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Saving Love

Chapter Text

Erend looked up from his position, wrists chained to the top of the tiny 3x4 cell, forced into a sitting position. He was unconscious up until now, he could hardly remember what put him here, the pain his wrists were intense and the soreness that crept throughout the rest of this body couldn’t be ignored either. What happened? His mouth was gagged, his wrists bound above his head, and he felt woozy as though he had been drugged.

He looked around and saw chained in an identical cage to his side, was one of his fellow Vangaurds, Varic. The man was several years older than Erend and in Erends mind a much better suited person to take over for his sister Ersa, but because the family line dictated it so, he was next in line to take over. Ersa said so, she thought he was ready, he didn’t think he was. Varic was a much better choice. Him and Ersa were friends growing up with Erend always trailing behind them like any little brother. Ersa patronized him when he found interesting things, Varic praised him when he completed simple tasks. They babied him his whole life, they didn’t expect Ersa to die so young, to leave a slightly inexperienced and immature Erend to take over in a position he wasn’t nearly prepared for. But that’s why he needed Varic, that’s why of all his soldiers he was glad it was Varic alongside him here in this prison. He hated that he his was here, but he was so glad he wasn’t alone.

Erend tried to speak to his friend, but the ball gag prevented anything but a desperate murmur. He tried harder, he needed to make contact, he was getting scared. The last thing he remembered was leading a convoy back from a neighboring settlement containing medicine and food. What happened?

He thrashed again in the chains that held him. Getting no response from his companion.

“Well, well..”

Erend turned his attention to the new voice.

“Awake are we? Feeling ok?” The man asked bending down to Erends level. “Cause too much trouble and I’ll make sure you can’t move to cause anymore. Do I make myself clear?”

Erend replied with an angry growl behind the gag, saliva dripping through it and down his chin as he continued to fight the bonds that contained him. If Erend was anything, it was intimidating, but the man only laughed.

“Feisty one are you? We can fix that.”

Before he knew what was happening The cage door opened and a rag was compressed to his nose, he was unable to breathe through his mouth, so if he wanted to breathe, he had to inhale the toxic fumes through the rag.

The world began to blur, he tried to fight, then suddenly he was hit in the face, in the stomach, somewhere else... he wasn’t sure. The world went black after that.

Chapter Text

“Erend?”

Was that his name? Where was he? Why did everything hurt? Was he really that drunk last night? He had to make sure his Vanguards stopped him, his drinking was getting out of hand, he couldn’t keep blacking out like this.

“Erend?”

Wait, maybe it wasn’t drinking, as he woke up he became distinctly aware of the shackles holding his wrists in the air. He became aware of the cage surrounding him. Of the pain, of the.. Bandits? What happened? The moment before he blacked out the second time suddenly came back to him, what happened?

“Varic?” Erend asked but realized soon there was a gag in his mouth, panic began to rise in his chest.

“Hey, hey” Varic called to him seeing his distress, “you’re ok. I promise you’re ok.”

Erend nodded, but he was still the one with a gag in his mouth.

“Just calm down,” Varic said. “Keep quiet and they might take off the gag, you’ve been unconscious a long while.”

How long? He was just awake looking at Varic sleep, how much time had passed?

“If you stay quiet and complacent, they’ll take the gag off,” he said then mouthed, “then we can talk.”

It actually took Erend to fight in order for his gag to be removed, as it turned out. The more he fought, he more he got beat, which meant the weaker he got, which in turn meant the more difficult his breathing became. It was when they heard the crunch of his nose that they took the gag off so he could breathe. They wanted him alive for some reason, Erend thought. It hadn't even been a full day when his nose was broken and the gag was removed.

“He’ll end up choking on his vomit, spit or blood in the night. I didn’t go through the trouble to capture two vanguard only to have one die on me before I got paid.” Erend heard one of the men say, the one who appeared to be in charge.

When they were long out of sight and out of earshot Erend spoke to Varic, in broken and weak words but he still spoke. “Tell me... tell me you... know what... what happened?”

Erend could see the worry in his old friends' words as he grimaced and responded. “You don’t remember?”

“No,” Erend said weakly. “Is Ersa coming?”

The words broke Varic, he shut his eyes. Erend clearly had some sort of amnesia. Ersa, his childhood best friend, was dead months now. “Not yet,” Varic managed to speak only barley composing himself. “Shes away on a mission to gather rare minerals from the north, she’s not due to come back for weeks.”

“Oh,” Erend moaned defeat clear in his face, he slightly shifted his position. “Where are we?”

Now he might as well be honest. “We were kidnapped by traffickers while patrolling the borders of Meridian. Remember Erend? They told us traveling merchants were going missing, them and their cargo. We went to investigate.”

Erend closed his eyes and thought hard. “Yeah, yeah I remember.”

“Ok, so just hold tight, we’ll be ok.”

“Ok,” Erend said with a slight tremor in his voice, he was just so weak and so confused. Missing merchants? What did that mean? Last thing he remembered he was... he was... he didn’t remember. Why couldn't he remember?

“Hey,” Varic knew him better than anyone, his brown eyes bore into Erend’s hazel, “we will be ok. We just have to hang on and find an escape if we can, and wait for the vanguards if we don’t. We don’t leave a soldier behind, right?” Varic reminded Erend, and Erend suddenly remembered how he got bullied as a child and endured pep talks from Varic and Ersa, both prepping to join the Vanguards while Erend was still a scrawny twelve year old trying to lift twenty pound weights trailing behind. “Right, Erend?” He snapped him out of his thoughts.

“Right,” Erend nodded, still feeling a tight knot in his stomach.

More time passed in mostly silence, they were afraid to speak, there was usually a guard nearby and if they were heard they would get the butt of a spear or bolt gun to the face. Erend already had a broken nose, he almost added a broken cheekbone to the list. But in brief moments of seclusion they managed to speak.

“Are they slave traders?” Erend asked in a small, scared voice, his memory was clearly failing him, every time he woke up it was like it was the first time again.

“Traffickers, they work for the traders.” Varic informed once again knowingly.

“So what happens to us?”

Varic was silent.

It was then they were gagged, forced into a small cart and moved, Erend couldn't tell where. He eventually passed out from exhaustion, he tried to stay awake but he was being starved and dehydrated. His will power was slowly fading away.

Chapter Text

A large jolt woke Erend from a sleep he didn’t even realize he was having, panic flew through him for a moment as he surveyed his situation. His mouth sore from the dirty gag, and his hands bound tightly behind his back and his body ached all over, it was a little hard to breathe his nose seemed broken. His mind was hazy, but memories slowly began to seep back into his consciousness. The beating, the cage, they got captured while on a mission, they were investigating claims of missing merchants. One by one he pieced together the memories into what he thought might be chronological order.

He tried to move, his body exploded in pain, he tried to grunt through the gag.

There was a gentle nudge at his side and Erend cracked his eyes open, that’s right, Varic was here with him. He was also bound and gagged but he looked in much better condition, at least from what Erend could tell through the darkness. His memory was so fuzzy, they gave him something, a rag over his mouth. It made him so disoriented, he remembered the world spinning, he felt like vomiting the whole time, it seemed to have finally worn off.

Erend tried to pull himself upright but the pain in his body wouldn’t allow it he was so sore, he groaned deeply and wished they would just keep the gag off, it was so hard to breathe, he coughed behind the fabric.

Varic gave him another nudge and looked at him concerned, he moved around as best he could through the shaking cart the stand in front of Erend. He couldn’t do much with his bound hands but from this angle he was able to see his friend more clearly. He was looking rough, his nose had stopping dripping blood but it still covered his face. There was a cut above a swollen and bruised eye along with one on his cheekbone. He couldn’t tell if there was any damage beneath his clothes, there had to be a broken rib at least, he saw him get kicked and punched so many times.

There was such a jolt from the enclosed cart Varic lost his balance and fell back down, balancing once he was low enough. The cart had stopped, they could hear voices outside now, before all they could hear were the creaking and banging of the wood. He nodded to Erend, silently asking if he was alright, his friend gave him a weak nod back pushing his pain down and forcing himself to sit up.

The back of the cart opened and light flooded in, both men had to shield their eyes best they could as they were pulled from the small space and shoved in a line with several other people. Erend couldn’t stand at first, but after he hit hard in the chest with some kind of club, he coughed and sputtered under the gag, feeling like he might choke.

“Take that off,” one of the men commanded of his people, he walked into view and the vanguard men could see him clearly. He was older than either of them, his skin was deeply tanned and he had war paint beneath his dark eyes. Erend caught those eyes for a moment and the menace in them made him instantly drop them to the ground. He felt weak for that. But the man approached him anyway as the gag was removed and he was finally able to breathe.

“Don’t open your mouth for anything other than air,” he sneered and moved along the line looking the people up and down.

“Is this all you’re bringing me?”

“Two of them are vanguard, I didn’t want to risk them fighting against my men. But they’ve been compliant, we had to drug this one to keep him calm.”

The man turned back around and looked at Erend. “You did more than that to him,” he came so close his face was only inches away from Erends own, he could smell the man's foul breath and body odor even through his damaged nose.

“He was acting like a rabid machine,” one of the men replied from further back. “We drugged him and when he woke up he was delirious and thrashing. Sometimes the drug makes them confused and then that makes them agitated. But we knocked him down.”

“I can see that,” the man turned around angrily. “A worker is no good if he can’t work.”

“None of the damage is permanent.” The man assured him.

“It better not be,” he turned back around and examined Erend. He reached up and moved his face from side to side, he felt his biceps and roughly punched his chest, but not hard enough to knock him down. “He’s in good shape,” he mused while the young vanguard leader felt like livestock. “People might pay for things other than work, we’ll see.”

What did that mean? Erends eyes widened slightly and he turned to look at Varic who was stoic as always.

“Get them in their cells, remove the gags unless them scream or cry,” he sneered at the two women as he passed them. “I don’t want to be kept up all night by their pathetic yowling. Give them their rations, I need their strength up for when the buyers come.” He turned away to leave before adding one final note. “Do not abuse the merchandise before anyone looks at it,” he growled. “I don’t want a repeat of what happened with that Carja girl.”

There was a compliant murmur among the men pulled them all to separate cells.

“Varic,” Erend began as he was pulled away from his friend for the first time in the last day and a half.

“Quiet,” one of the men growled. “Unless you want to be drugged again.”

He watched as Varic was pulled away to the other side of the camp, his only lifeline disappearing. Varic gave him a firm nod mouthing it would be ok.

Would that be terrible? Erend thought, if he was unconscious for the whole night, then he could just sleep in peace. But then, he might wake up and forget Ersa was dead again, that was a sharp pain in his heart he didn’t need to feel again. He stayed quiet this time, but maybe not next time, he just needed to wait for his opportunity.

He was shoved in a small cell, a cage, not unlike his last one. His arms were tired above his head once more. The door was shut and he was left alone after that, only the company of a guard who shot him annoyed glances every time he made a noise.

Chapter Text

Who knew he was here? Erend thought as he sat in his cage, his wrists rubbed raw by his attempts to escape in the night. He remembered eight of them went on patrol, only Varic and himself were here, that meant six of his men were unaccounted for. He had to hope they made it back to Meridian and weren’t killed in the battle, he just couldn’t remember. He must have been knocked unconscious in the fight.

He thought about Aloy for the first time since this debacle, well maybe the first time? The drugs made everything hazy, but for the first time since he wasn’t too drugged or unconscious to think about Aloy, he thought about her.

Her hair.

Porcelain skin.

Those freckles unlike he had ever seen.

And that mind, that brilliant mind.

She was a radiant beacon of light in his life and she didn’t even know it. About two weeks ago, maybe he wasn’t sure exactly how long he had been here, she left Meridian to make the journey to the north to speak to a friend she had made there. Erend wasn’t sure who it was, she was being very secretive about it, it frightened him. What if she met someone up in the Banuk lands? Someone who was more like her, maybe, not a clumsy awkward soldier. She was probably meant to be with someone who was a true adventurer, a nomadic rouge like her.

Stop thinking about Aloy, sure when she came back if he was still gone she might get uoset but who knew when that would be? Could be days, sure. But it also could be weeks, months... years? Could she be gone years? Could she die out there and he’d never know?

Stop.

He pushed the thoughts away and focused back, know knew he was here? The rest of his men at meridian would know he was missing as well as the rest of the men if no one came back or not. They’d know it was from the same thing that was attacking the merchants, slave traffickers... of course it was slave traffickers.

But if no men made it back then they wouldn’t know where they meant, which mean they had no leads. What would they do? Search, possibly find nothing? Move on and find another vanguard commander...

Aloy wouldn’t let that happen, Aloy would find him.

So would Avad, don’t be ridiculous, another part of his brain argued. He continued to argue with himself into the night, he didn’t know how long has past, but soon the dull purple of morning startled to flood the sky.

Just as the sun began to creep over the cliffs edge Erend was startled by a large man taking his hands down from above his head. They ached as he lowered them as gingerly as he dared. A plate of ugly looking dry bread was placed in front of him with a cup of slightly off colored water.

“Eat, drink.” The man commanded.

Erend stared with hard eyes. He was thirsty but he wasn’t going to drink that disgusting liquid or eat that slice of sandstone they called bread. He had some dignity and he was willing to keep it. He pulled his leg out from under him and kicked the plate and cup into the feet of the man, the water creating mud on his shoes.

The man growled, “Filthy brat,” he snarled and approached Erend with an arm stretched out.

This was it; he was going to have to fight for his life and probably loose, wasn’t he? He raised his arms in preparation.

“Thats not how we punish slaves, Korim.” Came the leaders voice from behind ‘Korim’ apparently where Erend wouldn’t see. There was a snap in the air and Erend blood ran cold as the large man stepped aside.

The leader slowly stepped up to Erend brandishing a whip in his hand, “I figured one of you might become a problem,” he pulled him out of the cage by his wrists not allowing Erend to stand, causing him to be dragged kicking and shouting across the dirt until they reached a pole in the center of the area.

A whipping pole Erend realized as he was fastened to the pole, he tried to fight but his movements just seemed so weak. He was tied up facing the pole and tried to get up and protest but somehow his wrists were hoisted so high in the air he toes weren’t touching the ground anymore, the strain it put on his wrists was excruciating.

He could have sworn he heard his name being called out from somewhere around him, but it was cut off by a loud thud.

“Lets see how many lashes it takes for you learn your place.” His shirt was torn off. Erends heart began to race, his breathing quickened.

Then the whipping began. Erend couldn’t help but shout out at the first lash, it was such an unexpected pain, he couldn’t contain himself. By the time the third lash came he was clenching his teeth and groaning out the pain as quietly as he could. He didn’t know what his back looked like and he didn’t want to but at the fifth lash he felt blood drip down.

He was screaming again... eventually... he didn’t know how many lashes came, but they felt never ending. The pain covered his body, every now and then the whip would land on his legs or his arms or his head, any area that wasn’t numb to the pain like his back now was and he was yelp louder.

Warm tears leaked from his eyes, how much longer? He was going to pass out, is that what they were waiting for?

More pain, more blood, more lashes, then suddenly it stopped and he was left shaking and whimpering in pain, oblivious to most things around him.

“Leave him for the day,” the leader sneered.

“But Arrok, the damage-?”

“Forget the damage, he will heal. I don’t need my reputation spoiled by selling worthless slaves. Sell the first round we have, we can chain this one up and wait until he’s more suited. Who knows, maybe I’ll get more money once I’ve broken him down.”

Erend hung in the air, the side of his face pressing against the wooden pole, focusing on his breathing as blood trailed down his body and seeping into the shreds that were left of his pants.

Fire and spit, he needed Aloy to come.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing the people of Oseram knew how to handle it was heat. Erend himself couldn’t even remember a time when he wasn’t in or near a smithy, the feel of the hot coals so close to his skin was comforting in a way. He felt safe near the warmth.

But this was a different kind of warmth, one entirely unwelcome and disorienting. His back was on fire and he knew the sun was beginning to do further damage as he was exposed to the elements. It was still high above his head, signaling it couldn’t have been past mid-day. He couldn’t even feel his hands or wrists anymore, he knew that was a bad sign.

He managed to be unconscious for most of the morning, but that bliss could only last so long. He tried to open his eyes, but the sun was so bright, he was in so much pain, he didn’t know what to do or if there was anything he could do. He shut his eyes again after only getting a small glimpse of the area around him, he didn’t get a good look when he was being pulled across the ground or any of the time afterward for obvious reasons.

He saw cages similar to his, all filled with people from the looks of things, some of them with their hands bound above their head, some of them hog-tied in their cage and others were being lead across the camp in shackled feet by a chain attached to their manacles. This must have been the heart of the operation, where they held all the people and sold them off.

He opened his eyes again just a little, he was able to keep them open longer this time. There were cliff walls surrounding the camp, from what he could tell from his limited vantage point it was massive. He could see levels in the cliffs above him as well as various paths weaving away from the holding area they all seemed to be in. There were guards stationed around the cages, most just looked like bandits, some appeared to be in garb known to belong to the Shadow Carja but he couldn’t tell if they were there shopping or working.

“Bring the next batch out!” The booming voice of Arrok ran out around him. Erend opened his eyes as wide as he dared and looked around as the guards moved forward and began removing the people from their cages one by one. Making sure each one was secured with another set of shackles around their ankles before beginning to march them down a path.

He saw his friend get removed from one of the cages, he had a gag in his mouth but looked in much better shape than Erend. The moment he came out his eyes fell on Erend and widened at the sight of his friend awake.

“Varic!” Erend tried to shout desperately, but his mouth was so dry and he was so weak only an indistinguishable hoarse noise came out.

Varic seemed to notice the gesture though, and he nodded reassuringly, Erend knew exactly what he was trying to say. Stay strong and wait for escape or rescue, we don’t leave each other behind.

A single tear ran down his face as he watched Varic get marched away with the other people down a path leading away from where Erend was tied. Where were they taking him? He didn’t want to be alone tied up to a pole literally baking in the suns heat. He felt another cool tear drip down his face, and the only thing he could think after that was he couldn’t spare the water.

It wasn’t long before Arroks voice rang out again and the people were traded for the next set of captives. But as he watched them come back he saw it was noticeably fewer, and they were missing Varic.

Erends head swung around as best he could, giving himself a pounding headache and causing pain to explode over his previously still body. His friend was gone, he lost Ersa’s best friend what would she think? Varic couldn’t be gone, he had to just be in a different area of the camp, he would find him later when the other vanguards raided his place and got them out.

Or when Aloy did, a small voice in his head prayed.

Hours more passed and he was ignored completely, even when he tried to get attention by making noise or thrashing around he was just ignored. Not that he was strong enough to cause much of a scene, if anything he could have sworn they were amused by his struggle, they probably were. It wasn’t until later in the day when the sun finally began to set over the cliffs and he finally felt the relief of the cool night air on his back someone paid him any mind.

There was a feeling of mud being poured over his back, not poured, slathered? He grunted in pain and shut his eyes, what was happening?

He tried to turn and look behind him, but he only saw the back of a man walk away as the smell of medicinal herbs and... something else assaulted his nose.

He pulled his head back, it smelled foul, he could tell some of the plants were the ones Aloy picked in the wild, he was amazed by the things she had memorized. But this stuff was different, those familiar comforting herbs were there but whatever they were mixed with turned his stomach. Why did they do this? He asked himself silently. They want to sell you as a slave, his mind replied, they can’t sell you if you die of infection.

“Your new room is ready,” Arrok’s voice came from somewhere, his arms were lowered far too quickly and Erend cried out in pain as he slumped to the ground before being roughly and quickly pulled back up. He did not walk; he was dragged by his arms across the area. He wanted to fight, but he just couldn't muster the strength to do anything other than weakly squirm. It was like he was zapped of all energy.

“We tried to get you a window with a view,” Arrok taunted as they moved down a set of stairs and to an underground level. “But the space just wasn’t available, maybe in a week or so we’ll let you see the sun again.”

The dungeon path they took him down was dark. He could hear moisture dripping down the walls and water soak his pants as he was pulled through the underground cavern that looked like it half preexisted and was half created. Lanterns guided their way, too few and far apart, but the men dragging him seemed to know exactly where to go.

After several minutes of descending and swerving they stopped, Erends ankles were shackled together like the other peoples had been.

“Every so often we get a slave that doesn’t want to cooperate, that’s ok, we can handle that.” He hissed as a rag was again placed over Erends mouth.

Not wanting to be drugged again Erend pulled back but couldn’t escape it. The rag was placed over his mouth and after trying to hold his breath he couldn’t any longer. He had to take a deep inhale and within seconds he felt the light headed wave of the drug crash over him. He felt himself get thrown in the cell, he didn’t try to stop himself from falling hard, he was fading too fast his limbs felt like weak leather.

“Dose him every few hours, but lightly, not like you did the first time. I don’t want him just passing out.”

The walls around him were moving.

He closed his eyes.

The ground under him was turning upside down.

He opened his eyes.

Everything was spinning, everything was unfocused and wild. He felt drunk, but too drunk, entirely too drunk to even see.

He needed help, he couldn’t get out of this alone if he tried. Where was Varic, the Vanguard... where was Aloy?

Chapter Text

Erend cursed to himself, he was supposed to be at dinner by now. Were flowers too much? He had never given her flowers before except a few he found in the wild as they traveled, maybe he shouldn’t. That seemed like too much. He didn’t want to seem weird. But wait, it was their first official dinner, maybe he should.

Yeah ok, he should.

He purchased the most expensive bouquet he could get his hands on in the market, the man arranging them seemed amused by his adamant desire for the best. It wasn’t everyday the captain of the guard came to your booth and demanded the most beautiful, best flowers you had. His exact words, actually. Maybe he was being over the top, maybe this was too much after all. He looked at the flowers with distrust.

“They’re wonderful, go give them to your love.” The man behind the cart assured.

Erend jumped slightly at the words... his love.

She was his love.

He headed to the tavern they had agreed to have dinner at. It wasn’t the most romantic setting, or nicest place to eat dinner in Meridian but it was familiar and comfortable to both of them. Surrounded by friends and laughter, they always had time alone on the road when they traveled together, maybe being in an exciting atmosphere would be best. There was even a musical troupe playing on stage that night, he secretly thought he could ask her to dance.

Wouldn’t that be perfect? Him and her, dancing together, around a fire pit, the smell of smoke clinging to their hair and clothes.

He was pulled away from the thought as he entered the tavern, there she was, right in front of him sitting at a table in the middle of the tavern, waiting. Her red hair was braided back, her perfect figure adorned in a basic tunic and pants from the market. It was wonderful to see her so calm, so at peace, since in the wild she was always on edge and ready. Here she looked like she didn’t even bring a weapon. Her smiled broadened, but it wasn’t at him, his brow furrowed in concern for only a second before all worry expelled from him.

Ersa walked over to the table setting down a couple mugs of ale, Aloy must have arrived early-or maybe he was just that late-and met with her. It looked like this was their second round, they were smiling and joking looking like they’d known each other years as Ersa put the mugs down and put her hand on Aloy's shoulder, laughing at something he couldn’t hear. Seeing them together was like a dream.

He knew they’d be best friends.

Aloy turned her head and saw him, her smile grew even wider and she waved him over. He saw her face flush red at the sight of the flowers in his hand. He felt his hands begin to sweat; she was so beautiful.

If anyone asked him his happiest moment, this would be it. He took a step forward into the tavern and that’s when everything went wrong.

The world exploded into a haze of smoke and fire. Something happened, everything was hot, everything was burning and on fire. The world was spinning, the ground was breaking beneath his feet. He could hear Ersa and Aloy screaming his name, crying in agony for his help but he couldn’t see them. The smoke was too thick, he was panicking, he dropped the burning flowers.

“Ersa! Aloy!” Erend screamed his throat raw as he thrashed on the ground of his cell in the filthy water puddles that gathered there overtime. If he wasn't drugged out of his mind he might actually find a source of semi clean cave water in his cell.

“They sound like female names,” a guard mused as he stood beside Arrok, watching Erend through the bars.

They do...” Arroks lips turned up into a sick smile. “Sister, wife, friend... doesn’t matter. I have names now. I’ll have him broken before the end of the week.”

“Should I dose him now?”

“Do it, I’m done with the show.”

The guard went forward and after fighting with a struggling Erend for a minute was able to hold the noxious rag in front of his mouth once more.

Erends eyes opened blurrily and he moaned before being lost in another hallucination.

Arrok came forward and bent down next to the drugged vanguard and began whispering in his ear. “No one’s coming for you, Aloy and Ersa don’t love you. You’re worthless to them,” he cooed in a mockingly loving tone. “They’re not coming and you’ll never see them again. In fact, did you know Aloy sent you here? They said you weren’t good enough to guard Meridian so they handed you over. Thats why you’re here. You’re better off where you are, once you do what you’re told you won’t be in pain and everything will be ok. Remember that. Always. Remember. That.” He hissed. “You’re our property now, you should act like it.”

He abruptly stood up, turned on his heel and left, the guard followed.

As Arrok and his guard walked up the path and out of the dungeon they passed half a dozen people all in cells for the same reason as Erend. They were too rebellious to sell and needed to be ‘trained’ as Arrok put it. He was the largest slave trader in the land, only rivaled by those who took the territory in the frozen north. He sent slaves up to them, they sent slaves down to him, it was very simple. By now the other vanguard would be well on his way to the frozen lands, in a week he would send this vanguard along a similar path. Maybe longer, even after a length flogging this slave was resilient. If he had to keep the man around as an example to other slaves so be it. But he would rather sell him, a vanguard-even a broken one- would be worth money.

Chapter Text

Aloy breathed a long sigh as she stood high on the scaffolding that lead up the side of the mountain. It was so peaceful here, there wasn’t a care in the world, just the cool breeze on your face and the beautiful landscape. She loved coming up here whenever she visited the Banuk, and she got to see one of her many new friends. Speaking of which...

“So how are things at home?” Sekuli asked walking up behind Aloy and sitting down beside her both of them letting their legs dangle over the wooden ledge.

“Home?” Aloy asked scoffing, she didn’t have a home not since Rost died.

“Yes, Meridian?” She said with a smile, knowing Aloys hesitance. “That’s where you’ve been hailing from isn’t it?”

“Well... yes, but-”

“And you have a permanent residence there, correct?”

They gave her Olins old home, she’s only stayed in it on a handful of nights, usually when she went to visit Erend. “Well, yes, I suppose so.”

“So then that is your current home, mine is here on this mountain ledge,” she spread her arms out. “We all have what we call home.”

“I guess I just never considered it home before, it was always just a place I stayed when I visited.”

“Why do you visit?” Sekuli said staring out into the distance, the sun was still high in the sky but the hours in the day were dwindling.

“I have,” she paused for a moment in thought. “Friends there and I’m a member of the Hunters Lodge, their leader is a close friend of mine, I enjoy seeing her.”

“You’re even a member of the village hunters,” she said with a wise smile. “You’re entwining yourself into the city. Before you know it you’ll find a lover in the city.” She teased gently.

Aloy blushed and looked down at her swinging feet over the edge.

Sekuli grinned. “But wait, is there already a suitor?”

“No.” Aloy replied too quickly.

“There is!” She exclaimed. “I’m happy someone sparks this happiness in you, you deserve it.”

Aloy shook her head. “It isn’t what you think, he’s just a man in Meridian, we’re friends. I haven’t... he hasn’t...” she didn't know how to explain her romantic life to her friend. She didn’t even know how to be romantic. The only kiss she ever had were the fatherly ones placed on her head by Rost.

“You’ll find your way eventually, I don’t imagine a girl like you gives away her affection so easily.”

“I don’t think I’ve given any away.” Aloy expressed lowering her head.

Sekuli nodded. “Give it time, sometimes these things take a while. Obviously my personal experience isn’t much to speak of, I’ve always been told I’m too involved in my canvas.” She motioned to the rock behind her. “But I know what true love looks like, Aloy, you could have it based on that look in your eye.” She teased gently.

Aloy smiled and looked down to the Banuk village. Could Erend be that special to her? Maybe, she knew she cared for him, she knew that when too much time went between her visits to Meridian she was sad. She missed him. Thinking of him made her smile, he would too whenever he would see her. He always welcomed her when she came to the city whether he was in the tavern, the training area, palace, market, he even welcomed her in his home.

She thought back on the last time she came to Meridian, she arrived after nightfall. Training sessions were long over, so she went to search for him in the tavern, only a few of the vanguard were there. They suggested she go search for him at his home, they said he left them not long ago, Erend always had to be the first one awake in the morning. She was proud he went to bed slightly earlier than the rest, he was showing responsibility. She asked how long ago he left, they said shortly, they couldn’t give a definitive answer. That was ok though, it couldn’t have been too long.

She weaved through the roads of Meridian, almost entirely abandoned at this point in the night. She just wanted to see him, maybe if his light was still on he’d be up...

The light was still on, she could see it through one of the only windows he had. The light was dim, but it was there.

She walked up to the door, her hand hovered for a moment before she knocked. She thought she heard a crash inside and a light curse. She suppressed a small laugh at the noise as the door opened, when she looked up she was met with the most irresistible sight she had ever seen and the laugh caught in her throat.

Erend was standing in his doorway, silhouetted by the light behind him, only dressed in a loose pair of trousers. She could see his defined, broad shoulders and chest which narrowed into a tree trunk midsection. Tattoos she didn’t know he had trailed from his shoulders halfway down his sculpted arms. She was always learning new things, she thought as she subconsciously bit her lip.

He seemed to realize his state of dress as soon as he saw Aloy and crossed an arm over his abdomen, his face flushed in obvious embarrassment as his mouth gaped open for a moment. “Aloy,” he stammered. “I didn’t know you were in the city.” His embarrassment was covered by his obvious joy at seeing her. “I thought you were Varic or something asking me for my share of the bill.” He laughed nervously.

“No, just me,” she said with a nervous smile. “Can I come in?”

“Oh sure, yeah,” he said opening the door further allowing her inside. “Sorry, I-uh- let me go change.” he ran out of the room instantly and into what she knew was his bedroom. That was a shame, she thought to herself. Then she paused, she never thought anything like that about anyone before.

When he came back a moment later he was finishing up pulling on a loose-fitting undershirt. When his head popped out the top she saw that goofy grin he always wore, she loved it.

“I just got into the city, I thought I might come by and say hi,” she said shuffling her feet. “The people at the tavern said you came home and I saw your light on...”

“Yeah that’s ok,” Erend said unable to suppress his smile. “I’m glad you came, I missed you.” He sat down on his sofa, she followed suit like they always did when she visited, it was a comfortable place to be for her now. “How was everything, tell me everything, what have you been doing?”

“Well,” Aloy began with a smile and she went on to tell him all about her travels over the last few weeks she was away. The machines she faced, the close calls she suffered, Erend held onto her every word. They talked all throughout the night, she actually woke early the next morning wrapped in his arms on the sofa, they must have fallen asleep talking. She savored the moment, her head on his strong chest, her much smaller body encased in his protective arms with her legs pulled up over his lap. They only found themselves in this compromising position a few times before, mostly on the road when they slept in close quarters to fight off the nightly chill. It was after a few minutes she peeled herself away from his warm figure, she left a short note on his kitchen table before leaving. She knew he didn’t have to wake up for a little bit, the sun was only just rising, she knew he drank the previous night and he needed sleep. She slipped out the door, went to the market and was gone again.

That was the last time she saw him, she wrote in her note she was leaving for the Banuk lands, she had to visit a friend.

Looking down into the Banuk village she saw a patrol of hunters come running back toward to chieftains tent, they had news, she could tell. Her curiosity was too much for her to bare, she got up from her seat and turned to Sekuli.

“Go, see if there’s anything you can do,” Sekuli said remaining in her seat waving down toward the commotion.

Aloy nodded before running down the scaffolding to the Banuk village. It didn’t take long, there was a rope she could easily jump up to and slide down, but she still arrived later than she would have wanted. The hunters were already in the tent when she got there and in mid sentence when she burs through the door flaps.

The Banuk looked to her.

“Is there trouble?” She asked before anyone could open their mouths.

“You have a sixth sense,” the shaman said turning to her. “They found a band of slavers headed through the mountains.”

“Slavers?” Aloy asked.

“The slave trade between the southern lands and the north are becoming increasingly difficult,” one of the warriors explained, she was still mildly out of breath. “We’ve been trying to keep the problem under control but they keep coming back stronger than before, we’ve already lost many warriors in our attempts to stop the trade.”

“Exactly,” the shaman said. “Which is why I don’t think it is smart of attack this convoy.”

“They deal in human lives,” Aloy protested, disgusted by the attitude.

“Many of which are our own, they were killed trying to save those lives we know nothing of.” The shaman argued. “I cannot approve this quest.” he held his hand up silencing the warriors further.

“Well luckily I don’t have to listen to you.” Aloy sneered. “Where did you see them?” She asked the warrior who spoke.

“To the west,” she replied slightly taken back. “I will accompany you as it is my choice,” she turned to her fellows. “If any of you would like to come I welcome it, but I can’t make you.” She said to the warriors.

Aloy nodded, grateful for the company and left the tent. “Where did you see them?”

“I’ll take you, I’m Yutuk, by the way, it is very nice to meet you, huntress.”

“Aloy,” she replied as though everyone didn’t know her name. “Lets go free some slaves,” she sighed, Yutuk nodded and lead the way back down the road, only one other banuk warrior following them behind.

Chapter Text

The visons swam in Erend eyes one after the other, he wasn’t sure which ones where real anymore.

“Get him out of my sight,” he heard Aloy say. He looked up, she was scowling at him, her eyes dark and angry. “All he does is get drunk and ruin the mission, make me the Vanguard leader. I can do it better than him.”

Avad laughed and came up beside her. “A pile of scrap would do a better job than him, Ersa was wrong, he failed her. Just like he failed all of us.” The sun king sneered bending down to Erends level. “You should have died in place of Ersa.”

“Ersa would have been a better friend,” Aloy added. “She wouldn’t always be pinning after me, endlessly pinning.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re not worth being loved, especially by me, I’m too good for a scrap pile like you.” She hissed turning around and beginning to walk away.

Avad shook his head before following her. “Do everyone a favor and die.”

Erend let out a sob as he tried to crawl toward his friends. “Wait, please... please don’t leave-come back!” He shouted, he was unable to stand his legs felt like iron.

Aloy and Avad turned around and silently stared at him, Ersa stepped out from behind Aloy and Varic out from behind her.

“We don’t want you,” Aloy said hauntingly.

“I’m gone because of you,” Varic echoed.

“No, please-” Erend begged his friends.

“I never should have put faith in you,” Ersa said walking closer, her muscularly heavy frame causing him to wince at every step. “I died because you were too drunk to bring along on a mission, you’re the reason I’m dead and you can’t even bring honor to my memory by leading the Vangaurds.” She leaned down close. “You failed everyone by living. So do everyone a favor and just give up.”

Standing back up she turned away and the four of them began to walk away from him disappearing the further they got.

I’m sorry!” Erend cried after them. “Don’t leave me, please, I’m sorry!”

He cried into the darkness of his cell, screaming for them to come back for what seemed like hours until another wave of hallucinations assaulted his mind. At first the hallucinations were wonderful and only ended in a rain of fire and heat. But the more he was given whatever drug they were dosing him with the more malicious the visions became. This time he was bound and gagged outside the entrance to Meridian. Aloy stood before him.

“Take him away,” she was wearing Oseram armor she led the vanguard now, he would have thought it attractive if it weren't for the situation.

Hands grabbed him under the arms and hoisted him up into a cart with iron manacles to bind him to the back. He tried to scream and shout after her but the ball gag hardly even let any air escape his mouth let alone coherent words.

She shook her head and turned away not even giving him a second glance, the people of Merdian who had gathered outside the city had begun to laugh at him, pointing. He looked down and he was suddenly naked in front of everyone, a gag in his mouth and a collar with an impossibly heavy chain somehow appeared around his neck. He hunched his body over trying to cover himself, his face flushed in humiliation, he couldn’t do much with bound hands.

Her back was still to him as he was chained to the back of the cart, he cried and begged through the gag to make her notice him. She didn’t even acknowledge him, she just walked into the crowd of people still laughing and mocking. They came increasingly closer to him pointing and shouting, some began to pull valuables and payment out of their pockets to offer it to someone he couldn’t see. They grabbed at him, they fought over him, he shut his eyes. He wasn’t an object to be sold he wasn’t... he wasn’t...

Then everything was still again, silent, cold and wet.

He opened his eyes, he saw different colors swim before his eyes, but he could make out the cell around him. Of course, he was still here he would never escape. How long had he been here anyway? The hallucinations were making it impossible to tell how much time had passed. How did he get here? Aloy didn’t give him over, she wouldn’t do that she couldn’t do that. Avad made it happen she just carried it out, a cynical voice in his head argued.

Maybe he had been here for years already and he just couldn’t remember, maybe this was his life. Dammit why couldn’t he remember anything? Why did they give him over to these people? Was he that worthless to them?

Sadness washed over him as he curled into as tight a ball as he could and began to sob.

Chapter Text

Aloy ran after Yutuk, the woman was fast, Aloy had to give her credit for that. Within a half hour of running the three of them reached the mountain pass the hunters saw the convoy pass through. Due to the snow it didn't take long before they caught up to the group walking through a thin path between the mountains. Six people stood all chained together at the ankles and wrists in a line. Around them were a dozen guards heavily armored and huge.

“They don’t look overly impressive, but they’re stronger than they look,” Yatuk warned as the three of them crouched behind a large rock, not far away at all from their target. “They also have no issue using the prisoners as leverage.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Aloy said narrowing her eyes, she tapped her focus and her eyes widened. There was a name appearing above a figure, which meant her focus recognized him. Marching along in the line of prisoners was Varic, one of Erends vanguards. What was going on?

“We can take them,” Aloy said confidently nodding, there were only twelve of them and with Varic among them maybe they had a chance. With him it was only three against one, she liked those odds. She just had to get him a weapon. Reaching into her satchel she pulled out a bow, she would give Varic her spear if she had the chance, that was the only weapon she had on her that didn’t require reloading.

“I’ll get as close as I can,” she said to the two Banuk. “I’ll try and take out a couple of the guards in the back, if I can I’ll get a weapon to my friend.”

“You’re friend?” Yatuk asked quietly in shock.

“Yes, he’s the second in the row, I see him. I don’t know why he’s here.” Aloy said not taking her eyes off her target. “I’m going in, watch me, when I'm exposed begin shooting.” She told them and quietly sped towards the group.

Yatuk looked to her partner, he looked worried, he was younger-probably Aloys age if they were being honest- and not as confident as she was in his hunting skills. She nodded to him with a firm smile, he would do fine, he had no problem taking down an animal for food and evil humans were no different as far as she was concerned. He would be fine.

She shifted her gaze back down to Aloy who had begun crawling through the tall grass toward the offensive humans. In moment she would strike, Yutuk prepared her bow and drew back the string. Seeing her prepare her partner quickly followed, albeit nervously.

The sun was setting over the mountains which meant the cover was good, Aloy thought as she crawled impossibly close to the first guard. He didn’t stand a chance when she pulled herself up, placed a hand over his mouth, and pushed her spear through the middle of his back. She looked at him for only a moment as she led him silently to the ground, she didn’t feel bad, slave traders deserved it. People weren’t property as far as she was concerned.

The next guard was simple as well, it wasn’t until the third when he noticed his two comrades were missing the trouble started. Two down, ten to go, they could handle this or rather, she could handle this.

She killed the next one quickly enough, he was still surprised but at that moment she blew her cover and it was hand to hand from then on. Arrows began flying from the mountain cover in their direction as Aloy fought the nine remaining guards.

The prisoners ducked in cover where they stood, all except one, but he was having trouble standing since he was chained to the others. “Aloy!” He cried out.

She looked up, Varic was ready, she tossed her spear in his direction praying that one of the other captives weren’t going to suddenly stand and be decapitated. Luckily he caught it with ease despite his restrictions. He began lunging the weapon forward stabbing any bit of guard that came within range of his limited motion.

The arrows flew above her head and around her body, but she trusted her companions, she had to. She watched as Varic stabbed a guard in the leg just as an arrow pierced the man in the back. He fell down, Varic was instantly reaching out to pull a ring of keys from the guards pocket. Triumphantly he began to unlock his chains and truly join the fight. When he was finished, he quickly handed the keys off to the next prisoner instructing them to free themselves. They fumbled with the keys, their hands were cold and numb if not also injured from their ordeal.

Aloy knew they had the slavers now, she watched as one more enemy went down due to an arrow in the neck. They only had four left now, but they had heavy armor and weren’t going down easy. One of them tried to grab one of the prisoners to use as a shield. Quickly Aloy shot the man in the right eye, just in between his armor mere inches from the poor womans face as she wailed in terror. Even Aloy had to admit that was a lucky shot.

A few minutes later they had killed the last armored enemy, he fell hard to the ground hard in front of Aloy as she stood slightly out of breath. It was only a moment before she gathered herself and ran to Varic who kneeled on the ground in obvious exhaustion.

“Varic!” She shouted as she ran over and kneeled down into a slide expertly arriving at his side in the snow. “Are you hurt? What happened? Does anyone know you’re here?”

Varic nodded, holding his hand up, he was too tired from the fight to talk right now he needed to catch his breath first. “I’m fine,” he breathed, he was obviously not. He was obviously weak and injured but he was able to fight so he couldn’t have been to bad off. “But Aloy...” He coughed before he could continue.

She could hear the concern in his voice. “Varic what happened?” She repeated.

He cleared his throat, “its Erend, Aloy, he’s back at the camp with the slavers. We have to get back.” He managed to say in one long breath before he continued hacking into his arm.

Aloy stared at him, she couldn’t' believe what she was hearing. She didn’t notice the two Banuk coming up behind her, she was too busy processing what just happened. Erend was with slavers? Her Erend? Yutuk placed a tentaive hand on her shoulder, she barley registered it.

“Aloy?” She asked.

“I have to go.” She said and began to turn away to leave.

“No, wait!” Varic called out.

Aloy turned around. “I have to get Erend!” She cried like it was obvious.

“Do you even know where you’re going?”

“Snow tracks,” she replied.

“You won’t always be in snow,” Varic reasoned. “It’s a three days walk from here to their camp, I walked it, I know where I’m going for the most part.”

“The most part?” Yatuk asked.

Varic nodded, wincing slightly at the pain. “I had a bag over my head for about half the journey, they don’t want us to know where we were being held. But I think I could find it again if I tried. We just have to travel through the mountains to the other side.”

Aloy nodded looking down the snowy path, it was a long walk through the mountains, or she could try and go around. She could find a mount and try to gallop the whole way; it would probably take about the same amount of time by the time she found a mount and got there. She was better off going through the mountains.

“Let’s go back to the encampment first,” Yatuk suggested, Aloy glared, she couldn’t go back to the camp not while Erend was somewhere out there missing. “We can gather more information from your friend, while he rests and eats. We can have the healer look at him before morning. Then we can go on with our journey in the daylight, when it isn’t so cold and dangerous. Besides,” she gestured to the other freed prisoners. "We have to bring them back to shelter and find their homes."

Aloy wanted to argue but she couldn’t logically think of a reason Yatuk was wrong. It was already getting dark, the air was getting so cold even breathing hurt her lungs. The mountains were dangerous at night in the dark, and Varic was her guide he needed rest. He had been walking for three days away from the slave camp. He must have been exhausted.

Three days. She was three days away from Erend. But what already happened to him in those three days, or longer? How long were they there before Varic left him? She suddenly realized how foolish it would have been to run off and how little she really knew. Tonight she would find out, when Varic was being looked over by the healer they would talk and in the morning they’d be on their way.

Chapter Text

She walked through the dark and damp cavernous tunnels with ease, she knew the halls well, this had been her home for years. She slowed as she reached her destination, her jagged nails scratching along the stone as she came to a stop to alert Arrok of her presence.

“I would hope you have only good news for me.” Arrok said in a bored tone not looking up from whatever he was doing with his back turned to her.

She smirked, she didn’t miss the man being pulled out of the tunnel kicking and screaming, she didn’t want to think about what he told her chief. “Of course I do,” she cooed gently. “I know more of the vanguard man.”

He turned around with interest, quirking an eyebrow.

“They certainly are women he speaks of,” she said smiling and exposing broken rotting teeth. “The woman Ersa is dead, he screams he didn’t save her, how it’s his fault.” She pouted mockingly. “It’s his sister, I’m sure.”

“Perfect, and the other?”

“A woman,” she began to play with Arroks long dark hair almost hypnotically as she pulled a small vial from her pocket and took a long inhale from the fumes after uncorking the small container, afterwards she let out a breathy laugh. “I’m not sure,” she almost sang closing her eyes and feeling the drugs effect. “They’re close, sister or lover... it doesn’t really matter in the end. There’s also another, he speaks of the Sun-King sometimes, like they’re friends.”

Arroks brow furrowed in thought at that and after a pause that lasted over a minute he continued quietly. “You can begin now.”

A wicked smile spread across her features. “I won’t disappoint you.”

This time he turned and smiled possessively at her. “I know you won’t, you’re my best girl.” He caressed her jawline.

She smiled and laughed manically before quickly running off into the caves.

Arrok smiled, she truly was one of his best creations.

Erend sat in his cell, cowering as far into the corner as he could push himself. The drugs seemed thin in his system, but that was probably compared to how he had felt recently, which was completely incoherent and blurred so maybe he wasn’t as sober as he thought. The world was still tilting if he moved too much, he still felt like he heard voices right beside him, like Ersa, Varic, Aloy, mostly Aloy... but when he turned his head he always found himself alone.

He was always alone, no one was coming for him now, he was sure he had been here a long while. He didn’t know if his system was getting used to the drugs, like it did with the alcohol he drank, but the doses seemed less now. Like they were just keeping him in a stumbling drunken haze, something he knew all about unfortunately.

He hung his head and suppressed another sob, he was trying so hard, why did they leave him? He was trying to get his drinking under control, he hadn’t blacked out or forgotten the evening-for the most part- in weeks. He was leaving the tavern to get home for an early sleep, and so what if he took one or two more shots of the strong Oseram liquor before bed? It helped him fall asleep fast. He needed to stop waking up from nightmares of his sister dying in his arms and nothing else was working.

But now that’s all he saw, it seemed that’s all his mind could show him, images of his sister dying in his grasp. In his dreams-or maybe they were hallucinations- he sat with her in his arms for hours, he felt her grow cold and stiff, he watched her decay, and sometimes her dead body would wake and begin screaming at him. Every time this happened he crumbled into a mess of heaving and violent sobs, he didn’t want to disappoint her but it seemed that was all he did. He belonged here; they were right to send him away.

He was huddled in his corner trying to forget the world when he heard a whisper at his cell door. He didn’t look up, he thought it was a hallucination, they were all hallucinations.

“Vanguard!” The voice whispered in an urgent tone.

Erend opened an eye and looked up above his arms, there was a woman sitting on the ground outside the entrance of his cell clutching the bars, he didn’t even realize the door had opened. Was he that out of it?

Once he met her gaze she smiled, her teeth were dark and broken, “I can help you, I got the keys, I can help you escape, if you let me.” She held up a heavy ring of keys and jingled it lightly.

Erend narrowed his eyes and thought this could be an opportunity to escape, even if he had been here for years, clearly so had she. Could this be his chance? He tried to speak, his voice was so damaged from screaming he could barely form words. “How..?” he managed to croak.

She seemed to understand. “They underestimated me,” she giggled, clearly she was a little unhinged but he wasn’t going to start judging his savior. Maybe this is what happened what you got drugged too often, he thought, he was glad he was getting out now while he still had his mind. “I’ve been down here forever, I keep saying no, no, no, this isn’t real you’re all tricksters and liars and they’re all out to get me,” she looked at him knowingly. “Just like they’re all out to get you, don’t trust people here,” her eyes darted around the cell but she seemed to gather herself within seconds. “I knocked him on the head with my chains,” she giggled again wiggling her empty wrists in front of him. It didn't look like she had any markings from shackles but she pulled them away before he could actually tell.

Knocking a guard unconscious with chains could be... possible. He thought. “Okay,” he agreed, he didn’t see another option. What did he have to loose, who was he to deny someone trying to free him? Even if she seemed a little questionable, she was a victim just like him. He cringed at the thought of him being a victim like this. The thought of himself as insane as she was and the image flooded his minds eye, laughing with broken teeth screaming nonsense. He pushed the thought away.

“I know how to get out, come with me?” She asked motioning to the door.

He nodded weakly. “Yeah, okay,” he said in something hardly even a whisper.

She looked almost sinister as she began freeing his wrists and ankles almost too expertly, maybe she had just been here a long time, Erend thought.

When she was done she took a step back. “Do you need help?”

“Please?” Erend asked reaching a hand up, she seemed to be in better shape than him, he wondered what her torture was to keep her this strong?

She took his hand, scratching him with uneven nails as she pulled him up on his shaking feet, he immediately fell towards the wall. But through the drugs a feeling deep down pushed him forward and he crawled along the wall, he ignored the feeling of dread that began to form deep in his gut alongside the desire to escape. The woman followed next to him, watching him move but offering no help. She was a twig anyway; she couldn’t be much help to his heavy frame.

When they arrived at the door he reached out and grabbed the cold cell bars as support, everything ached, the world was spinning but he needed to get out. The muscles in his arms burned with exertion and his legs felt like they would give away at any moment. But, this was his chance, maybe once they got back to Meridian-if Aloy and Avad didn't hate him- they could try and rehabilitate her.

As he turned the corner he only made it a couple steps before he saw boots on the ground in front of him, the iron covered toes tapping lightly on the wet stone floor. He froze, slowly he lifted his exhausted gaze to see Arrok staring at him with clear displeasure, a nasty sneer appearing on his lips. The woman moved to stand beside him giddily smiling, playing with her rats nest of hair, and Erend felt a hard pang of fear and betrayal in the pit of his stomach.

“Slaves aren’t supposed to run away,” Arrok said angrily clenching his fists at his sides.

Chapter Text

Aloy was up before dawn despite going to sleep well past midnight, but she was hardly able to shut her eyes. She mind just kept whirling with images of Erend getting whipped and beaten. Varic told her everything he saw, but the last thing he knew he was left hanging from the pole barley conscious, Varic never went back to see him again since he was sold with the others.

She wondered what happened after that, it had been days already. He could already be sold and be marching away from her. But would he even make that journey with an injured back like that? They had to let him heal first if they were trying to sell him for a decent price –she cringed at the thought. They would have to travel through the mountain pass as fast as possible, Varic wasn’t terribly injured, but she wasn’t going to let him slow her down.

Yutuk was going to accompany the former prisoners south to the Hollow Fort Settlement, the Nora had taken it over after it was liberated. They found out one of the prisoners was Nora, with luck she could convince her kin to help the others. If not, Yutuk was willing to act as guide and take them closer to the Sundom. Aratak was willing to send a couple of his warriors to accompany out of respect for Aloy, he had been trying to hinder the slave trade for months, one more thing that could be accomplished with the help of Aloy.

She thanked Yatuk for her help, collected her provisions, then her and Varic headed out into the cold mountain pass. He was moving thankfully fast, she asked him why Erend got beat so badly and Varic came out with only a black eye and some minor bruising. He said it was because he complied, but Erend kept acting exactly like Erend and kept fighting back. It wasn’t entirely his fault, they had a number of drugs on them and Erend became a victim of the mild altering substances. Varic wasn’t sure what kind or what they were made of, but they made Erend confused and lash out. He even thought Ersa was alive at one point. Aloy felt a sharp jab in her heart at that. She was there, she knew the pain that must have caused him.

They had to spend one night in the pass before they reached the other side, Aloy was crushed. She knew the chances of them making it all the way through were slim, but she could still hope. They found a small cave opening and were able to make a small fire from the dried twigs nearby.

Varic opened his satchel and pulled out their rations, he kept a close eye on Aloy. She was sitting beside the small fire staring into it... unblinking.

“Aloy,” he called gently.

She jerked out of her thoughts and looked at him.

“Here,” he reached out and handed her a small section of dried meat.

She took it but didn’t eat it, she just stared at the food. “I wonder how long its been since Erend ate,” she mumbled.

“Don’t think about it,” he tried to say.

“How can I not?” She interjected. “How can you not?” Her voice rose in frustration, since Erend had taken control of the Vanguard Varic was his second in command, how could be be so... uncaring?

“I am.” He answered.

She took a breath and calmed herself, Varic was always the cool and collected type from what she knew of him. Which honestly wasn’t a lot, she only ever exchanged a handful of words with him before, but Erend spoke highly of him. Apparently, they’d all known each other since childhood. Aloy wondered what it was like to play with children like that, Erend replied they didn’t do much playing. The Claim was a rough area to grow up and besides that he mostly got picked on by Ersa and Varic since he was younger. She laughed, having trouble imaging Erend as a scrawny kid getting teased.

“I just need to know he’s okay,” she said softly.

He nodded looking down at the meager dinner in his own hands. “We should be back tomorrow night if we keep a steady pace, we’re almost through the mountains. I know their camp is in the mountain cliffs north of Free Heap but I’m not sure where, I had that bag over my head the whole time, they only removed it once we were in the pass.”

“Then how do you know?”

“When we left the camp we had to travel along the edge of the mountains until we reached the pass, it wasn’t long, but when the wind blew a certain way I could smell the coke in the air from the forges. An Oseram never misses that smell.”

Good, she thought to herself. If Free Heap was nearby maybe Petra could be of some assistance later on, she knew the metalworker would be more than willing to lend a hand.

“Eat, get some rest,” Varic said. “We’re leaving at dawn.”

“Or sooner?” Aloy asked.

He nodded, “As soon as the sky begins to turn blue with the early morning we can leave.” He agreed. “But not before then, it gets cold in the middle of the night here.” He knew Aloy was smart and strong but she was also, what, nineteen? She still needed some guidance and Varic was more than willing to offer that. She reminded him of Erend at that age- not long after Erend joined the guard when he was still headstrong and foolish.... Or rather, she still reminded him of just... Erend. They were such a match, Varic could see it, even if they had trouble admitting it themselves. He had to admit, watching them flirt was a show, he wasn't sure either of them even knew what they were doing.

Aloy nodded. She laid on the bare ground beside the fire, by morning it would be extinguished and they would on their way to find Erend. Sleep took her away quickly. She didn’t get much the previous night, but every single dream she had tonight was plagued by nightmares of Erends screams.

Chapter Text

The only sounds around him were the occasional screams of the other prisoners while they got abused by their captors. The rest of the time it was just quite sobbing, faint water dripping, or nothing. Erend was getting so tired, he was hanging from the ceiling from chains stretching his arms above his head. Thankfully they gave him enough room to stand, not enough room to sit or kneel, so he was left with most his weight pulling on his hands and wrists anyway.

He was unconscious for a while due to the beating he received after his ‘recapture’, if that was even the word to use since he never even got close to escaping. He was never going to leave with her she was a trick, he realized this as soon as he saw Arrok looming above him. He should have paid more attention to the signs, he noticed them but he ignored them because he was desperate. He was supposed to deny the help and willingly stay a prisoner, that was the mind game they were trying to pull on him. They were trying to make him realize his choices, he could comply to their torture and be sold and possibly never be found, or he could keep fighting and either die or loose his mind. But he refused to believe they were his only options, he had to keep holding on, somehow Aloy would find him. He would just have to pay more attention in the future to anyone who tried to help him, if any help even came that is. The longer his stay here lasted the more his hope dwindled. He had no concept of time anymore, but without the drugs muddling his system he was sober enough to realize he couldn’t have been here years or even months, among other clues, his beard and hair hadn’t grown out. Avad had to of sent out the other vanguards to search for them, word had to of spread by now, maybe even Aloy knew. She had her ways of finding things out. He didn’t tell anyone where she was headed, it seemed private and he felt special knowing things other people didn’t.

But now he wished he told someone, they could have sent her a message and she could use that Focus of hers to find him like she found Ersa. She was amazing like that.

He let out a long dull groan as he shifted his weight to try and relieve his wrists, but the motion just caused more pain to rippled through his body. He forgotten what it was like to exist without pain anymore, from time to time it would subside and it was like nothing was wrong. But the moment he moved everything exploded and tears would spring into his eyes. He felt one slide down his cheek now, cutting its way through the blood and grime that marred his face.

“How are we feeling, vanguard?”

Erend didn’t have to look up to see who was approaching him, he knew his torturers voice all too well.

“I could do for a pint of Scrappersap,” Erend croaked out best he could.

He expected the hard punch to the side of his face, one of his teeth in the back became loose as blood filled his mouth. He aimed for Arrok and spit at the man, only managing to get a few flecks of blood on the older man. But Erend was pleased anyway.

The slaver leaned in close. “You’re proving to be more trouble than you’re worth,” he hissed and reached into a pouch at his side to pull out a rag, Erend knew exactly what this meant, but what could he do about it? “We’ll just have to keep you down until your mind begins to melt. I’d prefer you not be driven mad, I get more for a slave who hasn’t been damaged in the brain, but at this point I’m willing to cut my losses.” He said gruffly holding the rag over Erends mouth as he struggled. “So what will it be? Keep fighting and loose you’re mind, or give up and loose you’re mind? Which is it?” He smiled with disgusting yellow and brown teeth.

Erend tried holding his breath as long as he could and he attempted to pull his head away, but after only a few seconds he was forced to inhale, not having the strength to fight back for long. Almost immediately he felt the floating sensation of the drug take hold, the rag was taken away, the dose was smaller this time. He wouldn’t pass out, but the visions would take over his sight. This time they could leave him hanging from the ceiling during the hallucinations, not giving him the ability to crawl away from the invisible monsters.

A woman's scream echoed around the dungeon. Erend looked around panicking, the drug was making him paranoid and frightened quickly, although he had good reason to be. He heard a man laugh deeply, and she began wailing in agony.

Arrok huffed a laugh and got uncomfortably close to Erends face. “I don’t like it when my men take advantage of the merchandise on the ground level, they’re still worth top dollar up there, but down here its fair game to anyone who wants it. You too, don’t think being male saves you.” He grinned, slapped Erend fairly lightly on the cheek and turned around leaving Erends terrified mind to whirl around the new information he was just given.

The woman continued to cry and scream at her captor until her sobs became nothing more than small whimpers in the dark. But Erend didn’t notice, the screams and cries in his head continued throughout the night, soon his own voice accompanied them as the visions became too frightening to handle any longer.

Chapter Text

The sun was over halfway through its journey in the sky as Aloy and Varic approached the end of the mountain pass. She sighed in relief as she shrugged off a layer of her furs, abandoning them on the path, she wouldn't need them any longer where she was headed. Soon they would be entering the Sundom and it would become increasingly warm.

Varic was traveling well as far as she could tell, he needed to break occasionally for five minutes or so, but he pressed on despite the obvious pain he was feeling. She couldn’t blame him; he hadn’t had a proper sleep or proper healing since his ordeal. Everything was so rushed so they could leave, she was becoming worried he wouldn’t make the remainder of the journey, but she needed him, he was the fastest route to the slaver's hideout.

“Wait.” She heard her companion sharply say.

“What?” She drew her bow in instinct. “Glinthawks?” They came across a few along their journey, but nothing she couldn't handle fairly quickly.

“No, we didn’t go this way.”

“What? It’s the only way?”

“No,” he shook his head and began looking around the area. “I remember this, we came out of a small cave opening, we didn't come through the main pass entrance.”

She nodded and began helping him hunt despite the fact she had little idea what they were searching for or exactly where. She found herself almost one hundred yards away when she heard Varic shout for her, his yell echoing off the mountain walls.

She sprinted toward him as fast as her legs would take her, the snow wasn’t an issue anymore, thankfully. Hey had traveled far enough south for the melt to begin, but there was still a couple inches of meting slush on the ground. She felt herself almost slip as she ran and turned it into a slide to catch her footing, she regained her footing and reached Varic in a matter of seconds.

“I found it,” he said before she had the chance to ask, it was a small opening in the side of the mountain, easily overlooked if you looked at the rocks in the wrong direction. “It’s here, I remember climbing over some rocks at one point this must be it. Not long after they took off our blindfolds and we were in the pass.”

Aloy nodded and the pair ran through the incredibly narrow pathway, occasionally they had to go one at a time and sideways to squeeze through the small passages.

The reached the opening within an hour and Aloy found herself high up on a cliff on the very edge of the Sundom. She very well could have ran over the edge of the cliff if she wasn't careful when running out. “This is their route; we should be careful in case they come by here. We don’t have much cover.” She said kneeling down and examining the pathway before her, it was well traveled, but clearly difficult to be seen from ground level.

“It is, I can smell the coke from the forges of Free Heep.”

Aloy sniffed the air, she didn’t smell anything unusual. “What does it smell like?”

Varic suppressed a smile, it didn’t seem right to smile in these times. “Like home, you’ll learn it if you hang around the forges enough. It’s such a heavy smell in the air...” He trailed off.

She did know the smell he was talking about, but she only smelled it once she was in the smithy of Meridian, where half a dozen smelters, anvils and fires were constantly being burned and used. She closed her eyes and for a moment allowed herself to be lost in the memory.

The armor wasn’t that heavy, but she didn’t realize when it wasn’t being worn it would be so bulky. She purchased her first set of Oseram armor from a merchant and to her chagrin the stomach plate and straps were slightly off sized, she got the smallest size the merchant had to offer but she had such a lean figure compared to Oseram women the armor still didn’t fit right. So here she was with all of her newly purchased and shining armor all wrapped up in her arms because she was having trouble folding it back into the wrappings it was sold to her in.

So when she stumbled into the smithy dropping several metal plates of her armor she didn't notice which smith had come to her aid.

“I’m so sorry,” she stammered gathering her armor from the floor. “I just need the straps tightened, all of them, just tighten.. All of them.”

She looked up into the amused grinning face of Erend. “Oh!” She exclaimed realizing it was him. “I didn't realize you... you craft?”

He huffed a laugh. “Everyone in Oseram does, I like donating at least a few hours a week to the forge. Even if its menial work, fixing too loose straps.” he smiled at her, helping her carry the armor to the table.

“You don’t have to if you have something better to do,” she blushed looking away to the other working smiths, any of them could have attended to her, but Erend did.

“No, it’s fine,” she noticed he was only wearing a simple shirt and trousers with a leather apron over it, the shirts sleeves had been rolled up to his elbows to prevent getting too close to the flames. “I can fix your armor, I just need to take a couple measurement's,” he cleared his throat when he spoke.

“Oh,” she said slightly surprised, though she wasn’t sure why, she’d had her measurements taken before so she could get well fitted armor.

“Just come this way, you need the stomach strap adjusted?” He clarified not meeting her eyes and biting his lower lip slightly.

“Yes, and maybe the shoulders too?” She said following him deeper into the shop.

He nodded and picked up a fabric tape measure. “Okay, well, I have to, uh, do this then.” he hovered above her waist for a moment contemplating his next move, not wanting to touch her inappropriately.

Aloy gave a small eye roll and took his hands in hers, wrapping them around her midsection taking each end of the tape measure with it, she felt herself grow hot. “Yeah, just that.” she stammered.

“Oh that’s – ok, got it.” Erend croaked out as he removed the tape measure quickly and looking away. Fire and spit, she had an amazing figure. “That’s great, um, shoulders?”

He had to hold the tape measure across her chest, he was getting so hot. “Okay, got that one...uh, logged away,” he let out a nervous laugh as he individually took measurements of each of her biceps next.

“You can fix them?” she asked hopefully with a small smile, she was so beautiful when she looked at him like that, well, she was beautiful anywhere.

“Oh yeah,” he breathed rubbing the back of his neck. “Just give me a few hours, I just have to cut the straps down and maybe refit the overall shape. The plate is wider than you are, uh, meet me at my house later? It’ll be done by dark, I can give it back then?”

“Perfect,” Aloy smiled and turned her back to walk away, she could hardly contain herself from grinning like a madwoman. Erend, in nothing but basic clothes and a heavy leather apron was the most attractive thing she’d ever seen. She ran away from the forge as quickly as she could and back to Olins home to think about her most recent thoughts. Erend was always there, whenever she needed help, he just seemed to appear and offer it. Even when it was something as simple as resizing her armor.

She was pulled away from her memory as she finally smelled the smoke in the air, the wind must have shifted and now she was getting the direct scent of the forges. It wasn’t Erend always willing to help her whenever she needed now, this time it was he who needed her help and she was so close she could feel it.

“Down this way, we climbed the cliff side right before entering the mountain pass. I’m not completely sure where to go from here, we weaved through so many paths.” Varic said sounded defeated.

“That’s ok.” A lot replied landing the cliff edge below and activating her focus. “I think I know where to go.” The path was pretty clear before her, the blindfolded slaves made an obvious trail the focus had no problem catching.

She began running without consulting Varic, it was only a matter of time now. She just hoped he was still at the camp Varic left him in.

Chapter Text

Erend was jolted awake by the rough handling of his body as he was being transported to a new location. He didn’t open his eyes and he tried not to move, but his captors must have noticed how tense his body became as the pain hit him once more in his awakened state.

“He’s conscious.” He heard one of the men say as he slowly became aware of what was happening to him.

He was being tied to something; he was laying on his back on something... warm, like a rock heating up from the sun. He tried to opened his eyes as he felt his wrists get tied down, but there was a blinding light that made him shut them immediately. His ankles were next, shackled down just like his arms, then they moved to his neck which at some point had acquired a thick and heavy collar he didn’t notice until now when it was being secured to the table underneath him. Panic welled in his stomach, he couldn’t even move if he wanted to now and he was too weak and too drug addled to even attempt at fighting.

He tried opening his eyes again, the light was bright like before and he noticed how hot the air around him was, he heard the roaring of air as it hit hot coals to heat them. He knew these noises well, he grew up with them, he forced his eyes open and saw that he was only six or so feet away from a red hot coal bed. It was like a coal forge, but there were no anvils he could see. He closed them and forced his body to try and move again, he was so weak and it was so painful. He hadn’t eaten in days, and the only water he managed to drink was the possibly tampered water they offered him when he ate last, or the drops of water he caught in his mouth when he was alone in his cell for hours. That is, when he was sober enough from whatever they were giving him to realize he was dying of dehydration. But to be honest, he stopped caring a while ago. Part of him just wanted to give up and die already.

He felt a presence hover above him and he tried to open his eyes once more, this time it was easier since the figure was blocking the bright coals. But the body was none other than his tormenter and Erend felt a tremor of fear run through him and his heart beat so heavy he felt like you could see it from the outside.

“You’re officially more trouble than you’re worth,” the dark voice of Arrok said, he could barely make out his features from the effects the drugs were still having on his vision, coupled with the blinding white light still appearing in his eyesight no matter how many times he tried to blink it away.

What did that mean? Erend thought as his eyes flickered to the other man in the room. Did that mean they were just going to kill him now? Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing...

“You’re going to stay here,” Arrok began as he slowly circled around Erends bound body, “with me for a while until you’re too broken to fight back anymore. Then maybe I’ll sell you off to whoever is willing to pay for a broken minded husk of a man. But for now. You're mine, well, ours,” he motioned to the man behind him. “Everyone who calls themselves my ally, actually,” he smiled and paused at one of Erends ankles to tightened the already overly tight strap. “I can’t sell a slave who can’t cooperate long enough to even leave my compound. Which means this is your new home until you decide to be compliant. Now tell me, what are you?”

Erend was quiet, he shut his eyes, he wanted to just ignore the man until he went away.

“Tell me what you are.” There was sudden heat close to his stomach and his muscles instinctively flinched away. “Tell me.”

You’ll be hurt either way, Erends mind told him, just say what they want to hear and maybe it’ll be less. So as much as he wanted to keep his mouth shut, the prospect of possibly hurting less won out in the end. “Sl..a..ve...” Erend managed to murmur through bruised and bloodied lips, his throat was so raw from screaming he didn’t even recognize himself.

Arrok laughed and looked up at the other man who alco chuckled. “Well, well, maybe it won’t be so hard to break you down after all. If you’re so willing to accept your newfound enslavement, then you shouldn’t mind being marked.”

His stomach dropped and his heart felt like it stopped beating, or maybe it started beating too much he couldn’t tell. He opened his eyes, it was easier this time but he still couldn’t look at the forge directly, he saw the man in the back walk forward with something in his hand. Arrok took the object from the man and brought it closer to Erend, it was then the Oseram man realized what it was. He felt his entire body tremble in terror as the realization of what would happen dawned upon him.

It was a burning poker, no, a piece of metal it was shaped like something. He tried to crawl back as it neared him, but his bonds, exhaustion and other injuries made it impossible to do anything other than pathetically squirm on the table.

Arrok played with him and casually swung the glowing brand back and forth. The hot metal brushed against his stomach leaving a large angry burn that soon grew into a raised blister, Erend moaned in response, he still couldn’t get a good look at the shape of the white-hot metal so he shut his eyes and tried to block out the pain. Arrok smiled and swung it again, carefully, this time brushing against Erends ribcage harder, almost knocking into him with the metal. It was like he swiped his melting skin away with the heat, Erend cried harder and tried to close his jaw or bite his tongue, anything to distract him from screaming he didn’t want to cry or act weak, but he couldn’t take it anymore.

Erend felt the heat hover above his chest for a moment, it was so much heat, it felt like it was breaching his neck and arm. He opened his eyes but never managed to make out what the metal was shaped as before it was pressed into his chest right above his heart. He couldn’t stop the ear numbing screaming that came from him after that, the burn hurt so much, it felt like his entire body was igniting into flame. It lasted forever, pressed into him, melting his skin and causing irreversible damage to his body. The smell of burned flesh reached his nose and he felt like vomiting as the smoke made his eyes water and thick tears fall, or maybe that was because of the pain. He had no idea anymore; everything was a nightmare.

“There you go,” Arrok said as he peeled the now dull red brand away from Erends body, he examined the wound almost hungrily, running his rough fingers over the abused and raw flesh, Erend cried out louder unable to stop himself even if he tried. “Now you’re mine, boy.” He chucked exposing his disgusting teeth and walked back to the hot coals throwing the brand back in. He began exchanging words with the other man but Erend couldn’t be bothered to pay attention, the pain was overwhelming and the knowledge of what just happened to him was horrifying.

As he grew accustomed to the searing pain he tried to look down, but the collar around his neck was too thick, he couldn't see well below it or tilt his head in any direction. But he could just see in the edge of his blurry and dark vison nothing but dark red burns across the left side of his chest. A sob escaped his mouth and his closed his eyes, maybe this was the end for him, no one was coming.

He felt the familiar rag get placed over his mouth, he didn’t try and fight, he wanted to pass out and just sleep until death or his next bought of torture came. But he noticed as he willingly inhaled, it smelled slightly different, his eyes widened as he felt his heart begin to beat faster. His eyes grew wider as everything became brighter, the world around him grew and morphed before his eyes and the pain in his chest took over his entire body.

“He sleeps too much,” Arrok said disdainfully as he and the other man stalked out of the dungeon leaving Erend on the table afraid of invisible demons as he writhed in pain that was all too real. His voice was too broken to scream anymore and when he tried all he did was spit up blood.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t sleep even if he wanted to, he was so awake it was mind numbing, he felt everything tenfold. Any light blinded him, he couldn’t look to his left because the red coals left in the fire, they hurt his eyes so much they watered and he couldn’t stand to open them for a long while. Even the small rays of sun that glimmered through the few vents in the ceiling made him shut his eyes in pain. He couldn’t speak due to his damaged vocal cords; he could barely see through his swollen and beaten eyes not to mention the light sensitivity. He was too wired with whatever drug they gave him but not drugged enough to hallucinate and see visons anymore, it felt like he was just far too drunk now, like he would throw up any second.

He just wanted to see Ersa again or Aloy, even if they were bereding him and telling him how often he messed up at least they would be here with him, comforting him so he wasn’t alone. He didn’t want to be alone here strapped to this table anymore. He was so close to giving up, why hadn’t anyone come for him yet? Once again, he wondered how long he had been missing, time was so confusing, he couldn’t see the sun set or rise. He was unconscious so often and every time he woke up he had no idea if he was passed out for ten minutes or five hours.

A chill ran over his body as he laid still despite the coals burning only feet from him. He was so cold, from the dungeon atmosphere or maybe the torture he wasn’t sure, but it was just one more thing making his current existence a nightmare. He tried to move against the restraints but it was futile, he didn’t know what to do other than lay there and suffer and wait for his captor to return, but when he did Erend knew it would only bring more pain.

Heavy footsteps came from his right and he knew what that meant, he held his breath and waited for the pain he knew would come.

“Feeling better today?” He came up beside him. “More compliant?”

Erend was quiet, he didn’t even open his eyes.

“Answer me.” Arrok commanded slamming his fist down on the table beside Erend who flinched violently. “Or I’ll heat that fire back up and brand every inch of your skin.” He said glaring down at Erend.

He opened his eyes and tried to swallow but it was so painful, his throat was swollen and now with the collar tight around his neck it was getting rubbed raw on the outside too. He opened his mouth a few times unable to talk.

Arrok bent down close and examined Erends vain attempts at speaking, it wasn’t anymore more than hoarse squeaks. The slaver began laughing. “Did you lose your voice?” He grabbed the vanguard under the chin roughly and held it so he had to look him in the eye. “That’s good, I’ve been getting tired of your howling. Shame I never got to hear you beg properly though, but that’s fine, I’d rather have a mute slave than a dead one.”

Then he began undoing Erends bonds to the younger man's extreme confusion. After a short moment every limb was free and the collar was unlatched from the table, it remained around his neck though. Erend laid on the table, terrified, confused and mute.

“Go back,” Arrok said pointing to the corner of the room.

Erend barley managed to move his head and eyes to look in the direction he was pointing, it was at the open door of a dirty and wet cell.

He shamed himself when his first thought was that he didn’t know if he had the strength to even get off the table and make it to his confinement, and not a defiant no.

“Get in your cell, or I’m going to pry your eye out with a hot poker, you don’t need both, boy. Now move!” His voice boomed.

Erend whimpered silently and slowly slid his body off the table limb by limb, it was so hard and so slow going. Arrok was watching him with a sickening expression on his face, he was enjoying watching him suffer and struggle. Soon enough all of his weight was over the edge, starting with his feet first, his body tumbled down to the ground. The impact was like a thousand needles slamming into him at once, he opened his mouth and let out an animalistic whine, it was all he could do.

“Crawl,” Arrok growled down giving him a solid kick to Erends side.

His body curled in on itself after the blow regardless if he wanted to or not, his breath shuddering and body visibly trembling. It wasn’t a hard kick by any means but there wasn’t a part of him that wasn’t bruised, broken or fractured so even the smallest touch or movement hurt.

Displeased by Erends lack of so far success Arrok moved to the fire and turned up the heat with the turn of a nob. As soon as Erend felt the temperature rise around him and the heat roar he tried to push himself forward. He didn’t want to start losing body parts, especially not his eye first via a burning poker.

Slowly he pulled himself along the ground, doing his best to keep his badly burned upper body from touching the ground. He was only mildly successful, the small burns on his lower abdomen scraped against the ground, opening any blisters or scabbing that had appeared since he received them. He managed to only touch his brand mark to the ground once, he laid there for as long as he dared resting after he did so... The pain was so intense he thought he was going to black out.

But the touch of a hot poker to the bottom on his foot made him cringe away qnd exploded his entire body in pain. He was forced to move the last remaining feet to his on personal dungeon cell.

“That’s right,” Arrok cooed as Erends body collapsed to the ground inside the cell, his breathing labored and halting. “You see, things are already getting easier, I’ll have some men bring water down for you, you’ve earned it today. You went back to your cage all by yourself like a good boy. Cooperation earns rewards.” He sneered walking over to Erend, he touched his face and Erend tried to pull away but he grabbed him tightly by the chin so he couldn’t turn away. “Cooperate with me, boy, and it won’t get worse.” He then threw his head hard to the ground and walked away shutting the door loudly behind him and locking it with the master key he kept on his belt.

Erend laid there unmoving, they didn’t bind him this time, maybe they figured he was too weak to do anything to them. They were right. The crawl to the – well it was his cell, was arduous and painful. The time spent on the hard slab while he struggled didn’t help his still shredded back. Several of the bad lashes had broken open and started bleeding again, the various small burns he endured while he was tortured had long since broken open from his struggle and oozed blood and puss already growing infection from the harsh environment. He wondered if they would try and heal him again, he hoped not, he just wanted to close his eyes and never open them again.

But what about Aloy? The thought persisted in his mind, she’s out there somewhere.

‘But she sent you here,’ his inner monologue argued with himself.

That’s a lie! He screamed in his mind unable to do so verbally, instead a small whine escaped his lips.

‘You saw it happen, you were taken away, Avad said you weren’t good enough.’ He could almost see a shadow figure pace around his cell arguing with him.

No, that’s not real.

‘Isn’t it? Look where you are? Do you really think you got ambushed and taken? Sure, maybe on your own you can’t do much, but you had almost a dozen vanguards by your side. There’s no way they would have lost that fight, unless they let you be lost. Unless Avad told them to lose you.’

No they didn’t, Erend argued back and brought his hands up to his head digging his nails into his scalp, he felt like he was going insane.

‘You are insane,’ the voice simply said. ‘And they did abandon you. That’s why Aloy isn’t coming and that’s why Varic was allowed to leave. How much time do you think has passed? Don’t you understand it’s been too long, or is your mind to lost to whatever drug they’re giving you to remember what time is anymore?’ The evil voice jeered in his mind.

I can’t see the sun or the stars, I can’t tell. Erend argued to his mind.

‘That’s right, because you’re constantly in a drug induced stupor. Last time you even inhaled that rag like it was your last breath. You’re starting to like it, you need it now, admit it.’

No, he tried to retort but he felt like his own thoughts were getting washed away in the evil ones. His shoulders began to shake and he silently wept.

‘You can feel the dependance, it’s okay, sleeping or being too insane to remember is better than actually living through it, right?’

He shook his head despite the pain. All he could think in response to the mocking tone was to start thinking ‘no’ over and over again to try and force the voice out of his mind. He knew there were worse fates, but the more he thought about it the more he realized his would soon become the worst he could imagine.

His cell door opened after a time and a man walked in, Erend didn’t look up at him, he only tried to push himself away from the stranger. Though he hardly managed to move a few inches, not only did he lack the strength but now his whole body was stiff and going numb from not being active for so long and laying in such an odd position.

The man seemed to find his fear amusing and fake lunged at him only to stop suddenly, only moving a foot or so. He laughed when Erend ducked his head down and covered his face, whimpering in his broken voice.

“You even sound like an animal,” the man chortled as he dropped a water skin to the ground in front of Erend who flinched at even that movement. He laughed again, shaking his head and left the cell closing it hard behind him.

He was still for as long as he could stand it before he slowly and shakily reached out a hand toward the water skin. He was so thirsty; he didn’t care what they might have spiked it with. After an agonizingly long time his fingertips managed to brush the leather, his chest was lying flat on the ground now, his burn was pounding with his heartbeat against the cold stone.

A couple more inches and he was able to loop one of his fingers around the strap, it felt so heavy but he could tell it wasn’t even half full. He dragged it closer and used his other hand to open the stopper on it. At first he couldn’t do it and all hope at getting something to drink was lost, but then he felt the cap give way and he was able to lift it to his mouth.

The water tasted rancid; it burned his tongue more than any alcohol ever did. He swallowed it because he was so desperate, but he hesitated before taking another gulp. Not only did he feel his stomach revolt at the sudden incoming of anything in days, but the taste was almost impossible for him to stomach.

He tipped the water from the skin and even in the dark with the distant torch light he could see the water was tinted another color. He went to drop it so the foul liquid ran onto the ground, but he hesitated. He was so thirsty, he was already drugged, what was the difference?

I don’t care, he thought as he put the skin to his mouth once more and drank another gulp of the liquid that couldn’t be described as water anymore.

Within minutes his vision swam and he felt like he was floating. He just laid there concentrating on every ounce of his pain as he stared unseeingly at the ceiling, the small metal grate above his head not even letting the smallest ray of through. It must have been nighttime.

As he stared at the ceiling, he saw movement around the grate, he focused on it through half opened and blurry eyes. He was getting so used to seeing shadow monsters invade his vison he didn’t even react anymore; he was just so tired of fighting them. The grate seemed to open and he saw a black figure slip through and he could see the open sky above him. He didn’t care about the invisible creature anymore; he was seeing the sky for the first time in what felt like forever.

“Erend?”

Was that him? Yes. That was his name, he concluded as he continued to look at the midnight blue sky in a glazed stare. He hadn’t heard anyone use his name in a while.

“Erend, please.”

A hand touched his arm and he pulled away tearing his eyes from the sky and shrinking his body away from the touch. Was it real? He couldn’t tell. He tried to use what little strength he had to cover himself. He tried to beg the figure not to hurt him but all he could manage were shattered gasps. He couldn't take any more pain he would do whatever they said, he just didn’t want any more pain.

“No, I’m sorry,” the voice seemed to break into a gentle sob. “Erend please, its Aloy. Look at me.”

Aloy. It wasn’t Aloy, she wasn’t coming and she wasn’t here. This was fake, it was a trick. No one was coming. He shook his head back and forth, but it probably came across more as a tremble.

“Yes, it's me. Look, I can’t get you out now, I need to get reinforcements. Varic is on his way to Free Heep to get help from Petra and the other Oseram. Just hang on a little longer, I promise we are here, we just have to get you out.” She reached into her satchel and pulled out a water skin, it wasn’t the same as the one she saw on the ground next to him, but she hoped it was a close enough match to fool his captors. She took the one they gave him and replaced her own, she sniffed the mouth of the enemy's container and winced. It was defiantly spiked with machine oil, she knew that smell anywhere. “Just keep fighting, Erend. The water I gave you has medicine.”

In the distance they heard a cell door unlock and open, she began speaking extra quietly and with haste. “Please drink it. I have to go I can’t stay, Erend, please just keep fighting.” There was speaking in the distance, she looked over her shoulder at the noise for a second before looking back at Erend and uttering three desperate last words. “I love you.” She launched herself to the ceiling and climbing out the small opening she crawled inside through within seconds. The grate was replaced and his view of the sky and the woman he loved was gone.

He never got to see her face, he wasn’t even sure if she was real or another hallucination. But he closed his eyes and let the tears fall, he didn’t want to hallucinate the woman he loved saving him, not after she gave him away to these people. Which in his drugged state he was only beginning to believe more and more.

But fire and spit, he loved her.

Chapter Text

It took them the better part of the day to find the right cave that entered into the compound and even longer for Aloy to climb the cliff face to the top so she had a bird's eye view of the operation, leaving Varic on the ground, hidden and waiting for her. It was a while before she climbed to the top, there were no ropes from previous climbs or convenient handholds for her to grab. They were smart when they picked this location, but they didn’t bet on someone like her.

Finally she reached the top and looked down into the deep ravine. What she saw shocked her, dozens of people in cages, some of them being inspected by who she could only imagine were prospective buyers. She tapped her focus and began to scan for Erend, but she couldn’t see him, was he already gone? Panic began to well up inside her but she pushed it down and moved forward. She climbed down the inside of the ravine was easier than climbing the outside, there were more handholds and places for her to duck into if she saw someone glance up at the sky.

When she was about halfway down her climb and in a safe location she tapped her focus again. This time scanning every corner of the compound that she could see. She was about to tap it off when his figure caught her eye. He wasn’t in the above level; she didn’t realize there were lower levels but then again, she had no idea what she was dealing with at all. He seemed to be laying down on his side, there was another man next to him in the cell who was standing, but it didn't look like Erend was being hurt, at least not at this moment.

The sun was beginning to set, working in her favor since there were more shadows to hide behind. She waited until the next set of slavers left with their purchases, she hated herself for not stopping them, but there were so many bandit slavers she knew even she didn’t stand a chance alone and against them. She only hoped that they could track down all the sold slaves and bring them back to their tribes and families. But she pushed that thought down and reminded her that she was here for one man and one man only right now.

The bandits were beginning to turn into their makeshift homes for the night except for those scheduled to keep watch. She knew she could easily sneak around them, she was practically invisible at night and in her camouflaging armor. She jumped down to the dirt floor and kept her body low as she moved forward to the spot she saw Erends figure pop up on her focus.

She couldn’t figure out how to get down below at first, there was no nearby entrance she could see without giving away her location. She activated her focus once more and examined the area. He was almost right below her, she was hidden against a wall in the darkness contemplating her next move when she saw the small ventilation grate in the ground. It was barley big enough for her body to squeeze through and she had to take off her satchel to fit but it would work. Before jumping she looked down through the bars.

There he was, she felt like she could cry from relief, but the desperate situation she found him in made her want to cry harder. He was laying on his back, his head lolling back and forth, as he stared unseeingly forward directly at her but not seeing her. She noticed the water skin beside him, water slowly dripping from the mouth of it. He needed more water, she thought as she looked around. There had to be one somewhere around here.

It didn’t take long before she spotted one sitting on a nearby table in a small hut that only had a roof and two walls. It was clearly just for the guards to take a break in. The skin on the table was empty but thankfully there was a barrel behind it, she tested it first to make sure but she was able to confirm it was water. She filled the skin and carefully made her way back to the grate sitting in the dirt, she looked down again to see Erend hadn’t moved, didn’t even look like he was blinking. Before she crawled down she pulled some medicinal herbs from her bag, chewed them for a moment before taking the chewed bits and shoving them in the mouth of the water skin. It wasn’t much, but it might help.

Silently she began to inspect the grate and how to remove it from the ground. She had to pull out her spear and dig around the edges a little since it had been so long since it was opened, but she managed after a few quick minutes. She looked down now that the grate was removed, Erend was looking at her but he still made no moved that he registered it. With one last look around she assured herself that there were no guards around her position and she slipped her body into the narrow hole.

She was at his side in seconds, but he continued to stare at the grate, she looked up at it for a second. You could see the night sky practically glowing through the opening and she wondered how long it had been since he saw the sky.

“Erend?” He didn’t move or acknowledge her, was he too far gone? “Erend, please.” She whispered desperately reaching out for him.

This was an incorrect move though, he flinched away so violently she thought for a moment she burned him somehow. He began to attempt to crawl away from her touch, whimpering to himself incoherently and curling his body inward, covering himself.

“No, I’m sorry,” her voice broke as tears began to fall down her cheeks. “Erend, please, its Aloy. Look at me.”

He began to tremble which she soon realized was a jolty shake of his head. He was in such bad shape, she could see different colored bruises littering his body, blood covered him, and there was something on his chest she couldn’t make out in the darkness. She prayed it wasn’t lifelong damage.

He didn't believe her words, he didn’t believe she was actually here, she realized. “Yes,” she said firmly,, pushing back the sobs. She knew that her time with him was limited and even if she was able to get him out with the constant guard presence, she knew she wouldn’t be able to carry him. “Look, I can’t get you out now, I need to get reinforcements. Varic is on his way to Free Heep to get help from Petra and the other Oseram. Just hang on a little longer, I promise we are here, we just have to get you out.” It was a lie about Varic, but she figured he needed some hope to hold onto, and the moment she saw the other vanguard she planned on getting him a mout and sending him to Free Heep anyway. If he rode a mount the whole way and ran he’d be there in no time to get help and hopefully Petra would send her fastest warriors with him back. They needed help now.

He didn’t seem to respond to her words, so she reached out and took the nearly empty water skin. She could smell it immediately when she picked it up and cursed inwardly. She sniffed the opening to the container and her fears were confirmed. It was water laced with machine oil, that’s why Erend was acting strange, he was hopped up on the oil making him act crazy. She had seen the damage this stuff did first hand and she hoped he wasn’t too far gone to be saved.

“Just keep fighting, Erend. The water I gave you has medicine.”

There was a loud bang behind her, deeper in the cell. She turned around quickly to look, not seeing anyone yet but knowing her time was limited. “Please drink it,” she said beginning to back away from him. “I have to go, I can’t stay Erend, please just keep fighting.”

She rushed to the wall where she could easily hoist herself up and vault herself through the opening above them. She looked at his broken form one last time, suppressing a sob in the back of her throat she opened her mouth for the last words she would say to him before she returned for the real rescue with Varic and hopefully other Free Heep citizens in tow.

“I love you.”

Then she was gone.

Chapter Text

Aloy had to hold back tears as she repelled down the side of the uneven cliffs and back to where she left Varic behind. The jolt she got when she landed caused several unshed droplets to falls from her eyes. She quickly wiped them away before she turned around to face him and before he could even ask what she found, she began.

“He’s not in good condition,” she could hear the tremor in her own voice “He’s hurt and drugged.”

“They drugged both of us when they captured us, then they gave it to Erend again after he didn’t cooperate.” Varic sighed sadly.

“Well, they’ve continued to give it to him, and...” she trailed off, uncertain if she should tell Varic what she knew about the machine oil or if the Oseram knew the effects.

“What?” Varic prompted.

“They... They’re giving him machine oil, mixed in his water, and I bet that’s what they were making him inhale too.” Aloy said. “I’ve seen the side effects from too much, they’re not... good.”

Varic nodded. “I’ve heard of people who get hooked on the stuff, they end up insane and wandering the Claim.”

So they both knew the repercussions of too much machine oil. “You have to go back, we need more people to end this.” She said resolutely.

Varics expression darkened. “Go back? I’m not going back without Erend, he’s like a little brother to me. I lost Ersa I can’t lose both of them, I have to get him out!” Aloy was silenced by his words, he didn’t express much of his worry vocally, let alone sound like he was moments from breaking down into sobs. But he composed himself after a moment and continued on. “We sneak in, we sneak out, Aloy. This place isn’t a fortress it’s a trading post,” he spat. “I bet they have multiple entrances-”

“This has nothing to do with if we can sneak in or fight our way in, I agree, we can find ways in. I already did. I’m saying this place needs to be taken down as soon as possible. We need an army to liberate those people, we can’t get them all out just the two of us.”

Varic paused for a moment, his mind had been so wrapped up in getting Erend out safely he hadn’t considered the other people trapped in there with him could be sold any day now, or any hour. “You’re right,” he said sighing. “Free Heep isn’t far, but will you be going in for him alone? You can’t carry him on your own.”

She shook her head, no she couldn’t lift him let him alone get him out of whatever small passage she would find inside. “No, but I’ll find the best way to get him out, I’m comb the area.”

“Don’t go back in.” He said to her as he awkwardly mounted the broadhead. He had only done this once before and he didn’t like it then, and now that he wasn’t in the best of shape himself he hated it even more. “I don’t want to risk you getting captured, or possibly worse, seen. We don’t need them to know we’re onto them.”

She nodded, “I understand the risks, I won’t go back in.” She was pretty sure this was a lie. Of course, she knew what might happen if she ventured back inside the compound but she was quick and silent when she moved and if she found the right opening she could sneak in unnoticed. She could see where her enemies stood through walls, she would know exactly where to go and where to avoid. She felt as though Varic was underestimating her, even with the possible risks there was no way she could get caught.

He glared for a moment. “You can explore the passages you find to make sure they're not a dead ends but please, Aloy, don’t go inside without someone to back you up. We can't risk him getting more hurt.”

She sighed, she couldn't argue with that. “I won’t.” she said again, this time more convincing and truthful.

“Alright, hopefully I’ll be back shortly, how fast do these things go?” He actually sounded quite nervous.

“Just kick it to make it go and pull back on the horns,” she demonstrated reaching up to the machine. “To make it go slow, you’ll be fine, just don’t stop.”

“I don’t plan on it.”

She smacked the backside of the broadhead hard letting it charge off, she gave a small wave to Varic before turning around to gaze up the side of the mountain. She was too far away to see Erend through her focus and she hated that, she wanted to see him even if she couldn’t actually be beside him. She needed to know he was still holding on and what was happening to him. It couldn’t be too hard to find him, he had to be somewhat level to her in the cell he was being held. When you were inside the compound it had the appearance of being underground, but it was really just built into the deepest parts of the caves inside the rocks.

There must be other ways to get in and out, secret passages in case of an attack or even some sort of water run off that was big enough for her to squeeze through, she just had to find one. She tapped her focus and began combing the bottom of the cliffs for any sign that someone had come from seemingly inside the rock.

The sun traveled across the sky as she examined the ground and surrounding rocks, slowly making her way up the side of the cliff being mindful for anyone nearby, she didn’t need to be seen now scaling the side of the cliff. How would that go, she wondered, if she was seen? They wouldn’t know she was related to Erends rescue or the camps liberation. But then again, would they? She was well known, even if they didn’t know her face the red hair was a dead giveaway. They’d know who she was and that she had connections to the vanguard they kept prisoner.

She needed to stay out of sight.

“Aloy!”

Her eyes widened, so much for that. But she knew that voice, even reverberating and distorted as it echoed over the rocks. She positioned her footing so that she could balance herself and turned to look down at the newcomer. Her stomach gave a little flip, she didn’t realize she had gotten so far up, even after all this time of climbing when it was unexpected it still made her heart jump.

There, maybe a hundred yards away down the cliff and off into the plains a little bit was Talanah, running almost full speed in her direction, her pony tail whipping behind her.

Shock gripped Aloy and she found herself abandoning her search and quickly making her way back down the rocks. She jumped down to the bottom a little more haphazardly than she normally would have and found herself tripping slightly, but she ran across the hardened sandstone nonetheless to meet her friend.

“Talanah! What are you doing here? H-how...?” She didn’t quite know what to ask, she was sure the word had gotten out that Erend and Varic were missing and other vanguard found dead. But how did she find them here, and so fast?

The other woman smiled in relief, she was so grateful to see Aloy, it meant half her hunt was over. “I’ve been scouting the area for days looking for signs of anything, then I found your furs abandoned at the base of a mountain near Free Heep, after that I saw someone riding a broadhead toward the encampment. I could see it wasn't you, but I figured there was no one else who could have commanded that machine. Who was that?”

"It was Varic."

Talanahs eyes widened in surprise. "Varic! He's alright? What about Erend?"

“You know what's happening?”

Talanah nodded her head. “The vanguards went missing when they went out on some scouting mission, I don’t know. The other soldiers went out to look and they came back with dead bodies and two missing men. I had to do something, Erend is my friend, I knew you left the city and you're our best tracker... I had to do something,” she repeated losing her train of thought for a moment before catching Aloy’s eye. “I was hoping I’d find you along the way.”

“You did, that’s good, because Varic and I found him.”

“You found him!?” Talanah exclaimed. “Well, where is he? Why is Varic riding a broadhead to Free Heep? What happened?”

Aloy pointed toward the giant mound of rocks. “I'll explain everything, but Erend is in there, its slave camp and as far as I know he’s still inside. He's in chains trapped in the lower dungeons wounded, and drugged, we have to get him out.” Aloy finished suppressing tears from pooling in her eyes, she didn’t want to cry in front of Talanah.

But the hunter seemed to understand anyway, she placed a comforting hand on Aloys shoulder and pulled her into a half hug, they both observed the cliffs for a moment. “Have you found a way in yet?” Talanah asked quietly.

“Only from above, and we can’t get him out that way. I’ve been searching for an alternate way in for hours now.”

“Then let me help you cut that time in half, two trackers are better than one.” She smiled reassuringly and the two women immediately began the search. Aloy felt a newly refreshed wave of confidence wash over her, maybe if they found the right way in they could both go together and pull Erend out without having to wait for Varic to come back. Erend couldn’t wait any longer as far as Aloy was concerned.

Chapter Text

It took hours, but they found a way in through a small cavern where a stream of faintly off-colored water trickled from. The passage lead them into winding underground chambers where most of the run off went to, it was disgusting down there, filled with human waste blood and the occasional body. As gruesome as it was, that meant there was a way out if there was a way to throw bodies down, and sure enough they found it after wading through the foul water.

There was a hatch, thankfully unlocked and after Aloy carefully checked to make sure no one but possible prisoners were above them, they pushed the meager wooden door open on its squeaking hinges, carefully placing it back down on the ground behind them trying to make as little noise as possible. The smell was overwhelming, it was nothing but death and decay. Aloy didn’t remember it being this bad the first time she was here, maybe the adrenaline after finally finding Erend helped her ignore it, but now, it was overwhelming.

She wasn’t sure where they were exactly, so she tapped her focus and searched for Erends figure. There weren’t many things down here to pick up so after spotting a dozen or so rats and four or five other prisoners she found him.

“This way,” she whispered and they hurried along one of the paths that quickly widened out into a larger room after only a couple dozen yards. This room was also dark, but in the center there was a forge and a long table, the forge was still radiating slight heat but no more light from the coals. The only light in the room was a dim lantern hanging above the table, the light inside was only faintly flickering. As they passed the table she noticed the various straps, it was too dark to make anything else out, she reached out and touched the table. It was sticky with something, she whipped it off on her pants leg.

“Aloy?” Talanah whispered pulling Aloy from her thoughts.

“Sorry,” she replied quietly and they continued on turning there gaze away from the other prisoners they passed, Varic would save them when he liberated the compound later, they has their own goal. Erend was close now, just one more corner and there he would be, according to her focus he was on his back, staring up at the sky and unmoving. She wondered if he was unconscious or just in too much pain to move, or possibly too drugged to even know what was happening. If they had better light she was sure she would be able to see him by now with just her human eyes, but the darkness prevented that.

They reached the cell door and could just barley make out his prone form. They tried the door; it was as they figured, locked.

“We need a key,” Talanah said beginning to squint around the room looking closely for keys that could be hanging on a nail somewhere or possibly on a table.

“Erend? Erend wake up, we’re here, we’re getting you out.” Aloy whispered thinking they could worry about a key later, she just needed him to move or speak, something.

His entire body was numb, he felt like he was floating and it wasn’t from the drugs, he could tell he was coming down from the last dose they gave him. He barley heard the words when they were spoken to him, his mind was still a haze and he was blocking out most of his surroundings. But he still heard her voice, her angelic voice here in this hell and somehow it didn’t sound like most the hallucinations that spoke to him, they all seemed... brighter, more vibrant.

He tried to open his stuck, blurry eyes, but the pain was so intense from the bruising and whatever head injuries he obtained he shut them immediately, but not after seeing two shadow figures standing in the doorway of his cell. They were back to torture him, he knew it. He could hear words being spoken, but his brain was still to confused and frazzled to make out exactly what was being said.

“No, Erend, open your eyes.”

“Aloy I don’t know about this, maybe we should wait until-”

“No! I can’t leave him here!” Her tone remained hushed but urgent now. “We found a way, we just need to get him through, its safe I promise.” As if on cue there was a loud bang and from somewhere in the distance a heavy door opened.

“You were saying?” Talanah said and the two women quickly and quietly took cover as heavy boots sounded closer and closer, soon followed by a torchlight. The man's features were hard to distinguish, but it was clear he was one of the slavers, he immediately made his way toward Erends cell and Aloy tensed, ready to kill the man the moment he opened the door, which she prayed he would do.

“Ready for some fresh air, scum? Arrok says he wants you back hanging from the whipping pole, did you miss that?” The man sneared in a cruel laugh, Aloys fingers went white as she gripped the beam next to her. “Don’t worry you’re pretty little head,” he pulled a ring of keys out of his pocket, Aloy waited. “I’ll have the shard tipped one waiting, your favorite, I’ve even added a few more just for you.” He picked out the correct key and inserted it into the lock. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by Aloys spear stabbing him through the back and up into his chest cavity. The man gurgled and she eased his dying body to the floor, the keys were still in the lock.

The women didn’t even pay the body any further mind, immediately they were at the door to the cell, pushing it open.

Erend listened to the words carefully, still unsure what to believe and still too terrified to move.

“Erend, we’re here,” Aloy tried to touch him and unfortunately it was fear that made him finally move and flinch away. He tried to crawl backwards into the cell, but he could hardly move his broken body. Despite everything, he opened his eyes again this time ignoring the sharp pain and looked up fearfully at the two figures above him, half expecting to be hit for daring to make eye contact.

But instead, he was met with kind words, he was sure they were still false though, just his own mind making up what he wanted to hear. “There you go, it's us, its Aloy and Talanah.” The figure above him said gently as they touched his cheek, he flinched away again and cried, silenced by his damaged vocal cords. But this time it wasn’t so desperate, maybe this rescue was real, he thought. What were the chances of that?

“We need to get him back to Free Heep.” The voice continued. It did sound an awful lot like Aloy...

“We have to get him out of here first.” The second voice followed, they were both feminine, that he could tell for sure.

He blinked up at the figures and tried to pull away again, he was so confused.

“Erend, its us, you have to trust us.”

He shook his head causing waves of pain to flood his upper body. He couldn’t trust them, what if this was just another hallucination or another trap meant to trick him? They'd whip him, brand him again, do the worst things imaginable, they threatened it all. He just wanted all the pain to stop, he’d do anything to make it finally stop.

“Erend look at me.”

He’d do anything to make it stop, so he lifted his gaze.

“There you are.” Those green eyes, so familiar, like nothing the hallucinations could conjure up. They were so genuine... so real. “I see you.” the voice with the green eyes whispered as red hair came into view and his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim lighting from the discarded torch on the ground.

He wanted to speak her name, he didn’t care if it was a hallucination, he just wanted her. “Aloy.” He tried to say but his voice was so weak and damaged, no real words came out.

“You have to come with us, I know you can’t walk, we can support you. You’re going to be safe.” Aloy carefully said as she caught eyes with the injured man.

He was barley registering the words, everything sounded and looked like he was under water.

“Let's go.” One of the voices said.

“He doesn’t have shackles?” The other asked as they lifted his upper body off the ground, he opened his mouth to let out a cry of pain but nothing came out, only his face showed the pain when it contorted in agony and due to the dim lighting, they didn’t see.

“He didn’t last time I was here either, I think they’re convinced he’s too weak to escape.”

There was a short pause. “He is... but he has us.”

There was another loud bang in the darkness outside of the cell and both figures froze, Erends heart skipped a beat, he knew that sound all too well, now that he was awake enough to hear it properly, that was the noise that usually preluded his torture. He shut his eyes and waited for the pain to come.

Talanah and Aloy exchanged glances and began to drag him as fast as they could through the dank corridor. It was still a ways until they reached the opening that lead into the disgusting passage out, but at the very least they could ambush this man like they did the last. The footsteps came closer, light began to flood the wet stone around them illuminating them in a dim firelight.

He felt himself get lowered to the ground, unable to move more than a few inches on his own he laid there waiting to get taken back to the whipping pole or whatever was going to happen now.

“Get ready,” someone whispered above him.

The torch light paused, there wasn’t a verbal reaction, but they could see how tense the firelight became.

“If he gets in my sights, I got him,” the whisper was so quite he wasn’t sure he heard it at first.

There was a deathly long silence, the torch didn’t move, but Aloy knew their target had. He was trying to hunt them, but little did he know that did no good for someone who could see him no matter what he hid behind. But unfortunately for them due to Erends condition they couldn’t move and evade him so it was only a matter of time before they were engaged in a fight. Aloy just hoped she got the chance to kill him silently before he spotted them hiding behind their wall.

He was getting close and Aloy realized they had been dragging Erends feet. Not only did they leave solid tracks along the muddy rock floor, but he was also still bleeding from some of his wounds. The man probably knew exactly where they were and possibly where they were headed. But that was ok, she still knew where he was and he didn’t know that.

Erend didn’t know what was happening, but the movement had caused so much aggravation to his injuries he could feel his consciousness slipping away. But for the first time in a while he wasn’t sure he wanted to. The impending punishment for the escape attempt was coming, he knew that, but what about those trying to save him? Who were they? Was this another trap or was it real?

The sound of metal clanking together along with a cry sounded around him, his vison was too bleary to see. The darkness began to take over his already limited sight, his hearing was fading, everything was going dim. He existed in a moment of numb, silent blackness before unconsciousness overtook him.

Chapter Text

Pain, that’s all he ever managed to feel anymore. Pain, loneliness, emptiness... that was his life now. Every movement made him to want to scream, but he couldn't even do that anymore.

But something about his current state was different than before, it was probably another hallucination, he had no idea how vivid they had the potential of being. He liked this hallucination though, he was comfortable and for the first time, in however long, was laying in a soft bed. He wasn’t strung up by his wrists or laying on a cold, wet stone floor shivering until he fell asleep.

He didn’t want this to end, he wanted to stay in this dream forever and before he even opened his eyes he felt tears begin to form in them. He didn’t want to go back to the pain and the darkness, it was too much, he wasn’t going to make it much longer. He was breaking, he was broken, he wanted everything to end.

“Erend?” A foreign voice above him asked. “He’s waking, fetch Aloy.”

“I’m here!” A frantic voice cried in the distance and he thought he heard the distinct noise of a tent flap. This was the most detailed hallucination he’s had yet. But he still dared not open his eyes in fear of seeing the cell that became his home.

“He’s beginning to wake up, but he hasn’t opened his eyes yet.”

He felt someone touch his hand and he instantly tried to jerk away, pain rippled through him, he regretted the movement and hated that he couldn’t control the reaction. He squeezed his eyes tighter, one of them hurt more than the other and it felt swollen, he probably couldn’t open it anyway.

“Erend, its Aloy,” a gently voice spoke to him.

No, it's not, he told himself, it’s a trap. Fall for it and you’ll be whipped again.

The memory of hanging from the whipping pole surfaced in his mind, and despite trying to open his eyes to escape the assault of memories all he could see were flashes of the punishment. Some from third person, watching himself scream while the whip bit into his skin over and over. He watched his face contort in pain and horror in slow motion. Some of them were what he remembered, pressing his face into the pole as tears streamed down his cheeks, ignoring the splinters stabbing into his skin.

“Erend? Erend? Look at me.”

He kept his eyes shut and shook his head, he didn’t want to go back and sit in the hot sun while blood dripped down his back... while people walked by and spat on him, laughed at him and taunted him.

“Erend please, you’re safe.” She sounded like she was beginning to cry.

Something in his brain clicked, he couldn’t hear Aloy cry, hallucination or not. If this was how his brain was going to trick him then so be it. He opened his watery eyes, only one of them obeyed, heavy tears fell from them soaking into the blankets beneath him. He was leaning forward in the bed, he must have sat up in his panic, his rib cage was on fire. But he ignored it and focused on the foggy haze of beautiful red hair in front of him. She seemed so real even with his blurry vision.

“Aloy?” He whispered, he didn’t care that it was fake, he needed her comfort. He needed her to make everything better, even if it was all in his head and at any given time he would wake up strapped to a metal slab ready to be burned again.

No sound came from him, but she knew her name when he said it. “Yes, it’s me, you’re safe. We have you.”

No, that wasn’t possible. He gazed around the room with his good eye, he got dizzy quickly but he was in some sort of building. Oseram built and occupied by the looks of it, where was he? He couldn’t really be out of there; he was so skeptical. He looked back at Aloy fearfully, waiting any second for her to dissolve into an ugly slaver ready to torture him.

He shook his head at her and shut his eye, now willing himself to be back. This wasn’t real, he wasn’t free. He had to go back; he couldn’t sit here in this false paradise anymore. He needed to go back to his reality, this false sense of security was a whole new torture he wasn’t prepared for.

He felt a hand on him again and he pulled away, but this time the grip stayed strong. It was a calloused hand, but small, he knew it well. But it couldn’t be her, he couldn’t be safe. He had been so conditioned to believe otherwise.

Why can’t you be safe? His mind argued back. Maybe they did find you.

It’s not possible, they left me there, they don’t want me back, Erend told himself.

That’s not the truth, a rational voice in his head said.

Slowly he opened his eye again and squinting at the light, looked at the woman in front of him. It was her, Aloy, the light was dim casting dark shadows across the room probably because of him, so he could sleep in peace. But he could see her, she was brilliant and the most wonderful thing he had seen since he woke up bound and gagged in a cell.

She smiled at him and moved closer, gently she wrapped her arms around him, barley applying pressure and ignoring him when he tensed so much he thought he might pop a blood vessel. But she laid on top of him, allowing him to gently fall back into the pillows behind him. She was supporting her own weight, holding him in her arms, and crying quietly.

This was the worst torture of all, out of anything he faced watching her cry was terrible. He hated this hallucination. He opened his mouth, he wanted to speak to her but no words came out. His voice was gone, he damaged it from his screams, he remembered when it broke. It was when they branded him, he felt the tightness in his chest even though the thick bandage covered it, he didn’t imagine that. It was there. He shuddered and felt a sob rise in his own chest as the memory assaulted him. He didn’t want to see the damage they did.

His body tightened and he reached up with weak hands, in a grip that couldn’t rival an infant, and grabbed her arms. Holding her as tight as he could, he silently sobbed into her and she into him. He didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but she eventually pulled away, he never let go, he couldn't. If he let go the hallucination might fade away.

“Erend,” she began and another sob hitched in her throat. “Erend, I’m just... I’m just so glad we found you.”

Maybe this was real after all, he mused. He would have to wait and see. He looked down at his body, he was covered in bandages, his chest, across his arms, his hands, everything. Blood was soaking through some of them, but most of them seemed clean. Everything hurt, but it was a dull hurt, like something was trying to numb it.

His body felt a weird itch, and he scolded himself for wishing he could inhale the drug and drop into a painless hallucination. Aloy was here, she was all he needed and if he was right and there was a chance this was real, it meant he was safe. Then again, if this was real that meant that everything that happened to him wasn’t some horrible dream. It was all real, it happened to him, and now he had to face the lifelong consequences.

“It’s been four days since we pulled you out, you’ve been sleeping most of the time. You woke up two times before, do you remember? The healer didn’t think you would. You were pretty out of it; you didn’t know what was happening. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up this time, Talanah was visiting, I have to go back out there eventually and tell her you’re awake, but that can wait. I’m just glad to see you looking at me again. How do you feel?” She was rambling, but he didn’t care or register everything she said, he was just glad to look at her face.

He shook his head.

“They said you hurt your voice, you haven't been able to speak, even when you,” she paused. “When you talk in your sleep.” she quickly said and he had a feeling he was doing something other than simply talking.

He nodded.

“They don’t know if the damage is permanent.”

He stared off into the distance and thought, what was his future without a voice? What was his future now? Could he go back to leading the vanguards? Panic began to well in his chest again, his life was over if this was all real. What if his hands were damaged from being strung up so long and he couldn’t hold a weapon anymore? What good was he?

She must have seen his distress. “Hey, relax, we can worry about everything later. We just need to focus on getting you well enough to travel.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“We’re in Free Heep, we liberated you from the slave camp nearby. You can’t move yet.” She didn’t elaborate on his condition, but he could only imagine what he looked like after all he had been through. What exactly had he been through? He thought he remembered everything, but days were blurred and for all he knew he had days or even weeks missing in his timeline. He began to think about what happened but found he quickly had to stop, he couldn't dissect those memories, not now.

“You’ll be better soon, and I’ll be here the whole time.” Aloy whispered.

No, she couldn’t stay with him, she had to go and be amazing and save the world. She was always out there saving something, she saved him. He blinked up at her and once again hoped this was real. Even if he woke up back in his home in Meridian and realized all this was a dream and he never endured the torture at the hands of the slavers, he couldn’t say he wouldn’t be a little upset he wasn’t laying here right now gazing up at her stunningly beautiful face.

He opened his mouth, he couldn’t talk, and maybe he’d never be able to again but he had to try. “I love you,” he said, his mouth didn’t form the words properly, he was too bruised and weak and all the noise that came out was a dry whine.

But she understood him and she took his battered face in her hands, she leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on his swollen lips. He didn’t return it, he wasn’t expecting it, he was too shocked to comprehend what was happening. It was everything he had ever wanted since the moment he set eyes on her, before he knew she was out of his league and he had no chance with her. But here she was, kissing him while he laid half dead in a tent.

Wait, was that the only reason? Was she only feeling like this because he almost died? He knew people got extra emotional when death was a possibility, as a solider he had seen it before.

She pulled away, she couldn’t hide the mild concern in her face, he didn’t return the kiss. Not that she expected it to be magical and passionate especially in his condition. But it had been her first, their first. He had to think something, maybe he didn’t love her that way. Maybe he said something else, she misunderstood him and this was all a big mess now.

He gazed into her eyes as they hovered inches from his; he didn’t know what to do. He was frozen in place and he could feel the exhaustion beginning to consume him again. He couldn’t fall asleep now, Aloy had kissed him, he needed to grab her back and pull her into a passionate embrace. He wanted to stand up and show her he was strong enough for her no matter what he went through. He needed to shout to the world that the woman of his wildest dreams had accepted him.

But what if when you get better she just runs off again for months at a time? You won’t see her, she’ll find another man, a more suitable man, an adventurer like her.

He hated his brain, all it did was conflict with what he thought, he felt like a crazy man arguing with himself.

He ignored the negative whispers and reached out. With every ounce of strength he could muster he took her arm in his trembling hand. “I love you,” he mouthed again, firmly and clearly.

She bit her lip and nodded. “I love you too,” she replied confident of what he said this time. “And I’m so happy you’re still here with me,” she said watching him closely. His eyes flickered to her lips, he leaned forward as far as he could. She closed the distance between them again and kissed once more, this time he returned it, still shier than he had ever been with a woman in his life. But Aloy wasn’t like any other woman he had ever known.

The kiss was short-lived, she pulled away, his eyelids were heavy.

“Go to sleep,” she instructed, seeing his slow blinks.

He shook his head, afraid to sleep in case this was a dream and he’d wake up back in the cell. This hallucination was really starting to convince him this this was real and he didn’t want to be proven wrong.

She didn’t have to urge him back to sleep, his strength was ebbing away as the moments passed and despite his rising panic, he slowly drifted off into sleep. Aloy watched him and kept his hand in hers, gently moving her thumb in small circles. The tent flap behind her opened again, the healer had left when he woke up and was now returning. Aloy didn’t mind they were being watched during their intimate exchange, emotions were normal even for her, everyone should know that.

“Thank you,” Aloy whispered, last time Erend woke up to strange people in his face he tried to push himself off the bed and crawl away. At the time his injuries were still fresh, he was delirious and the attempted to hold him down. She could only imagine the trauma of being restrained in a strange place after going through what he did.

As the healer began to redress some of the bandages Aloy stood and moved to the tent door, she didn’t want to be in the way. After a moment she moved to look outside and was inches from Talanahs worried face. That's right, they were beginning to have a conversation before she was distracted by Erend waking.

She look a long breath, she probably heard the exchange. “Varic is back from Meridian, he just returned minutes ago, they must have traveled through the night. They have a convoy to take Erend back, but I don’t think he’s well enough to travel yet.”

“No,” Aloy confirmed, though she wanted to talk to the healer about it. “But maybe tomorrow, he seemed lucid today.”

“That doesn’t mean he’s up for the journey.” Talanah said gravely.

“We’ll see what happens tomorrow.” Aloy insisted before heading back into the tent, Talanah followed after a brief pause. She wasn’t going to be stopped from quietly visiting while he slept at the very least.

Chapter Text

Erend laid awake in bed, carefully listening to the conversation outside the stone walled hut, it was muffled but he could just hear them through the open windows and makeshift fabric door. He was pretty sure they thought he was asleep, and he was up until an all too real nightmare jolted him awake. But he didn’t - well, couldn’t- make a noise so Aloy hadn’t been alerted to his rising from her place outside. It only took him a moment before he remembered where he was and what happened, every time it was like someone squeezed at his throat when he recalled the onslaught of memories.

But this time he pushed them away quickly and quietly enough to realize just outside his doorway was Aloy and a healer maybe? He heard other voices too, but they were too quiet for him to make out. His heart was still beating fast from the recent nightmare, but with a slight tremor in his breath he tried leaning forward out of habit to listen better. He had to muffle a gasp when he pulled at the scabbed over wounds that covered his body, now that he was remaining still everything was finally closing up and it made moving agonizing.

“I don’t think he should leave yet.”

“I just want to bring him home.” That was Aloy.

Please let her, Erend thought. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful for the help Petra and the people of Free Heep were giving him, but he wanted to go home. He wanted to lock his door and recover in peace, away from everyone, he even hated Aloy seeing him like this. Especially with his voice gone, he felt helpless.

“His injuries are so severe, and he’s still not free of possible infection, a lot of the damage to his back is only just beginning to close up. It's not a short journey-”

Someone said something.

“That would only increase the travel time, we’d have to move slower.” Aloy mused. “Besides Erend would hate being carted around like that.”

He didn’t know what had been proposed, but he was glad Aloy knew him well enough to vouch for him, he already hated that the word 'cart' was involved. He smiled, and concentrated on evening out his breathing as he waited for her to re-enter the tent as he was sure she would.

“Well, he can’t ride anything yet, all that jostling around isn’t good for him. You could just end up hurting him more, he has to stay, at least one more day, see how tomorrow looks. If there's still no infection and none have opened back up you can go. But I’m sending a letter along stating my grievances, if something happens, I don’t want to be blamed.” The Oseram healer barked.

“You won’t be, we are very thankful for your help.” Aloy said.

"And try and get him to eat something, we need to get him eating again before that becomes its own problem."

There were a few more murmurs.

"This isn't something to be worried about yet, just make sure he eats. I'll leave the appropriate concerns for his next healer, I'm sure they'll agree." They paused. "Just take your journey slow, please, even if it adds another day. You have a convoy of protection and we are going to send you with plenty of provisions."

"Thank you, so much." Aloy said again and he saw her back into the hut and secured the leather fabric door behind her allowing a gap for a breeze of fresh air. he watched her work almost meticulously for a moment, everything she did even the little things were so careful. When she turned around and spotted him gazing up at her from the bed, she gave a little jump and placed a hand over her chest before smiling. “I didn’t realize you were awake, were we being too loud for you?” She moved closer in one swift movement and took his hand.

He gave a light shake of his head, he wished he could speak to her.

“Hopefully we can leave tomorrow, I know I said that yesterday but we just have to make sure you’re up to moving, you know?”

He loved her, but he hated the look she was giving him, that look of utter pity. He nodded and looked away, unable to look at her sorrowful eyes any longer.

She shuffled closer. “Does something hurt?” She stammered for a moment knowing full well that everything hurt.

He shook his head.

“Do you want to try eating again?”

The words he heard outside of the hut rang in his ears and he grimaced. They tried to get him to eat something last night, he had been able to keep down liquids, but the lack of food left his stomach unable to process anything solid without making him sick. He promptly threw up after the smallest amounts.

Another shake of the head, the thought of putting food, liquid or not, in him made his stomach church.

“Erend,” her tone was achingly soft, like she was talking to an infant. “You have to try and eat something; you've hardly eaten in almost two weeks.”

He knew she was trying to help him, but he didn’t want to listen. He didn’t care when he ate last, he wasn’t hungry and he didn’t want to be spoon fed because his hands were too weak to hold even something as small and lightweight as a wooden spoon without the risk of dropping it.

That’s what he was worried about most, his hands, they themselves didn’t have much damage but his wrists were another story. The time he spent strung up, all his weight resting on nothing but his joints, had caused devastating injuries, the skin was practically gone and the wounds were deep. He could move and feel his hands, but they were numb and clumsy almost like he had a thick bag over them when he touched things. He couldn’t imagine wielding his hammer right now, but he also knew he wouldn’t even be able to lift it left alone grip it.

“Erend?”

He must have zoned out he had been doing that a lot since he woke up. What was the point listening to anyone when you couldn't even reply?

“You’re going to recover.” Aloy said firmly, despite his oddly numb hands he felt her grip tighten. He wished he could respond, but the most he could do was gently hold her hand. “No one can hold you down.”

He rolled his eyes best he could, moving them in certain directions gave him a headache. Everyone could hold him down, he thought, that’s why he crumbled at the smallest problem, that’s why he was captured in the first place.

“Hey, stop it,” Aloy scolded but not harshly, it was a loving reprimand accompanied by a soft touch of her hand to his cheek. “You will get better, and you will pick up your hammer, and you will fight for and defend Meridian again.”

He shook his head and held up his hands, they trembled slightly. He looked at them, he tried to convey the desperation in his eyes before meeting hers. Erend shook his head and dropped one, bringing the other halfway to his throat motioning to it, unable to bring it up further without exerting himself. He shook his head again and dropped the hand, he looked away.

Didn’t she understand without these two crucial things he wasn’t worth living anymore? He didn’t have a life. He always figured if he got too wounded to continue - he always figured it would be a bad leg or something but he never claimed to be a fortune teller - he could retire to the forge and become a forgeman. But now? With this? That wasn’t an option. He couldn’t work a forge if he couldn’t hold even a hammer.

Shit. He couldn’t work in the forge if the heat from the coals made him flash back to that table... the collar cutting off his air, the brand coming closer...

He pulled his mind away and concentrated on Aloy, she had been speaking, he felt bad for ignoring her.

“-confirm what they said here, then you can go home.” She offered him a small smile. “I’m sure the healers will want you to stay at the Healing House for a day or so, but then you can go home, for real, I promise.”

If she said anything to comfort him about his voice or his hands, he missed it.

“Varic said Avad wanted to see you when you were well enough for visitors, or whenever you wanted them. Apparently, he’s been beside himself, everyone in Meridian was until Varic came back with the news you both were alive. No one knew what to think when you two weren't found.”

Erend tried to listen to her, but his mind got distracted after she said Avad wanted to see him. He hadn’t thought in depth about his old friend in a while, he was too nervous about what he would have to say to bother thinking about him. Now the impending meeting was on the horizon, it was far away, but it was there. Avad would have to tell him he couldn’t be an active Vanguard anymore, he would probably ask him to take a seat on the council, or would he if his voice never returned? The thought of what Avad could possibly say to him was heart wrenching, he didn’t want to hear it.

His mind wandered back to the vivid hallucinations he tried so hard to forget, Avad telling him he wasn’t good enough. Of course, he knew it wasn’t real, but that didn’t stop them from being the visual embodiment of everything he feared since he took over as captain.

“Erend?” She called and he snapped back to reality. She must think he was going off the deep end, he could hardly even hold a conversation with her anymore.

He nodded vaguely, trying to show interest but she could read him like a book. “We don’t have to talk about this now, I’m sorry.”

‘We’ he thought miserably, there was no ‘we’ here doing the talking.

“But I do have to mention one more thing,” she began slowly. “The healers have said they don’t want you staying alone once we got back, so I was wondering if you might want me to – well, you know, you’ll need someone to help and make sure you eat enough and – and,” she continued to stammer and he found himself smiling, it was positively adorable.

She noticed and went on the defense. “What?” She asked, the corner of her mouth quirking up into a tiny grin.

He gave her a nod and mouthed something to her.

She furrowed her brow in thought for a moment. “You and me?” She asked.

He nodded and she watched as the gears in his head began to work, trying to think of a mime for what he wanted to say. Then he looked at her again, pointed to her and pointed to himself. Then, hesitantly, he lifted his hands and they hovered apart for a moment before he brought them together, locking his fingers together as best he could. He looked back at her.

She looked at his hands. “Together?” She said in almost a whisper a ghost of a smile playing at her lips.

He nodded, he wished he knew how to convey his house, but this worked he supposed. Her and him, together.

She smiled and nodded, since they kissed they hadn’t exactly confirmed their feelings. “You and me, together.” She laced their fingers together and sat with him.

Sitting here with her right now was enough to stave off the growing pessimism, for now, at least.

Chapter Text

He could feel the heat approach his skin, he squirmed away as far as he could but the restrains were holding his wrists, ankles, and neck tight in place. “No, no,” he murmured in a broken voice.

The man looming above him sneered wordlessly as the brand neared his skin.

“Don’t please,” He cried shutting his eyes, willing himself to be anywhere else.

“Runaways don’t get that option.”

The brand came close to his chest, but Arrok stopped right as it hovered above his chest. He slowly moved it up the length of his neck, the maniacal laughter of the woman he thought was Aloy screamed nearby. He knew it was fake, he should have known better than to leave with the women, he should have fought harder.

The brand hovered above his face, his eye- for a moment he feared they would blind him with it. Then he pressed the hot metal into his check. Erend tried to scream but he could hardly open his mouth. His eye watered from the smoke of his searing flesh, he shut his eyes tight but the pain never went away.

Somewhere he heard a knocking sound, it must have another torturer coming on heavy boots. He heaved a sob and tried not to think what they had next for him. The salty tears stung his cheek a they dripped from his eyes.

Knock knock.

Suddenly his arms were free again, he reached up and slapped his own face, willing to bat away the metal brand. His eyes shot open as he thrashed in what was no longer a flat table, but a bath full of long turned cold water. He groped at his cheek, there was nothing there but discolored yellow and purple flesh, leftover there from the horror he endured. In a moment of panic, he took in his surroundings, remembering where he was. He was back at his home in Meridian, they had returned that morning after a painfully long ride. They broke camp early that morning to leave, he was hardly even awake yet, he hated how fatigued he always felt. Aloy said it was medicinal herbs, they made you tired, he supposed that made sense.

He was so tired when they arrived that despite sleeping the previous night and only traveling a few hours this morning he was already exhausted when they arrived at the city gates, he felt like passing out and he was pretty sure he did at some point. He thought it was only by the grace of Aloy he was allowed to go home and not stay at the healing house for more than an hour or so for a check-up, but a healer assured him someone would be by that night to check in on his progress. When they finally got home Aloy drew him a bath to clean his wounds, and he promised her he was awake and well enough to do it himself and then pull himself out of the tub when he was finished.

Knock knock. Louder this time.

He realized someone was knocking at his door.

“Erend can you hear me? The door’s locked.” Aloy said on the other side sounding mildly concerned. “Just make a sound with something if you can hear me, make a lot of noise if you need me to break the door down or something.”

Oh yeah, he had done that, and he couldn’t shout to her that he was fine. He smiled slightly at her willingness to destroy things and looked up at the various bottles of ointment and bandages on the counter beside him. He reached out - ignoring the crisscrossing of bruises, welts, and lashes – and picked up the metal tin of ointment. He tapped it against the counter twice.

There was hesitation. “Okay... but get out soon please? That water can’t be warm anymore. I have the couch all set up for you down here so you don’t have to use the stairs, only for now, and I have some food cooking... so... just finish up and let me know if you need help.”

He looked around, the old bandages were desugared on the ground, covered in dust from the ride. Some of them were bloody or discolored a slight yellow. He grimaced at them and looked away, Aloy was right, he needed to get out. He hadn’t bothered to clean any of his wounded thoroughly, but he didn’t care, the water was tinted a faint copper color from dirt and blood anyway.

He braced his hands on the edge of the large basin, taking a deep breath before pushing himself up. His arms shook, and he felt like it took all his strength to move, but after a minute of slow and steady movements he was leaning against the counter, his head resting on his arms as he breathed heavily. He thought he heard light footsteps outside the bathroom door, Aloy was probably checking on him, she probably heard him get out. He certainly wasn’t quiet. He was grateful she didn’t knock again; he wouldn’t have been mad if she did, but he didn’t want to shoo her away again for just trying to help.

He kept his eyes down for a short time, at least as long as he dared with Aloy right outside the room waiting for him. He knew that when he looked up he would be face to face with the mirror he so skillfully ignored when he entered the bathroom. With a defeated sigh, knowing he was on the clock, he raised his head, his breath hitched and he swallowed.

He didn’t know what else he was expecting, it wasn’t that bad honestly. Could have been worse.

You’re humoring yourself you look like you’ve been stepped on by a thunderjaw, he told himself.

His once swollen-shut eye was now open but still a sickly green and yellow color all around spreading across his nose and down his cheek and jaw. He had several cuts and bruises on various other parts of his face, most noticeably his lips were split in a few places. Maybe it was a good thing he couldn't speak, he imagined moving his mouth around like that would have hurt. His neck had a bruise around it that stood out against his pale skin, he was harshly reminded of the thick and all too-tight collar he had around his neck only a week ago. Just below that his heart sank, his chest had an ugly and slowly healing brand directly over his heart. He reached up to pick at it the yellow and scabbing skin, but with shaking hands brought them back down to the wash basin before he even touched it.

It was ugly, that was for sure. Had Aloy seen this? He thought, he couldn’t take his eyes off it. If you didn’t know the slave trade you might not know what it was, but he knew better. He managed to take his eyes away from it and with a pause slowly turned around to see the damage done to his back. Once again he kept his eyes down until he was fully turned around, he turned his head and maneuvered himself so that when he opened his eyes he could see, he could already feel how tight the skin was.

It wasn’t much different than he imagined, the lashes were thick and scabbed over, some of the ones with more intact skin had been stitched together, but where most of the damage was done, he would simply have to wait for his skin to grow back in an ugly mass of spider web scarring. His tattoos across his shoulders were torn apart as well, the skin wouldn’t knit back together perfectly they would be forever altered, damaged just like him. He sighed and turned back around to his front keeping his eyes down, he didn’t want to see himself, he didn’t want Aloy to see him either.

He remembered back when he opened his front door in nothing but his trousers expecting to see one of his fellow vanguard. But there she stood, a red blush creeping over her cheeks just as fast as it swept over his. He changed immediately but she saw, she knew what he used to be, what he could never be again. His skin wasn’t flawless by any means, he had a rough life and being a fighter he had his fair share of scars. But this was different, this was everywhere, he’d never look the same.

He wondered if they ever laid together, if she rested her head on his chest where his brand sat, if she would be disgusted by it. He sure was.

He looked around, fresh tears forming in his eyes, and found a clean pair of trousers. He hastily brushed the water droplets away as he slipped the pants on with only minor difficulty. He went to move to the door but stopped and turned back for a moment, he grabbed the fresh bandages and ointment.

He unlocked and opened the door, hating the way the lock turned noisily and announced his presence.

Immediately he was hit with the smell of cooking food and he felt a sense of home. Him and Aloy here together, cooking, working, living, it was a dream come true.

But when she turned around he wasn’t met with her beaming smile, she was concerned, she rushed over. At first he didn’t understand why she was so worried, so he furrowed his brow and looked at her.

“Erend...” she breathed, her fingertips almost touching a lash mark that had started bleeding slightly, the blood mixing with water and running down his arm in a thin streak.

He felt guilty, he fell asleep in the bath instead of doing the thing he told her he would do. He was useless.

“It’s ok,” she smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to reach your back anyway.” she went on up tiptoes and kissed him.

He wasn’t expecting it and didn’t move, but when she parted he felt content and allowed her to lead him to the sofa and begin to clean him up. He lost himself in his thoughts as she worked and missed when she began to speak again, so he focused himself and looked at her.

“I said,” she repeated patiently. “Avad wants to come down tonight, I said you might be up for it. But I wanted to check with you first. I figured since we got back so early in the day, you’d have time to rest before seeing him. What do you think?”

He shrugged and looked away.

She nodded and continued her work. “He just wants to see you alive and recovering for himself, I saw him after we got back. He was in tears, I’m still not sure he believes you’ve actually returned.”

Erend didn’t respond, he kept looking away.

“I don’t think he wants to talk business.” Aloy prompted.

He continued to look away.

Despite the slight frustration she felt she ignored it. “It’s okay if you don’t want to see anyone right now, but don’t loose yourself to this. You’re stronger than that.”

Her words echoed in his mind, was he?

Chapter Text

Aloy looked at the bowl of soup, cold now, and mostly full as she dumped the old contents out. It was his dinner from the previous night, she saw it sitting almost untouched when she came down that morning. She had gone upstairs to sleep in the bed, not only was the couch not big enough for two but sleeping side by side could aggravate his injuries if they weren’t careful and that wasn’t a risk she willing to take right now.

He still wasn’t really eating, she saw he ate a few spoonsful, she couldn't tell exactly if the contents were anything other than broth, but she accepted it at the time. Now, as she gazed into the full bowl she wondered if he even ate that at all or faked it. The healer warned her about his eating habits, it wouldn’t be easy, he went two weeks with almost nothing and now with added trauma he might not want anything at all. His mind was too preoccupied to care, is how the healer put it to her when she didn’t quite understand why someone just wouldn't eat. She didn’t think much of it at the time, she figured his lack of appetite was simply due to the general lack of food and he would soon recover. But now... she wasn’t sure if it was going to be that simple.

How long since he had a solid meal now? Three weeks maybe? Regardless, it didn’t matter the exact number of days. Even if he said he wasn’t hungry she could see it in his face, it was getting too thin. As she cleaned his wounds, she couldn't help notice bones she had never seen before. He was always such a solidly built man, as were many of the people from Ozeram. She could throw her entire weight into him - and she had on an occasion or two - and he wouldn’t even budge, just laugh and hoist her up by the waist, carry her off to show just how small she was to him. But she always argued he might have brawn but she’d be able to outrun him in an instant, probably outsmart him too, that was always her comeback...

Those were the lost carefree days, when they went out on the road together, back when they thought they were invincible after the battle of the spire. Now... He was still solid, his shoulders still broad, his muscles still firm, but as she days passed on and she continued to clean his bandages she notices the small changes. How his pelvic bones were beginning to point away from his hips, the ridges on his back that only became sharper as time went on. His cheek bones only sank deeper and deeper into his face accentuating the gaunt look in his eyes.

To the average person who saw him they might not notice, but she knew every detail of his face, she could see the difference. How long before they would be back to those days? She would give anything to be back there now. Maybe if she confessed her feelings earlier things would be different, maybe she would have taken him with her to visit the Banuk and he never would have been taken. Or she wouldn’t have gone at that time, and she would have been able to go out there and help them so no vanguard died and none got captured and the damned slave trader could have been killed on the spot.

But they still wouldn’t know where the basecamp was if that was the case. There would still be slave traders out there hurting other people if Erend and Varic didn’t get captured causing her, Talanah and the remaining warriors to go hunting. Without meaning or wanting to Erend getting captured was the reason they were able to liberate and save so many. Was his pain worth it, at the end? Maybe to most, but to her, she wasn’t sure.

She dropped the plate in the wash basin causing a loud clatter and sighed. What was done was done, there was no point thinking about what could have been.

She stared down at the empty bowl with drops of broth still left inside.

Maybe he was getting tired of being fed soup like a baby. She knew she would hate it; she should have considered it sooner maybe if she got some meat from the market, he’d have more of an appetite. He was always eating such heavy meals, maybe the light soups just didn’t appeal to him.

She glanced at the couch; he was still sleeping and snoring faintly despite the clatter of the bowl. He used to be a light sleeper, a side effect of being a fighter, but ever since they got him back he slept like a dead. She assumed it was because he didn’t sleep there, he didn’t tell her exactly, but she couldn’t imagine his sleeping arrangements were comfortable. Her eyes lingered on the raw and bruised skin still around his wrists.

There was a merchant who sold slow cooked meats in the market, it was Erends favorite place to get food from and despite the many furnished establishments that existed in Meridian, he loved that cart. She should go there and get a sandwich, or maybe a bowl? The bread might be too heavy... her mind examined the pros and cons as the left a kiss on Erends head, and a small note on the table.

It read: I’ll be back today, I promise.

It was always a running a joke with them, she would say she’s going out into the wilds to go hunting or find an artifact and say she’d be back in a day or two but then be gone a week and he always worried. She hated that she did that to him, she knew it made him worry, and now that their true feelings were revealed she knew exactly why it made him worry. She should have known, no one else got so concerned. They always said they knew her, a day always meant more and they trusted she was strong enough to take care of herself. But to Erend a day meant a day and anything longer meant she was hurt. He wanted to protect her, but in a way she thought Rost would have approved of, not like he didn’t think she could handle herself.

With one last look she shut the door behind her and headed out into the streets of Meridian, taking a deep breath of the fresh air as she did so. She didn’t mind looking after Erend especially when he needed her, but staying in such close quarters was making her antsy. Maybe while she was out and he was sleeping should could scale a wall on the outskirts of the city, just to get some energy out.

Making her way down the streets she realized just how many people must have known of Erend’s condition. She was receiving so many looks, at first she assumed it was just because of who she was, most people around here knew her by her face and hair. But the more she walked the more she noticed it wasn’t grateful smiles or silent words of gratitude. They were averting their eyes, giving her sympathetic or encouraging smiles. A couple people even stopped her to say how happy they were that he was brought home safe. That’s when she knew for sure. The whole city knew Erend was a captive, it wasn’t that shocking she supposed, there wasn’t much interesting news since the battle of the spire, things had settled and the townspeople needed something else to gossip about.

But still, once he was ready to leave home he would be bombarded with people knowing what happened, that wouldn’t be easy for him. He liked to shove his emotions in a bottle and ignore them, but if everyone knew what his emotions must have been, shoving them away would be harder. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, he needed to know people loved and supported him no matter what. Even if those people were random citizens of Meridian.

Rounding a corner, she almost bumped directly into someone she did not expect, Blameless Marad stood before her brushing off his tunic and seemingly chuckling softly at her carelessness. “Forgive me,” he said with a gentle smile. “My mind seemed to have been elsewhere, perhaps yours as well?”

She gave him a light shrug already knowing they were already on the same page by his choice of words, he was always so in-tune with everyone around him. “I’m seeing if I can find him anything better to eat, the broths and soups are going to be the death of him.” she tried to huff out a laugh but found it was emotionless and bland so she stopped.

“I understand that, he has always enjoyed his heavier meats.” There seemed to be an awkward pause for a moment. “Our King would like to see him.”

Aloy nodded, she knew Avad was desperate to visit and she knew Erend was being wholeheartedly stubborn about it. “I know,” she said.

Marad gave her a sigh, seeming to debate how he should respond. He looked down for a long moment, contemplating his words and Aloy allowed him the time, knowing a man such as him wasn’t usually lost for words so it had to be important.

“He is visiting him now.” He finally said.

Aloy paled at the words and her mouth gaped open for a moment in shock, she stammered when she tried to reply. “Y-You mean Avad? Right now?”

Marad gave her a stiff nod. “I didn’t think I should have said anything, but after literally running into you here I figured perhaps it was fate.”

She looked away, her anxiety about the situation building, “Erend’s been avoiding him.”

“Yes the Sun-King has noticed,” Marad said knowingly looking away for only a split second. “Duties aside...” he spoke slowly, as if choosing his words. “Avad, our king, does care a great deal for Erend. His sister was... she is very precious and therefore her brother is as well. When she died... Avad promised her spirit he would look after him, he considers Erend his family, he has made his own beyond blood and they are who he cares for. You are also among them.”

Aloy nodded, somewhat at a loss.

“They must be speaking now.” Marad said. “The king left to go to Erends house just before I came here, we must have just missed you.”

“How convenient.” Aloy muttered.

“Yes,” He agreed without a hint of sarcasm. “I believe them conversing would be the best course of action. The King misses his friend dearly, I do not believe Erend knows just how important he is to the emotional satiability of this kingdom.”

Aloy found herself smiling. “Avad cares that much?” She asked, knowing Avad was upset, knowing he was desperate, but hearing it from another source was comforting.

Marad nodded gently. “Yes, with Ersa gone the king has made it his duty to look after what she unwillingly left behind. Erend is important to more than just the strength of the Vanguards, he is important to us all. I do hope he understands that.”

Aloy nodded her head and took in a sharp breath. “I hope so.”

Marad placed a hand on her shoulder. “You wanted to get him a more substantial meal, yes? Let's go get him one.”

Together they walked into the crowds of the merchants bazaar. While they scanned the carts and made their way to Erends favorite place, Aloy couldn’t help but keep her mind from wondering about what exactly was happening right now at the house.

Chapter Text

Erend sat upright, suddenly awake and aggravating his injuries for only a moment in his panicked state. He winced and held his ribs, allowing his breath to even out. He had been having a nightmare again, as usual, every time he shut his eyes he was plagued with the memories he wanted to forget. This time it was just endless hours of being strung up, only hours were going by like seconds, and no one was coming back.

He sat on the couch for some time waiting before realizing he was alone and Aloy wasn’t rushing to his side like she did almost every other time he awoke from a nightmare. She must have been out running errands she was always busying herself, he felt so helpless, he wasn’t even able to help her out around his own house. First time she stays with him on purpose and she’s doing everything, it wasn’t ideal, however nothing about his current situation was ideal.

There was a slip of paper sitting on the table beside the couch, he picked it up with a forever shaking hand. It was from Aloy, she was out and she would be back, he smiled it. Even seeing her handwriting made him smile.

He put the note back down on the table and the stretch of his arm made him realize his burns were rubbing painfully against his bandages. They were healing, but sleeping with the exposed injuries was still too much unless he slept perfectly still – and that was almost impossible with the nightmares. The healer had advised him and Aloy to let his wounds remain exposed during the day and wrapped at night. The exposure to the fresh air would help the healing process and allow them to be cleaned easier, they said, as long as he didn’t move around too much. No chance of him doing that, he bitterly thought as he got to the tedious work of unwrapping the cloth from his torso. No bleeding over the night that he could see, that was good, maybe a first even. Aloy would be happy with that when she came home, he loved seeing her happy when it pertained to this.

There was a sound outside the door and at first, he thought it was Aloy bumping into the door with handfuls of bags. The image of her stumbling to his forge and dropping all her armor suddenly came to mind and his lips turned up waiting for her to open the door. But she didn’t and instead the noise came again, he realized it was a knock.

He furrowed his brow, staring at the offending door. Who was knocking? Maybe a healer? The normal one just walked right in but maybe this one wasn’t so forward. Maybe they’d just let themselves in or go away.

The knock sounded again, but it was hesitant, almost like the more knocks that came through the less confident it was. Who the hell was bothering him now? He didn’t want to see people, he thought tiredly as he leaned down and gently rested his elbows on his knees. It was easier to move without all the bandages but he felt so naked without them. Even though he was healing he would prefer to keep them on always.

Again, but this time the knock was accompanied by a voice. “Erend? Aloy?”

He froze, he didn’t want to see people and this wasn’t just some healer. He learned to deal with the constant visits from them, to give Aloy some new concoction he was meant to drink, and they all tasted terrible, or some visit to check his bandages which he hated because Aloy was doing fine and he didn't need strangers poking at him. They visited more than he thought was necessary if he were being blunt about it.

But he didn’t want to see Avad right now, as soon as he saw the man his life was officially over. Once Avad sat him down and told him who he appointed as his ‘temporary’ replacement Erend would know then he failed Ersa in the worst way he could have.

There was another sharp knock, quickly followed by. “Erend, I’m coming in.”

No, he thought and immediately looked down to his scarcely bandaged body. Only a few remained that he hadn’t had the chance to tend to yet, most of them including his brand and back lashes were now exposed. Apart from that the old sickly colored bruising was stark against his waxy skin, he looked like hell, all more reason for Avad to decide he wasn’t suited to be a vanguard anymore.

He heard his door open cautiously and his body froze, only trembling slightly since he couldn't ever seem to stop.

“Erend?” Avad hadn’t seen him yet, but after a moment his eyes must have scanned the open living space and spotted him sitting on the couch still as ice, Erend heard the halt in his step and the door shut gently. He stepped further into the house, “I presume we’re alone?”

Erend moved his head slightly in his direction and gave a short nod, the only movement he offered.

“I thought perhaps that was the case when no one came to the door, I didn’t mean to bother you.” Avad stepped closer into the darker half of the room where Erend sat.

Erend shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, still not looking him in the eye, his demeanor began to relax ever so slightly but the worry of what was to come still ate away at him.

“I just...” Avad began but couldn't finish, instead he shifted on his feet and ran a hand over his face in frustration.

Erend took the moment to glance over at him, of course Avad seemed frustrated, he was about to tell Erend he would have to give us his position in the guard. The king wasn’t wearing his usual headdress and there was a bland cloak over his shoulders, he looked almost like an average person. Erend didn’t doubt he had guards trailing him and Marad was probably nearby but Avad must have wanted some form of discreetness. He didn’t keep his attention on him long enough, however, to notice how distraught his old friend was.

He came closer, but kept several feet between them when he approached the couch, his eyes adjusted to the shadowed area and he swallowed. They told him he should be glad Erend was alive and safe, and now he understood why that alone was a miracle. He was an absolute mess, a shell of the man who once fought along his side in the Red Raids so bravely. Even after that they were all beat up, broken bones, bruises, gashes and punctures wounds, but they made it out alive it was nothing like this. He looked like every injury every one of their people sustained in one, and he felt overcome with sorrow for his brother.

They all got closer during the Raids, him, Erend, Varic, and some of the other guards as well. Strangers became allies, turned friends, and then somehow became almost family, he felt safe in battle knowing the brother and sister duo were nearby, they were a force to be reckoned with back then. Ersa told him about her brother in the many secret conversations they had while she was enslaved in the palace, he didn't know then the foolish brut of a man he heard such endearing stories about would soon be his closest friend. He wished circumstances could have been different with Ersa and maybe the future where they all could have become a real family could have been possible.

Once Meridian was reclaimed for good, he made them all his Vanguards and he was able to keep Ersa and Erend close. Life was hard but things were looking up with them by his side. Then Ersa... he didn’t want to think about it, but somehow, he was healing from that pain. At first, he was able to throw himself into his work and ignore it, but after the final battle and after he had time to think he mourned her properly.

Later on, when Erend lead the Vanguards out on that fateful mission he didn’t think anything of it. His warriors were strong and Erend would have made Ersa proud as their leader. But the days passed on and their return became more and more delayed, Avad didn’t waste in sending a patrol out and as the sun set the next day they returned with the dead bodies of his vanguards. Initially, he thought Erend was killed among them and his world became dark. But when he saw the list of the identified dead and the two names of missing men his heart leapt in his chest, it meant Erend could still be alive.

He sent out patrols to search for him, he scoured Meridian for anyone who might know where Aloy was too, maybe she could help. Her tracking skills were legendary. But there was no sign of her, he even reached out to the SunHawk the leader of the Hunters Lodge, he knew her and Aloy were close. Even she was lost as to her whereabouts, but vowed to go search herself, Avad appreciated the help. He wished he could join them, but as king he wasn’t exactly allowed to leave on such missions.

It seemed like forever until Varic galloped back into Meridian riding a machine letting them all know he found Aloy. It was days before they heard Erend was alive but not fit for travel, and several more before they were back home in the city. Avad wanted to visit him right away, but they stopped him, saying he wasn’t up for visitors. The same was said the next day and again the next. Today he decided he couldn’t bare it anymore, he needed to see him alive for himself. He needed to see that his friend - his brother - was back home with them.

Now he understood why Erend refused visitors, every time Avad had known Erend to injure himself he would brush it off as if it were nothing, even if he had an arrow sticking from him. But this was something erend couldn't brush off, his discomfort was obvious.

“How is your pain?” Avad asked when he saw Erend release a wince he couldn’t hold back as he shifted his position on the couch, turning his body away slightly to hide the brand, but unconsciously exposing more of his back.

Erend gave a jerk of his head that Avad knew was supposed to mean ‘it’s fine’. But he knew better than to believe a lie like that, he could see the half empty glass of the pain numbing medicinal drought he knew the healers were bringing him. Being king came with advantages and one of them was being privy to almost any information he wanted, when he asked about Erends condition they filled him in entirely including information on his medicines. Avad wanted to make sure they were treating him with only the best care, he was the one who ordered they visit him so frequently in the first place. The healer only suggested coming once a day, Avad didn’t think that was good enough.

“Do they help?” He asked trying to keep his voice from sounding too patronizing.

Erend shrugged and then after noticing the look from Avad nodded reluctantly rolling his eyes a little, letting out a slightly annoyed sigh. That seemed a bit more like the old Erend.

“Then maybe you should finish it,” Avad huffed.

Erend glared at him, but it was more playful than frustrated and that made Avad begin to smile a little bit. After seeing the condition of his friend he didn’t think he would be doing much smiling today, and it even became more than that as it broke into a light laugh. Erend pulled a face and stuck out his tongue, he lifted a hand to his mouth and pointed at it shaking his head.

“Yes, I would imagine it does taste terrible,” Avad picked it up and gave it a sniff as he sat down next to Erend, but keeping some space between them still. “Goodness, it smells it too.”

Erend didn’t have to say ‘told you so’ for Avad to know that’s what that look meant.

“But if it helps,” Avad said trying to prod him into drinking it, handing it over to him, Erend didn’t take it. “It’s still good to drink, right? It doesn’t have to be made fresh or anything?”

Erend shook his head.

“Then here, drink up, I need my captain back in shape as soon as possible. We need you; the Vanguards are a pile of bumbling fools without you.”

Erend still didn’t take it, but for the first time he let his eyes flicker over to Avads and meet him, he shook his head again, but this time his sadness radiated from him. “I can’t.” He tried to speak, Avad could tell, but it came out nothing more than a breathy whisper.

“Don’t even say that, I refuse to believe it, the Vanguards will never have another captain until you say so, until you hand your title over.”

Erend sighed, Avad couldn’t do that, the Vanguards needed someone now to lead them and it wasn’t him. He gestured to his throat, and then he gestured to himself as a whole, he was too broken. “I can’t.” He breathed again more urgently this time as his eyes began to water, he held them open stubbornly trying not to let the droplets fall. “I won’t get better.” He said stiffly, it was a little difficult but Avad thought he understood him.

The young king carefully put the cup of foul-smelling potion back down on the table in front of them. He looked back up to Erend and studied his face for a moment, taking in the unshed tears as well as the healing busies and cuts that would leave lasting scars. Wordlessly he closed the distance between them feeling tears begin to well in his own eyes, but he shut them and allowed them to fall as he took Erend in his arms and hugged his friend as tight as he dared. Holding him, because he thought he would never touch or see him again except for his dreams. Just like Ersa.

Erend returned it after a moment of surprise, they didn’t hug that often and when they had it was out of jubilation from winning a battle. It was never something like this, the kind of hug you gave someone you thought was gone forever. He could feel Avads shuddering breath, his fingers tensed against the back of the smaller man as he sank into the embrace.

Erend blinked and the heavy tears finally fell, hitting Avad on his back. “It’s okay, I’m alive.” He tried to say.

Avad seemed to hear the breath of words so close to his ear. “I know, I don’t know what – I don’t think I could carry on if you both -” He couldn’t continue his sentence, his buried his face in Erends shoulder to bring him close again. This time he noticed how boney it was. With that new thought in his mind, he pulled away and examined Erends body. The other man just watched him curiously, unsure what he was doing and knowing there was no point in trying to stop him. But a red blush crept over him and he had to avert his eyes after a moment, unable to watch his friend look him over like so many others had in the last couple weeks. Avad would have commented on how easily embarrassed Erend could become if this were any other situation.

Avad didn’t like what he saw, beyond the obvious injuries without a shirt he could see how thin Erend was becoming. He was told that was becoming an issue, and he hated to see once such a strong man reduced to such a fragile state. But he didn’t say anything, he knew from his most recent talk with Aloy that she was pressing the subject but he was being difficult about it, he didn’t want Erend to think they were ganging up on him. At the time Avad just responded 'that sounds like Erend', but now that he saw his friends state he understood the gravity of the situation more.

Erend had shut his eyes at some point and turned his body away, gentling pushing Avad away from him. He looked so ashamed and Avad wondered what could have caused him to suddenly react so negatively. It was when Erend brought his hand up to cover the brand on his chest Avad understood, he thought he was staring at the burn and couldn’t take being under his gaze anymore because of it.

Avad began to shake his head. “Erend that’s not what, no, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to stare.” There was no point arguing that he had seen it even if that’s not what he was focused on.

Erends bitten down fingernails began to pick at the raw scab anxiously.

Avad took his hands in his own to stop him. “Nothing more than another mark from battle.”

Erend shook his head and lowered it to hide his face, Avad couldn’t see, but he thought another tear had fallen.

“Just because you didn’t deliver blows with your hammer doesn’t mean it wasn’t a battle, that doesn’t mean you didn’t fight. You survived horrors no one should endure Erend and you came back to us against the odds. Any mark on your body, permanent or not, is just proof of how strong you are, Ersa would be proud.”

At that Erend heaved a sob, he wanted his sister by his side more than anything right now. He loved Aloy, but Ersa was always there for him, even when he was a baby their parents said she was protective of him. As they grew up, she was always there to whip him back into shape or make sure he stayed on the right track. Except this time, she wasn’t, she wasn’t there to protect him and as result he got captured and nearly sold off or tortured to death.

“I need her, I can’t without her,” he said knowing full well Avad couldn’t possibly understand him but he needed to speak, he had so much he’d been unable to say lately. “I’m - I’m just going to keep - keep messing up.” He tried to say but since his only words could be spoken in his breath, he had trouble getting it out through his heaving sobs and his throat was beginning to protest the attempt at usage.

Avad must have understood some of what he said. “You can, we all can and we will. She would want us to keep going.” He spoke as he brought his forehead down and touched it to Erends.

“I can’t stop messing up,” Erend breathed out once he regained some control over his breathing, willing Avad to understand him.

“You haven’t,” his friend assured him. “None of what happened was your fault, you’ve done nothing but honor her.”

Erend nodded, he didn’t entirely believe the words, but they were comforting to hear. He missed his friend and after the countless hallucinations of Avad turning his back on him somewhere in his mind he had convinced himself they held some truth.

“You’re the greatest and dearest friend a king could ask for,” Avad whispered as they sat there, foreheads together and hands entwined. “I could not hope to ask for a better brother.”

This was how Aloy found them when she returned, they broke apart once the door opened, but Erend moved slow and she caught their positioning. It was heartwarming, she thought.

“I should go back to the palace, people will eventually be missing me,” Avad said standing up and allowing his hand to linger for a moment on Erend. “I’ll come back tomorrow and visit, if you’ll have me?”

Erend nodded up at him and offered a half smile.

Avad returned it and before leaving gave Aloy a polite bow.

She walked to Erend and sat down next to him. “Is everything alright?”

He nodded and leaned his head down, resting it on her shoulder. “It’ll be alright,” he breathed as carefully as he could.

“Your voice is sounding better,” Aloy commented, he had only tried speaking again recently, granted it wasn’t really speaking but it was a start.

Erend huffed.

“I’m serious,” she continued thinking back to the man she met calming a rowdy crowd in a booming confident voice, she knew that man would come back. “Just give it time.” She kissed his head and began to gently stroke the back of his neck.

He nodded and allowed her to hold him for a while, Avads words brought him comfort that the vanguards did really need him and his position as captain would be waiting for him. But the fear of never recovering well enough to return, or not before they found someone better still sat with him.

Chapter Text

He swung his legs over the side of the bed one at a time, thankfully, the fact that he had to be to be slow was helping him be stealthy, something he was never good at. Once his bad foot pressed into the ground he bit back a wince, the first step was always the worst, then he got used to the healing skin. He ignored the crutch leaning against the bedframe. The healer had given it to him to help him move around, they didn’t want him putting his full weight on his foot just yet. But he hated it, he was young, too young to need a damned walking stick it was only a burn – granted in the center sensitive part of his foot – but only as burn none the less.

The stairs, however, were still a bit of a challenge for him, but he managed them alright despite the squeaks and creeks. But strangely Aloy still never woke up, part of him would have been concerned if he didn’t gaze at her peacefully sleeping body right before leaving. So that was a small miracle in of itself. Maybe the constant tending to him was making her tired, she did so much for him, it had to be wearing on her by now. He felt guilty, he wanted to get better already, he was ready to start honoring Ersa’s memory. Avad was right, the best was to make her proud right now was to get better.

Slipping on a pair of soft skin boots at the front door he turned the lock, the click was much louder than it had ever been in the daylight, he was sure and pushed open the heavy door. Yet another thing that made far too loud a sound in the dead of the night. He cringed at every squeak expecting Aloy to come bounding down the stairs after him. But once he shut it behind him, Erend felt a sense of relief when he turned around to face the cool night air of Meridian.

It was dark despite the scattered lit torches lining the streets, there must have been cloud cover, even the air was crisper than it normally was on a moon filled night. With a long sigh he made his way into the city, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched and head down. It wasn’t that he didn’t want anyone to see him, he wasn’t trying to hide, he wan’t in a hood. Just his nightclothes, because why bother changing this late? It was just that... well, he didn’t want to deal with the confrontation. He missed the days when all he had to do was shoot someone an angry look or growl and they’d back off, knowing his temper could get the better of him especially if he had a bottle in his hand. But now he didn’t think he could frighten a fly.

He passed a few people along the streets, none of them paid him much mind despite his slow gait and limp. However, the sorts of people out on the streets at this hour of the morning weren’t usually the ones who wanted conversation. That’s what made him come out this time of morning, he needed to be out in the city again but his anxiety was preventing him from leaving the house. Every time he even thought about trying his heart would thud and his palms would sweat. The thought of so many people at once seeing him, knowing what happened was unbearable.

So tonight, he let Aloy fall asleep beside him, they had slept side by side a couple nights now, ever since he proved to her he could walk up and down the stairs on his own. Then, after dozing off a couple times for no more than a few hours he got up and made his way out the house. He knew he’d wake up; he hadn’t slept more than a few hours at a time since the night before he was captured, well, sleep that wasn’t unconsciousness. He didn’t want to bother her, he wanted to do this on his own, he needed to do something on his own.

He made his way through the twisting streets and up the path, everything was the same. It had been weeks since he walked through the city streets but it looked like it had only been a couple days. It was comforting to know his home was waiting for him just the same even after everything. His walk subconsciously led him to familiar areas, he walked past the bar, now closed in the early morning. Then, past the entrance up to the forges and he paused at the stone steps, there was no iron banging, no fires roaring, so he walked up.

His pace was slow, and the foot that had been burned on the bottom from Arrok forcing him to crawl back into his own cell was healing slower than he wanted, but he was moving. With a final grunt he was standing on the landing that held the forges, all the lanterns were out, it was abandoned at this time. But not for too long, he knew some liked to get an early start on their work and the far horizon was just beginning to grow deep purple with the sun that would rise in a few hours.

He moved closer; his eyes trained on the nearest coals that still held heat from the previous day. Whoever had this station was lazy in smothering their fire, they probably didn’t want to restart it from scratch in the morning. Erend understood that, in his younger lazier days he had been guilty of not putting his fire entirely out. It certainly wasn’t safe and Ersa had reprimanded him for it when she found out. He missed the forges, with his new duties as captain and as a council member for Avad he didn’t have as much time as he used to.

What was supposed to be a peaceful stroll down happier memories began to turn sour. The closer he got to the coals the more he felt their residual heat. The thought that it would be so easy to heat up a poker and press it over his brand in a matter of minutes began to invade his mind. He could handle that pain again, he thought, and he’d rather had an ugly mess of scars instead of what was there now. He knew it was foolish but the thought began to overcome him.

He was running on auto-pilot, he began to blow air into the forge to re-heat the blaze. Pumping it in almost robotically as he watched the coals heat up before him into red hot embers. He flinched away at the heat, averted his gaze and willed the unwanted memories away. The forges were his home, he wasn’t going to let the slavers take this away from him.

He remembered how much it hurt to have the brand pressed into his skin, he had screamed so much he spit up blood and ruined his voice. Could he really do it to himself? Knowing the pain it would initiate? He picked up a nearby poker someone had probably been using to stir their coals. He stared at it, imagining the tip red hot, he pulled his loose shirt away from his chest and held the poker up to it, measuring the length. If he made an ‘x’ across the brand you wouldn’t be able to tell what it was anymore.

Could he really do this? He wasn’t acting crazy, right? He thought, despite the rumors he knew were brewing around him. The word that they had been drugging him with machine oil had somehow spread, probably from other survivors across the land who knew the slavers methods. Almost everyone knew what happened to people who drank or did work with that stuff. Unless you were careful it wasn’t good. He was still worried his mind would begin to fail him one day spontaneously as a result of his ingestion of it. But the healers seemed convinced enough that the amounts he drank were diluted enough and inhaling it wasn’t enough to cause permanent damage.

Erend placed the metal rod into the still underheated coals. But they were hot enough to do what needed to be done. He looked away as it heated up and ran his hands over his head, pacing back and forth. This was a terrible idea, Aloy would be so angry with him if she saw what he was about to do. Everyone would think he was really going crazy, which now that he thought about it, he was pretty sure he already was going down that road. If he didn’t eat or sleep substantially soon, he was going to drive himself to insanity regardless of the machine oil poisoning him.

Panic started to settle in when he noticed the smoke rising from the forge he was heating up. He didn’t want people coming up here and seeing what he was about to do, he glanced down the staircase, it was still abandoned.

He walked back to the fire as quickly as he could carry himself and pulled the poker out of the heat. He stared at it, the tip was a deep red in the darkness around him, not the bright almost white it needed to be. But he supposed it would do the job, if he held it for a moment. He bit back his fear, mentally feeling the pain it would cause just thinking about it, he just wanted to get it over with and get out.

He pulled his shirt to the side again and brought the rod up to the brand. However, he only moved a couple inches closer before he felt the real heat against his skin, lost his nerve and pulled it away, shutting his eyes. He attempted again, but couldn’t seem to will his hand to move closer. He cursed to himself and looked back, he needed to do it before the metal lost its heat, then he would have to wait for it to get hot again and risk people seeing what he was doing.

The sting of the heat so close to the burn wound it made him flashback, his shut his eyes willing himself to stop feeling the phantom pain of the slavers brand fresh on his chest. Burning his skin, he would never forget the smell of his own flesh sizzling and he wasn’t ready to smell it again. His shook his head back and forth, and began to psych himself up in the way he would before a fight. He breathed heavy, shook out his hands, straightened his back as far as he could and puffed out his chest, cocking his head to the side once more as if to say to himself ‘here goes nothin’. Then after lining himself up, he closed his eyes and brought the hot metal closer, taking in a deep breath as to not inhale the upcoming smell.

Chapter Text

Despite his bravado Erend was unable to push the memories from his mind and began to feel the phantom sensations of his captivity. All of a sudden he felt unable to breathe or swallow, like there was a giant ball in his throat he was unable to work past. It felt as though the collar was still fastened around his neck, the one that appeared to suddenly the day he received the brand, marking him as property even more so. He brought his free hand from his shirt up to where it would have sat. The overly tight metal contraption, that left still visible sores around his neck, wasn't there but he left his hand around his neck to continue to convince himself of this fact.

He must have lost himself in memories and allowed himself to go slack, losing his steady grip on the long metal rod. The dull red end of the poker wobbled back and forth dangerously as its weight took over in his loosening grip. Slowly and gently, it tapped his skin directly beside the burn, not a half inch from the edge of the healing skin. it was hardly a graze, but he instantly reacted. The pain washed over him, worse than he remembered it being in the dungeons. Maybe he was just too numb back then to feel properly. But fire and spit it hurt.

Erend threw the metal rod down to the stone floor with as much force as he could muster, he felt his scabs pull at the movement but he didn’t care. What the hell was he doing? This was for sure the way to convince everyone he had broken indefinitely. Ersa didn’t break when she was tortured - he saw it with his own eyes - he would be damned if he was going to. He might have faltered and lost hope for a little while when he was stuck in that place, but now that he was out, he needed to make sure he kept going. For everyone who needed him to, himself included.

He picked up the bucket of water nearby the smiths used to quench their metal and dumped it in the hot coals. It should never have been lit to begin with, this is what he should have done in the first place when he saw it. He dropped the bucket unceremoniously to the ground, staring at the hissing black lumps. The leftover water drained out and extinguished whatever heat was left on the metal rod next to it.

He placed his hand gingerly on the brand and rubbed at the skin around it, there was a lingering sting from the brushing touch of the hot metal when it connected with his skin. He looked down, just to the side of the burn was a small red welt, the wound was miniscule compared to the one beside it. But damn, the whole area hurt now, like the whole brand was fresh. Although, granted, he wasn't exactly in his right mind when he received the brand, he had no idea what the machine oil would have done to his pain tolerance.

Feeling both disappointed and proud of himself he began the slow decent down the long staircase keeping on hand on his chest and the other trailing along the wall beside him. He was beginning to get a little unsteady on his feet, it had been a while since he had been out and about like this and this was officially his longest walk since his ordeal. He kept his head trained down on the steps right in front of him, lost in thought.

On the one hand he made the right choice, he didn’t do it once push came to shove. But on the other hand, he had entertained the idea so long to the point he almost made a lasting mistake. Well, he did make a mistake, he let the hot tip touch him. He hoped Aloy or even Avad wouldn’t notice, both had gotten good at taking note of his injures and what was healing. He never did anything to himself that permanent before, except maybe a very tired liver, and he wasn’t about to start now.

As he got to the bottom of the stairs, he placed his hand against the wall and leaned over, he hated how tried he was. The staircase at his home wasn’t nearly this big, or this uneven, he could feel his pulse pounding through his more injured foot. He hung his head and took some deep breaths, he just needed to push it out of his head. He found he could ignore the dull and constant pounding pain if he could distract himself enough. Working with his hands mostly, which he could finally do again since most of the strength in his hands were back and slowly the shaking was going away the more his wrists healed. But here he didn’t have anything to fiddle with, no arrows to craft for Aloy, no tools to sharpen, not even a book to read, just him and the pain.

“Captain?”

Erend froze, he even stopped breathing, he didn’t hear anyone coming but he had trouble hearing anything over his own heavy breathing. He looked up after a few agonizing moments of courage building, only a few people had seen him since he’s been back. Despite most of the bruises and discoloring being gone, some of the worst ones still lingered a strange yellow and although the scabs from the shallow wounds had fallen off the deeper ones remained, and itched like crazy, especially the burns. Aloy scolded him when she caught him scratching and threatened to tie towels around his hands.

There were two men in front of him, Vanguards who must have been out on a night watch. They both stared at him expectantly, mouths open slightly. One was a newer recruit, but he trained them both.

He straightened his back and gave them what he hoped was his usual flippant half grin. “Hey boys,” he said in the hoarse whisper he now called his voice. It was a far cry from the commanding boom it once was.

If the men were shocked by his voice, they didn’t show it. The older of the two smiled at him, Asger his name was and spoke. “It’s good to see you, Cap, we miss you down at the training grounds. The new recruits just aren’t the same without you around, Varic's good but he's not you, it’ll be a good day when you’re back to whip them into proper shape.”

His head screamed he was lying, just humoring him because of his condition. He must have looked pitiful; he didn’t bother to make himself outwardly presentable for his night walk. He unconsciously moved his shirt further to hide the brand he had recently exposed, the last thing he wanted was his men to see that. Though, he was sure rumors about what happened had spread around, it was hard to keep secrets in this city especially ones like this.

“Ah,” he waved Asger off, ignoring the negative voice. “Who better to train you then the man who trained me?” It was a half truth, Ersa and Varic both had a hand in it and everyone knew that. But that wasn't a topic he was willing to dive into right now.

He grinned at Erends deflection of the compliment, he knew his Captain all too well. “I guess that's fair, but we’ll be waiting there for you when you’re ready to come back.”

Erend huffed humorlessly. “That might be another minute or two.”

Asger shrugged, “As long as you’re well, Cap. You know, if you just want to take a walk down one morning for training, even if you're not up to joining in just yet, seeing you would put the guys in good spirits... we have missed you, the tavern's just not the same." He gave a light chuckle.

Erend hung his head for a second and pinched the bridge of his nose grimacing slightly, he never took this sort of comfort well, thankfully Asger had more to say so he didn't have to.

“We saw smoke from the smithy, was it you?” He changed the subject abruptly, Erend was glad.

Erend nodded, and deciding to leave out how to relite the fire he said, “Yeah, looks like someone didn’t put out their forge, I took care of it.” He tried to discreetly clear his throat, talking always gave him a weird tickle now, but it quickly turned into a cough.

The men nodded, they trusted him and took him at his word.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me,” was all Erend managed to say before his voice cut out on him and nothing more came out.

He didn’t miss the sympathetic looks both men gave him, he hated it.

“You need a hand home?” Asger asked.

Erend waved him off and ignoring the pain in his foot limped back to his house, he was out much longer than he should have been. He didn’t look back at the men, he was tired and his body ached, the sun would be rising soon and if Aloy hadn’t noticed him missing yet she would soon.

He didn’t run into anyone else on his trek home, he was grateful for that, he didn’t need a repeat of what just happened. Although, he couldn’t say it was an overall bad encounter as far as his first interactions with people could go.

As quietly as he could he creaked open his front door, wincing at how loud it sounded once again. He kicked his shoes off once inside and after getting a much-needed drink of water to sooth his raspy throat, he slowly made his way up the smaller but still unforgiving staircase. By the time he got to the top he was practically hopping back to the bed grabbing anything he could to support himself, part of him wished he had grabbed the walking stick when he left. He landed on the mattress harder than he meant to, but Aloy didn’t move. He looked back at her, she was gorgeous with her cheek squished against the pillow and hair sprawled around her face.

Gently, he laid down beside her and backed into her embrace. Her small but strong arms encircled him automatically and he felt her warm breath on the back on his neck..

“Did you enjoy your walk?” She mumbled sleepily.

His eyes shot open in surprise. “I didn’t know you noticed,” he whispered. After a moment his shock passed and his eyes drifted shut again, of course Aloy knew he left, he was foolish to think otherwise. Now that he was here with her the pain seemed to be numbing as fatigue overtook him.

She snorted. “Please, Erend, you’re many wonderful things, but silent is not one of them. I was getting worried you wouldn’t come back, though.” He opened his mouth to reply but she cut him off. “Don’t talk, sleep. You’re back now. Talk in the morning.”

He smiled and sank deeper into her arms as he faded into sleep.

Chapter Text

Erend was up before her this morning, she let him this time without trying to coax him into sleeping longer, even if he needed it. When her natural internal clock finally told her it was sunrise she pushed herself from the comfort of the warm bed and began her morning routine. If she listened carefully she could hear the light clink of the metal downstairs as Erend lifted his weights.

When she exited the washroom ready for the day, even after her time preparing herself the steady clink of the metal hadn't stopped. She grabbed her satchel and trotted down the steps and turning the corner she found him to be exactly where she knew he would, he hadn’t noticed her presence yet, and she took the time to admire him for a moment. Finally, he had regained his lost weight, his eating habits eventually steadied out and with that came the energy he thought he had lost forever. As soon as he had that energy he wanted to spend it, and before gaining permission from the healers he began his exercise regiment. At first it hurt, his muscles hadn’t worked so hard in a while, the larger wounds that still had sensitive skin pulled and ached against the deepest and still remaining scabs but he pushed through. The healers eventually relented and gave their concent for him to begin acting like the Captain he was, not that he needed the permission anyway.

He still wouldn’t go shirtless, even around the house when it was just him and Aloy. He always covered at his chest no matter what now, she only ever saw it when he thought she wasn’t looking. She hated he was so ashamed of something he had no control over, she wished he wore it like any other battle scar. But unfortunately, that’s not what it was and the memories associated with the brand were not easily forgotten. The lashes that criss-crossed his body were not so easily hidden, some of the scars curled around his neck, arms and even onto his hands. But those he accepted as part of his skin now, he even confessed to her that he didn’t hate it, it would make the new recruits think he was really tough. Aloy had to remind him that he was actually that tough and he didn't need scars to prove it.

After she decided her private show was over she reached over and picked up the cup he had apparently been drinking from, she refilled it and cleared her throat while moving around him so he could see her. She didn’t like to startle him, though he was getting better with it, he still jumped easily.

“Good morning,” she offered him a smile and handed him the cup of water.

Returning the smile he placed the heavy metal down in front of him and took the drink. After taking a sip from the cup he replied. “Morning already?”

“How long have you been awake?” She asked walking back to the kitchen to prepare a small breakfast for them.

“Too long, and I’ve already done that,” he said joining her in the kitchen and taking a cover off a plate of prepared fruit, cooked meat and slices of cheese with bread. “It’s probably a little old by now... sorry about that.”

She picked a piece of food off the plate and popped it in her mouth. “Compared to some of the meals I’ve had this is the food of gods.” She chuckled with her mouth full. “Thank you for this, you didn’t have to, even if you were up. You have a long day ahead of you.”

“I needed to do something, I was driving myself crazy, I couldn’t sleep.”

“How come? You’ve done this before.”

He shrugged; today was the day he was returning to the training ground, officially that was, he had paid small visits to his closer friends and watched from afar a few times but this would be the first time he was their commander again. He still wasn’t permitted in the field, Avad made it clear he just wasn’t entirely comfortable with Erends mental state and he couldn’t help but agree. He was too jumpy and he still had regular nightmares, his friends reminded him it was normal and the rational side of his brain knew that. But the rational side wasn’t usually the loudest voice in his brain and he couldn’t help but wonder if he’s ever be able to go on a field mission again with his men. “There’s new recruits,” he finally said. “I’ve never met them. They started their training without me, to them I’m just some idiot who got caught.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” she concluded immediately. “They know who you are, and if they do act like idiots themselves and don’t show the proper respect, you’ll just have to be the best leader you can be until they do.” She said with a mouthful of fruit, her eyes scanning the plate for another bite of her favorite.

He gave a mild eyeroll when Aloy wasn’t looking. Being a good leader didn’t give you respect, he learned that watching his sister command a group of Oseram men. By the end she was considered the best of them, but in the beginning it wasn’t so easy. He needed to again be like her and push past the naysayers even if they were mostly in his own mind. “Still can’t shout like I used to,” Erend grumbled rubbing at his throat. “Not gonna be able to yell at them, what if I can’t even shout over them and I can’t get their attention?”

She was instantly gliding to his side, she took his hands in hers. “Shh, stop it, they respect you and any who don’t will soon learn their mistake. You have many loyal Vanguard awaiting your return, you have plenty of people on your side. Besides, you can still be pretty scary even when you don’t yell,” she leaned up and kissed him, then pulled back with a thoughtful expression. “Well, not to me, but some people, sure.”

She could always make him smile, he thought as he held her in his arms, still damp from his morning workout. “If they don’t listen to me, I’ll just send you over, make them really quake in their boots.” He growled leaning down and kissing her again but this time longer and deeper.

Reluctantly he pulled back, all too soon in his opinion, but time was wasting and he had places to be. “I’ll go get ready." He hesitated. "You really don’t have to come if you don’t want to. I know you have better things to do that look after me, that’s all you’ve done since I got back.” They didn’t often vocalize what happened anymore, he didn’t want to talk about it and he found most people he spoke to didn’t want to talk about it either. They sure enjoyed staring though.

“I know I don’t have to.” That’s all she said. “Go get ready, you have to get down there soon.”

Within hardly any time at all he had gone up the stairs and changed his clothes and somehow cleaned himself up enough to look like he didn’t just spend the last half hour exercising. Grabbing a hand full of random leftover food on the plate they headed out the door, his other hand enclosed in hers. For the first time in a while his hammer was slung across his back.

In the early morning hours not many people were out, but the few shop owners who had arrived early or who were setting up gave them polite nods. He swore a couple of their eyes lingered on the long pale scar across his scamp, good thing he shaved his head in that spot because the hair refused to grow back yet, if it ever would. He ignored the stares, he was getting better at that, in the couple visits he made to the tavern he learned people were always going to stare, he was the center of a lot of gossip in a very crowded city. He even learned one of the rumors that spread was that his tongue was cut out by the slavers. He wondered how many believed it, and beyond that how many worse rumors about his capture there were.

He was tempted to ask around, Talanah probably had a good knowledge of them. The Hunter’s Lodge was notorious for knowing just about all the cities stories and gossip. However, he had only seen her a handful of times since the fuzzy memories of her and Aloy carrying him out of the darkness and the warm furs of the bed at Free Heep. Varic wouldn’t tell him, neither would Aloy or Mirad, they’d all say it wasn’t in his best interest to know. But Avad? He might, if Erend made a case for himself.

The training arena was almost empty except for a few of the earliest of risers. He and Aloy strode in together, still hand in hand. Before they parted, she rose up on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek and then walked over to the various weapons sitting on the wooden rack. Erend watched her curiously for a moment, he wondered what she was going to do down here with him for hours. Unless she joined in on the training – which he wouldn’t doubt – she'd get bored. She picked up a particularly grimy looking ax and ran her finger along the blade, looking satisfied she walked over to a nearby bench, sat down and took a whetstone out of her bag. She absently and slowly began sharpening the blade, keeping her eyes trained on Erend as she did so. Dammit, he loved her and everything she did.

Tearing his eyes away from her he noticed a few other men had arrived, they were standing at ease in their separate clicks. Some of them waved, gave him a thumbs up, or an encouraging smile, they were the ones who knew him personally, he had even seen a handful at the tavern. But there was another group of younger men, and by the looks of it a woman that was good at least, Ersa started a trend albeit a small one. However the inquisitive looks they were giving him told him their opinion of him was not as good, or they didn’t know who he was. Which was understandable.

As more people walked down into the training arena the noise level grew and his anxiety along with it, not knowing how to get their attention without shouting. This is what he was worried about, he couldn’t rely on his once booming voice anymore. He shared a glance with Aloy, she must have understood his concerns because she gave him an empathic smile.

The sun was at the low but clearly visible point in the sky that meant training began. He turned around and some of the men had already stopped talking, but a large portion of the latest recruits hadn’t yet stopped. Swallowing the quickly forming lump in his throat he looked around the area for anything, quick thinking wasn't his strong suit and he wished he had prepared for this earlier. A thought popped in his head and he went with it, not knowing what else to do. He strode over to where Aloy sat, she quirked an eyebrow at him curiously, he could see the gears turning in her head as he wondered what he was about to do or ask of her. But she understood what he was doing the moment he picked up a shield.

He reached behind him and with a single hand pulled his hammer from its resting place, an impressive act in of itself since it was not a light weapon. With several loud bangs he struck the side of his hammer to the shield, that was all it took to get their attention, those who hadn’t been paying attention before now had their eyes trained on him. This could be a good system he thought as he commanded the troop to get into their formation in a calm even tone, he didn't want to waste his voice just yet. He spared a glance at Aloy smiling behind him the whetstone and blade sitting still in her hands as he focused all her attention on him.

With a small upswing in his confidence he began to speak, his voice still hoarser that he’d like, and it cracked sometimes but he was finally back.