It was late in the afternoon by the time Inuart excused himself from Furiae’s quarters. He had not slept for near two full days by then, but whatever his fatigue he could not bring himself to leave Furiae alone in her mourning. Now that she had finally taken to her bed he departed, charged with one task left to perform before seeking his own chambers, one that would require some considerable rallying of courage that he was not sure he had.
Finding Caim was not difficult; the Temple of the Goddess, though outwardly grand, held a simple interior of broad stone corridors and empty rooms. Inuart needed only to follow the sounds of Caim’s voice to discover him in a large chamber in the Southern Wing. He seemed to be training, judging by the sounds of his heavy breath and ragged curses, mixed with an occasional scrape of metal over stone. Filled with sudden uncertainty Inuart paused at the curved archway without revealing himself to the man inside.
They had fled the battlefront the night before, forced into retreat by the merciless assault of the Empire’s massive army. Riding hard through the night they had come to the barren lands surrounding the Temple just that morning—only a man with Caim’s fortitude would even think of training after such a journey, not to mention the bloody battles that had taken place earlier. Inuart himself still suffered from every pulled muscle and deep bruise sustained in the campaign. It was that more than anything which kept him from approaching Caim right away. He was fearful that revealing himself would result in Caim drawing him into an unwanted practice spar, or worse, earn him Caim’s scorn for not having joined him sooner.
The almost rhythmical swish of Caim’s sword through the air was interrupted suddenly but a frustrated growl, and a spectacular crash of steel that made Inuart gasp loudly in surprise. Fearing that Caim may have injured himself he rushed through the stone archway and into the chamber. “Caim?”
The first thing Inuart saw upon entering was Caim’s dark eyes, flashing to him across the room as if assessing some new enemy. Upon realizing who the intruder was his gaze loosened to disdain, and he looked away. “Inuart.”
Inuart frowned slightly at the expression Caim had fixed him with then, but for the moment his concern outweighed his disappointment. He soon discovered the source of the crash to be the shattered suit of armor that lay in pieces at Caim’s feet. There were many such displays of antique armor around the Temple which made up its only decoration. All half dozen that used to circle this particular chamber lay in pieces among broken spear heads and cloven shields. Inuart sighed quietly. “If you’re going to practice, must you also demolish the décor?” he scolded.
Caim snorted. He was still clad in his own armor from the battle the night before, stained with blood and filth and reeking of sweat. “Armor’s only purpose is to be worn,” he replied curtly. “And when it can no longer be worn, it should be melted down and forged anew.” He kicked a helmet, and both men watched as it skidded across the floor, shards of rusted metal falling from the edges as it went. “We need the steel more than we need the art, Inuart.”
The helmet came to a halt against Inuart’s feet, and he picked it up slowly, cradling it in his hands like one might an injured pup. He knew Caim had no love of antiquities, would never understand the almost nostalgia he felt for these relics. There had been similar displays in the castles they grew up in, now broken in similar fashion. “This Temple is a fortress,” he reminded Caim. “There is plenty of steel to be had. Can you not consider options before destroying something?”
Caim thrust the iron heel of his boot through the chest plate of the fallen armor, splintering it for spite. “Just because we are in a temple does not give you right to preach to me.”
Inuart’s shoulders drooped. Whatever strength he lacked compared to his long time comrade, he still prided himself in his preservation of their old way of life. He saw, as Caim could not, that winning this war at the expense of their culture was as cruel a fate as losing it. There were more important things to treasure than victory in battle.
He set the helmet carefully aside. “Your sister was asking after you.”
That gave Caim pause, as Inuart knew it would. His posture slackened as he sheathed his sword. “How fares she?”
“She had taken to bed, when I left her,” Inuart replied, stepping closer. “The news of her parents’ death took a heavy toll on her….” He licked his lips. “Caim. With all that happened, I never had the chance to tell you how sorry I am, for your poor Father and—”
“Enough,” Caim interrupted him shortly. He turned to depart the chamber. “I will send every one of the wretched beasts to my father in the afterlife soon enough. Then he can claim his own revenge.”
“Caim…” Inuart’s heart sank whenever he heard Caim speak of such violence, but his concern on that subject was pushed aside when he realized that his friend was not walking with the same steely grace he usually did. He started after Caim at a few paces behind to watch. “You are limping.”
“It’s nothing,” Caim said quickly as he continued out into the hall.
“Have you not rested at all since we reached the temple?” Inuart persisted. “Not even to dress your wounds?”
“I am not wounded.”
Inuart quickened his stride, bringing himself to Caim’s side. Surely enough he was dragging his right leg stiffly with each step. A great deal of blood had dried into the pant leg, but how much of it was Caim’s was impossible to know. “All the healers are resting after tending the troops,” he murmured thoughtfully, bending at the waist to better see. “But you should at least let me look at it. I’ll escort you to your room, and—”
Caim’s hand came down heavily on his shoulder, shoving him abruptly away. Bent over as he was the unexpected reprisal nearly pushed Inuart off his feet, and he stumbled back in surprise.
“You know even less of medicine than you do warfare,” Caim grumbled irritably. “I do not need your help.”
Inuart stared after him, shocked and deeply wounded by the harsh words. The night before they had stood side by side as the Empire’s forces bore down on them in waves, and still Caim treated him so carelessly. Resentment coiled in his heart, and in anger he retaliated, pushing Caim hard in his side.
Caim stumbled, and when he tried to brace his weight against the attack his injured leg would not hold him, sending him falling into the opposite wall with a heavy thud. He fixed Inuart with wide, shocked eyes, which Inuart found both vindicating and sickening.
“I will escort you to your room,” Inuart said again, gathering himself up to his full height. “So that I can dress your wounds. All right?”
Caim stared back at him, and after a moment slowly pushed away from the wall. As was sometimes the case Inuart’s insistence broke through his own bitter stubbornness, and he accepted a shoulder to lean on as they continued down the hall toward his chambers. Though it was a victory, Inuart felt little pleasure from it.
By the time they reached the quarters prepared earlier for the young prince Caim’s nearly continual bloodlust had abated. He gave no protest as Inuart helped to remove his armor and gauntlets and prodded him into bed. After departing briefly to fetch fresh water and dressings, Inuart seated himself on the mattress edge to tend to Caim’s wounds. As he soon discovered the injury was not to Caim’s leg, but his hip, where an orc’s spiked club had caught just below the lip of his protective armor. He peeled back the hem of Caim’s trousers to reveal a grotesque scab, and a deep bruise stretching from his waist to the top of his thigh.
“And you were still training like this,” Inuart chided. Whatever laceration had been carved in him was now closed over, but he did his best to clean away the dried blood and grime. “Some orcs lace their weapons with poison, you know.”
Caim folded his arms behind his head to keep them out of Inuart’s way. “This one didn’t,” he pointed out, even as he hid a grimace. “Otherwise, I would not have lasted the night.”
“You are careless, and you’ll lose your limbs to skin-rot some day.” Inuart began to apply a cool balm to the darkened bruise. “This Temple is safe for us. You should take the time to rest while you can.”
“So naïve,” Caim muttered. “Their army is massive, and we do not have enough soldiers to fend them off. We will not be receiving reinforcements. This temple…will fall.”
“But Caim….” Inuart chewed his lip worriedly. “This is the last stronghold the Union has left. If we cannot defend these walls, there will be no safe place left for The Goddess.”
Caim’s eyelids slid gradually shut. “Furiae…my poor sister. When she is dead, I will have nothing left.”
Inuart realized then he should not have brought her up at all. As children they had all been devoted friends, with shared ease and camaraderie. But in these grave times there was no longer any kind talk between them. Not since their bonds had been twisted. “You should not invite misfortune with such talk.”
“It is only the truth. Even once I’ve sent every last Empire hyena down to Hell, she’ll still die.” Caim’s head fell to the side with a bark of bitter laughter. In the failing light his cheeks looked flush—he might have been feverish from his wound. “We cannot protect her from an army. How will we protect her from the weight of the world?”
“Stop it,” Inuart warned, his voice pitching desperately. “I will protect Furiae. She may never by my wife, but I still love her.”
“You?” Caim echoed incredulously. “You will protect Furiae?” He scoffed. “You cannot even protect yourself.”
Inuart’s chest tightened, drawing cold nausea into his stomach. The cruel words pierced him as effectively as only Caim’s ever could. He had done his best to harden his heart to them, as he had received similar condemnation from peers and strangers his entire life. But coming from Caim they drove pain into him he couldn’t dislodge. It was as their relationship had always been; Inuart struggled, and Caim pushed him back. They had fought and lost everything together—Inuart could no sooner free himself from Caim than he could the man’s sister. Even Caim’s scorn was preferable to the invisibility he faced without him.
“We have stood together all this time,” he whispered tragically. “And still you mock me?”
“Your sword is useless to me, Inuart,” Caim told him, his eyes opening in thin slits. Their gaze was unfocused and distant. “All I ask is that you keep my sister in high spirits, until the end.”
“High spirits!?” Inuart cried. He shook his head, exasperated and distraught. “The Empire dogs us at every turn—just now you claimed our forces lie at the brink of annihilation—and all you ask of me is petty charm and entertainment?”
“You have nothing else to offer me,” Caim continued. “And Furiae…” His eyes widened, swiveling to meet Inuart’s pained gaze. “She will never love you as you wish her to, even if she were free to do so.”
“Stop…” Inuart’s hands trembled—as close as they were, Caim must have felt it. “Stop it, Caim. Do you hate me so much…?”
He leaned back, intending to stand from the bed; he was beginning to feel ill. But before he could retreat far enough Caim’s hand closed suddenly in the front of his shirt, drawing him back. “Wait,” he said, his expression suddenly one of urgency. “Don’t go. Stay—sing for me.”
Inuart glared at him in disbelief. “Sing?” he echoed weakly. His shoulders drooped in defeat; he already knew would give in. “You mock and insult me, and now you ask for songs?”
“Please, Inuart,” Caim persisted. His hand slid to the back of Inuart’s neck, and the man gave no resistance as he was drawn down, until their faces were mere inches apart. Caim tipped his chin up to kiss Inuart’s forehead. “You know I’ll not sleep without it.”
Inuart sighed as Caim’s fingers kneaded into the base of his skull. He knew better than to think Caim meant any of these affectionate gestures as a sincere apology. “Someday,” he whispered. “Someday, you will see me as your equal, Caim.”
“Please.” Caim kissed his forehead again tenderly. “Sing for me…” His hand slithered to Inuart’s jaw, urging their lips together.
Inuart did not recoil. It was no different than any of the touches they sometimes shared. Caim’s dry, split lips tasted of blood and sand. After a moment Inuart was even coaxed into returning the gentle kiss. It was the surrender expected of him, as painful as it was sweet.
This was not an intimacy meant for two comrades raised as brothers. But who would love him now, if not for Caim? Stripped of his home, his title, of even his betrothed, Inuart had nothing left but Caim’s favor to give him place in the world. Nothing but Caim’s selfish, soulless passion.
With a ragged breath Inuart pulled his head away, separating their mouths. “All right,” he relented weakly. His stomach quivered, but he would only let Caim manipulate him so far. He drew the wide hand away from his face and pressed it to Caim’s chest. “I will sing for you, if you promise to rest.”
To his relief Caim relaxed, sinking into his pillow. “Thank you,” he murmured. As his eyes closed once more his expression relaxed into one of calm contentment. There was peace in his face, the kind of quiet satisfaction never present in Furiae’s bright brown eyes when Inuart offered her his sweetest kisses.
He pulled the worn quilts over Caim’s weary body. And though Inuart’s heart was heavy, he put all his emotion into a lullaby from their childhood.