Ironblack gave a small shrug of his shoulders. With the crossbow aimed straight at Feral’s heart, he fired.
Feral’s friends moved on instinct and with a speed born of desperation, though they knew it wasn’t going to be fast enough. Archer made a wild leap at his legs, aiming to tackle him down from behind, as Balthor and Cassanya both tried to knock him down, out of the line of fire.
An echoing clang, a thud, and they stopped in confusion, drawing up short of their target. The bolt from Ironblack’s crossbow had been aimed true, but Feral was still standing, arm raised in an instinctive attempt to block the arrow... and a shining silver shield upon it. The shattered remnants of a wooden shaft lay at his feet, the once razor sharp head now a blunted triangle in the dirt.
Ironblack was rattled. “M-magic!” he shouted hoarsely, backing up several paces.
Yes, Feral thought. Apparently so.As he watched, the shield shimmered, flowing like liquid, running down his arm, elongating into the familiar sword shape as his gripped the newly formed hilt.
Well that was fascinating. There were probably years of study in that, but Feral didn't think this was a good time to be thinking too much. For now, maybe just accept that whatever he had hold of seemed to be on his side, and hope for the best.
“Uh, Red...?” Archer began, but apparently ran out of words to follow up with.
Go, Feral thought, and charged Ironblack. Whether by an unusual turn of speed, or simple surprise factor, neither Ironblack or any of the surrounding slavers reacted until they were almost toe to toe. O-k... that worked better than I hoped... Hit him!
Flailing wildly, Feral managed to connect an unexpectedly hefty punch on the man's jaw, the metal hilt of his sword adding weight to the impact. He went reeling backwards, crossbow flying from his grasp.
Somewhere behind, Feral heard the twang of a bowstring, whirling on the spot, only to discover his new weapon was ahead of him, a silver shield forming just in time to deflect the arrow. And that, he realised, was both ranged weapons fired. His friends weren't slow to realise this either, charging the slaver with the bow and disarming him.
“Behind!” Hearing Archer’s warning came just in time. A silver shimmer blocked Feral's vision for a moment, and a loud double clang reverberated. Both Tessa’s throwing knives went spinning towards the centre of the cavern, embedding themselves in the floor. She backed up a bit, breathing hard as the metal in Feral's hand once again flowed into the shape of a sword. Yes, he agreed with it. Time to go on the offensive. Though you and I shall have some discussion later about what you are, he added mentally.
“Don’t just stand there! Kill him!” Tessa shouted at her now rather hesitant troops.
The next few seconds were a blur. The slavers charged, attacking with spear, club, staff and sword. Each time Feral countered almost before he was aware of the threat. Sensing that his movements were being guided, he decided to put his faith in his new weapon and let it do whatever it wanted to do.
Except that! Feral amended quickly, somehow managing to prevent the blade from taking the head of the nearest of the slavers, instead using the momentum of the swing to bring a sweeping kick up to the side of the man's head, dropping him on the spot.
Now look,he thought at the sword, since doing so seemed to have worked so far. I know you want to help, but let's not kill anyone, ok?Clang! Yes, parrying is good! Now, can we...Whump! The ursai in front of him went down like a very large sack of potatoes. Feral noticed that the sword blade, with which he had just hit the towering slaver on the head, had now become a rather neat cylinder of shimmering silver. Thank you!That's much better! He wondered if it was normal to talk to his weapon. Probably not, still, go with it, as they said...
“Ow!” The cut across his shoulder was shallow, but stinging.
“Magic or not, you're not thatfast, boy. Your new toy can't do two things at once it seems,” Tessa snarled at him, a curved sword in each hand, the edge of one stained red with Feral’s blood.
Feral made a fast, but uncoordinated sweep for her with his sword, or club, or whatever he was supposed to call it now. She however moved with perfect accuracy and timing, knocking his weapon to one side as she dodged to the other, her second blade slicing the air inches from his right leg as he followed through on the motion, dashing past her. He turned faster than she did this time, his foot finding the back of her right knee, sending her lurching forwards, the sword flying from her left hand before she could recover.
“Very nice,” she commented, circling around him, stepping up onto the lower slopes of a large stalagmite. “You might almost be a worthy opponent. I’d be half tempted to ask you to join my little band, if I wasn’t so sure you’d refuse.”
“You’re damn right I’d refuse,” the half-race spat out. “I’ll have nothing to do with your filth.”
“Oh you will, just as soon as I put you in your place,” she snarled. “Right back in a cage!” With an agility Feral had not at all expected, she jumped towards him high and fast, her feet landing on his shoulders, her blade stabbing downwards.
Turn!Not entirely sure the thought was his own, Feral twisted on the spot anyway, the point of Tessa's blade thrusting downwards, parallel to his back just inches from his skin. The movement was faster than she expected, and she teetered, lost her balance, and hit the ground hard. For a moment, he thought she was about to rise, then she went limp, her hand losing hold of her sword as the impact finally robbed her of her consciousness.
Feral suddenly felt as if a haze had been lifted from the world around him, realising for the first time that his companions had not been idle while he had been fighting as the silence of battle cleared from his ears. Each of them had charged the slavers with any weapon they could find, be it dropped by one of the slavers, loose rocks from the floor, or their own teeth and claws. Fighting for their freedom, with a vicious refusal to be taken alive, they had forced back the other slavers, who now lay either unconscious on the ground, or kneeling beaten in front of Archer and Tinnael who loomed over them with scavenged spears. It seemed there was no one left to fight.
“Are you OK, Feral?” a soft voice asked, and he turned to find Dinnael looking at him. The young vulpani had a cut over one eye, and his russet fur was covered in dust, but seemed unhurt otherwise.
“I’m… fine…” Feral answered, carefully flexing his limbs to make sure that was the case. “Just… a bit tired is all,” he mumbled, sitting down on a convenient rock. That was certainly no lie. In fact, Feral couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so exhausted. He closed his eyes, panting slightly.
“I’m not surprised,” Feral heard Cassanya’s voice say. “I’ve never seen anyone fight like you did,” she trailed off, looking down at him with a tone in her voice approaching awe. “Or use a weapon like that.”
Forcing his eyes open, he looked up at her. “Is everyone all right?” he asked, glancing around. He could see several of the ex-prisoners overturning the tents in the centre of the cavern, apparently either venting frustrations, or perhaps making sure none of the slavers were asleep or hiding inside them.
“Yes, they’re fine,” the leonin nodded. “Everyone's fine. Lot of bruises, few cuts, but nobody down. Nice work,” she smiled.
“Me?” Feral asked, surprised. “What did I do?”
“Gave us the break we needed. It was Ironblack’s crossbow and their weapons that gave them the advantage. You knocked enough of them down to even the odds, by the time the rest realised they should have been watching us, not queuing up to fight you, it was too late for them. What in heaven got into you?” she asked, kneeling next to him, brushing his hair back with her fingers and looking concerned.
Feral shrugged tiredly. “I have no idea. This,” he raised the silvery sword, which seemed to be the weapon's default shape. “I found it and... I didn't even know it could do any of those things. I just had this feeling that I – or it – could handle things.”
“Well, seems you were right about that,” the leonin patted him on the shoulder, a little enthusiastically and he wobbled slightly.
Dinnael nodded vigorously. “You’re not kidding,” he told her. “I’ve never seen a sword change shape like that before. Not that I've seen many sword fights. No serious ones at all, really...” he confessed.
Feral nodded, almost to himself, then stood up and looked around again. Archer and Tinnael had wasted no time in herding the slavers into the slave quarters, before any of them managed to pick their courage up again. He watched as Balthor dragged Tessa – none too gently – down the short tunnel, slamming the iron gate with an expression of deep satisfaction.
“There’s, um, two more in the tunnel over there...” Feral waved his hand vaguely across the cavern, and Balthor nodded.
“We’ll go get ‘em in a bit mate. They’re not going anywhere, I take it?”
The half-race shook his head, gaze moving to where Ironblack had fallen. Nobody had moved the man. Walking forwards, he slowed as he approached, a sick feeling settling into place in his stomach. He stopped a few yards from the man’s body.
“He must have hit his head when he went down,” Cassanya whispered, standing at his shoulder.
Feral swallowed, a bitter taste in his mouth. “Dammit, I wanted to stop him, but I never wanted to… to…” Suddenly he was running, up the nearest exist ramp, up the entrance tunnel, working on dead reckoning until he saw the crack of light ahead of him. Slamming his shoulder against the door, he shoved it with all his strength, opening it just enough to slip through.
When Cassanya caught up with him, it was to find him huddled at the base of the cliff, knees drawn up to his chest. She patted him firmly on the shoulder. “It wasn't your fault,” she told him gently.
“Whose was it then?” he shouted, suddenly furious. “Nobody else hit him!”
“He attacked you...”
“And I killed him for it! Me and this stupid thing! It...” he stopped, realising his hands were empty, but that a silvery bracer encased his right forearm. “Get off me! Get off!” He shook it, and when that failed, tried to dig his fingers under the edge and pry it loose. “Help?” he looked at Cassanya, who just spread her hands, her expression saying she had no idea how.
“Off!” Feral shouted, bashing the bracer against an outcrop of rock, again and again. “I don't want you! You won't make me do that ever again! Off!”
The silver metal didn't budge an inch. Several times, Feral thought he might have scratched the surface, but each time it sealed over again within seconds becoming smooth and flawless once more. Eventually, panting for breath, he ran out of energy, slumping defeatedly with his forehead against the cliff, the silver metal still firm around his arm, stubbornly refusing to be set aside. He didn't even have the strength to resist when Cassanya drew him over to a boulder and sat him upon it, bandaging his shoulder with a strip of cloth she had apparently thought to bring with her.
“You had to defend yourself,” she said quietly, sitting next to him. “He would have been happy to kill you. He brought the fight to you, and you didn't have any choice. Everyone knows it was an accident.”
Feral sighed, nodding to please Cassanya, but not really feeling any better. He knew that the man's death had not been his intent, but that didn't make it stop hurting. Nobody should have to die like that, not even an evil thug like Ironblack. Lives weren't worthless, even when put to such a use. Given a different start, Feral wondered if Ironblack would have turned out the same, or whether he might not have preferred a peaceable life.
Over the next day, the slavers’ camp was quickly raided. The companions managed to find supplies, warm clothing, and three waxed canvas tents – enough to make continuing their mountain crossing feasible. Tired as they were from the captivity, they all felt it was more important that they cross now, before the autumn set in, than take a rest and possibly wait until spring.
At the last, they considered dividing the emeralds amongst themselves, but discovered to their disgust that Tessa had sent a shipment down the mountain only the previous day. While forced to give her a grudging degree of admiration for inspiring such loyalty (or perhaps fear) as to be able to entrust this task to a subordinate, Tinnael swore that should they happen to overtake the delivery, the wealth would be redistributed to those who had worked and suffered for it.
The next morning, Tinnael, Dinnael, and the other ex-slaves bundled the ex-slavers into the backs of their own wagons, and set off westwards, back to their homes and families. Dinnael looked sadly at Feral as they parted, asking him if he wanted to go back with them, but Feral had to refuse. He had to find his sister, and to do that meant finding uncle Felli. He accepted written instructions on how to find the vulpani brothers, however, and promised to visit them if ever he was on their side of the mountains again.
With a final wave to the others, the companions set off.
“Here,” Archer’s voice was almost inaudible over the gale as he handed Feral a slim branch, the twigs all neatly cut off. Feral looked at it, then, seeing the sense of the suggestion, leaned on it as he walked, discovering that three points of contact with the ground wasactually helpful in the driving rain.
Balthor turned, the rain dripping off his face in rivulets, his grey fur plastered flat and shining. “There’s some trees up ahead,” he said. “Just hope they’re some good as shelter!”
Fortunately, they were. Although the grove was not huge, the force of the wind was such that it drove the rain almost horizontally, providing at least a degree of calm of the leeward side of the thick trunks. Looking at Feral, seeing him shivering and soaked, Cassanya unceremoniously grabbed hold of him, unclipped his sodden cloak, and pulled him down behind a tree with her, wrapping her arms around him, and pulling her own larger cloak around them both. For a moment, Feral tried to free himself, but found it quite impossible, and he resignedly relaxed into her warm embrace.
“You ok, squirt?” she asked, her chin resting on the top of his head.
Feral squirmed, embarrassed. “Um... yeah... thanks...”
Cassanya smiled, knowing he couldn’t see her expression “Hey, it’s my job to look after you, remember? Quit blushing and deal with it,” she snapped. She had to admit though, she was becoming rather fond of the young half-race, and she tightened her grip on him slightly until he stopped shivering.
The storm continued for about an hour more, communication limited to “oh well” looks between them as they sat behind their respective trees, shuffling around slightly as the wind changed direction a few points. Eventually however, the rain slackened, and finally ceased. Balthor stood up, looking stiff, and Cassanya wondered just how well he had healed from the punishment he had received at the slavers’ hands.
“Should cut some wood,” the lupari said quietly, with a smile and a nod at Feral. Cassanya leaned her head to one side enough to see Feral’s face, discovering that he had apparently dozed off in her arms. She favoured Balthor with an apologetic expression, but decided not to stand, thinking that the half-race could probably use all the rest he could get. The lupari nodded his understanding, and went off to find the furthest tree he could attack with an axe he had acquired from the slavers.
Cassanya took a moment to look at Feral’s expression. Sleep had lifted the lines from his features, lines that worry and hurt had put there, and that seemed so much a part of him when awake. Now he looked more like what he was - young, and innocent. Cassanya wished he could always look this way, that he could stay relaxed, and care free.
Even now, the silver bracer refused to change its form, too tight fitting to pull over his hand, and quite impermeable to everything Feral had tried to remove it. And yet... Cassanya thought, maybe that was no bad thing. Whatever it was, wherever it had come from, it had protected Feral, better than she herself had been able to. While it continued to do so, maybe it was better that it remain with him, by whatever means it felt necessary.
Feral hadn’t told her how he had found it, nor even how he had survived the collapse in the mines and every time he was asked he simply shuddered and turned away, saying he didn’t want to talk about it. Perhaps Fellirion would be able to shed some light on the matter.
The crunch of Balthor’s boots finally awakened Feral as the lupari returned with an impressive pile of firewood. He blushed and acted embarrassed, but Cassanya didn’t think he sat up quite as quickly as he might have done.
“Well that was a waste of time...” Archer announced, returning from the lake, Feral’s fishing pole slung over his shoulder, a solitary fish held in one hand. “Sorry mates,” he apologised, flopping down next to the wood that Balthor was carefully piling up. “Back to the jerky it is.”
“Cassy,” began Balthor, over the meagre meal. “Where exactly are we headed?”
“For now, downhill,” the leonin grinned teasingly at him. Balthor simply stared back at her. “Okay, okay. Take a look at this map,” she pulled a worn piece of parchment from a pocket and handed it to the lupari. “We need to get to the point marked in green. There’s an abandoned fort at a junction between a little stream and the main river. Or at least, the military abandoned it, but not everybody did,” she smiled.
“So, just stick with the river then?” Balthor.
“That’s the idea. Keep to the banks as far as we can, it should provide an easy path.”
“Reckon we could build a boat? Get us down a bit quicker?”
“Maybe, but not till we’re well out of the foothills, it’s all rapids and white water this high up.” She yawned expansively, and Feral raised an eyebrow from across the fire. Somehow, he always felt uneasy when reminded of how sharp her teeth were.
Balthor smiled at her. “Turn in if you like. I’ll take first watch.”
The leonin nodded at him. “It’s all yours, Thor. Enjoy.”
The other three rolled up in their cloaks and the blankets they had salvaged from the slavers’ supply wagons, leaving the lupari to sit and stare into the flames, listening intently to the sounds of the night. Two hours or so later he woke Feral to take over.
The young half-race sat hunched up near the fire, staring at the reflections of the surrounding trees in the silver metal around his wrist. He was starting to wonder if it was ever going to let go. Beyond the trees, wind picked up again, howling through the branches, giving Feral a distinctly creepy feeling, causing him to glance periodically at the shadows, straining to hear any hint of danger, nervously twitching at the faintest sound. He berated himself for being silly and tried to calm down. Some time later he nearly leapt off the mountain when a heavy hand came down on his shoulder, but it was only Cassanya offering to take over the watch. She smiled gently at his reaction and apologised for moving too quietly. Feral took a few deep breaths to calm his shattered nerves, said something about it being his own fault for not listening hard enough, and retreated into the vacant tent.
Feral ran. The darkness around him was thick and suffocating, smothering him in black velvet. He knew he had to go on, had to run, had to get out, but he couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe, didn’t know where he was running to.
There were things down here. He could feel them. Things in the dark. Hiding. Waiting. Waiting until he couldn’t run anymore. Waiting until weakness overtook him. He shouted at them to go away at the same moment he burst out into the moonlight, hitting the ground hard, rolling onto his back to look up at the sky.
Above him, a dark shape swooped through the night air, riding the winds with powerful wings, and he scrambled to his feet, running for all his worth up the hill. He knew the dragon’s rider was toying with him, if it chose it could easily outpace him, yet it stayed behind, always in sight when he turned his head, always bearing down on him from above.
Grass and bushes flashed by on either side as he pounded up the hillside. Suddenly his boot caught on something, he fell, rolling to a halt on the damp ground, loose stones cutting painfully into his palms. In a heartbeat, the dark shadow fell across him. This time, he knew, there was no escape. He could hear the powerful wing beats, feel the regular downdraft. He looked up to see two burning red eyes staring into his own, a mouth lined with long, sharp teeth opened in preparation for a deadly bite, and in a flash it passed over him.
It banked in the air, paused as if looking down at him, then swooped low over the hilltop and disappeared from view.
Shaking, confused, knowing he must flee, he also knew that he must see what lay on the other side of the hill. Staggering, feet sliding on the wet ground, he dragged himself to the crest of the hill and looked down.
Before him was the gentle curve of coastal bay. Along the coastline, the moonlight revealed a road paralleling the shore, matching the curve of the beach. The road led about half a mile away to a town, a town which was as familiar to him as his own reflection. He had been born there, been educated there, known its citizens as both friends and enemies. It had been his home.
The dragon hovered in the sky, its sinuous body and long tail a great sword about to plunge into the heart of the town. As he watched, the rider gestured, the dragon swooped low over the town, and he cried out, knowing with horrible certainty what was to follow.
Lightning forked down from the clouds above, striking the ground in the dragon’s wake. Where the bolts struck, the ground exploded upwards, showering superheated dirt and rocks upon the town, lighting fires and crushing buildings beneath the sheer weight of the onslaught. The creature opened its massive maw and flame spewed forth, igniting all in its path, leaving nothing but ashes. It screamed a cry of victory and turned towards him.
It was silhouetted against the cold disk of the moon as it bore down upon him. Fire roared once more, and the branches of the oak tree above him burst into flame as the creature sped by overhead. Staring at the burning wood, he saw with horror that it was that same tree that had stood proudly in the corner of his father’s garden, only now it was dead, and blackened, and there were names cut into the bark. The names of everyone who died that day. All the people he hadn’t been able to help.
At the bottom of the list, a name that didn’t belong there. The name of a man he had sent to join the dead.
Falling to his knees before the grave, tears streamed down the sides of his face. Feeling warmth on his hands, he looked down to see them covered in blood. Soaked to the elbows in blood, the blood of his enemies, and his friends.
He could hear the wing beats of the dragon, turning to see it swooping low towards him, its mouth gaping wide. He heard the whooshing sound as the creature exhaled, felt the heat scorch his skin, burn his hair...
“Hey, kid, wake up!” The voice cut through to Feral and a hand gripped his shoulder hard. His eyes snapped open and focused on the form in front of him. A sob of relief escaped him as he clutched at it, assuring himself of its reality. A blurred shape resolved itself into Cassanya’s face looking at him concernedly as she knelt by his side. Behind her, the canvas tent was dark, shifting in the cold wind that was blowing outside.
Momentarily taken aback, she patted him awkwardly as he clung to her hand, his breathing slowing to its normal rate. “I guess I was right to wake you huh?” Feral just nodded. “Want to talk?”
He swallowed, paused, then began to speak haltingly. “I – I was being chased by – the dragon – I thought it wanted me, but it didn’t. It – it wanted my town, my – my family. And – and Icouldn’t stop it. I couldn’t do anything to stop it!”
“The... dragon?” Cassanya asked softly, and he nodded miserably.
“I know I've got to find Shara... but I don't know how. How am I supposed to go up against that?”
The leonin sighed quietly, but with sadness rather than annoyance. “Feral, are you... sure you saw what you think you did?”
He looked up at her, a tear glimmering on his cheek. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
Cassanya regarded him sadly. “I don’t know. I think you believe what you say...”
“It happened!” Feral’s voice rose in anger. “Don’t you think I’ve been through this? Don’t you think I’ve asked myself if I’m right? It killed my family, Cassanya! The dragon, and that leonin woman. She took my sister, and now all I have left of her is this,” he reached into his vest for a moment, before brandishing a small wooden flute under her nose. “I lost everyone I ever knew, and you think I might have got it wrong about how it happened?”
“Kid, look, maybe you were hit on the head, or...”
“Or what, I dreamed it? I just woke up one morning and everyone was dead?” Feral almost shouted. In his tent across the fire, Balthor stirred in his sleep.
“Feral, please,” Cassanya kept her voice soft, realising she was walking a verbal tightrope. ”I know what you’ve lost, I know that it happened, but just listen to me, please. Is it possible that you were knocked out earlier than you think? Are you sure you aren’t just a little confused about what was real, and...”
Feral pushed past her, standing up as soon as he was in the open. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he told the leonin as she looked up at him, still kneeling in the mouth of the tent. “If you don’t want to believe me, fine, that’s your call. But don’t you dare try to tell me I’m wrong!” Angrily, he brushed away the tears that were running down his face, turning, and walking away into the shadows beyond the firelight.
Cassanya watched him go, her mouth half open, not knowing if she should call him back, or let him leave.
“Damn her,” Feral growled quietly. The sky had cleared slightly, and there was just enough moonlight to see his way by as he strode down to the riverbank.
“Damn her,” he grabbed a pebble from the ground and threw it forcefully into the still water of the lake.
“Damn her,” he sat down hard on a rocky outcropping that overlooked the water, one hand tight around the wooden flute in his pocket. He drew it out, looking at the finely carved wood, how it was so well polished it shone in the moonlight.
“Damn her to hell!” he whispered. “Damn her for taking you, Shara. I’m so sorry I couldn’t stop her. I'm going to get you back, somehow, I swear...” Not caring about the tears that ran down his face any more, Feral lifted the flute to his lips, letting the soft notes flow out across the dark water as his eyes rose to the dark peaks across the lake.
For a moment, a small streak of light lanced across the sky, a star falling from its place in the heavens, as if drawn down by the music. The wind rustled the sparse grasses that grew along the lake shore. Feral bent his head, and wept.
“You play pretty good.”
Feral sat upright suddenly, looking around. Archer smiled at him from over his shoulder, then hopped up onto the rock to sit beside his friend.
“Sailing song, west coast?”
Feral looked out over the dark lake ahead of them.
“Something like that,” he sighed. “I forgot most of it.”
“Ah, then you’re doing very well, for someone making it up,” Archer nodded.
“Ever learned ‘Green Woods of Rushvale’?”
Feral shook his head.
“Nice tune. Do you mind if...?” Archer held out his hand. Hesitating for a moment, Feral handed him the wooden flute.
“Now then, ‘ow was it...” Archer frowned for a moment, before placing the flute to his mouth.
Feral watched, smiling slightly as the sciurel brought forth a lively tune, one that carried with it images of camp fires, laughter, and late night dancing. Unconsciously, he let one hand tap against his knee in imitation of the fast rhythm behind the music.
“Old gypsy song,” Archer smiled, lowering the flute after a long note that still echoed around the mountains. “Something the Rushvale Minstrels taught me once. Always picks me up when I’m a bit down. I’ll teach you some time, if you like.”
Feral nodded, smiling a little as the sciurel handed his flute back.
“So, you ok out here on your own?” Archer asked as Feral pocketed the flute.
“Yeah, I guess,” Feral sighed, looking out across the dark water. “Just couldn’t sleep, really.”
“So ‘er ladyship said,” Archer jerked his head towards the camp site.
Feral winced, his ears sinking visibly. “I should apologise... she didn't deserve...”
“She didn’t take no offence, guv, don’t worry about it. Sounds like you were a bit shook up...”
“It’s just,” Feral continued, not really hearing. “I know what I saw. I know how it happened. And she doesn’t believe me.”
“About what, mate?”
Sighing again, Feral quietly recounted the parts of his tale that he had been reluctant to share before now, Archer sitting quietly as he spoke, not commenting, not judging, just listening.
Archer looked at him sadly as he finished. “Now I get it,” he said softly. “I understand now. I’m sorry, Red, that’s not something I’d wish on anyone, least of all you.”
“You believe me?” Feral’s ears perked up.
“Guv, I’ve met a lot of well practised liars in my time, and I’ve learned to lie with the best of them. Believe me there ain’t no better way to learn when someone ain’t tellin’ you the truth. Strange as you sound, it’s easier to believe what you say, than it is to believe you’re lyin’. You really ain’t got the face for it, somehow,” he smiled.
“Look, I should get back,” Archer looked at the camp site. “I was on watch, should at least try to watch everyone. You coming?”
Feral shook his head. “Not just yet.”
“Fair enough. Give a shout, if you need anything.”
Watching Archer depart, Feral sighed. It was nice to have someone believe his story, at last, but he wasn’t sure that he cared any more whether it was credible. He just wanted it to have been different. There were so many things that could have been different recently... Involuntarily, his mind flickered back to the dream Cassanya had woken him from, his eyes dropping to his hands. Clean and pale in the moonlight, yet he knew them to be stained with blood that was never going to wash away.
Shivering, he stood quickly, making his way hurriedly back to camp, completely failing to notice Cassanya watching him. He didn’t even try to get back to sleep, instead staring up at the dark canvas ceiling, thinking.
The wind was had picked up slightly the next morning as the companions resumed their march downstream, and the ground now bore a layer of crisp, early snow. Balthor had again taken the lead, along with Cassanya. Glancing behind her, the leonin politely concluded her discussion with the lupari and waited until Feral, shuffling his way along at the back of the line and looking despondent, caught up with her.
“You feeling okay?” she asked, her voice low.
The half-race stopped and looked up at her. “I’m tired,” he said softly, shaking his head, his eyes closing for a moment.
“Well you did have a bad night. If you want to take a rest…” the leonin started gently, but he shook his head again.
“I’m tired,” he said again. “Of being hungry. I’m tired of being cold. I’m tired of my feet hurting,” he went on, an angry edge appearing in his voice though his tone was quiet. “I’m tired of this damned collar,” he tugged futilely at the metal. “I’m tired of slogging through rain and snow, I’m tired of walking for eighteen hours a day, and I'm tired of this stupid thing!” he tugged futilely at the silver metal around his arm. “I never asked to get stuck up here,” he turned and kicked a random patch of pebbles, sending white ice crystals shimmering into the air, small rocks skittering away from the impact.
“Never asked to get caught by Tessa’s thugs,” his voice rose with each statement. “I never asked to be used as a slave miner! Never asked to become a…” his voice faltered and he paused. To the leonin’s concern he suddenly sat down, legs crossed, right where he was.
“Never asked to become a murderer,” he whispered quietly, his head sinking into his hands, a sick feeling settling in place at the bottom of his stomach.
The leonin’s mouth opened slightly as she realised what was on her friend’s mind. She knelt down in front him, waving with one hand for Balthor and Archer – who were now backtracking to see what the problem was – not to come any closer.
“Feral…” Cassanya said gently, putting one hand on his cheek. “C’mon, kid, don’t talk like that. It wasn’t your fault, and you’re no murderer. You acted in self defence.”
“I… thought I did,” Feral sniffed. “Now I’m… I’m not sure. At the time… all I could think of was not being taken prisoner again… there must have been a better way, something that wouldn’t have…” he trailed off unhappily, trying to ignore the prickling at the corners of his eyes.
“Here,” Cassanya put her free hand out and held it under his down turned face. “Take it,” she prompted when he hesitated.
Feral did so, and she squeezed his fingers gently, warming them in her grasp. “Do you trust me?” she asked, and he nodded mutely. “Why?” she asked.
“Why?” Feral blinked, surprised.
“Because… you’re a good friend to me,” he said quietly, finally meeting her gaze. “Because you’re always looking out for me, and because you’ve never let me down.”
The leonin smiled at him, rather flattered. “Oh,” she said, thrown slightly off track by his earnest response. Her expression hardened a little. ”And what if I told you that, like yours, my hands once held a weapon that killed someone?”
Feral looked down at her hand as she turned it palm upwards. He held it with both of his, his fingers stroking the soft fur on the back of her hand while his thumbs brushed over her palm, weathered from several months of travel and rough living, but still capable of the softest of touches. He ran his fingers along to the tips of hers, then squeezed two of her digits in each of his hands.
“It wouldn’t matter to me,” he said quietly. “I know you would never take a life if you had any choice. I know you’re a good person, and that can’t be changed.” He looked up again to find her beaming down at him.
“You understand what I’m saying?” she asked gently. “A good person is not made bad because of what other people put them through. People only go bad when they let themselves go so. What you learned yesterday is a lesson that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s a harsh one, and I dearly wish you didn’t have to learn it so soon. But it doesn’t change who you are.” The leonin moved the hand on Feral’s cheek to stroke his ear.
“Right now, you’re feeling pretty rotten about the whole thing, and you probably will for a good while, but you’re still you, you’re still a good person. I know that, and it doesn’t change how I look at you, nor will it change what Balthor or Archer think of you. That means it’s not something that should change how you think of yourself, either. Hear me?”
The half-race nodded, a trace of a smile appearing at the corners of his mouth, the first genuine smile to put in a show for a long time. “Thanks,” he whispered. The leonin grinned at him, standing and helping him to his feet.
“Um, Cassanya…?” he said, hesitantly.
“I’m sorry if I’m being a pain… last night I was... I know you meant well, and I was rude... I’m just not at my best, and I didn’t mean what I said just now.”
The leonin smiled and put her hand on top of his head. “Yeah, you did,” she corrected him. “And for what it’s worth, I feel the same,” she sighed. “I know things are tough right now, kiddo, and I know you’ve been through hell recently… just try to hang in there for a few more days. Can you do that for me?”
Feral nodded slowly. “I’ll try,” he murmured.
Cassanya smiled, then pulled him against her, ruffling his hair roughly with her right hand as she gripped him in a playful headlock with her left arm.
“Right, now that’s sorted, get moving, you,” she said with a slight note of command in her voice. “We’re losing time.” So saying, she took his hand in her own larger one, and hurried him along to catch up to Balthor and Archer, who were looking back at them curiously.
Balthor stifled a yawn, thinking that when his watch was over, he was definitely going to sleep well that night. Above them, the stars shone bright in the dark sky. Rain seemed unlikely, but it was getting bitterly cold already. Across the fire, Archer’s tail disappeared into one of the tents as the companions prepared to settle in for the night.
Feral looked up as Cassanya called softly to him.
“Come here a moment?” He nodded and moved over to her as she knelt in the entrance to her tent. “I’d like you to bed down next to me tonight,” the leonin told him quietly.
“Uh...” Feral blushed. “Why?”
“Because it’s freezing, and a bit of canvas over your head doesn’t change that.”
“I’ll be fine...” he said, making to turn away, but she reached up, grabbed his arm and pulled him down again.
“Now listen,” she hissed, in what Balthor knew to be her ‘no arguments’ voice. “It’s my job to get you off this mountain safely, and I am damned if I am going to let you freeze to death, do you understand?” She glared at him with fierce intensity for a few moments, but then her expression softened. “Please. You gave me enough of a scare back in the mines, don’t do that to me again. I just want to know that you’re safe.”
Feral felt suddenly rather guilty.
“Ok,” he said softly, with a glance at Balthor who quickly averted his eyes, giving the appearance of watching the middle distance with interest, although he couldn’t repress a small smile.
“Go get your blanket,” Cassanya said, and Feral did so, before squeezing his way into the leonin’s tent.
“Sorry,” Balthor heard him apologise quietly.
“That’s ok,” the leonin’s voice made its way out through the canvas. “Great Persica, you’re shaking like a wet kitten! Why didn’t you say you where thiscold?”
“Why didn’t you, you’re shivering too!” Feral’s voice countered.
Cassanya paused. “All right, you got me. I’m cold, I admit it, so you just play nice and keep me warm, all right?”
“See, that was all you had to say.”
Balthor put his hand over his mouth and suppressed a laugh.
“Hey,” Cassanya whispered softly as Feral settled down, still trying to keep some space between them and consequently being right up against the canvas. “That’s no good now is it? You won’t stay warm over there in the draft. Come here.”
Feral blushed as she pulled him against her, his back to her chest, one arm around his middle.
“Kinda embarrassing,” he admitted, choosing honesty over diplomacy as he looked over his shoulder.
“Nonsense,” Cassanya smiled as she worked her arm under his head. “You’re doing nothing wrong. Better than waking up with frostbite, eh? Just relax.”
Feral nodded, and tried to do as she said. It wasn’t actually very hard, he discovered. He couldn’t really remember the last time he had slept beside someone so, and suspected he had been very young at the time. There was, however, a certain security in being close to Cassanya. She was warm, and kind, and gentle, and he knew she had his best interests at heart.
“Cassanya?” he whispered.
Feral hesitated for several seconds. “Nothing,” he mumbled quietly. “Never mind.”
He could tell she was regarding him with an odd look, but her arm tightened around him a little, and he smiled.
As he had the night before, he dreamed of darkness and pursuit. For the second time, he was witness to the destruction of his home, but this time his hands were clean, the tree devoid of names. The dragon turned to come for him, as it had before… but was driven back by the presence of the tall figure standing at Feral’s side. With a roar, it vanished into the darkness of the night sky, and Feral slept on, the dream fading into a restful, quiet night.