"You've exhausted my patience, physician."
Never has there been a threat said in a sweeter voice. I shivered. The horse I was riding got a whiff of my fear and snorted. OneEye gave me an odd look, suspecting but unsure.
"You've exhausted mine a long time ago," I told the Lady in my mind.
"I did not tell the Taken to follow you. What they did, they did against my orders."
"But they're both of great use to me," she continued, "and the Limper is the strongest of the few Taken I have left."
She said "have." Not "had". I hated the implication.
"You've lost too many allies as well. I see those remaining, on a ship in Meadenville Harbor. They are well within my reach."
Still that sweet, beautiful voice. It made the words all the more horrid.
"How much do you value their lives, physician?"
Elmo. The Lieutenant. Otto and Hagop. All the rest. With the Captain's recent death they were even more family than ever. You'll get that effect when you find yourself orphaned.
I gave up.
"What is it you want?"
I found him exactly as I'd left him, hanging from a branch of a tree. A pity to ruin a picture like that, but what choice did I have?
At first I thought there were no signs of life, but when I cut the rope, put him on the ground, and loosened the noose around his neck, he drew breath. It was eerie to watch him come back to life.
His eyes snapped open. He gave me a look of pure hatred, grabbed my shoulder like he was holding for dear life--and passed out. I stayed with him, trying to figure out what to do next. There was nothing I could really do for him, even though at that moment I felt the weirdest twitch of regret on that point. He seemed strangely vulnerable, a broken body that couldn't even bleed any more. Yet his heart was beating--I could feel a weak pulse, too fast and too superficial but persistent. Something in that irregular pace suggested that he was in pain even now, in his unconscious state. The more I listened, the more I wanted to help. Damn.
He came to his senses. I felt his grip on my shoulder tighten.
"It's all right", I said.
Of course it wasn't.
"She said She'll help you as soon as She gets here."
We both knew that wasn't going to happen any time soon.
"What'd you do to me?"
His voice was barely a whisper, the words came out slurred.
Only now did I think of the seeds I'd planted. His eyes went wide.
"Cut them out," he demanded urgently.
"She'll find a way to deal with-"
"I won't last... that long," he breathed.
I had not thought of that.
He forced himself to let go of my shoulder and put his hand to his chest.
"Here," his voice was coarse and weak. "Growing. Eating me. Feeding on... my soul."
I doubted he had a soul to feed on, but it sounded like hell anyway.
He was in hell, and I was the one who had put him there.
"All right," I said. "But not here. I'll need a place to work. Do you think you can survive a ride?"
I couldn't carry him over to the innkeeper who helped us do all this to him, the man just didn't deserve that.
"Tie me to the saddle," the Limper instructed.
I had a better idea. I picked him up--he didn't weight much, a small man with hardly any blood left in his veins--and went to the horse. The smell of blood and death frightened it, but it let me lift the Limper onto the saddle. Then I got on too and managed to move him over while standing on the stirrups. Now I had him sitting in front of me, with both his legs over to one side. This way I could hold him and the reigns at once. Perfect.
I couldn't do it carefully enough, though. The pain sent him into oblivion. Which was probably for the best--he missed most of the trip.
Regaining conciseness, he nestled his decay-marked face against my shoulder. I could hear him grind his teeth every time the horse's trot faltered. The road was bump upon damn bump.
"Almost there," I told him.
He nodded to show that he heard me. I guess he was in too much pain to reply.
But as we were nearing the village he made an effort to speak.
"Don't let them see me," he whispered into my shoulder barely loud enough for me to hear. "Can't defend..."
I was beginning to wonder how close we had actually come to killing him.
I let the horse go on its own for a while, undid the clasp of my cloak with one hand, shrugged it off, never letting go of the Limper, and wrapped him in it. As we rode into the village, I pulled the hood over his head.
I stopped in front of an inn, let a stableboy grab the horse's reigns as I dismounted, and carried my burden into a room on the second floor. I laid him on the bed. Hot water was brought on my order, and then we were left alone.
I took my scalpel. He was lying on his back as I had put him, unmoving, watching me with dark eerie eyes.
I laid my free hand onto his chest, right above the two gaping spear wounds.
He blinked his consent, waiting for me to start.
I cut his clothes and lacerated his chest sideways between the ribs. I thought he would faint again, but he fought it. I realized he was also battling the thing that was trying to grow inside of him.
It had already become a glistening black rock the size of three fists.
I had to use the small saw I kept for amputating limbs. I cut open his ribcage and started cutting out the obsidian, hoping my leather gloves would provide enough protection from it. They helped just fine when I was getting the seeds down his throat, but the damn thing was active now.
All the while the Limper remained conscious, his eyes never leaving my face.
At last it was done. I lifted the stone. The Limper let out a long relieved sigh, and I saw the spark of life in his eyes go out.
I shook him. Feeling like a fool, I slapped his hollow cheeks. How in Hell do you revive something that's been dead for nearly five centuries?! Putting the stone aside, I peeled off my blood-soaked gloves, reached into his chest cavity, and clasped his heart in my hand. A shiver went through me. I was literally holding the heart of one of the deadliest beings in the world.
I started massaging it, willing it to beat, willing him to live.
I'd never done anything like that before. Knowing what I know now, I think it was my desire to keep him alive and not the massage that did the trick.
He opened his eyes, looked at me, and only then did his heart contract in my hand. I released it quickly. He drew breath, and I saw his lungs expand slightly. For a moment I was staring into his opened chest, transfixed. Then I hurried to patch him back up.
He did not want me to apply stitches to his other wounds. I guess the pain was just too much. To my surprise, he could speak--and asked for water. I wasn't sure if it would do him good, but let him have it anyway. He only drank a mouthful. I could see it was hard for him to swallow, and hoped I had stitched his torn food-pipe well enough.
Having settled him as best I could, I decided it was time for me to get a bite to eat. And ale. Lots of ale. I was more shaken up by the surgery I had just performed than I cared to admit.
He saw me going for the door--and panicked.
"Don't leave me, Croaker!"
I considered it.
"I'll only be a minute."
That was practically a plea.
"Why?" I asked.
He seemed reluctant to reply. I turned towards the door.
"I can't... won't last... if you go. Need your strength."
He obviously hated to have to say it, but he was out of options.
A knock came on the door--the innkeeper asking if we needed any help. I opened the door just wide enough for him to see me (but not the Limper) and asked for food and ale to be brought up. It looked like the Taken's weird luck had not run out yet.
The Lady was furious with me when she learned about the seeds. She couldn't reach the Limper, he was too weak for long-range communication, so she had to take my word that he's not only alive but actually somewhat better. It puzzled me that he could not answer her call, but what did I know about magic? He managed to convince me to lie down next to him, saying that I had to be closer to him--he needed the strength, not to mention the warmth. I've touched long-dead corpses warmer than him, and it wasn't at all cold in the room. I gave in. He rested his head on my arm and lay very still. I was uncomfortable with being so close to him but didn't have the heart to deny him the support he so desperately needed.
I did want to help him. The desire was so profound I had to wonder if it was mine at all. Could the Lady have put it into my mind to save her servant? Could the Limper have done it himself? I thought so, yes. But it changed nothing at the moment.
That night I dreamed I was holding his heart in the palm of my hand. It was beating, and he was looking at me with an expression I could not read. I woke up to find myself embracing him. He wasn't asleep, I could see the moonlight reflecting in his eyes. I had flung one arm across his bandaged chest. It had to hurt like hell, but he did not protest. I started turning to lift the weight of my arm.
His voice sounded raw and pained.
I rested my arm lower, across his abdomen. There were plenty of wounds there too, but none as severe as what the spears and my physician's saw had inflicted. He seemed to breathe a little easier.
"Did you manage to get any sleep at all?" I asked, staring into the darkness.
"Can't," he replied.
"Anything I can do?"
"You're doing it."
For a while we lay there in silence.
"What did She say... that you came back for me?"
"That she needed you alive. That you were the strongest of those few she had left. She's going to need you even more now that the Company' no longer in her service."
I was surprised with him being in a mood to chat--until I realized he needed a distraction from the pain.
I searched for an answer.
"Guess we've had enough, that's all. Look, if you wouldn't have come after us-"
I must have made some careless gesture and grazed a wound. His agonized hiss turned into a cry as I recoiled. I carefully embraced him again, feeling him drink in my strength and my caring. It was senseless, crazy--to feel for him, to actually care for him, yet I did. I guess I should've been terrified... but I wasn't. Not a bit.
"You always did have a soft spot, Croaker," he said once he regained his breath. "I knew it the moment I first saw you in Roses."
I decided not to tell him about our first encounter, when I helped the Shapeshifter kick his unconscious body into the basement of a falling building.
"You come to capture me and Whisper for the Lady and then you stop Corvus from torturing me. You nearly kill me and then you try to bring me back to life. You're impossible..." His voice trailed off.
His words gave me a sudden thought.
"Raven cut off your fingers back then. Is there a chance your arm-" I did not know how to put it.
"She can do that. She can pull me back together. If She's here before-"
"She'll be here," I said with a confidence I did not feel. All my medical experience amounted to nothing as I lay there with him in my arms, unable to ease his pain, wondering if he'll make it long enough.
"You're a terrible liar, Croaker," he breathed.
"In the meantime I'll do what I can."
That, at least, was true.
"Hey," I had a sudden idea. Lots of ideas will come to you when you're lying sleepless in the dark. "Whisper's in Meadenville, isn't she? Maybe she could help you. Can you reach her?"
"No. I do feel her searching for me, but if she sees me now... I do not know what she'll do."
"I think you're confusing her with the old lot. You guys were at each other's throats all the time but Whisper is a proper soldier."
He considered my words.
"Perhaps you're right. Though, soldier or not, coming here was her idea. She did not know that-" for a second he couldn't breathe in enough air to continue, "that I was already planning pursuit."
Perhaps he knew her better than I did.
"She's a soldier, not a healer. Not much she can do. I won't risk it."
"Suit yourself," I would've shrugged had I not been afraid to cause him pain.
This desire to care for him was beginning to really bother me, yet it felt too natural to fight. I knew, of course, that there was nothing natural about it, but still... Hell, magic or not, he was in desperate need of my help, and he admitted it. Well, all right, "knew it" was closer to the truth, but he never tried to deceive me on that point. Not that it changed the fact I was obviously being used... And not that that mattered much. It was hard to think about all of it--more proof that I was under some sort of spell. As if I needed any.
The Lady appeared on my doorstep the next afternoon.
"Thank you, physician. You are free to go."
She wasn't merely saying I could leave the room, she was letting me go for good. Suddenly I realized I wasn't ready for that.
"Will you be all right?" I asked him, taking in his broken form on the bed.
He glared acidly. I had learned from him by then that the Lady's possibilities were far from endless.
"I'll be downstairs," I told her. "Call me if you need me."
I did not turn to see how he reacted to my words. I wasn't sure it would be a reaction I'd want to see. Triumph or surprise would be equally unsettling.
The large room downstairs was empty. I had to wait 20 minutes for the innkeeper to appear and another 10 to get my beer, and by then the screams almost drove me mad. I wouldn't have been waiting so fervently for the Lady to arrive had I known what the healing process would be like... The Limper screamed and screamed and screamed. I drank. There was nothing else for me to do. But I could not drown out the agony that filled the entire house.
The glances the innkeeper paid me showed that he would've gladly given up a year's earnings just to be rid of us. He was angry with me. After all, I was the one to show up on his doorstep carrying a wounded man wrapped in a cloak, and with that all his troubles began. I payed him no heed: he must have gotten more than a year's earning from the Lady, or he wouldn't be serving me beer at the moment.
She never did call. When it got dark outside and the screams had ceased, I went up. She was standing by the window, looking out, eerily like the image I described all those years ago. The Limper seemed to be unconscious. Or...
"How is he?" I asked.
"You did a good job, physician." Her voice was like a song, gentle and lulling. She did not turn as she spoke. "Both times, when you were trying to kill him and when you were trying to save him. It's not your fault."
I darted to the bed. No. What had she done?!
He was breathing. Damn it, what did I care?
"Most of his injuries will heal with time," she continued. "He won't be of much use to me until then. There's nothing more I can do for him, so-"
"I can," I heard myself saying.
She glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.
"I can help him recover."
What did I just get myself into?!
"It wasn't her magic that made you say it," he told me that night. The Lady had already departed with the Black Castle stone, and we were lying in bed, both unable to sleep. "Or mine--all I have is keeping me alive right now."
I shifted slightly, trying to get comfortable without causing him pain.
"What you feel is all your own," continued he. "I told you you had a soft spot."
I did not believe him even for a second.
Whisper came a few days after Lady's departure. She had been ordered to take the Limper back to Charm.
I went along, trying to make the journey somewhat less painful for him. It wasn't possible, but at least I tried.
With all the carpets destroyed, Whisper got us a carriage. It was good and rode smoothly, but even she could see that riding it all the way to Charm was not an option. The pain would've driven the Limper completely insane long before journey's end--not that he wasn't pretty crazy as it was. The Lady wasn't in a hurry for him to get to the Tower, the way she saw it he could take his time, being in no condition to follow her orders anyway. So we went to Meadenville and boarded ship, counting on Journey to give us a lift from Opal. New carpets could be made in the time it took the ship to get there.
Somewhere along the way, when the sea was especially turbulent, I turned to the Annals. Reading them always did calm me, after all. I wanted to read a few chapters to myself, but before I knew it I was reading aloud.
"Go on," urged the Limper impatiently when I paused.
Distraction. By the time the ship reached Opal, we were half way through the Jasper trilogy.
"You do know I hate you."
It was a question, though not phrased as one.
"Of course I do," I replied.
We were walking along the top of the inner tower. He was leaning heavily on my arm for support, but his steps were surer than the first time we ventured out. He really was getting better, though it was taking so long I couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever recover completely.
The Lady told me that the operation I performed within hours of planting the seeds gave him a fighting chance. By the time she reached us in the inn the obsidian would've grown so big she'd have to tear half his body apart to remove it. Yet, as it was, the damage was still bad. There was a time I thought he'd have to forget about walking altogether, because the obsidian did something to his spine, but then we had that breakthrough.
Whisper visited him often, to my great surprise--least of all did I expect to see friendship among the Taken. I couldn't help remembering how he thought she might kill him if she saw him helpless. That had to be paranoia, he had been scared and unable to think straight in his agony. Her amity, or rather the somber grim thing that passes for a Taken's amity, was obvious.
Whenever she came to the Tower, she would later appear in his room, sit by his bed, and tell him in that beautiful sweet voice of hers some horrible things about the Rebel and the fighting in different parts of the Empire. It chilled me, but I couldn't stop listening.
I myself was spending most of my time right there in his room. Thanks to the Lady's healing magic he no longer needed me constantly by his side, but my presence brought him comfort. Of course my medical skills were also of use. At night he would sometimes tell me to share his bed, otherwise I would go to sleep on a mat. I've had far worse living conditions in the past.
A soldier of the garrison would bring me food--always hot, always good. My own appetite surprised me, I guess it had something to do with the Limper drawing on my strength. He completely refused to eat and only occasionally drank some water.
I wasn't a prisoner, though sometimes I had to remind myself of that. I could go wherever I pleased, which was usually to the library, and that only to grab a few books and hurry back. I had finished reading the Annals to him, and some time later, bored out of his wits but still unable to even sit, he instructed me to look up some magic formulas for him. He had to teach me how to read them first, much to his indignation, but I caught on quick.
Soon he was working on something, purely in his mind, with me occasionally acting as a talking reference book. After a while I started to understand some parts of what I was reading to him. It was all about healing magic, which did not surprise me in the least. I doubled my efforts, hoping whatever he was creating would help, and wondering if perhaps I could--no, that was nonsense. Old Croaker was precisely that, too old a dog to learn new tricks. But I did come to understand some of the things in those books, and I couldn't help thinking about how useful OneEye's help had always been when I was treating the wounded... The Limper didn't mind me looking through the books while he was busy thinking up whatever he was thinking up. I doubted he even noticed.
But I would never forget the look on his face when he realized I was taking away his pain using magic.
That evening I went to sleep on the mat, but halfway through the night he called out to me.
During that time it was impossible to predict the changes in his condition. Sometimes he would sleep till morning, but some nights were still rough. This one was the roughest in weeks.
I lay down next to him--his body was cold as ice and he was having trouble breathing. Small spasms shook him now and again, and in such moments he couldn't breathe at all for the pain. Very carefully I embraced him and started weaving magic, telling myself that if this didn't work I'd start calling for help. I couldn't leave him with things this bad, someone else had to tell the Lady.
She was still angry with him for disobeying her orders, so he wouldn't ask for her help himself. But, however angry, she'd surely help so as not to lose her servant.
At first I thought it was just my presence doing him some good. Then suddenly he relaxed. Completely. I hadn't realized how rigid with tension he had been. He drew a deep breath - and only then did he grasp what had happened.
He stared at me in utter amazement.
"How?" came a shocked whisper.
I shrugged, concentrating on keeping up my spell. Crude a it was, it was obviously helping--more so than I'd ever expected.
"Don't stop, I need to look into this," he commanded in a faltering voice and went into a trance-like state.
I held it up for as long as I could, which proved harder than I expected. Finally, it slipped.
He came back from his inner wonderings. I looked at him, worrying that the pain would return.
"You can let it go for now," he said, and I realized he had simply forgotten to tell me that some time earlier. "How did you come up with this?"
He still sounded amazed.
"I just took what I could understand about pain relief and used it."
"Whatever gave you the idea of using it directly through the connective?"
"The link we share," he explained seeing my bewildered look.
Oh, so now I share a link with a Taken. What great news.
"You have no idea what you've come up with, do you?" he sneered. "This spell you've created intensifies whatever you've woven into it by half a hundred times, because it is transmitted through the connective."
I tried to grasp it.
"So it wouldn't work on other people?"
He seemed mildly puzzled about why I would want to treat other people.
"No. They'd feel some slight relief at best, you're no good at magic. But this!"
I haven't seen him this alive from the day we nearly killed him. More than that, he sounded enthusiastic, even thrilled.
"You will learn several spells and use them the same way as this one. Light a candle. We're starting right now."
A mere month later the man who had barely been able to move a hand was successfully struggling with walking atop the Tower at Charm, saying how much he hated me and clinging to my arm with a crushing grip. The view from the rooftop was simply amazing, the setting sun coloring the stones below in purple and orange. Martlets were darting to and fro above our heads, chasing flies with shrill high-pitched cries.
"This link," I said, not wanting to discuss hate issues further, "Why do we have it?"
"The connective was formed while you were trying to help me. Your tenacity was instrumental."
"So if I stop wanting to, it's gone?"
"It's a lot more complicated than that", he said, but the slight wariness in his voice told me all I needed to hear.
Now that the spells were making him this much better he depended on them--on me--even more.
That hate issue suddenly had quite a different look to it.
"You have put the Limper into quite a position," the Lady mused. She had summoned me to her quarters for the first time since my arrival to the Tower. "He did not foresee it, but now he's realized that he's come to depend on you very much. It frightens him, and he is not easily frightened. I do not know what he might do." She seemed genuinely concerned. "I will not risk having him stand before my Eye, in his current condition he may never recover from that."
I felt a momentary pang of fear, and not for myself. Here we go again, that spell or whatever messing with my mind... Or my heart, more likely, since it was all about emotions.
She watched me, nodding in understanding.
"I wouldn't want for you to get hurt over this, physician. I owe you for making him this much better. I will need him on the Eastern front soon."
"He's not ready yet!" I blurted before I could think. "He can barely walk on his own," I added by way of explanation.
"Then he can stay on a carpet." Her voice was cold iron. "It's his magic I need out there, not his legs. Do not interrupt me again, physician."
I felt horror creeping up my spine.
"I will give you protection in case his fear and hatred make him do something... Unwise."
She raised her hands, and for a second I was blinded by a warm golden glow. It washed over me and vanished.
"It will hold for one blow. If he does strike, do not wait for a second one--use his name."
And she told me his true name, that simple.
That night I tried to sort out my feelings. That had to be done if I were to use the Limper's name against him. At the moment the very idea horrified me, even though the Lady assured me it would do him no permanent damage. But I knew he was using magic as life support, so stripping him of it was not a thing I was ready to experiment with.
Neither was dying.
Thinking back I wondered when exactly that spell was created. I couldn't help remembering the Limper grab hold of me when I took him down from that tree. There had been such hatred in his eyes when he recognized me--was he, perhaps, enraged by the fact that it was me there next to him, that he was forced to connect to me, of all people, in order to survive? Had I, in fact, mistaken a trance for unconsciousness? Possibly, yes... It was then that I first wished I could help him. Or was that fleeting wish truly mine, a momentary weakness he used to hook on?
I supposed it did not matter. What mattered was the current situation. I found it easier to think about the spell now and wondered if the Lady's protective magic cleared my mind a bit.
So... I feared him, there was that. I also feared for him. And cared, deeply, personally, like I'd never cared for a patient before. There was nothing professional about it. He had needed help, needed to draw on my life force, but the spell acted almost like some crazy love potion. Well, I suppose, being on the verge of death can make you truly desperate for someone to care.
For a moment I wanted to get up from my mat and ask him outright what the nature of this spell was. He couldn't deny its existence forever, and he wasn't asleep anyway, I could feel that, so- What?! Yes, I could feel him. He wasn't moving, his breathing was even (and effortless, I noted automatically), there was nothing to suggest he was still awake, yet I simply knew that he was. Now that I concentrated I also got a feeling he was brooding, which really wasn't good.
I wondered what it all felt like for him. If he could turn my emotions into a source of strength for himself, he had to feel what those emotions were. Sure, everyone wants to be loved, even the most vile of creatures. My caring guaranteed him my help. So why did it make him hate me even more? So much that the Lady thought he might kill me? Dependence frightened him, that I could understand, but wouldn't he be doing himself an extremely bad favor by killing the very source of his strength?
I tried to imagine myself in his place, failed. Then it occurred to me that I'd be extremely uncomfortable knowing that the person who's trying so hard to help me recover hated me in truth.
But I didn't, I realized. I feared him, I felt a lot of suppressed anger, but hatred somehow waned, and I did not think it was the spell's doing. Early on, I had felt it right along with my desire to help, except that desire was stronger, and the hatred could wait for the sake of my brethren in the Company.
The Eastern front stretched a few miles off the Windy Country. It was mostly forest here, much like the one in which Raven and me ambushed the Limper before the Taking of Whisper all those years ago.
For now, most of Limper's work was planning and coordinating troops. There had been only one battle in which he took part, attacking the Rebel from above with powerful blasts of magic. I made myself useful in the field hospital to get my mind off worrying. It didn't work, but at least I was able to help the many wounded--and get proof that I really was no good at magic.
The Limper mainly stayed on a carpet ever since we left Charm.
"You need more exercise if you want to recover fully," I told him several times, but he was too busy with the campaign. "We could go off into the forest," I suggested, knowing he wouldn't have his subordinates see him trying to walk.
Then there was this ambush. I hadn't been there, which was good for me: only several soldiers survived the attack. The Limper destroyed the attackers, suffering a few wounds in the process. When he and his remaining men returned to the camp, I hurried to check his wounds. They weren't serious, but as I stood there checking he put a hand on my shoulder, hungry for physical contact and the relief it brought. He did this without thinking, in the open. Realizing all of it, he stared at his hand as if it had betrayed him. He hardly ever wore his mask these days--it obstructed hes breathing, slightly, but enough to matter in his condition--and for a moment I saw something close to shock distort his ruined features. Then he pushed me away in rage, saying the wounds were nothing, and started shouting orders. Within half an hour, an avenging party was formed. I wasn't part of it. In less than three hours they returned with news of an overwhelming victory.
Without taking any time to rest, the Limper told me he wanted to go a small way into the forest, just the two of us, so he might have some practice as I had insisted so many times. We went. I didn't get suspicious until it was too late.
Half blinded by the pain from what would've been a mortal blow had I not been protected, still unable to fully believe he chose to kill me, I shouted his name. Then some curses--I was in rage, feeling betrayed. Then I realized he was on the ground.
With his powers gone, he lost the ability to hold up the carpet. And the Lady had overestimated the extent of his recovery--he was writhing, actually clawing at his chest, struggling to breathe. I dashed to him.
"Focus! Stay calm. It will be all right!" I had to slap him to get his attention. "Now, slowly," I pried his hands away from his chest, leaned in to support him in a half-seated position. "Breathe in."
I gently put the palm of my hand to his chest, felt the wild pace of his heart. He was terrified--and so was I. Damn it, I couldn't let him die, not after all this time, not from my own hand.
He was holding on to me, but I could already feel his grip slipping. His gaze grew foggy, unfocused. Desperately I started weaving what he taught me. It had made him a great deal better before, but he did not need help breathing then, there was nothing for it in the complex spell. Or was there? I learned it, but he never bothered to explain it to me.
Then a horrid thought struck my mind: if he couldn't use magic, was the connective working at all? I had a brief thought about doing a mouth-to-mouth, but realized I wouldn't be able to have it and the spell going at the same time.
Then the right part of the spell suddenly kicked in, and he was breathing again.
I've had a lot of practice lately, so holding up the spell wasn't too hard. What bothered me more was there was no change in his condition for a long while. He could breathe as long as I was helping him with it, and he remained unconscious. Then at last some progress set in, though he still would not come to his senses.
When I was absolutely sure he was doing all right on his own, I let go of my spell, picked him up and started on my way to the camp.
My arrival caused more than some ruckus, but I told everyone to butt of, and no one dared follow me into the Limper's tent. I've had the good sense to send them to fetch his carpet, though.
Once inside, I laid him down on the low cot, kneeled next to it, and started a thorough check-up.
"What are you doing?"
I glanced up to find him staring at me in disbelief.
"Just checking," I shrugged and let go of his wrist. "Now that you finally came around, looks like there's nothing really wrong. I just had to make sure."
I frowned, not seeing much sense in that question.
"Why are you doing this? How'd I get here, did you carry me?"
Then it hit me.
The spell he put on me, the one that's been messing with my mind all this time. Magic-wise he was in paralysis right now, so there was no way it could have remained in place.
"I told you I did not hate you. And I didn't want to hurt you like I did," said I.
He pulled himself to a half-sitting position, leaning on an elbow, and shook his head as if trying to clear it.
"How much do you remember?" I asked.
"You were in panic," he sounded bewildered.
Actually it was him panicking and me just frightened half out of my wits at the thought of him being about to die there, but I didn't bother correcting him.
He kept staring at me, as if really seeing me for the first time. I did not share his amazement: after having been taking care of him for months, of course I did not want him dead on my hands, spell or no spell. I decided to make use of his bewilderment and ask the question that's been bothering me for a long time.
"Why did you tell me before that those feelings were my own?"
He saw no point in denying now.
"The connective works better if the object believes them to be genuine."
The object, right.
He looked me in the eyes.
"Blaming me for lying is too much even for you, Croaker."
He was right on that point, but I still resented the fact.
"You're the reason I needed the connective in the first place."
Again, true. And--was he making excuses?!
Yet, "If you hadn't followed us-"
"My name is in those papers!"
"Hidden somewhere in them, yes, and now you don't have the papers and I have your name. 'S that how you wanted things to be?"
"I really should kill you."
The way he said it, I knew he wouldn't. For the first time I really knew it. That felt good. Not just reassuring, but good in a real satisfying way.
"When will you get your skills back?"
"Don't know," he eased himself back down. "It usually depends on one's strength. Right now, I barely have any at all. Put up that spell again, it's getting hard to breathe."
"Is the connective still there?" I asked after a while.
"You can't feel it, can you?"
"It's there," he told me. "But it's not of much use to me right now."
Yet my presence itself was of use, and not just because I had been taught the right spell. I did not need the connective to see that my presence calmed him. Too many times it had been his lifeline, and some part of him grew used to feeling better simply because I was there. It worked even now, when the effect was purely in his mind.
The cot was too narrow for the both of us. Once he insisted on me joining him, I had to lay on my back with him settled not so much beside as atop of me. In minutes, he was asleep. The whole thing had him exhausted, but this degree of trust almost frightened me. I knew it frightened him as well.
Now that we both realized it wasn't magic affecting our emotions, things got all the more complicated.
Three weeks passed before he made the decision for the both of us. By then his powers had returned and he was feeling better than ever. He recovered enough to be seen walking within the camp grounds--dragging his feet and leaning heavily on a walking stick (he wouldn't let me help him when he could be seen, the proud bastard), but still walking on his own. He didn't really need me supporting him through the connective now, but on the final night he ordered me to share his bed. I felt him touch the bond that linked us, but I couldn't tell if he were drawing my strength. It was more like he was simply... touching it.
I sensed something wasn't right and couldn't sleep at all. Neither could he. We lay there in silence for most of the night, but despite my worries it felt comfortable and secure. Felt good, actually.
Then morning came.
"It's time for you to go."
He sounded calm and resolute, but I got a feeling of anger and bitter sadness via the connective.
"I hear the Company is in Chimney."
"So you're just sending me off?"
"Beat it, Croaker. Before I've changed my mind about letting a man who knows my name wonder around."
That moment made me hate the link we shared. There was an "I'll miss you", outweighed by a very firm understanding of "I've come to depend on you far too much", and even something of a "take care", and all of that was left unsaid. Of course.
I turned and left. He was right, we'd grown too close for it to be good for either of us.
The connective faded gradually as a ship took me farther and farther across the Sea of Torment. I was on my way to reunite with my family, and that made me look forward to the future. I tried not to think about how the name of the sea I was crossing reflected my mood.
The Company was with the White Rose now. It would be six years before my path would cross with the Limper's once again.