What was he doing there? Xellesia frowned and kept watching her son through her spying nail polish. Tarabas sat on a stump next to the fire he had created with magic, just to show off a little bit to that damn man who sat opposite of him on anther stump. Tarabas played with the stick he had used as a wand, turning it around his fingers again and again and the repetitive motion made Xellesia aggressive. The stranger did not even seem to notice, though, he had his gaze directed straight at her son's face, a little furrow between his eyebrows as if he was thinking about something. Tarabas just stared into the flames and did not look at him which was strange in itself, she thought. If it had not been her powerful, arrogant, self-righteous son, the invincible Lord of the Darkness, she would have said he was shy.
“Who are you?” The man's voice held no small amount of suspicious curiosity, the frown was still on his face. “You still have not told me your name.”
“Neither have you.” Tarabas turned to look at him and it annoyed her that she could not see his face from her point of view. He did not keep his gaze on the man for long, though, he turned back to the fire and poked in the ashes with the stick that he still held in his hand. Outwardly, he appeared to be calm and totally in control, but she knew him well enough to read the tiny signs that betrayed that he was not as composed as he pretended to be.
When the man did not respond in any way, Tarabas looked at him. “What are you running from?”
The man raised his eyebrows in surprise. “What makes you think I am on the run?”
“You are in too much a hurry.” Tarabas replied, voice even, and looked pointedly at the little girl that was sleeping close by. “No man would travel at night unless he is trying to escape something. It it far too great a risk, especially with a child as a companion.”
The man leaned forwards and propped his arms on his knees in a challenging way.“What are you running from, then?”
Tarabas held his gaze before he looked down into the flames again. “I am running from a man who has sworn me eternal hate.”
“What did you do to make him hate you this much?” the man asked, head propped up in his hands.
“I do not know.” her son replied and looked so confused and lost that Xellesia began to wonder what he wanted to achieve by befriending this stranger. “Why are you travelling these lands?”
The man smirked. “Coincidence has it that I am searching for a man I hate.”
“Is that so?” Tarabas glanced at the man with a thoughtful gaze. “Maybe I am the man you hate.”
The man just snorted and leaned back. “I seriously doubt that.”
“And why is that?”
“You do not exactly fit his description, my dear traveller.” the man grinned. “Actually, you do not even come close. You are far to young and too good looking.”
Xellesia felt her heart freeze when she saw how Tarabas lips rose in a smile, just for a short moment, but still, he had smiled at the man! What did that hideous man think he was doing? How did he dare to make her son smile? Xellesia growled under her breath.
“I am good looking?” Tarabas seemed to be honestly surprised at those words.
“When was the last time you looked into a mirror?” the man replied with a snort. “Come on, the ladies must be very fond of you with your looks.”
Tarabas frowned and looked at the man again. “I have never looked into a mirror.”
“You please to joke, I reckon.” the man said with another snort.
Her son just kept on looking at the man who had bent forwards again. “My mother never allowed it.”
“Are you serious?” Now there was a frown on the man's face. “Where did you grow up? It does not sound like it was a happy place.”
“Happy?” Tarabas looked lost again. “What does happy mean?”
“You are asking strange questions.” the man replied and looked him over, silent and thoughtful. Then he grinned and got up. “Well, we can change at least some things.”
He pulled his sword out of its sheath and held it with the broad side in front of Tarabas face. “Have a look in my sword. You can see your face there as well as in a mirror.”
Instinctively, Tarabas averted his face and pushed the blade away with his hand. The man watched him for a moment, then he sat down next to her son on the stump. “Do not tell me you are afraid of your own reflection.”
Tarabas's frown deepened and he did not look up, but the man did not let go. He raised the blade again, and said, voice warm, “Trust me, traveller, there is no reason to fear it.”
Xellesia watched how her son slowly raised his head and looked up until he could see into the reflecting blade. His gaze travelled over the mirror image of is own face, his expression a mixture of surprise, curiosity and insecurity. Then he searched the man's eyes in the reflection and held his gaze.
“You see, nothing to fear.” The man said in a quiet voice and his face lit up with a smile that was gentle and caring and made Xellesia want to scratch his eyes out. Tarabas turned his face to look at him directly and she could see how he absorbed that smile as if it was the air he needed to breathe. His face was too close to the man for her liking, their gaze was too intense and the tension in the air was too loaded with something she could not exactly pinpoint. Unexpectedly, Tarabas averted his gaze, threw the stick in the fire and got up quickly, as if he needed to bring some distance between himself and the man. “If you want to leave early tomorrow morning, you should go to sleep.”
Xellesia watched the puzzled gaze that the man threw at her son before he nodded and controlled his features. “You are right. It is late already and the day will begin very early.”
The man got up and walked over to where he had set down his saddle, then he settled down, leaning against it and placing his sword right next to his head. He was obviously used to travelling and while he did not openly mistrust Tarabas, he did not let his guard down. “You should rest as well.”
“I will.” Tarabas lay down on his own saddle and rested his head on his arm, looking very much the relaxed traveller he pretended to be. He had obviously chosen his resting place so that he had an unobstructed view on the man, Xellsia noticed with a frown. What was it with her son and that stranger? Why had Tarabas not killed them yet, had gotten rid of their mistrusting presence? She watched them lay down and close their eyes, certain that her son was only waiting for the man to fall asleep so he could do whatever he had planned to do. Even though she had no idea what that actually was. She was honest enough to admit to herself that she did not understand her son right now, he was behaving very strangely.
The girl slept next to the man, close enough to feel secure and far enough away to give a pretence of fearlessness. What a stupid child, Xellesia thought and snorted. As if the man could protect her if Tarabas decided to attack them. She focussed her attention back onto her son when she saw him moving after a long while when the man and the girl were fast asleep. Xellesia's frown deepened considerably when she actually got a glimpse of the expression in Tarabas's eyes. It was well hidden, but he was her son, after all, she knew him very well and she could read him easily. There was desire and confusion, affection and even fear, feelings she had never expected him to have, that she had done everything to keep him from experiencing. Suddenly she understood that Tarabas would not use his powers against them and even though they might not know it consciously, they felt it and that was the only reason they had actually dared to fall asleep next to the stranger who travelled with them.
Oh, it was already happening! Tarabas was losing his edge, his cruelty, the darkness inside him that she had taken so much care to plant. She needed to do something, anything to prevent that from going any further than it already had. She needed to get Tarabas away from those two damned humans, especially from the young man. He could be a real threat to Tarabas' power, and she would know how to deal with this threat. When she was done, there would be nothing left and Tarabas would be his old, cruel, dark self again.
She sat up straight when Tarabas slowly moved towards the sleeping man, watching him intensely. He crouched down closely besides him, never looking away from the relaxed face, and slowly spilled some sleeping powder over the girl and the man. What was he doing, Xellesia wondered and closely watched his every move. He approached the man some more, as if he was inspecting him, but it were his eyes that betrayed him.
“No! He wants to kiss him! He must not kiss him!” Xellesia shouted and clenched her fists. He had to be stopped! This could not happen, she would not allow it to happen! She needed to protect Tarabas from himself if she did not want to see him die of his curse. Xellesia shot up from her throne and hurried over to her servant gnomes, cutting the net that kept them prisoner. “If you want to keep your worthless lives, hurry to my son! Prevent him from kissing that man! Hurry!”
The gnomes scurried away, running around in panic to escape her and fulfil her order. She did not pay them any attention, just returned to watching her son. Tarabas was kneeling next to the man now, bent over his face, eyes fixed on his lips. Where were the gnomes? They had to stop him! Xellesia stared intensely into her nail polish and hardly suppressed a relieved sigh when the gnomes came out from behind rocks, trees, roots. They were a useless lot, whiny, spineless cowards, but their fear of her made them approach her son, trying everything they could think of to keep him from kissing that damn man. But she should have known that it would only spark Tarabas's defiance, that he would never accept the words of the gnomes. She watched him rise to his feet, sword pointed at the annoying creatures, his threat to kill them as serious as hers. They scurried back, fearing him as much as her, and he just bent down again to kneel next to the sleeping man.
Tarabas extended one hand, slowly, hesitantly, and lay it on the side of the man's face. He watched him for a moment, then he leaned in, closing his eyes and nearing the lips that were slightly agape in sleep. Xellesia felt the tension in her body rise even more, waiting for the curse to set in. And then Tarabas froze in his movement, pulled back, breathing heavily, brows furrowed in confusion and pain. He let go of the face, pulled his hand back as if the man's skin had burnt him. Xellesia watched how her son transformed, excruciatingly slow, how his face covered with fur, how his teeth grew into long fangs, how his face became a muzzle, his eyes glazed over in pain. He jumped up from his kneeling position and stumbled back, then he turned and ran.
Xellesia fell backwards until she landed in the pillows of her throne, her movements lacking all of her usual grace and elegance. Her gaze was fixed on the image of Tarabas running through the forest, his face that of a monster, his screams full of pain and rage. She had always known that there was a raw power in her son that she could not measure up to, and ever since he had set eyes on that damn man for the first time, this power had come dangerously close to the surface. Tarabas wanted him and he would pursue his desire, just as he had always done. But this was different, this was dangerous for Tarabas, he was out of his depth, vulnerable without even knowing it. He was drawn to the man without being able to control this urge and he would run straight into his doom without thinking about it twice.
And he would try again to approach him, she was certain of that. She sighed deeply. Who would have thought that the downfall of her cruel, invincible son, of the most powerful Dark Wizard, would be the smile of a simple mortal man.