Chapter 1: Darkness
"...and I was thinking we'd have Percival bring back his men, to here." A gloved finger came down decisively on the map, and the rickety camp table shuddered, wooden pieces wobbling slightly. The glove pointed to a place just west of where the blue wooden figures indicated the location of the fifth company; they were set a ways apart from the main body of the Zexen forces, and closer to the brown figures representing Tinto's army. "He's pushed too far ahead; if he were attacked by superior numbers, we wouldn't be able to reach him in time."
Salome Harras, strategist and vice-captain of the Zexen Knights, was in the chambers of Lady Lightfellow. Well, living space, at any rate – as spacious as it was, the captain's tent hardly merited so lofty a designation. Ordinarily, he knew, it would have been viewed as the greatest impropriety for a man to be in the quarters of an attractive unmarried woman, unchaperoned as he was. But Lady Chris, captain of the Zexen knights, was hardly an ordinary woman.
They would have been hard-pressed to find an appropriate chaperone for Lady Chris, Salome mused, watching his captain consider his proposal. She had no surviving relations, and it would have been ill-reasoned to bring ordinary servants to a war camp. As for the other senior officers, only Borus was presently in the camp. Salome would more likely be considered the chaperone, had the younger man been there – ten years older than his captain, it was generally believed that Salome's affections for her were paternal, where Borus's were known to be romantic.
There was of course her squire, Louis, but at seventeen and almost a full knight, his presence was itself almost enough to cause a minor scandal. It would have, if Lady Chris had not been so universally adored by the general Zexen populace. The gossipmongers had long since found there was no market for such stories about the country's beloved female captain. Even the nighttime visits by the Harmonian Nash during the War of Champions had not prompted gossip among the members of Fire Bringer, although Nash's other meetings with women had often garnered the first page of Budehuc's tabloid.
"You're right, Salome. We should have seen this before."
Chris's words drew him back to the present, and he straightened, folding his arms as she continued.
"Percival gained too much ground, too quickly – even he thought something was odd. Let's not wait until Roland gets back with the reconnaissance report; Percival needs to withdraw now." Chris turned to get a quill and ink, then frowned. "I sent Louis for more paper fifteen minutes ago... I talked with the quartermaster earlier this evening, so I know we're not out."
Salome started to speak, then frowned down at the table. The troop markers were wobbling again, slightly, but neither he nor Chris were all that close to the table any longer.
"Lady Chris..." he began, but the trembling had stopped and the figures were still.
"Hmm?" Evidently, she hadn't turned in time to see it.
"It's nothing." Salome turned from the table, heading to peer out the entrance for Louis. He knew he hadn't imagined it, but the squire's absence was more worrying.
There was a rattle from behind him, and he turned quickly to see the wooden pieces bouncing off the table. Chris did see them this time. She looked up at him, and her expression of surprise suddenly turned to horror.
"Salome, the lamp!"
The strategist put his hand up and ducked just in time to block the flaming ball of a hanging lamp from swinging into his head. The oil sloshed out of the glass that held it, and the wicker basket of the lamp began to burn. He grabbed it by the chain and tore it down from the support beam.
Something blue flashed near Chris, and the flames suddenly went out, plunging the tent into near-darkness.
Then everything went quiet and still.
"Well, that was certainly odd," he heard his captain say slowly. She said something else, and suddenly the area around her was bathed in a sickly blue light. It shone eerily off her armor and face. Salome could just barely make out a heavy wooden trunk off to his left, and the scattered army pieces on the floor before him. "I wonder what that was about?"
Then everything exploded.
"Salome? Salome...wake up, Salome. You need to wake up. Salome... please wake up."
Consciousness slammed into Salome like a brick wall, and he let out a gasp. His entire body ached, and a throbbing agony in his left leg shot white lightning through his vision. Not that there was anything else to see – eyes open or closed, there was only pitch darkness beyond the flickering. His mind raced, coherent thought nearly drowned out by the rhythmic thudding in his ears that pounded in time with the spasms in his leg. Breaths came raggedly, forced by the excruciating rhythm of agony, and each time he tasted iron and bile.
Some rebellious corner of his mind fought the panic, strove to reach past the pain for some sense of his surroundings. Up and down were nowhere, spinning about madly, but he forced them into being. As best as he could tell, he was lying down, slightly propped up; the hard and sloping surface against his back must be partly the ground, partly a wall or tree. There was something stiff against his side, against the leg that didn't hurt - probably an exposed root. That leg was straight in front of him, and the other seemed to be, but it was hard to tell. It was constricted, arrows and needles shooting through his veins, and even in this distant, walled corner of his thoughts it was better not to think about what it felt like below the knee.
"Salome?" Lady Chris's worried voice floated down and behind him, disorientingly, but it shattered the roaring silence. "Salome?"
"Lady... Chris..." His mouth felt dusty and wet, but at least none of his teeth were loose.
"Salome? You're awake? Thank the Goddess..." Even through the darkness and pain, there was no way he could mistake her relief.
"Almost... wish I weren't," he croaked, testing his voice between ragged breaths. "How long...have I been...out?"
"I'm not sure... I think we've been down here for half an hour."
"...down here?" He'd assumed they were above ground; he could feel a warm breeze, irregularly tickling his cheek. He struggled to sit up, having some vague notion of getting a wider idea of his surroundings, but something pressed against his chest.
"Don't move," Chris told him unhappily. "Your leg is broken. I know it hurts a lot, but it's going to be okay, Salome. Does anything else hurt?"
His entire body felt battered, sore, but that wasn't what his captain was asking. "Just... leg..."
Chris exhaled loudly. "Good."
"Mm..." Salome felt his mind fading again, hazy with pain.
Chris seemed to realize it, too, because she was speaking again, urgently and with alarm. "Salome? Salome, stay with me, Salome. I need you to stay awake."
"I'll try..." She was alarmed on his account. He didn't want to hear that, didn't want to let her down.
"Good. Salome, listen to me, I need to heal your leg. My trunk landed on it. It's badly broken; the bone went through the skin, right below the knee. I think I stopped the bleeding, but it's too dark to tell, and I can't set the bone myself– it's just too much of a mess. So I'm going to have to try magic." Chris's voice was matter-of-fact, almost clinical in her report of his injury. Salome appreciated that, even as pain made everything she said seem distant.
She continued. "I can't use the True Water Rune at full power; Tinto's magicians would be able to spot that miles off. I'm going to have to use just a trickle, slowly."
"I've never done this before, so I don't know if it's going to work properly." She paused. "I'm not sure if it will set the bone, or just heal the skin and muscle around it. That's why I need you to stay awake, Salome. If the bone starts to shift, it's going to hurt more, and I need you to tell me – if it stops hurting altogether, I need to stop before it heals it the wrong way." Her words were measured and careful; she wanted to make certain he could follow it. "That's why I couldn't do anything about it while you were unconscious. Do you understand?"
"Yes..." He'd shut his eyes, since it was pointless to stare into the darkness, but there seemed to be a faint glow of light in front of him, almost eclipsed by the jagged white arcs he still saw every time his leg throbbed.
"Good. Do you want some water, to wet your mouth?" Something was pressed against Salome's lips and cool water trickled into his mouth. "Don't swallow," she warned. "I'm afraid you can't drink anything until we get your leg set."
Salome weakly sloshed the water around his mouth and nearly choked on it as pain drew another ragged breath from his lungs. Helpless, he let it dribble out again. Whatever vessel had held the water was taken away, and the glow diminished briefly, only to intensify as a faint coolness washed over him.
The pain began to slowly diminish. With this relief came greater mental clarity, followed a brief moment of panic as he realized that his captain might be injured, too, and he still had no idea what had happened. Salome strove to control his shuddered breathing, but he could only get scattered words between the gasps. "What... about...Lady? Where...dark...happened..."
"I'm fine, Salome, don't worry about me," she said reassuringly, and it didn't sound like she was lying. "We fell into a sort of pit after the explosion, I don't know how deep. I think Tinto somehow managed to plant explosives under the camp. I don't think they all went off at once –that's what the earlier shaking was." Her sigh seemed to be swallowed up by the immense darkness around them. "I wish I knew how they did it."
He knew the answer to that, although it was still a struggle to get it all out. "Tinto...is a Probably...they had...some way ... to tunnel."
She laughed self-deprecatingly. "I should've seen that. Good to see you're still thinking like a strategist, Salome."
Neither of them said anything for a moment or two.
"My leg's feeling much better," he said at length. The pain had waned, although the constricting sensation that he supposed must be a tourniquet remained the same. The multitude of other bruises and soreness were fading, as well, although at their words none of them had approached the degree of anguish that was his left leg.
"I'm sorry I can't be sure this will work." Chris's tone betrayed her frustration. "I haven't had the rune very long, and I'm no magician. My father would've known..."
Even if he hadn't before, he probably did now, Salome thought. Wyatt Lightfellow's soul had passed on to the True Water Rune itself, and so he probably understood it better now than he ever had during life. Legend had it that True Rune bearers were able to speak with the runes, and the fragments of their past bearers, but Salome had never heard of anyone who could do it deliberately.
A thought occurred to him. "...Lady Chris?"
"Why did you tell me about...what you saw when you received the Rune?"
There was a silence. Salome waited, feeling the intermittent breeze at his cheek pause once more.
When she finally replied, her words tumbled out. "I...suppose it's because I needed to tell someone about it. Talk to someone about it. And you knew my father – I remember when we first met, you mentioned he was the knight you respected most - and I thought you might like to know what had happened to him, why he'd disappeared. But I guess you'd figured it out at that point, hadn't you?" She gave an embarrassed little chuckle. "You practically arranged ahead of time for me to go out searching for him, and the Flame Champion, with Nash. Louis told me you all watched us leave...so it wasn't really necessary, was it?"
"It's all right," he said gently. Her speech was just a little too fast, as if she was rushing to fill the engulfing darkness. "I was glad you confided in me. Besides, resourceful though I am, only the bearer of the True Water Rune could have told me where Wyatt's spirit resided." He paused, wincing. "The pain in my leg is getting worse."
Silence stretched between them.
"...that sounded terrible, didn't it?" Chris asked ruefully.
"...yes, I see what you mean." Salome managed a chuckle. "It certainly would have been misunderstood by the casual eavesdropper."
Chris chuckled herself, just as strained and thin a sound as Salome's. "I can see the Budehuc Times headline now. 'The Ice Maiden of Zexen.'"
"Borus would be furious."
"So would I, if Arthur had written such an article. I suppose I was rather lucky – just about everyone else had his or her private business printed by Arthur at some point. I wonder why he let me be? It can't be because I was one of the leaders of Fire Bringer – even poor Hugo had that article about a fan club for the Flame Champion on the wall for a bit."
Salome coughed. "Actually, he did print one, but he took it down very quickly. I'd be surprised if more than half a dozen people saw it."
He could hear almost hear a smile of wicked delight in Chris's voice, overlaying her worry. "Don't tell me Borus or Percival threatened him for slandering me? I'd have loved to be a casual eavesdropper on that conversation myself."
"Actually, it was I." Salome winced. "The pain's getting worse again."
Chris's voice seemed to be further away. "Hang in there, Salome...I'm afraid at this rate, we can expect it to get much worse, and soon. I can almost get a sense of what's happening from the rune..."
"I see..." Salome tried to concentrate on anything but the feeling in his leg.
"...so you actually threatened Arthur?" Chris asked, quickly turning things back to the previous conversation, although she sounded distracted. "You?"
"...yes. As your strategist, I felt you had enough on your plate without having to be distracted by..." He limply waved a hand in the darkness, searching for the right words. "By petty gossip and having to protect your reputation."
"Well, I'm amazed, that's all..."
Was that a giggle?
"Yes," he replied testily. "Stop snickering, Chris. It was my duty as your second-in-command..." His leg throbbed mercilessly, and he gritted his teeth. "Percival... was just... as bad... as you are...called me... a mother hen." Then he gasped, doubling up as nausea swept over him. He was pushed back down by something across his chest, and it stayed there, holding him down firmly.
Chris seemed to know something else was wrong. He felt her hand on his clammy face and then his neck – he knew what she was checking for. He could feel his pulse slowing, erratically, under her hand. "Don't move. Hang in there, Salome."
He was definitely getting more light-headed, and it wasn't just the pain. "Chris...I think...I don't think I... stay conscious..."
"I'm here, Salome. It'll be okay. Just a bit longer. Stay with me now..."
She was here? But where was here? This place seemed to have no here or there, or even place. He reached out into the darkness, groping for the source of her voice. "Chris..."
He'd dropped her title again. Normally he was immensely conscious of their respective positions, socially and otherwise, but it hardly seemed to matter now. They weren't a man and a younger woman, or a captain and her subordinate, but just two voices alone in a dark sea of pain.
"You know, Salome, I think Percival was wrong."
She was trying to distract him from the pain again; her voice was too high, too pinched for this sort of casual banter to be genuine. "Wrong... about... what?"
Her sweaty hand was on his neck again, taking his pulse. "You can't be a mother hen. You're male. That would make you a father rooster."
Her father? Salome closed his eyes guiltily; as much as he'd admired Lord Wyatt, he could never take a father's role in Lady Chris's life - some feelings, some taboos were too great to be erased by the darkness. "I'm...not... your father..."
If the blue glow from the rune was still there, it was obscured by the white fire across his vision. He grasped for a clear thought, any thought, to hold back the tide of numb darkness sweeping across him. "...not your father."
He felt himself involuntarily jerking upwards, but the pressure across his chest held him in place. "Salome, can you still hear me?"
"...not your...father..." He clung to that thought, a lifeline to a mind drowning in a dizzy world of searing anguish.
"Salome, I'm going to put something in your mouth, so you don't bite your tongue." Chris's voice seemed to come from miles away.
"...a father...shouldn't... father shouldn't..." He forced the words out through clenched teeth. He had to hold onto the thought, make her understand, or else he was lost. Something pressed against his mouth.
"Salome, stay with me!" Any pretense of calmness had been abandoned; Chris's voice rang with desperation.
"...shouldn't... look at... his...daughter...as..."
A strong hand pinched his face, forcing his jaw open, and something tough and leathery was jammed between his teeth.
A roaring in his ears obscured whatever Chris was saying, and he passed out.
Chapter 2: Light
Fair warning: this chapter contains a moderately squicky description of a broken leg.
His return to consciousness this time was gentler, awareness lapping softly at the edges of his senses. There was still some pain, but none of the agony that had greeted him to the waking world before, and the pins-and-needles sensation was gone from his left leg. He seemed to be lying on his side now, his cheek resting on some soft fabric. There was light, but he didn't want to open his eyes just yet.
"I passed out again, didn't I?" His voice sounded as weak as he felt.
He heard a shifting sound nearby; Chris was still there. "Are you awake this time, Salome?" she asked wearily.
"This time?" Salome risked opening his eyes. The light was thin and yellow, but plenty to see by. There was a blurry shape, too close to his face to focus on, so he blinked and let his gaze roam towards his feet as his eyes slowly worked themselves into focus. A field of purple on the edge of his vision resolved itself into his folded coat, which was pillowing his head. Past his feet and a short ways away were two heaps of armor.
He returned to the blurry shape – Chris's knee. His lady captain was sitting next to his head, slumped against the sheer side of the hole. She'd removed her plate armor, and the wool under-jacket and leathers she still wore were dusty.
Her eyes were turned on him, watching him closely. Salome was mildly surprised to see how dirty her face was, to see the rivulets in the dust from dried tears. There was a vivid brown smear across her forehead, like war paint. His own face felt strangely clean by contrast, if in need of a shave.
She nodded an answer to his question. "You wavered in and out of it for several hours. It's morning now; the sun came up a while ago."
"I passed out." He fought to recall exactly what had transpired in the darkness. "Is that why you turned me on my side?" That was basic treatment for an unconscious shock victim; he vaguely remembered nausea, and wondered if Chris had guessed.
She seemed to catch his train of thought and smiled apologetically. "Yes. And I'm afraid your scarf is ruined. I used it to clean your face afterwards."
Well, at least he was spared that humiliating question. "...did I scream?"
Chris closed her eyes, as if recalling something unpleasant. "Yes. You did." She looked at him again, the traces of the memory lurking in the corners of her eyes like shadows. "How are you feeling?"
Salome shifted slightly, and winced as pain shot through his shin. "Leg's still broken, I think. But it's much better."
"I thought it might be," Chris said with evident fatigue. "I did the best I could, but towards the end I couldn't quite... keep the magic up.
"I'm fairly certain it's set properly, and the skin's healed over. I splinted it once there was enough light to see properly." She paused. "I took off some of your armor, too, to make it easier for you to breathe. The cuirass and everything I could from your arms. I left your mail coat on. I didn't think your ribs were broken, but I didn't want to take chances, and it would have jostled your leg too much anyway."
"Thank you." He tried to convey the gratitude he felt in his voice, his eyes – she'd clearly exhausted herself trying to heal him with the rune, and still found the strength to make him more comfortable, to clean him up.
She shook her head, dismissing it. "I... sorry I couldn't do more, Salome."
"I don't see how you possibly could have, milady." She'd done everything and then some, and then berated herself for it. That was just like her.
"You can try sitting up, I think, if you feel up to it. Your pulse was back to normal hours ago. Do you want to try?"
Salome rolled carefully onto his back, and, with her help, rose slowly to a sitting position. His arms immediately felt shaky, but to his relief, light-headedness did not accompany the action.
Sitting up, he could see more of their surroundings. The canvas from the tent was close overhead, slanting downwards. It seemed to have caught high above near the earthen wall, with enough room for a short person to stand. The table was upended near the piles of armor, and immediately to his left was Chris's heavy wooden trunk.
As if in response, his leg twinged, and he looked away, swallowing dryly. "Is there any water? I believe I recall that you had some earlier."
Chris smiled wanly. "Certainly." She shifted stiffly so that she was squatting by his side, and cupped her bare hands. "Here." There was a soft blue glow, and water began welling up in her cupped hands. The dark circles of the rune's mark on her palm wavered and shifted under the water.
"That's a useful trick," Salome commented before leaning forward to drink.
"It's an easy one. I think the rune likes creating water."
As he drank, it struck him that the image they made was very like one he had seen in a tapestry once of the Goddess Loa offering water from her hands to the couchant stag of Zexen. Chris and the Goddess could not have looked more different – the divinely beautiful Goddess in her unwrinkled finery, eyes gentle and peaceful; the mostly-mortal Chris with her dirty face and clothes, tired but fierce eyes, chapped and calloused hands. Their bearing held the same nobility, though, even as Chris's shoulders sagged. And he, he was her subordinate, her shield, as Zexen was the supplicant of the Goddesses. That he would never change.
The distance that had vanished in the darkness returned with the light, and Salome, overcome with sudden embarrassment and shame, looked away.
From the sound of it, he guessed Chris was now taking a drink of water herself, and washing her own face; when he let himself look at her again he saw her face was indeed clean, damp and pink from the cold water. He could also see the dark rings under her eyes, and a taughtness the dirt had hidden.
"Ugh." She made a face, sitting back on her heels. "I wish I could get it to make warmer water."
This was so characteristic of his captain that Salome felt a smile rise on his face. "I'll be certain to instruct the attendant to fill your bath with hot water once we return to Brass Castle, Lady Chris."
"Returning to formality already, Salome?" Chris raised her eyebrows and returned the smile, although the pinched look did not quite leave her face. "You must be feeling better. I suppose if we ever want to loosen you up, we'll have to break your leg again. Don't look at me like that, Salome, I was only joking."
He eyed her reproachfully. "You've been spending too much time with Percival, if you're joking like that."
"And if he were here, he'd say you were being a mother hen again," Chris returned easily. Then her expression changed, and she turned her head, looking at him sideways. "Father rooster, I mean."
"I'm not your father."
Chris did not answer; she was still watching him with that strangely careful, shifted look. It was not until she exhaled that he realized she'd been holding her breath.
"Have I said something like that before?" he guessed warily, recollection rising, and with it, chagrin.
"Yes, you did. When I was setting your leg." Her words were measured, her tone carefully neutral, but there was disappointment in her eyes.
How much had he said? How much had he revealed? His memory of that time was still hazy towards the end – all he could recall was a great deal of pain, a breeze on his cheek, and something holding him down against the tree.
Tree? That was absurd; they were underground. Salome looked around, frowning; he'd been more disoriented last night than he'd realized.
Chris caught his puzzlement. "Looking for something?"
He nodded. "Last night, I was propped up against something. I thought it was a tree at the time."
"Oh." Chris scrubbed at her face for a moment with her right hand; the skin was pink again when it came away, although there had been no glow from the rune. "That would have been me. I'm sorry, but I couldn't think of any other way to hold you still, besides sitting on you." She looked away.
"Which would have been ill-advised. I understand." So the bar across his chest, the breeze on his face...
For one most irrational moment, Salome wished they were back in the timeless, placeless darkness, where all but that last distance were as absent as the light. Then he chided himself; those were thoughts for a romantic, or someone like Borus. He was a pragmatist, a realist, and had always chosen to remain so.
And it was time he started living up to that choice. "Do you have an idea of how deep this hole is?" he asked her, turning the conversation to business. "Will we be able to get out on our own?"
Chris ducked her head in embarrassment. "I haven't really looked around. After so long in the dark, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find you again." She started to yawn, then caught herself.
"You should rest, milady," he chided her. "You didn't sleep much either, did you?"
She shook her head. "I'm fine." One traitorous yawn escaped; she clamped her mouth shut and swallowed. "I'm fine," she repeated defensively, and he knew that she hadn't slept at all.
He opened his mouth to remind her that overtiring herself was perhaps not the wisest course of action, but the worry in her eyes stopped him. He knew how frantic he would have been, alone in the choking silence with his captain unconscious and badly injured. Salome's heart constricted painfully. Her fear had not seemed quite real, in the darkness; he'd thought somehow that she'd been merely giving voice to his own panic. Now in the light, separated by borders and edges, he realized with a pang those emotions had been her own.
She had been afraid for him. Afraid he was going to die. That was why she didn't leave the tent, why she hadn't slept – she'd feared he would be gone when she returned.
His failure galled him. He'd always tried to reassure her, support her, taking care never to add to her burdens. And yet here...
"Lady Chris," he said, gently taking her right hand by the wrist. She blinked in surprise at this breach of manners, but didn't resist. He smiled reassuringly. "I'm still here. I'm not going to go anywhere." He placed her hand over his heart, so that she could feel it beating. "See?"
Her eyes met his, vivid and intense, softened by her smile. "I know." Then a shadow crossed her face, and she briefly closed her eyes. "When I tried to staunch the bleeding... I could feel it beating with the blood."
Salome's gaze fell to the hand he held to his chest. The rough edge of her cuff scratched against his hand; it was stiff and darker than the rest of the sleeve. He shuddered, realizing why. The artery in his leg had been severed by the shattered bone, and in the choking darkness Chris had literally felt his lifeblood draining away, hot and pulsing beneath her hands. His hand tightened around her wrist. "Forgive me."
Chris shook her head. "There's nothing to forgive, Salome. You hardly chose to break your leg. Besides..." Her eyes flickered, from his eyes to his mouth to her hand on his heart, then back again. She leaned closer. "Salome..."
Salome could feel her breath against his face, and under his fingers, the pulse in her wrist. He looked back up, into her eyes, and found he couldn't look away.
"I'm not your daughter, Salome," she whispered, and kissed him.
He closed his eyes, and they were back in the darkness.
Voices, too muffled to tell if they were friend or foe, intruded rudely on the moment. The couple stiffened; Chris drew her hand back and snatched up her sword. They exchanged glances, and he nodded, carefully sliding himself back, closer to the wall.
Soon enough the sounds of people had reached the hole they were in; Salome could hear them clearly as they slid down into the pit and tossed about wreckage, but whoever they were, they'd stopped speaking. Chris stood before him, facing the sloping canvas of the tent, her sword raised defensively. It was only a matter of time.
Chris glanced back at him, briefly. Her expression transformed as she caught his gaze, holding the tenderness and the fierceness of one who has something infinitely precious to protect. He knew that expression; it was the one he wore when riding out to battle at her side.
And as he watched, she squared her shoulders and adjusted her grip on her sword as if with renewed purpose, just as he had so often done.
There was perhaps the space of a breath. Then the cloth tore, parting to reveal the silhouette of a knight against the sudden daylight. Once his eyes adjusted, Salome saw the dusty, unshaven, and unmistakably grinning face of Percival.
"Fancy meeting you two down here!" He looked back. "Louis," he called over his shoulder, "Louis, I've found them. Get Borus. Were you two stuck here all night?" Percival asked, turning back to his stunned superior officers. "That must have really been the pits."