Summary: Nell is trouble, and always has been, through no fault of his own. Toby has watched him grow under the witch's shadow, and fought for him when he could. But when everything starts to go wrong, who will Toby choose? The villagers and a normal life, or Nell?
Warnings: Although I hate to warn for this because I think it's pretty ridiculous, this is SLASH. As in there will be boy on boy loving in this text and context and between the lines of this text :). If this isn't your thing, please leave quietly to find something else.
"I don't understand it, Nell," Toby said as he cleaned a cut on the younger boy's face. "Why don't you ever hit back?"
Nell shrugged his shoulders. They were broad for his age and already showing the shape of the man he would become. He smiled guilelessly up at Toby, even as the motion stretched the new cut on his lower lip.
Toby gave a frustrated sigh. It was always the same. Nell never fought back. He faced the sly remarks and taunts, and even the punches, with the same smile and self-conscious laugh. As if he was in on the joke, and not the butt of it.
Sometimes Toby wanted to hate Nell. For refusing to understand that some people deserved to get what was coming to them, including a good clout to the face. Nell was content to let the universe work its magic on those people. To let nature run its course and to float along with it, never resisting, never complaining.
Nell would be a good fighter too. Ever since he was a little boy following Toby along to the pastures to help with the horses, Nell had moved with a grace unexpected for someone consistently large for his age. His back and arms, strong and lithe from plowing and harvesting, could easily help him deliver a punch or wield a weapon. But Nell refused to be bothered.
Muttering under his breath, Toby continued to clean the dirt from the cut below Nell's eye. He wasn't gentle. He never was with Nell, nor with the other boys. Yet although it must have hurt, Nell sat patiently, staring up at Toby with his odd grey eyes.
His peaceful nature wouldn't be such a problem, Toby often mused, if he wasn't such an obvious target. He was bigger than all of the other boys in their age group, and even some of the older boys, making him intimidating and unleashing insecurities upon the boys. But the largest problem was not dependent on his size or his appearance, or even the dopey smile he always wore.
Nell never spoke.
The other kids called Nell dumb or slow, but Toby knew that wasn't so. He'd seen Nell follow conversations easily and follow directions as well as anybody. He knew his letters and numbers too – learned them with everyone else at old Simon's hut near the creek. No, Nell wasn't stupid, even though Toby had called him that along with everyone else at certain times. Toby saw the thoughts flash in his eyes and knew. Nell seemed to prefer the company of the animals their village kept, to exist in the silence of instinct or contemplation.
He was an oddity – strange in his silence and in his unwillingness to fight and wrestle with the other boys. And, of course and one in the same, he was a target.
Putting away the wet poultice, Toby pressed a dry cloth to the clean wound on Nell's face. Once Toby had found them and had launched himself into the fray kicking and screaming, the boys attacking Nell had fled. However, one of them had thrown a last rock and caused the scrape on Nell's face. It was probably Tal, Toby thought with a scowl. Tal always had irritatingly good aim.
"Hold that there, and press on it hard, so it'll scab quickly and not get infected," he said, releasing the cloth as soon as Toby's long fingers covered his own. He busied himself with cleaning the dirtied bandages in the sea water he had brought and putting everything back to its proper place
"Your lip should heal just fine, and then the girls will be chasing you once again," he teased over his shoulder as he scrubbed at the blood and dirt embedded in the cloth. Nell shifted his gaze to the floor and smiled, as always, and shrugged again. They both knew the statement was false. Girls could be just as mean as boys, if not more so, with the picking and choosing of their potential partners. Toby wondered, in his darker moments, if Nell would ever find a partner. Even if a girl found his sweet nature endearing, there was always the matter of her parents. Few wanted a boy that would refuse to fight intruders or to charm their dauthers with sugary words.
And then, there was the matter of the witch.
When Nell was born, nearing seventeen summers ago now, there had been a witch in the village. They had called her Arabel, as that was what she told them, and her dark brown eyes were glassy with the blindness caused from the gift of the Sight. Otherwise, they would have looked much like Toby's own. She was from the old country, and though her hair was white with age, it had once been as black as a raven's wing. And she wasa witch.
She sold potions for love and potions for truth-seeing, but that was just to keep gold in her pockets and fine food on her table. Her real gift was the Sight, the ability to see beyond the current time and plane and into pasts and futures real and unreal. She refused to use her gift for petty things – people who came to her for fortunes were always turned away with a sneer. She only used it to look beyond a few times a year to search for cataclysmic events that may or may not occur.
She looked the day that Nell was born. Toby was all of two summers old at the time, but he remembered the day well. His foggy remembrance was colored and strengthened by the many times he had heard the story. It was a popular tale at late night conversations, as long as Nell's Da wasn't in the room. Unlike his passive son, Nell's Da wasn't afraid of using his fists.
The short version of the tale went something like this: the witch looked in on time, saw a possibility of the future, and left the village for fear of what would come.
The longer version is something like this: the witch looked in on time and saw a boy. A boy with gray eyes and fair hair and a smile like the sun. She saw that he had a dark soul and that he would do terrible things. And this is what she told the town elders and the chief before she left the village for fear of what would come.
No one left with her, but there was talk, and when Nell's eyes changed from the blue of infancy to their current unusual gray, there was fear. Some wanted to kill the young boy in order to prevent any dark happenings from coming to pass. Many of the elders, more suspicious in their ways than most folk, urged the chief to get rid of the young babe.
However, the chief was less suspicious than most and had no thirst for the blood of innocent infants. In addition, his wife was the sister of Nell's Da and she begged him to save the life of her nephew, the first son of her brother. And so Nell was allowed to live. Yet the shadow of the tale colored his life forever onwards. Some of the older folk twisted their fingers into the sign against evil when Nell passed them in the field on the road. They said his silence was the sign of his curse, of the darkness within. They watched him, and they waited for it to emerge like scavenging birds waiting for a deer to take its last breath.
Toby thought the tale was barmy. There was no way the boy the witch saw could have been Nell. Nell, who refused to harm even the mice that stole their grain, who helped the young ones with their chores, who smiled at those who hated him – no, Nell was not a dark soul.
After everything was in the right place, Toby turned back to Nell.
"You can take the cloth off now. The scrape should be closed. It's not deep enough to warrant stitches." Nell removed the cloth as instructed and handed it back to Toby who put it in the sea water to soak. "Your Ma will give you the right herbs to make sure it heals properly." Nell nodded before standing with the same animal-like grace he gave every movement. Toby watched him carefully for any sign that he was injured beyond the scratches and bruises on his face. Finding none, Toby met Nell's eyes with his own.
"You're done. Go off now. I've got training to do and your Da probably needs your help in the field." Nell nodded again and gave Toby a quick smile of thanks before moving out of the hut belonging to Toby's family. Nell watched him go, telling himself he was not disappointed that Nell had left without a fight. He should train, as he told Nell he would. The spring festival was approaching quickly and he had entered himself in several of the fitness and fighting competitions. Yet his mind, as it was merit to do these days, refused to empty itself of thoughts about Nell.
He didn't see Nell as often as he used to. Not because of any movement on his part, but because of Nell's own actions. He wouldn't say that Nell was avoiding him – Toby didn't feel as though he was being ignored. Instead, it was almost as if Nell had found some secret thing that he was spending his time on. And that he did not want to share that secret with Toby. The thought made his heart clench in a way that felt suspiciously like jealousy, but Toby ignored it. If he hadn't been so certain that Nell wouldn't find a girl, he would guess that Nell was having a tryst. He frowned.
It had almost been a relief to see him in the field, even as he was attacked by the other boys. It had been a week since Toby had last had Nell in his company, though he had spotted him on the fields in his wanderings about town.
Yet it was strange that Nell had not made the journey to his hut earlier. Their village was not nearly as large as the city where the festival was held and where they sold their surplus goods, and Nell had always visited him almost daily.
There had been a time when Nell had shared all of his secrets with Toby, even when he hadn't wanted them. When he was a young boy, Nell followed Toby everywhere like a little blonde shadow. Toby had hated it. Hated the way that the other boys would laugh at him and taunt him for having "the baby" follow him, and the way Nell would cling and follow him on his grown-up adventures and ruin them.
He tried many times to get rid of Nell. He called him names and even hit him on several occasions. But Nell refused to leave, simply smiling even as new bruises formed around his eyes and cheeks. And, in return for joining Toby on his adventures, he began to share his secrets with Toby. He showed Toby the meadow where the fauns liked to play and the cove where the seals lazed about. He showed Toby how to get the horses to like him, and how swim within the waves of the ocean and allow them to carry his body. Soon, Toby found himself seeking Nell, and spending less time with the other boys his age. He then found himself protecting Nell from the taunting of the other youngsters.
Yet even though there was now friendship between them, Toby often found himself frustrated by Nell. And worried. Although Nell was oblivious to the stares and whispered remarks, Toby heard them all. He wanted to force Nell to be normal. It angered him that Nell didn't seem to understand the dangers of being strange.
Toby understood these dangers clearly. He did his part to fit in with the village – he trained to be strong enough to protect the village in times of need, helped with the plowing and the harvesting, and kept his own home. Yet despite his normality, there was still one problem with his image.
He had failed, as of yet, to garner himself a wife.
His parents had begun pushing three years ago, when he was just a little younger than Nell was now. It was normal, they had said, for a young man to begin forming a family for himself. It was not normal, they scolded, to live alone and to show no interest in the young women of the village.
His Da blamed Nell. He said that it was the boy's outlandish behavior that drove his own son to distraction and deviance. Although Toby had never raised his voice to his father in Nell's defense, he could feel the fight brewing under his skin. Every time his Da suggested that he spend less time with Nell and more time gawking at the pretty girls like the other boys his age, he felt his nerves tighten even more. His mother, who had a sense of practicality that her husband lacked, wisely stayed out of the argument over Nell. Yet she continued to pester him over the girls and, more pointedly, the future children.
Toby didn't know what to tell them. He wasn't so much a fool that he wanted to wait for true love. He knew that those endings were rare. He knew his own parents shared little love for each other when they were first married, and had grown to be fond of each other in time. Toby could tolerate a marriage like that. No, the main reason he had yet to choose was not because of romantic notions of love.
It was a lack of lust. Or any attraction, really. He never felt any desire when looking at the young women of the village. He was friendly with a few of the girls his age, but friendly only. Growing up and spending time with the other boys his age, Toby had looked at the girls the other boys had found especially pretty and had found no burning desire in the pit of his stomach. Only emptiness.
Even as a young boy he had known this was strange and he began to emulate the other boys. He whistled at the girls they whistled at, talked with them about the more interesting proportions of the female anatomy, and even flirted with and kissed girls. All in order to keep up the image of normality. Nell hadn't ever bothered with such a front. He looked at the girls with the same curiosity as he would anything else. But Nell could get away with it. He was, after all, already strange.
When he grew older, Toby stopped his façade. He still flirted with the girls in his own stumbling way, but only to make them laugh and smile. He stopped talking with the other boys about girls. He stopped talking with the other boys about much of anything. He kept conversation light and about simple things like training and the weather and the farming. He never divulged his secrets to them. Those were saved for Nell and his eyes that listened as intently as his ears, his wide smiles and comforting presence.
And that, right there, was the problem, Toby thought with a scowl. Nell's presence had stopped being so very comforting. His smiles had become beguiling and his eyes mischievous. He made Toby feel distinctly odd; his skin tingled whenever Nell touched him, and his stomach swooped uncomfortably whenever he found himself in Nell's focused attention. And yet, despite these strange symptoms of malady, Toby found himself wanting to spend even more time with Nell. It was madness.
Toby ran a hand through his hair and sat down heavily on the cot that Nell had sat patiently on only a few minutes before. A small part of him wanted to visit the midwife and demand to know what was wrong with him. To know why he had yet to find girls attractive and why Nell was making him feel so strange. Was he frightened of Nell? It didn't make any sense. Pride always won in the end, however, and he so had yet to visit.
He had begun to pour himself into his training. Between that and helping with the farming and the animals, he was exhausted each night and stumbled into his cot to sleep dreamlessly until dawn. The moments he had to himself he could see Nell under the daze of fatigue, and the strange feelings usually subsided into slight fluttering in his chest. It was almost normal. And then Nell had begun spending time away from him. The mystery of which was now driving him mad.
He sighed and keeled over until his head hit the downy side of the cot. He was still tired from yesterday, and the day before, and so on. He had finished his chores on the farm that morning, and the animals were fed and happy. Relaxing more fully onto the cot, he stretched out his legs and settled his form into the woolen coverings. He could sleep for a time. If he was ill, the extra sleep would probably do him well. And he could afford to miss training for one day. He let his eyes drift closed and his mind wander into sleep.
His last thoughts were of Nell.
He woke to the noise of someone stumbling into his home. In one fluid movement borne from years of training and diligence, Toby grasped the knife hidden under his cot, jumped upright, and moved into a defensive stance next to his bed. Once he saw who it was he relaxed with relief.
"Nell? What are you-" he began before Nell's appearance stopped him. Nell's eyes were wide and panicked and his skin was pale. And- oh, no. Toby dropped the knife.
There was blood everywhere. Nell's hands were covered with it and his pale woolen tunic was stained with the red. Toby rushed to him and began to touch his chest and face, seeking injury, even as Nell shied away.
"Where are you hurt? Who did this to you?" Toby felt only cold certainty – it must have been the other boys. They would have gotten too rough and Nell, gentle Nell, wouldn't have hit back damn him, even when it had become too serious. Toby felt the hot rush of anger clench his muscles and attempt to chase the fear away. Once Nell was better Toby would find the bastards, and he would hurt them and-
And Nell was shaking his head "no" and what did that mean? Toby was, Toby was entitled. If Nell wasn't going to take care of himself then Toby was within his rights to do it for him. And oh. Nell was moving his arms and carefully pulling them away from where they had cradled his stomach. To show Toby the wound maybe? And clean it and fix it as he had earlier that afternoon for the scrape on his face, and countless times for countless other injuries before that? Toby stepped forward to get a better look. Once he had, he nearly stumbled forward in relief.
There was no injury on Nell's own skill. The blood on his clothes an hands belonged solely to a badly injured rabbit that Nell carried in his arms. Toby laughed a bit hysterically and leaned more into Nell's space.
"You can't do that to me, Nell. You- I thought. You just can't." Toby wanted to touch Nell again, not seeking injury any longer but seeking confirmation of the lack of it. He moved his hand towards Nell's face before pulling back, afraid. What was he doing? Was his illness now controlling his mind as well as his body? He was spared from further thought as the panic in Nell's eyes distracted him once again.
"What is it?" he said, confused.
Nell made an impatient noise and slipped by him. He moved towards one of the shelves and motioned at it with his head before looking at Toby with desperate eyes. Nell joined him near the shelf and looked. Bandages. Oh. Oh. And now it made sense. Nell wanted him to fix the rabbit as he had fixed Nell earlier.
He sighed. Nell was going to be the death of him. He was sure of it.
"Give it here, Nell. Let me look and see what I can do." Nell gave him the animal carefully, as if it were a precious burden. And to Nell, Toby thought, it probably was.
Looking carefully at his new charge, Toby winced. There would be no saving this rabbit. It had been ravaged by a fox or wolf or some other predator. Its hind legs were mangled and it had a deep cut on its neck. Even if it survived the bite near its head, the legs would be useless for life. It could not possibly live on its own.
"Nell." The boy in question lifted his eyes from the rabbit to Toby's own face. There was hope in those grey eyes, and faith that Toby would succeed and make everything alright. It was the faith that made Toby stumble.
"I- I can't help you, Nell," he said softly. Nell's eyes widened and he began to shake his head, but Toby continued.
"It's hurt real bad, Nell. Even if it survived, it would always hurt whenever it tried to use its legs." Nell continued to shake his head, eyes over-bright. He reached forward to try and take the rabbit from Toby, but Toby moved it out of reach.
"You know what we should do." Toby moved out of range again as Nell lunged for him with an alarmed expression.
"I'm sorry Nell." With that, Toby twisted his hands quickly, breaking the rabbit's neck. Nell stopped reaching for him and stared uncomprehendingly at him instead. He then made a low, sad noise that caused guilt to climb inside of Toby.
But why should he feel guilty? It was a mercy killing. The rabbit was in pain and he ended it. It was Nell's fault. Why must he be so strange? Why must he care about some things so deeply and other things not at all? Even important things like the way that the villagers perceived him. Toby found himself becoming annoyed, all feelings of guilt thrust aside in the presence of this new found emotion.
"Don't look at me like that," he growled. Nell stepped back, surprised, but Toby just stepped forward and continued.
"Rabbits are prey. They are eaten. You stopped this rabbit from being eaten, but what happens to the fox or wolf that will not have a meal tonight?" Nell's eyes widened in hurt, but Toby couldn't seem to stop the words. Long weeks of frustration over his reactions to Nell and his endless hours of training, and the shock of seeing Nell earlier covered in blood, had all taken their toll on his patience.
"I killed it, but I was kinder than you. It would have been miserable, unable to move, to live its life. Besides," he said, a dark malicious feeling coloring his words, "a rabbit would be a good meal for any of the hungry families in our village. Aye, that's what we should be doing. If we were responsible and good, we would skin it and take the meat and give it to one in the village who hungers!" he spat angrily. He took grim satisfaction in the way that Nell seemed to crumple. His shoulders sagged and hunched, and he stumbled backwards towards the door.
But the defeated look did not last.
Under Toby's gaze, Nell straightened his back and looked Toby full in the face with shuttered eyes. For a moment, Toby wondered if Nell would break his unwritten vow and hit him. But no, his would not. Instead he darted forward to grab the rabbit from Toby's hands gently and with great care. Watching the careful movements, Toby felt his anger float away. It was quickly replaced by shame.
"Nell," he said softly. Nell didn't look at him or show any sign that he had heard. He tucked the rabbit gently into his arms and turned towards the door.
"Nell," Toby tried again, louder. He shuffled forwards to place one hand on Nell's shoulder only to be shrugged off immediately. Toby swallowed hard. Nell had never refused his touch before. It stung.
Nell walked out the door and into the night without once looking back. Toby's pride prevented him from calling out again, and he choked with the effort of holding back his words and not allowing his legs to chase after him.
Instead, he sat on the cot once more and groaned. What had come over him? He couldn't believe he'd said those things to Nell. He put his face in his hands. And here he'd wanted nothing more than for Nell to show him the reason he was so often gone. Now Nell would never come to him. Gods above, how would he get Nell to understand?
It had been five days.
Five long days without seeing any sign of Nell. No glimpse of that quick smile or sun-bleached hair, no trace of those odd eyes.
Before, when he hadn't been able to find Nell, he had wandered innocently past the farm that Nell's family owned to see for himself that Nell was well. But even those meanderings had been fruitless. It was as if Nell had vanished.
It made Toby feel cold. He and Nell had never fought before. Or, rather, Nell had never been angry at him before. They had tussled on countless occasions when Toby had lost his temper. When they were younger and Toby had tried to get rid of Nell's attentions, he had picked many a fight. But Nell had always forgiven him immediately, as if there had been nothing to forgive. He would just smile despite his bruises and allow Toby to forget that anything had gone amiss.
But not this time.
The stables were quiet except for the soft breaths and movements of the horses and the snick-snack of Toby's brush as he pulled it through their thick hair. The quiet and the monotony of his task allowed his thoughts to clamor to attention without any distraction.
On most days, Nell would find him at the stables and smile at him and help feed the horses. Huge beasts though they were, the plow horses purred like kittens when Nell came along to lay a large hand on their muzzle or feed them a bit of apple.
But today was not like most days and he cared for the horses without company. He finished brushing the gelding quickly before turning towards the next horse in the stables – a silvery mare. She nickered at him and Toby would swear to anyone that she had a disapproving look in her big brown eyes.
"I know, Lacky. But there isn't much I can do if he won't let me see him," he said as he took out the tack for cleaning her formidable hooves. As if she were disappointed with his answer, she tossed her head, eyes rolling, and turned around. Toby sighed at Lacky's rump.
"Thanks, Lacky," he drawled. So, even the horses knew he was an ass. It was no wonder they liked Nell better than him. They probably missed him too. Unless he had been by the stables when Toby was elsewhere, they hadn't seen him for five long days either.
"Come on girl, turn around for me. You lovely, pretty girl. I have a nice juicy apple in my pocket if you'll-" he began.
"Toby," a woman's voice broke him from his dialog with Lacky. His face flushed and he spun around in surprise, excuses ready on his stammering tongue. It was probably one of his sisters come to mock him for sweet talking the horses.
He stilled, all words gone, when he saw the woman properly. It was Nell's mother that stood in the doorway of the stables.
"Ma'am?" he questioned calmly with eyes lowered respectfully, but his mind was whirling. Nell's Ma had never come calling on him before. If she wanted to borrow something or ask for help, she would send Nell. Toby was usually willing to give them a helping hand, and few of the other village boys were warrant to do so without a struggle or snide comment. Had Nell refused to come see Toby? His throat grew tight. Was he still so very angry?
"Toby, lad, I'm sorry to trouble you when you're doing such good work, but I've got a question for you. Or, a problem I could say." Toby felt his face freeze. Did she know what he had said to Nell? Or did she just assume and wanted the facts? Would she tell him to-
His inner thoughts sped to a halt at the sound of a large intake of breath being released brokenly. As if someone were hurt or-
Crying. His eyes snapped to her face. Her eyes were red and bright and her skin was pale. Her hair, usually so impeccably neat, was in disarray. He stepped towards her carefully.
"Ma'am, what's wrong?" She looked into his face searchingly.
"I was- I mean to ask, Toby, if you have seen Nell lately?" He looked away from her eyes, golden like his own and like every other person in the village. Except Nell. He stared at his dirty feet instead.
"No Ma'am. I've not seen him for these past five days now." Heaven help him if she asked why.
He felt rather than saw her shudder and move to lean her shoulder against the doorframe.
"Oh. I thought – that is, I had hoped – that he was with you." Toby once again looked to her face and saw the tiredness around her eyes and the way her mouth was set tight with worry. His breath quickened and he leaned forward to ask the one question he was sure he did not want the answer to, if the foreboding heaviness in his chest was any indication.
"With me?" he whispered. She nodded slowly.
"Yes, with you. You see Toby, his Da and I haven't seen Toby in five days either." Toby sagged forward and caught himself before he stumbled into her.
"What?" he said, the words catching at his throat and emerging painfully loud in the silence of the stable.
"He's gone." This time Toby was helpless to fight it as gravity pulled him towards the ground. His knees and hands on the hard surface of the soil, he looked up at her fearfully.
"Gone? You don't suppose- do you think the other boys, or the villagers, might have – could have – have hurt-" he stopped, unable to continue. He looked down towards the ground once more.
It was as if everything he'd ever feared had come to pass. The villagers must have decided that Nell's strangeness was too much, too unlucky, and had gotten rid of him. Or what if he was merely hurt, lying somewhere too wounded to move? Toby fought to breathe.
"I don't think that has come to pass, lad." He looked up at her quickly, hope fluttering madly in his chest.
"But then-" he began to argue. She forestalled his words with a gesture and continued to speak.
"He's been taking trips into the forest lately. He goes for a day or two, without warning or reason of course, that insensitive boy," she added with a quick crooked smile even though fear still haunted her eyes.
"But he has never been gone for this long before. And I worry because, as you know, many of the others don't take kindly to him and something could easily go wrong.
"But me and his Da don't know what to do. We can't go look for him as we please. Without Nell, we need both pairs of hands on the farm at all times in order to make ends meet." Toby nodded. Sometimes it was nice to have four grown siblings, especially when taking care of the family farm. Even though Toby lived on his own, he continued to work on and live off of the produce his family's farm created. But although Nell's parents were as old as his, they had no children after or before Nell was born.
"And his Da is too proud, and I'm too fearful, to ask others in the village to help. We've been trying to keep it quiet. We know how they talk and we didn't want them thinking he was up to no good. Not that he ever would," she concluded bitterly.
Toby rocked up onto his heels to look at her defeated face. He knew better than anyone how the villagers talked. Thinking of his own panic moments before, Toby could understand why she had not wanted to tell anyone of his disappearance.
Typical Nell, always making them worry. He'd probably found something that appealed to his curiosity in the forest and forgotten about the time. Toby felt his shoulders relax minimally from their tense location next to his ears. And then he repeated the thought again in his mind. And froze.
A curiosity in the forest. In the forest. At night.
There were wolves in the forest.
He shot to his feet so quickly he almost stumbled into Nell's Ma.
"I have to go! I have to- I can't believe he would do this to me again. I'll kill- I mean, I'll find him. I just have to grab a few things and then I'll be gone," he said distractedly. Horses and chores long forgotten, he rushed past the woman and towards his small hut. His Da would give him a tongue lashing when he returned for neglecting his chores, but that was the furthest thing from his mind.
Nell's Ma watched him race off, bemused. However, her heart felt lighter than it had in days. Five long days, to be exact.
"Aye, lad. If anyone could find him, it'd be you."
Toby stumbled upon Nell by accident. Literally.
He had been searching for a few hours, though it felt like days. The need to find Nell before nightfall made the daylight pass all the more quickly. He had searched all of their known hide-outs from when they were younger and had often gone exploring. But they had all been empty.
He had refused to admit that his search was futile, however, and continued on. He had a few hours before dusk and before the wolves would come out to hunt. Even with this reassurance, he felt the anxiety climb quickly. There was always the chance that Nell was already hurt. Or worse.
He shook his head to free it of thoughts not worth thinking about and forged further ahead, one hand on the hilt of the long dagger he had brought to protect himself. He would find Nell. There was no other option.
Despite such assurances, he quickened his gait. The air was fresh and warm around him, the scent of spring strong. If there was anything to be thankful for, Toby thought grimly, it was the weather. If Nell had pulled such a stunt in the winter, well, the chances that he was alive would have been minimal, to say the least.
"You fuckwit," he grumbled uncharitably. He honestly didn't know what would be worse – finding Nell hurt, or finding him fine and blithely smiling at him. If he was injured, Toby would have to care for him and fix him up again. If he was fine and smiling at Toby as if nothing was wrong, Toby probably wouldn't be able to restrain himself from giving him a good punch in the nose for making everyone worry about him.
Not that Nell would have a smile for Toby.
Toby frowned. That was the other problem. When he left, it had been in such a hurry and with such terror that he hadn't given much thought to what would happen if he did find Nell. There was always the chance that Nell would refuse to go back with him, would refuse to have anything to do with him. Would run from him.
Toby's frown deepened. Well, if that happened, he'd just have to force Nell to listen to him and to forgive him, he thought decisively. Why, he'd just have to beat Nell senseless and take him home if he resisted. Toby had even brought rope with him in his satchel, along with some bandages, water and food. Although he brought it in case he should need it for climbing, he could always use it to help bring Nell home. He smiled fiercely. Yes that was just what he'd do. He'd approach Nell all calm-like and if Nell resisted he'd just force him to listen and come home. It would be-
"Augh!" he cried out as he felt his weight shift. He'd stepped onto a patch of loose rocks! He tried to quickly regain his balance, but it was to no avail. He was falling.
He relaxed his body as best he could, knowing from hours of training that it would only hurt more if he was stiff when he hit the ground. Even so, the impact of the ground knocked the breath from his body, making him helpless to the pull of gravity as it carried him down a long slope into a gully he had not seen before.
He did not stop until he hit something hard. Wait- not something. It was someone. Despite his breathlessness, Toby scrambled to his feet. And looked.
"Nell," he breathed, for it was him. Nell sat with his head and arms bowed over his lap, shielding it from view. He showed no sign that he had heard Toby, or had even felt the impact from earlier, and made no move to acknowledge him. Toby's own eyes raked over Nell. He looked well, Toby noticed with no small amount of relief – and annoyance. His clothes were dirty, but his arms and face looked clean and freshly scrubbed. His hair and eyelashes looked dark with dampness, making his gray eyes all the more piercing. He must have found a stream or pond, Toby thought inanely.
Immediately, the rest of the situation caught up to him.
"Nell!" he repeated more loudly. But still, Nell paid him no mind. If anything, he turned away even more from Toby, hunching his shoulders inward. As if to protect himself, Toby thought blearily. So, he was still angry, then.
Toby was lost. What should he do? All of his previous confidence and plans of attack had fled his mind upon seeing Nell. Instead, he felt small and unsure.
Luckily for Toby, he could always count on his temper. He felt the burn of it in the back of his mind and he brought forcefully it to the forefront. He had been so worried. How could Nell have made him feel that way so carelessly, even if he was angry about the rabbit?
"Nell!" he shouted, watching the way that Nell's shoulders tensed and his jaw clenched.
"What are you doing here? Don't you know how much I- your parent's were worried about you?" Toby yelled, cursing himself silently for the slip. Nell, however, seemed not to have caught it. In fact, he seemed remarkably unconcerned. It made Toby's blood boil.
"Hey! I'm talking to you!" he said loudly as he reached forward, intent on shaking the living daylights out of the other boy. Or some sense into him. He wrenched Nell's left shoulder roughly, to try and spin him around. And saw, at last, what was in Nell's lap.
Four tiny baby rabbits.
Toby stilled, his hand still gripping Nell's shoulder tightly.
"Oh," he said quietly. Nell shoved him away belatedly, eyes narrowed. Toby stumbled backwards and fell hard on his rump. He made no move to stop his fall. Once on the ground, he returned Nell's look with wide eyes. Oh. So many things made sense now. Why Nell was so angry with him, why he'd been gone, why Nell was looking at him so fiercely right now. As if he was a mother bear protecting her cubs.
He closed his eyes and slumped forwards.
"I killed their mother, didn't I?" he asked quietly. He did not see Nell's nod of confirmation, but he did not need it. He knew it was true.
"This is where you've been disappearing to? The kits look to be quite young, you would have just been taking care of the mother until recently, when she must've given birth." He opened his eyes to see Nell regarding him curiously. He sighed.
"You didn't tell me what you were doing because you were afraid of how I would react. Because you were keeping prey animals without intending to eat them." Nell nodded and looked down into his lap once more. With gentle fingers, he touched the delicate ears of the bunny furthest from Toby. Toby felt his stomach clench painfully.
"And then I reacted exactly as you thought I would." Toby laughed mirthlessly. Of course. Nell must have decided that Toby was too interested in the village and the other adults to be concerned with Nell's secrets anymore. He should have approached Nell sooner and prevented this whole thing from happening. He was a coward – too concerned with what the villagers would think to search Nell out more avidly, too concerned with his own body's reactions if he did.
Well. There was nothing for it.
"You have to come home with me." And, fuck, but that wasn't what he meant to say. He blushed. Nell scowled stubbornly and continued to pet the kits in his lap.
"I mean, you do because your parents are worried and they need you on the farm, but that isn't all," he said quickly, trying to catch Nell's eyes with his. He took a deep breath.
"I'll help you. We- we can take them to the stables and keep an eye on them there. And once they get big enough to hop around we can bring them back and take turns taking care of them." And oh, if only the other village boys could see him now, they'd laugh and jeer at him for being weak, for wanting to play with the kits and Toby like a little girl playing house. But they didn't matter now. Even if Toby didn't care for the rabbits as Nell did, he owed them, in some sense of the word, for killing their mother. They wouldn't be able to survive alone without her.
And he owed Nell. He needed to do something to regain Nell's trust. His heart stuttered painfully. What if Nell didn't want to trust him anymore? What if he was tired of normal Toby who always did what people expected of him? Maybe Nell would never again share anything with Toby. The thought caused Toby to jerk to his feet.
"Nell- you can't. You have to forgive me!" he said loudly. He winced at the whine in his voice, but at last Nell turned to him. At last Nell looked him in the eye without suspicion and anger, but surprise instead.
"You'll see, Nell! You- you need my help to take care of them. I promise that I won't tell anyone." Still, Nell only looked at him. Waiting. Finally, Toby understood.
"I- I'm sorry, okay?" he yelled, louder than before. Nell put a finger to his lips quickly, head tilting towards the sleeping kits in his lap. Toby snapped his mouth shut, too late, with a whispered apology. Looking at Toby's sheepish face, at last, Nell smiled.
Toby felt the anxiety of the past days come crashing to a halt, to be replaced by peace at last. He stumbled forwards on shaky legs to crumble next to Nell gracelessly before slumping sideways to lean on his friend heavily. Nell leaned back, temporarily, before reaching to his other side and pulling a goatskin canteen into view.
Too relieved to protest, Toby allowed Nell to grab his hand with his own and bring it towards the canteen. Toby felt heat rise in his cheeks at the warmth in Nell's labor-roughened palms, but he ignored the strange feeling to watch Nell pour some white liquid onto his own fingers.
"Goat's milk?" he asked quietly. Nell nodded. They were so close that Toby could feel the motion as Nell's cheek brushed Toby's hair. He shivered.
Nell then brought his hand closest to one rabbit in the middle of the pile. It squinted bleary eyes at Nell and Toby, before reaching forward to suckle at Toby's finger. He laughed at the sensation and turned his face towards Nell, forgetting in a moment how close they were.
Nell smiled back at him, eyes soft. And oh. His happiness was wonderful to see. Toby leaned closer, as if to take a better look, and then lost his mind completely.
Despite the warning instincts clamoring for attention in the back of his mind, he leaned closer still. They were so close now that he could feel Nell's breath on his own lips. Nell's smile had dropped in confusion, but Toby didn't notice anything at all except his relief at finding Nell whole and unharmed, and forgiving, and suddenly beautiful. He tilted his head to the right before leaning in that final distance and-
Their lips touched. Just a slight pressure between two pairs of dry lips, but it was enough. Toby made a soft noise, lost in the sensation. It felt good, feltindescribably right. As if the pieces of a puzzle had finally snapped together to create a whole image. Beside him, Nell was still and silent, letting him take what he wanted. It was a heady feeling.
Unconsciously, Toby leaned more into the kiss, his eyes drifting shut and the hand not occupied rising to cup Nell's jaw, fingers curving around the back of his neck. At the motion, Nell made a slight noise of surprise, breaking the spell.
Toby's eyes flew open and he jumped back, falling once again onto his rump. He blinked stupidly at Nell for a moment, taking in the parted lips and dazed eyes, before flushing a brilliant red and scrambling to his feet.
What in all the blazes of hell was that, his mind screamed. He wanted to scream outwardly, but that wouldn't do. He'd probably scare Nell, right after he'd gotten Nell to trust him and-
Fuck. What must Nell be thinking of him? He risked a glance at his friend. Nell regarded him curiously, setting down the canteen that had been held in his frozen grip, and settling the little kit that had been upset in their movements. He kept his eyes on Toby the whole while.
Toby began to pace. He'd gone mad, he thought, awed. He scrubbed his hands through his hair, grabbing at it roughly, unmindful of the deranged image he presented to Nell.
What could he do? He couldn't lose Nell again, and he really did not want to think about what he'd done. He stopped suddenly.
Could he just – maybe – pretend it never happened?
Maybe if he just acted like nothing had happened, then Nell would begin to think it had not happened. It seemed easy enough, if not entirely logical. It would work, he thought desperately. It had to work.
"Right. So, uh, we better get to work moving those rabbits!" he said tightly, overloud. He did an about-face so that he would be facing Nell directly. Eye contact, however, was beyond him. He focused his eyes on Nell's chin. Hopefully he would not notice the difference. Hopefully he wouldn't notice a lot of things, his thoughts echoed hysterically. Oh Gods.
He took a calming breath. And another, and another, until he could control his facial expressions and his voice. He was unable, however, to chase the puce coloring from his features.
"Just let me empty my satchel – we can put them in there. And I'll just carry everything else I brought in my hands." He upended the satchel quickly, unmindful of the items within. His flint broke upon impact with the rocky ground at his feet. Cursing loudly, he bent forward to take the pieces into his hand to see what was salvageable, manfully ignoring the way his hands were shaking as he reached forward. However, he was not quick enough and long fingers stole the pieces from the ground before his eyes. His head snapped upward.
Nell. He jumped backwards from the closeness of his friend, and then tried to disguise the motion with a stumble and a laugh. Gods above, when had Nell gotten so close? He glanced over to where Nell had sat before, and saw the rabbits sleeping quietly on the rough ground, Nell's supplies laid out carefully next to them. But Nell himself was standing in front of him, pieces of flint held out towards Toby in a loose grip.
And he was close, way too close, for Toby's comfort. In the earlier ease of their friendship, he may not have noticed the socially affable space, but now he was hyperaware of every measurable moment between them. And now, with Nell so close, it would be an easy thing to just lean in and touch-
Toby shook himself, appalled at the ability of his strange body to overcome the will of his mind. Noticing that he had leaned forward and that Nell regarded him with a raised eyebrow and a quirk to his lips, he jerked backwards and forced a laugh.
"Ah, Nell, thanks. You know I'm always clumsy," he was not, "and dropping things," he did not. He laughed brokenly. He was a fool. Couldn't even climb out of his own damn holes.
Nell's eyes had narrowed in confusion as he looked at Toby. Toby fidgeted and returned the stare. At last, Nell seemed to find what he wanted from Toby, and sighed. He thrust the broken pieces of the flint at Toby, long fingers brushing his and leaving hot sparks in their wake. Nell then turned with a gesture to the rabbits, picking up the empty satchel, and moving towards them. With the same gentleness in which he cared for all the animals, Nell began to scoop each rabbit and place them into the satchel gingerly.
Toby watched him dumbly for a moment too long, before once again shaking himself and moving towards his belongings. He wrapped his bandages tightly around the flint pieces and the scraps of dried food he had brought, and tied the canteen and dagger into his belt. Finished and satisfied with his work, he turned to Nell.
Nell looked back at him expectantly, rabbits stowed safely away and satchel slung around his neck and arms. His own provisions were also tied to his belt.
"Ready?" he asked quietly. Nell nodded his agreement with a slight smile. He gestured forwards as if to tell Toby to 'lead the way'. Toby was quick to comply, turning and beginning to march determinedly through the underbrush.
Be began to speak, fumblingly, about the horses and the way that they had missed Nell, and how Nell had given his parents such a fright. The words jumbled against each other jarringly, but he did not stop speaking throughout their entire trek home. It was best to keep his mind on senseless chatter, he surmised.
He looked back often, to assure his rattled nerves that Nell was still behind him and had not spirited off again into the night. He was always there, eyes focused on Toby's back and paying his silly prattle more mind than it deserved.
Yet even though Toby looked frequently, he always missed the way that Nell would touch his lips with his fingers wonderingly, smiling softly at Toby's back.
Toby was watching Nell.
He was always watching Nell, nowadays. He told himself that it was out of concern that his flighty friend would disappear again, even though the more brutally honest part of his mind told him otherwise. He ignored this part of his mind with practiced ease, and continued his self-appointed task.
It had been four months since they had brought the rabbits home and they had become fit and strong. They had released them about a week ago, despite Nell's unspoken protests. It had been their time.
His parents, thank the Gods, did not notice that they had inhabited the loft above the horses. It was his duty to provide feed for the horses, so he was the only one to have need to enter the loft. And yet… he hated to think what his Da would have done if he had found them. At best, he would have turned them out and Nell would have been sad that he had no chance to say goodbye. At worst, he would have killed them for supper. And Nell would have hated him again. He turned from such thoughts and let his eyes refocus on Nell.
Nell was helping him with the horses today. They really did like him best, Toby though wryly as they nuzzled Nell's hands and face. Nell mimicked their whickering and smiled when their fluffy ears swiveled forward in interest.
When Toby was younger, he had been incredibly envious of the way the horses and foals would follow Nell tirelessly, doe-like eyes full of love. After all, he was the one who fed them their grain and cared for their tack, not Nell. Although he had tried to explain this to the horses, they had simply withstood his arguments placidly. In time, Toby learned to accept it. He learned that while Nell had the horses, Toby had other things. Like the respect of the village. Even if he never married, he would still always be acknowledged by the others. Nell would never have that luxury – not that he appeared to want it.
He was broken from his thoughts by Nell's happy laughter. Directing his gaze towards the noise, his face formed an answering grin as he watched Lacky lip teasingly along the collar of Nell's shirt. He was playfully attempting to push her massive head out of range, but she was having none of it and continued to spread her slobber over his neck and shirt.
"Careful, Nell, or she'll try and eat you whole!" he called, laughing. Nell turned and gave him an unimpressed look.
"What now, you don't believe me?" Grinning, he left his perch on the stool and walked towards Nell. He placed a palm on Lacky's broad cheek before leaning forward into Nell's space with wide innocent eyes. The smirk he couldn't quite contain belied that innocence.
"Don't you think that Lacky here is just waiting for the chance to-," he paused, looking at Nell seriously. Amused, Nell leaned forward as if to hear his silent words better. Then, quick as a fish, Toby leaned forward to grab Nell around the waist and squeeze under his ribs.
"- gobble you up!" he shouted the end of his joke as Nell jumped and squirmed under the tickling assault. He gasped loudly as Toby laughed, delighted at being able to get a response out of his friend.
And then, quick as it had begun, everything shifted.
Nell's mock irritated expression shifted into a fond smile and Toby was still so close and holding him in his arms and oh. Oh. That smile sent a warm flush to his face and tingles in his stomach. He noticed, suddenly, the muscles he was holding on to and the leanness of Nell's form. He noticed the freckles on Nell's cheeks and nose, and the sun-bleached highlights in his hair. But mostly, he noticed the lack of space between them and, most particularly, their lips.
He leapt back and Nell stumbled without the support against his sides. Nell looked at him, confused, and Toby stuttered out a poor excuse about having to care for the rest of the horses. He stalked towards the far end of the stables and the horses sheltered there, muttering silent curses all the while. He daren't look back at Nell, afraid of what he would see in the other boy's face.
He doesn't stop until he reached the last horse in the stable. It was Argus' stall, the beautiful black gelding his Da was considering selling at city market to put some extra gold in their pockets. He walked into the stall, out of sight from curious grey eyes, and slumped to the ground miserably as Argus continued to eat his grain.
Nell was making him crazy. Or perhaps, he though dejectedly, his craziness was entirely self-inflicted.
The past four months had been both a blessing and a curse. The nagging part of his mind wouldn't allow him to let Nell out of his sight. When he didn't know where Nell was, he got a hot tetchy feeling in his chest and he immediately began to panic that Nell had left again.
It was good to see more of Nell. He felt that their friendship had re-solidified in the time that they spent together, but it was hard to know with Nell. It was always hard with Nell. He showed his happiness so clearly and eagerly, but sometimes his face would be as silent as his voice as he stared into the middle distance, expressionless. It was hard to see what Nell thought about the things that plagued him or surprised him.
Like their kiss.
Toby groaned unhappily. And that was the problem. While he was happy to have Nell around more often, Nell also made him inexplicably nervous. Obviously Nell wouldn't go around telling tales, even if he could, but there was nothing stopping him from leaving Toby again. What if he was disgusted and only stood by Toby because he pitied him? If he was, Toby didn't know if he could bear it.
And then there was the matter about the feelings themselves. Toby was not at all sure how he felt about them. He didn't believe that he had been cursed – as much as he would have liked to blame some sort of witchcraft, his practicality had ruled out that option during the four months of self-examination. He was far too unimportant to be the target of a curse. And even if he was, he had never heard of a curse that caused attraction to his own gender.
Yes. Attraction. The word had come to him at last but a few days ago upon waking from a dream in which large rough hands touched his chest and his thighs, and his – Toby stopped his train of thought, blushing. It had been bad enough when he had woken to the tell-tale stickiness in the bedclothes and the certainty that he had been dreaming about a male partner.
A partner with grey eyes.
Toby pushed his head into his hands. Why was this happening to him? He helped with the farming, he trained with the other boys, he kept his own house successfully, and he cared for the younger ones and the elderly ones when there was a need. He was even gifted at the healing trade, thanks to many a session with a bruised and bleeding Nell. He was painfully normal. So why, of all people, was he struck with this strangeness?
He had thought that in time he would find attraction for the village girls and choose one to become his wife. He had thought that he would have children of his own and watch them grow. He had thought he would lead a model life in the village, and perhaps protect Nell under the cover of his normality. But all that was gone now.
Part of him – the very small part that didn't want to follow Nell everywhere like one of the dedicated foals in the stables – wanted to be angry at Nell. Gods only knew if he would have felt this strange attraction had Nell not been there. He would still have noticed that none of the girls appealed to him, but he would have never known that men did appeal. Those thoughts, however, were continually extinguished quickly. It was not Nell's fault that this had come to occur. It was his own craziness, his own malady, which was blurring the straight and narrow lines of his future.
The only thing he could do was to ignore it. He would not take a wife. Others had also chosen solidarity over the comfort of a woman by their side. It would be unfair to prevent a woman from being with a man who could appreciate her. He would continue his friendship with Nell. Nell needed a friend, and if Toby was honest with himself, he very much doubted that he could live without the other boy. He would watch out for him, as he always had, and make sure that he was allowed his own life.
But he would not touch him. He would not spread this anomaly to Nell. His village had no rules about people with his inclinations, but he doubted that they would be very tolerant of such a relationship in their midst. They were hard on Nell as it was. He would not push Nell into making their friendship something more. It would be wrong to take advantage of Nell's societal innocence in that way, and of his position as Nell's only friend.
And it was wrong. Men were supposed to desire women. Not other men. That was what he had always been taught. He would have to hide his own perversion, and keep it to himself without bringing Nell into the issue. Without letting the villagers know. So, no, he would not touch Nell that way.
But Gods, how he wanted to.
He replayed their kiss constantly in his mind. He wanted to do it again. Whenever they were close to each other, he found himself drifting towards Nell, as if to instigate another moment. Another meeting of lips. He would always jump back, heart pounding and terrified that Nell had guessed, that Nell was disgusted. Above all else, the thought of Nell's disgust frightened him the most.
In front of him, Argus began to shift from foot to foot. The big gelding whinnied like a young colt and reached its long neck forward. His behavior could only mean one thing. Nell.
Toby stood quickly and dusted himself off, before walking to the front of the stall. He was met with Nell's approaching form, smile in place and solely directed at the silly actions of the horse. Reaching them at last, he placed a hand on Argus' broad muzzle and looked to Toby with laughter in his eyes. Toby couldn't help returning the look and smiled back mindlessly before catching himself and turning to face the horse instead. He rolled his eyes at Argus, who was practically purring, and slapped his shoulder gently.
"Ungrateful beast. Don't you know who supplies your grain?" Toby queried, keeping the conversation light. Nell directed his eyes heavenward at the familiar argument, before shaking his head and shrugging, as if to ask the Gods for patience. Toby laughed, and then stopped abruptly, the sound stuck in his throat.
He stared at the large purple bruise on Nell's collar where the neck of his shirt had slipped.
"Nell," he said, torn between anger and exasperation.
"Why didn't you come to me to let me patch you up? Were the other lads after you again?" Nell pretended not to understand the question, but it was clear he knew exactly what Toby was talking about by the way that he surreptitiously adjusted the shirt to cover the discoloration. Toby scowled crossly.
"Did they get you anywhere else, Nell?" Nell dropped his eyes to the dusty ground and shook his head – a sure sign that he was lying. Toby sighed. At least some things were always the same, he thought bitterly. And now, at last, he understood his constant need to protect Nell, even if he didn't need or want that attention. A silver lining to this strange dark cloud, he thought amusedly.
"Come now, let me see. I've got a healing kit for the horses on the shelf there. You sit on the stool and please let me take care of you." Nell slouched, knowing he had lost the argument, and he shuffled over to the stool Toby had sat on earlier. Fortunately, he missed the sudden flush that had taken hold of Toby's features.
"Please let me take care of you," he mimicked to himself in a whispered falsetto as he stomped towards the healing kit. Nell was a smart boy, and at this rate, Toby wouldn't need to touch him in order for him to get the idea that something was off. No, he'd take care of that simply by being unable to think before he spoke. He wished, for the millionth time, that he could read Nell's mind to see if he had picked up on the more than friendly care that colored Toby's words and actions. He just as quickly took it back. The Gods liked to play tricks on mortals by claiming value in half wishes. And he had no real desire to hear every thought that existed between Nell's ears, fearful of what he might find.
He grabbed the kit and the jug of sea water he kept in the stalls for cleaning before turning back to Nell. Luckily, he had a firm grip on the stone jug. Else he would have dropped it for sure at the sight of Nell removing his clothes.
Toby blinked slowly, allowing his scrambled thoughts to find order and willing the blush from his cheeks.
No, not removing his clothes for Toby, he assured his wandering hopes. Nell was simply showing him the extent of his injuries. Right. He took a deep breath before letting it go. Nell was still wearing his pants, but his tunic and undershirt had been taken off. There was nothing there, truly, that he had not viewed before.
He had seen Nell naked countless times when they were younger, and even when he was grown. They had bathed and swum together without clothing, and even – Gods – wrestled before Nell had shown his distaste for the sport. But that had been before Toby saw Nell as he saw him now.
Feeling like an old lecher, Toby approached Nell and placed the jug and the kit on the ground. Steeling himself, he looked towards Nell's face.
"Let's see how bad it is." He dropped his gaze from Nell's stubborn eyes and looked down. And frowned. Nell's body held a mottling of bruises that seemed to center around his stomach. It wasn't bad, especially since they had had a few days to heal. He'd definitely had worse. At least, this time, they had kept away from Nell's face and had only used their fists. He sighed. It was dark times when he could be grateful for that.
Lips pressed tightly together, Toby began his work silently. He had a few poultices in his kit for the times when the, and a few ointments too. He made a mental note to replenish his stock before choosing a poultice that he liked to use on horse bites. He had not used it since they had two temperamental stallions in the same stable last fall, but the herbs he had used would last a long time. He dropped a bandage in the jar, letting it soak through. After the poultice had settled, he would use the ointment with Arnica that his Ma had made for him in order to speed up the healing. He would wrap the wounded area last in order to seal in the ointment.
He wrung the bandage once before clumping it together and pressing it to Nell's stomach. Nell stiffened at the pressure, and Toby pretended he did not notice the way that Nell's muscles contracted appealingly. Luckily, his own muscles and mind had become focused on the idea of making Nell better, allowing him to do his task without blushing furiously or shaking like a young foal on unsteady legs whenever he touched his patient. Besides, the sight of Nell's wounds did wonders for inhibiting his desires. The usual emotions of frustration and anger took their place.
"I don't suppose that you bothered to defend yourself either," he said grimly, looking up into Nell's eyes. Nell smiled back at him before shrugging. No, of course not.
Nell's apathy towards his injuries consistently made Toby furious. They seemed to imply that it was acceptable for Nell to get beaten. That it was no problem, that Toby was making a bigger stink out of the fights than they actually warranted. Toby felt his temper rise, old and familiar, in his chest.
"Nell, you know that they wouldn't bother you so much if you just hit back," he pushed. The words echoed in his mind, reminding him of a night not so long ago. The Nell of then-time had only smiled and brushed him off. The Nell of now-time looked away.
"Or even if you trained with the other boys. With me." Toby studied Nell intently, but the other boy refused to meet his gaze. The only tell-tale measure of what he thought was visible through the stiffening of his shoulders. Ignoring this Toby pressed on, keeping a firm hand on the poultice covering Nell's bare stomach.
"How about that? You could train with me in the afternoon, in sight of the other boys and the villagers, and show that you're strong and able," he said, louder than the discussion warranted. Nell was shaking his head before he had even finished the thought.
"Why not, Nell?" he yelled, losing his temper in a speed only possible through talking to Nell. But Nell didn't react in anger. Instead, he smiled, as usual. Instead of the fluttering nerves that smile had inspired in the past months, all Toby could feel now was blinding frustration and anger.
"Gods above, Nell! What the hell is wrong with you? Don't you realize that they're never going to stop unless you change?" Toby was breathing hard and he could feel his muscles go taut with tension. In turn, Nell's grey eyes were laced with surprise and hurt as he looked back at Toby. Toby knew he should stop, knew he should apologize and cut his losses as he always had before, but instead he felt the words build inside him, growing stronger and stronger until they burst from his tongue.
"Why can't you care what people think, Nell? Why can't you be normal?"
Once the words had leapt from his mouth, Toby immediately wished for some way to reclaim them or send them away. His mother always said that his temper would be the death of him, but Toby disagreed. If anything killed him, it would be the regret.
Nell's eyes shuttered, and his mouth set firmly into a stern line. He stood stiffly, grabbing the poultice on his stomach and throwing it at Toby roughly. Toby caught at it blindly, too focused on Nell to prevent it from striking him wetly on his face. Nell was grabbing his shirt. Nell dressing with sharp movements. Nell as turning away.
Nell was leaving him.
"Nell-" Toby choked. What could he say?
"Nell don't- don't go." But his plea could have been silent for all that Nell seemed to hear it. He continued his steady pace towards the door. The image struck Toby – it was all too familiar to that scene a few months past when Nell had disappeared the first time. He felt his stomach drop to his toes.
He scrambled to his feet and ran after Nell. Reaching him after what felt like more than a few seconds, he grabbed Nell's wrist tightly. Nell's muscled stiffened under his touch and his long fingers wrapped into fists, but he stopped walking away.
"I'm sorry," Toby tried. Nell, however, was unmoved. His back was still firmly turned to Toby, and his muscles were tight with the strain of staying still.
"I- I just. I get so angry when they hurt you," he said quietly. It was the first time he had been so honest with himself and with Nell in more than just his thoughts.
"I want to- to take care of you," he said in a rush, "but you don't really need me to, do you?" Nell's shoulders relaxed at last, but he was still facing the door. Toby licked his lips and continued quickly.
"I hate the way they look at you and I just want to be able to keep you safe. But then you go off and do things that make you different." Like magic, Nell's shoulders stiffened again and he began to pull his arm from Toby's grip. Toby merely tightened his hold, searching desperately for the right words to say.
"And I know that you aren't really trying to make them dislike you, but they always will, Nell. Always. So maybe-" he paused, closing his eyes and releasing Nell's arm.
"Maybe I'm not as brave as you. I can't- I can't just leave everything the way that you have. I want to belong. Even though," he stuttered, "even though". He stopped again, opened his eyes to find Nell facing him at last, eyes wary and cold, but there.
"I'm not normal either."
He felt the weight of his confession on his shoulders. Nell appeared confused, but thankfully no longer angry.
"I can't tell you how, Nell, but I am. I'm different," he said lowly. He thought of his desires and the way that his body reacted to Nell, and shivered. Perhaps he was the more abnormal of the two of them. But Toby, at least, was free of the witch's shadow. His strangeness could be kept under lock and key until his dying day, as long as he never succumbed to his attractions.
He looked at Nell steadily. He could read the puzzlement easily in those grey eyes, but he could think of nothing further to say. He tried to communicate his regret and possible understanding through the intensity of his gaze, but Nell's expression – besides the blatant curiosity – was hard to read.
"I know you want me to explain, but I can't." He stopped. What more could he say that could possibly explain his situation without revealing anything to Nell? He imagined Nell's face, transformed into an unfamiliar grimace of disgust, and strengthened his resolve.
Nell was weakening. He would forgive Toby. Toby could see it in the way that his eyes had gentled. Toby would have to be extra careful in the coming days to ensure that he said nothing to tip the scale against him. The current path he was taking would only lead to the destruction of their friendship.
He stepped forwards and grasped Nell's shoulders. He leaned in, and stopped, unsure. Was he allowed to be this close to Nell? Or was it his desire that made him want to hold Nell until the other boy forgave him?
As he thought, Nell's shoulders slumped in defeat and he released a long breath. He shook his head slowly at Toby before giving him the tiniest of smiles. Toby relaxed, but he kept his hands on Nell's shoulders. After a moment, Nell wrapped his own arms around Toby's back in an embrace much like one he would share with his family. Or with a lover.
At the thought, Toby tensed. Thankfully, Nell was not discouraged by his reaction and kept his hold. It was a loose embrace, but all the same Toby was aware of all the places in which Nell's body touched his own. Allowing himself to indulge, for a moment, just this once, he leaned in further until he could feel the solidity of Nell's chest and Nell's breath on his nape.
Even though he told himself constantly that his feelings were wrong and strange, holding Nell and being held seemed normal and good and right. It was hard to remember all of his logical reasons against it when Nell was holding him so close.
It was times like this, or when Nell smiled or laughed or looked at him in a certain way, that a traitorous part of his brain would whisper thoughts into the back of his mind. About the possibility that Nell could grow to feel the same for him. Or perhaps already did. However, these thoughts were always crushed with vicious speed. It wouldn't do well to wish that Nell had the same oddness inside of him. The boy had enough problems as it was.
He violently silenced all such thoughts for a second reason as well – so as not to give false hope. Not that he should ever admit to it out loud.
Nell began to pull away, and Toby did not try to stop him. But he did find it hard to look at Nell just then. Instead, his eyes were drawn to the ground. Yet he wasn't allowed to avoid Nell long. Soon, he felt callused fingers reach under his chin and draw his face up gently.
Nell was looking at him oddly, as if figuring out a strange mystery. Eventually satisfied, he nodded. But he did not release Toby. Instead, he leaned forwards, into his space, and pressed a kiss to Toby's cheek. Or rather, on the corner of his mouth.
Toby started at the touch, but as quick as it had begun, Nell was drawing away. He smiled at Toby, perhaps at the dumbstruck expression on the other boy's face, before turning and walking calmly out the door – much more at ease than he had been when he attempted to leave before.
Toby did not go after him this time. Instead, he felt rooted to the spot where Nell had left him.
Where Nell had kissed him.
Nell. Kissed. Him.
It was as though someone had taken a giant hourglass and stopped time when Nell had touched his lips to Toby's cheek, and now was speeding time forward at a double pace. Toby certainly felt as though his heart was beating twice as fast, and his thoughts clamored for attention with more avidity than usual.
His thoughts screamed: Did Nell know? If not, why had he done it? If he did know, was he like Toby? Was he different in that way? Did he desire Toby as Toby had come to desire him? What should he do when he saw Nell again?
But above all, one thought spoke the loudest.
What did it mean?
It was dark when he woke.
After Nell had left him in the stables, he had paced blankly for perhaps an hour, allowing his thoughts and concerns to whirl. He had eventually shaken himself from his stupor and finished his chores quickly, yet inattentively.
Instead of going to the training ground as he had intended to do that morning – a time which had then seemed so very long ago – he found himself climbing into the hayloft to take a nap. Although the exercise may have helped him focus his thoughts, he had decided that he had no real desire to make himself sick over said thoughts. He would take a long sleep, and then find the courage to confront Nell in the morning.
Or, if he could not find such courage, he could perhaps pretend that it had not happened – again – and hope that Nell followed suit.
But he did not want to pretend that it had not happened.
So it was to ease himself from the calamity of such ideas that persuaded him to turn to sleep instead. Surprisingly, he did not toss and turn but fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.
But he was not asleep anymore.
His mind was muggy with it, though, and he was hungry. He had missed the evening meal, and his stomach now growled in protest. Thankfully, the path home was one that he had taken many a time before. He was able to follow it despite the dark, and did not stumble once. Once he arrived, he eased his door open quickly before sliding inside.
Toby searched for something to eat. He found some bread that looked a little burnt and worse for wear, courtesy of his younger sister's amateur baking skills, and some cheese and sausage that would feed his hunger.
He began to eat, feeling slightly foolish in the dark. It was difficult to have any clear idea what time it was without being able to track the progress of the sun in the sky. The first rays of dawn had yet to creep over the hills of the forest to the east, but he was not able to tell if it was closer to daylight or to sunset. Deciding that it was too odd to eat in the dark, he fumbled for his flint on the shelf by his bed and lit a large candle. They were a precious commodity in his village, but his frequent trips to the city and prize money from the festival events meant that he was never lacking.
He was just about to finish the last of his portion when a loud knocking began on his door. He started, surprised, and then groaned. It seemed he would get not peace of mind, day or night. He swallowed his makeshift meal quickly, wiping his hands on his breeches and grabbing the candle as he stood before making his way to the door.
"Alright, alright, now. Keep your head on-" he started grumpily as he opened the door. The words fell from his mind, however, as he got a better look through the flickering candlelight and saw who was at his door.
It was Nell's Ma.
He felt a sense of déjà vu as he stood before her. He barely talked to her outside of the farming business and other such trivial matters. But this was the second time she had sought him out this spring alone – and before she had only come because she thought that Nell was in trouble.
At that thought a sick sense of unease crept up his spine. The feeling was heighted when he saw the frantic look in her usually stoic eyes. She looked as though she had been crying recently, and her appearance was in disarray. The similarity of the vision made his breath catch.
She had begun to speak in a hushed voice as soon as Toby opened the door further for her entry.
"Toby! Where have you been, boy? I've been looking for you for ages!" Her eyes locked on his accusingly as she spoke, but once she finished, her eyes darted around suspiciously.
"Wha-? I mean, Ma'am, I was in the loft-" he began, confused and increasingly concerned. She cut him off his a sharp shushing motion.
"Never mind that now. Things have come to pass, Toby. Things you and I have been dreading for many a long night and year. But I cannot talk freely about this outside," That said, she pushed him none too gently inside his hut and followed quickly, shutting the door solidly behind her.
And immediately, he knew. He knew with a cold certainty.
She had come for him again because the trouble that followed Nell so closely had caught him again.
And it was bad. He could see it in her wringing hands, the nails bitten to the quick. In the way that her sharp eyes were glistening too strongly to be caused by anything but unshed tears.
"What has happened?" he questioned in a steely voice. Nell's Ma appeared to sag in exhaustion and she passed him to sit on his cot wearily. She looked down at her lap for a brief moment before turning to Nell with eyes that were a curious mix of anger and helplessness. And an unspeakable sorrow.
"You know of the blacksmith's daughter Anna?" Toby nodded, confused. She was his age, perhaps a couple of summers older. She was plain and her father was poor, making it hard for her to attain a proper marriage. But she had always been proud, and had a bitter mind and a sharp tongue, earning her few friends and no lovers to speak of.
Nell's Ma studied him intently before dropping her gaze to her lap once again. She appeared to be gathering strength. At last, her eyes, so different from her son's, turned to Toby's once more.
"She is with child." Toby started at the words. He almost wanted to make a snide comment to be sure they were speaking of the same Anna, but the emotions in the woman's eyes stopped him, as did the cold fear that had begun to wrap around his heart.
"What do you mean? She is not married and she has no lover. Who is- is there a father?" He questioned at last. Nell's Ma's lips twisted crookedly in a cruel parody of a smile.
"She is claiming," she said, spitting her words distastefully, "that she was ravaged, but was afraid to tell anyone at the time of the event." Toby stilled. Ravaged?
Their village had strict ethical codes about men taking women that did not belong to them. Women were an important part of the society and it was important for them to feel protected and safe. People accused of such crimes were not banished.
They were executed.
"But who-?" he started, bewildered and confused. Again, Nell's Ma looked at him long and hard. She leaned forward from where she was sitting on his cot, every line in her body tense, and she grabbed his arm roughly. Toby felt dread climb along the walls of his stomach and lungs and throat and swim in his eyes. He had to know, but oh, he did not want to. He did not want this.
He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, unable to wait for her answer any longer. He shook her once, but she did not fight him, and instead felt limp in his hands despite the obvious tension in her back and the strength of her grip on Toby's arm.
"Who has done it? Who? Tell me!" he said, voice rising dangerously. Nell's Ma opened her mouth.
And told him.
He released her quickly, as if burnt, and stared at her blankly. He stumbled backwards, feeling sick and vaguely aware of the way that his breathing had become heavy and labored, as if he had run a great distance.
He had trouble processing her words. He heard what she had said, but at the same time it felt like something out of a dream. As if her mouth had moved and no sound had come out. It felt as if he was swimming in honey, everything moving so slowly and glazed in an amber sweetness that was too saccharine and holding his mind in place, replaying her answer over and over again. Unconsciously, a torrent of denials spewed from his lips, rising in pitch and volume until he was shouting, heedless to everything around him.
Nell's Ma was looking at him, pity momentarily eclipsing the grief in her eyes.
"It's true, lad. She's saying that Nell had done it."
The reaffirmation of her words hit Toby like a blow to the chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and temporarily halting his words. How had this happened?
Just moments ago they were laughing together as they worked with the horses.
Just moments ago they had fought and then forgiven each other.
Just mere moments ago Nell had kissed him.
He felt cold as he searched desperately for the warmth of earlier, and the happiness that he had felt at the brief glimpse of possibility that Nell had offered him. Gone.
Fear and misery choked him. He wanted nothing more than to fall back asleep again and wake to learn that it was all some wicked nightmare, some cruel game of the Gods.
But no. It was best not to lose his mind to despair. He needed to think and to understand. He pushed the heavy emotions away and instead latched onto a different feeling: rage.
It would clear his mind and help him focus. And it would see to it that someone was punished for what had happened.
He began to look at the case analytically. He immediately rejected the idea that Nell had taken Anna as she had accused. He had never shown any interest in her, or in girls in general. No, he was a scapegoat. Anna may have been ravaged, or she may have had a passionate and willing tussle with any one of the village boys. In either case, she must have been unable to convince her partner to marry her into wedlock, and become desperate. It was easy to see why she had created the ruse.
It was easier still to understand why she had chosen Nell to play the role of her rapist and why the villagers would have been eager to believe her. And Nell's silence would only incriminate him further.
That fucking witch and her fucking prophecy.
The villagers must have taken Anna's words as evidence of the dark crimes that the witch had foreseen. They would never have questioned it. Nell's oddities would only strengthen their case against him. And, he remembered with a sudden chilling clarity, Nell's Da was in the city looking to trade some of his family's preserves from the year before. He had no man to defend his name, and Toby had been sleeping, he thought with no small amount of disgust. But still, nothing would have likely happened to Nell without that thrice damned prophecy.
Not for the first time in his young life, his eyes narrowed and his fists clenched with the desire to find the blasted witch-woman and rip her to pieces.
But that, he decided fiercely, would happen later. Now, Nell was his main priority.
He focused his gaze back onto Nell's Ma. Her eyes were closely following his movements, but he could not read what he saw there.
"Where is he?" he asked in a low voice that he could barely recognize as his own. She however, showed no surprise, and answered his question bluntly.
"They took him this afternoon, after supper. They've taken him to the chief's hut for custody," she paused.
"They plan on hanging him in the morning."
Toby grimaced. He expected no less – he knew what the punishment was for rape. But that did not mean that the words had not struck him all the same.
And increased his resolve to prevent anything of the sort from happening to Nell.
He began to scour his hut quickly, searching for anything and everything that he might need, several possible plans and outcomes coming to mind. He rejected most rescue plans, frustrated at their futility.
He realized, eventually, that the items he was packing were only good for one option. The one solution that would work. He closed his eyes briefly and swallowed hard, collecting himself.
"So that's what you're going to do lad?" Nell's Ma's voice broke him from his reverie and he opened his eyes. She must have been watching the items he had chosen and come to the same conclusion.
She looked strong, but unbearably sad, and he had to look away.
"Yes," he said quietly to the ground before he began to rush once more, gathering and removing items in order to take exactly what he would need for his plan to work.
He saw her stand up out of the corner of his eye, but he absorbed the information with eyes and ears distracted by his task. He didn't see the way she looked at him, with heartbreak and yet thanks in her eyes. But it was probably better that he did not. Some things were better left alone.
He did, however, hear her parting words. He would never forget them, nor the tone of her voice - strong but sure that the world was ending.
"Then I will not expect to see him again," she paused, looking away and out the door. After a moment, her figure straightened and she looked him full in the face, commanding his attention. Her eyes were sharp and bright and he found himself unable to look away as she exacted her last promise.
"So you tell my boy that I love him, and that I will miss him until my dying day." With that, she was gone like a shadow into the night.
Toby felt his shoulders grow heavy under her wish of, but he did not allow himself to wallow in such thoughts. Instead, he reached for the anger that had helped him find focus before. He would not forget the woman's words, and he would relay them to her son, but first he needed to shove away all distractions and complete his first task.
He finished packing quickly and was then on his way to the chief's hut. He had no need to tell his family where he was going. His parents would not get involved and would certainly not help him. His sisters may be concerned, but their power to help was as limited as Nell's Ma's. He would need to do it alone.
He walked confidently to the chief's home, even though he had only made the journey a handful of times before for village meetings. He had only been allowed admittance to such meetings a few summers ago, and he had no other reason for coming.
All too soon, he was at the door of the hut. He had expected a few people to be hanging around and jeering, but there were none. Perhaps it was too late for such foolishness. Or, he thought bitterly, they were all sleeping sound in their beds now that the supposed danger was past and the criminal would be executed in the morning. It was not often that they could witness a hanging.
Toby had seen a hanging once in his life. He had been with his father in the city for a trade, learning the business that he would eventually have to take part in. He remembered following an excited crowd, loud and eager with the promise of a spectacle. A man had been brought out, accused of murder, and the rope was wrapped around his neck. Toby remembered the way that the man's eyes had seemed so dead already, but that his throat had quivered at the touch of the rope. And then the stool had been knocked from his feet brutally and all life left his body.
He had felt sick at the sight then, and now the thoughts made him dizzy. He imagined Nell's eyes in place of the man's plain brown ones, and Nell's graceful body broken and listless on the end of a rope.
It was with this image playing repeatedly in front of his eyes that he raised his fist to knock harshly against the door. No one answered at first, perhaps because of the late hour or because it was unusual for a knocker not to state his or her purpose. Toby continued the motion, beating harder and harder as the time passed. Eventually he heard footsteps on the other side of the door, but only when the door had been pulled aside did he stop.
He stared into the face of the man who opened the door. It was Ronan, the chief's guard. Ronan had guarded the chief for as long as Toby could remember, perhaps even longer than he'd been alive. He was the chief's only guard. There were rumors why the chief only thought he required one guard, when custom dictated several more. All of them related in whispered breaths tales of Ronan's past kills and violence.
Toby stared into his predatory eyes without flinching. He remembered his task, and nothing, not even the beastly guard of the chief, was going to prevent him from completing it.
"I require a word with the chief." At his words, Ronan sneered.
"You do, do you? And I'll bet you just expect the chief to pull himself out of bed in the middle of the night on your account," he mocked. Toby remained steady and refused to allow his face to show anything other than a careful blankness. Undeterred, Ronan continued.
"And I'll bet you're here about the boy, the witch's shadow." Although Toby had been expecting their conversation to turn in that way, it was a surprise to hear it voiced aloud. He fought to seem uninterested and continued to stare into Ronan's face.
"Aye, I know what you're wanting, boy. But that won't come to pass. We don't let boys who ravage women loose from the cage until their necks enter the noose." He seemed entirely too pleased with the situation, making Toby seethe inwardly. He wanted to punch the man hard in the face, to break his nose even though it looked as though it had been broken a dozen times before. He wanted to make him bruise, to make him feel helplessness crawl like cold liquid up and down his skin. But no, he would not even if he could. This part of the plan relied on him keeping his head. He had to get inside and talk with the chief. He had to.
"I need to speak with the chief," he said again, keeping his voice level.
Ronan seemed disgusted that he refused to play along. He stared at Toby searchingly. At last, Toby thought he would be granted admittance. But it was not so. Ronan's features twisted cruelly and he leaned in towards Toby menacingly.
"I'm sure you do. I see everything, boy, and I know why you're knocking now." His mouth stretched into a wicked smile.
"I see all and hear all and know all. I'm good at my job because I see things, and I see much about you even though we've never spoken before. And I've seen you with that boy in the cage inside. Too long I've watched you follow the witch's shadow with your eyes, too long I've seen you patch him up from his scuffles, too long I've watched you want him."
Toby froze. He had been expecting a difficult time, but he had never guessed – never thought to imagine, that anyone else knew his secret. Had he been that obvious, even when he hadn't known himself? His mind whirled and discomfort pooled in his stomach. Ronan knew.
He stifled his reaction quickly, but he knew that Ronan had caught the surprise and fear in his eyes. The smirk on his face proved it. He wanted to deny it, to fight him, but all words remained clumsy on his tongue. However, Ronan had no such problem finding his.
"Yes. I know. I know you dream of his lips and hands, and his touch upon your face, your chest," he paused, leaning further into Toby until he could feel the man's breath on his face. Ronan licked his lips obscenely before continuing.
"Your cock." Toby jolted backwards at the crudity, startled. He had heard the other boys use such language before, and he had even done them same in conversation with them. He had never minded before, but it seemed ugly and crass now. He did not like to think of this man demeaning Nell in that way, making him only an assemblage of body parts and desires – and making his feelings for Nell mean little more.
Ronan may say he knew him, but he didn't. He observed like a fucking leech on the outside of everything, unable to understand the feelings he had. A man like Ronan could not possibly understand what he felt for Nell. How could he know, just through watching, the way that Toby's attraction to Nell spanned multiple layers of understanding? He wanted Nell, yes, but only because he was attracted to Nell as a person as well as a body.
His care for Nell could not be dirtied or lessened by this person. Ronan probably would never know what it was like to want someone more than just objectively. He would never share moments and ideas with someone without thinking about them in terms of a sexual contact. He probably would never be able to think about himself in terms other than as a warrior and one side of a sexual equation.
The most meaningful relationship he could have with his ideas, Toby thought cruelly, would probably be with his right hand. The thought amused him, and despite everything, he laughed.
Ronan stepped back, confused. This confusion quickly turned to anger, especially as Toby – once he started – was unable to stop his laughter.
"I don't see what's so funny, boy. I saw what I saw. You won't be laughing tomorrow when your lady love here is dangling by the pretty skin of his neck." The thought was sobering like a slap in the face, and his laughter stopped abruptly as ice seemed to enter his veins. It was true, so painfully true, that his breath caught. He was, however, almost thankful of the reminder. He needed to focus once more. Every part of his plan depended on being able to talk to the chief. He needed this.
Ronan, meanwhile, regained his wicked smile in the face of what was obviously Toby's loss. He stepped back into Toby's space and Toby barred himself once again for any sort of verbal onslaught. Ronan began to open his mouth.
And then, behind them, a voice spoke.
"Enough, Ronan. There is no need to torture the boy." Ronan stiffened as soon as the words were spoken. Toby's own posture straightened as he too recognized the voice of their chief.
"I am displeased with you, Ronan." At the soft words, Ronan seemed to tense all the more. Toby would have thought he was angry except for the way his eyes seemed to fall. Toby watched, bemused.
"You know that all villagers may seek me at any time. It is my duty as chief to listen to them and try and ease their concerns. It is disappointing to me that you would do this, especially since I have told you before that it displeases me," the chief said quietly. Although he had yet to raise his voice, Toby felt the authority and power in the words. Ronan turned his face to his master, eyes a mix of frustrated and contrite.
"But he-" the guard started, hands curling into fists at his sides. The chief hushed him with a quick motion of his hands and Ronan's eyes fell. He sent a fleeting hateful glare in Toby's direction, before bending his head submissively.
"Yes, sir," he said sulkily. Toby felt no small amount of amusement seeing his recent tormenter chastised like a child, and then proceeding to behave as one. He smirked.
The chief caught the movement and smiled wearily, before turning his eyes down to Ronan.
"Wait for me in my room," he said gently, steel gone from his voice. Ronan looked up quickly, as if a protest was ready on his lips, and the chief sighed. Before his guard could speak, the chief placed a hand in his hair and smoothed it from his face. Ronan shut his mouth and leaned into the motion hungrily. Toby felt his jaw drop.
Perhaps he would have to rethink his earlier suppositions about Ronan's love life.
Suddenly, it occurred to him that the chief had not taken a wife after his initial bride died young some twelve years before. It was somewhat odd, but nobody seemed to question his actions as chief.
It was… interesting. Toby stored the thought away for future examination.
The chief removed his hand from Ronan's hair and placed it on his shoulder instead, giving him a light push.
"Go. I'll be there later. Don't make be bind you again. You know I don't like to." Ronan flushed as Toby watched, stunned. His eyes flashed and he hissed at his master like an cat, even as he left quickly towards a dark doorway to Toby's left.
Once he was gone, the chief turned his attention to Toby at last. His fair hair, much like Nell's own but a few shades darker, was rumpled and his clothes were somewhat wrinkled, but his eyes were sharp and awake.
"How can I help you, Toby son of Carney?"
Toby realized, suddenly, that he had forgotten to kneel in front of his chief, and that he was looking him directly in the eye. Yet although years of custom and practice dictated that he do so, he found his legs curiously unwilling to bend and his eyes unable to move. He thought he saw the chief's eyebrows raise in question, but he did not address the sign to disrespect vocally.
Toby breathed in deeply. He had made it to the chief. Now everything depended on what he would say and how he could act. Everything.
"You've taken Nell for a crime." The chief nodded, unsurprised. Toby wondered, horrified, how much of Ronan's words the chief had heard before he interrupted. He swallowed past his humiliation and began again.
"You've taken him on the words of a silly girl who is lying through her teeth and covering her tracks to make herself seem more important than she actually is." The chief showed no reaction to Toby's harsh words other than a sort of vague amusement. Toby accepted his silence as permission to continue.
"You know, as well as I, that he hasn't done it." At this accusation, the chief frowned and held up a hand for silence.
"And how would I know that? The only evidence that I have is the word of the girl. And although she may be as foolish as you claim, I have to take her into account." Toby growled.
"She's lying! Ask your man if you don't believe me. After all, he sees everything, does he not?" Toby sneered. The chief remained passive in the face of Toby's outburst, but his frown remained.
"And what would he see?" he asked quietly.
"Nell isn't like other boys. He doesn't care for the comfort of girls and he has no desire to take one. He has no love of violence and he would never force someone to do anything they did not want," Toby said with strong certainty. The chief allowed him to speak with no interruptions before looking at him curiously.
"What is it that you came here for, Toby? What would you have me do?" he asked. Toby flushed with annoyance.
"Release him, of course. His innocence should be obvious." The chief gave then gave him a long look before speaking.
"You know that is impossible. The villagers would never accept him back into the community and none would believe that he had not done it. He is the witch's shadow, Toby. He can never escape that here. Even if he were to walk free this time, he would be killed later by the justice of the mob. And that is all assuming that he is innocent. You are his companion, Toby, but even people you know might surprise you with violence." The chief's eyes grew distant with memory, but Toby did not question his past. He had no time for the past, only for the future. If nothing happened soon, Nell would be hung at dawn. He scowled.
"If you do not release him, even though his guilt is not proven, than you are a coward," he said slowly.
Immediately, the chief's eyes flashed in anger at his words and he stepped towards Toby, losing his patience at last.
"I would be careful with that word if I were you, boy," he said dangerously. Toby, however, was so close to succeeding that he could taste it. Bravely, he continued on.
"It is true. If you are not willing to stand up to your people for the sake on an innocent, than you are nothing better than a spineless-" Toby stopped at the feeling of pain. He realized, belatedly, that the chief had struck him across the face. For his part, the chief looked angry, yes, but also unhappy. He was staring at Toby searchingly.
"What would you have me do?" he asked again. "Despite your anger for your friend, you must know that if I were to release him, he would be killed nonetheless by the girl's family and I would lose my station."
"I know. It was your responsibility to stop the arrest from happening, but you didn't because you were afraid," he scoffed. The chief's expression darkened, but he kept his hands by his side despite the slight.
"Let me see him. Let me take him out of his cage and into the forest." The chief looked as though he would protest, but Toby silenced him with a gesture and continued on.
"I am his friend, his only friend. I am the only one who has shown him gentleness besides his own mother. Tomorrow, if the villagers would have it, he would die believing that all hated him. Can you imagine such a death?" The chief was watching him carefully and Toby knew that he was close, so close, to succeeding.
He inhaled deeply and then exhaled slowly, closing his eyes for a brief moment. It was time. Opening his eyes, he caught the chief's gaze and held it, and only then did he speak.
"Let me be the one to kill him." Toby said the words clearly, and did not choke, even though he felt them strangle him. His heart beat incredibly fast and he felt a strong chill. It had come to this.
The chief was looking at him with open surprise and confusion.
"You would do that for your friend, so that he did not have to die alone and afraid?" Toby nodded at the question.
"But how would I know that you had done it?"
"You can come with me. You can watch the results of your poor leadership," he spat the word, "and you can bring back the body tomorrow. You can tell the villagers that I went on a rage and killed him because I had some love for Anna," he said sarcastically. "They'll be angry at me for denying them their public spectacle. But they will not want my arrest. I'll be some sort of fucking hero instead."
The chief looked at him considering and Toby knew that he was so close, so close, to breaking. He pushed on, desperate.
"Please. Would you not do the same? Would you not want to if it had been Ronan?" he challenged. It was a gamble to say such things to the chief. He still had no real idea about their relationship, and he did not want to anger the chief. He waited, heart pounding, for what the chief would say.
The chief was looking at the room where Ronan had entered before, eyes far away. He seemed to be thinking deeply. At last, he turned back to Toby, eyes set.
"Yes, I would." Toby exhaled slowly.
"Then you will let me do this for him?"
"Yes." Toby sagged with relief.
"Thank you," he said, meaningfully. The chief nodded.
"Let me go find Ronan and then we can leave." Immediately, Toby tensed once more. Although he had mentioned him just moments before in his argument, he had forgotten about the guard.
"Wait!" he said loudly. The chief looked at him, surprised.
"What is it?"
"Please don't bring him with you," he pleaded. The chief's eyes filled with distrust and Toby spoke quickly before all of his hard work was gone.
"He- he bothers me, sir. He is crass and rude and I do not trust him to make comments that will make Nell uncomfortable and I don't want his final moments to be like that." He choked on his words and looked away. Thinking about those final moments made his vision cloud with grief.
"Alright," the chief said softly. Toby did not spare time to think if he was spared by the chief's pity. He bowed his head in thanks.
"He's probably asleep, so this won't take but a moment. I just need to bind him. He hates it, but otherwise he will follow me," he said, walking into the room. Before entering, he turned back with a slight smile, digging into his robe. Finding what he was looking for, he tossed it to Toby who caught it automatically. He opened his hand and looked into his curiously.
It was a key.
"Your friend is in the cage in the room to the left there," the chief said, pointing. "I will find you when I finish with Ronan."
Toby barely heard the sentence before he was moving towards the room, taking one of the many candles that lay in the windows and on the table and bringing it with him.
He stepped in the room and saw his friend. And immediately wished that he had not.
Nell had never looked so broken.
There was blood on his face and his left eye was swollen shut. His clothing was torn, showing glimpses of cuts and bruises between tears. The skin not hidden by his clothing was mottled with painful marks and he was covered with dirt and grime, as if he had been pushed and held down on the ground.
Worse still was the image of his friend in the cage. The cage had been built a few years before Toby was born. It had held the town's only serial killer. And now it held Nell.
"Oh, Nell," he said in a voice suspiciously close to a sob. He sank to his knees and fumbled with the key and the lock before opening it at last. Nell made no move to get out, or any sign that he recognized Toby.
"Nell!" he said more urgently. At last, Nell turned weary eyes to Toby. He smiled, surprised, before starting to maneuver his body towards Toby, looking as though every part of his body ached. Toby grimaced.
"Stop that, let me help you," he admonished. Carefully, Toby grabbed him around his chest and pulled him out of the cage to rest against his own chest. Nell made slight whimpers of pain, and Toby hated himself for making him hurt, even though he was not the one to cause the initial injuries.
"Hush now, I'm here Nell. I'm here to take care of you," he soothed, feeling broken. Although he knew it would be better for Nell's injuries to hold him loosely, he could not help but to hold him as tightly as he could.
"Don't you know, Nell, I'll just patch you up again like always." He ran a shaking hand down Nell's back twice, and then Nell was pulling away. Toby resisted the urge to pull him back and hold him even closer.
Nell looked at him curiously, but Toby ignored the look. Nell was not stupid. He knew that something odd was happening. He must have heard his tormentors tell him his crime and his sentence. And he would know that it was impossible for him to protest it. He had accepted his fate.
"It's different Nell. I'm going to save you, you'll see. We just have to take a walk in the forest with the chief first and then all will be better." He stumbled over the lie, looking away, but he daren't explain more with the chief so close. Nell looked at him suspiciously, and Toby almost laughed. Would have, if not for the direness of their situation.
He placed a hand on Nell's cheek and gently used his thumb to sweep under his eye.
"Come on Nell. You know I'll always take care of you." Nell nodded into his hand, at last.
"Let's get you standing, Nell. The chief will be ready soon."
He stood, and Nell followed suit carefully. He placed one of Nell's arms around his shoulders and they began to slowly shuffle into the main room of the large hut.
"Is anything broken, Nell?" he asked quietly once they had entered. Nell looked away, but raised his other hand – the one not around Toby's shoulders – to rub wincingly at his ribs. Toby's eyes narrowed. Those fuckers. No wonder it was so hard to Nell to walk.
"Are you ready?" the chief asked, startling Toby from his contemplation of Nell's injuries. He had apparently entered the room soon after they had, but Toby had not noticed.
It was a difficult question.
Toby doubted that he would ever be ready for the task that lay ahead.
"I am as ready as I can be," he said. The chief nodded.
"Then come," he said, walking slowly out the door at a pace that he and Nell could match, despite Nell's injuries. Toby tightened his hold around Nell and around his satchel, before following his chief.
The three of them walked quietly. The chief made no move to make conversation with Toby. Toby was thankful that he did not. There was no telling what Toby might do if he did. Nell was silent, as usual, except for his harsh breathing. Toby began to murmur platitudes to his friend, and a few flat jokes that he was sure that Nell appreciated. They also helped to soothe his own rattled nerves.
Yet all too soon, the forest was approaching.
Once they set foot on the forest floor, the chief stopped and turned to Toby.
"How far to you wish to go?" he said. Toby thought. Nell was exhausted, but he wanted them well out of the view of the village.
At once he remembered the river. It was one on Nell's favorite places in the forest because many creatures liked to come there for their water. They had spent many an afternoon there before everything had gone to hell before their eyes.
"The river," he rasped, "We will go to the river. It is not too far ahead." The chief nodded, and they were on their way once more.
Nell was looking at him again, but Toby avoided his gaze. He knew that Nell wanted to know what was going on, and that he was probably annoyed, but there was nothing that Toby could tell him that wouldn't make him upset.
The river was broad and deep. The villagers came there for their fresh water, even though some had been carried away or killed on the strong current. Toby and Nell had swum there many times despite these warnings and the anger of their parents.
It was a good place for a goodbye.
He heard the general rushing noise of the river grow stronger as they approached until they were right upon the expanse of water. Purposefully, Toby strode towards a rock that was relatively flat on top. He helped Nell down onto the rock and arranged him so that he could sit comfortably. Nell grabbed his arm, but Toby pulled away from his grip gently.
"It's almost over now, Nell. Just take a rest and I'll explain everything soon." Nell nodded, brow drawn together in confusion. He looked out towards the river and Toby forced himself to turn away. He looked over at the chief.
The other man seemed unsure, an emotion far away from his usual confidence. Toby narrowed his eyes and walked towards him, grabbing him by the wrist and whispering harshly in his ear.
"You will watch. And you will remember. And this will never happen again."
Not waiting for a response, Toby tugged the chief behind him until he reached Nell on the rock. There, he let go of the other man's wrist, but gave him a sharp look. The chief nodded.
At last the time had come.
"You just relax, Nell. I've got my satchel with me, and I want to look at you to see how I can fix you. So don't move, and be very still. I want to look at your back first, so I don't want you twisting around and making scabs open and the like." In front of him, Nell nodded. Toby wondered at his trust, for the millionth time. Nell was always quick to take him at his word, even when he was confused or unsure of the motive.
"Just be still," he said again.
Taking a deep breath, he loosened his hunting knife from his belt and looked at it. It was a good blade. He had bought it in the city the last time he was there. It was heavy and made of stone, but it was quite sharp. The stone pommel was covered with leather that he polished often to protect it, and he sharpened the blade quite frequently as well.
"Very still," he whispered.
He raised the blade with both hands, arms taut and yet trembling at the thought of what he was about to do. He shut his eyes briefly, thinking of loss, and brought the blade down with all his strength.
A hair's breadth away from Nell's head, he shifted the blade, curving it upwards and around, turning his body with the movement until he found himself facing the chief's surprised eyes.
The chief crumpled to the ground, a red spot below his ear from where Toby hit him with the solid pommel of his blade.
Toby noted with satisfaction that the chief was still breathing. He would live. The villagers would soon see that he was missing, and Toby had no doubt that Ronan would be able to track him and find him.
His heart was still beating as fast as a jackrabbit's, as he turned from the prone chief and back to Nell.
Nell returned his gaze with eyes as round and large as saucers. Toby dropped the knife on the sandy soil before launching himself at Nell and gathering the other boy in his arms.
"I'm sorry Nell. I couldn't tell you anything because then the chief would know, and I know you don't like me to use violence, but I couldn't think of another way to get you free, and didn't I tell you that you can't do this to me anymore? I'm going to die of the strain before I can live to see the next year," he rambled on, nose buried in Nell's neck.
Nell's own arms rose to hold Toby closely. He nodded his acceptance, despite the way that his body was shaking beneath Toby's arms.
After holding him for a moment more, Toby pulled away slightly to look Nell in the face. Nell still looked to be somewhat in shock. He was obviously avoiding looking at the prone body of their leader.
"He'll be fine, Nell. He'll have a big bump behind his ear and a huge headache when he wakes up, and there's a good chance he won't remember a lot of this, but he'll be fine."
Nell relaxed, minimally, but it still seemed to Toby that he was trying to understand something far outside of his grasp.
Toby would have liked to take the time to explain everything to Nell, but he knew that there was not the time for this. Although the chief was out cold for another hour or two at the least, Toby would bet anything that Ronan had been tearing at his bindings all the while and would be anxious to catch up with his master.
With good reason.
"Nell," he said. He placed his hands on Nell's cheeks and looked him in the eye.
"You need to focus and you need to listen to me," he said firmly.
"I know this is all very strange to you, and it's strange to me too, but we haven't got much time and I need you to listen to what I'm saying. Can you do that for me?" Nell nodded under his hands, and Toby continued.
"You need to leave. The people that came after you tonight will look for you again. They will not search forever, but they will search. The chief's guard is also going to be angry when he finds his chief, so he will follow you and we have both heard of his skill in that area." Nell nodded again, his eyes losing the haze of shock and pain from earlier.
"You can never come back, Nell," he said sternly. Nell's eyes widened once more and he started to struggle, but Toby held his face tightly in place.
"No. You can't Nell. Not for the horses, not for your family, not for anything. Your Ma understands." At the mention of his mother, Nell stilled.
"She told me what happened – that's how I knew to come and get you. She saw me packing things for a long journey. She told me to- to tell you she loved you, and always would," he said, stuttering. The fight seemed to leave Nell completely and he sagged. He leaned forward, pushing past Toby's hands on his face, to rest his head on Toby's shoulder. Toby allowed him to stay briefly, heart aching for his friend, before pushing him away gently.
"You need to go," he repeated. Nell nodded wearily at him and struggled to his feet. He looked at Toby hard before leaning forward and catching him in a bone-crushing embrace that Toby eagerly returned.
They stood there for a moment, arms wrapped strongly around each other, before Nell pulled away. Nell backed away slowly before smiling, stretching his bruised face, and picking up Toby's satchel. Still smiling, he turned around and began walking.
Toby felt his heart stutter painfully in his chest.
"Wait!" he called after him loudly. Nell turned around at his voice, an intent expression on his face.
Toby slowly placed one foot in front of the other, making his way to Nell's side.
It would be so easy to let Nell go alone.
Toby could return to the village, carrying the chief. He could say that Nell got away from them during the potential execution and had brutally attacked the chief. The chief, when he woke up, would probably not contest the statement either because of his own shame or due to memory loss after the blow.
He could continue to live in his hut, secure in the knowledge that Nell was safe. He could watch his family grow, meet his nephews and nieces as they came. He could continue to care for the horses he loved, and tend the land he had lived his entire life on.
He could have his normal life.
But Nell would not be in it. And that was not any kind of life at all.
Reaching Nell's side, he was met by a brilliant smile that lessened the hurt of losing so many things.
And letting Nell go was suddenly not easy at all.
"Nell," he breathed. Nell looked at him patiently, eyes still crinkling at the corners at the strength of his smile. He looked as though he knew what Toby wished to say, but Toby forced the words to come out between them anyways.
"I'm in love with you." Toby jolted at the sound of the words. He had not expected to say those exact words, but speaking them, he found them to be true. Nell looked unsurprised, however, and Toby spared time for a momentary scowl of annoyance. Nell's smile only grew.
"I want to be with you and take care of you. Will you let me?" Nell just looked at him, smile still in place, and laughed happily. Toby returned the smile at last, Nell's joy infectious.
"Alright then. I shall come."
And because he was so close and so relieved and Nell was so happy, he moved in for a kiss.
It was no dry press of lips, like their first kiss, and not nearly as chaste as Nell's kiss on the cheek from earlier that day. They both entered the kiss consciously, both wanted and both took.
Nell met Toby's open mouth with his own, allowing their lips to slide against each other hungrily.
As with the first time, it felt right and good and normal. Toby finally allowed himself to think of his feelings for Nell in that way. It was not wrong, it was not deviant. Nell was smiles and mischief and grace.
If Nell was like Toby, than there was no way that their feelings could be ugly or evil. No more than Nell was evil for being born under the witch's shadow.
After encouraging the kiss, hands deep in Nell's hair as Nell's own hands gripped his back firmly, Toby finally allowed himself to disengage. Satisfied, he took in Nell's bruised lips and dazed expression.
"Let's go," he said.
And they went.
Author's Note: Here it is. My mega-baby that I've been working on for way too long. I hope that some people like it. Heck, I hope all people like it - I'm not picky! Constructive criticism is awesome and welcome, flames about my choice of pairing are not.
For those interested, I'm considering a long sequel that will involve Nell, Toby, Ronan, and the chief. This is what happens when your side characters grow on you... I'm hoping to have a few interrelated one-shots up in the next month or so also, but I am often tardy...
In any case, thank you for reading!