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The night in the primeval wood of the realm was oppressive even with the small fire on which we’d roasted the rabbits that the young prince of Zaharoth had presented me. He’d come to me rather gruffly with a demand that since he had caught the creatures, surely it was my duty to clean them. It only took a glance for me to know that he had no idea how.
I watched as Nem delicately nibbled at his dinner, clearly appalled at the demand that he eat the spitted creature with his hands. He was compensating by trying to take delicate bites, and failing badly. I kept back the urge to laugh. The look on his face, combined bewilderment, disgust and a little thrill at the experience of something new, made him look… I covered a sigh with a quick bite of my own, chewing fiercely with none of Nem’s delicacy.
He was quiet throughout dinner, his fascination and frustration breaking down finally into feverish biting and chewing of his own. He didn’t speak, and his gaze was frequently on the shadows outside the light of the fire.
He shook his head and stood, turning away from the fire to look at the glinting light of eyes in the dark. They were getting hard to see without the brighter light of the fire. “What if they aren’t?”
I stood and walked up to him slowly. “Trust me.”
“I don’t even… I don’t know you.”
I laughed. “I am the One That Feels. Surely that tells you enough.”
He shook his head. “No, it doesn’t.”
“And what you saw before?” I asked. “If you do not trust even your own eyes, why do you follow.”
“You…” There was glance, furtive, and then closed eyes and a head bent toward the ground. “You called me a friend.”
“Did you mean it?”
I looked at him oddly before I realized with certainty that this young prince had none. Very softly I responded. “Yes, Nem. I am your friend.”
“It’s cold,” he whispered. An admission of weakness.
I shook my head. “Come back by the fire. It’s still warm there.”
His head remained down as he let me lead him back to the fire and sit him down. “They’re still watching us,” he whispered.
“I know,” I said. “Don’t be afraid.”
“But I am afraid.” His tongue tried not to say the words, and they were half mumbled, but I could still make them out.
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said, reaching out hesitantly to brush back his hair. “I promise.”
His sigh was very deep, and I thought I saw a flash of red in his cheeks, though the light of the fire made such determinations uncertain. “I shouldn’t be afraid. It’s weak.”
“Shh,” I said softly, and patted him softly on the cheek. The skin there was rough, slightly, from the day’s growth of stubble. I couldn’t see it, some aspect of glamour working to keep it from sight, but I could still feel it brushing against the tips of my fingers. “I was not idle, my friend, while you hunted.”
And I stood then, and spoke words to the trees and the forest rang with the sound of branches creaking as they wove around us, branches and vines and thorns wrapping around our little camp like a cocoon. And the eyes that glinted in the night moved backward into the shadow, and Nem’s eyes narrowed as he glanced up at me.
“H-how?” he asked after a moment, his voice catching with wonder and seemingly embarrassed over it.
I smiled as I knelt next to him. “Do you think your worries mean nothing to me?” I said.
I silenced him with a quick finger, set gently to his lips. Damn, they were soft and full and a temptation I didn’t need. I closed my eyes. “I knew you were worried. Now, don’t be. We are safe.”
He gulped and nodded, pulling off his cloak and wrapping it into a bundle onto which he could lay his head. I smiled at him again and walked to the base of a tree, sitting down and leaning against the massive trunk.
“Aren’t you cold?” he asked, not even raising his head.
“It’s hardly the first time I’ve slept in the wood through the cold of night. Sleep, Nem. We have a long way to travel, and little time.”
“You’d have gone on.” He hesitated. “You stopped because of me, didn’t you? Because I’m with you.”
I didn’t answer and after a moment his voice came again. “I’m sorry.”
I watched him for a moment. His face gleamed in the soft red light of glowing embers. Pale and beautiful. “Just sleep.”
“I’d understand if you wanted to leave me. I mean, it’s only your first night in the Realm and instead of pressing on you’re here, with me. Losing time.”
“Have I complained?” I asked.
“It’s good that you’re here,” I said quietly. “It helps keep me grounded and focused. It would be too easy for me to simply march into Om like a storm in my search for Jordan.” I hesitated and looked away. “Perhaps having you here reminds me, a little, that what I need is important too.”
“What you need?”
“Rest, food. Things I could forget, would forget, without you here.” I gazed at him, meeting the quicksilver eyes. It wasn’t what I meant. But perhaps it was close enough for Nem to believe it.
“We’re really safe?” he asked. His voice was like the whisper of a flute.
I nodded. “We’re safe enough for now.”
He gulped, watching me for a long time as the embers grew dim and the cold grew worse. Finally, as the last embers smoldered and the glow of the fire faded completely, Nem’s eyes closed at last, and his body lost all the rigidity with which he customarily carried himself. I smiled to myself as I watched him from my place against the tree, his chest rising and falling, his breath frosty in the frigid air.
I leaned against the trunk of the tree and whispered softly to it, passing on the promised words that had gained us safety, whispering to it of feeling, and loss, and what it meant to move in the world and not be rooted in place. And when I was done, I looked at the shivering young prince, walked over and wrapped him against me, praying all the while that I was not so foolish as Brian had been.
The shift of scenery happened without any consciousness. One moment I lay sleeping, the next I was in the hall. The corridor was long and dark and stone—a shock from the soft cushion of Nem’s flesh against mine, from the protective woven cocoon of the wood. I took a moment and breathed, slowly, looking around. Torch light flickered from sconces along the walls, throwing everything into flickering reddened shadow. I glanced both ways. I was alone; Nem was nowhere to be found. I closed my eyes and listened.
It took some time, too much. My own heart was racing and with my eyes closed the thump-thump of it overshadowed even the shallow breaths that I’d tried so hard to minimize. The soft whoosh of that breath was maddeningly loud as I struggled to filter out those sounds, the sounds that were me, in favor of everything that was not. Slowly the popping of the fire from the torches began to filter in, slowly the tiny footsteps of the rats, and then I could hear it, a hurricane of thumping that spoke of fear and adrenaline.
I took another moment, let the beating fill me, let myself feel it. Then I let go. My feet took off down the hall out of instinct, rushing with an urgency I didn’t understand, only felt. The dance of flickering fire flitted across my flesh as I ran down the halls and then stopped. My gaze darted about the passage. It should be here. And then I spotted the flaw in the stone and ran into the wall and through it and there he was. Nem.
I stifled my gasp into something less audible as the whip cracked against his skin, leaving a brutal line of red across perfectly alabaster flesh. Nem cried out and the thump of his heart beat got louder, as though the sound would cause my head to burst. My own breathing heaved from the exertion of running, and his assailant turned to me. There were words, slow, so very slow and loud, groaning from the creature and echoing through the chamber. But I could not understand them. Not now. Not with the thump-thump of Nem’s heart beat growing even faster. Not as I was breaking from the sight of Nem’s wounds. I glared at the thing, but if it knew the fear that it should, it showed no sign, even as my consciousness recovered enough to recognize it. Recognize him.
Nem’s father. There was no mistaking the man for anyone else. He was broad rather than thin, but the face, delicate lines and cheekbones and hair of silver cascading down across his back and over his shoulders. The face was the same, just older save for the eyes, save for the burning red eyes that stared in pure and ageless malevolence against me. He spun, twirling the lash artfully as he struck the prince of Zaharoth again—made him scream.
The cry assaulted my senses and I let out a harsh breath all at once. I was staggered by the blow as surely as if I’d been struck myself. My eyes narrowed and as his lash twirled again at Nem, I spoke.
It was a word, only one, and it was cried in pain as much as spoken. But I followed it again, calmer, much calmer. “Stop it, now.”
He glared at me and raised the lash.
“I am the One That Feels.” Surely he was old enough to recognize that.
Hesitation. He twirled the lash again to hide it, but he didn’t speak, not right away, nor did he strike.
“Prove it,” he said at last. His voice was harsh and lacked the musical quality of Nem’s.
I glared into the heart of his malevolent gaze. He’d turned it from Nem to me, and the anger within his eyes burned. But still I met his challenge calmly. “He is my friend. You will let him go.”
“You would take what is mine. The boy belongs to me. My son. My vassal. You take him far from where I permit.”
“And I will take him farther still,” I said, fighting the fire of his eyes. I could feel the heat he was trying to bring to bear. It churned inside, a flame begging to catch, power incarnate, and it took all my strength to bury it with the frost of my certainty. “He has claimed a price. Would you have him release one of the Real, unfettered upon the Realm?”
“I have no fear of you, little man.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. There were few realms where I could be considered in any way little for a man.
His gaze, however, grew ever more angry.
“You think it funny?” he asked.
The whip cracked against Nem’s flesh, and I winced as the pain exploded in a line of searing heat against my back. A pain unwritten from his flesh and placed instead upon my own.
“I am the One That Feels,” I repeated, gritting my teeth against the ripping of the lash as torn flesh disappeared from Nem’s back, line by line, and appeared with blistering agony upon my own. I staggered, but managed to keep myself standing. “And you will not hurt my friend.”
“More power in a dream than you,” I said with certainty. “You begged for proof”—his eyes widened with fury as I spoke—“and I have shown you a scrap of my power. Now go.”
“He is mine!”
“No,” I said, my voice more solid than the stone under our feet as I placed myself between the man and Nem, “he is not.”
Nem’s father looked at me and threw his useless lash to the ground. “This is not over child of the Real!”
“Step back,” I said, my voice little more than a hiss, for the pain across my back was an agony of burning. And yet in pain there was determination, and perhaps he saw it, for with a final growl he disappeared.
Nem wept. It was not the way a child weeps, but the way someone weeps who has been abused for so long that they’ve despaired of all hope. It was a wracking sob that was held so tightly within that all he permitted to be seen was a slight tremor in his hands.
“Shh,” I said, brushing the backs of my fingers against his face, then quickly releasing his hands from their binding.
“I-I’m f-fine,” he choked out.
I shook my head and leaned it into his shoulder as I wrapped my arms around his chest. “You will be,” I said softly. I could feel his body tense against me as my lips grazed across the perspiration on his shoulder. “I promise.”
“Shh,” I said softly into his shoulder, squeezing my arms gently against his chest. “Time to wake up.”