Medvedev's luck was holding—his bad luck. Sure he'd found a cave to protect him from the driving rain, but now the rain was filling the basin inside the cave mouth, forcing him deeper into the caverns—caverns that were purported to be haunted. He climbed a pile of rubble, searching for a place to move the fire before it sputtered out completely. At least Medvedev didn't have a horse. He'd never been so glad he was too big to ride one.
The sun was setting, but between the dark rainclouds and the cave, Medvedev was nearly blind. He held his torch up and found a flat spot, but the cave ceiling sunk on either side. Would the smoke kill him while he slept? He couldn't risk it. He needed to search some more. How far in would he need to go? Would he get lost inside?
He set down his pack, but it slipped down the rubble pile. He sat down and slid after it. Everything had gone wrong since he saw that boy two weeks ago. No, that wasn't true. Things had only gone wrong since he'd failed to save the obviously abused child.
All Medvedev's life he'd been injured by his father. The burn on his face attested to the crime, but no one lifted a hand to help him. The neighbors said that he was bigger and stronger than his father: he must like it if he stayed. Years of pain and sorrow ended when a traveler handed him a pouch of money and helped him escape his cage of his life. But the man didn't want to be responsible for a boy as big as a man. Since then Medvedev had been alone.
The boy he'd seen, the one who needed his help, had a black eye and bruises on his arms. Medvedev wanted to help him, but he was huge and his scar made him scary. The child cowered and Medvedev hadn't pressed, but before he left town two days later, he'd gone to see the boy, to try again. Instead he saw his funeral. The child's uncle beat him to death, but the neighbors still offered their condolences.
Since then, Medvedev had been accused of being a bandit, caught outside in the rain twice, and forced to spend a night in the great room of an inn as the locals told story after story of the child who haunted the castle and the caves under it. He might be big and strong and scary, but he hated being frightened. And when people told monster stories in his presence, he always felt his scarred face gave them the inspiration.
The pack stopped at the bottom of a steep solid slope. What was up there? He wasn't tired yet; he might as well explore. The slope led to another, but while climbing the third, he dropped the torch. Swear words came out of his mouth before he could stop them. They were the words his father said as he hit Medvedev. How could he repeat them?
Should he go back? And do what? Wallow in self pity? Close his eyes and see the dead child? He forged ahead, grunting as he pulled himself into the ledge. He heard a sound. Not rock on rock or dirt falling, something worse—the sob of a child. Was this the ghost? Had it come to haunt him? He fought the urge to slide back down the cliff and hide.
It was probably the wind, but he knew he couldn't rest until he knew for sure.
He followed the sound though the darkness. When he stubbed his toe on a rock and sent it flying, the sobs grew louder. "Hey, you there," Medvedev called. "I'm looking for you, don't you know."
A breath was caught and held as if the sobber was scared of being found. "I won't hurt you. I just want to find you."
Even muffled, the breaths were fast and loud in the dark cave; Medvedev followed them easily. He almost tripped over a curled up person lying on the ground. The person gasped when Medvedev wrapped his arms around it. "Let go," the boy—it sounded like a boy—begged. "Don't touch me."
Medvedev listen to the tone rather than the words. The tone spoke of need and fear and an ache to be comforted, to be protected, to be loved. Medvedev had sounded that way enough times. He tightened his grasp and pulled the boy onto his lap. The child wore only a shirt. What was he doing here, in the dark alone? Where were the responsible adults? Had they left him here? Why?
Petting the boy's head, Medvedev whispered words of comfort, words he wished he'd heard. He would protect him, he would save this child, he would never turn his back on a child in need as long as he lived. But the child stopped him. "It's my fault."
"What is, my boy?"
"I didn't stay in my room. I left to see the party. I can't be seen you know. If someone sees me, then they'll die."
Medvedev tried to hold his temper. "Who told you that?"
"My aunty. She says if anyone but my nanny and tutor see me, they will turn to dust. I have a curse on me, you know."
"No." Medvedev shook his head, even though it was too dark to see. "I don't know. You aren't cursed."
"Yes, I am. I shouldn't have been born. They took me away from my mother to save her, but it didn't work. She died. It's my fault. I shouldn't have been born."
"How'd she die?"
"She fell off a horse."
"And how," Medvedev asked, "is that your fault?"
This would have been funny if the boy hadn't been serious.
"Because I was born. She was a queen. Married to a king. But since I was her son, she died."
"My boy, my boy, that isn't your fault. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes people died. It doesn't have to be anyone's fault."
The child said nothing, but he did cuddle closer.
"I'm Medvedev. What's your name?"
"Oh. I'm Oliver. I don't have a family name because I don't exist. I shouldn't have been born."
Medvedev bit back a retort. Who was this aunty and why did she hurt Oliver so? The boy's belly growled. Medvedev could use dinner as well. "Let's go. My pack has food in it."
"No," Oliver said, pulling off of Medvedev's lap. "I can't leave. If I move, they won't be able to find me when they come for me."
Medvedev couldn't imagine a person taking a child this far into a cave, even a person crazy enough to use this as punishment. "How did you get here?"
"Oh. The hole in the bottom of the dungeon. They lower me down and I wait until they come back for me."
"How long are you have you been here?"
"I don't know. It always feels like forever."
"Well, if you don't want to come. I'll get my pack."
"No," Oliver screamed and clutched Medvedev's arm. "Don't leave me. I hate the dark. Don't leave me."
Medvedev wrapped his arms around the boy. "I'm never going to leave you. I'll never let you go."
He hugged Oliver until he stopped crying and then held his hand as he led him out of the cavern. Medvedev slid down each slope first then reached up and guided Oliver down. The boy needed pants. Medvedev hands got way too familiar with the young body before the two got back to the pack.
Medvedev took out his bedroll and wrapped the boy in it—Oliver had to be freezing—before he got out the food. Oliver ate quietly, even though he must be starving. How late was it? Would Medvedev have any idea when the sun rose? Would the morning sun light the cave at all? He was tired of the dark.
But Oliver must be even more tired of it.
He pulled Oliver into his lap after they ate and was lulled to sleep by the boy's quiet breaths. When he woke, he could see the walls of the cave. The sun must be up. He tried to move Oliver off his lap, but the boy's arms tightened around his chest. "You've got to let me up, don't you know. I'll be back. I promise."
But Oliver held tighter.
Medvedev needed to get up. Having someone on his lap didn't help him morning wood, but looking down and noticing that Oliver wasn't half as young as the darkness and fear had lead him believe, made it worse. The boy was well on his way to being grown. "Oliver, my boy, I've got to get up. If you move your arms around my neck, I'll take you with me."
Oliver allowed his arms to be moved and hung on like a giant necklace as Medvedev got to his feet. Medvedev maneuvered the boy onto his back and climbed the rubble pile, then moved Oliver back to his lap to slide down the other side. In the light, Medvedev had a much harder time touching Oliver. His nearly grown body was too tempting. When Oliver was grown, he wouldn't be anywhere near as tall as Medvedev, who was bigger than any man he'd ever met. The man that raped his mother might have been taller, but no one could agree on the stranger's height.
Medvedev took a deep breath. He would need a running start if he was going to carry Oliver out of the cave. "No, no," cried Oliver, pulling his legs up to wrap around Medvedev's waist. "I can't go outside. The sun will burn me up."
Medvedev sighed. What was Oliver's aunty thinking? He really had to be the ghost that haunted the castle and the caves. How often had he been punished? How was Medvedev supposed to think with a sweet young thing—without pants—clinging tightly to his chest? He should have dressed the boy. "You will not burn in the sun. You are not cursed. I know how hard it is not to believe what adults tell you, but your aunty was lying. I will never lie to you."
After several minutes of calming words, Oliver allowed Medvedev to leave the cave with him. The puddle inside the cave mouth only got them a little wet. Medvedev worried that he would have to wear Oliver all day, but the boy got down on his own and stood in the cliff's shadow, touching tree bark and smelling blossoms.
Oliver skin was pale, but flawless under the dirt. His hair was cut like a gentleman's and blond, rather than the brown of the local people. He was beautiful, even with the tear streaks through the smudge marks on his cheeks. But Medvedev wasn't. He was a monster, a huge giant with a scarred face. He dreaded the look that would fill Oliver's eyes the moment he got a good look at Medvedev. He dreaded the fear that would fill his sweet voice. But it would happen, sure as anything.
Medvedev turned away. He wanted the happy smile to stay on Oliver's as long as possible. He went back in the cave and got his pack. The trek was much easier alone. Travelling was much easier alone. Much easier than seeing people flinch when he came near.
He stood at the cave mouth watching Oliver. Was this the first time he was ever outside. Had he ever seen a tree, a leaf, grass? Did he know that the sky was blue and that clouds came in different types? What would he think of a sunset that turned the world orange or a sunrise that turned the sky purple? Medvedev could hardly wait to watch his awe.
"You're right. I didn't melt." Oliver said, coming close. He looked Medvedev in the eye as he took his hand. But he didn't flinch at Medvedev's marred cheek or missing finger. He didn't turn his eyes away, neither did he give them extra attention. His eyes wandered across Medvedev's face and back to his eyes. His smiling face reflected acceptance and curiosity, not fear or horror. "Are you right that the sun won't hurt me either?"
"Well," Medvedev looked down into the trusting blue eyes. "Too much time in the sun will make your skin hurt, especially if you're not used to it. But stepping into the sun won't hurt."
He let Oliver lead him over to where the morning sun was drying the grass. The boy squeezed his hand as he felt his first sunlight.
"It's warm. I like it." And before Medvedev could stop him, Oliver pulled off his dirty shirt and let the sun land on his entire front. Medvedev turned away. Oliver wasn't a child even if he acted like one. Oliver threw his arms around Medvedev's back. "Thank you, thank you. I want to be with you forever."
Medvedev laughed. "You think? Put your shirt back on. I'll find you something to wear. Didn't they teach you to cover up?"
"They did," said Oliver with a laugh. "But I thought they might have lied about that, too. They said no one would ever love me and you love me, right?"
Medvedev reached over his shoulder and rubbed the boy's blonde hair. "That I do, that I do."