Rogher grabs my arm, none too gently, and pulls me with him towards the stairs. Keeping up with his long strides is difficult and he throws me an annoyed glance, then stops and frowns.
"Are you limping?"
"My leg," I say lightly, "it's a bit clumsy."
He slows down and actually helps me as I climb the stairs, one by one. I observe that he's decided to indulge in some luxury, for he's taken a small room all for himself. There's a large chest by the wall, a fireplace for warmth, and a bed that would be a tight fit for two men of his size but comfortable enough for the two of us. I get to try out the bed even sooner than I thought when he pushes me to sit on the edge and stands in front of me, hands on hips.
"The last I saw you, there was nothing wrong with you," he says tightly. "Now you walk with a limp, you've hurt your hand badly enough to have broken a finger, and worst of all, you look like a whipped dog ready to crawl into a corner the moment you see me! What has happened to you, Zyan?"
I don't want to tell him, for to tell I need to remember it all and I've done my best to push the memories so deep and far that I'd never find them again. He sighs and reaches a hand to me.
"Should've gone to the privy first before coming up here," he says. "Come, I'll help you on the stairs."
When we're back in the room once more, Rogher latches the door and begins to undress without another word, but I hesitate. As if years had passed since that day on the mountain. I used to be able to read him so well but now it feels like I've lost that ability, like so many others.
"Aren't you coming to bed?" he asks over a shoulder.
"Yes – yes of course." I remove my clothes while Rogher steps to the fireplace and pokes at the embers to make sure there are no more big pieces of wood burning. The dull glow makes my insides freeze, and in a rush I tear off the rest of my clothing and dive under the covers.
Rogher hangs the poker to a hook by the fireplace, steps out of his breeches and tosses them on a bench before slipping to bed as well. I can feel the warmth of his body even though we're not touching, and for a few moments neither of us speaks. I'm still fighting off the flash of panic when Rogher turns, the bed creaks quietly, and under the covers his arm snakes across my waist. His hand flattens against my side and I tense before I can stop myself.
His fingertips slide on my skin and find the first scar. I stop breathing when they stop and then very gently trace it all the way up and down. The touch makes me shiver.
"This is not from a fall," he says under his breath. "Don't imagine that I couldn't tell. You've been hit with something long and rather thin, and hit hard."
I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to tremble as his large hand maps my body all over for more scars and inevitably finds each one.
"Who did this to you?"
"No, Zyan. I want to know." He puts an arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer. "When you were returning to the camp, how did you notice that you were being followed? Did you see someone?"
"No, I heard it." Deep breaths, I tell myself. This is a simple question and I can answer it. "Then I stopped to listen and the noise stopped as well, so whoever it was didn't want me to know he was there. I had to warn you somehow because I was so terribly close already, and that's when I got the idea."
"It was a stroke of genius," Rogher says with emphasis. "What happened then?"
"I think I heard you higher up," I say, trying to relive the moment, "and I also heard someone running downhill. Then I was sure there'd really been someone. So I went to the campsite and cleared it as best I could, left some of the food there so it wouldn't look too odd if someone should see me, and then I headed east. I figured that you had to go uphill anyway so I'd take off in a different direction."
"And that's when Berdar's curs caught you, right?"
His tone is soft and casual but my mouth goes dry. He cannot help feeling how I tense once more, taken by surprise, and the arm around my shoulders tightens a little.
"So I guessed right." Rogher's breath hisses in the darkness. "And they did this to you so that you'd tell them which way we'd gone?"
"I – I really don't know."
"But I don't remember for sure!" I insist. "I don't even know how long I was there, and I remember nothing of how I got there, I just had this bump on my head and my ankle was useless, I might've taken a fall or something."
"Surely you're not trying to defend them?" Rogher shakes his head. "All right, maybe you fell and broke your leg all on your own, but the rest of your scars have definitely been made on purpose!"
"I wish I'd realized earlier that they hadn't seen you..." My voice falters. "Then I might've been able to make up something to –"
Rogher pulls back a little and even in the near darkness I can see his frown. "What did you say?"
"You said that they hadn't seen us." Now he's agitated.
"They hadn't," I say and swallow when the crushing guilt comes back once more. "They thought I was out there on my own and wanted to know where you were. That's when I slipped that I didn't know which way 'they' had gone, and... and... had to tell that you were not alone. I lied to them that I wasn't sure who the woman was, that I hadn't seen the Lady while we stayed in Tmer, but they didn't believe me. And they would not believe that I didn't know which way you'd gone."
"But you did delay them!" Rogher exclaims and his fist hits the pillow. "That's why there was no pursuit! I was sure they'd be breathing down our necks any moment but never saw anyone, and I could scarcely believe our luck. But it wasn't luck, it was because you managed to lead them astray for long enough."
"I – I did?" My brain does not know how to deal with the thought.
"Zyan," Rogher says and then he hugs me very tight. "Zyan, don't you understand? It's very probably thanks to you, and you alone, that we made it safely to Noragayll in the first place! It was a nightmare to be riding up to where the path split, trying to make haste and yet be quiet, trying to decide which pass to choose, and then when we were making our way over those goddamn mountains I had plenty of occasion to regret that I'd taken that gamble because it was such slow going and I was sure that any moment we'd hear riders catching up with us – but there were none."
"The Northern Pass?" I guess.
"That's right. Maybe it wasn't the best choice but that's the way we went, because I'd been told that the Eastern might be much faster but also visibility there is much better. I figured that we'd have a better chance to hide up there, if things got really tight."
"I thought you might go that way, so I said you'd go east," I tell him. "I was so afraid that I might've guessed wrong and sent them right after you."
"Never mind that. You gave us the time we needed to scramble up there and down again, and then we were already almost at the gates of Noragayll."
Rogher gathers me in his arms and I can feel his heartbeat. "Zyan, please understand that I'm not blaming you for anything. I know how people can be made to say just about anything, I wish I didn't but I've seen enough of the world to know, and I also know that you did what you could. Probably more than most people could've done. And if my Lord Jhorell or his wife dare say one cross word to you once we get there, we go away and this time it'll be for good! Those filthy bastards would've caught us if it hadn't been for you."
I press closer to him and he wraps his arms still a bit tighter around me. The fingers of one hand come to rest over a scar on my hip, a welt surrounded by rougher skin. They follow it slowly and I close my eyes.
"Those sick dogs, wretched cowards..." It takes a seasoned warrior to come up with the string of curses that he spits out one by one like so many foul-tasting berries. "They can thank their lucky stars that they're dead because if they weren't, I'd hunt them down and make them pay for this, even if it took the rest of my life to find them all!"
I'm beginning to relax a little. Rogher is so warm, so familiar, and his hard body isn't all that hard right now as he rubs his face on my shoulder and sighs.
"I wish I could've come back for you," he says. "I'm so sorry, Zyan."
"You did exactly what you should. She was your responsibility, not me."
"She was my responsibility, yes," he echoes, "but you are my friend."
"You did your duty," I repeat and manage to put an arm over his shoulder so that I can push my fingers into his hair. Rough as a horse's mane, it's been recently cut, and I play with a stiff tuft over his ear. I must've done this a hundred times before but now it feels almost scarily intimate, and I fist his hair to ground myself. "I didn't expect anything less from you, Rogher."
He snorts, or grunts, hard to tell which. "How did you get away from them?"
"They they left me behind when they went to raid that convoy. I was all alone, they hadn't left anyone to watch the camp, and that's when I ran."
"Ran? On this foot?" Under the covers he slides his foot along my leg and rubs the misshaped ankle. "Try something else."
Crawling through the underbrush on my elbows and knees, twigs tangling in my hair. "I got away from the camp and into the woods when they were gone. I tried to hide behind these bushes but noticed too late that they were growing right on the edge of a ravine, and I fell. Then the shepherd's dogs found me, and he took me to his hut and looked after me until I was able to leave."
"I always knew you were tough," Rogher says, lips brushing my temple. "But even I didn't know just how tough you are."
Something occurs to him, again he pulls back a little and I can see the light from the fireplace reflecting from his eyes. "Did they – did they rape you?"
"No," I say quickly. Rogher's expression darkens and I hurry to add: "No, Rogher, that really is the truth. I was out of it for a good while, I don't know nearly everything they did but I would know if they had."
"Thank the gods for the little mercies," he mumbles and settles again more comfortably in the bed. "You've been through far too much for my sake even without that."
I've missed this. Letting my body mold to his every plane and bump. Soaking in his warmth. Feeling his hairy chest under my arm. Being safe at least for now.
There's a thump outside our door and I start, but Rogher's arm squeezes me a bit.
"They're just drunk," he says and we listen while two clearly tipsy men navigate the narrow corridor on less than steady feet. At last they make it to their room, their slurred voices disappear and a door bangs loudly.
"Sorry," I say and burrow closer to Rogher. "I didn't mean to."
"It's all right," he says. "No bloody wonder if you're jumpy, but you'll be all right. And just so you know, I'm not going to let you out of my sight ever again."
A strange feeling tickles my chest and I laugh, breathless because it feels so odd to laugh. Rogher chuckles as well, I rub my face on his shoulder and breathe in his scent. And then I'm sinking fast, so fast that I only faintly hear his murmur.
"Sleep, Zyan. I'm right here."
When I wake up again, it feels as if I'd only just closed my eyes, but the narrow slice of sunlight seeping in through the small window tells a different story. It's weeks since I've slept this well, without those odd, muggy dreams that leave me gasping and scared even after they loosen their grip, and I stretch a little to savor the feeling. Rogher is already awake. He slants me a questioning glance from the corner of his eye, then squints when the pale sun blinds him.
"How about getting up?" he asks.
"Yes, sure." I stretch some more as he rolls around and sits up, and I feel a smile tickle my lips as I look at his broad shoulders. Muscles shift under the skin as he snatches his breeches and gets up to pull them on.
"Didn't want to wake you up, you were sleeping so soundly," he says. "Here, your clothes. At least someone has been good enough to give you something to wear."
"There was this woman and her husband in Mordhes." I catch the bundle and begin to unravel it enough to get into the garments. "They were very kind to me."
"Mordhes? Right, so we'll make a stop there to thank them!"
Rogher is in a downright boisterous mood. He wastes no time in packing both of our things into a saddlebag, then flings it over his shoulder and gives me his hand.
"Come on, you'll need help on the stairs anyway."
It's quiet down in the inn. Someone has left already, a maid is picking up used cups and bowls from the table and drops us a hurried curtsey as she scurries past us. Without further ado Rogher sits down on a bench and soon the innkeeper's wife emerges with her customary smile.
"Your inn has comfortable beds," Rogher tells her, "and I'll make sure to tell so to anyone who might ask."
"Thank you, Sir Knight, thank you!" She radiates even more. "Are you leaving today?"
"Yes, as soon as we've had breakfast and my horse is ready. There's quite a ride ahead. And I'm sorry, but I'll be robbing you of the chance of having music tonight. I'm taking this minstrel with me."
She looks at me and spreads her arms, all benevolent resignation. "Ah, now that's a pity, but it cannot be helped. And who knows, maybe there'll be another one soon and then perhaps we might manage to persuade him to stay the winter here?"
"I wish you luck," I say. "I don't think you should have too much trouble persuading, this is a good place and the winter is coming."
"Indeed it is! The maid had left a bucket of water outdoors last night, and this morning she had to crack the ice on top to use it!" She turns to go. "Now, how can that girl take this long to get your breakfast to the table"
"So I'm coming with you?" I ask Rogher. He raises an eyebrow.
"Didn't I tell you that I'm not letting you out of my sight anymore? And since I must return to Noragayll, that's where you'll come as well!"
When we step out of the front door after a hearty breakfast, I have to stop. This is the first glimpse of sun that has graced us for at least a full week, and even though water is dripping from the eaves where the rays reach the roof, in the shadow the ground is glittering with frost. Rogher's horse puffs out a misty cloud and stomps its foot, I go to greet it and it gives me a friendly shove.
While a stablehand is holding the reins, Rogher puts the saddlebag in place and fastens it, folds a saddlecloth behind it and then mounts.
"Hey, hey," he chuckles when it almost wheels around, stepping high, "not so fast, my friend, we're not ready to go yet!"
He kicks off a stirrup and reaches his hand to me. I grab it and somehow manage to get a foot high enough, but in all truth it's his strength alone that gets me up until I'm once again sitting behind him. Cold air bites my face, I pull the hood deeper and curl my fingers a bit more firmly around his belt. Rogher twists to look at me over his shoulder.
"In that case, boy," he says and loosens the reins a little, "now we are ready to go!"
Hooves crunch on frosty ground as we ride out of the yard and the village. Around us trees stand stiff and silent, as if holding their breath to fend off the cold. The horse's stride lengthens as it walks briskly on and I settle once more into the rhythmical swaying of its back. My hands are chilly, I pull the sleeves over my knuckles and the cloak tighter, and his hand clasps mine behind his back.
"Are you all right there?" he asks.
"Yes," I say, "yes I am. I'm all right."
And I mean it.
~ The End ~