The sky above the bay had lightened gradually to the gray of antique silver, the clouds giving it that pearly, tarnished look. Rayne hadn't dared fall asleep -- he slept like a rock -- so he'd been pacing, and yawning, and staring out the window all night. A noise in the hall drew his head around and he held his breath, listening. The loose floorboard in Wynnd's doorway creaked and he shrugged off the quilt, grabbed the coat and crossed the room, jerking his door open and catching a startled looking Bel in a wash of pale lamplight. Rayne stepped out into the hall and Bel backed away. Rayne glanced down at himself, looking real threatening in his faded blue pajama pants, goosebumps prickling across his bare chest, and then back up at the tall, dark-haired man.

"I'm sorry," Rayne whispered, trying not to wake up his father, "about earlier. I didn't mean to offend you." Bel said nothing, just hefted his knapsack farther onto his shoulder. He was back in that dirty shirt that Rayne had first seen him in, confirming Rayne's suspicion -- he didn't have anything else to wear. He held out the coat. "It's too big for me," he said when Bel just stared at it. "Doesn't fit anyone else, either, and it's damn cold out there." It was damn cold inside, too -- he was shivering again. He should have brought the quilt with him. "Please, Bel, just take it." Bel raised his eyes and Rayne's stomach did a flip into his throat as he realized he called him Bel. He held his breath, waiting to be throttled, but after a moment Bel just reached out and took the coat.

"Thanks, boy," he said, his rough, quiet voice rubbing across Rayne's skin like warm velvet. Rayne opened his mouth to protest, the words dying on his lips as Bel smiled at him, just for a moment. He handed Rayne his bag, the pack so light there couldn't have been anything in it except for his change of clothes. The coat is a little big, even on him, but that's nothing a few decent meals wouldn't fix.

"Hang on, don't leave yet," Rayne said, shoving his knapsack back in his arms. He ran to the kitchen and grabbed two loaves out of the bread basket, shoving them and some early apples in a cloth sack. it wasn't much, but there was half a side of bacon hanging in the shed--neither he nor his father really cared for bacon, but it was free, so they were eating it -- Bel could have that, too. he stepped onto the hall, the bag slung over his shoulder, and stopped short. Bel was gone.

Rayne raced down the stairs, heart hammering. The back door was unbarred. Out into the cold, gray dawn he ran, the still sea air wrapping around him like a wet sheet, around the building and into the street, turning circles as his eyes darted past shadows and alleys. Traxen was empty and silent -- he felt like the only living thing in the world. With a strangled sob, he started toward the crossroads, but stopped before he even reached the village well. Bel was gone. And he hadn't even said good-bye.

Teeth chattering, Rayne barred the door and dragged himself upstairs, but paused in his bedroom doorway. After a moment, he turned and opened the door to the spare room, the loose floorboard creaking as he stepped inside. The room is empty, the bed neatly made, nothing out of place. It was like he'd imagined him, the tall, dark stranger with the sapphire blue eyes. Rayne walked to the bed and jerked back the covers, the faint scent of sweat and musk, the briny smell of the sea and the tang of wood smoke wafting into the air. He leaned down and breathed deep, laying his hand in the slight depression Bel's body had left. The bed was still warm. Or else Rayne was just that cold. Either way, he sank into the mattress and pulled the blankets up, surrounded by the warmth of Bel's body and the scent of his skin, cold tears caught in his lashes and on his cheeks as he slipped off to sleep.

If Miravek noticed Rayne sleeping in the spare room, he didn't say anything. Nor did he mention the fact that Rayne hardly spoke for the next three days, though several customers asked if he was feeling well. After that, he started to return to his usual chatty self, though he still often wondered where Bel was, if he was hungry, if he'd found the note yet. Rayne had tucked it into an inside pocket of the coat. It was a full week after Bel left that Rayne realized that he wasn't going to come running back, and that he probably was never going to see the man again. He cried. And then he realized how stupid he was being ... and cried some more.

A few days later, Rayne was leaning on the counter in the shop, his chin resting on his fist, watching the people pass by the front window and hating the day for being so slow, when the shop door burst open and two of his friends, Chraen and Syddrael, came stumbling and pushing inside.

"Rayne--there's a--you gotta see--looking for--hurry up--" they both shout at once, making no sense what-so-ever.

"Hey, hey, hey--shut up!" Rayne shouted, stepping out from behind the counter, and they did. Both of them were pale and breathless, Chraen's dark brown eyes wide in shock or fear. "Syd, what is it?" Rayne asked. Syd was the guy you asked when you wanted the short answer; Chraen was like Rayne -- he tended to ramble, especially when he got excited.

"Rayne, a man just showed up looking for you. Say's your friend's been hurt. What's he talking about? I thought we were your friends."

"You are," Rayne said, stepping past them and heading for the door. "I don't know what--"

"You should have seen him, Rayne," Chraen exclaimed. "He's all beat to shit -- I've never seen -- blood all over his face, his clothes ripped up, long black hair all matted, covered in mud--" Rayne stopped and whirled around, grabbing Chraen by the front of the shirt.

"Did you say black hair?" Chraen nodded. "Was he wearing a coat?"

"Yeah, a black one, trimmed in gray fur--looked like your brother's--" Rayne shoved himself away from the smaller boy and flung the door open, almost hitting Mrs. Magroven, who waved her walking stick at him as he leaped off the stone steps and bolted up the hill, where people are gathered around an old wagon and a pair of gray mules.

"Move, please," Rayne said, pushing through the crowd, but no one paid him any attention. "Get out of my way!" he shouted, and a tall man stepped aside in surprise, allowing him to scramble up the wagon wheel and tumble over the side. He cried out at the sight of Bel, covering his mouth with his hands to keep from throwing up. If he hadn't been wearing the coat, the soft wolf's fur now matted with blood, Rayne wouldn't have known who it was.

"Are you Rayne?" Rayne nodded, and then looked up at the many who had spoken. He was a farmer type, about Miravek's age. "Did you know this guy?" he asked, and Rayne's heart crawled up into his throat, rendering him speechless for the first time in his life. He could only nod again. "I found him in a ditch just this side of Jexlen. Your note was in his pocket--I didn't know where else to bring him. I'm sorry, son, I came as fast as I could." Rayne bit his lip, choking on a sob. How could anyone do this to another person? Rayne reached out, shaking all over as he touched Bel's hand. It was cold as ice. Tears spilled down his face.

"Get back, all of you, out of my way, damn it." Rayne looked up as Karis, the quack doctor who let Rayne's mother die, shoved his way through the crowd. He hauled his fat ass up into the wagon, leaned down, and grabbed Bel by the throat. Rayne clenched his fists and lurched to his feet, but before he could slam his fist into Karis's doughy face, the doctor straightened up. "He ain't dead, you idiots," he barked, and then looked at Rayne. "You know him?" Again, Rayne could only nod. "Well, let's get him inside then."

Rayne showed them the way as the kind farmer, Karis and Gidael, the innkeeper, carried Bel up the back stairs and into the guest bedroom. Mopping his sweaty face with a stained handkerchief, Karis turned to Rayne. "Where's Miravek?" he asked.

"I--I ... I don't know," Rayne said, his mind a complete blank as he watched bloody rainwater soak into the pale bedspread underneath Bel. Karis turned to Gidael.

"Could you find him? I need to talk to an adult." Rayne clenched his fists again.

"He's down at the docks," he said, anger clearing his head. "A shipment is coming in from Evam Rune City today." Gidael nodded to him and then headed down the stairs. After a moment, the farmer followed him, leaving Rayne alone with Bel and the doctor. Without another glance at Rayne, Karis stepped over to the bed and began to feel Bel's arms and legs, his hips and chest, and finally his face. The he wiped his bloody hands on the bedspread and stepped back. "Well?" Rayne asked after a minute, when it was clear that Karis wasn't going to tell him the extent of Bel's injuries. The doctor glanced at Rayne, clearly irritated.

"Broken arm, broken ribs, probably internal bleeding, broken nose, broken cheekbone, and possibly a cracked skull," he announced. "Also, he's lost massive amounts of blood and he's suffering from hypothermia."

"What--what can we do--"

"Nothing," Karis said. "Warm him up, wash him off, bandage his wounds, and then wait. If he's strong, he'll survive, but--" He glanced at Bel again. "--I wouldn't count on it."

"You--you heartless, useless, son-of-a-bitch," Rayne hissed. "Get out." Karis turned and opened his mouth, anger evident in his eyes, but it paled beside Rayne's rage. He raised his fists and lunged toward the doctor. "Get out! Get the fuck out of here!" Rayne screamed, and he took a wild swing at Karis. His fist sunk into the doctor's flabby midsection, driving the breath right out of him. Karis staggered out the door and Rayne slammed it behind him, leaning against the wood until he heard the doctor's heavy footsteps descending the stairs. He turned to Bel. "I won't let him," he whispered, hot tears spilling down his cheeks. "I won't let him kill you like he killed my mother. There has to be something we can do." Karis's words echoed in his mind; 'Warm him up, wash him off, bandage his wounds' and even though it was the loathsome doctor speaking, it was the best advice he had.

He jerked the door open, half expecting to find someone standing outside, but the hall was empty. So was the rest of the house. He was alone. Suddenly, he wished he had someone, anyone, to help him. Bel's life could not rest in his hands alone.

Rayne stirred the fire and threw on more wood, then filled both kettles and hung them over the flames. He gathered all the spare blankets and piled them near the fireplace to warm, then dug into the linen closet and tore up the oldest sheets for bandages. Warm him, wash him, bandage his wounds. Rayne worked with a single-minded intensity, moving up and down the hall with silent determination. Every time had to step into Bel's room, his stomach lurched anew at the sight of the injured man.

Waiting for the kettle to whistle, Rayne stood at the head of the bed, his fingers tangled in the hem of his shirt. Bel's black hair was matted with dirt and blood, stuck into the wounds on his face. Rayne swallowed hard and reached out, Bel's skin like ice as he lifted a mat of hair off one eye. Fresh blood welled up as the hair pulled free. Rayne took a stuttering breath and tried to tuck the mat behind Bel's ear, only -- he jerked his hand back, fighting the urge to vomit. Bel didn't have an ear.

Dizzy and nauseous, Rayne leaned over him again and brushed back his hair. The ear was completely gone. Only a dark hole remained. But the skin was healed, the scars faded. This was an old wound. Quickly, Rayne checked the other side. That ear was intact and normal. Not sure what it meant, he went back out to check on the water.

How does someone lose an ear? A hunting accident? A slip in fencing practice? Maybe that's why Bel refused to use the knife. The kettles still hung stubbornly silent, and Rayne had no choice in the matter now, nothing else to delay him from what he had to do.

His teeth gritted, Rayne returned to the bedroom and set about undressing Belaeden, something he'd done a dozen times with his eyes, but every inch of pale gray-blue skin -- bruised, bloodied, torn -- made him want to be sick. His hands shook as he fumbled with the laces of Bel's boots, the buttons of his pants and shirt. As he unfastened the cuffs, he found a piece of rope, frayed at both ends, tied around one wrist. He had been dragged. With a raw scream, Rayne grabbed the rope and tried to break it, the stiff fibers biting into his hands, but he wasn't strong enough. he pulled back, his hands sticky with blood.

"Damn it, calm the fuck down," he whispered to himself. Bel needed him to keep a cool head. He swallowed hard and set his jaw, but his hands still shook as he peeled back one side of Bel's shirt. A single cry escaped him, but he quickly bit it back. Bel's skin was discolored, red and black, from the top of his pants to the base of his throat. Burns? He forced himself to look closer. No, not burns, tattoos. Red and black ink, bold, jagged designs, sweeping curves, twisting and weaving across his skin ...

Tattoos. This was why Bel wouldn't take off his shirt, why he wouldn't even push up his sleeves. Rayne shoved back the cuff, the rope riding just below the bottom of the markings. Rayne drew a slow breath as he regarded them. This was something Bel hid, something he didn't want people to see. Rayne suddenly felt like a voyeur, like a dirty peep looking in a window. He didn't have a choice, though. He stripped off the shirt and then the pants, discovering a deep, dirty puncture on his left thigh, the flesh surrounding it violently red against his gray skin.

With a bowl of hot water and a supply of clean cloths, Rayne washed Bel's wounds and bandaged the worst of them, and then covered him with a warm blanket from in front of the fire. He was just tucking him in when the bedroom door burst open and Miravek charged into the room, red-faced and out of breath. He grabbed Rayne and pulled him into a crushing embrace.

"I'm sorry, son," he gasped, "Giddael--I was on the ship--he couldn't find me--I got here as soon--Are you okay?" Rayne struggled to hold himself together. Bel still needed him. But his father was here, would know what to do--everything was going to okay now--Rayne buried his face in his father's shoulder and sobbed, clinging to him like a child. "Oh, my son," Miravek whispered, smoothing back Rayne's hair, "it's all right. It's all right." Suddenly, Rayne pulled back.

"It's not all right," he said, his voice thick. "Look at what they did to him!" He turned and jerked back the blanket, exposing the cuts and gouges and lumps and bruises on Bel's arms and chest. Miravek drew a sharp breath between his teeth and stepped closer. He reached out and touched Bel's shoulder, tracing the curve of his tattoo.

"Did Karis see this?" Miravek asked. Rayne shook his head. "Did anyone see this?"

"No," Rayne said with a frown. "Father, what--" Miravek pulled the blanket back up.

"Don't mention these markings to anyone - not Syd, not Chraen, not anyone. Do you understand?" Alarm tightened Rayne's chest.

"Father--" Miravek grabbed him by the shoulders.

"Do you understand?" he asked again. Rayne nodded, his mouth dry and tasting like ash. His father pulled him into another embrace, holding him tight. "Good. Now come on, we should get started on dinner." He started to step away, toward the door, but Rayne grabbed him by the arm.

"Dinner?" Rayne hissed. "You expect me to peel potatoes, when he's -- What the hell is going on? Why don't you want me telling anyone about his tattoos?"

"Just let it alone, Rayne," Miravek said. "It's better that you don't know, and--" He glanced at Bel. "-- it would be better if he didn't survive." Rayne, for once in his life, was speechless. How could he say that, how could he want Bel to die? Miravek reached for his arm, but Rayne jerked away.

"No," he said, and then louder, "no! You don't know him, you barely talked to him, how--how can you--"

"Rayne," Miravek said, "he's a killer." Rayne's mouth snapped shut. "The tattoos ... are worn only by the most vicious and hardened mercenaries." Looking at Bel, so pale and still beneath Wynnd's old green quilt, Rayne couldn't imagine him harming anyone, let alone killing for money. "When I was a boy," Miravek continued, "there was a terrible scare up north. A band of mercenaries attacked villages and towns -- killed hundreds of people -- they were caught and executed, and every one had tattoos just like his." Rayne shook his head.

"No," he whispered. It couldn't be true.

"I'm sorry, son. Now come on, his life is in Maele's hands now." Rayne let himself be led from the room, his head spinning. His father would never lie to him, but -- There had to be more to it. Perhaps Bel had been a mercenary -- people made mistakes -- but he could have turned his life around. Maybe that was what he was running from; his past, his former companions who now sought to kill him. Maybe they were the ones who beat him and left him in the ditch. There was only one way to know.

"I need to talk to Syd and Chraen," Rayne said suddenly, stopping in the middle of the hall. "I may have given them the impression that Bel--Belaeden was my friend and I should probably put out that fire while I can. You know how Chraen loves to exaggerate." Miravek peered at him from under lowered brows, but finally nodded.

"Don't be gone too long -- you know I always burn the roast." Rayne flashed him a perfunctory smile and headed down the hall, his father's eyes boring a hole in his back as he fought not to break into a run. He had to hurry. Sactaren's magic shop would be closing soon.