They tended to him while he slept. Pieces of wooden floor and beam had cut him all over, and shards of glass from the store inventory had dug into his arms and legs. He was alive, but unconscious. The man they found beside him was not; his neck was broken, and a wooden support beam had fallen on his legs, nearly ripping him in half. He was on a cold slab, a few rooms over, with a thin blanket over his ruined form.
Sarah stitched up the last wound on the calf, running the last bit of thread through the skin, and pulled it closed. She poured wine over the wound, and then cleaned it with water. The Toha healer, an old man named Ian, was using what little magic he had to repair the worst of the cuts on Alex’s chest. He closed up a brutal gash from a shard of broken pottery, and nearly fell over Alex’s prone body.
“Ian, rest. I can handle this while you gather yourself,” Sarah said. Ian shook his head.
“Some of these wounds are too deep. I have to cleanse them,” Ian said. He took a step back, took a drink of wine, and steadied himself. He leaned back over Alex’s body, and put his hands over a cut on his neck. He muttered under his breath, and green light poured from his fingers. It sunk into the cut, and put it back together, and dissipated into the air. Ian stepped back, sweat pouring. He wiped his face, in distress.
“You might have to finish this, Sarah,” Ian said, sitting down in a nearby chair.
“You’ve closed up the worst of it. Just relax,” Sarah said. Ian nodded, and closed his eyes.
The use of magic had begun to take a real toll on Ian. He had always been able to put back together most people, repair most wounds; Sarah had seen him reattach a leg, and countless fingers and toes. But he wasn’t the same; that magic wasn’t his to have, not at the magnitude, and his body could no longer handle the stress.
She had taken over a larger and larger role over the past year, essentially taking care of anyone who wasn’t near death. She had no magic; or, if she did, she did not have someone to train her to access it. Ian had learned at the feet of the greatest healer in the Four Corners, Expara Isa, and learned how to mend and heal, but he had no natural well of magic, and had to draw it all from within. It was painful, and meant for the young.
Sarah cleaned a slash above Alex’s eye, and cleaned up the blood and gore on and around his body. She took the mess away, and put it a basket out back, and came back inside. Ian still had his eyes closed, but the color had returned to his face.
“Thank you, Sarah,” he said.
“You’re very welcome, Ian,” she said.
“You’re as a good a healer without magic as I am with.”
“We both know that’s total bullshit.”
Ian laughed, a belly laugh that shook his whole body. Sarah smiled, and chuckled.
“You make things easier on an old man,” he said.
“You’re not that old,” she said.
“I am 65. I am as old as the dirt below and the stars above. Or, at least, it feels that way when I get up in the morning.”
“If aches and pains are the sign of old age, then I must be as old as you.”
“Bah,” Ian said, “your aches at 21 come from fun and games and heavy lifting. Mine come from breathing, and eating hot foods. Help me up.”
Sarah took his hand, and helped him to his feet. He was up, but not quite steady. He took a deep breath, and let it out.
“I suspect they’ll want to talk to him,” Ian said.
“They said they’d be back soon,” Sarah said.
“It’ll take some time to sort everything out. It’s only been an hour or so since they brought him in.”
“I thought the old guard was going to strangle you when you didn’t use your magic right away.”
“The Captain is fond of the boy. I’ve seen them walking late at night, sometimes.”
“I don’t know much about him,” Sarah said.
“He came from the capitol, worked as a Palace Guard. Ended up in Merchant Bannar’s employ, though I am not sure how that happened,” Ian said.
“Who gives up a Palace Guardship to work as a merchant’s bodyguard?”
The front door swung open, and they both turned. Merchant Bannar was standing in the doorway, flanked by two Village Guard, the old Captain and a young guard named Sterla.
“I apologize, ser, I thought you would rather wait till morning,” said Sterla.
“My personal ****ing bodyguard is blown up my own ****ing shop, and you thought that could wait till ****ing morning?” Bannar said, incredulous. Sterla wrung his hands.
“Some of the merchants get upset when disturbed, ser. I meant no disrespect. I–”
Sterla bowed, and left. Bannar turned to the Captain, and sighed.
“Apologize to the young man for me, please.”
“Of course, ser. May I see Alex before I go back to the investigation?”
“You don’t have to ask me that, Harry. He is as much my friend as he is yours.”
“Not quite, Merchant Bannar, but I appreciate you saying so.”
The old Captain and Bannar came up to Sarah and Ian. The Captain put out his hand, and Ian shook it.
“I am sorry, Ian. I lost myself. It won’t happen again,” the Captain said.
“Of course, Captain Reyna. I understand,” Ian said.
“May we see Alex, please?” Bannar said. Ian nodded, and they followed him into the back room, where Alex lay, asleep. Bannar went over to him, and touched his forehead, almost tenderly.
“Gods above,” Bannar whispered.
“He’s going to make it, ser,” Sarah volunteered. Bannar looked over at her.
“Are you sure?” he said, and Sarah nodded. Bannar looked back at Alex.
“What about the other one,” he said, “the thief.”
“Dead when he got here,” Ian said.
“Take me to him.”
Ian led Bannar off into the other room to see the body. Sarah stayed with the Captain, who stared at Alex from the doorway.
“Has he spoken yet?” the Captain said. Sarah shook her head.
“He hasn’t woken up since they brought him here,” Sarah said.
The Captain walked over to Alex, and checked his wounds. He touched the wound on the calf that Sarah had bandaged.
“Your work?” he said. Sarah nodded.
“I have no magic, not like the Healer,” she said.
“I was an apprentice warrior in the First Blades, years and years ago. This is as good a work as any of their healers.”
Sarah felt her face redden, but kept her cool.
“That is a high compliment, ser,” she said.
“My name is Harry,” Harry said. “You don’t have to call me ser, madra.”
“I’m Sarah. You don’t have to call me madra. I am only 21,” Sarah said.
“I am grateful to you and Ian for the work you’ve done. Alex is a good friend.”
“You are welcome, Harry.”
Ian and Bannar returned. Bannar was rubbing his forehead.
“Did he have anything on him?” Bannar said.
“Not that we found,” Ian said.
“What about Alex?”
“This was in his hand, clutched tight. We nearly had to break his fingers to remove it from his palm.”
Ian picked up a shapeless stone, with a blue circle with a line through burned into the side. Bannar’s eyes widened.
“Did anyone else touch it?” he said, trying to keep calm.
“I did,” Sarah said.
“Did anything happen to you?” Bannar said.
Bannar cursed. He took the stone from Ian, and put it in his pocket.
“Do not tell anyone about this stone,” Bannar said, looking at all of them.
“Why?” Harry said.
“Because if word gets out that this stone is in Toha, a lot of people are going to come looking for it. Come with me, Harry.”
They head towards the front door, Sarah and Ian in tow.
“Should we be worried?” Ian said.
“If men come to your door,” Bannar said, “you’ve never seen this stone, and Alex is not here. Understand? They are not here.”
Bannar and Harry walked into the night, Bannar whispering furiously in his ear. Sarah and Ian watched them disappear into the darkness.
“What the hell have we gotten into,” Ian said. Sarah felt her stomach turn.
He had never seen this place before. It was cold, and damp, and he could hear the wind whistle through the caves. He did not want to be here. He did not know how he got here. He did not know what made him so afraid.
There was a noise, and he jumped; he stared into the absolute black, and held his breath, and listened, but he was alone. There was a way out of this cave, at the other end of the room; he did not know how he knew this, just that he knew.
He fumbled over rocks and other things; things that crunched and things that ran. He bit his tongue when something climbed up his leg; he cut his arm when he tripped over something soft, and cold. At the end of the cave he found that exit, just like he thought he would. His first foot step over the threshold was made in the pitch dark of nothing at all, and the second step over pushed him into a room of brilliant light.
He covered his eyes. It was so bright, he could not find any air. He tried to run, but only fell again. He curled up into a ball, and tried to scream, and tried to cry, but neither came. His breathed deep in the shallow air, and eventually found his lungs, and eventually found his sight, and eventually found his mind, too.
It was a crawl, first; over the now-smooth stone floor. He made it to a wall, and he climbed it, steadying himself on shaky toes and ankles. The room he was in was lit by torches, hung on the walls and inset into the ceiling. There was nobody else around him; there was no other noise besides him.
He could see a few doors, but when he looked away and back, they disappeared. Another door appeared next to him, and he touched the handle. It was cold, and soft, and it fell apart in his hand. The door disappeared, and somehow he knew that he was not meant to go into this room, not ever again.
He ran his fingers over the wall; they were smooth, and multi-colored. A common rock, for such a floor, he thought. One of his fingers brushed a rough patch, and a door appeared underneath his hand. He touched this handle, too, and it opened for him, this time, and he went into the room it offered.
It was empty, save for a mirror; he made his way over to it. He looked in the mirror, and did not recognize himself.
“You know what you have to do,” said a voice, and he turned. It was an old woman, hair gray, and fingers bent.
“I’m afraid,” he heard himself say.
“I know,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t think I’m brave enough.”
“You are. You made it this far.”
“We both did.”
The woman reached out, and he took her hand.
“It’s time to end this,” she said.
“I’m afraid,” he said.
“It’ll be alright,” she said, and in her other hand was a shapeless stone, with a black V burned into the side. When she squeezed it, he felt a heat inside his stomach, and it spread to his eyes, and his lips, and his tongue. It burned through him, and then he was gone.
Alex woke up on the bed, and he wished he didn’t. Every movement was a stretch of skin, every breathe a reminder of his broken ribs. He sat up, a cry dying on his lips, and sat still as his vision swam back into focus. He did not know who he was.
He was cold; on the bed though he was, he was naked from head to toe. He stood, unsteady, and fell back on the bed. He had been dreaming about something, dreaming about somewhere cold, and damp, and faraway, but he did not remember what. He did not want to go back.
Alex got his feet, again, and this time he stayed upright. He looked for clothes, and only saw the battered remains of his golden armor, and the torn asunder tunic that he wore under the steel. His sword was broken, too, cast away to the side. He did not see the other man, the one whose life he choked out with his bare hands. Heat rose in Alex’s throat, and he vomited all over the floor.
“He’s awake!” said a voice. Alex looked up, and saw the Healer Ian, and his assistant. The assistant came over to him, and when he tried to step towards her, she caught him.
“It’s okay, ser,” she said, barely above a whisper.
“What happened?” Alex said, unfamiliar with the rasp that came from within him.
“You were in an accident. Please lay down.”
Alex did. He realized, again, at the same time, that he was naked in front of two strangers. He tried to cover himself up, but was too weak to even pull the blanket over his legs. The assistant saw what he was doing, and covered him up.
Healer Ian came over to him.
“Can you breathe alright?” Healer Ian said.
“My ribs hurt when I do,” Alex said.
“I can take care of those tomorrow. Anything else hurt?”
“To be expected. Stay in bed. Sarah, come with me, please.”
Sarah nodded, and followed Ian out of the door. Alex laid there, alone. He wondered what Bannar thought; he wondered if he would have a job after this. He didn’t know what he would be if Bannar got rid of him.
He hadn’t hurt this badly since Bannar picked him from that jail cell. He was bruised and bloodied then, too, and he would’ve rather never woke up then, either. He still remembered the guilt he felt, the pain and anguish at his actions, and it mirrored the horror that he felt now. He had killed a person, with his bare hands, again. He hadn’t swung a sword or shot a bow or threw a punch outside of training in ten years; he had been naive to think that he would never have to again, but this was much too far. Much too far.
Alex sat up again. He did not want to lay down. He wanted to apologize to Bannar. He would leave if Bannar asked. For all the man had done for him, and this was how Alex repaid him.
“Get back in bed,” Sarah said, walking into the room. Alex shook his head.
“I’m not getting back in bed,” he sad.
“Get back in bed, ser.”
“I need to talk to Bannar. I have to talk to him.”
“He will be by shortly. Please lie down.”
Sarah pushed him gently back on the bed, and Alex was too weak to resist. She covered him up with the blanket again.
“The more you rest, the quicker you will heal,” she said.
“Bannar. Please get Merchant Bannar, madra,” Alex said.
“We will. I promise.”
Sarah left the room. Alex tried to get up again, but he was exhausted this time, too worn by the previous walks and the cuts and bruises, and instead of swinging his feet over the bed he felt his eyes begin to slide clothes. He fought, for a moment, and then fell asleep, hoping for a dark, dreamless sleep.
Harry watched the men walk through the front gate, just as Bannar warned him they might. They were armored, with swords at their belts. Two of the seven men carried crossbows, hung by a strap from their shoulder to hip. They were cloaks to disguise much of this, but the bulk was obvious to anyone looking. After they had gone, Harry went up to the gate guard. He was a young man named Thomas, a bright boy with no ambition. Harry liked him a lot.
“Evening, Thomas,” Harry said.
“Evening, Captain,” Thomas said, standing up a little straighter.
“You know anything about those boys that just came in?”
“No, Captain. They asked for quarter for the night, said they were leaving in the morning.”
“They say where they came from?” Harry said.
“No, Captain,” Thomas said.
“If anyone else comes in, please send word.”
Harry left Thomas to his duties. The boy leapt at the opportunity to do his job, and yet had no designs on command; he was a rare breed, a type of man suited to lead. There are those who wish to lead, who desire to lead, who can lead, but in Harry’s experience most of those who desired to command their fellow man shouldn’t be allowed to hold a sword, let alone direct a group of them.
Harry found himself drawn towards Healer Ian’s home; he wanted to see Alex again, even though he’d seen him only a few hours prior. He felt responsible for the boy; well, not a boy, but he often seemed like one. Harry didn’t know what had happened to him–everyone heard the rumors, about his time as a Palace Guard–but whatever had happened there made me as meek as a child. He played the part of a guard; Harry had never even seen him draw his weapon, and had never seen his finger on the trigger of his crossbow.
It was refreshing, to see a man who had no desire for violence. They did not come along often, not in his line of work. Harry felt every scar on his body, every step he took; he could see the face of every person he ever killed. He had never liked it, never been a wild animal, never been a man who screamed and carried on. But he had done his duty, and then he had retired home.
A woman came up to Harry as he passed the Healer’s house, bruised and battered. When she got close, the moonlight shined on her face: it was Gita.
“Captain,” she said, gasping at the effort.
“Gita, what happened? Are you alright?” Harry said.
“There’s a fight at the bar. I got two of them but the others are still there.”
“Go to the barracks, find Uso. Tell him to get five men and meet me at the Greased Pig. Then you find Marcus, and stay with him at the barracks until this is over. Go!”
Gita left, stumbling along, holding her right arm at a bad angle. Harry drew his sword, felt the heft of it in his hand. He made his way to the Pig; he began hearing screams as he drew closer, and when he saw the front door of the Pig, he saw the body of a woman, her dress bled through, splayed on the now-mud ground.
The door was open, and Harry peeked inside. Four men, all armed, all drunk, sat on the bar top. They were drinking, and laughing, and pouring beer and ale on the bodies of two young women. There were a few other bar patrons, some dead, others badly wounded, on tables and the floor; one of them was a local Merchant, Jayr Goni. A young man, one of the Village Guard, was driven into the wall, hung up like a painting by a sword in his chest. Harry felt hot anger, and real fear, and he stepped inside. The four men saw him, and cheered.
“Finally, some real sport,” one said, a short one with thick black hair and a loud mouth. “After the bar bitch ran, we had nobody else to play with.”
“She got two of our own,” said another, a muscular blond, whose boot dangled above the unseeing eyes of one of the young women.
“She’ll pay for that,” said the loud mouth. All four men hopped off the counter, and strode amongst the dead and dying, until they were no more than ten feet from Harry.
“Where is he?” said one, a tall, spindly bitch of a man, with teeth like a rat.
“Shut up,” said the blond, “we’ll find him after we dispose of this one.”
“Besides,” said the mouthy ****, “if you hadn’t got impatient, we wouldn’t be slowed down by having to deal with this cocksucker.”
“I was tired of waiting for the right one,” said the rat ****. “I was bored.”
“You won’t be bored now.”
Harry tried to speak, but found no words. He shifted the sword in his hand. The four men took notice, especially the last man. He had brown hair, and a bright smile, one that he was giving Harry now; he carried a hammer.
“Come, guardian,” said the hammer man. “Come protect your village.”