the empty room, heart racing in alarm. He was in the Wizard's large round room on the top floor the Ghost Tower, and he was there all alone. This simply was not possible. Rhamirr never left his abode!
... without a very good reason, that is. Karos' shoulders sagged and he shook his head with a rueful smile. Hadn't he heard with his own ears, just the other day, how the man had promised to show his Ashgan the surroundings of the castle as soon as the weather turned more favorable? And it sure was favorable today, windy as usual but dry and with a definite promise of spring. There was no doubt that this was exactly the day for a good outing.
Karos sighed and plopped down on the wallside bench to figure out what to do. Should he wait? He had no idea when the Wizard and Ashgan would return, and might end up waiting here for hours. On the other hand, the weather had been brilliant since morning and it was already late afternoon. Presumably they would've left pretty early in the morning, and thus it was reasonable to assume that they might not take much longer any more. Besides, he had a reason for waiting.
He weighed in his hand the small flask he'd come here to refill and chewed his lip in thought. Of course he knew exactly where the bigger jars and bottles were kept, he knew where to look and could easily find what he needed by himself, but he hesitated. It would not be right. On all those numerous occasions when he'd helped Rhamirr, holding bowls, stirring brews and potions, aided in straining and bottling them, it had always been under Rhamirr's eyes and instructed by him. Basically only the Wizard and his Ashgan were allowed to handle all those things.
Karos rubbed absently his palm on one knee and frowned. It was anybody's guess how long it would take before the people in and around Deleon learned who was the true claimant to the title, and especially to learn that it wasn't Karos of Deleon. He wished he could understand why the thought made him so wistful, and had to admit to being jealous. Instantly he wanted to kick himself. Had he ever wanted to become the Ashgan? Had Rhamirr ever tried to persuade him, or tried to make him want it? No, neither. Every bit of the Craft he'd ever learned he'd got purely because of Rhamirr's generosity and his own special position as the Wizard's foster son, nothing else. He had no right to be jealous, and yet he couldn't help the little sting that made him get up and comb fingers through his hair. Maybe he'd better try again later, after all?
One hand reached for the door handle, then stopped as the echo of steps sounded from the staircase. They approached with a purpose, got more distinct... yes, two pairs of feet. He was in luck after all.
The door was pushed open and the Wizard looked delighted. "Karos, my boy!" Then his eyebrows crunched together in concern. "Is something the matter?"
"No, no. I just noticed that I'm about to run out of that ointment you gave me for blisters and sores." Karos flashed the men a wry grin. "The boys use a lot of it these days."
"Still working as hard?" The Wizard chuckled to himself as he unloaded his armful of dry willow twigs on the table.
"Harder than ever," Karos assured him. "They're determined to one day beat Count Daynar in his own game, though quite frankly I think that the day will be long in coming. Maybe they'll succeed by the time the Count is too old and feeble to even hold a sword."
Barem was already at the tall cupboard, its wood dark enough to blend with the deep shadows in the side where it stood, and examined the contents for a moment. He then took out a large, round-bellied bottle and carried it carefully over to the table.
Karos glanced at the Wizard, suddenly contrite.
"Sorry for barging in like this," he said. "I guess I still haven't got used to it that when I knock and there's no reply, it might mean that you really aren't inside, and not just that you're too absorbed in something to hear me."
"It's all right, my boy!" The Wizard granted him a fond smile. "But isnt't it a good thing that you remind us – we need to learn to lock the door when we go out, now that this room might be empty for more than just a few moments at a time. I don't mind your coming here, but we'd better make sure that nobody else gets the chance, just in case."
"Yes, we need to be more careful," Barem agreed and finally succeeded in persuading the bottle open. "Here, let me fill that for you."
Karos held the flask in place while Barem poured a steady stream of acrid-smelling liquid into it, bird-like hands holding the heavy vessel steady. Karos looked at his concentrated face and firmly shoved away another sting of jealousy. No, he wasn't going to let anyone know.
"How are you getting used to all this?" he asked casually.
"Oh..." Barem paused to focus on not letting the flask flow over, then replaced the stopper and glanced at Karos. The look in his eyes was warm. "Quite well, I think. Of course I have such a lot to learn, but –"
"He's working hard, too," the Wizard put in, unmistakably proud. "And he's learning fast, on top of all the things he already knows."
Karos smiled, grateful to have something to look down at while he secured the flask and pushed it into his pocket.
"Thanks for this," he said. "Well, I guess I need to be going now. It's going to be dinnertime soon, and I'll have to show up at the table."
"As if you'd voluntarily skip a meal," the Wizard chuckled, ignoring Karos' huff. "Go right ahead, boy, your father will be waiting to see you."
As Karos descended the spiral staircase, his steps got slower and the thoughtful wrinkle between his dark eyebrows deeper until finally, just a few steps from the bottom of the stairs, he stopped altogether and sat down, crossing his arms on raised knees.
Yes, it smarted a little but there was no getting around it. Barem was there now, with the Wizard in the Ghost Tower. Only Rhamirr knew the full story behind his return, but Karos had heard enough to understand why he'd trudged all that way back to Deleon, penniless and poorly outfitted for such a journey in the cold season and yet so hell bent on making it in one piece. Apparently his delightful uncle was truly determined to cheat Barem out of every scrap of property he'd ever got, and had used the nephew's absence well to stir up some further trouble. Moreover, Karos remembered that at some point Barem had let slip a few words about some girl; but thanks to the selfsame uncle, even that had eventually come to naught. In the end the hapless Barem had seen no way to fight back, and so he'd left all that behind.
Perhaps he had been vengeful to start with, but Karos was sure that he'd managed to shed that along the way. Rhamirr wouldn't accept him as the Ashgan before being convinced that Barem had no ulterior motives for his choice – and Barem was the Ashgan now. He was the pupil and apprentice and disciple, the one in the Wizard's full confidence, the one to take his place one day that was hopefully still very far in the future. Barem, not Karos.
Karos sighed, pushed himself up and crossed the courtyard with long, determined strides. He needed to learn that the Ghost Tower wasn't his place anymore. He belonged to the keep now.
Some hours later he had just about forgotten those earlier pangs of strange longing as he lay in the near darkness, hands behind his head, letting his long limbs relax in the large bed and longing for something far more tangible. The question was, would Schean come to sleep in their room tonight? Two young minstrels had arrived during the dinner, happy to reach the castle before nightfall, and of course Deleon's resident entertainer had wasted no time to go and meet his countrymen as soon as he'd got word of them.
Karos already knew from own experience that when minstrels got together and started talking, the passage of time was soon forgotten entirely. He wouldn't be at all surprised to see Schean eventually crawl back well after daybreak, apologetic but fuzzy with happiness. He sighed and dug his head deeper into the pillow. Of course he didn't begrudge Schean the time the minstrel spent with his compatriots, but –
His train of thought was interrupted when, to his surprise, there were soft steps outside the door, then the squeak of hinges, and a familiar, slender shadow slipped in. It stopped to see the candle flickering on the side table.
"Karos? You still awake?"
"Of course," he grunted. "Wouldn't go to sleep with a candle burning."
"Well, that's what I thought!"
Schean shed his clothes without further ceremony, tiptoed quickly to blow the candle and then dashed to dive under the bedcovers that Karos obligingly raised for him. With mercurial swiftness he'd wriggled closer, curled into a ball and managed to dig those very cold toes between Karos' bare thighs with a happy sigh. This was their own little race, one that took place every night, and Karos clenched his teeth together to stay quiet; tonight he'd been too slow to avoid Schean's feet before they reached their destination, tonight he'd been squarely beaten. But he did let out a grunt of protest when the toes wiggled gleefully, so close to his most sensitive parts that he grew hard in a blink.
"Mmm, so warm..." Schean was grinning, Karos heard it clearly. He grabbed a foot and began to rub it.
"So you didn't stay the night with them after all."
"Of course not!" The tone made warmth flood through Karos. "What, did you think I would? No, no, they were pretty tired, poor boys. Had been on their feet since early morning."
"Oh yes, sure. That's why you came here," Karos teased, and within moments he had his arms full of an indignant minstrel.
"Yes indeed," Schean growled into the kiss, "sure I'd rather have stayed there, trying to exchange news with two sleepy boys, when my very special black furry beast is waiting for me in our own warm bed."
His fingers sank into black curls and he laughed as Karos rolled onto his stomach and pinned him into the bed, heavy and yet mindful of his much greater bulk. Slim legs opened eagerly to clasp Karos by the waist and pull him closer.
"My own beast," the minstrel purred as Karos slowly ground their hips together. "I like it when you're so horny."
Sharp teeth nibbled Karos' lower lip, hands fisted his hair, and he buried his face in the bend of Schean's neck. Quite a few things made him hot and horny these days, but he didn't mind any more. No, he enjoyed it. He enjoyed the heat that coursed through him, the want that flared up when he touched Schean or exchanged a glance with him, sometimes when he just saw a glimpse of the fair-haired young man.
It was such a vast and strange bundle of feelings that it could make him dizzy if he thought about it too much, a mixture of things fierce and gentle. It was jealousy and possessiveness and raw need, but also tenderness, pride, wonder. Sometimes it just took his breath away, like right now, when he tried to wrap his long limbs completely around the minstrel, to hug Schean still that little bit closer, but there was no way he could hold Schean any tighter without hurting him, and something prickled behind his lids as he kissed the warm skin. He heard the sigh and soft hum, the arms around his neck tightened, and that's when he remembered it again.
"What's you laughing at?" Schean dug his head into the pillow in an effort to peer suspiciously up at Karos in the darkness. "That I'm saying you're mine, or what?"
Karos, still chuckling, shook his head. "I'm just betting that you don't know what day it is tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Karos could hear how lines appeared on Schean's forehead as he tried to come up with a suggestion, then finally gave up. "No idea, sorry. Should I know?"
"I think you should. You see, exactly one year ago tomorrow we met for the first time."
"One year ago – what, do you mean it was a year ago that you sat on me and held a knife to my eye?"
Karos laughed again. "That's right. One year ago."
"How can you be so sure?" Schean sounded incredulous but Karos wasn't swayed.
"It was exactly three days after Rhamirr's birthday that Bengor was taken ill again, and on the third evening after that I told Rhamirr that I'd wring the truth out of you, even if I had to nail you to the wall. But I only got the chance the next day, in other words a week later, and that'll be tomorrow."
Schean shuddered and Karos hugged him tight, their breaths hissing in the darkness.
"It seems like an eternity, though," the minstrel whispered. "Only a year? So much has happened."
"Yes," Karos breathed, nuzzling Schean's face. "Bengor's recovered, and the wars, and –"
"And before that you rescued the girls from Moydherr and then nearly got yourself killed when spying on Eregal's troops," Schean interjected, clinging to Karos as if for dear life. "Can it really be only one year? I mean, especially after those first two years that I lived here, when absolutely nothing seemed to happen all the while!"
Karos held the slim body close and just breathed in the warmth, listened to the way Schean molded against him. Pliant and supple and soft on the surface, but he knew what strength there was within. Slim fingers combed through his curls; one of Schean's favorite pastimes.
"Well, at least you're now where you should be," the minstrel said with conviction.
Karos grinned. "In bed with you, huh?"
"Silly!" The fingers tightened in his hair and shook hard. "Well, that too. But I was talking about your father and the rest of your family. You've got what you so well deserve, you're not a nameless bastard any longer."
"I wonder – is that necessarily a blessing?"
"What're you talking about? Of course it is!" Schean was astonished. "You're the son of Lord Rhodan of Deleon, you have a position, you have name and fame! Just like you should!"
"Let's see if you still think so when we have to accompany Nella to Eregal," Karos mumbled into Schean's neck. The minstrel squirmed and somehow managed to shrug at the same time.
"Remains to be seen. But hey, at least Lord Rhodan agrees that it's a very good idea that I come with you, when you go there!"
"I don't like it," Karos grunted. "I don't like it at all, and neither does Nella."
"Don't think about it too much. Not yet. There's time enough to fret and be worried when Lord Rhodan starts talking about the journey for real," Schean insisted. His knees squeezed tighter, their hard-ons pressed together. It made Karos see stars and he buried his face deeper into the long, silky hair. "Karos... Noriet..."
"About tomorrow..." The sly smile was clearly audible in Schean's voice. "Do you think we could do it again?"
"Do what again?" Karos frowned in puzzlement, and the minstrel let out a little purr.
"How we first met. Although I've got to say that I'd much prefer if you'd forget about the knife, this time around. But the rest, you know. Bowling me into bed, and sitting on me, and..."
Karos, trying to clamp his lips into the bend of Schean's neck, dissolved into breathless laughter.
"I'll see what I can do about that."
- END -