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All for Love

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Retrouvailles - French

The feeling of joy when you are reunited with a loved one after a long separation.


His foot slipped for the tenth time against the slippery moss covered stones and his brown boot filled with water. Hissing out a curse, he lifted his boot from the creek and trudged forward, shrugging his bow higher on his shoulder. The arrows in his quiver rattled as he swayed back and forth in an effort to get across the creek.

“Alex, c’mon,” Skip groaned from ahead, “you’re slowing us down!”

“Hey, it’s not as easy as it looks!” He argued back and narrowly avoided filling his boot back up. “Do we really have to go so far for a… what is it? Some flower?”

“The Arge—agi—argin—”

“Argentine lilly.” Don supplied with his stupid amused smirk as he crouched up the creek on an unnecessarily large rock that split the creek. Alex didn’t even know how he’d gotten up there. “And yes, we do. Spina needs it. Lots of it.”

“So why isn’t he out here collecting flowers?” Alex grumbled and balled his fists and clenched his teeth when his boot slipped from the moss and he ended up knee deep in the creek.

“You know why.” Skip snorted and offered his hand, which Alex took gratefully. “C’mon, let’s catch up to that bastard and get these flowers.”

Thankfully, they only needed to follow the creek for another mile, from there it was dry ground and trees upon trees. Alex’s boots didn’t dry out, not in the chill of early autumn evenings. By the time they stopped to start a fire and hunt for some dinner, his feet were soggy and wrinkled. Skip was nice enough to get the fire started while Don went out to find a rabbit, or, if they were really lucky, a deer or boar. Anything was welcomed, Alex decided as his stomach churned and gurgled at him in protest. He’d only had a pear that morning.

Alex scrunched his nose as he tipped over his boot and watched as what seemed like a small river ran out. The other boot joined the first by the fire, wool socks hung over the tops, and Alex laid against the grass and twigs of the forest with a great sigh. They’d be camping out in the open, not necessarily a bad thing, but with the cold creeping in it was more of a pain to have to stay up on fire watch.

“You’re taking second watch.” Skip told him.

“What? No, I did it last time.” Second watch was always the worst. Just when he’d fall asleep and get an ounce of rest, there would be a hand shaking him awake. Falling asleep after was never hard, but it shortened his sleep by two thirds.

“Well I made the fire and Don’s out hunting, so tough luck. Be useful next time.”

“Useful.” Alex grumbled. “I’m about to go collect firewood, so how about that?”

“In bare feet?”

“Well I’m not going to put my wet boots back on, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The snap of a twig pulled them away from the argument. Alex’s well trained eyes scanned East, where the noise came from. With any luck, it was an animal they could eat. Alex spotted something better. Don, grin a mile wide, with a pheasant in one hand and a rabbit in the other snapped several more twigs as he came back to their meager camp.

“Boys, I hope you’re hungry.”

“Starving!” Alex corrected, and leapt to his feet. “I’ll get us some more firewood.”

“With no boots?”

“No boots!” Alex confirmed and ignored the slightly concerned look Don sent after him as he scurried off to find wood. It was partially so he wouldn’t have to help defeather the pheasant. His hands always ached afterward.

He knew better than to hum while he was out in the wild, but he couldn’t help bouncing his head in time to a song never sung aloud. It wasn’t difficult to find the wood, but he took his time. If he timed it just right, by the time he got back the meat would be nearly done.

Sticks and branches in hand, a thought dawned on him as he returned. Excitement had pinkened his cheeks and quickened his heart and he ignored the way a twig jabbed him between his toes as he hurried back. The firewood was hastily thrown to the side in a loud clatter and Alex threw himself onto Skip, pushing him down so he could straddle him.

“Hey!” Skip protested, hands still around a half defeathered pheasant. “Alex, get off!”

Alex only grinned and leaned forward, claiming the brown eyed man’s lips for his own. Surprise hit first, something like a panic, and even Don gave half a cry of protest before Alex pulled back.

“We’re outside the kingdom.” He told them, licking his lips in satisfaction and lifting his eyebrow suggestively at Don.

Skip’s eyes were still wide in shock and in an instant there was a flurry of movement. Skip nearly toppled him over in his haste to kiss him and Don was at his back, pulling at his tunic and belt. It was sloppy, uncoordinated, and entirely too short lived, but in the end they lay against each other, laughing and high.

“It’s almost dark.” Don pointed out. “And dinner is just lying in the dirt.”

“We’ll wash it off.” Skip assured, and ran an absent hand through red locks. Don returned the affection with a quick peck to the cheek.

Alex snaked a hand up Skip’s green tunic, one of the only articles of clothing not thrown off in their haste to indulge. Skip pulled his hand out of his tunic, kissed it gently, and sighed.

“C’mon, I’m dying of hunger after all of that.”

Alex hummed in agreement and reluctantly pulled his hand back to allow Skip to pull away from them. Worn leather britches were pulled back on and laced up, tunics were belted and weapons properly placed for the night. Skip washed the rabbit off and finished the defeathering while Don slowly roasted the meat over the fire. Alex took to keeping watch for any wolves or bears or wild cats looking for a quick meal. And people. But out here in the wilderness, Alex knew they wouldn’t see any. This forest in particular was dense, far from their kingdom and bordering another. The mountains were steep and too risky to climb, leaving it without a pass. Any traders or travelers would go around them if they were smart. Outlaws might try to cross the mountains, but the wildlife had been able to thrive without disturbance for too long. The predators were not afraid of humans.

Dinner was filling and relaxing and Alex sagged against Don’s back as the fire died down to half of what it was. The sun dipped just below the tree line and the shadows grew long in the forest.

“Maybe this flower quest isn’t so bad.”

“What, because we were able to fuck?” Skip snorted. “If we hadn’t, you would still be complaining.”

“We owed Spina for last year, anyways.” Don poked at the fire and Alex absentmindedly passed him a piece of firewood to throw in. “When someone got sick, remember?”

“You’d blame me for this?” Alex raised a brow and handed him another. “Fine, blame me for the best fuck you’ve had in over a year.”

“Well I know I will.” Skip teased. “And I expect several repeat performances. Tonight and tomorrow and however long it takes for us to find these flowers.”

Don hummed. “We aren’t far, according to Spina. And we should get back with them as soon as possible.”

“Don’t spoil the fun, Don.” Alex chided and swept his hand low to squeeze at his ass. Don grinned and squeezed back, a little harder. Alex let go the tiniest gasp, but it was enough to have Don nipping at his lips.

“Don’t leave me out.” Skip whined.

“You’re on first watch, aren’t you?” Alex teased. “You’d best take your job seriously. We wouldn’t want you distracted , would we Don?”

His hand curled between them, unlacing britches once more. Don took him into a deep kiss, hands over his cheeks as he licked and nipped and broke away once they heard the whimper from their third.

“No, Alex, we wouldn’t.” Don groaned as Alex wrapped a skilled hand around him, slow and teasing. “What if we’re attacked in our sleep?”

Alex didn’t bother to keep up the verbal teasing, he pushed back into the kiss and rearranged them so that he was bent over Don, leaned back on his elbows as Alex worked him. There was whimpering from below him as he took to marking up his redhead’s neck and jaw, nipping and sucking as his hand worked. A furious cussing came from across the campfire. Alex pulled back and up just enough to see Skip’s hand delve into his britches. With a glint in his eye he stopped his ministrations and watched Skip’s face fall as Don grunted impatiently.

“Alex,” came the plea from below, but Alex kept his eyes on a frustrated Skip. “Alex!”

He gave a quick stroke, felt Don twitch in his hands and heard the deep moan, eyes all the while tracking the mirrored movement from across the fire. He grinned wide and gave two more, quick strokes. Skip’s hand mirrored again.

Satisfied, he dipped down to claim Don into a kiss once more and muffled the moan as he twisted just so. There was a keening sound from across the fire and Alex twitched in his own britches, far too tight and still on , for some reason. He grabbed one of Don’s hands and brought it to him, squeezed Don’s hand around himself before he returned to kissing, stroking, and twisting. Don got the hint and slowly, far too slowly, unlaced him and took him out in return.

There was an “ah, ah, ah!” and Don spilled over his hand. Alex fisted and twisted him all the way through it, enjoying the way his body tensed against him and the way his mouth opened just so. There was panting, Don blinking what Alex knew was the blinding pleasure from his eyes before he was flipped over with a surprising feat of strength.  

There was warmth and wet and Alex had to bite hard at the back of his fist to keep from coming then and there. There was a low moan and Alex opened his eyes to see Skip furiously stroking himself, practically in pain seeing Don go down on him.

“Do it.” Alex whispered, choked off with a moan of his own because god Don knew what he was doing. “Skip, please .”

The plea had done it and Alex heard, rather than saw with the pleasure forcing his eyes shut, Skip spill into his own hands. Ten seconds later Alex pushed at Don’s face, the only warning he had before he was nothing but jelly in the grass. Don gently tucked him back in and laced him back up. It was something he always did, after. He couldn’t help but to clean them up and tuck them in before he was able to rest. Alex let him, muscles so far relaxed he was sure he was dreaming.

He’d missed this so terribly. His heart ached, knowing the night would be too short, the day even shorter. If they were lucky, they could squeeze another night out of this flower quest, but then they’d cross back into East Sea land and the ache to touch one another would resume.

The distinct sound of kissing didn’t bother him as he drifted off, content to get what little rest he could before a hand—

—violently shook him awake and he groaned loudly, whimpering against the agony of second watch. Skip looked all too happy to wake him, even leaning down to kiss him like some princess in a fairy tale. Alex was not amused. Instead, he untangled himself from Don’s grasp and muttered;

“I’m surprised you didn’t wake me.”

“We only fucked once while you were passed out.” Skip shrugged. “He’s been tired.”

Alex sighed through his nose and smoothed over red hair. He carefully pulled away and allowed Skip to take his place wrapped up in strong arms. Alex stretched and yawned, miserable in his lucidity.

“If they’d stop sending us out on these quests all the damn time…”

“I thought you were going to thank Spina for this when we got back?”

“Sure, for this .” Alex growled. “This is the first time we’ve been out of East Sea lands in a year. How many times have we been sent out on something Shifty or McClung should have been on? I know we’re all desperate, but…”

“Let’s just do our part, alright? It’ll all be okay.” A hand curled around the edge of his tunic and pulled, just a little. Alex obliged and leaned into the kiss. Skip’s hand curled around the the back of his neck and through his own dark tresses before he smoothed down the hair again. “Let King Winters handle the hard part. We just need to go where we’re told.”

“I know.” He sighed and pulled away, but caught Skip’s hand in his own with a small squeeze. “Get some sleep already, before I keep you up longer.”

Skip chuckled but conceded and he nudged Don’s arm up and over his torso, huddling into the warmth it provided. Alex took to tending the fire and shivered a bit at the chill. The forest was quiet, save for an owl hoot here or there. The fire crackled, but not overly loud. He was able to hear the snaps of twigs and the rustling of bush, but not a single live thing strayed their way.

He kept himself awake by day dreaming of how it would all be when it was over. He imagined walking back into the castle, chest puffed high because they found a way to reverse the curse. He imagined having Skip in the bath, kissing Don every morning as they put on their boots and shouldered their quivers and bows. He imagined sleeping in the same bed again without fear of tempting fate.

By the time dawn rolled around he realized that he hadn’t woke Don for his watch. Oh well, it wasn’t as if he was going to have gotten much sleep anyways. He looked on at his companions fondly, itching to touch them again but knowing that Don was right. They had a job to do. The faster they got back, the faster they could continue their search.

There was nothing for breakfast, the dinner from before having been hearty enough to keep them going for most of the day. They’d certainly gone on less. He woke Don first, with a kiss, just as Skip had done to him. It was reciprocated, slow and tender, with tinny sounds of content. Alex broke it with a smile, happy to see Don pass it along before the two of them were frowning at him with bleary eyes.

“You should have woken me.” Don scolded. “You’re going to slow us down again today.”

“Maybe I wanted to.” Alex answered petulantly, playfully. “Another day of kissing you is worth a night up.”

“I’m serious, Alex.” Don was always serious when it came to their well being. Or a quest. Or anytime food was involved.

“I woke him up late,” Skip soothed, “so it was more like we shared the night half and half. Quit worrying.”

“Then I’ll take the whole night to—”

“None of that.” Skip shushed him. “We’ll share like normal. You were tired, we noticed and let you sleep. It isn’t that big of a deal.”

Don looked as if he might argue, but Alex handed him his boots with a tired smile. “C’mon, Don, we need our navigator in tip top shape. Otherwise we’ll end up off the side of a cliff again.”

“That wasn’t my fault, first of all,” Don snatched up his boots and frowned, but Alex spotted the pink in his cheeks from the embarrassment. “And second of all, it wasn’t a cliff, it was just a large hill. We were fine.”

“You were limping the entire way back. I had to rub Alex’s back for three days!” Skip argued, joining in on the teasing. “Just a large hill. Sure, if hills are cut in half and there aren’t rocks at the bottom.”

“They were small rocks.”

“Still hurt like a bitch.” Alex complained, dramatically rubbing at the small of his back. It had been quite the disastrous fall. They were lucky they weren’t on horses.

“Alright, I get it.” Don waved off the grins. “Get your boots on, we need to move.”

Alex stole a quick kiss and was pleasantly surprised to find his boots were dry. A night by the fire had done wonders. They were even warm and he reveled in it as his freezing toes soaked up all the warmth they could get.

Skip and Don complained that he was too slow, and he scowled and claimed he wasn’t, but it was true that he had slowed them down. His head felt heavy and he rubbed at his eyes, regretting now that he’d only gotten a meager three hours of sleep in the night.

The flowers grew only in shade by a lake so wide Alex considered it an ocean. They were delicate, Don told them as each of them carefully harvested what they could, pulling the flowers out with as much of the root intact as possible. Herbalists used every inch of a plant and it was impressive, not that Alex would ever admit that to Ralph.

They left a few to grow bigger, stronger, and to grow more for them in the future. Perhaps Spina could plant a couple closer to the castle, so they wouldn’t have to trek quite so far. Then again, the trek was well worth the rewards along the way.

He had slowed considerably by the time midday had passed and there were only a few hours of daylight left. His head began to ache and he found himself squinting to see anything more than a few feet in front of him. Skip slowed and teased, but Alex didn’t have the strength or the will to bite back. He knew it was bad when Don had stopped moving completely to watch them catch up.

“What’s wrong? Is it your feet?” Don held a hand to his chest to stop him from trudging forward. “They aren’t still wet, are they?”

“I’m fine.” Alex squinted at him. “You’re wasting time.”

“You don’t need to play tough, not out here and not with us.” Don told him. “Take off your boots.”

“It’s not my feet.” Alex protested and moved back when Skip leaned down to start unlacing them.

“Then what?”

“My head hurts a little is all.” Alex muttered. “I’m sorry for being slow, I’ll try to pick it up. Can we please just go?”

There was a hand at his forehead almost immediately. “No fever.”

“It’s a warning sign.” Skip said flatly. “You didn’t sleep much and your feet were cold. Ralph is gonna have a fit when we bring you back to him.”

“I don’t need Spina, I’m fine. It’s just a small ache.”

“Sure, Alex, fine until Don and I have to drag you back between us like a wounded hero.”

“Skip,” Alex warned. His head hurt and he really didn’t want to deal with the scolding.

“Alright, fine.” Skip threw his hands up and shook his head. “But I’m not going to kiss you. I don’t need to catch what you’ve got before we get home.”

It was supposed to goad him into a kiss, but Alex just hunched in on himself and started walking again. He brushed past the two of them and concentrated on ignoring the ache that came with every step. Don overtook him after a few steps, nothing surprising about that. Don was a fast walker and liked to scout ahead a bit while Alex and Skip mucked about at a slower pace.

The second the sun had dipped below the tree line Skip and Don pounced, shoving him to sit in the crook of a tree while they busied themselves with starting a fire. Had he the energy to get up, he would have offered his help. He knew they would protest it the second he did anyways. He fell asleep, cradled against the bark.

They woke him for a meager dinner, a small rabbit Don had caught with more than a little bit of luck. He ate slowly, savoring the tender meat and struggling to keep his eyes open. He ignored the concerned looks and mumbled quietly, “I get third watch.” before settling back against the bark to sleep once more.

When he woke on his own in the morning, feeling leagues better than he had yesterday, he mourned the loss of a night outside of the kingdom. But upon finding Skip and Don laid apart, not even touching, he realized that they had indeed passed back into the kingdom’s borders. The opportunity had been lost to him anyways. Disappointed, he crawled to Skip and shook him awake. The man came to life with a snort, disoriented.

“Wha?”

“Morning.”

“Shit,” Skip hissed and rubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“Should’ve woken me.” Alex told him.

“Shut up.” Skip mumbled. “Wake up Don for me?”

Don looked better too, having gone what was probably nearly two full nights of sleep. He was more alert when Alex shook him awake and gently murmured a greeting. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah. I told you I was fine.”

“Mm.” Don licked his lips and stretched with a groan. The ground was never very forgiving, and they were only getting older. He scratched at the beard he’d grown in the last few months, a rather seductive addition, Skip and Alex had decided when it had grown in fully. “I wonder how everyone is.”

“Well, Don, probably the exact same as when we left.”

“Miserable. Cranky.” Alex supplied with a shrug. “Jealous, probably. That beard only hides so much.”

Don itched at one of the many visible marks on his skin. “They should have volunteered, then.”

“We’d better hope Guarnere is still out. He’ll probably be in a worse mood the second he sees you.”

“Maybe,” Skip shrugged, “but he’s had plenty of time outside of the kingdom.”

“Yeah but Frannie isn’t with him and there’s no way he’s shacking up with Toye.”

“Sometimes you wonder.” Don grinned.

They’d made it a good distance back to  East Sea when something caught Skip’s attention from behind. By the time Alex had stopped to turn around there was a harsh call.

“Drop your weapons and raise your hands!”

There was an accent—not one well known around these parts. Alex turned, an eyebrow raised and found himself staring down four men and one woman. The woman and one of the men had bows notched with arrows, drawn back and ready to fire at any hint of resistance. One man held a sword at the ready, the other two merely had a hand at the hilt of their swords.

“Bandits, huh?” Skip muttered. “Just our luck that we run into them just as soon as we’ve reached home.”

“Quit yapping and drop the bows!” The woman snapped. “Both of you, now!”

Both? Ah, they must’ve missed Don scouting just a little further ahead. Alex sighed and swung his bow around and off of his shoulder. He bent to place the bow on the ground, swooping just low enough for his quiver to upend and scatter arrows across the forest floor.

“Ah, damn it!” he made a point to cuss and then he drew and fired in one quick motion. One was downed, an arrow through the eye. Skip had narrowly avoided an arrow fired in return and shot one of his own. He didn’t miss.

He didn’t want to kill the woman, but she had reloaded another arrow and between her and two swordsmen, they’d have trouble. His hand slipped his throwing knife from it’s hidden sheath at his side and he hurled it, barely having time to see if it hit its mark before he had to duck. The swing of the sword missed, but barely so. The man grunted in anger and was midswing again when an arrow found his back. He crumpled at Alex’s feet with a groan of agony.

An arrow whizzed past and Alex’s heart lurched when Skip yelped in pain. He spun around, eyes seeking the woman. He found her, knife embedded in her thigh. It wasn’t enough to stop her from notching another arrow back, hands trembling as she released. Alex dove to the ground; there was another pained groan from behind him, but he focused on quickly notching his own arrow. He was faster than her and his aim was truer. She crumpled with a horrid, wet gasp.

He paid her no more attention, turning back to Skip. Don was there at his side, murmuring something, but Alex could only focus on the arrow through Skip’s shoulder. Red bled through the thick material of the green tunic they all wore, not at an alarming rate, but the sight alone had Alex’s stomach churning. He took a moment to take it in before he stumbled forward.

Burning pain cut through his thigh and he fell, shocked. He didn’t have much time to react; there was a man bearing down on him, dagger raised to strike. His eyes were blue, his beard unkempt, and there was a tattoo on the side of his neck. Alex’s hand wrapped around one of the arrows he’d dropped on the floor earlier and he struck before he even thought about it. The tip of the arrow pierced the man through his neck. The dagger was thrust down and sliced his left arm just above his elbow.

The man gurgled and slumped forward onto him. Alex heard his last breaths very clearly as he died on top of him.

“Alex!” Don cried, and the blue eyed bandit was shoved off of him. “Are you okay? Where are you hurt?”

“Elbow,” he told him, winded and dazed from the encounter. It wasn’t his first kill, but it had been a long time since he’d been that close to dying. “And my leg.”

“Shit, okay. Skip, make sure the rest of them are dead.” Don ordered and Alex stared at the bandit as hands examined his left elbow, and then his left thigh. “These don’t look too bad. Can you stand?”

“Think so,” he replied quietly, and with the outstretched hand in front of him, pulled himself up. He was able to stand, but his thigh burned. He hissed when he took a hesitant step forward. He’d be limping, but they would be able to get back without too much delay.

“Don,” Skip called, and they both knew the tone. “We need to go.”

“Can you walk?”

“Yeah. What about Skip?” He swallowed back the whimper as he bent and picked up as many arrows as he could to return to his quiver.

“I broke off the arrow. He’ll be hurting, but there’s nothing we can do until we get back.”

“Hey now, don’t you worry about me.” Skip told them, but his voice was strained and Alex very much understood the pain he was going to have to keep at bay. “Let’s go.”

They left the bodies for the forest to consume, focused more on putting as much distance as they could between them. Alex limped and Skip cursed every once in a while. Don kept a close eye on both of them and stuck to their sides. He knew it was because Don was feeling guilty for scouting ahead.

He had no reason to feel guilty. Alex was the one who royally screwed up. If he’d been more precise with his throw, Skip wouldn’t have an arrow in his shoulder. And if he’d watched where the hell he’d been going, he wouldn’t be limping his way back to East Sea.

It did take long for Don to find a cave for them to take refuge in for a while. Alex swore Don was blessed by all of the gods with good fortune. The mouth of the cave was well hidden, not something that anyone who may have been following them would notice. Dark and narrow, stretching into the small mountain, the cave barely fit them. It was more like a passage leading to nowhere rather than a cave wildlife would use.

Alex didn’t complain, however, just sat with a breath of relief and nursed his injuries. Skip huddled close to do the same. There was the hiss of a fire starting and light came to them in the form of a crudely made torch. The torch was placed on the floor so Don could use both hands to check on Skip’s shoulder.

“It hurts, but I’ll live, Don.” Skip let him examine the wound again, but Alex could see how much he wanted to curl away from the prodding hands. “I’m more concerned about who those guys were.”

“Stognians.” Alex confirmed. “Which means they were going to just rob us.”

“What brought them to this side of the mountains?”

“Lack of food, maybe.” Don mumbled. “It doesn’t look poisoned.”

“Since when does a Stognian know how to use poison?” Skip huffed. “They’re crafty, but they aren’t schemers.”

“Don’s right, Skip.” Alex hissed as Don moved onto him, twisting his arm slightly so he could get a better look at the gash. “Doesn’t matter who it is, poison is always a possibility.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Skip waved him off and then winced. “Damn it. This is going to take forever to heal.”

“Guess we owe Spina again.” Alex sighed.

“When do we ever not owe Spina?”

“You have a point.” Alex shrugged. Don, seemingly satisfied with the state of their wounds, sat back with a heavy sigh. Alex glanced right and squinted at the inky black further down the cave. “How far back does this thing go?”

“Why?” Skip kicked a boot against his own. “You planning on going further in?”

“Sometimes bandits hide their treasure in caves.” Alex shrugged. “Worth a look.”

“Both of you are sitting tight.” Don told them, tone clipped, and really, Alex should’ve expected that. “I’ll go.”

Skip snorted. “To keep the treasure all to yourself. I see how it is.”

“There could be danger.” Don argued, but his tone was light. Without a doubt, it was so Don could claim he found the treasure on his own. Alex had never known the man not to be up for an adventure. It was how they always ended up outside the castle walls, fending off wolves and bears and bandits.

“Just remember it was my idea!”

Alex and Skip watched as Don took the torch and sidled along the walls of the narrow cave until they could barely see the glowing light. He was gone for a few minutes and then he was back, eyebrows furrowed in that way that told Alex he’d found something, but it wasn’t treasure.

“What’d you find?” Skip pressed.

“Some markings. I can’t read them. You got any parchment with you?”

“Yeah, I do.” Alex ignored the sting of his elbow and dug into the larger pouch attached to his belt. He had no quill or ink, but he provided a broken piece of coal. It was the best they could do out in the wild.

“Thanks. I’m going to go copy it down. Maybe Nixon can read it.”

“If he can’t, maybe Webster could.” Skip supplied. “He knows some old writing, I think.”

“It’s what you get for growing up noble, I guess.” Alex shrugged and watched Don disappear with the torch back into the darkness.

“I’d rather have grown up noble than be stuck planting fields for hours everyday.”

Alex hummed in agreement. “Or slaving away in a kitchen. I don’t know how Joe Dominguez does it.”

“No one knows how Joe does it, Alex. I’m afraid to know what he puts into half the stuff he makes.”

“Can’t be rat. I know what rat tastes like.”

Skip snorted. “Why the hell do you know what rat tastes like?”

“Desperate times, Skip, desperate times.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. He’d been starving and sometimes the forest only offers meager bites. He hadn’t met Don or Skip at the time. He hadn’t even heard of East Sea at the time. His father told him to go out and hunt his sixteenth summer and so he did. It took three days to find something he could actually bring home to his family. The deer had been worth the two rats he’d eaten.

“You can’t just leave it off there. Spill.”

The sound of rock skipping off rock followed by the glow of the torch signaled Don’s return. He crouched down to place the parchment between them. Alex peered at the strange writing curiously. It was like nothing he’d ever seen. The script was fanciful, swirling and curling across the page.

“What language is this?”

“I don’t know, but I did a poor job imitating it.” Don answered.

“If this is a poor imitation, I want to see what this actually looks like.” Skip shook his head with wide eyes, in awe of the writing. “Was it carved into the wall?”

“Yeah. It’s kind of small, but when I bring the torch to it, it kind of glows.” Don looked Alex right in the eye and said; “I think it’s magic.”

They let words hang between them, eyes alight with interest. Alex licked his lips and brought a hand up to run through his hair. They could only hope it held some sort of key to figuring out a way to reverse the curse.

“We need to get this back.” Skip grunted as he pulled himself up to stand. Don was up and steadying him a moment later.

“We need to get you back.” Don corrected. “I didn’t see anyone following us, we’re probably safe to continue.”

“We can hope. You know the rule with Stognians.” Alex sighed, “Where there’s one, there’s two. Where there’s few, there’s many.”

“Then let’s hurry.” Skip grunted.

 


 

It took half a day to reach the monitored border of the kingdom. Ramirez whistled at them from his tower, gave the signal, which they returned, and they successfully passed without an arrow through the heart.

“Hey!” came the call, and the three of them paused to look up at the watchman. “Guess who’s back?”

“No shit, really?!” Don called back. “They get anyone?”

“Go see for yourself!”

“That guy never fucking spills.” Alex muttered to Skip.

“I like surprises.” Skip mumbled back. “I just hope it’s a good one.”

From the watchtower to the castle gates was a two hour walk, one filled with anticipation and wishful thinking. Smokey whistled from up on top of the stone gate and a second later large wooden doors were being drawn open. The three of them slipped through, greeting city guards and knights alike as they entered East Sea.

“Shit, you boys really took a beating, huh?” Hoobler grimaced at the state of them. “Hey, you guys hear about the—”

“Malarkey!” That was Perconte who called, beckoning to them with waving hands. “Come look!”

Hoobler grinned. “I’ll let you see for yourself.”

Alex clapped him on the back and limped as he followed Don and Skip to where Perconte was practically vibrating on his feet in excitement.

They followed the dirt path that the carts took into the small city, weaving between citizens as they went. Alex was careful not to bump into any of them. If the flowers became damaged in any sort of way, Ralph would only send them out to collect more and Alex really missed his bed. The inner city gates let them through at Perconte’s wave and Alex’s jaw dropped at the wagon in the center of the courtyard.

“Holy shit.” Don murmured and Alex could only stare.

The caged wagon was nothing new. The wood was tough and sturdy with metal bars enclosing the entire top half of the wagon. Inscriptions had been carved into every side of the wagon’s wooden frame. Alex couldn’t actually read them, but they were vital to the men in charge of leading the wagon.

Inside the wagon three men sat. One was snarling, spitting threats through the bars at wary and irritated knights. Guarnere and Toye in particular looked quite put out by the man. His hair was a bit wild and his eyes were sharp. His entire countenance spoke dangerous . He wore a gray shirt made of cotton and down the sleeves corded braids tightened the fabric around his arms. It was a detail that Alex never seen incorporated into clothing. He wondered where the man was from; he didn’t look wealthy, didn’t look poor, either.

The next man was more tame. His eyes, lined with kohl, slid from man to man, as if he were counting them. He probably was. His hair was black, framing his face in a very handsome manner. Adorned on his hands were rings of various stones and metals. A purple sash, glinting here and there with hints of silver in the fabric was tied around his waist. He wore a black leather doublet and leather britches. It wasn’t exactly fashion forward, but it somehow worked, all put together like that.

The last man Alex had a hard time seeing, as he was all the way in the front of the wagon. He could make out black hair and plain clothing, nothing that stood out like the other two.

“I want them out one at a time!” Captain Speirs barked.

“Hey Perco, get everyone back, would ya?” Martin ordered.

Don, Alex, and Skip weren’t the only curious ones trying to cop a look at the catch. Nearly every knight and castle guard who wasn’t on duty had gathered around to get an eyeful. Perconte begrudgingly did his duty and they were all pushed back and nearly out of the courtyard. The only ones left were the knights who were able to claim credit for the capture of not one but three potential magic users.

Captain Speirs barked out orders with only the confidence that the captain of the knights could have. His eyes held no fear, his muscles were tense, and he oversaw every action as the first of the captives were released from the wagon. It was the dangerous one first, dragged out by force and restrained with a knight on each arm. The rope that bound his hands was quickly replaced with wooden stock cuffs, inscribed with what Alex recognized as the same symbols on the wagon.

The man didn’t have a chance to use any magic, and for that, everyone was grateful. The man hollered and spat, cursing every last one of them before he was dragged through the courtyard and into the castle. Speirs led the way as Guarnere and Martin took the man in. Toye and Lipton stood guard over the other two, sat quiet in the wagon.

“Crazy, right?” Perconte grinned at the three of them. “Just brought ‘em in. I didn’t think they’d catch any, let alone three!”

“Three…” Don whistled in awe. “What can they do?”

“Dunno.” Perconte shrugged. “Hopefully reverse a curse.”

“Yeah, hopefully.” A brief pause, and then Don asked; “Hey, you know where Spina is?”

“Spina? Probably in his chambers. He’s been a little off lately.”

Well, that wasn’t a surprise. Alex recalled the man’s frantic mumblings as he tried to find what he needed. Ralph hadn’t been an herbalist for long, just two years. Their last herbalist died tragically due to a nasty addiction to Waker’s Weed. He’d used the weed as a crutch to stay awake, but his heart gave out after too many days with no sleep. Ralph had been the only one around who had even half an idea of herbs and plants. As for the medicinal part of things, he’d had to learn everything over time.

Bull had been the first to fall victim to a horrible stitching job. Ralph had brought him lunch for a week after he saw the scar when he took the stitches out. Thankfully, the man learned quick and was quite reliable.

“Thanks, Perc.”

Don’s one and only concern was them, and reluctantly, Alex limped away from the excitement and the new additions to their kingdom. He and Skip were herded around the side of the castle where Spina’s cottage and garden sat. It was surprisingly cut off from everyone despite being right outside of the castle, hidden away in the sunniest corner of the castle and the most optimal for growing plants.

Don reached the herbalist’s door first and gave three quick knocks. There was a crash from inside of which Alex decided something definitely had broken. A loud swear confirmed his theory and moments later the door was swung open.

“What?” Ralph demanded, dark circles under his eyes. “Oh. It’s you. Come in!”

The cottage turned herbalist chambers was an absolute mess. Plants sat in various corners in all states of health, glass vials and wooden boxes covered nooks and crannies. Books sat upon books, some open, some stacked up near the bed. There was hardly any room for Ralph, let alone all of the shit he kept around.

“You got my flowers?”

“Yeah. Alex and Skip need patching up.” Don reported and carefully removed the flowers from his pouch at his belt. “We left some just like you instructed.”

“Good, this is hard to come by.” Ralph sighed. “Please tell me that isn’t an arrow stuck in your shoulder.”

“I would, but you’ll find it eventually.” Skip found a place on the bed and, having been in several times to get an injury looked at, slowly removed his tunic. The wound looked much worse now that Alex could see the damage. He swallowed against the guilt. “It’s lodged in there pretty good. Don couldn’t pull it out.”

“Shit.” Spina hissed and bent forward to poke and prod. Alex’s view was blocked and so he looked guiltily to Don, who only cleared off a chair and motioned for him to sit, expectantly. Alex reluctantly did as directed and rolled up the left sleeve of his tunic. The cut wasn’t so bad, but his thigh was still on fire and he was half worried an infection might set in. The bastard had gotten him with his sword and those were the worst wounds when it came to infection.

“Someone get me a knife.”

Alex paled as Don unsheathed his own and handed it over to him. Skip didn’t bother to muffle the curses and whimpers and the occasional shout of pain as Ralph dug into skin to get the arrowhead out of his shoulder. It was bloody and took longer than anyone was comfortable with, but Ralph pulled away, finally, with an arrowhead barely attached to the splinters of what used to be the shaft of the arrow.

“Gotta stitch it.” Ralph muttered. He straightened up and blinked once, twice, looked a bit confused, and then shook his head. He dropped the arrowhead on a stack of books and waved his fingers around as he stumbled here and there. “Where did I put the damn needle?”

“Hey, Ralph, are you feeling alright?” Alex asked. “You look a little…”

“Fine, I’m fine.” Ralph muttered. “The king’s just down my throat for that tincture. I’ve been waiting on you guys for days.”

“Ralph, it’s only been two days.” Don told him, slowly, deliberately. “Have you slept?”

“Haven’t really had time.” Ralph admitted and cursed when he stubbed his toe. “I’ve been running back and forth between the castle and the outskirts of town. How the hell did Pepping find the time do all of this?”

“He found the weed.” Skip groused. “Why doesn’t the king appoint you some sort of help?”

“Who the hell is gonna help me?” Ralph growled and rifled through a box before pulling out a needle. “Finally found it. Look, there’s no one who even has a sliver of knowledge about all this and I’m swamped with work. I don’t have time to teach anybody this shit, so appointing me a helper is nonsense.”

“You’re sleeping after this. I’ll go to the king personally.” Don ordered. “We’re not losing another herbalist to lack of sleep.”

“I’m fine.” Ralph stressed and squeezed past Alex to get to Skip, still sat on the bed. Blood had dribbled down the wound in his shoulder to skirt past his nipple. Alex resisted the urge to wipe it away. “I just need to get this sickness under control and I’ll be able to rest.”

Don gave Alex a very pointed look. Alex understood and nodded. “Go.”

Don squeezed his shoulder and slipped out of the small cottage. Spina didn’t even seem to notice, focused more on stitching Skip back together. When the thread was tied off and Skip pulled his tunic back on, Alex rolled his sleeve back down. It wasn’t deep enough to require stitches and it would heal just fine on its own. His thigh, however…

He unlaced his britches and shimmied them off, ignoring the distaste on Ralph’s face as he did so. Unlike Skip, who practically enjoyed the show, Ralph’s attentions were more directed to the fairer sex. Ralph’s hands were cold when they met his leg and he jolted from the shock of it. It didn’t bother Ralph at all. He simply wet a cloth, poured a bit of wine into the wound—which hurt like a bitch and Alex certainly didn’t whine in pain—and cleaned it up. The needle was back out and Alex spent the next few minutes clenching his teeth and fists and tried not to move. A snip and the thread was cut and tied off.

“Put your britches on.” Ralph told him, shaking his head. “You could have tried a little harder not to get hurt, you know. I sent you into peaceful lands.”

“Not peaceful enough.” Skip sighed and rubbed lightly at his shoulder. “Some Stognians decided to try and kill us.”

“Stognians?” Ralph muttered, brows furrowed in confusion. “What the hell were they doing over the mountains?”

“Didn’t bother to ask.” Alex laced his britches up and pulled his tunic down over them. “We were too busy fighting for our lives and your precious flowers.”

“Flowers, right. You got ‘em?”

“Yeah, we got ‘em. Hey, Ralph, why don’t you just lay down, alright? Alex and I’ll put ‘em in a safe place for you.”

Ralph rubbed at his forehead and made a frustrated sound at the back of his throat. “Can’t do that. King needs that tincture right away.”

“Don’s talking to the King. You just lie down, alright?”

It took a joint effort, but eventually they crowded Ralph into his bed, tucked him in, and locked his door. Alex sat on the step in front of the door and leaned back against it. He shivered slightly and a moment later, Skip was next to him, leaning into him. Alex curbed the itch to kiss the man.

“Three…” Alex muttered.

“Yeah, who would’ve guessed, huh? We may yet be saved after all.”

“If they can reverse it. Who knows what will happen? That one didn’t look like he was willing to help.”

“You know Winters, he’s got a way with people. I’m sure it’ll all work out.”

Alex didn’t have the heart to argue. Somehow, he knew. These men didn’t have the power to help them. If they were true magic users there was nothing to convince them to use their power to help them. Even if they were willing to help, that witch’s magic is strong, too strong for some weak mage to break. If they were going to break the curse, they would need someone far more powerful than a handful of men who were captured and brought in. Winters had to know that.

Don didn’t return. Alex and Skip waited until sundown at the doorstep turning anyone without a life threatening emergency away from Spina’s door. Then, when the sun dipped below the gates, they wandered in to find some dinner. The dining hall for knights and castle guards and all manner of men who didn’t have a title attached to their name was abuzz. Men spoke openly to one another about the magic users, about what they’d heard had transpired up in the king’s quarters.

“I heard one of ‘em’s a fake.” Hashey slurred, one too many tankards at his place at the table. “Wendy told me she heard him from outside, while doing the laundry.”

“S’what I heard too.” Alex heard from someone he’d never seen before. His hair was red, similar in color to Don’s. “Bill said this group of men just showed up with ‘im wanting money. He said the guy’s been saying he’s not really a magic user the whole damn time they were cartin’ him in.”

“Guarnere said? Must be true.”

“Hey, you guys seen Don?” Skip piped up, snagging Hashey’s half empty tankard. “He went to see Winters and hasn’t come back yet.”

“He’s probably still there.” Perconte shrugged. “Spiers, Guarnere, Toye, and Martin, are all still up there with ‘em. Maybe they’re fixin’ this shit right now.”

“I hate the waiting.” Garcia complained. “Can’t stand it.”

“Shut up, Garcia. You ain’t even been in this for half a year.” Cobb snarled. “Until your balls are as blue as the rest of ours, you just shut up and sit still.”

“C’mon Cobb,” Sisk huffed, “it’s probably worse for him. He’s still waiting on his first.”

The hall erupted in laughter and Alex grinned. Garcia turned red and hunched lower in his seat. Drinks were raised and toasted and Alex found himself drinking along, speculating on who these mysterious men were and what kind of impact they’d have on the kingdom.

Dinner was eaten, the drinks had stopped flowing, and still no one moved from the dining hall. Skip had fallen asleep, propped up in a corner as he lightly snored away. Alex couldn’t find it in himself to sleep. Even with the alcohol lulling him into a drowsy state, he couldn’t stop thinking about the three men in the wagon and that he hadn’t seen Don in over three hours. Just when he thought about getting up to go investigating himself, the pitter patter of boots on the stone stairs leading down from the second floor to the dining hall had everyone who was still conscious eagerly awaiting the news.

Don grinned at the doorway at the attention. “Hello gents.”

“Get on with it, Malarkey!”

“Stop fucking around!”

“Is it broke?”

Don sniffed and rubbed at his nose, a coy way of trying and failing to hide the still present grin. “I wasn’t there for most of it—”

“Bullshit!” Cobb snapped.

“Out with it already!”

“Curse is still there.” Don told them and shoulders slumped and fists pounded tables. “I was stuck waiting outside, but from the sounds of it, things were going well. There wasn’t as much yelling.”

“So, what? They working on a fix right now?”

“Dunno. I told you, I was stuck outside. All I know is that they’ve been led to the dungeons for now. Oh and Winters wants—Heffron?—and Perco up to see him. Best of luck, boys.”

“What for?” the redhead Alex had spotted earlier asked as he stood from his spot at the table.

“Don’t ask him, he don’t know nothin’. C’mon.” Perconte sighed, adjusted the sword at his belt and led a very concerned Heffron past Don and up the stairs.

“So what’d you say to Winters, then?” Skip asked sleepily from his corner.

“Gave Nixon the writing, told Winters Spina needed an assistant of some kind.” Don shrugged. “He just told me to get Perco and Heffron up there.”

“Who knows, then.” Skip allowed Don to help him up and smiled lovingly at him. “Let’s get the fuck to bed.”

“You know we can clearly see that you’ve fucked, you lucky bastards.” Hashey complained.

“You want to go pick some flowers with your girl, go right ahead.” Alex huffed. “You can come limping back with an arrow to the shoulder and stitches in your leg.”

“Well? Was it at least good?” Smokey drawled.

The three of them only grinned and bid goodnight. There were at least three unsavory names thrown at them on the way out. Their quarters in particular were further out than most of the knights and castle guard. It was mostly because they were loud before the curse put a stop to that, but also because the quarters on each end were the largest. So, being the only trio in the land, they staked claim to one and Spiers took the other. Most the of the men had their own, preferring privacy. Others shared out of the need for companionship.

Alex limped the long walk down the torch lit corridor and sighed happily when Don creaked open the wooden door. They didn’t have much furniture; three beds—because the one they shared was far too dangerous now—took up three corners of the room, a small table for them to play cards or write missives sat in the center of the room, a few extra chairs around for their many visitors on days off, and a wardrobe against the last empty wall where they haphazardly shoved extra tunics, arrows, and booze, for those nights where they either came too close to death, had to say goodbye to a friend, or needed to celebrate.

He flopped heavily into the bed on the right. They rotated every new moon because two of the beds were between the fireplace and the last was next to the small window. The window was great for summer and that was the most coveted bed during those months. But as the weather was starting to cool, the beds near the fireplace were the hot commodity. There had been far too many arguments before the system was put in place.

“Do you really think they can do it?” Alex mumbled into his pillow.

Don yawned and leaned his quiver and bow against his bed frame. “It’s hard to say. I don’t even know what they can do individually.”

“Is one a fake?” Skip hissed as he pulled off his boots. Alex reluctantly pulled himself up to do the same.

“Guess not.” Don shrugged. “I told you, I was locked out.”

“You overheard some, though. Had to.” Alex accused lightly, grunting as he worked one of his boots off. “Those doors are thick but the walls aren’t. You heard more than you’re willing to say.”

“I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.” Don admitted, and Alex noticed the pointed way he wasn’t looking at either of them. “I don’t think Winters does either.”

“And just what could get our hopes up?” Alex pressed. “None of them looked that powerful. If the knights could catch ‘em—”

“Maybe not a single one is as powerful as that witch,” Don spoke slowly and turned look Alex in the eye. “But together they might be. I heard Winters strike a deal with them.”

“A deal?” Skip muttered. “What do we have to offer? Not killing ‘em outright is as good a deal as they could ask.”

“I don’t know.” Don itched at the mark on his neck. “But they must have agreed. If not, we’ll watch them burn tomorrow.”

“Seems a damn shame to burn away a chance to get out of this.”

“Can’t trust them. Not after what she did.” Alex pulled off his other boot and rolled onto his side, pulling the wool blanket over him as he did. “East Sea should have followed the rest of the world and started burning them up before this misery was set upon us.”

“Alex.” Don warned.

“Tell me I’m wrong, then.” Alex sniffed. “Tell me that her life is worth more than being able to kiss you, to hold you, to love.”

Don couldn’t.

 


 

A knock roused them and Alex groaned into his pillow. Another knock came, louder. When none of them bothered to answer, the knock turned into a pounding and Alex snarled a stream of curses before unlocking the door and throwing it open, ready to give whoever the hell it was a serious tongue lashing for disturbing them after a quest. The mead’s side effects lingered, causing his head to pound his stomach to flip.

It was Nixon, and that was the only reason why Alex didn’t threaten to shove an arrow into his eye and wordlessly stepped aside to let him in.

“Sorry to disturb you when you’ve just come back, but I need to know where you got this.” Nixon held a piece of parchment between two fingers as he entered, placing it gently on the table in the center of the room.

Don groaned as he pulled himself out of bed, Skip just rolled over in an attempt to go back to sleep. Alex blinked and stared blearily at the paper. He recognized the coal scrawled loops and squiggles from the cave.

“A cave, just beyond our borders.” Alex answered, voice raspy in the morning air.

Nixon raised a brow. “A cave?”

“Yeah. It was small, in the back. Glowed when I shone a torch over it.”

“Glowed.” Nixon echoed and squinted at the scrawl. “Magically or like shiny stones?”

“Magic.” Don confirmed. “Wouldn’t have noticed if it didn’t. I couldn’t get it to do it again after the first time.”

“And this is all it said?”

“Yeah. It was carved into the back of the cave.”

“Hm.”

“What’s it mean?” Alex asked and shivered. The breeze that blew in was unwelcome in his state of undress.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” Nixon murmured. “I can’t read it.”

“I did my best—”

“No, not that.” Nixon interrupted with a slight shake of his head. “I can’t understand it.”

“When is Webster coming back?”

“Soon, if he sticks to the roads.”

Alex decided that these questions were more for Don and shuffled back to his bed. His thigh protested as he crawled back into warmth and comfort, but he ignored the ache and shivered underneath the blanket. Hazily, he listened to Don and Nixon go back and forth.

“—any of them can read this, we’re going to need you to lead them to where you found this.”

“I might have some trouble remembering exactly, but I know it wasn’t too far off from our path down. We’ll be able to find it.”

“Good. Well, until we can get this sorted out, rest up. You deserve it.”

“Yeah. Oh, hey.”

“What?”

“We ran into some Stognians on the way down here. I didn’t get the chance to tell you last night.”

“Oh, right. Can’t say I’m surprised. Stogne is in chaos right now.”

“What? Why?”

Nixon heaved a sigh. “The king was found dead. All I know is that once the next king takes the throne we’re probably going to get a lot of shit heading our way. Be extra careful when you’re out of our lands.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me, you were unlucky enough to catch the first batch of bastards looking to expand their territory.”

The door was shut, thankfully, and Alex was reminded of how much he loved Don when the archer threw a fresh log into the fireplace and started a fire. The rest of the morning was spent sleeping in and retaining as much heat as possible until they actually decided to get up and start the day, which wasn’t until well past lunchtime. Alex took full advantage of his day off, even if it meant being left out of the gossip of the morning.

 


 

“I’m just sayin’, Joe, that it makes no goddamn sense to have us watch the fuckers when we were the ones who got ‘em in the goddamn first place!”

Guarnere’s voice was entirely unique, a mix of Phi’leean accent with Eastee thrown in. It was unmistakable, especially when the man was complaining about one duty or another. Alex tried his best to give a sympathetic look to the knights as he halted their traipse through the halls.

“Hey, Bill, you got any news on those magicks?”

Guarnere’s scowl deepened and Alex realized that he may have picked the wrong time to stop the men. “If I have to answer this one more fuckin’ time—”

“Alright, alright.” Alex waved him off. “We’ve been cooped up—”

“Lazy bastards.” Toye muttered, equally unimpressed. “Like you’ve been forced to sleep the fuckin’ day away while the only guys doing actual fuckin’ work around here are slaving away.”

“You know what, nevermind.” Alex tried not to take it personally. The knights had all been in a fowl mood, grumbling to each other under their breath as they marched to and fro. Winters had them doing god knows what and someone else would fill him in.

“Yeah, real fuckin’ typical. You saw the marks on Malarkey. That’s some bullshit right there—” Guarnere’s voice faded as they marched away and Alex shook his head and took a deep breath.

The next person he saw happened to be Hoobler, cheese in hand. He waved him over and tried not to look so conspiratal. “Hey, Hoob, you got any news on the magicks?”

Hoobler nodded and swallowed. “Yeah, you probably saw Guarnere and Toye, right? The knights are all on guard duty while Winters figures out what to do with ‘em.”

“What do you mean? I thought they made a deal?”

Hoob shook his head. “That’s what I thought too, but I overheard Lipton and Speirs on their way up to the king’s chambers. They struck a deal but haven’t figured out what do with ‘em until they can reverse the curse. Can’t just let ‘em out, ya know? They’d hurt somebody.”

“More like somebody’d hurt them.” Alex scrunched his nose in distaste. He remembered the cursing and the snarling from one of the magic users the day before. He’d be the first one to go if any threat of harm came to those working in the castle. “Guess we don’t need to cut down pyre wood, huh?”

Hoobler laughed. “Guess not. Hey, I gotta get back to my rounds. Don’t tell Joe I took some cheese. You owe me for the info.”

“Yeah, sure.” Alex agreed. He wondered how much Skip and Don had managed to get from the maids or maybe the other knights. Hoobler was one of the biggest gossips around, so he couldn’t wait to impress Skip with all that he’d gotten in so short a time.

It turned out, Skip had far better information than he did. Eyes alight, Skip tightened the string of his bow and proudly announced; “Guess who’s back from his grand book adventure?”

“That was fast.” Alex frowned. “I know he took a horse, but it’s only been two weeks. Did he even sleep?”

“Who cares? Nixon said none of them could translate that writing. But, with any luck, Webster can find it in those books he stole.”

“That’s means we’re going back out, you know.” Alex pointed out flatly. “We only just got back.”

“It means I get to have more of you.” Skip drawled, but promptly hissed and grabbed at his shoulder.

“It’s too soon.” Alex told him and shook his head. “I’m still a gimp and you’re practically useless until that arm heals up.”

“Okay, so we give it a week.” Skip grunted, taking in a sharp breath through his nose. “We’ll be back to normal and ready to ride.”

“I hate taking the horses.”

“Webster isn’t going to walk it.”

“If he’s going with us he will. There’s too much steep terrain for the horses and we have to stop every couple of hours to rest the horses anyways. It would be faster to just travel by foot.”

“I’d rather take longer.” Skip muttered. “One night wasn’t enough. Not after so long.”

Alex sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It wasn’t for me, either.”

“Well, that’s what we have those three for.”

“If they can do anything.” Alex snorted. He’d been skeptical of the plan from the start. What they needed to do was find the damn witch and kill her. As long as she was alive the curse would rule over them.

“Have you talked to Martin?” Alex shook his head and Skip whistled lowly. “I tell you, those boys have been put through the wringer just to get those magicks back here.”

“They looked fine.”

“They’re not hurt, no.” Skip scoffed. “But two of them aren’t just dabblers into the craft. One of them is a natural borne.”

Alex’s face paled. “Holy shit.”

“Yeah.” Skip’s eyebrows arched. “That’s what I said. The other one has got a thing for magical items. Knows every single one by name and use.”

“So Don was right.” Alex mumbled. “Together, maybe they can.”

“Maybe.”

“I love you.” Alex blurted. It seemed to bubble up from nowhere but the hope he was feeling made his mouth move before he could think about it. Skip stared at him with wide eyes, jaw dropped slightly. “I do. I always have. Don, too.”

“I—yeah, I do too.” Skip stammered.

“So if they can’t—if things go to shit let’s just go. We’ll settle down somewhere else and—”

“No.” The voice came from the doorway, and Alex whirled around to see Don standing there with the most serious expression he’d ever seen. “I’m not leaving.”

“Don…” Alex started, but he didn’t know quite what to say. He hadn’t really been thinking in the first place. He’d just let his feelings run his mouth and now that he’d said it shame burned at his cheeks.

“Before you… before either of you this place was here for me.” Don’s eyes never averted, no matter how much Alex’s did. “I won’t just leave it like this. We’ll fix it, I know we will, but if we don’t then you’ll have to go without me.”

“Don, that’s not what—”

“I don’t blame you.” Don cut off, soft, but bitter. “It’s been a long time and we can’t even touch each other. It’s not fair to ask you to stay with me, so I’ll understand if you go. It doesn’t change how I feel. Not about you and not about East Sea.”

“We aren’t going to leave you.” Skip assured, tone equally soft. “I think the news got Alex a little excited.”

“I didn’t—I don’t know what I was saying, but it wasn’t that.” Alex admitted, because it wasn’t. “I want to be with both of you. I want to love you both, and if that means from far away, that’s okay with me.”

“Just… don’t let me hold you back.”

Alex swallowed and curled his lips into his best impression of a smile. “I don’t think you could hold either of us back if you tried.”