Warnings: Explicit sexual content, explicit sexual images, suicide
Summary: Ryder, a soldier/scholar who left their hometown of Bridehive a decade ago, returns and reunites with a childhood friend, only to discover that the war they have been fighting has followed them.
Writing by me, art by Zomburai.
Glossary of Important Terms:
Werman: a person who went through testosterone puberty.
Woman: a person who went through estrogen puberty.
Noman: a person who went through combined testosterone/estrogen puberty.
Man: a person.
The road to Bridehive was long, grey, and winding, and it hurt my feet. I didn’t remember the stones being so uneven when I was leaving, but it had, admittedly, been a long time. I was wearing armor when I left, a bright mail shirt beneath a lamellar tunic, but I’d abandoned the shirt somewhere along the way, and now the tunic was tucked under my arm instead, along with a rolled-up tent and some cooking equipment. Over my shoulder was a bundle containing the rest of my worldly goods, consisting of a half-melted tallow candle, a flint to light it, a talisman of Gauselen, and a very thick notebook that was getting worryingly close to being filled with my small, spiky writing. Someone once told me I wrote as if I were fighting a war: even the look of my letters was sharp.
The shape of the landscape was becoming familiar in an unfamiliar sort of way, like opening a book I hadn’t opened in years. The broad strokes all seemed to fall into place, and yet I couldn’t predict what would be around the next turn. I was especially surprised when I took another step and a flock of speckled grey-brown birds took off almost from beneath my feet. Before I could react, what I had taken for a bundle of old rags at the side of the road took a grubby limb away from its eyes to reveal a sleepy, slightly-pointed face.
I took a half step back, and then the collection of individual features resolved into a person sitting up. He had pale, almost ash-blond hair drawn back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Or perhaps they did. A noman myself, I knew how difficult it could be to tell the difference in some cases. People often thought I was a werman, and that suited me just fine.
“Saints’ greetings, traveler,” the person at the side of the road hailed me, his rough accent and graveled voice chewing up the words in a way I hadn’t heard in years, and the accent made a strange pang flit across my heart.
“Hello,” I returned, somewhat less formally. I was groping for how to react. I’d spent so many years away from my native land, and I had seen so few people on the road back, that in some strange dreamlike fashion I’d almost expected I would never again interact with a human soul.
He yawned and sat up. “What brings you down this particular stretch of road?” he asked. “No one comes this way anymore.”
“It’s the only road I know,” I responded, a little put out by his directness. “I haven’t been back in a long time.”
“You’re from Bridehive, then?”
I nodded. “It’s been some ten years or more since I last set foot there, though.”
He whistled. “What have you been doing all this time?”
“Traveling,” I replied. “Learning, too. Some fighting.” I put my hand fondly on the hilt of my sword. “I was a hired sword for some of it.”
“Fighting for who?” The stranger’s shoulders tightened a little.
“Whoever was fighting the Khar, mostly.” I shrugged and stretched, letting my hand drop. As I’d expected, clarifying that, yes, I had been fighting against the invaders saw him relax a little.
“And you’re heading back to Bridehive now? Why now?”
I shrugged. “It seemed like time, I suppose. No real reason.” I wasn’t certain I wanted to detail the attack of homesickness that had swept through me three months ago while I was curled up in one of the Aerie’s tiny libraries. It had been so sudden and unexpected that for a few minutes I thought I’d actually caught an ague. But it wasn’t that. I found myself staring out the window, down the muddy sides of the sheer cliff and onto the glittering water of the river below, remembering the rocky creek behind the main church of Bridehive. The sudden tug at my heart was almost physical. I’d made a number of friends in the Aerie, and I did stay long enough to explain where I was going, but I’d gathered up my necessary belongings and was back on the road within the week.
And now I judged I was only a few hours away from the walls of the city, my steps had been steadily slowing for the last quarter of an hour, and it wasn’t solely because the air was getting colder and dryer. I’d dawdled enough that the sun was close to sinking; I’d probably need to set up camp. It would be better, I thought, if I reached Bridehive in the morning. “What are you doing out on this road if there’s no one on it, anyway?” I asked.
“I suppose since I told you that it’s a bit silly to tell you I was begging.”
I raised an eyebrow. “A bit, yes.”
“I’m not very good at begging.”
“Well, I’m here,” I pointed out in amusement. “I don’t have much coin, but if you’d care to share some food, I do have a little of that.”
A pause. “Are you—sure?”
I shrugged. “I’d not have offered if I didn’t mean it.” I looked around. “You know the area better than I do—is there a good place to make a fire?”
He glanced around as well. “I believe there’s a fire-pit that sees some use in the wooded area over there. Well—has seen use,” he amended. “As I said, not many travelers use this road these days.”
“Shall we, then?”
Again, a brief hesitation, and then he gave me a bemused smile and started to pull himself to his feet. “All right.”
I let him lead the way. I was rather tired after walking all day, and I had to pause a few times to scramble over uneven ground or to massage my aching feet. We slid down the side of a little brook that seemed faintly familiar, but I couldn’t be certain whether or not I was just making it up.
The fire-pit clearly hadn’t been used in some time, but there was still a cache of chopped wood piled neatly beside it, for which I was grateful. I had not been looking forward to performing more physical labor. The exhaustion was well and truly on me now. At least I had some dried meat and berries, as well as a powder that I had been assured would make a good, hearty soup.
We got the fire lighted together. My companion built the wood into a fire-nest, and I lit it, just in time for flakes of snow to start gently wafting down from the overcast sky above us. “Hm,” I said, gazing upwards. “We’d better cook quickly.”
My new friend volunteered to fetch water from the nearby stream, to which I thankfully agreed. While he was away doing that, I unrolled my tent and bedroll and took a little time to set it up. It was a good decision, since, by the time he came back, the snow was falling thick and fast. There was time for us to boil the water, add my powder and the dried meat and berries and let it cook for a few minutes, but by that time, the snow was falling fast enough that the fire was having trouble staying lit, and the sun was sinking quickly to the horizon.
“I think we’d be better off taking our dinner into the tent.” I nodded towards it, and the man took a nervous step sideways.
“Oh—I wouldn’t want to intrude,” he said.
I gave him a dry look. “I would rather you intruded now than that your frozen corpse intruded on my breakfast tomorrow,” I told him. “I know how cold it gets up here, our breath is already turning the air white, and the snow is falling faster every minute.”
“Well—all right. Thank you.”
It was close quarters in the tent, but the enclosed space meant that we would stay warmer. “I’m Ryder, by the way,” I said. “We never quite got around to exchanging names.”
“Oh—ah—Énna.” After I handed him a tin cup to drink his soup in, he scooted to the back of the tent, although he flashed me a nervous smile again.
“I promise I’m not going to attack you,” I told him. “You’re far more useful alive than dead.” I did smile a little, in an attempt to soften the words.
He barked out a surprised laugh. “I figured if you didn’t want a corpse in your breakfast you probably didn’t want one in your bed. I’ve just been on my own for a bit, and I’d barely started getting used to that. So it’s odd. Being around someone again.”
“Oh, yes, that can be a shock.” I sipped at my soup, thinking of the week I’d spent in complete darkness and solitude lost in a set of catacombs beneath a very old library somewhere beyond the Archaic Mountains. I’d not been catatonic when I finally stumbled back out, but I’d been uncomfortably close. “Should I tell you about the time I spent a week lost because I was trying to return a book to a library and I got a little too turned around?”
Again, that startled laugh. I’d managed to trigger a lopsided smile as well, and that was—good. The way Énna ducked his head, quick and bird-like, when he smiled—it was oddly familiar. Definitely something I wanted to see more of. It occurred to me that I was probably flirting. Well, Énna was attractive enough, and I wouldn’t push if he didn’t seem interested. Although, I thought, as I started my story and finished my soup, it was going to be a little difficult with only one bedroll, on such a cold night. As I’d expected, the closeness of the tent helped keep in the heat of our bodies, but the wind was howling outside and vicious little fingers of cold kept reaching in.
“It looks like I’m lucky you were walking by,” Énna said. “I would’ve been in for an unpleasant night.”
“I hear hypothermia is actually quite peaceful,” I told him brightly, and then remembered that morbidity didn’t always make for the best flirting, although it had worked on my lover in the Drowned City. But she had been rather a special case.
But Énna snorted a little, seeming, if anything, slightly more comfortable. “Ahhh, I’d not have frozen to death,” he told me. “I’ve the city’s own luck.” And then, he blanched again, almost imperceptibly.
I leaned forward enough to poke his shoulder. “If anything’s the result of your luck, it’s me,” I pointed out. “If I’d let you refuse, I would have been prying your icy toes out of my breakfast.”
“This way, you’ll just be dealing with them in your back during the night, I suppose,” he said meditatively. “If you don’t mind sharing the bedroll, that is.”
I shrugged, though I could feel heat rising slightly in my cheeks. “It would be a little foolish if I minded that, seeing as I invited you into the tent.” I swallowed the last dregs of my soup. “I’m very tired, though, so if you wanted more scintillating conversation tonight, I’m afraid you’re shit out of luck.”
“I’m tired myself. I’ve—enjoyed your company, though. Brief as it’s been.”
“I’m glad.” I shrugged off my heavy external jacket and stretched. “It’ll probably be a little snug in the bedroll with both of us,” I told him apologetically. “Still better than freezing, though.”
He nodded, and I tried not to notice the way he was twisting his hands in his lap. He was probably nervous, and that made it even more infuriating that my eyes kept being drawn back to the thin, crooked fingers. If I was going to get aroused, it would be significantly more awkward in the evening than in the morning, when I’d have the excuse of biology.
I forced my eyes away and stripped off my boots as well, leaving on my socks and trousers. Although I often slept without the heavy trousers, it was cold enough that they’d be a welcome source of insulation, in addition to being more reasonable for sharing a bed with someone I barely knew.
It took a few minutes of bumping elbows and thrashing around—during which Énna very nearly gave me a bloody nose, and I did manage to jam a thumb into his mouth, which I swear was unintentional—before we managed to curl up into the bedroll together. We fit better front to back, and I let him take the back—not that I particularly liked feeling so vulnerable, but I was probably the stronger and definitely the better-trained of the two of us, werman though he was. I could afford the vulnerability. Besides, I didn’t want him doing something stupid like sneaking off in the middle of the night and getting himself frozen.
I thought I’d have trouble sleeping in such an uncomfortable situation—I’ve never been a particularly good bedmate—but I must have been very tired from all the walking, or perhaps the warmth of the soup helped. Whatever the cause, I drifted into unconsciousness within a few moments.
When I woke up again, my eyes fluttered for a moment before I made it back to full consciousness. As I’d rather feared, I was aroused, my erection hard between my legs, although at least it wasn’t pressed against the other occupant of the bed.
Énna was curled against me; somehow, during the night, one of us had turned around and we were actually facing one another. He wasn’t asleep, I realized after a moment, because he was peering intently at me, a furrow of concentration between his dark blue eyes, and I found myself flushing under his scrutiny. “Um, good morning?” I tried, squinting at him from beneath my eyelashes.
He yelped and jerked backwards right away, almost kicking me in the groin. “Sorry—” he got out. “I—saints. Sorry.”
“I don’t exactly mind,” I yawned. “Although I don’t think you’ll get very far with someone who’s asleep, unless you happen to enjoy that sort of thing.”
“No! I—shit, I wasn’t trying to bed you. Not that I don’t think you’re—it’s just that—“ His cheeks were flaming. I bit the inside of my mouth to keep from laughing. Again, that odd sense of familiarity flamed up in my chest. “It’s just—do I know you?” he asked, finally, pushing out the question as if it was more important than the embarrassment. He ran a hand through his hair. “I feel—ahhhh—” a wordless groan of frustration, “—I feel like we’ve met before.”
I sobered quickly. “I hope I wasn’t too forward,” I said. “I’m not at my best in the mornings. And I—” I pursed my lips. “I don’t know? You seem familiar to me as well.”
I’d left Bridehive when I was fifteen. It wasn’t impossible that I’d known him then and that we’d both forgotten—fifteen meant only two years on the leaf. I must have changed a great deal. We both must have. And if we had known each other before we’d been on the leaf, we might not have known each other’s grown names.
“You’re fine.” Énna shifted uncomfortably. “When you lived here, did you ever spend time at Riverside Church?”
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?” Riverside was the central church in Bridehive, the one that overlooked the whole city. In the end, it was where most children went for their leaf and often for their consecration as well. While there were other churches, Riverside was the only one that was dedicated to the unified Threefold God.
“I used to live there.” Énna twisted at a strange of hair. “I didn’t go out much, but perhaps…”
I squinted at him again, a faint memory stirring. “Wait,” I breathed. “Oh. You’re the child from the river, aren’t you? We spent a whole summer collecting shells and looking for pearls when I was—ten?” Peering at Énna’s face closely, I could see the faint lines of the child I’d known. Those startlingly dark blue eyes—I was surprised I hadn’t thought of them before.
“Saints, that was you?” Énna laughed roughly. “That was the best summer of my life. Even if we never found any pearls.”
It had been a wonderful summer. It was the year that I had decided I was going to be a famous singer and consequently had begged one of the teachers at the church to give me lessons. She had been very sweet about it, and very gracious when the next year it turned out that I was going to be a scholar instead—which, admittedly, did turn out closer to the truth. So I’d been about the church for more than just the weekly services, and during one of my bored forays into the backyard while I was waiting for my lessons, I’d met Énna. Their name had been Nuada then, and I hadn’t known what they’d changed it to—we’d lost touch before our thirteenth year. I had found them at the bank of the river and asked them what they were doing. “Looking for pearls,” they had told me very seriously.
“There are pearls here?”
“There might be! I read a story about a child from the old world who found pearls in the river, and I wanted to see if it was true.”
As Énna said, we never did find any pearls, but we did find shells from what I suspected were river mussels, and a few from snails. I’d kept them for years, even after the day, near the end of the summer, that I’d gone to meet Nuada and not found them.
“Where did you disappear to?” I asked. “You didn’t even say goodbye.”
“I know.” Énna ducked his head onto his chest. “I’m sorry. I’ve wanted to apologize to you for a very long time. I was told I wasn’t supposed to be playing with the other children, and Teacher Maeve didn’t let me tell you. I—I saw you the last day, waiting, from inside the top of the church spire.”
“Adults,” I sighed, with a faint ripple of self-mockery. “Aren’t we all fools.” I smiled. “You do have the city’s own luck, don’t you?”
He smiled back, tucked a stray strand of hair behind his head, and leaned towards me. “I do.” He didn’t even hesitate as he cupped the back of my head in his hand and kissed me on the mouth; it was the first fluid motion I had seen him make. I kissed back, maybe a little too eager, but not only was Énna attractive, there was also the unexpected sensation of homecoming. It was such a ridiculously unlikely situation that I almost laughed at myself. We had been such good friends, despite what a short time we’d known each other for.
Somehow, my hands were tangling in the ragged scraps of Énna’s shirt. I shifted forward until I was in his lap, until his hands were stroking down across my back. I groaned into his mouth, and he pulled me against him. I was starting to rock my hips against his, when he paused, one hand halfway into my shirt front. “Um,” he said, the awkwardness returning. “I’ve never actually…”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Is it the secondary equipment or the primary that’s giving you trouble?” I hoped it wasn’t going to be an actual dealbreaker. Although Énna was clearly attracted to me, I’d met a few men who simply didn’t want to deal with one of the various characteristics I possessed once the clothes were off. Generally, there were no hard feelings, but perhaps I ought to have been a little more upfront about the nature of the entire package. I wasn’t that unusual, but it was more uncommon than what Énna seemed to have.
He blinked at me. “What?”
“Is it the breasts or the prick?”
“Um. Neither. I meant I’d never. Done.” He waved a hand. “I’ve never slept with anyone before.”
“Oh.” That hadn’t even occurred to me as a possibility, and I laughed at myself. “Oh, saints, I’m sorry. Do you want to stop?”
“No!” His pale skin made the red in his face and ears desperately obvious. “I just realized I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I’d not want to make a fool of you.”
“You’re far closer to making a fool of yourself,” I pointed out. “No need to worry, I’ve plenty of experience. You’ll catch on right quick.” I heard my voice slipping into the Bridehive accent, and it made me feel warmer than ever, even a little giddy. “As long as you’re sure you want to do this now.”
“It’s still snowing out, and we’d be best off not losing the warmth,” he said, with a sly grin. “It’s not lack of desire that’s kept me from it, just lack of opportunity. And if you’d not noticed, I’m not as skilled at interacting with people as I’d like.”
“You’re very awkward,” I agreed. “Whereas I, in contrast, am highly urbane and sophisticated.” I bit my lip. “I just have extremely questionable taste in wermen.”
He shoved me. “I’m beginning to think I’m the one with questionable taste.” Perfect. I leaned forward and licked a stripe from the bottom of his ear down to his collarbone.
“Nothing a good bath won’t cure.”
He swatted me. “As if you’re any better.”
I couldn’t exactly refute that when I had been traveling for days with little chance to clean myself. “We could wash ourselves,” I pointed out. “Plenty of water out there.”
Énna gave me an incredulous look. “It’s freezing.”
“Well, we’d probably want to boil the water. If we shelter the fire well enough, I imagine it will be doable. And I’d like to be clean.” Plus it was a nice way of easing into the idea of nakedness around one another. “We will want to bring the water back into the tent, though. I don’t really advocate going outside naked in a blizzard.”
Snort. His lip twisted upward. “All right,” he said, after a moment.
It took a bit longer than it had the night before to get a fire going. Neither of us wanted to be out for long, so we spent some time going out, building up a shelter for the fire-pit, coming back in and cuddling for warmth. It was pleasant and dreamy. We had a little soup left, and I found some coffee in my pack that I’d forgotten about. If the storm didn’t let up, we were going to have to try to hunt or forage, I expected, but there was no hurry. I’d been careful with my rations, and I still had a little stock of food remaining.
After we’d started the water heating, we headed back into the tent again, and I found myself pushing Énna down onto the bedroll, kissing him carefully on his mouth and then nibbling at his ear. He groaned, catching at my hips and thrusting up against me.
We almost forgot about the water entirely. My shirt was entirely unbuttoned and Énna had his hands on my chest, massaging my breasts, with a very intent look on his face, when I saw a smudge of dirt on his nose and paused. “Oh, saints,” I said. “The water. I hope it’s not evaporated.”
Énna bit his lip with a very torn expression. “We could just let it evaporate,” he suggested.
I smacked his hands away from my chest. “We could not,” I told him. “I’ve no desire to see the bottom burned out of my one remaining pot.”
I pulled my coat on hurriedly, ignoring the heavy heat between my legs, and went out to get the water, which, quite fortunately, appeared to have just started to boil. Énna had followed me out, and between the two of us, we managed to get the pot back into the tent without spilling the water, laughing the whole way.
Back inside, we used Énna’s shirt to scrub each other down. It was ragged, full of holes, and definitely dirtier than my own. He paused for a moment as he took it off, his shoulders curling in nervously, and I saw that he had raised, red scars splotched in an uneven pattern across the tops of his shoulders and chest. He gave me an apologetic look, and I shrugged at him.
“I’ve seen much worse,” I told him. “I’ve got one scar—” I twisted around. “—somewhere at the base of my spine, I think? I always tell everyone about how I nearly died heroically, but actually I just fell down some stairs and landed on my sword badly.”
He stared for a moment, then snorted at me incredulously again. “Unbelievable,” he said. “You’ve been all across the world, having these fine adventures, and you’re just—just—”
“A mess?” I supplied. “Come on, stop fidgeting and wash my chest.” I shook my shirt off entirely and presented my back to him. “Here. My back and neck are highly sensitive.”
“Are they now?” He dipped his shirt into the heated water and wrung it out. “Well, then.”
He drew the cloth down my back in long, gentle stripes, and I’m sure I made a noise, arching up. The friction of my trousers drew my attention back to my erection. After a few moments of careful attention to my back, he slid himself up against it and began to do the same to my front. “You just wanted to get back to my chest, didn’t you?” I asked him lazily, then made a somewhat embarrassingly high-pitched noise as he flicked my nipples with his thumbs.
“I’ve decided I like your chest.”
“Mmm,” I hummed. “Keep doing that.” I started rocking my hips, lazily, without any real urgency, although I knew that would come later. My skin was tingling from the touch of the rough cloth, and I was warm all over. A nice sensation for what would otherwise have been an exceptionally cold and lonely day.
After several minutes of this, I squirmed out of his embrace and turned again. “If you’ve not done this before, then you’ll be wanting to be inside me, I expect. It’ll be easier that way.” I could hear my Bridehive dialect surfacing again, partly from excitement, partly from exposure.
“Ah, yeah, I’ve heard it can be uncomfortable without practice. If you don’t mind, then?”
I was already sliding my trousers off. “I wouldn’t have suggested it if I minded. Assuming I’ve still got the supplies to hand.” I grabbed for my pack and breathed a relieved sigh when I felt the weight of the little oil jar inside it. I had left it there, then, after my most recent tryst at the Aerie. Useful. Not indispensable, but it would certainly make things easier. “Here,” I said, pushing it into Énna’s hand, then dug around in the pack again and found the other bag with its quite useful supplies and proffered those as well. I had no mind to do something that might put me at risk for catching one of the diseases I’d seen in other, less careful folk. Besides, there would be less mess. “Do you know how to use those?”
Cautiously, he took one out and studied it. “It goes over?” he said haltingly. “I’ve heard of them but not, well—”
I nodded. “Just as you might put on a sock. It’ll keep things cleaner that way, and it’s generally—safer.” I hoped he wouldn’t take that as an insult. Some wermen might take it as an impugnment on their honor, in specific. But he just cocked his head thoughtfully.
“Protects both of us from diseases we may not know about.”
“So it isn’t just used to prevent pregnancy?”
“Oh! Ah, no, although it can be used for that.” I arched an eyebrow and looked down at myself. “In this case, clearly, it won’t be necessary on that account.”
Chuckling, he turned the item over in his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “Would you mind helping me with it?”
I grinned. “What about this situation makes you think I’d be anything but eager to get my hands on your prick?” I asked.
A light flush appeared on his cheeks, and he ducked his head. “Ah, well, then, let’s do that.”
“Hold still.” I leaned over him, sliding the protective item out of its bag. “Good, you’re hard enough.”
He stared at me. “You expected me to be noooot—” the final word was elongated as I gave a few quick tugs along his length.
“Could be,” I said cheerfully. “Different people have different tolerances. It’s good that you are; you don’t want to be putting one of these on if you’re not, in case it slides off.” I slid it over the head of his erection and unrolled it down his length. “There you are,” I told him. “Now just add the oil.”
He turned the little jar around in his hand for a moment, face unreadable. Then he smiled and opened it. “You’ll tell me if I’m doing something wrong?” he asked as he took out a generous amount.
“I’m not in the habit of not squawking when I’m hurt,” I told him with a grin. “C’mon, now.”
I set myself up on my hands and knees, hissing as my erection brushed against my thigh, and looked over my shoulder at Énna. He was still regarding me with a slightly bemused expression on his face. “It’s been a—day,” he said, a little wondering. Then he clumsily discarded his own trousers and scooted over to me. “All right,” he said, giving me an odd little pat on the shoulder. “I’ll just—” I felt his fingers brush across the tops of my thighs and then one finger tentatively probe at me from behind.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I used to have some trouble relaxing enough for this, but with practice it had become less difficult.
“Are you all right?” Énna asked, sounding focused.
“Go ahead,” I told him, and my breath hitched as he slid the finger into me.
“What do I do now?”
“Hm?” I shook my head to clear it. “Crook it a little, then move it in and out—slowly.” I bit back a cry that was half pain, half pleasure as he complied. I felt his lips brush the small of my back and then found myself groping for my own erection, shuddering as I did so. “Saints.”
He kept up the tentative exploration, and I let him, murmuring out words of encouragement when he did something especially nice and working lazily at my erection to help open myself more.
“Saints,” Énna managed. “I am so hard right now.”
I gave a pleased little rumble, mentally gauging how I was doing. “Second finger, please,” I told him. “So—” I gasped as he complied. “So what have you been doing with yourself all this time to be so sheltered?”
“Ah, that’s not a fair question.” He pushed the fingers in a little harder, brushing against the point inside me that always made me shudder and moan. “Seems you like that.”
“Saints curse you,” I gasped, bucking back against him. “D-Don’t stop.”
“Definitely was not planning on it. Ah. Saints.” I felt his erection brush against my leg, and he made a humming noise of pleasure. “C-Can I?”
Close enough. I nodded tightly. “Use a great deal of oil,” I cautioned. “Take care. I don’t need a bloody ass tomorrow.”
“Right. Yeah. I don’t want to hurt you.” I heard him scrabbling around behind me again, and then his hands were laid carefully on my hips; I felt him trying to line himself up, a little clumsy. He slid down my back twice with a muttered apology both times, and I was laughing and loose by the time I felt him actually push into me. I gulped in more air, then waited as he tried to get himself in further.
“All right there, I didn’t mean you had to re-enact the flow of glass,” I told him impatiently, and he bent over me, laughing helplessly.
“This is—this is never going to—saints, I’m sorry—”
I grinned at him. “Truth be told, I’m having fun. This is almost as good as pearl-hunting.”
He bent forward and kissed me on the side of the mouth. “That was the most magical summer I ever had.”
“Mmmm.” I bent forward, and he followed me, curving over my back.
“All right,” he said determinedly. “Surely I can work this out.”
“Many people do seem to,” I responded dryly, then gasped as he finally managed to line himself up and push into me. “By Saint Daíre,” I gritted out. “Ahhhh.”
He bit my shoulder and groaned against it. “Ryder,” he moaned. “Ryder.” I liked the way he said my name, starting high and ending in a guttural grunt; I liked the way he moved inside me, clumsy and tentative, but getting more eager as we started to find a rhythm. I sighed and tipped my head back lazily, and he mouthed down my throat, his long-fingered hands tracing down my sides as he thrust into me.
It was dim inside the tent: I could see the morning sun as a bright line glittering through the crack where the doorway made its seam, but the watertight fabric kept out most of the light. I was used to sex in odd places, but somehow the unusual lighting made this even more surreal than usual. I didn’t mind. I could hear my own sighs in my ears, and Énna’s as well. I could feel the sweat starting to trickle down my back.
Énna nuzzled against the back of my neck, and I choked down a noise—he’d touched one of my most sensitive spots. He made an interested humming noise, and then thrust harder. Stars flashed in front of my eyes, and I almost lost my balance. “Gods—fuck—Énna—” I gasped out, and he made a garbled sound back at me that might have been my name.
He grabbed for me, his arm circling my chest, and he thrust again, once, twice, then curled against me, shuddering and whimpering. I was still trembling and hard, but I waited for his weight against my back to lessen, waited for him to pull himself back, then gritted my teeth and lowered myself to my side, gasping out a curse as I sought for my hardness with my own hand.
“Oh wait—Ryder, wait—” He was on top of me in a moment, gently but insistently pushing at my hand with his, and we were kissing as I rocked desperately up into his grip. Bursts of heat spiked through me, groin to chest, one-two-three, heartbeat roaring in my ears, and I was over the edge with another mangled incoherent curse.
We lay and panted, sweaty bodies pressed together. “I think we’d better wash again,” I laughed ruefully, after a moment.
We’d gone through two more pots worth of heated water, which had removed the worst of the stickiness, and I was just tugging my shirt down over my trousers, when the tent flap opened and something struck me in the back of the neck. I squealed and batted at the freezing thing. Cold moisture spread across my hand, and I turned around to see Énna grinning at me from the entrance, a scattering of snow still clinging lightly to his hand.
“Thrice-damned prick,” I told him, sticking out my tongue. “I’ll get you back.” I dove for the door, and he took off running.
We had to be careful: the snow was still falling thick and fast, and if we’d run too far, we might have lost the camp. Instead of running in a straight line, we kept to a pattern of tight circles, so that we never lost sight of the central blocky body of the tent.
As children, we had had summer; now, we had winter. My breath steamed in the air, and Énna laughed helplessly when I pinned him to the ground and shoveled snow down the back of his neck. For a while, we were running fast enough that the cold failed to penetrate, but eventually both of us started to shiver. We boiled more water, lugging the pot into the tent and letting the steam warm us.
We huddled together, telling each other jokes and stories. I recited to Énna years’ worth of events that were jumbled together in my memory, stories from all across the wide continent. It hadn’t really struck me until then, until I was within a few miles of my home, how far I’d gone, and how many miles lay underneath my boots. It was an odd feeling, but not an unpleasant one, especially now that I had nearly returned. And Énna was an excellent listener: he gasped at the frightening moments, laughed at the jokes, and punctuated my pauses with kisses.
After some hours, we grew hungry. I had resigned myself to an empty belly, as I’d run through most of my supplies, but Énna surprised me by producing a pouch of nuts and berries he’d kept tucked away with his clothes. “For emergencies,” he told me. “I think this qualifies.”
Surely the snow would end in a few days, but it would be better for us to keep up our strength while we could. We made a fire again, really more a pile of smoldering ash beneath a wooden covering, and tucked the nuts and berries into the middle to roast.
I used to roast nuts and berries during the yearly festival. It had been years since I’d done it, though—the food didn’t really taste the same, far from home, and there wasn’t the same charged sense of excitement in the air as there was during the Festival of the Protector. With snow falling quietly all around us, I couldn’t really call this atmosphere “charged” either, but I still felt a strange, buoyant lightness.
It took about half an hour to cook our meal, and we spent that time napping in each other’s arms for warmth. It was strangely domestic. I’d rarely experienced something like this before; it had been so rare for me to pause over the past years that I hadn’t really spent sleepy days with other lovers. Instead, we’d had time snatched in between nearly dying or chasing down a lead to a new puzzle, and that was exhilarating. I’d enjoyed it, but I enjoyed this, too.
Énna was a little quiet, and I wondered if he’d never had anything like this before, either. He’d been a virgin, of course, but that didn’t mean he’d never been in love with anyone, although I guessed that not having a chance to bed someone meant he must have had a fairly solitary existence for whatever reason. I’d asked a little, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about it, so eventually I let it go.
The first bite of the mingled nuts and berries was so familiar that I actually had to shut my eyes against the wave of nostalgia. Every year, this had been what I ate; once I’d gorged myself so badly that I threw up. You might have thought an experience like that would have ruined the treat for me, but I’d nearly scalded my lips and tongues the following year shoveling it into my mouth too quickly.
“Is it good?” Énna asked, sounding a little concerned.
“Mph,” I managed around my mouthful. “’Es. ’Ery.” I offered him a handful, and he gave me a startled look and then put out his own hand. I shook my head, swallowed to clear my mouth a little, and said, “Open your mouth.”
His cheeks were a little flushed as I carefully fed him, but he was smiling. “It really does taste of home, doesn’t it?” I asked, and Énna’s eyes went a little blank for a moment, but then he smiled more widely and nodded. “Saints,” I sighed, flopping to the side and reaching out for another handful. “I’m so glad I met you.”
On the evening of the third day, with no sign of the snow letting up, we curled together naked beneath the bedroll, sharing the last light of my poor, almost-used-up candle. “I can’t believe I’m less than ten miles away from Bridehive, and I still can’t get there,” I said sleepily. “Maybe the city is angry with me for leaving her so long.”
There was a long, quiet pause from my companion, and eventually, I poked him in the ribs. “Are you still awake?”
He jerked a little. “Mmm. Yeah. Just sleepy.”
“I wonder why it’s called Bridehive,” I mused. “I never asked when I lived there. I was too busy going to be a soldier, and then five years later, I was a scholar as well, and I was too far away to ask.”
“I know why.” Énna nuzzled into my neck, and I gave a panting groan. He slid an exploratory hand between my legs. “Would you like to hear the story?”
“Y-Yeah,” I panted, bucking back against him. “Plea—ngh.”
“Please what?” He nipped my ear, and I whined.
“Please tell me the—hnf—story, you son of a werman. Was it a fair spot for weddings, or something?” I knew that was passing unlikely. I doubted the original etymology was something so simple; it rarely was, in my experience. I had some notion what it might be, but I thought if I annoyed Énna with my stupidity, he might stop teasing me.
“Nah, nothing like that,” he said softly, chewing the words and drawing them out, his hand moving exquisitely slowly up and down my hardening member. “By the light of Saga’s candle, I begin.” My ears perked up. I hadn’t heard anyone tell a story in this style in many years. “There was once a house on a hill, where there lived a woman named Brigid. She had come from far across the sea to escape the destruction of her homeland. Because she was afraid of people, she tried to keep to herself, but eventually she met a band of roving shepherds.
“The shepherds were kind, good folk. They offered her food and welcome, and, in exchange, she taught them what little she knew of medicine. They were not a people who stayed in one place, but whenever they traveled by the hill, they would stop and spend weeks or months with Brigid. She even fell in love with one of their men, and on the shepherds’ next return, showed him a belly swollen with his child.
“Brigid’s lover Ethelric chose to stay with her when the rest of his people traveled on. They were very happy together for five or six years, but when the shepherd’s next returned after that time, they found Brigid and Ethelric dead, their house burned, and their child hidden in the fields, crying for their parents.”
He paused, mouthing over my shoulder and tightening his grip a little as I started to rock my hips. “You are sending some very mixed messages,” I informed him.
“You were the one who used hypothermia to flirt.”
“Really?” His hand paused.
“Saints, no, please don’t stop.”
He kissed the side of my mouth and resumed, then started murmuring into my ear. “Where was I? Right. The child was crying in the fields, and they were surrounded by all kinds of birds, from sparrows to geese to eagles. They must have heard the orphaned child’s cries and come to care for them when there was no one else. The shepherds asked the birds if they could take the child and care for them, and the birds allowed them, but many of them followed. It was a strange procession, the shepherds carrying the little child with all sorts of birds winging along behind them.
“No one knows what happened to Brigid and Ethelric. Some say that the people who destroyed Brigid’s home came for her at last, some that it was just a random attack. Their child never spoke about it, nor did they ever tell anyone how the birds came to find them.
“The shepherds adopted the child, who was named Bridd, after their mother. In a few years, Bridd became a werman, beloved as his mother had been, although he thought of himself as one of the shepherds in a way his mother never had. Still, the shepherds spent longer than they had in past times on the little hill. They repaired the house where Brigid and her husband had been happy together, and young Bridd slipped away and ran with the birds in his parents’ fields.”
His pace had grown uneven, but I wasn’t in a position to complain. My head was spinning, full of lust and story in equal measure.
“But—” Énna’s voice was breathy now as well. “But good things can’t last—at least, not in a story.” He was hard, thrusting slowly between my legs. “Raiders—ah—raiders attacked the shepherds. They tried to run, but they were trapped, and the survivors barricaded themselves into Brigid’s house. They knew that they had no chance, of course—the raiders would starve them out and slaughter them all.”
“As cheerful as I’d—I’d expect from an origin story—” I gasped, my eyes sliding shut. “Fuck, Énna.”
“The following morning, they woke to find one more tragedy.” With what mind I had left, I was very amused at the way Énna’s delivery was slowly speeding up. “Bridd had—Bridd had hanged himself above the seed they laid out to feed the birds, and he was surrounded by a flo-ock of. A flock of birds. When the shepherds went to cut him down, though—the birds—the birds stopped them—ah—fuck—Ryder—” He bit down on my shoulder, shuddering, hand squeezing around me as he finished. I thrust into his hand once or twice more before following with a grunt and a last spike of ecstacy.
We lay twisted together for a long moment, and I wasn’t entirely sure where my limbs ended and Énna’s began, a sensation I’d not often had before.
“Sorry,” Énna said at last. “Do you want me to finish?”
I put my hand on my sticky thighs. “Again?” I asked dryly.
“No!” He laughed into my neck, and I shivered at the sensation. “The story, Ryder. Should I finish the story?”
“Nah.” I yawned and stretched back into him. “You can tell me later. A cliffhanger’s a good spice for any tale. And I think I’d fall asleep before you were done, anyway.”
He kissed the back of my neck, and I moaned. “I’ll tell you later, then. Good night, Ryder.”
The next morning, the snow had finally let up, and by the time we woke, the sun was shining brightly. I stretched and yawned, reaching for my clothes. “Perfect,” I grinned, poking Énna’s shoulder. “Look. We’re no longer trapped here.”
Énna woke with a gasp and a shudder, then followed my pointing finger. To my surprise, he seemed oddly subdued, but I was too impatient to spend much thought on it.
“Should we breakfast?” he asked me, as I began to pull on shirt and trousers.
“Ahhhh, I should, but I’m too excited. There’ll be time enough for food later.” I ducked out of the tent to grab my pack.
“The roads may still be snow-covered, why not wait for another day?”
“Because I can see the grass poking up through the melting snow, and I haven’t been back to Bridehive in over ten years. I think I can be forgiven for some impatience.” I grabbed my knapsack and slung it over my shoulder, shaking it to get the last bits of snow off.
“Ryder, there’s something you should know.” Énna’s voice had lost the cheerful lilt it had carried for the past few days, had dropped into an almost painful monotony. “Bridehive is—changed.”
“What do you mean?” I turned back. Of course it had changed; I had been gone for ten years at least, maybe closer to fifteen. But the sound of his voice—slow, the words all so carefully enunciated they seemed to twist away from the accustomed slur of Bridehive dialect—kept me from saying something dismissive.
“Three months ago the Khar came,” he said.
“To Bridehive?” It wasn’t that I thought my hometown would be immune to attack, but so far away from the coast, I would have expected to have seen more signs of an incursion. Although Énna had said the way I had come was no longer much traveled.
“The Khar came,” he repeated. “The city’s been a battleground on and off since. It’s where I got the burn scars.”
“But…” I paused, reeling at the thought. “And you let me—why didn’t you tell me?”
He stared at the ground. “Partly, I—I was enjoying myself. Partly, I suppose I wanted you to have a little longer of—of not knowing.”
“What about the church? What about—what about—”
He shook his head. “They burned the church, and no one could stop them.”
“What about the Protector?” My voice was rising more swiftly than I could control. The Protector of Bridehive, the semi-mythical figure who was always kept in Riverside Church, seen once a year during the midsummer festival. The story went that in times of great trouble, it was the Protector who would save Bridehive. Of course, if it was just that—just a story—
“They burned the church,” Énna repeated, with a sick look on his face.
“Oh, gods,” I whispered, putting a hand to my mouth. I felt ill, my stomach roiling in my gut. A strange half-formed snatch of a thought, If I’d been there—if I hadn’t left—which was absurd. What could one noman have done? They burned the church, and, with it, the Protector. And with him, I thought, trembling, the heart of my home.
“I’m sorry,” Énna said numbly. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
He had been there, I realized suddenly—the still-fresh burn scars on his chest and shoulders must have been from that. I’d touched them and hadn’t realized. I shook my head. “I’m still going back,” I told him. “I have to see—if there’s anyone—”
“That’s a fine way to get yourself killed,” he told me.
“I’m a soldier,” I pointed out, although it was really only half-true. I hadn’t so much as lifted my sword in almost six months. I laughed bitterly. “When I was at the Aerie, we lost an entire army of Khar,” I remembered. “So this is where they were.”
We’d been very angry. The Aerie, seated on its mountaintop riddled with passageways from top to bottom, had not been an easy target for the Khar, and we had eventually beaten them back, half a year ago. But the Aerie’s very defensibility meant we couldn’t venture far from it to track down an entire army, not when it might have slipped away from us and attacked from a direction we weren’t expecting.
I shook my head. “I’m going back,” I repeated.
“Don’t. Ryder. Please.” He reached for me, but I stepped backwards.
“You could have told me, and you didn’t.” I knew it wasn’t fair—I knew he’d been trying to spare me, and maybe to let himself forget for a little while—but I couldn’t keep this pain stoppered up inside me. I couldn’t stop myself from lashing out. “I’m going back.”
I turned my back on him, reseated my pack on my back, and began to walk. I’d been walking for a good ten minutes before I realized I’d left my bedroll and tent behind, but I wasn’t going to turn around and get them now. I could return for them another day, perhaps; it was unlikely anyone would take them unless Énna did.
The towers and spires of Bridehive were visible before I expected them to be. I was moving faster, or I’d forgotten the distance. I had little sense of the time it had taken me to get from our campsite to the walls. By the time I had reached them, I had half convinced myself that Énna was right; it was foolish to enter a city that had been overrun by a group of people I knew only too well were skilled and vicious fighters.
But then I saw Bridehive. The great gates hung open and battered, gaping loosely. Some of the Khar were still camped outside the entrance, and their camp sprawled out downward like pus oozing from a wound, the murky grey-tan of their tents standing out against the pristine white of the landscape. I ground my teeth at the sight, my hand seeking the hilt of my sword.
I heard a rustling noise behind me and turned to find Énna standing a few paces behind, brushing off his ragged clothing. I stared. How could I have failed to notice him following me? True, I had been distracted, but was Énna really that stealthy?
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
He gave me a tired smile. “If I can’t convince you to stay safely outside the city, I’ll go with you.”
I considered a few different things to say, but, in the end, I just nodded. It was his choice. It was his city as well as mine, and I didn’t know why he’d fled in the first place.
The approach I took was a wide, cautious arc. I kept to the cover of the trees most of the way to the wall: there was no sense in being careless. The sun was still not very high, and the Khar, like most people, clearly tended to sleep in if they had nothing more pressing to do. We gained the city entrance without any particular difficulty. The walls of Bridehive surrounded me for the first time in over ten years.
It was very silent. The Bridehive I had known had been a city like any other city—bustling and full of life. This was a tomb. Several streets in, we found three bodies hanging from a crudely erected gallows. It had been a long time since the sight of death made me feel sick, but this was my home. I paused for a moment. I ought to cut them down. Ought to see that they had a proper burial.
There was a retching noise beside me. Énna was on his knees on the street, trembling and throwing up. I swallowed hard, once, twice, three times. “Saint Mora, watch over them,” I said, softly. “Énna. Énna, we can’t stay here.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “’Course not,” he mumbled, tottering back onto his feet. I offered him my arm, but he shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said.
Turning down the river, we saw our first Khar. Two of them were sprawled out across the bank with fishing rods in their hands, while a third stood behind them, drinking something from a brown glass bottle. Normally, I have at least a few compunctions about honorable combat, but these people had invaded my home, torn it open, murdered my people. And there were three of them to my one, so it seemed only fair that I should have the advantage.
My sword plunged through the heart of the drinking Khar before he could react, and I was already turning towards Fisher #1 before he was able to rise. His sword was several feet away from him, lying discarded on the grass; I sidestepped quickly and kicked it to the side. My second slash was clumsier, but I caught Fisher #1 across the arm, and he gave a cry of pain and doubled over it, which made it easy enough for me to slam my hilt into the side of his head. Not deadly, but effective enough.
Unfortunately, I should have gone for the second fisher first; his blade must have been closer. I heard him moving behind me and didn’t quite have time to dodge. I was moving fast enough that the blow I took to my side was glancing instead of skewering me straight through. I think I cried out in pain, but I managed to twist my sword up to knock his away. Both of us backed up a step or two. I was panting, wincing against the pain in my side, but I changed my grip on my sword and readied for another attack.
I saw the calculations flicker behind his eyes. I must have been a more frightening spectacle than I’d expected, because a moment later, he turned on his heel and sprinted away. I lunged after him, but the injury to my side kept me from being fast enough, and I gasped out a frantic curse as I stumbled slightly.
“Are you all right?” Énna demanded, hurrying up to me.
“We’ve got to move,” I told him tersely. “That one will alert his friends. We’ll be knee deep in Khar in—” I grunted, pressing a hand to my side. “—in a moment.”
“You’re not all right.” There was dawning horror in Énna’s expression.
“Come on,” I told him roughly, grabbing at his arm. “I’ll be fine. Better than we’ll both be if the Khar catch us. Do you know if there’s anywhere safe left?”
“I—I don’t—” he paused. “Maybe at the church.”
“I thought you said it was burned?”
“It was, but I-I think some of the teachers barricaded themselves inside the oldest part—that part is mostly stone anyway, and it was—it was mostly—”
“All right. Let’s go.” We didn’t exactly have many options left anyway.
Énna and I fled through streets that were achingly familiar and yet still foreign. I couldn’t tell how much of the strangeness was what the Khar had done and how much of it was simply the result of me having been gone for so long. Familiar buildings rose from both wreckage and newly-constructed areas.
We barreled across the bridge that connected one side of Bridehive to the other. Énna stumbled and nearly fell, and I turned back to grab his hand and pull him back onto his feet. There was shouting in the distance behind us, now, which meant the Khar had found us. Damn. “There!” I pointed towards the churchyard wall, where the heavy wooden door was shut tight.
Hand in hand, we ran. The blood pounded in my temples, and my breath sped up in my lungs. We’d have to get inside, somehow. Mentally, I tried to calculate how much time we would likely have before our pursuers caught up, then discarded the attempt as a useless distraction.
“Can you get us in?” I asked as we slowed to a stop in front of the church, turning to Énna. His face was pale and drawn, but he nodded tightly.
“They’ll let us in,” he said firmly.
“I hope they let us in quickly,” I said grimly, as I turned to see six or seven Khar charging over the bridge towards us. “I’ll watch your back. See what you can do.”
Énna glanced at me. “Right,” he said tightly and began to pound on the gate. “Let us in!” he shouted. “It’s Énna, I’ve come back!”
The odds were not good. We’d lost the element of surprise, and I was the only one with a weapon. Damn. I readied myself as they charged.
One moment everything was clear; the next I was surrounded by a river of swirling steel. I took a step back, hoping Énna had the sense to stay behind me, and tried to parry. At first, I was lucky—there were so many of them that they were getting in each other’s way as they tried to attack me, and it wasn’t too difficult to keep the blades away from me as long as I kept my head. I parried several, slipped away from another, and managed to bodily knock into one of the ones at my side, knocking him to the ground.
Then one of them slipped past me, and I heard Énna cry out in fear. I reacted without thinking, stepping back and to the side, interposing my body between the two of them. Only I didn’t manage to bring my sword up far enough in time. There was a sudden shock of cold.
I stared numbly down at the blade protruding from my abdomen. It was odd; I barely even felt the pain—it was more the sense of intrusion that made my hackles rise. For some reason, I tried to take a step and staggered. Somehow, I automatically parried a thrust from another one of my surrounding attackers, and the sound of metal on metal was weirdly loud in a world where everything else had gone quiet.
Why had I done that? A quick death was better than a lingering one, surely. I felt my fingers open, felt my blade drop. I pressed a hand to my mouth, let my legs give out. I felt nothing but a jolt as my knees hit the cobbled street. Saints be cursed. All I’d wanted was to come home.
Something shrieked raucously near my ear, and I felt the sudden thrum of wings about my head. Looking up in confusion, I saw that a flock of birds had appeared—apparently from nowhere—and were throwing themselves against the attackers. Tiny birds, most of them—sparrows and wrens and finches, although I was certain I saw a bird of prey in there as well—but such was their ferocity and their mobility that the attackers were moving back. I suppose, too, when attacked by a group of birds that should have fled, that should never have been expected to work together, one might suspect some divine hand.
I slumped backward against the wood of the door behind me, searching for Énna, but he seemed to have disappeared. My ears were roaring, and some screaming voice was trying to tell me to get up and protect myself, but I was too tired. I stared down at the sword inside me again. If I wanted to survive, I should leave it alone—I’d bleed out faster if I removed it—but from the location, I wasn’t entirely certain that the injury was actually survivable in the long term, and I’d seen enough soldiers die of similar injuries in ways that were desperately unpleasant to wonder whether I really wanted to try to survive now, although it galled me to give up. Saint Mora would mock me; I’d been too reckless.
The world had narrowed to the wet wood of the gate brushing the back of my wrist and the grey smear of the sky above me. Mora, I thought. Then, briefly, Gods. Something seemed to flicker in the side of my vision, and the cacophonous screaming of the birds was loud in my ears.
The gate moved behind me, and the world somersaulted past overhead. I felt arms on my shoulders, a woman’s voice making a shocked exclamation by my ear. “Quickly!” someone said, and I was being dragged backwards. I gave a breathless curse as pain lightninged through my abdomen again. “For the love of three, stop,” I gasped, but whoever it was paid me no attention.
I clutched grimly at consciousness, but someone took my shoulder and started to move me again, and the pain was too much. I saw brightly-colored dots swirl in front of my eyes, and then nothing.
When I woke, I was in a bed. The pain in my stomach was muted but present, a dull throbbing sensation. Tiredly, I opened my eyes and saw that Énna was seated in a wooden chair by my bedside. He looked up as I did. “Thank the three,” he breathed. “Ryder, you’re awake.”
A full body shudder gripped me. “I rather wish I weren’t,” I said, with a wince. “What happened?”
“We’re in Riverside Church. Some of the teachers have been holed up here, and they came out and got us inside. We’re a little bit besieged right now—” he cracked a lopsided smile, “—but at least we’re inside four strong walls. Listen, there’s—there’s something else you should know about me.”
I knew that tone of voice. That was the tone of voice he’d used—yesterday? Earlier today? Whatever span of time it had been since the snow ended. It was the tone of voice he’d used to tell me that he’d been lying to me, that Bridehive was gutted and dying. Just like me. I sighed. “What is it, Énna?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “I’m the Protector. Of Bridehive. A right—a right awful one, I know, I’ve not been able to do any sort of job protecting us. But. Well. I am.”
I laughed hollowly, juddering pain through my ribs. “You’re joking,” I said blankly.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Nah,” he said softly. “Wish I were.” He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. “I was here when they burned it. That’s how—” he indicated his chest. “Got trapped for a bit under some burning wood.”
“Saint Cathair, you’re not joking.” I stared at him, bits and pieces slotting into place. “That’s why you lived here.”
Jerky nod. “I didn’t really get out much. They don’t want everyone to see the Protector too often. And it’s, well, it’s mostly a ceremonial job these days. Or it was until—until recently.”
“That’s why you’ve heard of so many things and done none of them,” I said slowly. “Gods, what a life. I never realized—”
His eyes slid to the side. “Someone has to do it,” he shrugged. “Only—only I’ve failed at anything that might have been—well.” He breathed deeply through his nose and plastered a wide smile onto his face, a smile I could tell very well that he was forcing. I sighed, and the movement of my lungs made me wince. “I’ve been talking with Teacher Wassa—she’s the senior teacher. She thinks they’ll be able to keep the Khar from breaching the church again for at least two weeks, given the pattern of construction, fire damage, and—”
“Énna.” I gripped his arm, and the flow of chatter petered out. “Listen to me. I need your help.”
He tipped his head to one side. “What do you need?”
I took a deep breath. “I’ve seen soldiers die of stomach wounds before. It’s not pretty.”
He shook his head jerkily. “You’re not going to die.”
I needed him to understand. “It won’t be pleasant. There’ll be a fever; I’ll be raving; the pain will—” I squeezed my eyes shut. “Muscles might lock up as well. I don’t—I don’t want that.”
“You’re not going to die,” Énna repeated, sounding almost pleading.
I took his hand and brought it to my lips. “Énna, love, please. I just—I don’t want to go through that. I’m sorry—it’s my fault. I should have listened and stayed away, but—look, it’s not difficult.” I pressed his hand against the thrumming pulse in my throat. “Just get me a knife, a sharp one. It’ll be quick, like that. Neither of us is going to want the alternative, I promise you.”
Énna shut his eyes. “It’s not your fault,” he murmured. “I didn’t protect our home. I’m the Protector.” When he opened them again, the nervousness had vanished; there was an odd serenity in him that I’d not really seen before. “You’re not going to die,” he said for a third time, and this time it was a promise, not a plea, so confident that for a moment I almost believed him.
He cupped my face gently and pressed our lips together for a moment, almost chaste, then squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry.”
The warm sense of reassurance lasted until I was alone in the room again, and then the stabbing pain in my stomach reminded me of the reality of my situation. Damn Énna. This was no time for sentiment. I was dizzy, sick and shivering, and I could no longer hold my own thoughts in my head, which was now threatening to split open like an egg.
I swallowed, shut my eyes against the brightness of the lights, and tried to hold onto the sensation of Énna’s hand beneath my cheek, Énna’s lips on my own. Whatever he was doing now, I managed to coral myself enough to think, he’d return. And that, at least, was something to look forward to. Holding onto those thoughts, I slipped back into unconsciousness.
When I woke again, my teeth were chattering, and I was soaked in sweat. My throat was as dry as a desert, and my stomach felt tight and painful. I needed a drink of water, but first I opened my shirt to see how the injury was doing. I had been bandaged, and the bandages were a little stained. I pried them up but couldn’t see much of the injury itself, which was possibly just as well.
I put a hand to my sweat-soaked forehead and pushed back my hair, grinding my teeth to try get them to stop, but it was no good. I’d go find someone who could get me a drink of water—maybe some more blankets, if there were any. It was hard to think; I couldn’t get much past the desire for water and company, and the nagging pain and fear twisting at the base of my brain.
I needed Énna, I admitted, as I tottered onto my feet. I didn’t know anyone else here at all—not after ten years gone. I hadn’t known him for so long—this time—but I thought he might stroke my hair and murmur something comforting again. I couldn’t stand the thought of being alone right now. I couldn’t stand the thought of dying alone.
It was difficult to navigate the corridors. My legs felt weak and wobbly, and I had to lean against the wall to make any headway. Things were made more difficult by the fact that I didn’t really know where I was going, but eventually I stumbled through an archway whose blackened stones showed clearly the marks of fire. The high, domed room with its now partially-destroyed glass ceiling and the remains of wooden benches lining it could only be the altar room.
There was something strange at the end, though. Somehow, the altar itself had been preserved from the fire; I could see the nine candle-holders still set across it in a row, covered in melted wax. The top of the altar was covered with something I couldn’t quite make out that gave it a mottled appearance. And above it—I stopped, clutching at the wall. There was a roaring noise in my ears.
Énna was hanging from a rope flung clumsily over one of the cross-beams just above the altar. His body moved very slightly in the air currents of the church. His eyes protruded from his skull; I could see his tongue between his lips, thick and swollen. Purple blood bloated his thin face.
For a moment, I could not understand what I was seeing. I hobbled forward, supporting myself on the wall, some vague strange part of me wondering why I could hear a soft cooing noise and the rustling flutter of moving feathers. Then it seemed to dawn on me, like lightning striking my brain.
“Oh, you coward! You thrice-damned son of a traitor!” I was on my knees with my hands clutched across my belly. “Gods,” I groaned. Why would he do this to me? There was pain in my scalp, pain in my gut, pain in my throat. “You couldn’t have killed me first?” I said brokenly. “You—I could have loved you.”
We’d only had a few days together, but those precious few moments and the golden summer over a decade ago told me enough to know that Énna was special. We’d connected in a way I only seldom had before, and then mostly with friends, not lovers. And then he’d gone and done this. “Why would you leave me like this?” I demanded. “Why would you leave me to die like this?”
Someone was wailing, the raw, wordless noise of a crying child. I rocked back and forth, hands in my hair. I don’t know how long I stayed like that; I lost track of the time. All I knew was that at some point I found that my throat hurt too much to keep crying. I covered my face with my hands, trying to breathe and almost unable to. My nose was blocked, and I had to breathe through my mouth. I pulled myself slowly to my feet. I’d have to get him down, I thought dazedly. I couldn’t leave him like that.
I reached for him—and a cloud of birds exploded from his body. I stumbled backwards, shielding my eyes with my forearm. Where had they come from? I looked up in time to see them flying in a swirling spiral around Énna’s body. Everything from tiny wrens to finches to larger crows and bluejays and even a hawk. I felt a chill run down my spine as they gradually settled back into a strange feathered cloak on Énna.
“Get away from him,” I coughed miserably, but when I tried to move forward, they blocked me again, and I could go no farther.
“Come away,” said a new voice, and I looked around to see that the teachers had arrived. I didn’t know what had taken them so long, or even if it had taken them all that long. I had no sense of how much time I had spent in here. Several of them were crying as well.
“Had you known each other long?” one of the older teachers asked sympathetically. She put her hands on my shoulders and started to lead me away. She wasn’t weeping, unlike most of the rest; she just looked weary. Weary and old.
“No, we—” I paused. “I suppose, in a way, we had.” Wincing in pain, I leaned against the wall. I wasn’t crying anymore; the tears just weren’t there. Everything was numb and cold.
She leaned closer to me, looking into my face. “Oh, I know you,” she said. “You’re the child who took singing lessons with Gráinne. Look at you, all grown up and—”
“—and dying of a gut wound, yes.” I gave her a tired eye-roll.
“Now that’s no way to talk.” She put a hand on my arm. “Where there’s life, there’s hope, child.”
“I’m not a child,” I responded. “And—” I looked across at the still form hanging above the altar. “No. No, there isn’t.” After another long moment, it hurt too much to look, and I turned away. “I suppose I had better get back to bed,” I murmured. “Could I have a drink of water?”
“Of course, chi—I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever learned your name.”
“I’m Ryder,” I told her. “I’d say pleased to meet you, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a circumstance under which that would be more of a lie than this one.”
“I am Wassa. Come along, Ryder.” She offered me an arm, which I took, not so much for the support as to at least keep myself capable of walking straight. I wondered if I’d be able to prevail on her or on one of the other church teachers for something more potent than water. Drinking myself into a stupor would be one way of making everything go away. Maybe I’d even have the good fortune to die before I woke up. It was concerning that the thought cheered me a little.
I’m not sure how I made it back to the bed. I lost consciousness part of the way there, and when I regained it again, several of the teachers were supporting me and helping me back walk. One of them offered me a drink of water, and I took it wearily. I managed just a few swallows before I had to lie down, and I was shivering with cold again. Someone tucked the blankets around me, and my surroundings seemed to melt away again.
The following days seemed to pass in a strange blur. I wasn’t even certain how many days it was, or what fraction of the overall time I spent conscious. Not much, I suspected, or perhaps it was just that I could only seem to maintain lucidity for a few moments at a time. Whatever the reason, my experiences were highly fragmented. I was awake enough to be fed a few spoonfuls of thin gruel, and to take the occasional sip of water. Then I was on my back, listening murmured voices that sounded unnaturally loud.
“How much longer can we hold out?”
“We have supplies for a day or two, Wassa.”
A third speaker, “We could give them what they’ve asked for.”
Wassa’s voice. “No. You know what they would do to them.”
“They’re going to get in here eventually anyway.”
I managed to drag my eyes open. “Just give me to them,” I told Teacher Wassa tiredly. “Please. There’s no point in all of you dying.” And I didn’t know how much longer this spell of lucidity would be.
“No,” she told me, firmly, and I wanted to weep.
“I don’t want to live anymore,” I pleaded. “The Khar will make it quick. Quicker than this—” A chill chose that moment to run up my spine, and I spasmed. “Quicker than the fever will.”
“They won’t,” she said. “I’m fairly certain one of the ones you killed was dear to the leader of the band out there. We’ve seen what they’ve done to some of ours. You don’t deserve that.” She wrung out the cool cloth and pressed it into my forehead. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
I groaned at the repetition of that old truism, then again as I realized that my last possibility for a painless death had vanished. I was reasonably certain that none of the teachers would be easily convinced to kill me, even if I could stay awake long enough to make a convincing argument. The pain reached up and sucked me back down into darkness again a moment later.
When I next woke up, I could hear the sounds of fighting through the wall, and I smelled the acrid stench of smoke. The Khar must have begun their final assault; perhaps the church had run out of supplies, or the Khar had run out of patience. I dragged myself out of bed, wondering if there was still some way I could stop this. Or perhaps I just wanted to move my legs. Or not die lying down.
In the end, I staggered back into the altar room and saw with something that was perhaps sickness and perhaps relief that Énna’s body was still hanging from the cross-beam. I could hear the coo of birds and the rustle of feathers as I approached.
“I really don’t think it was fair of you,” I told him dizzily. I tried to grope for my sword, but I couldn’t find it at my side. Someone must have taken it away. “I know what you were trying to do, but I don’t like this dying alone business. It’s not how I imagined things ending. Ah, shit.” I winced. The pain in my gut had been growing steadily, and now every movement sent a twinge through me. “Yes, thank you,” I told my body. “We’re dying. I get it. Can you cut that out now?” I groaned and settled down in front of the altar. “I wish I at least had a drink.” I wondered if the Khar raiders would reach me first—and that would be really unpleasant, I was pretty sure—or if I’d die of my injury. Or my fever. Did that count of dying of the injury, I wondered vaguely. “Damn.” I reached backwards and felt for Énna’s leg. My questing fingers brushed against cloth, but I couldn’t maintain the position. “Damn you,” I told him tiredly, tipping my head back against the cool stone of the altar.
I think I was slipping towards sleep—a sleep I didn’t expect to wake from—when I heard the whispering thrum of wingbeats in the air again. “What?” I said, and I think I said it aloud. Feathers brushed at my chest, my hands, my face. I blinked my eyes, but all I could see was wings and feathers. “Énna?” I said incredulously, craning my neck to look for him. The body was gone from above the altar; so were the birds that had surrounded it.
And then they landed. I could feel my grasp on consciousness slipping away, but something seemed to be telling me to hold on, so I gritted my teeth, digging my nails into my palm, and tried to focus on that pain and nothing else. The feathers filled my vision, and I took a sudden, gasping deep breath. I could feel a pair of hands pressing at my abdomen, and I didn’t even have the energy to scream. There was a blinding flash of light.
When it cleared, I was blinking up at Énna’s concerned face. “Ryder?” he said hesitantly. “How do you feel?”
I winced. “Bruised,” I responded, but my head was clear in a way it hadn’t been since before I was wounded. The pain in my gut was gone, replaced by just the dull tenderness of bruises ringing my stomach and sides. But Énna was—he was—I pressed my hands into his face, carefully turning it one way and then the other, stroking my hand along his cheek and ragged beard. “How can you be here?” I asked him in a hushed voice.
“I’m sorry,” he told me, folding my hands between his. “I—don’t really have time for an explanation right now. The Khar are going to get into the church if we don’t stop them.”
Right. Of course. Explanations could wait, although they would be required. Neither Énna nor I had any right whatsoever to still be alive, but we were, and I didn’t have a mind to let that slip away again if I had any say in it. “Good point,” I said, staggering slightly but managing to pull myself to my feet. “How many of them are there?”
I wasn’t really expecting an answer, but Énna gave me one anyway. “There are twenty Khar outside, eight teachers inside, and the two of us.” I gave him a startled glance, and he offered a crooked smile in return. “I’ll explain that later as well.”
“The Khar effectively have an infinite supply of men,” I frowned. “Even if we could kill all twenty of them outside—and there might be ways to do that, depending on how many of the defenses we’ve got left—we’d still be in trouble because they would keep coming.”
“There’s a way out of the church,” Énna said as the two of us hurried down the hallway that I was seeing for the first time with clear eyes. “There’s a set of old catacombs beneath it that the Khar don’t know about. We should be able to get out that way.”
“And you didn’t think to do this before because…?”
“I didn’t know about it before.”
I hated to trust something so unbelievable, but it was that or assume this was all a dying dream anyway. “Fine,” I said, with a sigh. “Then let’s get the teachers and get out. We’ll be much safer if the Khar don’t know where to look for us.”
We hurried along the hallway, and I couldn’t stop myself from reaching sideways and taking his hand. He glanced sideways at me, ducked his head, and smiled a little. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” he said.
“I am also exceedingly grateful and I’d be lighting a candle to all the Three right now if we had time,” I told him. “Although I also want to punch you in the face, so watch yourself.”
He coughed out a surprised laugh. “Ah, I’ll watch myself, no worries.”
We found the teachers gathered in the back room, huddled in a circle with their hands clasped as they chanted prayers. They looked up in startlement as we barreled in. “All right,” I said. I could hear my voice slipping into Bridehive guttural, my words spilling out half-chewed but still clear enough, at least for someone born and raised here. It felt—it felt good. “We’ve no choice but to escape for now—everyone, if you’d not mind getting up and following the two of us?”
Someone started to voice an objection, but Wassa was already on her feet, nodding. “Come along, then,” she said briskly, and her support was enough to start the others moving along with us.
I heard a hollow booming noise as we made our way through the back halls and realized it was the sound of the Khar finally breaking down the old doors. Fortunately, although some of the teachers were elderly, they still moved quite swiftly, and we were able to follow Énna’s lead in a long, looping path around the outside of the church and to the little graveyard. I felt exposed when we stepped out the side door, every nerve tingling.
The air smelled of fire, and the atmosphere was heavy. There were black clouds piling up on the horizon, with lightning skittering across their edges. We were halfway across the yard when I realized I still didn’t have my sword, and I cursed in frustration. I’d have no way to defend anyone if we were caught. In the end, though, we had the city’s own luck: we slipped like wraiths across the yard and followed Énna into the safety of a series of round, worn corridors hidden between two graves, although I barely breathed until we were tucked away safely within them.
We emerged into a set of caves that looked down onto the river flowing just outside the city. From here, I could see the bright campfires of those Khar who still hadn’t bothered to make their way into the city, but there was no way that they would be able to see us. We were safe, for the time being, at least.
Almost before I’d realized it, after I’d only taken a single step into the cave, Énna’s hands were on my shoulders, and he’d pushed me up against the stony wall, lips on mine as if he was trying to inhale me. I gave a hiss and a laugh, and then I kissed him back.
“You’re not off the hook, by any means,” I told him, “but I suppose we’d best figure out how to win our city back before worrying overmuch about details like recrimination.” I might have sounded flippant, but my hands tightened on Énna’s waist, and I couldn’t stop myself from pressing my forehead into his. How close we’d become in just a few days. I laughed at the thought, a little raggedly.
“All right,” I said, sliding out of Énna’s embrace so that I could pace across the close space. “All right. We’d better—hm. How bad the situation is really depends on how badly the population of Bridehive has been impacted. How many able fighters we have.”
“I can tell you,” Énna said immediately. “I can tell you almost anything about the situation you need to know, I—I’ll just need to focus for a bit. There’s a lot of information floating in my head right now.”
I nodded, once again refraining from asking him how the hell he could do all this all of a sudden. “Either way, we’re going to need outside help,” I said thoughtfully. “And I think I know just the person to give us that.”
“Are you sure there’s no one here?” I murmured quietly to the bird on my shoulder. In this form, Énna—or Énna’s messenger, I still wasn’t entirely clear on how much of him each of the birds kept inside their heads—couldn’t speak, but he pecked my shoulder sharply. “All right!” I threw my hands in the air. Their horses were one of the Khar’s most precious possessions, but this battalion’s discipline seemed to have eroded over the past few months cut off from the main army that had been turned back at the Aerie, and I supposed that must also have meant the disappearance of a certain amount of caution.
I heard the snuffling noises of horses feeding before I ducked around the corner of a particularly large tent and found three of them tethered to a central post. They were massive creatures with rough, shaggy hair; the black cones of their horns stood out against the white of their foreheads. They looked up with interest when I approached.
I offered the nearest one—a slightly slimmer mare—an apple I was carrying for this express purpose, and she gave me an approving snort as she took it. I’d been a little concerned that the horses would be intractable, but either she was primarily used as a pack animal or the stories of Khar warhorse ferocity were rather exaggerated, because she nuzzled the palm of my hand and let me rub her forehead between the twin horns without complaint.
“Well, aren’t you a fine lady,” I told her, as I searched for a saddle and bridle. I found them after a moment or two lazily thrown to the side, although at least they were protected from the worst of the weather by the overhang of the tent. It took me a few minutes to work out how to put them on her—it was a simpler saddle than I was used to, but the buckles criss-crossed beneath her chest instead of going straight across. She bleated plaintively, and I soothed her with a few rubs and kind words. The little bird nestled in my hair and fluttered his wings against my neck, almost as if he were jealous. I laughed and ran a finger carefully across his head.
“All right,” I said, after I’d gotten her ready. “Time to see how quickly I can ride. You’ll hold Bridehive while I’m gone?”
Flutter, flutter. I took that as an affirmative. “Don’t worry,” I said. “After what you did—however you did it—we won’t fail. I’ll bring back the reinforcements.”
I clambered onto the mare’s back; she moved restlessly beneath me. As I carefully undid the rope harnessing her to the post, I glanced up at the sky. I’d been only half-conscious for so long I had no real idea what the stars would look like, and it was a shock when I realized that all three moons were hanging in the sky together, like a blessing.
Énna’s moon—the wermen’s moon—was the lowest and largest, tinted orange-red, and almost touching the horizon. The women’s moon was high and cold overhead, shining like a steady silver beacon. My own moon wobbled between them, patchy and grey as it always was, although in the night it looked a little less grubby than it did during the day. Faintly, I remembered my dedication to it—to my one of the Three. It hadn’t been at night; the nomen’s moon had risen during the day on my thirteenth birthday. All I really remembered was Pat’s hand on my shoulder, telling me today I took my first step towards adulthood. I knew I should try to find Pat—I knew that Énna could probably find her, if she was alive, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know if she wasn’t. Or how much I’d hurt her when I left—she’d understood my wanderlust, but I’d been gone so much longer than either of us could have reasonably expected. What if she’d forgotten me?
I shook my head to clear it, whispered a prayer to the little orb above me, and gently dug my heels into the mare’s sides. She shrugged beneath me and then set off at a brisk pace. I settled into a position lying forward across her back to keep myself warmer, reached up and stroked the little bird at my ear once more before it took off in a flurry of feathers.
“Godspeed,” I whispered.
It had taken six days of hard riding to return to the Aerie—not bad, when the travel down had been almost a month on foot—and I was exhausted, but not so exhausted that I was going to wait any longer than I had to, to meet with the Monarch. It took less time to arrange an audience than I’d expected, but then I did carry Énna’s symbol—the symbol of the Protector of Bridehive. It gave me rather more authority than I’d had the last time I was here as a wandering scholar.
“I found your missing Khar,” I told the Monarch cheerfully as I strode into the room, and they raised an intrigued eyebrow.
“Indeed?” they questioned.
“I come on behalf of the Protector of Bridehive. He requests your aid against the Khar who have these three months past overrun his city and decimated his people.”
The Monarch stroked their thin beard. “If the Khar have had three months to entrench themselves behind the walls of Bridehive, this will not be an easy proposition,” they pointed out.
I reached up to my throat and unclasped the pendant hanging from it—not my talisman of Gauselen, which was carefully tucked away in my pack still, but the delicate filigreed work that Énna had passed to me six days prior. “Bridehive is fighting back,” I told the monarch, holding out the pendant. “You have the Protector’s word on it. It’s our city. The Khar will not have a strong foothold there by the time I return with reinforcements, but to winkle them out entirely…”
“You would require stronger aid. Bridehive’s troops?”
“There are five thousand Khar across the city. The population of Bridehive is a hundred thousand, although of that only some few thousand are trained soldiers, double that who are capable fighters. The Protector has the ability to map the city and tell us exactly where the Khar are, however.”
“Hm,” the Monarch said, noncommittally. “We will need to consult with our generals.”
“Of course.” I bowed my head. “Time is of the essence, though, Excellency.”
“And this is a most important decision. We understand. Emissary of Bridehive, you have our word you will have our answer before the day is out.”
I let out a breath. The word among the soldiers I knew was that if their Monarch had a flaw, it was that they were too cautious—a caution I could understand, since they had been trained until they were twelve to take on the office of emissary, not ruler. But the Monarch’s elder sibling, who had been the heir, had died of a fever when the Monarch was twelve, and with no one else, they had been forced to take up the mantle.
With nothing to do until the Monarch came to a decision, I found myself wandering the Aerie again. I’d spent long enough here that the streets of the mountain stronghold were familiar, and I found myself drawn to a particular café that I’d frequented before I left.
The proprietor—a woman named Sally—greeted me warmly. “Where have you been?” she asked me as she busied herself making me a coffee with a generous helping of whiskey. “We’ve missed you.”
“I was heading home,” I said. “I got home and tripped over the Khar.”
She put a horrified hand to her mouth. “They’ve taken Bridehive?”
“With luck, not for much longer. I’m here in the name of the Protector of Bridehive, soliciting your Monarch for aid.”
“I hope they help.” Sally leaned forward quietly and slid the coffee over to me. “But you seem well enough, at least.”
My mouth twisted to the side. “I’m still not sure how,” I told her quietly. “I took a sword to the gut, no more than three weeks ago.”
A quick inhale. “And you rode from Bridehive? With a gut wound?”
“With a scar.” I pulled my shirt up to display the still-swollen ragged red line. “There’s—there’s some kind of deep magic at work, that’s all I can say. I don’t know much of sorcery or divinity, but I—well,” I laughed, although it came out sounding a bit strange, “—I’m pretty sure I ought to be dead. And I’m not.”
“By Saint Mora.”
“Don’t invoke her, I’d—rather avoid her attention, if it’s all the same to you.”
“By Saint Naéve, then,” Sally amended, invoking her own patron.
“Much better.” I sipped thoughtfully at the drink in front of me. “I hope Énna can restrain himself from doing anything foolish while I’m gone,” I muttered. He’d been so much more determined when I left, practically exuding reckless bravery. I’d seen wermen act that way before, and it usually presaged disaster. It was at least better than the hopelessness that had been in him when he first told me of the Khar, though.
“Énna?” Sally asked, arching an eyebrow at me, and I had to pause to avoid choking on my drink.
“An old friend,” I told her, with a bland smile.
“Well…” I traced a finger down the tablecloth. “Perhaps a touch more than that. I’m not sure what we are, to be honest. Everything has been happening very quickly lately.”
“I can tell.” At my questioning look, she smirked. “You’re swallowing your words like a true Bridehive native.”
“I am a Bridehive native,” I pointed out.
“Well, yes, but you didn’t sound much like one the last time I saw you.”
I had to laugh at that. “Ah, did I not? I suppose it’s faster to pick up on an old habit, at that.”
I heard the door behind me close, and I turned reflexively to see the Aerie’s captain of the guard, who strode purposefully in my direction. “You’re the Bridehive Emissary?” We knew each other—we’d fought alongside one another a few times now, but there was the matter of formality, and he might not be able to be certain that the Protector’s Emissary and good old Ryder were one and the same.
I raised my mug to him with a nod. “Cheers.”
“The Monarch has come to a decision with their generals.”
I tensed slightly, but nodded. “Thanks, Sally,” I told her, sliding a few coins across the table.
“Good luck with your old friend. And, Ryder—”
“Don’t get stabbed again, saints forfend.”
“Not planning on it,” I told her, heartfeltly. “Keep yourself safe, at that. I’m glad the Aerie’s keeping itself safe.”
“She’ll stand a long time, the Aerie will,” Sally said, slipping into something like a Bridehive accent herself, but the mockery was gentle. “Don’t worry yourself.”
I followed the captain of the guard out of the door and back up the winding cobbled road towards the fortress at the top of the cliff. Ushered back into the Monarch’s receiving room, I waited patiently at the side. They were sitting at the end of a long table, writing something carefully across the bottom of a thick parchment with a vibrantly-colored pen decorated on the end by a large feather. Once they had finished, they looked up, laid the pen carefully down, and gave me a single nod. “The troops will go with you,” they told me. “I have just signed their orders. Tell the Protector if we are successful, I will be most interested in a renewal of the old treaty our cities once held with each other.”
I tried not to let my relief show on my face, although I might have botched it slightly. “Thank you,” I said. “I’ll make preparations immediately.”
That eyebrow tilted up again. “Have a meal and rest first,” the Monarch said.
“That’s not—” I paused. My knees were wobbling ever-so-slightly. They gave me a stern look.
“I won’t have my troops following a half-asleep soldier,” they told me coolly. “Take care of yourself. As soon as you’ve eaten and rested, you may leave.”
I bowed my head in acknowledgement. Much as it galled me to add any length of time to the time it would take me to return to Énna, I saw the wisdom. It wouldn’t do for me to be falling off my horse when we arrived. I’d not be any use to anyone that way. Énna, I thought. Just hold on. I’ll be back as soon as I can, I promise.
It took us a little over a week to ride back; a whole army couldn’t ride as hard as I could, although I took a small detachment to go on ahead once we were close enough. My stomach had been churning nervously for the entire morning by the time we crested the ridge over the valley where the Khar had sprawled themselves out in front of Bridehive.
The valley was on fire, the tents burning merrily, and there were knots of fighting soldiers all throughout. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between the Khar and the Bridehive natives, until my eyes followed a bright splash of red across one fighter’s shoulder that for a moment I parsed as blood. It was a feather.
“Attack anyone who doesn’t have a feather!” I bellowed, and I turned my horse down into the valley and charged. My goal was not to engage with the enemy here, but to find Énna. Selfish it might be, but I could even justify it—the Protector was, by definition, the most important individual in all of Bridehive, and I could reasonably expect myself and possibly a small, mobile force to be more able to reach him critically more quickly than the whole army from the Aerie could.
Three or four of the Aerie soldiers were keeping pace with me—wermen whom I’d fought beside before, who knew my reasons for wanting haste. We bounded down the slope, horses practically flying from ridge to ridge, and tore through the encampment. The thin, wiry horses of the Aerie dodged easily between the clumps of fighters, so I mentally withdrew my litany of complaints about their particularly bone-jarring gait.
The narrow streets of Bridehive were less friendly to them, however, especially with flaming rubbish and other debris blocking their path. They shied away and would not go any farther. With a breathless curse, I slid off my mount and headed for the church. One of the wermen could surely corral them if necessary, and they were smart beasts; they’d make their way out of the city if need be.
As I ran full-tilt across the bridge, I saw that the restructured gate to the church had been split open again, and my heart seized up in my chest. Not again. I couldn’t watch him die again. “Come on!” I shouted to the soldiers behind me, waving my sword frantically. As I passed through the entrance to the church, I felt heat still radiating from the gate. The Khar must have burned their way through quite recently.
“Énna!” I shouted, but my voice echoed off the stones with no response. “Énna!”
We were so close. I felt in my pocket for the talisman of Gauselen, clutching at its familiar weight. “Saint Cathair, protect him. Saint Gauselen—please—” I gasped as I ran, “—give me the chance to get there in time.”
As I finished the prayer, I heard the shriek of a bird of prey from the altar room. My squadron followed me as I charged directly in the direction of the sound. I flung open the huge double doors and saw him.
The flock of birds was scattered, but the main body of it hovered in front of the altar, at bay against a group of Khar raiders. He was trying to protect the altar. Damnation. “Get out of there!” I shouted. “Énna, it’s not worth it!” Three of the tiny birds at the edge of the cloud shot to the side at my voice, but the swirling main mass did not move.
“Fine,” I muttered. “You want to be an idiot? Go ahead.” My sword was out, and this time I had my comrades at my back. “Archers!” I shouted. “Aim but do not fire!” They could probably avoid hitting Énna, but I didn’t want to take the risk right now.
The Khar were still focused on attacking him—whether because they wanted to desecrate the altar or whether because they’d realized who he was, I didn’t know. It didn’t make much difference. I barreled into the back of the first one, slicing him down before he could react, and that got their attention.
Made cautious by my last encounter with the Khar, I danced backwards before they could encircle me. Several of them stopped, staring at the arrows trained on them, and I raised my sword. “You’d best surrender,” I told them. “I have it on good authority if you’re not a hedgehog you can’t live stuck full of quills.”
Most of the Khar looked from me to the archers and grudgingly lowered their weapons. I had to admit, I’d been on the other side of a necessary surrender before, and I knew it wasn’t something particularly pleasant for a soldier, but better than dying. There was a sudden flash of movement. “You,” growled one of the Khar. “I gutted you like a fish. How are you still alive?”
And how was it I kept running into the same damn Khar? I tightened my grip on the sword and sidestepped as he rushed me. A twang behind me heralded the first of the arrows to be loosed, and a feathered shaft appeared in his upper arm. “Damn you,” the Khar warrior choked.
“Really, your best move is to surrender,” I told him, and he laughed.
“You killed Corinn. I won’t be surrendering to you, boy.”
“People die in war,” I told him. “Get out of my city.”
Gods, but he was tall, though. He had almost a foot on me and certainly a good hundred pounds of muscle. I sighed. “You’ll die,” I told him.
“If you do, too, I don’t much care.” Before I could say another word, he was lunging for me. I was hemmed in by the wooden benches and couldn’t dodge, so I brought my sword up to deflect his attack. Metal clanged on metal, but the blow was so strong it rode right over my guard. At the last minute I bent my knees, angling backwards, and instead of a cleaving blow from my opponent’s heavy sword, I hit myself in the temple with the blunt pommel of my own blade.
The next thing I knew, I was on the ground, slumped in an uncomfortably folded position between two of the benches. There was a sharp pain in my head, and my gut roiled unpleasantly.
“Ryder! Are you all right?”
I squinted through blurred vision. “Énna?” Two Énnas, actually. Damn. That meant a head injury. I put a hand carefully to my head and it came away covered in blood.
“Oh, saints, you’re hurt again.” He was kneeling beside me, hands on my shoulders. “Oh, saints. Ryder.”
“Fine,” I slurred. “’M fine. Are you all right?”
“You came in good time,” he told me. “You came in good time. Gods.” His lips were on mine, then, and I didn’t so much mind the incipient headache. “Thank you for coming back,” he said into my ear.
“Thank you for still being here. Where’s that Khar?”
“Dead,” Énna told me shortly. “I took a sword from one of the others. I suppose I went a bit wild.”
“You wermen,” I murmured, tired but teasing. “So violent.”
“You’re one to talk.”
I nestled against him. “I’d better do something about this injury, I imagine.” All the same, I wasn’t in a hurry to move.
“Lean on me,” Énna said. “I’ll get the teachers to take care of you.”
“Oh, because they did such a wonderful job last time,” I drawled.
“What, because they wouldn’t help you kill yourself?”
“Sometimes that is a perfectly valid choice.” I flapped my hands crossly. “All right, fine. Whatever you think is best.”
“Just rest. When’s the last time you slept properly?”
I thought back over the past few weeks of travel, tossing and turning in my bed, consumed with worry, and managed a lopsided smile. “Snowbound in a tent with someone I’d only just met, I think.”
He groaned. “Dammit, Ryder.”
“I suppose I need to cleanse myself, too,” I said meditatively. “I’ve killed quite a lot of people since the last time I did. I’m sure Gauselen is getting cross with me.”
“I’ll see that the teachers give you a proper ritual pool, shall I?”
“Oh, I was just going to wash my hands. But a bath sounds wonderful.”
Pulling me against him, Énna gave a kind of long-suffering sigh. I supposed we’d hadn’t finished expelling the Khar yet, but I was still loopy and lightheaded with the pain in my head, and the Protector was safe, after all. My Protector. I sought Énna’s hand and murmured something that might have been a blessing into his throat. I really was tired, and surely he’d see I got to a bed at some point. Might as well let myself rest.
“Ryder?” I heard from a long way off. “Ryder, no, don’t go to sleep with a head injury. Ryder!” Oh, nonsense, I thought blearily. It was all going to be fine. I’d had far worse injuries than this, after all.
When I woke up again, I was back in the same bed I’d spent nine damn days dying in. “Ugh,” I groaned. “Surely a different bed would’ve been more reasonable?”
“I’m afraid we aren’t running an inn,” Wassa told me. “This is the only bed we have, other than the Protector’s.”
“Well, first, I can’t imagine he’d have minded me in there,” I grinned, and she gave me an exasperated look. “And second, what about all the beds in the teachers’ dormitory?”
“Do you not recall that this place was gutted by fire?” she asked. “I know Énna told you. The teachers are all lodging with helpful citizens for the time being. Reconstruction will be beginning on the church in the next few days, I imagine.”
“We’ve ejected the Khar?”
I drew a shuddering breath. I hadn’t realized how tense I still was until I felt it bleeding out of my shoulders and spine. “Ah, shit, I’ve a message for Énna from the Monarch of the Aerie.”
“As it’s the middle of the night, I imagine it can wait.”
It probably could, but I wasn’t tired. “Why are you awake?”
“I was the only one Énna trusted to watch over you, and he needed the sleep more than I did. I don’t think he’s slept a wink since you left. The man’s besotted.”
“Good to hear. I wouldn’t want to think my charms were lacking.” She was glaring at me. “And I’d not want to be eating my heart out for someone who wasn’t interested, either.” The glare softened. “Can I see him?” I hadn’t meant to say that; it had fallen out without me thinking about it.
“He needs sleep—”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be getting plenty of sleep when he’s still worried about me.”
She huffed out an angry breath, and I tried to look harmless and hopeful.
“Oh, don’t give me that face, but, very well.” She waved a hand. “Go on with you. He’s just down the hall.”
It wasn’t difficult to find Énna’s room. The door was open a touch, and the glow of a candle showed clearly in the gap at the bottom. Tiredly, I opened it and slipped in, to see Énna curled up on his side in the small bed underneath a heavy quilt. I padded quietly across the room and knelt on the bed; he looked up at its movement beneath my wait.
“All right, so tell me, Énna—how in name of Three did you survive? I think I’m overdue an explanation.”
He rolled up onto his elbow. “You’re not supposed to be out of bed.”
“Please,” I scoffed. “I lived through a gut wound. You’re telling me a minor concussion is supposed to keep me down?”
Énna frowned. “I wish I could heal you again,” he said quietly.
“I’d really like to know how you did it first time. Look, shove over.” He moved along the bed, and I slid in beside him. “Here, see? I’m back in bed. Ah, don’t roll your eyes at me, I’m sure Saint Daíre would approve of me being in this bed instead.”
He watched me with a questioning look in his eyes, and then he sighed and took my hand, pressing it to his chest. “All right, but this time it’s your turn to hold me.”
“I am happy to oblige.” I curled against him, drawing my knees into the little hollow left by his, nuzzling into the back of his neck. He made a soft, strangled noise.
“Damn, Ryder,” he sighed. “All right. I owe you an explanation, and it’s hiding inside a story I once started to tell you.”
“The story of Bridehive,” he said, quietly, and I remembered. With a clear mind, it was very easy to see the connection between the old story he’d been telling me and what had happened to us in the church.
“Bridd hanged himself, and the birds—the birds wouldn’t let his family cut him down,” I said. “Yes—I see. And that’s why the Protector is a werman instead of a noman?”
“Ah—probably. Though I think it was originally a military position.”
“I mean, I’m not a very good noman, not round here, anyway,” I pointed out. “Bridehive tends to frown on nomen taking life. I do purify myself after—when I’ve the time, at any rate. Anyway, you were saying?”
“The funny part is I’d almost finished the story, and I could have told you before I—if I’d thought of it—” he shook his head. “I thought I was being so brave, but I was terrified, everything in my head chased out with the roaring whisper that I wasn’t good enough, that it wasn’t going to work…” I pressed my hand closed tight about his.
“It worked, whatever you did.”
“Yeah…” he trailed off, letting his head fall to the pillow for a moment. “So, Bridd.” He took a long, deep breath, and I felt his heart beating rapidly beneath the heel of my hand. “He hung on the tree for nine days and nine nights, and not a single day went past but his people tried to get him down, and the birds stopped them. On the tenth day—on the tenth day, his eyes opened.”
He shook his head, whistling through his teeth a little ruefully. “That’s…kind of the thing. The story doesn’t really say. He just hung there and then he woke up, and when he had done, he’d gained the ‘wisdom of the birds,’ and he was able to use his newfound knowledge to chase away the raiders.”
“Just like you.”
“Bridd was the first Protector of Bridhaven. The word brid—”
“An old corruption of bird. So bird-haven became Bridehive. Or is it Bridd-haven, after the name?” I chuckled faintly. “So our city’s an ancient pun.”
“It’s—there are some other old stories of Protectors doing the same thing?” he said in a very wobbly voice. “None of them well-attested. I didn’t really know if it’d work, and I was afraid, but I had to try. Only I didn’t think—nine days, with you not knowing why I’d—and if it hadn’t worked—”
“It was thoughtless. Mora’s not a saint to be taken lightly, but—” I drew my arms tighter about him, “—but, eh, all’s well that ends well.”
“I don’t remember everything,” he said softly. “There was bright, hard light, and I remember feeling like I was floating? And I remember pain and murmuring voices. I think I knew more the instant I woke up, but it’s faded since. I still have the knowledge of the city, and I think the reason that I was able to heal you the way I did was that somehow, coming back like that meant I was carrying extra—life. Somehow. And I just gave a touch of it to you.”
“You realize that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I cheated Saint Mora, of course it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Touché.” I nuzzled into his neck again. “I’m glad you did. Not just for myself, but not just for my city either.”
Énna craned his neck back towards me. “For us, maybe?”
He sounded so tentative, and I didn’t know how to reassure him. It was something different, this thing that lay between us. Lovers, I’d had, though few long-term ones, but this—we’d been through fire and hell together. I tangled our fingers together. “Us, if us is a thing you want,” I said, finally.
Kissing the tips of my fingers, he squirmed back against me. “I want it, Ryder. Be my soldier, my scholar, my spear.”
I didn’t know how, but then I’d done a fair few things in my life I didn’t know how to do at the outset. “You’re my Protector already,” I grinned, “although I must say I’m better at the protecting business.”
“You don’t have to rub it in,” Énna murmured, but he sounded faintly amused.
“My Protector and—” and it was too soon to say this, but safer it should be said than left unsaid, “—and my love.”
Muscles went stiff against my hands, and I felt a vibrating shiver run along his spine. “Yes,” he murmured finally. “By the Three, Ryder, yes.”
“By the Three.” It was a promise of a sorts, though I’d never heard of one made quite similarly. But nothing about Énna could really be said to be particularly typical. I curled against his back, against his warmth. He was safe; Bridehive was safe. I was safe. There would be time for analysis later. For now, there was quiet and warmth.
Copyright © 2018 by Mertiya. All rights reserved.
A/N: If you enjoyed the art, Zomburai takes commissions at his tumblr, and he’s amazing!