It didn’t take long for Mahavir to decide that the Northern Taiga was more peaceful than the Capital. Sure, it was much colder up here. The sun also stayed up for much longer. And if you did happen to wander off too late at night there was always a pack of wolves waiting to try and eat you, as was evident from the bite marks in Mahavir’s saddle. Also, the people were a tad more lawless than Mahavir would have preferred (he thought being shot at with igne greaco for trespassing was a bit uncalled for). But despite the freezing temperatures, lack of vegetation, an abundance of man-eating animals, and a general lack of civilization, Mahavir did greatly enjoy his time up here much more than his time as king.
This was partially because recent events had made ruling much more stressful than normal. Mahavir had been blessed with a relatively peaceful start to his stint as king. His reign of peace, however, now appeared to be over. There were traitors, assassinations, and threats of war all bombarding Mahavir relentlessly.
It didn’t help that his council was split. About a quarter of the members were all on his grandfather's council. Half were from his father’s era and the remaining quarter were members who had only been serving for a few years. Have three generations of varying ideologies all trying to help run a kingdom lead to much more infighting than problem-solving. It often gave Mahavir a headache.
The tipping point had been a nearly physical fight between General Valerian, who said the army was weaker due to the introduction of women, and Soa, who was one of the many women in the army. It was at that moment that Mahavir stood up, slammed his hands on the table, and ordered Soa and Altos to pack their bags. They were going to the Taiga to see how the northern borders were fairing.
Of course, the council protested, saying that Mahavir was much too important to be wandering around with only two guards. But Mahavir’s mind was made up. He left the next morning, promised to be back in at least three weeks, apologized profusely to Marie for stealing her fiancé, and then ran as far away as he could from the politics of everything.
“Are you done working through your mental breakdown yet? I do have a wedding to plan,” Altos drawled.
He had been Mahavir’s friend ever since he could remember. Altos came from a noble family and was an incredibly gifted strategist. But that wasn’t the only reason Mahavir had him as his right-hand man. Altos was good at understanding what Mahavir needed. With everyone else, Mahavir had to put on a display of a strong and efficient warrior. He didn’t cry at his father’s funeral. But he did afterward in Altos’ chambers while Altos comforted him and assured him that he would be a great king. He was irreplaceable.
Soa snorted and continued to pick at her nails. “We all know that Marie is doing most of the planning. Seriously, tulips, for an autumn wedding? Even I know those are spring flowers!”
Soa was the first girl to ever be accepted into the military academy. She was also the only person to be kicked out after three months and accepted back two years later. Despite her lack of noble upbringing and fighting against centuries of gender roles, Soa had graduated first in her class and was already well on her way to becoming a general.
“Besides,” Soa continued, “I like that we’re going around the Northern Borders. I feel like this place is neglected a lot, being so remote and all. We need to do good for the entire kingdom, not just for the warm parts.”
“I agree completely,” Mahavir said. “I also do not appreciate calling my need for a break a ‘mental breakdown’. The constant arguing is not doing anything good for my health.”
“True, though the council will be disappointed when we return without any word on Medias or the Stone of Gaessa,” Altos said. He glanced to the side, as if afraid someone was in the shadows listening, waiting.
Mahavir struggled not to glance around as well. Adelrik was gaining power. Before he only had his tongue and lack of human decency to get him ahead. But if Magie’s visions were anything to go by, his magic was strengthening as well. It didn’t help that Adelrik had Medias’ support. Mahavir could practically hear the borders of the two kingdoms grinding together, pushing against one another in a struggle that would ultimately end in a victory for one side. Mahavir prayed that he was that victor. But what use was his army against a man of magic?
Soa flicked a small rock at Altos and Mahavir.
“Ow, that hurt,” Altos said, rubbing his head and glaring at Soa.
“Don’t talk about such depressing things. We all know what the council is really buzzing about.” Soa waggled her eyebrows in Mahavir’s direction.
He groaned and looked away. “Please do not bring it up again,” he begged.
“Well you know they’ve been talking about it ever since Altos got engaged. They want to know when you’re going to tie the knot as well.” Soa bumped Mahavir’s side, not tall enough to reach his shoulder. It wasn’t that Soa was small, it was that Mahavir was huge, much bigger than most people in the kingdom. He remembered with embarrassment the number of times he had to sleep with his legs dangling over the edge of beds that were too small, and the number of times he hit his head on door frames.
“I just want to marry someone who—“
“Who you’ve connected with.” Altos interrupted. “Yes, yes, we know. Don’t you think you’ve connected with plenty of people?”
Mahavir turned red with embarrassment. “Having sex with someone does not automatically make them marriage material!” he cried, his voice cracking slightly.
“What about Rowan, she’s a good match politically and you two are already good friends,” Altos suggested. The problem with most of Mahavir’s potential suitors was that they came as potential suitors and then left as fantastic friends, not as fiancés.
“Aye, and she’s been trained to be queen since birth. So you know she’d be good at handling politics.” Soa added with a smile.
“I keep telling everyone, I don’t like her like that. She’s like my sister. How am I supposed to produce an heir with my sister?” Mahavir grumbled.
Altos looked ill at the thought. “I suppose that is true. I think the council is so desperate to have you marry, though, that they’d be fine with anyone."
“You could probably marry a goat and they’d be okay with it,” Soa said. “They undoubtedly think this trip is also an attempt to find some country bumpkin to bring back and marry.”
Mahavir rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to marry a goat. I am not out here to find a consort. And I’m not going to be pressured by the council. There have been plenty of rulers who have ruled without a husband or wife.”
“Mostly because they’re spouses have died.” Altos pointed out.
Mahavir didn’t want to continue this conversation anymore. It was true, Rowan had offered her hand in marriage. Mahavir suspected it was mostly to placate their families. She was a strong woman who Mahavir had known very well. She had been visiting him since she was ten and managed to hold her own in politics. If she were to become Mahavir’s wife, it would expand their kingdom’s power and cement his rule. Rowan understood that Mahavir saw her as a sister and still insisted that she was open to marriage. But that didn’t feel right. If he were to marry Rowan, it would feel like Mahavir was lying to the kingdom. He had heard what had happened with his parents and did not want to undergo the same heartbreak.
Mahavir wanted someone who challenged him. Someone who made him feel alive. He wanted someone special, not just an arrangement made because it was a good political move. Someone who could be his best friend and his lover. He wanted someone with a fire that could not be found in politics.
“Well, I’m always open as an option. It would get my aunt and uncle off my back.” Soa said, speeding past Mahavir.
“I think I want to marry you even less than Rowan.” Mahavir joked.
Soa laughed and tossed her curly black hair over her shoulder. “Am I not a good enough catch, my liege?” Her dark brown eyes twinkled with delight.
Mahavir chuckled and rolled his eyes. “I’ll say any person who marries you will be both very lucky and very unlucky indeed.”
“Don’t go too far ahead, Soa. We’re still in wild country and you never know when bandits might strike,” Altos said.
Mahavir felt as though any bandits in the area would be wary of attacking them. Mahavir’s impressive height and build made him frightening to most people. He looked strong enough to lift boulders and break through doors. And he was. He could strike fear into his enemies’ hearts on the battlefield. He towered over his generals and his advisors. Mahavir secretly enjoyed it. While he did not like the thought that he could get away with things simply because people were too afraid of him, he did think his height helped in securing his place on the throne. No one would dare try to cross a king who could rip you apart with his bare hands.
Sadly, Mahavir was also mistaken when he assumed the bandits in this area weren’t going to attack on the account of his presence. As the arrow sailed through the air and embedded itself in his shoulder, Mahavir came to the conclusion that these men had balls. Then again, why would you be afraid of a man when you had to deal with packs of wolves?
“It’s an ambush!” Mahavir shouted, hoping to alert his friends. Though he need not worry, Altos and Soa were already reacting, unsheathing their swords and charging at the men and women pouring out of the trees. Mahavir swung off Cerci and began slicing away at the bandits. Cerci gave a disgruntled snort at the harsh treatment but obediently stepped away to giving her master room to fight.
Mahavir cut away at the bandits with ruthless efficiency. His extensive military training made him hit his mark. The bandits quickly realized they were no ordinary trappers and quickly called for a retreat. Mahavir let them run into the woods, thinking of how to fix this problem. Surely more regular patrols of the north would help cut down on crime. Then again, having knights pacing the borders might also appear to be an act of war.
“Mahavir!” Altos shouted. The desperation in his voice made Mahavir’s blood run cold. He turned to see Altos pressing his hand to Soa’s side.
“What happened?” he asked, sprinting over.
“Damn arrow found a weak point in my armor. It’s barbed too,” Soa grunted. She was paling fast. “Though, I did take out one or two.” She offered Mahavir a weak smile.
Mahavir traded places with Altos, pressing his hand to Soa’s side while Altos dug around for a map. Mahavir tried not to let panic settle into his body. Panicking would not help Soa; it would not keep her alive. But already Mahavir was starting to feel his heart beat irregularly, his hands shake, and his throat feel tight. He tried to blink away visions of Soa lying on the forest floor, killed because of his own incompetence.
He wanted to shout at Altos for taking so long. He wanted to bundle Soa up and just ride until they found somewhere she could be treated. He wanted to crawl away and hide until he died. This was all his fault. If he hadn’t been so insistent on this trip, if he had just stood his ground with the council instead of running away, maybe Soa could have been saved. He felt a hand on his cheek.
“Don’t look so down,” Soa said, her voice was weak and could barely be heard over the roaring blood in Mahavir’s ears. “I need some more battle scars anyways.”
Mahavir gave her a pathetic smile, not trusting his own voice. If he started speaking, he may lose all control.
“Put her on your horse. I think there’s a village close by, fifteen minutes at most,” Altos said, mounting his horse.
Mahavir scooped Soa up, carrying her to his horse. “She may not make fifteen minutes, are you sure there’s nothing closer?”
“Hey! Put me down, I can ride on my own!” Soa cried. But each word sounded like it was hurting her to say.
“Now is not the time to be arguing. Follow me,” Altos commanded, spurring his horse forward and galloping along the trail. Mahavir secured Soa on the saddle before following, pushing Cerci to keep up with Altos' breakneck speed.
Mahavir tried to focus on his own breathing, Soa’s breathing, even Cerci’s breathing. Anything to distract from the fact that his friend might die in his arms.
The fifteen minutes passed slowly. It felt like every second was an hour and like the road ahead just stretched out into infinity, cursing them to reach their destination too late. But eventually, the village did appear.
Mahavir could have shouted with relief. Maybe he did. But he didn’t care. Now there was hope. They skidded to a stop in front of the first building. The outside read ‘The Sun and Stars Inn’. A man was already rushing out.
“What happened?” he asked. His eyes roamed over the trio, probably thinking they were the oddest looking bunch to have ever ventured into this sleepy little town.
Mahavir leaped off his horse, Soa securely in his arms. “Can we stay here? Please, our comrade is injured.”
“We have money. We just need a place to help her,” Altos added.
The man snapped his mouth shut and nodded. “Elymus!” he called. Mahavir did not want to wait another second, he wanted a bed for them to help save Soa. He could feel the blood soaking into his clothes and staining his skin. Did this man not realize the urgency of the situation?
Despite all of these thoughts, despite the fact that Mahavir was still panicking and still wracked with guilt, he still felt his heart skip a beat when the door swung open to reveal Elymus. He was lean, with skin as pale as snow, and fiery red hair loosely braiding. Mahavir wanted to run his hand through his hair, tuck the loose strands behind his ears and run his fingers over that skin that looked to be as soft as the finest silks. And he appeared to be glowing. Perhaps it was just the excitement of the day but Elymus looked like he was surround by light. This man could not be human.
“Help these men. Heal the injured one.” The master of the inn was busy trying to pull the horses to a post. Cerci, being Cerci, was being difficult and refusing to leave Mahavir’s side. Mahavir couldn’t be bothered to notice as he was carefully tracing the movements of Elymus as he walked.
Elymus leaned over and carefully ran a hand over Soa’s injured side. He straightened back up. “Follow me,” he said, not looking at Mahavir.
He led them into the house and up the stairs. Mahavir was trying really, really hard not to stare. He really was. But gods, his ass, even under the heavy clothes Mahavir could have sworn it was the most perfect ass he had ever seen.
“Mm, enjoying the view Maha?” Soa asked, her words slurred slightly. Mahavir turned away and tried not to blush. Elymus didn’t seem to hear the comment and opened the door to a small room.
“Set her on the bed and tell me what happened.” Elymus pointed towards a small bed. Mahavir was reluctant to set Soa down, a part of him still afraid of the harm that may come to her. But he fought his instincts and set her down, stepping away so that Elymus could work. He started to remove her armor.
“At least buy me a drink before we get to the ripping off of clothes,” Soa slurred. She waved her hand weakly before Elymus pushed it back down.
“Most people who are bleeding out aren’t this active,” he said. Mahavir swore there was a hint of a smile on this perfect lips.
“We were ambushed by bandits. They managed to shoot Soa.” Altos explained.
Elymus nodded and continued to study the wound. “I’m going to put you to sleep, so you don’t feel any pain.”
“Sure thing, you’re the healer.” Soa waved the arm nonchalantly again.
“Will she be alright?” Mahavir finally found his voice to be working. Although, it cracked horribly. It was almost like he was a teenager. He tried to remind himself that Soa was gravely injured. He should be worried about her and not this beauty that stood before him. He wondered if Elymus had any Elvish blood in his veins.
Elymus glared at him. “Let me do my job and she will be.” He turned back towards Soa and put a hand on her head, he closed his eyes and exhaled, causing a rush of blue light to be transferred to her. Soa’s head rolled back.
“A mage?” Altos breathed.
Mahavir whipped his head towards Altos. Elymus couldn’t be a mage, they were all wiped out after the massacres. To find one living now, well that would be a miracle. But now that Mahavir thought about it, the air around Elymus glowed in a way that was unlike any other magic user. Magie didn’t glow whenever she performed a spell. But from the moment Elymus had stepped out of that door, he had been surrounded by a soft ray of light. It was golden, like the sun, except for now when it was blue.
Mahavir turned his head back towards the man, entranced at the way he lit up the room. The blue light was warm and calming, swirling around Elymus and Soa much like water. Elymus’ eyes flickered open, now completely blue, glowing softly in the dark room.
He moved his hands to the arrow that was still sticking out of Soa’s side and made quick work of making it evaporate. It was amazing. The arrow just disappeared like smoke. And soon the blood slowed to where the wound looked more like a scratch than an arrow wound. Mahavir’s eyes flicked up and he jumped slightly as the light seemed to swirl into the shape of a woman. But it disappeared a moment later, leading him to believe it was nothing but an illusion.
Slowly, the blue light began to recede from the room, as if Elymus was pulling back his power. Mahavir followed it, watching as it slowly faded back into the soft gold light that had surrounded Elymus at first. Except, it was weaker than before, and not as extensive. Mahavir quickly lunged forward, just as Elymus crumpled to the ground. He was lighter than Mahavir had expected.
Mahavir glanced at Altos, trying to see if he should pick up him and put him in bed, or if he should just shake him awake.
Before he could make a decision, Elymus was pushing himself out of his arms. The glow was still not as pronounced as before, but it was stronger.
Elymus stood up shakily before straightening out his overcoat. “Your friend should be fine in a few days. Leave your bloodied clothes outside the door and I will clean them as best as I can," he said, his voice sounding weak.
“Wait, where did you learn how to do that?” Altos said, his hand gently catching Elymus’ elbow as he brushed by.
Elymus shrugged. “I didn’t. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
The door closed softly and the warmth that had filled the room was now gone. Mahavir shivered and started to remove his hauberk and lamellar.
“How did you know he was going to collapse?” Altos’ voice broke the silence.
Mahavir glanced up at him, his mouth opening and closing as he tried to figure out an answer. He gave up.
“I don’t know. But I want to find out more about him.”