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Hiking in the woods can be exciting for a day, even for two or three. In the Realm, surrounded by what can only be described as the true vibrancy of life, I managed a week. A full week before the chill of the Realm had filled my bones so completely that I was sure no heat would ever warm me. A week before sleeping on the hard cold earth had left my bones and body weary.
We seemed no closer to the goal. The wood seemed to delight in trickery, leading us down paths too dangerous to contemplate. And if the wood itself were not already against us, we had been followed for at least two days by something more than just eyes in the distance, glowing in the dark of night.
Nem stumbled behind me and I turned quickly to catch him before he hit the ground and help him back to his feet. Silver tears glinted in his eyes. He started to speak but I set a finger to his lips, took his hand in mine, and kept moving.
That it was day could be told only by the scarce light that penetrated the great canopy above. There were bare spots of sunlight, penetrating the deepest depths of the forest like a spotlight, dotting the floor of the wood with scattered shining spots of burning light. The rest was in a shadow that had grown worse with every day as we sank deeper into the wood. Even the glowing eyes at night seemed fewer in number, as if even they feared the true depths of the forest.
Nem looked at me, and I worried once again for my friend. He did not need sleep in the ways I did, but no child of any realm long suffered life without dreams and failed to pay a price. The one he was paying now clearly took a heavy toll on him. His eyes had softened to a neutral gray. There was no silver spinning, burning—mercurial—in his eyes. They were dead, looking blankly at the world and seeing nothing save for my hand in his, guiding him forward.
“S-stop,” he cried finally, as the dimness of the spots and the growing darkness told of night’s approach. “Just stop!”
I turned. Nem pulled his hands away and futilely tried to straighten his clothes.
I looked at him. They were automatic movements he was making. Something taught and ingrained deep in him. I couldn’t help but let the corner of my lips curl upward as I watched.
I enjoyed looking at him for a moment, allowing myself that indulgence, and then I cleared my throat. “We need to keep moving,” I said through dry lips. I moistened them quickly with a swipe of my tongue along the upper lip, and rolled them together. He watched that and for a moment I saw silver spinning in the gray.
“I can’t do this.”
“What will he do, if he catches us?” I asked, being sure to meet his tired eyes.
“He’ll kill you.”
“Not to me,” I said quietly, moving to cup a hand against his cheek. “What will he do to you?”
Nem glanced at my shoulder, where a hint of red still stained my shirt.
“Then we need to keep moving,” I said with conviction. “He only keeps us moving, and that’s for the good. I still need to find Jordan.”
Nem’s eyes darkened, as they always did when I spoke of the quest.
“It’s why I’m here,” I said plainly. “I never pretended otherwise.”
“I just. I keep hoping…”
I closed my eyes. “Please. You know that I have to save Jordan. I swore.”
“For him,” said Nem bitterly.
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Don’t you feel anything?” asked Nem, silver teardrops forming in his eyes.
I leaned my forehead against his. “You know I do.”
“Y-you. You were cold and you wouldn’t even—”
“I was tired. And so were you,” I said. “It wasn’t about not wanting, Nem.”
“Can’t you give in just a little?” he said, his voice squeaking out as a silver trail slid down his cheek.
“Jordan’s dying. Bit by bit, the tenuous links to his body wither. And the shell his mind has made to pretend existence here in the Realm is in such denial of the Real, of everything that Jordan is, that it may not even know the danger,” I said quietly. “I have to find him, Nem. I have to.”
Nem ground his jaw right and then left as he closed his eyes and turned slightly. It was his way of saying that he knew and still wasn’t happy about it. He’d done it often this week. Especially when I didn’t give in. And I hadn’t. Not since that morning after the dream. I’d known the kiss would only placate him for so long. He was of this realm, and waiting to indulge for one of royal blood? I was asking a lot of him.
“I need this to be real, Nem,” I said softly. “And it’s not yet. I know you’re tired. I feel that too, believe me. But pushing me away? Getting sullen and not talking? It doesn’t help your case.”
“I’m afraid,” he snapped at me. “Don’t you get that? Don’t you understand? I’m still here. He sent knights after us, but I’m still here!”
“I know,” I said. And I did. It was massively huge for him to still be here with me after he’d seen the marks of the lash on my back. The dreams had never left marks before. I could tell that at once. That they were there, real, that he could touch them. It had made what his father did to him suddenly mean so much more than it had before. When he realized that his father had done it to me, that I had taken that lashing for him, he broke down.
I’d offered to let him go. To continue on my own. I couldn’t abandon him, but he could choose to leave me to his father’s justice. He’d only asked me one thing. “Did you mean it?” He meant my promise. That he had a chance. That he could chip away at the walls around my heart. That he could maybe be what I needed to move on from Brian.
I cupped his cheek with my other hand and closed my own eyes. His flesh shuddered under my touch. “I still mean it,” I breathed, bathing his face in the frost of my breath.
He nodded, the movement a shared one, with my forehead still against his. Nem laughed. It was a rich sound. One that I knew I’d treasure each and every time he made it. Bri never laughed like that. Nothing like that. It was good. To know they were different. That I was seeing things in Nem that I’d never looked for or seen in Brian.
“You okay?” I asked softly.
“No,” he said shaking his head. “I’m still afraid of so many—”
My lips met his in a desperate plea. I couldn’t let him be afraid. If he was afraid, he could leave. I didn’t want that. I put my own fear of that, of losing him, of my own wants and needs into my lips, and this time, when he sought with his tongue I opened to him. I could feel his body sobbing against mine in relief as his arms wrapped around me and his mouth moved against mine, hungry to taste my breath and want.
He pulled away, panting heavily. It took me a moment to realize I wasn’t even remotely cold as I rested my forehead back against his and let my breath mist around us.
I leaned in and kissed him again, chastely this time. “Better?”
“Oh, Thommas,” he said, seizing me and holding me tight.
I returned the gesture, stroking fingers through long lengths of tangled silver hair as I held him. “We need to go,” I said softly.
He nodded against my chest and let go of me, but he was still trembling. So was I.
A crack sounded behind us and I turned. Silver gleamed in the dim light. It had been too long. I’d let my attention selfishly wander and I’d let down my guard for too long. I seized hold of Nem and pulled him behind me.
The warrior stepped closer. He walked openly now that we’d heard him, now that we’d seen the glint of light on silver armor. He was not so slight as Nem, but of similar build, his face cruel, his hair pulled back in cascade like moonlight on a waterfall. The corner of his mouth turned up into the hint of a smile.
He glared past me at Nem. “It you’d just asked, your father would have fetched you a toy,” he said, sneering at us both.
“He’s not a—” the rest of Nem’s reply was muffled as he was seized from behind, his mouth covered by armored gauntlets.
I did not let them hear my groan, but I still made it, silently, helplessly, as I watched an armored knight in silver drag Nem away from my grasp. I turned to the first knight, and fixed my gaze upon him. “I am no toy,” I said.
“It speaks?” The knight spread his arms as though in wonderment. “A trained toy, then. Tell me, do you do tricks?”
In the Real I might have taken second meaning from that. Certainly the statement did nothing to improve my demeanor. “Not. A. Toy.” I said, biting off each word and meeting his eyes defiantly.
“Is that… could I possibly sense a challenge? No. You would not dare to be so foolish,” said the knight.
“As to defy you?” I asked, letting my own lips curve into a smile. I heard the muffled whimper from Nem. This man scared him. That was good to know. “I think I might be a very foolish man, then.”
“You can’t think the king will allow his only son to have a lover from the Real,” said the knight, pulling his sword and pointing the blade at my chest. He was still some distance away, the move made to be dramatic, intimidating. If the continuing whimpers and sounds of struggle from behind me were any indication, it had succeeded admirably on Nem. The knight took a step forward. He intended it to be menacing, that was clear, a show for the prince.
The sounds of struggle behind me grew. Nem was fighting. He was losing, but he was fighting. I smiled and arched an eyebrow at the knight. “Surely you don’t think I’m afraid of that pointy little stick,” I said seriously.
“Have you no idea who I am?” asked the knight incredulously. “Even a feeble traveler from the Real shou—”
“I know who you are Tellok,” I said flatly. “I know you slew the great wyrm Scithiaaas. I know you held off the trolls at Zarun. I know you fought in the battle of Altir. I know you survived the murderers of the crimson rag.” The knight’s face blanched and he hesitated. The cries behind me grew desperate.
“Who are you?”
“Your king sent you against me without speaking of it?” I asked, and shook my head. “Then you do not deserve to know. I know who you are, Tellok of Zaharoth. I am not afraid.” The last I said with my gaze locked against his, so that he could see the truth of it.
His face became a mask of rage then, and he rushed me all at once, swinging his sword down hard, intent on bringing me to a swift end. I did not move. The blade slid through my body without touching me, and when it failed to meet the expected resistance, even the training of the warrior was not sufficient to save him. Tellok stumbled and I met him then, my hand against his chest and pushed him away.
There was screaming in the background and the sound suddenly of real fighting. I did not look. My gaze was fixed still on Tellok, who was looking at me with dazed and murderous eyes.
He leaped to his feet in a singularly beautiful movement and swung again, tumbling to the ground as the blade swung through my body as though I was not there. It was a killing blow, yet no silvery steel touched my flesh.
“How!” screamed the knight, swinging the sword into my body as hard as he could over and over, as I grabbed hold, lifted him, and tossed him forcefully against a tree with all my strength. He hit it and gasped as the air left his lungs, but before he could rise I spoke, and the trees, which had listened for days to my voice soothing them as we took our rest, responded. Branches wrapped and held him tight and he screamed in rage.
“I am Tellok!”
I ignored his cries and turned to the other who was dodging a sword as Nem wielded it rather more expertly than I’d expected, though I should have. In the Realm being a prince was no guard against battle, and a prince would have been well prepared to defend… and attack.
“Manhandle a prince of Zaharoth,” he screamed as he swung the sword at the other.
I set a hand on his shoulder, my gaze upon the knight, whose stance was decidedly defensive. Nem quieted immediately, shaking, then collapsed into my arms, his sword tumbling from his hands onto the ground. I glared at the other knight. “Stand down.”
“I have my orders.” The voice was sweet and lyrical. “I cannot just let you go.”
“You can. I am not telling you. I am asking you.”
“I am sworn—”
“To protect Zaharoth and its heirs from all threats,” I said. “He has claimed a price, and the Realm demands he collect. Would you risk ruin on Zaharoth that he fail to claim a price?”
The knight hesitated and removed her helm.
Nem gasped and clutched me tighter. “Please,” he whispered, “just let us go!”
“Is this true?” she demanded. “Is there a price?”
“And it requires you to travel with this… this thing,” her disapproval was clear, “of the Real?”
“Don’t call him that!”
“Shh,” I said, pulling his head against my shoulder, “to her that’s all I am.”
“As if I should think you more.” Her eyes narrowed. “And if I tried to skewer you to prove my lord’s might upon you?”
“Didn’t work so well for him,” I said, nodding at her companion.
“Should I test that, I wonder?”
“If I die, the price goes unclaimed,” I said. “The Realm would not take that well. Not at all.”
“But he touches you. A thing of the Real.” She glared at Nem. “You kissed him,” she said, her voice cold. “You kissed him. It was not just him. Do not pretend we did not see.”
At this Tellok screamed again. “Just kill the thing! It defiled the skin of our prince!”
I raised my hand, the other pulling Nem closer. “I would not risk it.”
“You are not afraid,” she said, looking at me intently. “You knew exactly who he was”—she nodded at Tellok—“and you were not afraid of him either. You stand, unarmed—”
“I never claimed to be unarmed,” I said. “And I am not telling you to let us go. You follow orders. But I know you do more than that. I know you did not become a knight by being blind to the shape of events.”
“I cannot let you go.”
“We are fleet of foot and unencumbered. The forest itself protects us. You could fall behind,” I said. “You could choose to fall behind.”
“And fail in our task?”
“Whatever you choose, you will fail a task. You can obey your orders, and bring ruin, or fail to catch us, and lose acclaim. Each requires sacrifice. But one requires only your sacrifice, and not that of the kingdom you protect.”
She glared at me and then at Nem. “You let him touch you?”
Silver tears clattered to the ground as Nem pulled himself closer to me.
Tellok screamed at the knight. He screamed, furious, and the things he said of me and of the prince I held are best not repeated. But what he said mattered little. In the end, the knight lifted Nem’s sword and handed it to him, then fixed me with a stare. “I entrust to you our prince, stranger of the Real. If I learn that any harm has befallen him, trust me, I will need no sword to bring wrath upon you.”
“Luella! You can’t,” screamed Tellok.
“Go,” she said. “You must be far from this place before the mind of the king seeks his son, or this ruse shall stand no chance.”
“Ruse? You think I will abide by this—”
I turned and glared at the fallen knight. “You are bound, sir. Bound by ancient tradition to do me the honor of one task for sparing your life.”
“I saw no such mercy!”
“You think these trees could not as easily have torn your body in two as held you against them?” I said. “You think if I asked them, they would not still?”
Tellok’s face became fixed in a grimace. “I… I will abide by the code. I will take this task and honor it by… by falling behind. You do my name dishonor in this,” he growled. “And in your false combat.”
“There is no dishonor on your name. That only the two of you will know this is of no consequence,” I said calmly.
I glanced back to Luella. The knight looked at us and then to her companion and then spoke. “Go. Go quickly.”
I took Nem and pulled him close to me, kissing him gently on the forehead, then I took his hand and ran deep into the wood, pulling him behind me. And we kept running.