I have been watching the clouds gather in the sky between us and home all afternoon; low, dark, ominous things that seem to grumble and writhe as we draw near, so when the lonely inn appears in the distance, I urge Goar up beside his sire and turn to Naeven.
"I know you said you wanted to ride through the night, but that looks like a nasty storm," I say. "Could we, maybe --"
"Stay at the inn?" he says, raising an eyebrow. "I don't know. I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, not on some straw-filled sack crawling with fleas and lice ... I suppose, if given sufficient incentive, I could be persuaded." And he looks at me, his eyes dark with lust.
"Oh, well, I'd hate to deprive you of your own bed," I say, fighting a smile. "By all means, let's ride on, however, you should know that I am quite susceptible to catching head colds in wet weather, which would keep me out of your bed for several weeks until I recovered." I glance at him, frowning down at the reins in his hands.
"Don't worry," he says after a moment, "if you fall ill, I'll just cure you."
"Ah, but there is no cure for the common cold," I say with a smirk. "Nice try, but I win."
"Enjoy this insignificant victory while you can," he says, laughing. "With Maele as my witness, I'll have you screaming my name before midnight." A shiver of anticipation runs through my body, but I try to maintain my stubborn facade.
"We'll just see about that." We ride into the courtyard of the inn and dismount. I stand with the elk while Naeven goes inside to inquire about a room. A few minutes later, he returns, a bright smile on his face.
"It's not nearly as ratty as I feared," he says. "Just a couple of coins for the four of us, and there's only one other guest, so we'll practically have the place to ourselves." He waggles his eyebrows suggestively.
"You look like Vaelen when you do that," I say mildly as I turn away. "Where's the stable?" He takes the reins from me and leads the elk through a back gate. I follow, out into a cleared area with a large, weathered barn on one side and a squat building with a thatched roof on the other. I help Naeven set the beasts up for the night, removing their saddles and bridles, running a soft brush over their short, thick coats, tossing fresh straw on the floor of their stalls and filling their feed and water buckets. I'm wiping straw dust off the back of my neck when I hear the first drops of rain patter against the thatching.
"It's raining," I observe, leaning the pitchfork against the wall. I step over into the doorway and watch the heavy drops burst against the bone-dry ground. "Looks like it's just in time--" I jump as he wraps his arms around me, soft and strong, pulling me back against his firm, warm body. "Naeven, what--" But he doesn't give me the chance to finish my question. That's okay, as soon as he starts backing up across the stable, pulling me along with him toward the hay piled deep on the packed earth floor, I have a pretty good idea of what he's up to.
He's tentative at first, his embrace hesitant, his movements slow, but when I make no effort to resist, then his hands start roving across my chest, fingers tugging at the buttons on my shirt, sliding up under the cloth, caressing my skin. We stop walking, the hay piled deep around our ankles, and he holds me to him, softly kissing the side of my neck, the back of my jaw, his lips teasing the shell of my ear. I smile as a shiver races across my skin and turn in his arms. My lips find his, my arms wrapping around his waist as we sink into the straw. I draw back, looking down at him, lying half under me.
"What?" he asks, his lips quirking into a hint of a smile. I reach up and brush a lock of silvery-blue hair out of his eyes. How can I tell him, how can I put into words, how much he means to me? My fingers trail down his cheek, over the rough lines of his hidden scars. How do I describe the feelings inside me; the pressure in my chest, the heat that floods my skin, the tingle in my fingers and toes?
I kiss him and press my body to his, my hands shoving up the bottom of his shirt, exposing his hot skin to mine. He groans into my mouth as I slide my hand down between our bodies and quickly unbutton his pants. His erection is hot against my palm as I draw him out of the confines of his pants. I pull back, both of us a little breathless, and watch the crimson flicker in his eyes as I stroke him.
The voice whispers in my head, just a little suggestion that makes me shiver. I don't ignore it, though. What should have been a disgusting thought makes my heart race and my body ache. I want to. I never thought I would, not after what he did to me, but I do. I sit up, I push the front of his trousers farther down, I lean toward him--
"Lark, no," Naeven says, grabbing me by the shoulder. He shakes his head. "Don't--you don't have to do--"
"I know," I say. That's why I want to; because he would never make me. He whimpers even before my lips touch him, and as the head of his member slides into my mouth, he makes a hoarse, strangled sound, a cry of liberation and restraint. I suck on him and run the tip of my tongue over the sensitive spot just under the head, and he digs his heels into the straw, his whole body trembling.
I can taste him, the salt on his skin, and I feel a drop of thick, slick fluid on my tongue, but it doesn't make me sick. I raise my eyes to his face and watch him watch me, the heat in his eyes, the fire, the passion, the lust, the trembling, aching need--How could something so beautiful make me sick? I slide down his length, taking as much of him into my mouth as I can, and I hear his breath catch, feel his body jerk. He gasps my name and I sit up, his rosy skin shiny with spit as I finish him with my hand. A couple of strokes and he spills himself across his stomach, pearly beads of semen strung across the back of my hand.
I glance at him and he smiles at me, a soft, lazy smile. I couldn't do it, I couldn't swallow. Doesn't seem to bother him, but ... I look down at the semen dotting the back of my hand. Before I can think about what I'm doing, I raise my hand to my lips, my tongue darting out to taste the pearly drops. Nothing like the taste of rancid floor cleaner that Machavar used to spew out, just salty and a little bitter. Not unbearable, but I'm not sure I'd like a mouthful of it.
"It's all right if you can't," Naeven says, reading my face, if not my mind as well. "I know it's not the best tasting stuff ..." He dabs his fingertips in the glistening fluid and licks it off. He makes a face. "Bitter. You taste better." I chuckle as he sits up and pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket. "There is an herbal tea that neutralizes most of the flavor," he says as he cleans himself up, "if ... you know ... you ever ..." He shrugs and put his handkerchief away. "If you don't, that's fine, too. It's not something everyone enjoys. I under--"
"I would," I say, and his eyes dart up to meet mine. "I liked it; it wasn't anything like--" I shake my head. I won't even say it. He smiles again and reaches up to touch my cheek, and jumps as a flash of blinding light floods the stable. We look toward the door, where the rain is beginning to fall in sheets, and I draw a slow breath before the rumble of the thunder rattles my chest. "We should get inside the inn before this gets worse," I say, my voice tight. I don't much care for thunder.
We climb to our feet and straighten out our clothes before grabbing our packs and making a run across the now sodden and muddy ground. The nearby streams are going to flood tonight. We're both dripping by the time we burst, breathless, into the warm, fire lit common room of the inn. The innkeeper, a tall, thin man with a wispy gray beard glances at us from across the room and scowls, probably because we're tracking mud and dripping water all over his almost clean floor.
"Sorry about the mess," Naeven says. "Storm came in fast." The innkeeper just grunts and grabs a mop out of the corner as he steps out from behind the bar. I follow Naeven up the stair and into our room. The fact that it's so small disguises the fact that there's nothing in it but a bed, a table and lamp. As another flash of lightning shatters the gloom of dusk outside the window and the thunder rattles the watery glass in its frame, I couldn't be happier for the roof over our heads.
"Now aren't you glad we stopped?" I ask as I dig into my pack for some dry clothes.
"Absolutely," he says, and I can tell that he's smirking without even looking at him. I just shake my head and toss yesterday's riding clothes on the foot of the bed. They smell a bit like elk and sweat, but they're dry, which is a lot more than I can say about what I'm wearing. I strip off my wet tunic and shiver as the air races across my skin. "You know," he says after a moment, "I think, out of all of them, Jan tastes the best. At least, he did; very mild, and a little like almonds. Mako wasn't bad, Pharis is very salty, Lao and Marchion and Voriel and Dasha all taste the same. Jaguan--" He makes a disgusted sound in his throat. "--consumes too much meat and alcohol. He's almost enough to gag you."
"Not that it isn't interesting," I say, "but why are you telling me this?"
"Well ... you'll be ready to go before the Council and be recognized soon." I wish he'd quit reminding me. "Then you'll have to start attending conferences, and I thought it wouldn't hurt to know what to expect in the likely event that you get paired up with one of them. The Council does love its stupid games." I turn slowly toward him.
"You--you mean, I'd have to suck off some random guy?"
"Not have to," he says. "No one, not even Jaguan, can force you to do anything, however ... cooperating is always the least painful choice." I shake my head.
"You know what, it sounds like a lot of trouble for a title I don't even want. Maybe I won't--" A sharp rap on the door interrupts. I glance at Naeven. He shrugs and drops his wet shirt on the floor before crossing the room. The knock comes again as he reaches for the door.
"What?" he asks as he pulls it open. The man in the hall takes a startled step backward, clutching at the stack of towels held against his chest.
"Sorry, didn't mean to bother you," he says in a small, breathless voice. "Here--" He holds out the towels. "Daeved sent these up for you--to dry off."
"Oh. Thanks," Naeven says as he takes the towels. I step up beside him and he hands them to me. The man pushes his wire-rimmed spectacles farther up the bridge of his nose and turns startlingly dark eyes on me.
"Hello," he says with a slight nod and a hesitant smile. I smile back. "You just stopped to get out of the rain?" I nod.
"Yeah, and just in time, by the look of it." Another flash lights the room and thunder rolls overhead.
"Not a nice night," he agrees. I think Naeven grows tired of the small talk; he grabs one of the towels out of my arms and begins drying his hair as he walks away. I grin apologetically.
"Thanks again, Mister ..."
"Doctor," he says, holding out his hand to me. "Doctor Turo Tanishir." I shift the towels and shake his hand.
"Nice to meet you, Dr. Tanishir. I'm Lark, and my wet and grumpy friend is--" Behind me, Naeven clears his throat. Like I need to be reminded. "That's Zyrren. You'll have to forgive him; he's been on the road all day."
"Oh, I understand," the doctor says, glancing past me at Naeven. "Perhaps when you've dried off and rested a bit, you'll join me downstairs for a drink? I could have Daeved warm us up a jug of spiced ale. Nothing chases away a chill better." I hesitate. I know Naeven won't want to. Knowing him, he'd rather crawl into bed and spend the evening making love to me ... not a bad idea, actually ... but I did promise to give him a hard time. One drink isn't going to kill us.
"Sounds great," I say, and I pretend not to hear Naeven cursing under his breath. "Thanks a lot, Dr. Tanishir."
"Call me Turo, please," he says with that hesitant smile.
"All right, Turo. We'll see you downstairs in a while then."
"I look forward to it," he says, and then turns and walks quickly down the hall. I watch him go, and then shut the door. A strange man, but friendly. I can't fault him for that. I turn and Naeven throws his damp towel at me. I bat it away, but drop half the dry towels in the process.
"What were you thinking?" he asks, striding over to help me pick them back up.
"Well, I thought it wouldn't hurt to be friendly, and besides--" I smirk at him. "--it's going to be pretty difficult for you to make me scream your name with the doctor and the innkeeper watching." His lips grow thin as he fights not to smile, but it's no use. I lean over and kiss him as his mouth quirks in a grin.
"You think I won't," he says as we rise. He takes the towels and dumps them on the bed, then starts unbuttoning my pants. "You think I won't take you right here, right now ..." He pulls me up against him, his hand dipping down the front of my wet trousers.
"I think," I say, and I pull away from him, "that we should get dry and dressed and downstairs before he comes looking for us. Something tells me it's been a while since he had someone to talk to."
"So it's your job to rescue him from his solitude?"
"Our job," I correct him as I turn my back and struggle out of my wet pants. I can feel his eyes on me--his eyes, and then his hands, warm against my damp, chill skin. I lean back against him, standing, for a moment, naked in his embrace with my pants around my ankles. "There'll be time," I murmur. "It's just one drink." He kisses my shoulder, my throat, the back of my jaw, and I groan as I have to push his arms away. I bend down to untangle my feet and his hands find my hips, his groin pressing against my butt. My breath catches, my chest and throat tightening for an instant, but I shake it off. He won't do anything to me. "You better get out of those pants before you catch cold," I say, and he sighs as he releases me and steps away.
"You better hope I still feel like it later," he says. "One drink has been known to render me unresponsive." I laugh and rub the life back into my skin with a rough towel.
"Wouldn't that be a shame," I say. "I might actually get an uninterrupted night's sleep. I wonder what it would be like to wake up and not have some horny old mage's hands on my ass?"
"You want to find out?" I motion for him to toss me my shirt and he does. "I could go sleep out in the stable, with the elk."
"You'd do that for me?" I ask in mock sweetness. He laughs and throws my pants at me. We get dressed and head downstairs, into the welcome warmth of the common room. I glance at the innkeeper--Daeved, I assume--wiping down the bar. He must do that when he's bored; the wood is buffed to a high sheen and the brass glows in the firelight. A sound draws my attention to the other side of the room, to the wide stone fireplace. It's dancing light flickers across the cracked and chipped paint on the walls, leaving the corners dark and unexplored. Seated on a footstool before the fire is the doctor, stirring a small copper kettle hanging just to one side of the flames. He smiles up at us as we sink into the threadbare embrace of an under-stuffed sofa.
"Thirsty?" he asks in his querulous voice. He hands us each a clay mug filled with steaming spiced ale and then fills a third for himself. The spices tickle my nose as I take a hesitant sip, letting the warm liquid swirl on my tongue before I swallow. The nutmeg and cinnamon almost covers the bitter taste of alcohol. I watch Naeven drain half his mug in a single drink and I hide a smile with another sip. Looks like somebody's eager to go back upstairs.
"So, Turo," I say into the silence, "where were you headed to before this terrible weather blew in?" He takes a sip of ale, his long fingers wrapped around the mug, and then clears his throat.
"Nowhere, actually," he says. "I live here at the inn. After the fire, I didn't have anywhere to go, and Daeved said he could use the help, so--" He takes another sip.
"That was nice of him," I say. "We were on our way home."
"Would nearly be there by now," Naeven grumbles into his cup as he takes another long drink. He ought to watch it or I'll have to carry him up the stairs. Not that it would be the first time.
"Oh, do you live nearby?" Turo asks.
"Traxen." His thin eyebrows rise.
"Oh? I passed through there about a year ago. Do you know the mage, Sactaren?"
"We know of him, yes," I say. "I don't think anyone actually knows him." Naeven nudges me with his elbow, a warning, I guess. I don't see why I shouldn't have a little fun with this. He always seems to enjoy terrorizing the villagers; what I'm doing isn't hurting anyone. "Why do you ask?"
"I sought an audience with him when I was there, to discuss matters of my research, but he wouldn't see me." Turo pushes his glasses back into place and I suddenly recognize him.
"Right, I remember you--" Naeven shifts in his seat and kicks me in the back of the calf. "I remember seeing you ride up the mountain. I thought it was strange because no one ever goes up the mountain anymore. What sort of research, if you don't mind me asking?" He doesn't mind at all; in fact, I think he was hoping I'd ask.
"I've been studying vampires," he says, and Naeven sits forward on the sofa. Now he's interested. "Namely, their ability to regenerate tissue, and to reattach severed limbs. The potential medical use inherent in that knowledge is staggering."
"It's more than just their blood," Naeven says and he drains his mug. "Vampire blood can heal nonvampiric tissue, however it cannot regenerate or reattach lost limbs, and--"
"A vampire cannot regenerate if they don't have an adequate blood supply," Turo says, finishing Naeven's sentence. I lean back and sigh, and sip my ale as they delve into the more technical aspects of vampire blood and tissue regeneration. I'm starting to wish we'd stayed upstairs. Naeven raises his mug to his lips and finds it empty. Rather than have him start on a full mug, I just take his empty cup and hand him mine. It's beginning to get cold, but he doesn't seem to notice.
Seated before the fire, warm and relaxed while the storm continues to rage outside, the rain pounding against the windows, interrupted by an occasional distant rumble of thunder, my eyelids grow heavy and I feel my head start to nod forward. I jerk awake and blink stinging eyes. Naeven and Turo are still talking, but Naeven's words are so slurred I'd be surprised if the doctor actually understands any of it. I groan and push myself to my feet.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," I say, swaying slightly. I must have had more to drink than I thought. "We really should be getting to bed now. Want to get an early start tomorrow, early." I set the mug down beside Turo and grab Naeven by the arm. "Thanks for the hospitality, doctor." I drag Naeven to his feet. Looks like I'll be carrying him up the stairs again. He continues to babble as we stagger across the room, but his words are lost on me.
"Here," Turo says, stepping up on the other side of Naeven, "let me help you up these stairs."
"I got it," I say. "Don't want to bother you."
"No bother," he replies. "I should head to bed as well, and my room is just to the left of yours." At the top of the stairs, Turo steps away, though his hand lingers on Naeven's. "He has very beautiful hands," he says, and then he glances up at me. "And eyes. I've always liked men with blue eyes. You're very lucky." I'd be luckier if he was conscious. I smile and bid the doctor good night as he slips inside his room.
I drop Naeven into bed and start to remove his clothes, but it's too much work. I shrug out of my shirt and collapse beside him, shivering with a slight chill, but I don't have the energy to slip under the blankets. Maybe in a minute.
A crack of thunder snaps me back into wakefulness, a bitter, metallic taste in the back of my mouth and I shiver, cold. I raise my head, groaning as a sharp spike of pain drives between my eyes and pops out the back of my skull. What the hell happened? I glance over at Naeven, but the bed is empty. Bathroom. Probably throwing up, if he feels anything like I do. I lay a moment more, and then force myself to my feet. I should go see if he's okay. And maybe throw up myself, since I'll be in there anyway.
I know better than to drink. So does he. I shuffle down the hall and knock on the bathroom door. But is this going to teach us anything? Is this going to keep us from getting drunk again? Not likely. I knock again.
"Naeven?" I hiss, my voice thick. "You okay in there?" No answer. I lift the latch and push the door open. It's dark and empty inside. Okay, so where is he? I groan. Turo's room. I hope they're just talking about vampire blood. I try not to begrudge him his 'flings'. Maele knows, I'm not the most adventurous bed partner, but there's still something unsavory about walking in on him fucking someone else. I never have, but the thought of it ... He's always told me when he wants to sleep with someone else--most of the time, he invites me to watch. Which I've done, occasionally. That always leads to me begging him for some loving after his guest leaves, which is exactly what he hopes will happen, I'm sure of it. I stop outside the doctor's room and listen, but I can't hear anything. Is that a good sign, or a bad one? I knock softly.
"Turo?" No answer. "Excuse me, doctor? Are you awake?" That's a stupid question. If he's awake, he would have answered already, and if he's asleep, he certainly won't answer the question. I knock a little harder. "Turo, I'm looking for Nae--I mean, Zyrren. Have you seen him?" I'm answered only by silence. Has everyone in this inn vanished except for me? I open the door to confirm my fears; it's empty. The bed doesn't even look slept in.
"What the hell is going on?" I mutter. I stand at the top of the stairs and look down into the common room, the hellish glow of the dying fire only making the shadows seem deeper. A flash of lightning shatters the darkness and I draw shallow breaths, waiting for the thunder. The growl is soft and distant, but still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I wrap my arms around myself and run down the stairs. Maybe he went out to check on the elk. And Turo went with him. Yeah, right.
The front door is unbarred and I jerk it open, icy rain blowing in my face as I run out into the night. In seconds, I'm soaked to the bone, gooseflesh racing across my bare arms and chest as I shiver. I splash through the muddy courtyard and through the wide arch, out to the rear of the inn where the stable stands dark. He's not going to be in there and then where do I look? Where the hell is he?
To my left, a sliver of light catches my eye through the sheeting rain and I veer away from the stable, running instead toward the large, weathered barn, to the golden glow seeping underneath the big doors. What are they doing in the barn? Stupid question. But why leave the inn? Unless they were afraid of making too much noise and waking me. The walls did seem rather thin. But damn it, he could have just told me!
I stop under the roof overhang and wipe the rain from my face, my breath a faint plume of silver fog in the chill air. I raise my hand to the rough wood, but hesitate. Is this really something I want to see? I bite my lip and turn away. I mean, it must be something bad, if he thinks he has to sneak around behind my back. Or maybe he has a good reason. Maybe I should back to our room and wait for him to finish.
No, because I'll believe anything he says. I'll want to believe it and I'll swallow any lies he feeds me. I need to see the truth for myself. I swallow hard and take a deep breath before easing the old, heavy door open. I slip inside and let it close behind me as my eyes adjust to the sudden brightness.
I stare at a wall of hay bales, stacked like bricks half again as tall as I am, with bright, clear, golden lamplight spilling over the top and lighting the thick cobwebs hanging from the rafters. What do they need so many lamps for? Hot, sweaty, sneaky sex is hardly a visual thing.
I step over to the wall, the rich scent of sun-dried grass tickling my nostrils as I lean close, listening. From the other side I hear faint, tell-tale sounds; gasping, moaning, muffled cries, rustling and thumping, the sound of bodies entwined. I close my eyes, fighting to banish the pain in my chest. Why? How could he do this to me? I love him. And--and I thought he loved me. I'm everything he never thought he could have ... and therein lies the answer. He wanted me so long as he thought he couldn't have me, and now that he has, he's lost interest. He's found someone new to amuse himself with. He's--
I slam my fist against a bale of straw. That fucking voice! I turn and stalk along the wall, loose straw crackling beneath my bare feet. I'm not going to go back to bed and pretend this never happened, I'm going to find out what the hell is worth betraying me over. And then I'm going to tell him to forget about the wedding. I round the corner of the hay bales to find that the wall extends halfway to the back wall of the barn. Someone went through a lot of trouble to make sure they wouldn't be caught. I glance up at the hay. This is almost too much trouble just for a little illicit sex.
The doctor's soft voice cuts through my thoughts, indistinct from the other side of the wall, and I lean close to listen.
"Shhh now, just a little more," he says. "I know it hurts ... There, all done." I frown. I may not be the most experienced man, but that doesn't sound like sex talk to me. Suddenly, I hear the muffled cries not as repressed moans of pleasure, but as choked shouts of pain. What is he-- "Quiet, Furen," the doctor says, but there's no change in the strangled sounds. "I have to take out these nasty old eyes before the decay spreads. We don't want that to happen again, do we?"
I jump as something thumps against a wooden surface and the muffled scream rises in pitch and volume. I cover my mouth with my hands as my mind fills with unwanted imaginings; blood and rot, blind eyes being carved out of their sockets--I stumble toward the back of the barn, my stomach heaving and knotting up. Why is he doing this here? This isn't a hospital. And where the fuck is Naeven?
I step in something cold and thick that oozes between my toes. I look down and gag on the stench. Blood, black and clotted, lies congealed on the dry, packed dirt. I feel bile rise in the back of my throat, burning as I fight to swallow it down. My eyes travel across the dark stain, to the fat white maggots writing on a piece of rotting meat. Meat, yes. I try to make it remain a piece of meat, but the outline is undeniable. A human foot. And scattered around the foot lie other hunks and bits of maggot-ridden flesh, ears, hands, rubbery folds of skin, matted hanks of hair with bloody scalp attached. I turn and vomit, my retching drowned out by the unceasing scream on the other side of the wall.
Leaning against the bales of hay, I turn my face into the sweet, fresh scent of the straw, away from the putrid, sour smell. This is a nightmare, it has to be. Nothing so horrible could be real.
"You're going to love these new eyes I found for you," Turo says, his voice just on the other side of the hay. I clench my fists, my fingers digging into the straw, fighting the urge to just shove the wall over onto top of him. Something makes a noise behind me, a thick splat and I whip around. It's an eye, dark and staring, red with burst veins and leaking yellow pus into the blood. I glance up as a second eye flies over the wall and lands in the viscous fluid. I turn away as Turo speaks again. "They're blue, Furen, just like you used to have." Blue eyes. I skirt the pool of blood and run to the end of the wall. He can't mean what I think he means. I peer around the edge of the hay bales, drawing a sharp breath at the sight that greets me.
Not more than twenty feet from me, Turo stands between two tables, lamps glowing at the head and foot of each one, a gleaming silver knife in his hand and a tray filled with sharp, pointed instruments off to the side. He turns and leans over the table that stands between us and my heart scrambles up into my throat, choking me as he lifts Naeven's eyelid. The steel flashes as he lowers the knife point toward that pale blue eye.
"Turo, don't!" I shout as I step out from behind the bales of hay. He jumps and his head snaps around, his face paling. "Get away from him." He looks at me, then down at Naeven.
"I can't, Lark," he says, his voice trembling. "He could be the one." The hand with the knife in it shakes and I take a slow step toward him.
"What do you mean, the one?" I ask. "I don't understand." He pushes his glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose, but his face is shiny with sweat and they slide right back down. He doesn't seem to notice.
"None of them were good enough," he says. "His body kept rejecting the tissue."
"Them? You mean the pieces of dead people I stepped in?" He stiffens at my tone, his knuckles turning white as he tightens his grip on the knife. I should probably watch what I say.
"I did what I had to do," he says. "You have to understand; I couldn't just let him die. I have to keep trying!" He starts to reach for Naeven again.
"Who?" I step toward him and he raises the knife again, pointing it at me. "Who was going to die, Turo?" A tremor runs through his jaw, his lip trembling.
"Furen," he says, and glances behind him. I start to take another step, but he turns back. "He's my brother." And then he steps to the side, and my eyes fix on something that could not, should not be alive.
But it is.
A myriad of tubes and wires run into and out of the lump of quivering, squirming flesh, skin thick and twisted, red and weeping. Bare bone gleams in the lamplight, protruding from raw stumps, arms and legs cut off close to the trunk, except for one, a flabby, scarred leg, most of a thigh, thumping against the table top. My eyes dart to the thing's face, bloody, empty eye sockets filled with shadow, and thick black thread stitching the lips together, muffling the screams.
"What--what happened?" I whisper.
"The fire," Turo says, "then infection." I shake my head, words sticking in my throat. This is monstrous, an abomination. I picture myself trapped in that body, in constant agony, and all I want to do is die.
"You have to stop this," I say. "Can't--can't you see that he's suffering?"
"I can fix him," Turo says, and he moves toward Naeven again. "My research--"
"Isn't going to help your brother," I say, and he raises his eyes to me. "Nothing can help him now." His face twists into something ugly that bears no resemblance to sanity.
"No!" He slices deep into Naeven's face, just missing the eye, the blade squealing across the bone. I don't think, I just take my fear and disgust and forge it into my own blade, the razor sharp blast of magic leaving a faint blue streak as it slices through the air and into the back of Turo's hand. He yelps and leaps back, dropping the knife into the straw at his feet.
"You--What did you do?" he asks, clutching his bleeding hand to his chest. I ignore him and close the remaining distance between me and the table. Blood streams from Naeven's face, pooling over his closed eye and rolling down the side of his head, into his hair. I lay my hand on his chest, relief surging through me as I feel his heart beat against my palm. I close my eyes and etch the healing rune in my mind, pouring my tangled emotions into the spell until I feel it reach critical mass.
I hear Turo cry out in surprise and see a brilliant flash of blue through my eyelids as the magic does its work. I sag, leaning on the table, momentarily winded, and glance over at Turo.
"You're a mage," he says, and then he looks at his brother. "You can heal him." I shake my head, but he's not looking. "Yes, you can use your magic, you can make him whole again."
"No, I can't," I say. "I'm sorry, but ... I don't have that much power. His injuries are--"
"You have to!" Turo screams. "I'll make you! I'll kill your lover if you don't!" And he lunges for the tray of blades. Anger and fear flares within me and I feel the magic rip loose, flickering through the air between us. Turo screams as long wounds open across his face and neck, blood splattering across Naeven. He falls back, nearly knocking over the table upon which his brother lies, and the lamps at either end fall to the floor with a crash.
The tinder-dry straw goes up like a bomb, a deafening roar filling my ears as flames leap up and singe the cobwebs hanging in the rafters. I grab Naeven and throw him over my shoulder, then seize Turo by the arm and try to drag him away. He jerks out of my grasp and throws himself onto the table with his brother. Fire engulfs them and their shrieks follow me as I turn and run.
I round the end of the wall of hay and skid to a stop. The fire has climbed the bales and leaped to the loose straw on the other side. I heft Naeven higher onto my shoulder and glance around, choking on smoke as I look for another way out. There isn't one. If I can run fast enough, maybe I won't get burnt too bad. And then the stack of bales begins to sag, leaning outward as the fire eats away at the base of the wall. I take a single step and stop, a cry of dismay catching in my throat as the hay tumbles over, the flames leaping up to lick at the rafters.
Now what the fuck do I do? This old barn isn't going to last long, and no one is ever going to find our charred bodies. I stumble back, away from the fire, and fall against the back wall, a shout of pain escaping my lips as my elbow cracks one of the rotten boards in half. I let Naeven slide to the ground and leap back, gasping and choking as I kick a hole large enough to climb through.
I shove Naeven out into the rain and then scramble after him, icy rain stinging my face as I lift him out of the mud and back onto my shoulder. When did he get so heavy? I take a step and scream as pain lances up through my foot. A nail from the boards or just a big fucking splinter, I can't tell, and I don't bother to look. I limp around the side of the barn, heat and smoke boiling out through the cracks in the walls, and fall exhausted to the ground, my foot throbbing.
After a moment, I force myself to sit up and check my foot. It's a sliver, if you can call something as long as thick as your little finger a sliver. I sit, shaking and gasping, as the flames eat through the roof and leap up into the night. I see movement out of the corner of my eye and my hear leaps, but it's just the innkeeper, Daeved, stumbling out into the rain in just his nightshirt. Naeven is still unconscious.
I climb back to my feet and drag him to the stable, out of the rain. It's closer than the inn, and even so, I barely make it. My teeth chatter as I hunt around for a towel or blanket or something. We're both going to die of hypothermia if we don't get out of these wet clothes. All I can find is a couple of smelly old horse blankets, but it's good enough for me.
I strip him down and lay him on one blanket in an empty stall, then do the same and pull the second blanket close around us. I rub my hands over his body, trying to get the blood flowing, trying to bring some heat back to his skin, and slowly his shivering eases, as does mine. I wrap my arms around him and bury my face in the back of his neck, the thick scent of blood and smoke overpowering his usual smell of herbs and flowers.
This is all my fault. I never should have asked to stay at this inn. A little rain wouldn't have killed me, but one night here almost killed him. Hot tears slide down my cheeks and I sob, his long hair sticking to my dry lips. If he would just wake up, if I could just know that he was okay--
I jerk my head up, holding my breath as I listen. A sound ... what is it? I can hear the roar of the fire, the groan of the timbers, and then a great crash, but that isn't what caught my attention. Footsteps, splashing through the mud, and ragged breathing ... someone else is in the stable. I sit up, chill air sending a shiver along my body, and lean forward, peering around the wall of the stall.
A silhouette, tall, broad through the shoulders, drips water on the floor as the man steps farther into the building, his head turning from side to side as he looks for us. It has to be the innkeeper. Turo is dead.
"I saw you come in here," he says, his voice deep, rolling. "What have you done? Where's Turo?" Something about him makes me uneasy. Or maybe I'm just gun shy after tonight. I sit back and struggle into my wet, cold pants, and then cover Naeven with the blanket and a layer of straw. I hate leaving him, helpless as he is, but I creep out of the stall. "What have you done with Turo?" Daeved bellows, startling the elk in the stalls beside me. Daeved turns at the sound and his eyes fix on me.
"He's dead," I say as I straighten up. "He knocked over a lamp, and the fire--" The innkeeper bellows, wordlessly, a cry of rage, and then lunges at me. I stumble back, my hands groping for something to defend myself with, fingers brushing a worn wooden handle, closing around the stout pole. I swing it around to block him and see the long, thin tines of the pitchfork gleam in the light of the fire before sinking into his chest.
I watch the rage bleed out of his face, replaced by a look of shock, and then his jaw hangs slack and he looks down at the metal where it enters his chest. He makes a soft, wheezing sound and crumples sideways, tearing the pitchfork from my stunned hands. I stare down at the still form, waiting.
Waiting for what? For him to get back up? He can't. He's dead! I killed him. I shudder and turn my face away. He was trying to kill me. It was self-defense. I didn't have a choice. With a sob, I skirt the body and run to Naeven, sending the loose straw flying as I throw back the blanket. I lie behind him, my arms wrapped tight around his body, and I weep like a child until exhaustion steals away my consciousness.
I wake to a sliver of golden sunlight slicing through a crack in the wall and pooling across my face. I groan and pull the blanket higher, and then sit bolt upright as the memories of the previous evening come flooding back. I grab Naeven by the shoulders and shake him. He wakes with a start, one arm lashing out and striking me across the chest. I'm so relieved, I sob and throw myself at him.
"Thank Maele you're--Naeven, I was so--and you wouldn't wake--the blood, and the fire, Naeven, I--" He places his hand over my mouth and draws back.
"Could you possibly stop shouting?" he asks in a thin voice. "My head ... What the hell happened? The last thing I remember ..." He trails off, a frown creasing his brow. "He drugged us," he whispers. "The ale, I tried to tell you -- you were helping me up the stairs when I realized, but by then it was too late. What he do to us?" He glanced down at himself, naked under the horse blanket. "Did he--" I push his hand away from my mouth.
"No. I undressed you because we were soaked and freezing to death. No, Naeven, he tried to kill you." I describe waking alone and searching for him, the rotting pieces of people in the barn, what was left of Turo's brother, the fire, and then the killing of the innkeeper. He leans out of the stall and looks at the body.
"Yeah, he's dead," is all he says. We get up, get dressed and get the elk ready to travel. All that remains of the barn is a heap of blackened timbers, faint wisps of smoke still rising into the still morning air. I stand with Bari and Goar while Naeven goes back to the inn to get our things. He's gone a lot longer than I would have taken to grab the two knapsacks, but I can't bring myself to judge him. As long I don't hear about the stuff that found its way into his bag, I don't care.
As we ride away, I can't help but glance back one more time.
"Are you okay?" Naeven asks. I think about that for a moment.
"No, not really," I say at last, "but I will be." He smiles at me, and then swings his knapsack around to his lap.
"Maybe this will cheer you up." He pulls out an elegant silver teapot. "Nice, eh? I got the whole set." I shake my head.
"You think looking at loot is going to cheer me up?" I ask, and his smile fades. "The man who owned that is dead by my hand."
"I doubt it," he says, rummaging through the pack again. "Something tells me these didn't belong to the innkeeper." He pulls out a pair of glittery crystal slippers.
"Those look uncomfortable," I say, "but what do shoes have to do with anything?"
"There was a room filled with this kind of stuff. I think it's all the valuables they've taken from the guests that never left the inn." I have a sudden flash of that pile of rotting meat. I swallow hard.
"Let's just go home," I say. "I need you to make me forget all of this." He frowns again.
"You mean ... wipe your memory?"
"No, you're other magic." He looks confused and I smile softly at him. "I need you to make love to me. Drive these horrible visions from my mind." My leg brushes his as I coax Goar closer. I reach up and catch his chin, drawing him toward me as I lean over and press my lips to his. He groans softly and then pulls away.
"Yeah, all right," he says grudgingly. "You win."