And he ran.
And he kept running.
Every now and then it hurt too much to push himself into a sprint, and his pace would slow to a walk for a few minutes while he got his breathing back under control, but he was never able to bear the pained sound of Nessiah’s breath or the feel of his loved one’s body still shivering uncontrollably against his chest, and that would drive Gulcasa back into a headlong dash.
There was no time to waste on himself.
He’d left the forest behind long ago, and just as Nessiah had said it would, a town had appeared on the horizon, the distance making it seem little more than a crop of brightly colored stones against the bald ground and boundless sky, impossibly vast now that Gulcasa was seeing it outside the frame of a window. The silver ribbon of what was probably a river cut through the earth next to it, with a vast red wasteland on the other side.
And even though he kept running and running, it always seemed that the town was further away than the moon floating ghastly pale in the daylit sky.
Nessiah’s blood was soaking into his clothes sluggishly, the stain growing from his shoulder; he had no idea how much longer Nessiah could hold out. Every second spent without help was a second too many.
It felt like his lungs were going to explode and his body would give out, and the town was still at least a mile away; he didn’t even know if he could make it to the tall fortress sitting next to its border without—
Gulcasa’s foot caught on—something, maybe an unevenness in the ground, maybe a stone—and he only managed to avoid dropping Nessiah and landing on his own face by contorting his other leg, using his knee as a cushion. Pain shot up through his leg as the fabric of his pants strained and ripped, the harsh earth grating against the skin of his knee and shin.
It hurt. It hurt, but—this was nothing compared to what Nessiah had gone through, was still going through. Gulcasa bit his lip hard and struggled to rebalance his weight, pushing against the ground to attempt to regain his feet.
But no matter how he tried, his left leg did not want to cooperate. The pain had driven the strength right out of it, and he had no idea if he could even stand.
This was just—there was no way that he’d managed to disable himself now, not with their goal almost within reach—like hell he was going to just lie here and watch Nessiah bleed out as long as there was breath left in his body—
“Hey, you over there! Are you alright?!”
It was a man’s voice, a little deeper than Nessiah’s but warm in tone. Gulcasa lifted his head, turning in the direction it had come from.
A man with a sheathed sword was running towards him from the direction of the fortress-like building. He was young—maybe Gulcasa’s age, but he didn’t have much way of judging—and wore blue and white clothes beneath his bronze armor; his hair was dark and cut close, his face clean-shaven and slightly saturnine.
Gulcasa swallowed hard, winced against the sharp pain in his throat, and found his voice at last.
“Relax,” a kind voice said, making Gulcasa flinch where he sat. “Our healers and doctors are the best in this area. Your friend is going to be fine.”
He nodded, but couldn’t look up, even when the swordsman patted his shoulder.
With the other man’s help, he’d been able to get Nessiah to the stronghold beside the town, where he had been swept off to be treated. Gulcasa had wanted to follow them, but he’d been told firmly that he had to wait outside; hovering would distract the healers, and he didn’t think he could keep himself from hovering.
Seeming to understand his worry, the same swordsman who’d helped him carry Nessiah to the fortress had elected to stay by him. Gulcasa had already decided that all these strangers were too overwhelming—only fear for Nessiah was keeping him from trying to find a safe corner to hide in—but this particular soldier had a soothing air about him. It wasn’t quite the same as Nessiah, but something told Gulcasa that it was all right to relax around this swordsman; there was something almost brotherly about him.
He still couldn’t so much as meet the other man’s eyes, but it was better than nothing.
“So you’re the newcomer.”
Gulcasa jolted at the sound of the deep, harsh voice, his muscles going rigid with an old terror—but the man at the end of the hall was an unfamiliar middle-aged man.
He’s dead, it’s all right, no one is going to do those things to you anymore, he tried to tell himself, but even in his own head, his voice was wavering.
“That’s Landgrave Velleman,” the swordsman standing next to him said helpfully, still smiling kindly. “He’s my employer, and he owns the land this town is built on. He might look scary, but he’s all right.”
Gulcasa let his gaze slide over the well-dressed, sharp-eyed man walking towards him, then nodded. “That’s right… Nessiah said that I should ask for help from you.”
“I take that to be your friend’s name?” the landgrave asked, then went on as if he did not expect any answer. “These are the barracks of my private troops; I am Velleman. You are?”
He couldn’t hold that gaze. Gulcasa clasped his hands and stared at the flagstone floor; that was much, much safer and less intimidating. “My name is Gulcasa. I’m from a tower north of here… that’s where I’ve lived almost all my life. Nessiah was the one who convinced me to escape…”
“How did he sustain those injuries?”
“We had to fight… to leave. And there was an army waiting to ambush us. Balin’s army… he said.” Gulcasa had never asked Nessiah about why he’d been pursued—he hadn’t wanted to pry at the time—but now he was wishing that he’d managed to. He didn’t know what he’d do if this nobleman thought he knew more than he was saying. “Nessiah told me… he could tell you more about everything when he wakes up.”
He could feel the harsh stare boring into him and quailed, desperately battling the need to flee—but then the pressure of all that attention lessened.
“All right. You need not fear for your safety for as long as you are our guest, and you’re welcome to stay for as long as you must.” Gulcasa risked a glance up to see that Velleman had turned halfway and was now looking to the swordsman. “Jenon, he’s your responsibility while he’s here. Show him to a place to sleep later.”
Footsteps said that Velleman was walking away; Gulcasa did not see him leave, as he had turned around sharply and was staring at the man he’d called Jenon. It didn’t even occur to him to try to hide the shock that was probably all over his face.
“I told you he’s all right, didn’t I?” Thankfully, Jenon was still watching after Velleman’s back—it gave Gulcasa the chance to compose himself when he realized that he was probably gaping. “Do you want to see the rest of the barracks, or would you rather stay here until we get some news?”
At the end of his sentence, the swordsman turned back to smile at Gulcasa, who dropped his gaze back to the floor automatically. The desire to ascertain whether this man was the Jenon he’d known as a child was eating at him, but it couldn’t overpower how difficult it was to stare other people down.
“I… think I’d rather stay here. If that’s all right.”
“No, it’s fine. I think that’s probably what I would want too, if I were in your shoes.” And the man named Jenon pulled up a chair next to Gulcasa’s, then sat down.
A brief but tense silence passed. Gulcasa wanted to ask something, talk about something—he had to keep his mind off of Nessiah or he might break down under the strain of it all—but he couldn’t think where to start.
“You said you come from a tower to the north, right?” Jenon asked suddenly.
“Yes. I’ve lived alone there for a long time.” He stared steadily at the flagstones and shifted uncomfortably; his mother had always told him that being in the tower had been for his own good, but he wasn’t sure what to think now. What he was capable of was dangerous—he knew that she’d been right about that, knew it down to the marrow of his bones, but knowing that there was someone who could teach him to control himself… he’d thought that she would listen reasonably if they’d had the misfortune to run into her somewhere. He’d hoped. But she’d hurt Nessiah instead. He didn’t know if he could come to terms with it.
Jenon was silent; when Gulcasa risked a peek up, he was staring straight ahead, letting Gulcasa examine his profile. His eyes and hair were the right colors, at least if his memories were to be trusted. He didn’t know how to broach the topic—if this was the real Jenon, then he wasn’t sure if he could explain how he’d survived the fire. Surely even his childhood friend would hate him, if he explained what a monster he really was.
“If you’ve been there so long… then I don’t think you’d know, but this is probably the safest place for you right now. Velleman is very close to the Emperor, and our army may be small, but we’re called on to support the Imperial Army a lot. Our only real interest is the protection of the people… and the other nobles, like the duke of Balin, are Velleman’s enemies. So we’ll take care of you.”
Jenon’s expression was calm and there was pride in his voice—he seemed to be happy that he was able to help.
Still looking out of the corner of his eye, Gulcasa laced his fingers together nervously and forced the words out. “If it’s not prying too much—what made you decide to become a soldier?”
Jenon closed his eyes and smiled—his expression seemed a little pained. Still, he spoke without hesitation.
“When I was a kid… there was a huge fire in this town. It destroyed a large part of the commoners’ district. Even though I have noble blood and shouldn’t have cared much, I snuck out and played with the children from the slums a lot back then, so it was a big shock. The reconstruction took a few years, and even though only three people died… they were people I knew. Two of them were my best friends.
“While I grew up, I kept thinking about that fire. From what I hear, it started by some kind of accident during a fight—between one of my friends and his father. Most other people would probably say that they didn’t get along, but I think it’s more important to tell the straight truth. It was abuse, and even a kid my age could understand that. Some people just blame the fire on that fight, but after all the time I’ve spent thinking about it…
“The whole situation only got to that point because people were willing to turn a blind eye to a child being abused. People felt sorry for the victim, but they didn’t try to step in, and eventually things went out of control. My friend’s father was at fault, but so was the world. They didn’t have to die like that—they wouldn’t have if things had just gone a little bit differently. That made me think more about how life was in the town, and all the unfairness around us… and I wanted to do what I could to help the people who could change that unfairness.
“My parents didn’t want me to join the Landgrave’s army, but I didn’t listen. My father’s probably still angry at me, but I’m sure we’ll be able to reconcile someday. I know I did the right thing.”
Gulcasa had sat up straighter over the course of Jenon’s story and was looking at him directly, so when Jenon turned around to face him again, their eyes met—and held. “It’s a pretty boring story, isn’t it?”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Not at all. Thank you for telling me. I…” He struggled with words for a moment, then looked back at the ground. “I think you’re a very strong person.”
There was a brief silence, and then Jenon began to laugh awkwardly, as if embarrassed. “Now really, what would give you an idea like that?”
Of course he wouldn’t be able to articulate it, but—it was the same as Nessiah. Gulcasa had no idea how all these people managed to turn their tragedies into their strength and move forward with confidence—but it was amazing.
Would he ever be able to become like that? Was such a thing even possible?
He still wanted to tell Jenon the truth about himself, but—right now, he wasn’t sure if that was just because he wanted his supportive childhood friend back, or because he wanted to use Jenon as someone to cry to and hide behind. He’d do it once he was sure that the latter wasn’t his reason.
The healers… probably wouldn’t be able to fix Nessiah’s eyes. Gulcasa had read enough to know that much, and as frightening a prospect that was for him, it had to be worse for Nessiah himself. And when the one he loved had been hurt so badly, he… just wanted enough strength that he could get Nessiah to lean on him when he needed something to lean on, that was all.
It was a tiny determination taking light in a frail heart. Compared to Nessiah’s wild courage and Jenon’s strength to transcend his past, it wasn’t even enough heat to set off a candle, but it still felt inexplicably like a first step.
The door to the infirmary opened, driving those thoughts out of Gulcasa’s mind—all he could do was look up anxiously at the man who had emerged from the sealed-off room.
The man smiled.
“The treatment’s finished, and his life isn’t in danger,” he said; warm relief stole over Gulcasa’s entire body, building in his eyes and threatening to spill over. “You can come sit with him now if you want.”
Gulcasa spent most of his time in the infirmary with Nessiah over the next few days.
His face had been neatly bandaged, the slash wounds that had cost him his eyes blanked out with soft white fabric. As ever, Gulcasa found it hard to reconcile Nessiah’s distinctly frail countenance as he lay sleeping in the infirmary’s bunk with that of the gallant, confident, always-smiling figure of the immensely powerful magician who had rescued him from his cloistered life for all the world like a prince in a fairy tale. Nessiah’s body was small, but he had valiantly fought off hundreds of people to secure their chance at freedom. It seemed a miracle that they had made it here, even with Jenon’s help at the last moment.
When Nessiah finally awoke, he was fully aware of what had happened to him, and didn’t panic at being unable to see. Jenon led Gulcasa out of the room, and he went reluctantly so that the healers and doctors might speak to Nessiah in private about what he might do now.
Once that was over with, Gulcasa returned to the room and sat beside him.
“Magic is a very convenient thing,” Nessiah said wryly. He lifted his hand and rested his fingertips over the linen bandages, lingering over where his eyes had been. “I need a while to fine-tune it, but eventually I’ll be able to maintain constant-use spells that will make it as though I was never blinded.” He sighed, and moved his hand back to rest on his chest. “It’s difficult to take in fully.”
“It’s all right. You and I are both alive, and we’re together—that’s the most important thing.” Nessiah reached out and took his hand, squeezing it; Gulcasa intertwined their fingers. “I should really be apologizing to you—I don’t know if I’ll be able to leave this place until I recover, which leaves us in this town for a while. If it’s painful for you to be here…”
Gulcasa shook his head, trying to smile. “No, that’s fine. I was able to meet someone I know—I don’t think he recognizes me, but… And I don’t think I’m going to be wandering around the town, I’d rather stay with you. I—” He took a deep breath, held it, and released it; everything he wanted to say was getting tangled up and not coming out right. “I think that maybe… it’s a good thing that we’ll be staying here.”
He told Nessiah a little bit about what he’d heard from Jenon, and about halfway through, Nessiah started nodding.
“Yes, this likely is the safest place for us in all of Bronquia, except maybe the capital. You wouldn’t know, but Landgrave Velleman’s troops have a very good reputation, and he’s a respected political figure—I doubt that even the duke of Balin is going to risk the Emperor’s ire by provoking his favorite noble, even to capture the mage who made a fool of him.” Nessiah’s smile softened; Gulcasa’s chest squeezed at the sight—and his throat tightened at the memory of the way his eyes had always gone gentle when he’d smiled like that before. He had to burn it into his mind so that he’d never forget. “And it’s good for you to have connections to other people. It’ll be easier for you in the long run if you’re able to get used to being around others, and the sooner the better.”
Gulcasa nodded, then shifted uneasily in his seat. “When you’re well enough to travel… what should we do then?”
“The most important thing is to start teaching you to master your power as soon as possible,” Nessiah replied, straightening up slightly and turning his head as if staring off into the distance. “We might actually be able to start that here, if we can find an open enough area.” He smiled a little, squeezing Gulcasa’s hand again. “But other than that, there aren’t any real plans. All there is for us to do is live however we choose, and do what we feel like. The most important lesson I have to teach you is what it means to be free, after all. We can stay here if you want to, or cross the border and explore other countries… and I’ll do all that I can to protect you as we do.” He reached out, and the light brush of fingertips tickled Gulcasa’s cheek. “We’ll be together. Is that all right with you?”
Gulcasa closed his eyes and cupped his hand over the back of Nessiah’s, smiling back.
“There are so many things about the world that I don’t know. About you that I don’t know. But I want to start learning… you said you want to protect me. I think I want to support you, or at least try the best I can to do so. I understand that it—isn’t my fault, but just knowing me has cost you a lot. I want to do what I can to make up for it—to pay it all back.”
A shift of fabric ran through the still air of the quiet room, and as Nessiah’s fingertips moved over the line of Gulcasa’s cheekbone in a brief caress, a slight brush of lips touched his forehead.
“You only have the rest of your life to do it, so you’d best start thinking of how to make good on that,” Nessiah murmured, his voice playful.
Gulcasa opened his eyes. Nessiah’s face was less than a foot away from his—he was staring into the soft uneven brass-colored fluff of the other man’s bangs and the white layering of bandages.
On impulse, he reached out and touched the edge of the pale fabric—a bit hesitantly, a bit timidly.
“Does it hurt?”
Nessiah shook his head slightly, smiling ruefully. “The healers here are skilled enough that pain isn’t a problem. It’s more psychological… and the bandages are here in case something drastic happens, and to protect the eyes of others. The scars are a little…”
Gulcasa took a deep breath and summoned all his courage, then gently framed Nessiah’s face with both hands, pushing the edge of bandage up just enough that he could see the edge of puffy, lividly pink scar tissue crossing Nessiah’s eyelid.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly, his voice shaking a little with the effort it took to speak—this was almost too bold, and his throat was still thick with tears; between them and his rapid heartbeat, words came with great difficulty. “These are here because of me. You put yourself in harm’s way for my sake. The fact that anyone would do that for me—your strength and, and your courage… they’re beautiful.”
Doubting that he could speak any further, he leaned in to kiss Nessiah softly and briefly, allowing his eyes to half-close. As close as he was, he saw blood rise faintly beneath the skin of Nessiah’s cheeks, and then felt Nessiah’s lips curve slightly against his own.
“Honestly, what am I going to do with you?” Nessiah murmured, his voice gelled over. Gulcasa’s heart turned over hard in his chest, and the next moment Nessiah was kissing him so fiercely that he almost forgot to breathe.
As they parted, he leaned his forehead to Nessiah’s and closed his eyes against the tears starting to sting at them.
“If I’m with you…” Gulcasa broke off briefly, reaching out to wind his arms around Nessiah’s waist. “If I’m with you—then I believe that no matter what happens, I’ll be all right.”