WRITING Coldsnap - Summer Snows(NSFW)

Discussion in 'SHOWCASING' started by Malkuthe Highwind, Mar 31, 2014.

  1. Fair bit of warning, this story may serve to trigger a lot of things. There is non-con and torture of the most disturbing variety, so, if you are squeamish, it may not be the story for you. However, if you like lots of angst and the thrill of reading a story that does not promise a happy ending, then you will be in for a treat, I hope.

    This story also involves M/M and non-con sexual scenes. If you are not comfortable with reading these kinds of things, turn away now or forever hold your peace.


    The sun's light washed across fields of rippling grass. The brass disc was set on a canvas of gentlest blue. Its light danced on the world below it to the music of the wind as it blew through the trees. The ground was firm and covered with green. The dew was fresh and it glittered in the morning light. The day was beautiful as any, yet its shoulders carried melancholy heavier than mountains.

    One young man felt the bright sun on his back. He felt its warmth and the comfort it brought to many people. He felt the cool caress of the wind and the pleasant rustling of the leaves as the breeze meandered through the nearby foliage, yet the day's beauty was lost on him. His world was in the sweat on his brow; in the ache in his arms; in the shovels of dirt that he tossed into the ditch in front of him.

    Frost, the young man mused. Jack Frost, his parents had called him. Frost like the breaths that had passed his lips. Frost like the intricate latticework of ice that laid on the ground when they'd found him. Frost like the white that blossomed in the cracks of treebark, in the boughs of trees, and on the blades of grass. His parents, they told him, had always wanted a child. The gods they'd thought had abandoned them, it seemed, had answered their supplications.

    Yet Jack had never truly felt entirely at home in their quaint farmstead. He'd never quite felt like he belonged. He'd loved the two very dearly, but he always wondered what his life was like before they'd found him. He always wondered if his true parents had died, if they'd lost him, or truly, if they'd abandoned him. Many times he'd asked the farmer and his husband, but neither of them genuinely knew.

    All that the two farmers -- outsiders like Jack himself -- knew was that they'd found him out by the woods one day during the first frost of autumn. It was as though by some divine providence that they'd heard the faint cries of the child. Jack, he'd been told, was certainly worse for wear and looked to be on the brink of death. They'd taken him in, clothed him, fed him, warmed him and bathed the dirt and grime off of him. They'd considered him their own flesh and blood, and rightly so. He'd grow up to be like them in his proclivities. He'd grow up to be like them -- exiled and ostracised by society at large for wanting the love of another man.

    Thud. Jack straightened as he tossed another shovelful of dirt on the casket in the ground. Dirt and pebbles rained down on the rough-hewn wood. They scratched the casket and thudded on it, making it sound as though whoever lay within was struggling to get out. Jack knew better. Thud. The last of the only family he'd known since he could remember, dead. He couldn't help the tears that spilled from his eyes, the quiver that danced upon his lower lip. Thud. Alone now, and probably until his own death, Jack felt truly terrified of what lay ahead.

    Jack tossed the shovel to the side when the grisly deed was done. Its old, heavy blade was caked with soil and moist with dew. He'd cleaned it earlier, before he began to dig the grave. Jack felt obliged enough to his father that he didn't want to dig his final resting place with a shovel that had only yesterday been used to scoop up horse shit. He fell to his knees. The soil shifted around him and a sigh escaped his lips. With his fingers he shaped a small hole in the dirt and fished an acorn from his pocket. He dropped the seed into it and almost reverently closed the earth over it.

    The young man glanced to his side. An oak sapling rose from the ground there. His fathers had been inseparable in life. Jack felt that they deserved to be inseparable in death as well. The trees would grow. Their roots would reach down and drink of his fathers' essences. Their branches would reach for the skies and entwine with each other. These oak trees would be together even when Jack was himself dead.

    Jack knelt in the soft earth. He did not care if his breeches got dirty. Life at a farm was dirty business to begin with. He looked at the tiny mound of earth he'd formed above the acorn in front of him. He glanced at the sapling that grew on his other father's grave. He fancied the thought that somehow the plants represented the love they'd shared with each other. How their love had grown and blossomed from something so tiny and fragile in a world that wanted nothing more than to quash it into something tall, firm and strong.

    Jack wanted that. He wanted that kind of love, but his fathers had always told him that almost everyone frowns upon it. When their old painter friend had died and stopped coming out to the farm, the two had almost entirely withdrawn from the world. His father Nyko stopped going to town, merely trading with nearby farms for needed supplies. "The world out there--" they would often tell him with this palpable look of despair and weariness in their eyes "--hates people like us."

    Jack's dad would push a bony finger at his chest. "So keep it in here, Jack" he would say. In the corner Nyko would shake his head and look out the window. Jack often caught him expelling air from his lungs in a long drawn-out sigh. "Don't show them what you are. Because they will kill you for it." Jack had not noticed it then, but Nyko always turned away from Jack after saying those words. He was wiping the tears from his eyes and hiding the fury and sadness that were in them.

    Whenever they talked about the outside world, Jack could hear fear in his fathers' voices. They'd lived long lives. They'd lived hard lives. It was a wonder they'd ever survived out on the farm. From what they'd told him, Jack knew that they had lived out on the farm since they were twenty, having never lived outside of their hometown before that. They'd taken care of themselves. They used the plants in the nearby woods for medicine. They ate of the fields they toiled in.

    While hisparents were happy, and Jack knew deep in his heart that they were, there always seemed to be dark clouds hanging over them. Remnants of a not-so-happy past that still haunted them to the day. Nyko would never agree to visit the barn. Kyle refused to handle the horses. They made do, but Jack always wondered why. When he was young he would every so often hear Kyle wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. Nyko soothed him, and for some reason, the words lulled Jack to sleep too.

    It wasn't until he was much older that Jack realized that his parents, the men he'd idolized since he was just learning to milk a cow, weren't as strong as they liked to show him. He began to notice it when Kyle would tremble whenever he handled a knife. He saw it in the way Nyko would warily look into the house before entering. They were broken people, he realized. Much like himself. But they completed each other. They fixed each other. They helped each other remain whole.

    Jack wanted that. Jack envied that bond that they possessed. But if his parents were right, and they'd never lied to him, he'd probably never find that. He knelt on the ground. His shoulders shook. Tears rolled down his face. He sniffed. He was alone now. He was probably going to be alone until the end of his days. He already missed his fathers. He wanted them to be back. He didn't want to be alone.

    Jack saw the farmstead derelict, the oak trees outside strong and tall, but the house itself was broken down. The shutters were gone. Grass shot through the floorboards. All manner of flora and fauna had wound itself into the place. Inside was a pile of bones. Him. Where he'd fallen of either sickness, weariness, or old age and not been able to get back up. He imagined a weary traveler stumbling upon the home. What if that was the man meant to love him, only, far too late?

    The sun was directly overhead by the time Jack was able to rise. He'd cried all he could. The tears wouldn't come anymore. He felt alone. He felt empty. But if anything, he knew he couldn't just stop. Life on the farm had never been easy, much less luxurious. It was hard work. And if anything, it required constant effort. If he was to eke out a living on his own, he would have to work for it. Life on the farm never stopped, he mused.

    Jack placed his fingers to his lips and whistled a high-pitched four-note tune. Almost instantly he felt a small head bump against his calf. Jack got down on his haunches. The snowy ball of fur reared up and licked his face, leaving a trail of dog slobber down his cheek. "Hey Glaise. Didn't realize you were there." Jack smiled tenderly at his dog. His last remaining companion on the farm. "We've got work to do today, boy." The dog yipped at him but refused to leave his side. Glaise's tail did not wag quite as exuberantly as it normally did either. The dog probably sensed his master's pain and wanted to help.

    "Alright. Alright--" Jack straightened "--let's get today's work over with." The dog ran around his legs and barked up at him before shooting off towards the barn. The young man glanced at his parents' graves and sighed before jogging after Glaise.

    ---

    Cold. So so cold. So... so hungry.

    Elian could barely stay on his feet. He could barely keep moving. Where the beauty of the day was lost on Jack because of grief, it was lost on Elian because of sheer terror. He'd been chased out of another town. He'd not stayed there for very long, but he'd actually begun to make friends with some of the boys. Though the town was poor and had very little in the way of food, he had felt relatively comfortable there. Despite the fact that he knew he would have to leave there quickly, he had become comfortable. He should have known better. He was an outcast. A reject. A monster.

    The blond stumbled on an exposed root. He cried out in pain. Searing lances of agony shot up from the soles of his feet. They were battered, he knew it, but he had to keep going. He laughed a bitter laugh at the irony of the entire situation. His mother had told him that if he never stopped running around the palace and the first snow caught him that running would be what he would do for the rest of his life. Elian had never believed her, continuing to run through the halls with his brother. Little did he know she was right.

    As he struggled to get up, hissing as he gingerly placed his feet back to the dirt, his platinum-blond hair shimmered in the daylight. Elian considered himself cursed through and through. Even his hair was cause for hatred from the common folk. He'd been chased out of towns simply for having hair a colour like his.

    Some villages had been kinder, but he'd quickly learned that the fact he was different was enough for people that had learned to love him to throw him out if only to avoid bringing the wroth of other villagers upon themselves. Some towns he'd been let in only to find that it was not much safer than the outside world. In one town he'd been taken ragged, exhausted and hungry enough to eat an ox into a tavern's cellar where he was made to play the lute for the sexual deviants there.

    Elian could remember their grimy faces. Could remember the feeling of their lustful gazes boring into him. He could smell the stink of the cellar. The smell was rancid. It was as though the men there were animals. No, he remembered thinking, they were worse than animals. He recalled that no matter how he'd screwed up his playing, they'd cheered for him.

    Elian closed his eyes and shuddered, drawing his arms closer to his body. He ended up walking into a tree and falling again. He whimpered. A pathetic sound, considering his state. He remembered the rough calloused hands of those men. How they'd roamed all over his body, ripped the clothes off of him -- used him. He'd been too tired to fight them off. Instead, he lay there, fucked and touched in every conceivable way, absorbing what meager heat he could from their bodies.

    At some point in the night Elian had lashed out with his ice, freezing all the men where they stood. He killed them. Every last one. He'd felt dirty. Used. Upstairs when the owner of the tavern tried to stop him, he froze her too. He was hungry. Desperate. He broke into the kitchen, lashing out with his ice at the poor boy that had come at him asking if he was alright. The one soul that had cared for him in that town, dead by his own hands.

    Elian pushed himself up, bracing himself against the tree for support. Where his hands touched the trunk, curling spirals of frost spread over the bark. Pain shot up his legs again as he took a step forward. Elian caught himself on the next tree and watched, transfixed and resentful of the frost that curled from his fingers. The intricate latticework had quickly become a symbol of the cold power inside him that was the cause of all his suffering.

    The blond hated it. He hated himself. He hated that the world had made him hate himself. The look on that boy's face haunted him to this day. He'd been scared for his life. The boy had just been concerned for him, but he lashed out. He'd often laid awake at night grieving for that one boy. Knowing that the lad had been, if anything, just as afraid as he was. Knowing that the lad had just wanted to help.

    That look halfway between concern and fear was burned into his mind. He couldn't shake it. He couldn't remove the image of the frost that covered the boy's skin, much like the frost that covered the trees he touched. He was a monster. A thing that caused only death. Destruction. He was a creature to be feared. To be hated. To be spited.

    Elian wanted to be loved, but he didn't think he deserved it. Not after everything he'd done. Yet, for some reason, he still wanted to go on, still wanted to live. He didn't deserve that either. Trackers from the last town were hot on his heels, but he had lost them over the night, it seemed. He stumbled forward, afraid and eager to put more distance between himself and his pursuers.

    It was a few pained minutes later that Elian heard the gentle gurgling of a stream. He sighed in relief. The pain in his feet receded for a short while. Elian needed to rest, no matter how much he wanted to get away from the townspeople. He sat down by the bank when he got to the stream. It was a beautiful little stream with smooth rocks on its bed and a silvery shine in the morning light. It was cool and seemed clean.

    Elian sat on damp earth and eased his feet into the current. They felt marginally better as soon as the water begun to lap at them. The blond closed his eyes and threw back his head. The water stung his feet, but it also soothed them. From where his hands supported his weight, frost snaked into the surrounding area. Elian sat there for a good five minutes, simply allowing his feet to rest when suddenly a twig broke nearby.

    The noise startled him. It was just a squirrel. At this point, though, Elian was so afraid for his life that the squirrel didn't live long enough to apologize for the disturbance. Ice shot out from his palms and froze the squirrel dead just as it jumped into the underbrush. Elian realized he'd grown complacent so he carefully made his way upstream, walking along the stream's bed.

    The blond almost fell on his face when he heard shouting not far behind him. Had they caught up to him? He fervently prayed to whatever gods that had not yet abandoned him that his pursuers hadn't. Though, for injuring their favoured one to almost the brink of death, Elian wouldn't be surprised if they turned a deaf ear to his pleas. He trudged along the stream, clutching himself as he felt the air around him grow colder.

    Elian closed his eyes, shivering. As he did an image rose to the forefront of his consciousness unbidden. He recalled the time when he'd been forced to work at a brothel. He'd been as tired and hungry and injured as he was now when he'd arrived at that town. Luckily for him the brothel owner saw profit in his looks and gave him food and the skimpiest clothing he could find. His feet had been taken care of cleaned, tinctured and bandaged.

    What else happened in that town was too painful to remember. Elian shook his head. He didn't want to remember any of it. Any of it. That town had been one that was far too painful to leave. He shivered and continued trudging along. He kept his ears open, but it seemed his pursuers had gone elsewhere now. He slumped forward when he was certain he was, at least temporarily, in the clear.

    It wasn't long until Elian stumbled into a clearing. A spring-fed pond sparkled in the daylight. Elian felt a feeling of serenity wash over him for the first time in two long weeks. He had to rest. He knew that now. There was no hope for him if he kept trying to press on. His feet were in too bad a condition. He could feel the weariness in his bones.

    There were boulders near the pond. One of them leaned against a tree and provided what Elian hoped was an adequate shelter from the elements. He looked around quickly, checking for any traps and listening for any voices before he went under the rock and decided to take a nap. He had to rest. He had to. It wasn't long before the blond was sleeping soundly under the boulder.

    ---

    "Shh. Quiet, Glaise" The overly-energetic dog toned down its excitement. This was one of the best parts about living on the farm. Jack's heart was still heavy in his chest, but he knew he couldn't afford to dwell too much on the despair. He was going to have some fun if it was the end of him. He needed to take his mind off of his parents' deaths. He needed to take his mind off of the fact that he was now alone in the world with none to cherish or love save his dog Glaise.

    His parents had given him free reign, when he was old enough, to scare away any intruders. There was someone in the woods nearby, and Jack did not like that. In fact, he was in some sense afraid of what they would do if they found the farm. He didn't want townspeople coming by and disturbing his way of life, or killing him when they found out what he was--what his parents had been.

    Jack moved silently through the thick underbrush. Glaise followed behind him, miraculously quiet. Though, at second glance, the dog was simply trying its best not to get snagged on the multitude of low-hanging twigs and branches and bushes. There were definitely people treading nearby, where Jack didn't want them. One of his squirrel traps hung nearby tripped but empty. He swore silently. The men would know that there were other people in the area. Glaise yipped at him.

    The young man motioned at Glaise to be quiet. Jack could hear the muted murmur of conversation. He moved towards the source, careful to not reveal his location. He took extra care not to get the pack on his back snagged in the thicket. "Now, Glaise, just like we practiced. Be quiet until I tell you to attack." The dog wagged its tail and lay on the ground in understanding. "Okay." Jack continued moving towards the source of the voices. Glaise followed behind him, belly just slightly above the ground.

    "Lad's a fucking cocksucker too, I heard." There were four men, two of them armed with curved blades, the others carried lengths of rope and chains. The other three men nodded in assent to the one that Jack could only assume to be their leader. "Remind me again why we're going after this fucking fag?" Jack felt a stab of fear in his chest. Were they actually coming after him? Who had told them? Were there any others? He decided to follow them, unseen, to eavesdrop.

    "'E killed my wife, you idiot!" One of the people carrying the rope knocked the guy on the head with his elbow. "I want revenge, and to rid the world of that abomination too." Jack was relieved. They weren't after him, and probably wouldn't go after him if he didn't bother them, but they were on his land now and he didn't want them there. Not to mention, he felt an odd sense of solidarity with this stranger they were hunting despite having never met him. He realized that there were few enough of people like himself in the world that they should help each other whenever they could.

    Jack retreated back into the underbrush, keeping close watch on the voices as they moved into the distance. He quickly donned the menacing cloak he'd sown from squirrel and wolf pelts that he carried in his pack and motioned for Glaise to follow him. The men were standing in a small clearing when he found them again. They were examining something on the ground. Jack thought this would be the perfect time to scare them off. He looked up at the sun and got his bearings. He had to make sure he would scare them off away from the farm.

    The young man got into position and Glaise wagged his tail in anticipation. They were about to have some fun, and hopefully, they were also about to save a life. Jack just wanted them off his land, but deep inside, he hoped against all hope that he would help drive them off the scent of whatever they were hunting. Jack whistled four notes loud enough for the four men to hear. It was a menacing melody and it signalled Glaise to begin howling at the top of his lungs. The young man fastened the cowl of the cloak to shadow his face and picked up the small balls of sheep stomach filled with red paste and maggots that he had prepared for just such an occasion. He launched them at the men as he ran out of the treeline screeching like a maniac.

    The stomachs burst as they landed on the ground spraying the men with what looked like blood, sinew and maggots and they all froze for a second, terrified. He took out one more of the stomachs and hurled it right at the men. It burst against the chest of the man standing right in front of him and it was enough to set of a string of curses and muffled screaming as the men scrambled to get away. "Plague Hurler! Plague Hurler!" they yelled as they ran into the woods away from sight and earshot. When their voices had dwindled enough to a satisfactory distance, Glaise burst out of the bushes and ran up to Jack licking some of the red paste off of his face.

    "Glaise! That's disgusting!" Jack said. He whooped with laughter. One of the men had left his curved blade behind. Jack picked it up and hefted it. It was pretty good make. He betted he could use it around the farm somehow. He wrapped the weapon in the fur cloak and stowed it away in his pack where he'd left it behind in the trees.

    "Plague Hurler? What are those?" There were odd things people believed in, Jack mused. The men must have been from another area entirely. He'd never heard about Plague Hurlers from his parents who were about as native to the area as one could be. They were superstitious, Jack's fathers. He was certain he would have heard something about Plague Hurlers if the local populace believed in them. He shook his head, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

    "Ack. I'm disgusting, aren't I Glaise?" The dog cocked its head to the side. "Nah. You wouldn't know. You eat your own shit sometimes!" Jack laughed at his own joke. Glaise just yipped at him and moved in to lick his face again. "Don't you dare!" The dog whined and sat on its haunches. "Alright. Well let's get to the stream and get cleaned up." Jack picked up the pack and hefted it onto his shoulders. He strolled into the clearing and followed the sun to the stream that he knew ran nearby.

    He had been walking along for a few minutes, covered in watery paste and dead maggots, when he noticed something off about the forest around him. Bark was stripped off of tree trunks. Twigs were broken all about him. Glaise started barking, nudging Jack's calf and pulling at his trousers. He looked down and saw bloodied leaves on the ground. A bolt of fear shot up Jack's spine. He hoped the blood was just from a maimed deer, probably caught by one of the preying creatures of the forest. He was not entirely familiar with the treatment of injury, but having lived and worked on a farm for his entire life, he'd learned how to clean and dress and soothe wounds. Any more serious injuries though, he was not exactly familiar with.

    Jack gritted his teeth and walked faster, a new determination burning in the pit of his stomach where a knot of apprehension also seemed to be wound. The air went from a warm balmy temperature to an entirely foreign chill. The coldness was unnatural, particularly for the time of year. Despite the strangeness of the cold air in the middle of spring, something deep inside him urged him on. The day had begun with enough death as it was. He prayed to the gods that his parents had believed in that it wouldn't end with another. He stayed on the path even as Glaise ran ahead of him, following the tangy metallic scent of the blood.

    The gentle gurgling of the streem filtered through the trees. Behind it followed a chilly breeze that raised Jack's hackles. He couldn't help but jump to the side in shock when all of a sudden, a tree that had been hidden from his sight entered his view. It was covered in spiralling tendrils of frost up and down its trunk. "What is this?" His question went unanswered. Glaise forged on, running when Jack stopped to examine the tree. The man looked up at his dog and noticed that trees all along the path were frosted over. "Glaise! Wait!" Jack threw caution to the wind and ran after Glaise. He was both eager and at the same time apprehensive of what he was going to find. He wanted to get to the bottom of the enigma that was winter where it had no reason to be.

    *

    The sun had set. Searching downstream had proven fruitless. The trail of frost and blood had abruptly stopped at the stream bank where it was already beginning to melt. There was no white or crimson on the other side. Nor was there any sign of whatever it was that they had been following elsewhere in the forest. Their quarry had probably taken to walking along the streambed.

    It took Jack a long time to decide which way to go. At this point, the frost had long since settled his mind that whatever had been bleeding was no deer. Deer had no dominion over the powers of Winter, nor did any of the arcane creatures that his parents had told him about. Whatever it was did not belong in this land. Dread coiled in his heart the moment he decided to go downstream. What if he was wrong? What if the injured creature had gone upstream? Would his wrong decision have cost something's life?

    He decided that his search would prove fruitless in the pitch dark of the night. The moon was waxing, but its light was not nearly enough to see properly through the forest. Heart heavy with inexplicable concern, Jack returned to the farm. In the near-absolute darkness, Jack stumbled around the farmhouse, looking for one of their oil lanterns in order to continue his search well into the night if he had to. "Fuck!" There was a loud clatter against a nearby wall. Jack hopped on one foot. The other throbbed in pain.

    Jack finally managed to stumble his way into the kitchen where he found the lamp. It took a little more fumbling to find the flint and steel that they had nearby, but once he found it, it was fairly easy to set light to the lamp. Once its flame was flickering merrily inside the glass cage, Jack went around the farmhouse, lighting candles and lamps to shed some light on the dark of the night.

    Jack noted that he would need to go and buy more oil from the neighbours soon. He considered learning how to make his own, but he realized he neither had the resources or the equipment necessary to do so. If he wanted to try, he would first have to find a good place to catch lampfish as the locals called them. He'd had some as a kid, during a harder time when some of the crops failed, but they were absolutely tasteless and greasy. He shook his head. He had to remain focused on the task at hand.

    There was a portrait of his fathers hanging above the fireplace that had not seen months of use. He turned to it, lamp in hand, its flame flickering ever so calmly in the glass cage. "Am I doing the right thing?" There was a part of him that rebelled against looking for whatever had made the frost, whatever the other men had been following. After all, they'd mentioned murder. What if he was going after a killer? If he was then he'd soon be joining his fathers in some torturous hell that the local religion told them awaited people like them. "You always said that people like us have to stick together because everyone else wants us dead... I wish you were here."

    Jack wiped the tear that beaded in the corner of his eye away. He steeled his resolve. Whatever happened, he was going to try and help. The men hadn't seemed pleasant at all to begin with, talking of all manner of depraved things they would do to the "fag" before killing him in revenge. It sickened him, the perverse fantasies of the self-proclaimed bringers of justice that he'd scared off not too long ago. With his lamp at his right, he walked into the woods, determined to find out what really was happening. He'd bid Glaise to stay behind. The faithful companion had complained but ultimately gave in to its master's wishes.

    This time Jack would go upstream. Downstream had not borne any fruit. He would see do all he could to shed light on the mystery that faced him or die trying. He breathed a deep breath and prepared himself for the long night ahead. Such was his fervour that it never even crossed his mind that upstream was the pond that he would often sit by on nights or days that his thoughts and his heart simply could not be settled around the farm.

    ---

    Elian awoke to shivers and frost clinging to the boulder that provided him what little shelter it could. His feet ached and little motions of them offered little comfort, only searing pain. The sun had gone down long ago, it seemed and pale moonlight shone into the clearing. The young man's bleary eyes widened in astonishment at the beauty of the small pond. Though the water was placid, it shimmered in the moonlight. In the grass by the pond, delicate blue flowers swayed in the slight breeze, their petals faintly glowing in the light of the pale waxing moon.

    The blond could faintly hear the chirping of crickets and the singing of nightbirds carrying across the rippling pond and the gurgling stream. The trees themselves seemed to have a life of their own. The branches at the edge of the clearing danced ever so slightly to the whim of the gentle wind. The shadows they cast on the trunks of the trees where the moonlight could not touch them were mesmerizing. Beyond the first trees, the foliage was thick enough for very little light to be let through, but in the clearing, the full splendour of the growing moon shone bright.

    Elian's breath caught in his throat. There were precious few places like these left in the world, and most were far apart from each other. For a moment, the pain in his feet and completely spent legs was faded to a faint buzz in the back of his mind as he took in the wonder of this small secluded place he had found. There were no angry men, no hostile shouts to disturb its tranquil. Elian had made sure to listen. No, there was nothing but the serene sounds of the stream as it flowed along at an amicable speed, the creatures of the forest, and the rustling of leaves in the wind. Such pity he'd not found such a place before. He'd never have left, food be damned.

    His pursuers were dead to him. No sign of them at all. No lamplight nor gruff voices to shatter the peace of the clearing. Elian decided the men were probably camped and asleep somewhere now, and since he was not going to be able to walk at that moment, he might as well bathe in the pond. He stripped off his clothes, gingerly avoiding his feet. He clutched the cloths to his chest and began the arduous crawl to the pond. Fortunately for him it was not so difficult, and the ground was clear of little rocks that would otherwise be painful. He set his garments to the side of the pond and righted himself, first placing his feet in the cool water.

    Much to Elian's surprise, the water was warmer than he'd imagined. Though whether it was because the pond was warm or because he was so cold that even cool water felt warm to him, he could not tell. He'd long since lost any accurate sense of temperature he'd once possessed. The water calmed the pain that was lancing through his feet, and Elian was finally able to stand. He considered plunging into the pond, throwing all caution to the wind. The frost that shot out of his hand was quick to remind him of what had happened the last time he'd bathed so carelessly. A moonflower nearby froze completely and shattered in a cloud of tiny frost crystals and larger pieces of frozen petal.

    Elian mustered what little strength he had left and raised his right foot. When he placed it back down it was on a platform of ice that had materialized over the surface of the water. The cold was soothing. It numbed the pain in his feet. He could walk decently on ice. He wished that the ground was as forthcoming as bodies of water, but it wasn't. Ice was difficult to conjure into flat sheets that wouldn't pierce his feet when he walked onto them on the ground. Making ice was also an exertion that he'd quickly learned wasn't worth going through when there were people pursuing him. It took vital energy away from being able to run and keep himself away from those who would be his captors.

    Right. Left. Right. Left. As Elian's feet left the platforms of ice, they broke apart into little pieces that sparkled in the moonlight before they drifted away and melted back into the waters from whence they came. When he stood in the middle of the pond, he willed the ice to fan out more, giving him room to stand without fearing falling over. He looked up at the moon, naked as the day he'd been born. "Goddess..." he whispered. He laughed bitterly, knowing that the gods had long since abandoned him. "Goddess I've not seen you in a long time..."

    "Would you spare me no help?"

    Only silence answered his plea.

    ---

    Flame sputtered in the lamp that swung from Jack's hand, thankful for the glass that protected it from the wind that would snuff it out of existence. It was but a few seconds ago that Jack had noticed little flecks of frost drifting along with the stream. They were the first indication in some time that the young man was on the right track. Whatever it was that he was looking for seemed to be wreathed in frost, or was followed by it. Needless to say he had slowed down his pace and done his best to move quietly as he could.

    It was only as he passed a large rock by the side of the stream overgrown with the roots of the tree perched on a bank of dirt above it that Jack realized where he was headed. His pond. His place of thinking and quiet. He looked in vain to the skies, trying to catch glimpse of the stars that shone there, of the countless ancestral spirits he'd been told were watching. "Is this by providence of the gods?" he whispered to himself as he crept along, silent as he could. The damp earth of the riverbank only served to help keep his footfalls muffled.

    As Jack neared the clearing he could hear none of the usual singing of the night songbirds, but he could hear a different and, for the time of year, entirely foreign sound. Over the stream and through the trees, the sound of cracking and creaking ice punctuated the night every so often. The noise was fairly louder than the chirping of crickets, and so carried clearly through the crisp night air. He crept even closer to the opening of the clearing into where the stream flowed.

    The sight that greeted Jack left him slack-jawed and, admittedly, drooling. There, standing on a platform of shifting ice stood the most beautiful creature that the poor farmlad had ever seen. Jack quickly blew out the lamp at his side, concerned that the other man might see him and accuse him of being a faggot. Needless to say, he could not take his eyes off of the sight before him.

    He -- Jack could see the impressive tackle that was on the man -- was of alabaster skin that glowed with a pale silkiness. The creature was bathed in the light of a moon that was brighter than it had any right to be even when it was full. The blond was surrounded by a halo of moonlight. The sight was truly magical.

    Jack gulped as his eyes roamed down from the platinum locks that adorned the other man's head down to his narrow shoulders. His eyes followed the curve of the man's back and the slender taper of his torso to his waist. There was beauty there, but Jack knew that the other man's thinness could not be healthy. It almost reeked of starvation. Still, his eyes could not help themselves but roam further down, over the twin mounds of creamy flesh and the seam that ran between them. Down to strong thighs and... calves all cut up by twigs and bushes. Fortunately for the farmlad, the ice shielded his eyes from the grotesquerie that was the creature's battered feet.

    The creature seemed healthy enough that Jack thought himself a bit foolish for getting in such a fuss over a person whom he thought was about to die. Even so, he could not bring bitter thoughts into the forefront of his consciousness. He was absolutely captivated. Thoughts of coupling with the other man crept unbidden into Jack's mind and he felt his manhood swell in his breeches. He felt blood surge to his cheeks and warmth fill his face and his ears.

    Just as Jack thought the apparition before him could be no more magical, he noticed for the first time what it was actually doing. It was bathing in a way that was completely foreign to the farmlad, but equally elegant and magical and awe-inspiring. Orbs of water drifted up from the pond. Their surfaces were covered by spiralling fractals of frost that kept them contained before the ice melted and the water poured over the creature. He'd never seen such a sight before, and Jack had to hold back a gasp.

    One after another spheres of water were lifted from the pond and rapidly wrapped in beautiful latticeworks of frost only to melt and cascade over beautiful almost-white hair and marble-like skin. The water glittered in the moonlight as it was raised and as it rained down. It glittered even as it flowed down the other man's body in rivulets that followed every seam and curve in an almost lascivious fashion. As droplets of water left the creature's body, they froze and bounced off of the platform of ice back into the lake with the faintest of clinks like glass against glass.

    As if it wasn't enough that in the centre of the lake stood such marvellous beauty, moonflies flew about him in a dazzling display of twinkling blue lights. They danced in a circle that in turn danced in towards him and out away from him. The Blue Maids that glowed faintly in the light of the moon swayed to the rhythm of the wind as well. Even the moonlight itself seemed to sparkle and give the creature bathing innocently in the middle of Jack's pond an almost ethereal quality. "By the gods. Have I found one of the fair folk?" Jack whispered to himself, adjusting his half-hard member in his pants.

    Jack watched, entranced and unable to take his eyes away from the awe-inspiring sight in front of him for fear that if he so much as turned his head slightly, that it would vanish before he knew it. He felt his heart beating quickly in his chest, and he could hear the blood rushing through his head.

    Fear held him back, but his heart told him that it wanted nothing more than to get closer to the beautiful, mesmerizing, and truly strange creature that was there.
     
    • Love Love x 1
  2. Being able to bathe, even though it was by moonlight, and even though it was with battered and bleeding feet was a refreshing change of pace for Elian. He had spent the last week on the run, and the shoes he'd managed to "steal" had worn out before the third day was out. They had been an old pair. The kindly old lady that had given it to him thinking he was her grandson said they were old but sturdy. What a load of horsedung that statement had been, he mused as the water cascaded around his body.

    Elian felt a twinge of guilt in his heart since the last village he'd been to was a relatively poor one and the shoes he'd stolen were probably the only shoes that the poor kid would have gotten in some time. From what the old woman said, it was "his" nameday and that she'd spent a long time looking for the old shoes to give him because she couldn't find anything else worth giving to her grandson. The remorse was relatively short-lived in the front of his consciousness where it was beaten out by the justification he had used time and time again: he had to survive. In the harsh world he lived in, remorse did little to help. Instead the guilt remained at the back of his mind, gnawing at his psyche relentlessly, fed by the amalgam of the atrocities he'd committed, both small and bordering on the truly despicable.

    Elian hadn't stayed long in that village. Between feeling bad for the old woman and very little in the way of food from the villagers, there were few reasons to stay longer than he did. A woman had tried to drive him out with a pack of dogs, barking as the hounds of hell would in pursuit of an errant soul. She yelled all manner of profanity at him and wielding a curved blade with a battered edge and a layer of rust that made Elian's blood run cold.

    Terror had seized Elian's heart, a cold skeletal hand that clutched at every dreg of his humanity and pushed them away, locking them behind an icy prison. A dark haze descended upon his eyes and shaded them from reason as the ice, destructive and rebellious, arced from his hands and froze the woman to what he could only assume was her death. It was mere hours later that he was alerted to his plight by the light of torches and the yelling of angry men. "Faggot! Get back here! Face a real man!" they called out, voices straining in the darkness of the night but burdened with not only grief but also immeasurable anger. He could hear the hacking of branches and the sound of blades cleaving the underbrush in twain. These were dangerous men and Elian had to get away.

    Two days and two nights, Elian ran, hoping to make some progress on the men that were tracking him, to no avail. Every time he stopped to catch his breath he would hear the sound of their blades drawing inexorably closer; the peals of the bell that would sound his doom getting louder and louder through the dense, dank woods. His feet had been sore, his legs burning with exhaustion, but he had to keep running, if only for another minute, another hour, another day. He could not afford the men the chance to catch up to him, for as much as he despised the thing, the monster that he'd become, he desperately clung on to the hope that he would one day redeem himself in the eyes of both gods and men.

    The shoes that were the one thing that protected his feet from the rough dirt strewn with all manner of sharp rocks and detritus had almost been worn out by midday on the second day of his egress. The men in pursuit were relentless, urging Elian on, and on, beyond the limits of his human endurance. Perhaps only his ice truly kept the exhaustion at bay, slowing down the functions of his body, consuming and directing whatever strength he had into keeping himself alive. By then he'd worn a hole in the heel of his left shoe and his feet were beginning to get blistered.

    Elian shivered, remembering that this was but a momentary lull in the chase. He would find no rest from the men who followed his trail, keen and hot in pursuit and seeking vengeance and probably all manner of pain and suffering on the blond. He despised the simple matter that he knew why he would never find reprieve from the men, that even time itself would not dull the burning desire for revenge that burned in their hearts; he was a monster. He was a terrifying creature to be feared, not loved. A beast that held at his fingertips the very powers of Winter. The very cold that sucked life from the land and left fields fallow and barren.

    Tears fell from the corners of his eyes, glittering in the light of the moon that seemed to smile silently, cruelly upon him. The glittering trails of water froze as they freed themselves from his skin, falling to the platform of ice upon which he stood with a deceptively gentle tinkle. A tremor ran from the base of his feet up his slender frame. The spheres of water faltered in their graceful ascent. He righted them, wanting only to finish his "bath". He'd become afraid of proper baths, both for the painful memories that they bore for him, as well as the terror and unrest that they seemed to, without failure, bring. He could not take a bath without seeing his skin soaked in blood, both the blood of the lives he'd taken and the lives that had been taken from the person that simply wanted to protect him.

    Elian heard a faint whisper, a ghost in the wind almost too soft for mortal hearing. He looked around, eyes wide in wonder. How had he not noticed? The night air was quiet. Nary a rustle of leaf, or hoot of owl, or song of nightingale rang out in response to his gaze. He looked up at the trees and saw beady eyes watching him as though entranced, enraptured by the light of the moon that danced daintily over his pallid skin. He smiled, for but a fleeting moment. It was a pained smile, one that barely stretched the corners of his lips; it was the smile of a man who had seen much grief and too little joy. These other creatures saw the beauty of ice, he only saw the destruction and death it wrought. A chill ran up his spine. It felt as though there were eyes boring into his very soul. He turned, heart beating loudly in his chest, hammering against the bones of his ribs as though yearning for the skies. There was nothing. Nothing but the dark forest, the moonlight, the pond and the myriad creatures watching him. There was nothing but blessed silence.

    Elian breathed a sigh of relief, his breath curling about in front of his face in a shower of tiny frost crystals. Then, the sound of a twig breaking shattered the silence of the night. Overwhelming fear gripped Elian. A dark, terrifying haze hung over his eyes and shielded him from all reason and humanity. The ice within him would not be contained. Frost spun in ragged bolts from his hands, as though lightning that seared the heavens when clouds were thick, only this lightning bore no fire of the gods, only ice. The ice arced to the surface of the lake, crackling with a madness that would deceive any that witnessed it into believing that it had a life of its own. Where ice and water met, great sheets of ice erupted into existence, spiderwebbed with cracks and spindles of darker, blacker ice.

    Elian drew in deep breath after deep ragged breath. He clutched his hands to his chest as a mighty wind picked up about him and swirled around the clearing, but only around the clearing. The howling wind ripped leaves and twigs from the trees and hurled every manner of forest creature that was caught in its malicious anger against both trunk and branch. Waves of Elian's power rolled across the surface of the pond, freezing whatever had not been frozen yet. The ice crashed across the shore, bringing icy death to all that was unfortunate enough to be there. The ice kept coming. Wave after wave that rang unimpeded through the clearing. Frost climbed the tree-trunks ragged and without its normal elegance. Birds that had not been caught by the wind or frozen to death in the trees nearest to the clearing took to the air in a cacophony of caws, titters, hoots, and the flapping of winds.

    Elian buried his face in his hands that still arced bolts of frost into the air. He wept. The outburst was raucous, and could certainly have been heard from far away. Elian sank to his knees; he was found; he was dead. He had, for all that he tried, failed to find meaning, to find some form of redemption, to pay some recompense for the myriad atrocities he'd committed against his fellow man. Snap. Snap. Snap. The breaking of twigs and branches continued, echoing clear through the night. Elian heard each and every one clearly; Elian felt each and every one clearly. Each felt like getting stabbed by a rapier, or cleft by a sword, or pierced by a crossbow. With each sound the ice beneath his knees buckled and cracked, sending fractures spiderwebbing through the pond's frozen surface. The noise from the ice cracking was thunderous. He'd frozen the pond deep.

    Crack. He looked to the moon and held out his arms, prostrate. "Forgive me." His hands shook and his eyes softest blue like the morning sky quivered with fear and despair too. His voice was heavy with pleading, thick with desperation. Crack. With a final deafening crack, the ice broke, sending clouds of finer crystals of frost into the air and plunging Elian deep into the now-murky water of the pond. Made inky by the shroud of night, the water closed over Elian's head. The cold, enough for Elian to feel it, was so acute that he could not help but draw in a huge sucking breath. Had his face not been underwater by the time he did, he might have been able to swim to the surface.

    Water flooded his lungs and he flailed helpessly, reaching vainly for the surface and the moon that shone above it even as the ice that had sank with him rose to seal the hole he'd fallen through. He felt a stabbing pain in his chest. Water filled his throat and his nostrils. It hurt. It hurt.

    Most of all it was cold.

    So very, very, very cold.

    ---

    Jack continued watching. Enchanted. Rapt. Feelings and needs that had never before truly touched his young heart, emerged from their hiding in the shadows of his fearful mind. Lust, admiration, infatuation. None of these had he felt in all his years on the farm. The only other family within a day's travel of their farm had only daughters whom Jack held in highest contempt for all their futile attempts to bed him whenever he came about with Nyko and Kyle. Their father had had something to say about it all when he caught one of his daughters pushing herself on a less-than-amused Jack. The girl probably spent the rest of the day cleaning out the stables for all the trouble she'd managed to call upon herself. Thankfully, they never tried again after that. Though if Jack was being perfectly honest, he'd not gone back more than twice after that happened.

    Jack's heart rebelled against the more sensible part of his mind. He'd lived with his parents in fear and isolation for so long that even such a beautiful creature so innocent in its bathing was an object of fear for Jack. His mind, twisted and honed by years of terror and words of warning from his fathers made it clear that the beautiful man would like bring to bear the wrath of winter upon his countenance should he be found spying. His heart, the one part of Jack that remained pure as the morning light despite all the years of isolation, instead told him that the creature he beheld was his one chance at finding the love that his fathers had. After all, how often did anyone walk through the forest surrounding their small farm? How often did anyone of his age come nearby? Jack knew the answer. It wasn't very often. He'd never had to scare off more than two or three travellers from his land in every passing of the seasons.

    The days were getting longer, and the comforting darkness of night was becoming shorter. Summer was on the verge of washing over the land, and Jack new that any and all of the farmlads in the area with whom he even had a shred of a chance with would be far too busy tending to their fields to pay him any attention. In fact, Jack himself needed to get on with the planting of some of his crop. Jack would be alone for an extended period of time, working the field and the pasture all on his own. It was a compelling argument, that, but years upon years of dire warnings and memories of how his parents reacted to seemingly simple things were hard to shake. He remained rooted firmly in place, held back by fear from what his heart desired most at the moment. "If you are listening..." Jack whispered, still riveted to the sight before him. "Please. Tell me what I must do..." The gods were deaf to his pleas as they had been to many of his fathers'.

    The gleaming orbs of water faltered as they rose. Jack watched as a tremble raced up the other man's slender frame, intrigued. Moments later, the man turned and cast his sight almost exactly where Jack stood and Jack could see the blond's eyes dilate in fear. For all he knew, Jack was certain that his own eyes had done the same. Fear. It was all he'd ever known. The fear was enveloping, overwhelming, all-encompassing. He retreated, silently as he could, yet still unable to take his eyes from the sight before him. He forcibly tore his eyes from the naked, pallid, beautiful visage before him and turned and ran into the murky darkness of the forest. A twig broke under his feet. He cursed.

    Jack heard a thunderous crackle, a howling wind, and a pulsating whoosh behind him. Fear kept his eyes staring straight forward, into the trees. His mind was completely and absolutely certain that the other man was in pursuit, perhaps to turn him into a block of ice. Booming cracks filled the night air. One after another the cracking sounds assailed his ears, almost deafening in the silence of the night. Ultimately, curiosity overcame the will to survive, his heart would not agree with his mind. He wrenched his eyes from the path in front of him and threw his gaze over his shoulder. He had no pursuer. In the bright light of the moon, what he saw was a frozen pond and a ring of frost wrapping around the trees. In the light of the moon, he saw the ice covering the pond buckle and crack and moan. He saw it break, sending the pale apparition tumbling into the water.

    Jack gasped. He wanted to help, yet his entire body was locked into the run. Though he wanted to stop, each foot he planted on the earth intending to skid to a halt instead drove him ever forward. He knew what happened to most animals that fell into frozen lakes. The sight was rarely pretty, and even more seldom was their survival. The brunet knew that the laws of both gods and men would have demanded him to run back and help the poor soul, but fear and adrenalin were surging in his system. He could not stop himself from seeking the comfort and sure safety of home. Remorse could wait.

    *

    Jack must have looked quite frazzled because the moment he entered, Glaise was all over him, whining, barking, and licking his face. "Glaise. Glaise. It's alright. I'm alright." Jack's breath came in ragged gasps and his entire body shuddered as he panted for breath, having neither stopped nor slowed the whole way back to the farmhouse. It was a lie. A filthy lie meant to assure not Glaise, but his own rebelling conscience. His emotions were in complete and utter turmoil and his eyes darted about the room frantically.

    The brunet was also quite badly scratched up, what with running through the forest in the dark of night where twig and branch and root and shadow all melded together under the blinding veil of darkness. "Fuck." Jack swore under his breath. In his haste to run from the danger he'd perceived, he'd forgotten the lantern. He would have to return for it. Deep inside his consciousness, a part of him rejoiced for it wanted nothing more than to return to the pond if only just to see if any lasting harm had been done to the beautiful creature he'd watched there. His heart pounded in his chest, and his mind was in utter disarray.

    "Alright, Glaise. Go to sleep." Jack cooed to his dog and placed his head against its furry muzzle. A warm salty tear fell from the corner of his eye and the hound licked it up. The rambunctious ball of white fur whined and stalked off to his corner of the farmhouse, not satisfied with Jack's assurances. He trotted about the corner in a circle as he would always do and lay down, one of his eyes cracked open and following Jack's every move. Jack smiled a small smile. It was one that only daintily danced upon his lips. He shook his head before climbing up the stairs. The creaking of each step sounded strangely magnified in the empty house.

    Jack pushed open the door to his quaint room. He could not bear the thought of taking over his parents' bedroom, at least not yet. The pain of Kyle's passing was still fresh on his mind. His thoughts turned to Glaise. The dog had been his faithful companion for years. He'd raised Glaise since he was a puppy. He'd played with Glaise and cared for the ball of white fur when the dog was sick. The dog had repaid him in kind whenever he came down with a cough or a fever and watched over him. Though his love for the dog would span all eternity, he knew that Glaise wouldn't live forever. Jack dreaded the day that he knew would come that Glaise simply wouldn't be there anymore and he would be well and truly alone.

    Jack crawled into his bed and laid on his back, eyes affixed to the ceiling. Had he done the right thing? Why would his fear not let him anywhere near the man he'd seen at the pond who wielded powers mere mortals could only dream of? His parents never seemed to have a problem bathing in front of and with him, nor had he a problem with them being naked before him. Then again, the alabaster-skinned creature was not one of his parents. Nor was he entirely sure it was human at all. After all, what mortal man had dominion over the powers of winter? Regardless, there was a heavy knot of regret and guilt in the pit of Jack's stomach.

    What did it say about him, that in his fear, he'd left a man to fall and probably drown in a frozen lake, helpless? Jack shivered. His actions bore truths that neither his heart or his mind wished to face. The apparition seemed to be controlling the ice and had stood on it with almost no discomfort at all. So he must be impervious to the cold! Jack reasoned to himself. That was it! He hadn't left the man to his death. He himself had had the ill-guided experience of plunging into the pond at winter's end as the ice that covered the ground thawed. The water had been ice-cold then, and had only served to force him to breathe in the still-chilly air. He knew that most of the animals that fell through the ice met the same fate, only some of them were submerged when the need for breath overtook them, drowning them.

    Yes. Jack had not killed anyone by being too afraid. Part of his mind continued to protest. "What if he is affected by the cold? What then?" but it all fell on deaf ears. He would not hear it. He would not have it. He did not need the guilt to bear on his consciousness. After all, he had no chance of getting what his heart wanted from the blond anyway. He sighed. Maybe his destiny was to be alone, to never find anyone that would fill his days with love and laughter. To never find happiness with another man.

    Jack frowned. The thought was unsettling. He stared at the ceiling for a good long while with nothing but the silence of the night for company. Even Glaise was dead quiet; it was odd. Even in his sleep, the dog was oft rambunctious. Jack guessed that Glaise was being sympathetic to the turmoil that was raging inside of him. He shook his head and turned on his side. The wall was now before his eyes, painted faintly by the moonlight that was no longer as bright as it had been in that clearing.

    There was definitely something strange at work in the woods, arcane things far beyond his own comprehension. A man who brought with him cold and frost and ice when by all rights all of it should have thawed long weeks ago and a moon whose light shone brighter than it had, by any virtue of its nature, any right to shine. Jack was still awestruck by the beauty of the sight he had beheld. There was no denying it, he was deeply infatuated. Whether it was with the man who'd been there or the grandeur of the apparition, he did not know. Nor would he ever know, he guessed, sadly.

    His heart cried out and he knew that beyond the fact that he wanted to see more of the man, that beyond the fact that he wanted to witness such beauty again, he truly just did not want to be alone anymore. Back in the clearing, probably soaked in the cold waters of the pond, was his one hope of that. Yet his mind would not let the want sit. There were needs that superseded them. He had to stay alone or find someone like him lest he face serious injury, or worse, death.

    But the men from before had said that he was a faggot too! protested his heart.

    Nonsense. His mind said. You haven't the faintest idea if he was the one being pursued. Even if he was, how are you so sure that they were not just lying to justify their cause? The point was a strong one. A valid one. Jack simply didn't know enough about the other man to say for sure. Not to mention, did he really want to mess with something that was very clearly born of old magicks? With someone that brought with him the ancient standards of Winter itself? Jack shivered at the thought. It was all beyond his understanding. Yet, inexplicably, some part of his heart said that it did, indeed, want to risk all of that, if only for a chance to no longer be alone.

    Jack's mind drifted back to the apparition he had encountered at his pond. He remembered the moonlight that framed the beautiful creature in a majestic halo. He remembered the glittering spheres of water that seemed to dance their way around and over him only to burst and shower him with a cleansing cascade. He remembered the rivulets of water that ran down that naked body, following every sensuous curve and dip. For a moment, Jack's paranoid mind was pushed to the side and he reveled in his heart's desires. Desires that shot through his body and straight down to the centre of all men's lusts.

    The night was punctuated by the rhythmic rustling of sheets and soft moans of pleasure.

    ---

    The creaking of ice sheets as they began to break apart in the heat and light of the morning sun served as the cock's crow to wake Elian. The gurgle of water filled his ears as his body bobbed up and down by the shore of the pond. He coughed up some water from his lungs. It seemed that even water colder than most mortal man could bear, could not hurt him. He laughed. The sound was a ragged, broken one. Ice-cold water was one of winter's domains and as the first of his people to have the curse, it could not truly hurt him. He should have known better.

    Elian did not move for a moment. He was still alive. He was, for the most part, at least, alright. No new injuries were apparent other than the ones he had already accrued. He shook his head. Who was it that had spied on him, then? If there were no others that had come, then whoever it was had not bothered to bring to bear upon him the wrath of his fellowmen. Truth be told, as Elian remembered the night vividly, the mysterious stranger had only run away when Elian had turned to look for him. Who was this creature that was more afraid than hateful of him, of an unknown man at whose fingertips lay the powers of all of winter?

    Elian could not answer the question. He simply did not know. The waters rippled around his slender frame. He had not taken a good long look at himself in a while. He was pitifully starved. Whatever definition had been on his body in the years before his exile was now gone. He was practically skin and bones. What little food he sparingly had went into feeding his body's insatiable thirst for heat and energy to survive. He wondered what the numerous brothels that had at times offered and at times forced him into service had found worth money in him. Perhaps the fact that few people if any in the area had hair and skin like his made him exotic, and thus a pricey commodity.

    He shivered. Elian's past since his exile was checkered, and most of it much better forgotten than remembered. He drew himself up and out of the water. His feet were still quite sore, but the long soak had made sure that for the time, at least, they did not hurt as much as they once had. He had washed up on the opposite side of the pond from where he'd laid down his clothes the previous night. He didn't really want to walk all the way over to the other side, but it seemed like he had little in the way of choice in the matter. He could not swim across, there were too many ice floes for it to be practical.

    Elian gathered his energy and froze for himself a path across the pond. He had very little fight left in him. This was far from the longest time he'd gone without food and without warmth, but this was the longest time he'd spent being pursued. Every joint in his body ached with fatigue, but he had to continue on. No life, even one befitting slaves and animals awaited him should he for a moment falter in his steps. Only death awaited him if he stopped. He dragged himself onto the ice and began to walk towards his clothing.

    Elian carefully knelt by the shore, his feet still well protected by the ice and picked up his clothes. The torn linen of his trousers and his tunic was soaked with moisture, probably from the frost that he'd managed to cover most everything with the previous night. A lot of it had thawed, he noted, as he looked around. The ground was wet with meltwater and droplets of it glimmered on blades of grass. The blond considered allowing his clothes to dry, but quickly realized it would be a death sentence to wander the forest naked.

    Elian pulled on his breeches and the ragged tunic that he'd managed to grab two or three towns back. They were frightfully damp and Elian knew that if it was windy, he was likely to call upon himself some plague or illness ill-begotten by wrathful gods. He winced when he put his feet to dry land, the coarse dirt and blades of grass that bent under his feet got into the wounds and rubbed against his blisters, sending bolts of searing pain up his legs. The very earth, it seemed, wanted him gone. Winter was no longer welcome for it was time for new life to be brought to the land, not scourged from it as the cold wind of winter served to do.

    Elian tore two long strips of cloth from his tunic and picked up two slabs of ice from the pond. He set them against his feet and bound them as securely as he could muster. As long as he had the energy to keep himself conscious, the ice should help. He looked through the trees and steeled himself. It was time to try and find something, anything, to eat.

    ---

    Jack woke up to sunlight streaming through the open window of his room. The cool earthy breeze of summer's first days wafted in and made the motes of dust drifting in the golden light dance. He rose from his bed, eyes bleary and tossed the crusty rag he'd used the previous night to clean himself up to the side. He pulled on his breeches and a fresh tunic at the same instant that he heard Glaise bound up the stairs and begin to enthusiastically paw at his room's door.

    "Hey Glaise..." Jack yawned, the memory of the man still fresh in his mind. The mere thought set his heart aflutter and he felt blood rise to his cheeks. What would the man think if he'd known that Jack had spilled his seed to the image of him? The fantasy had been vivid. The fantasy had been powerful. Jack had never been quite so horny as he was thinking about the creature he'd seen at the pond. It took very little prodding for him to blow his first load, but he'd been painfully hard still and had to blow another before his cock, and, if he was being honest, heart, were satisfied.

    "I'll make breakfast, Kyle..." Jack called out, a spry step in his gait as he walked down the stairs to the kitchen where he took out two plates and set them on the table. He visited their pantry and began to take out what was needed to make breakfast enough for two, but then it struck him, there was no need. There was only one mouth he had to feed now: his own.

    Jack sat on a chair and stared blankly at the empty plate in front of him. He was alone. His last remaining parent was dead. Buried beside his husband and the man he loved and risked his life for. Jack was alone. He buried his face in his hands as the tears came and shuddering sobs shook him. Wet spots quickly appeared where his tears fell upon the wooden table. He missed them already. They might not have been his biological parents, but they'd shown him all the love and care that they could muster. They taught him well and had made sure he would not be left without the skills he would need to ensure his survival. He loved them and they loved him and he missed them sorely.

    Glaise whined beside him and the dog pulled at his owner's breeches. Jack reached down, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I'm okay, boy. Don't you worry." He gulped, trying to get rid of the lump in his throat. "I'll be alright." He petted Glaise. "We'll be alright."

    *

    Breakfast was a somber affair of eggs and salted meat. It was their typical morning meal, and arguably, his father Kyle's favourite meal judging by the rapturous expression he had whenever they ate breakfast. Even on his deathbed, Kyle found solace in their morning food, and so, Jack was not so surprised that Kyle released his hold on life after breakfast. He wiped the last of his tears from the corners of his eyes. His parents would not have wanted him to spend so long grieving for them. There was work to be done on the farm.

    Jack had other things on his mind. As he placed the wooden plates in a nearby pail filled with well-water, he resolved to return to the pond. He'd thought over breakfast what he was going to do about the creature he'd seen there. The other man had not seemed to be hostile, and, it seemed, that he had been as scared of Jack as the brunet had been of him. Jack decided that if he was going to go back to grab his lantern, he was obliged to check on the other man if only just to see that he was not dead.

    He made to leave, but not before going around the house once more to see if anything was out of place. It was a mannerism he'd picked up from his parents who never seemed to be quite at peace even at home. Whenever they would leave they would always go around once and check if there were still any candles alight or if there were any people who were, for some unfathomable reason, hiding in the darkened corners of the house.

    Jack found nothing out of line. Everything was where it should be. Just as he was about to leave, though, he noticed that something was indeed amiss. At the foot of the wall separating the living room from the kitchen was a small wooden box. It was probably the object that Jack had stubbed his toe on the previous night. He'd never seen the thing before. He looked around he noticed that one of the stones in the fireplace had been knocked loose.

    Jack knelt to examine the place where the stone had been. Behind it was a small alcove that seemed to fit the box just right. He wondered what the box contained. He picked it up. The wood was of such exquisite quality, the likes of which could only be found, according to his fathers, in the northern mountains. Carved on the lid, it seemed with much care, in elegant flowing script was Jack's name. Snowflakes and fractals of frost were burned into the wood around it. The box itself almost shimmered in the sunlight from the finish. He recognized the lettering as Kyle's. Jack grew even more puzzled; he had not known his father was capable of such beautiful handicraft...

    Jack lifted the lid and it swung up on hinges hidden from his eyes. The work on the box was masterful. The inside was lined with midnight blue velvet, a truly expensive luxury item that few could afford. He wondered how his father had come across it, especially enough to cover the entire inside surface of the box. Jack saw a smaller box inside and a folded-up scrap of parchment...

    "Jack. I had hoped I could give this to you myself, but I am old, and I do not think that the day will come while I am alive. Open this when you have found true happiness."

    The slanted scrawl was familiar. It was his father Kyle's. When had his father hidden the box? He'd never been aware of its existence, nor had he noticed that his father had made it. Reading the letter, one of the last words from his father, brought fresh tears to his eyes. He wiped them away and returned the box to its alcove in the wall. Maybe he would get to open it one day, when he found true happiness, but he doubted it.

    *

    As Jack made his way out the door, Glaise was quick on his heels. "Glaise... I need you to stay here, okay?" The dog whined and sat on his haunches. "I know. But I need you to watch the farm for me." Glaise bowed his head and yipped at Jack as he walked towards the woods. "I'll be back before you know it" he called back to Glaise. The dog's bark followed Jack as he entered the treeline.

    Creeping tendrils of dread coiled around Jack's heart. Apprehension bubbled in his gut. What if he had misjudged the situation? What if he was walking to his death, perhaps one where he would be forever entombed in a lake of ice? There were spirits, his fathers had said, that were known to trap men in trees or in stone. Why, then, would there not be spirits that would lure and trap them in ice as well? He tried to still his frantic heart, but to no avail. Fear and attraction both made it hammer in his chest. One led him on, put one foot after the other. One made him crane his neck every so often to look back at the farmhouse that was shrinking away into the distance behind him. Soon he only saw trees behind him, and trees before him.

    ---

    Elian had found a couple of seemingly-edible beetles, a clutch of eggs, and berries that he was sure were edible. The raw eggs still felt slimy in his throat. The berries had been more bitter than sweet. The beetles were just absolutely vile. It was not a very filling meal, and he could feel his stomach rebelling against it already, but he had little choice. He had to eat or he would starve. Survival superseded luxury, he mused. He left the treeline and emerged back by the pond he'd previously abandoned. The ice on his feet had shrunk quite considerably and he was trying his best to conserve what little energy he had gained from the meagre food he'd taken.

    Just as he emerged into the clearing, rolling waves of intense nausea hit him. He fell to his knees, his stomach cramping, his vision swimming and blurry. He retched. The wind rustled through the leaves of the trees. He retched. His eyes almost bulged out of his head. He retched one last time and everything he had eaten made a second showing, creating a foul-smelling puddle of vomit in front of him. The noxious odour triggered another bout of retching and vomit, although this time only bile came up. Elian tried to crawl to a nearby tree to support himself. Another wave of nausea and cramps hit him and he lost consciousness before he could get to the hollow in the tree's roots.

    ---

    Jack spotted the lantern exactly where he had left it the previous night. The pond itself was vastly different from when he had last seen it. Constantly shifting floes of melting ice pebbled the pond's surface and where water met earth, frost overran vegetation. Down the middle of the pond stretched a path of ice, seemingly a bridge from one end to the other. The man he'd seen the previous night was splayed on the far side of the pond. He was fully clothed and seemed far more innocent and modest and ragged than he had in all his naked glory the previous night.

    Jack's breath caught in his throat. The man's hand was outstretched towards a nearby tree. What had befallen him? Though his mind rebelled against the thought of going any closer with all its might, concern and the whims of his heart would not be ignored. He steeled himself and began to walk over the bridge of ice to the other side.

    Jack's first step lent him no confidence. The sound of cracking ice filled the air and spindly fractures spiderwebbed through the entire structure. He breathed in deeply and set another foot on the ice. More cracks appeared underneath his feet. He put another step forward. And then another. And another. He ran across the bridge, trying to keep his balance as best as he could to the sound of cracking ice. Halfway down the ice, all hell broke loose. The cracks overtook him and the ice bridge collapsed underneath him, throwing him into the cold water.

    Fortunately for him, his gasp reflex kicked in before his head was underwater. The fact did little to help his situation. The water was cripplingly cold. The chill cut right into his bones. Jack broke the surface of the pond and clambered onto the ice. He drew shuddering gasps of breath and shivered in the wind that made everything much colder. He staggered to his feet and ran the rest of the way across. As he made his way onto land he peeled off his wet tunic from his torso and cast it aside.

    A horrible odour was coming from nearby and Jack cast a glance at where he thought it came from. There was a small drying puddle of vomit and it looked like a mixture of raw eggs, beetles, and berries. He bent down to examine it closer, holding his breath. The fiery red colour of the berries was unmistakeable. The other man had eaten firebrands. They were poisonous, but not fatal unless the person was not in the best of health. Now that he was closer to the other man, Jack didn't think healthy was a word that could be used to describe him.

    The blond was frightfully thin and there hung about him an aura of sickness much like the one that had surrounded his father Nyko in the days before he succumbed to the Summer Plague. Fortunately, both Jack and his other father Kyle had been spared from its onslaught. Jack knelt beside the blond and noticed instantly that his clothes were damp. Strips of cloth were wrapped around his feet and when Jack lifted them to take a closer look, his heart sank.

    The blond's feet were covered in all manner of bruise, blister and cut. Some were leaking pus. Many were bleeding. He hissed. The feet would have to be cleaned and sterilized and bound properly, otherwise they could get really badly infected and Jack did not know how to amputate. Jack moved up towards the blond's upper body and turned him over gently. He placed his hand on the blond's brow and instantly withdrew it. The other man was burning up.

    Jack's actions woke Elian who weakly tried to pull himself up, at first unaware of Jack's presence. When the haze lifted from his mind and his eyes focused on Jack's concerned ones he froze. Then his gaze roamed down and saw Jack's shirtless torso. He screamed. Bolts of ice shot from his hands but frazzled before they could reach Jack, instead breaking into shards of ice that rained on the ground. He tried to back away. Every time he would set his feet down on the ground he would cry out in agony. He didn't want to get raped again.

    Jack had been as much startled by the outburst as Elian had been at the realization that there was someone else with him. He had fallen on his ass when he saw the bolts of ice arcing towards him. His body had locked in total fear at that moment and he felt warm liquid pool by his thigh. He'd pissed himself. Jack held out his hand, palm open towards the blond. He was shaking, but he didn't want the blond to do any further damage to his feet. The plan didn't really work as well as he'd hoped.

    Elian kept backing up and hurting his feet more and more each time he did until his back hit the trunk of a tree. His eyes were wild with fear and his heart was hammering in his chest. His ice was long gone, having deserted him with the arrival of the fever that he felt like a stifling woolen blanket on his body. "Please..." he managed to say. He winced. His throat hurt. His voice was raspy and soft. His screaming had just made it worse.

    Jack inched closer to the blond, holding both his hands out, palm forward to Elian. It was the gesture he'd learned from his fathers when they wanted to say that they meant no harm without words. The blond did not seem to be responding to the gesture. Elian's eyes only widened as Jack drew closer. He continued trying to back away, further hurting his feet in the process. "I won't hurt you..."

    The brunet's words were almost foreign to Elian. If not for the fact that in the years of his travel he had picked up a decent understanding of the lingua franca in the area, he would not have understood the words. Even then, the dialect was strange and one he did not recall ever hearing. He only caught fragments of meaning. The other man was reassuring Elian that he was not going to hurt him. Elian was not convinced. Countless others before this other man had told him that they would not hurt him. Few, if any, kept their word. "Please..."

    Elian shivered. Despite having what he knew for sure was a fever, he was cold. So very cold. He had not had any warmth recently and his ice's hunger had not been sated at all in the past week. He was sure his ice was beginning to cannibalize his body. The fever was not helping because it gave the ice more to feed on. He was going to die soon if he did not get any warmth. Even the sun was beyond helping him now. He needed fire, or another body from which to draw warmth. Anything. He didn't want to die. Sobs wracked his slight frame as he realized the insurmountable odds he faced.

    Jack watched the blond, concerned. It seemed that he had come down with chills. The firebrand's poison was progressing. He wasn't surprised given how unhealthy the other man looked. "I'll take care of you..." he cooed and managed to get right up beside the blond. At that point, Elian had no more energy to struggle and he just resigned himself to his fate of being raped by this man and probably dying of a fever right after.

    "Do with me as you would..." Elian rasped, letting his head fall to one side and closing his eyes in resignation. He sighed. Tears rolled down his cheeks and dripped onto the ground where tiny curls of frost burst from where they splashed.

    Jack tilted his head at the blond. The language was similar, but the dialect and accent were definitely different and he could only capture bits and pieces of what Elian had said. To him it was almost as though Elian had said "Do what you must..." He took it as an open invitation to help. The deeper meaning behind the words went over his head. Jack did not realize that Elian was practically inviting Jack to violate him.

    Elian was still shivering and he stiffened when he felt arms wrap around his waist. He felt himself being moved. Here it was coming. He could almost feel the blunt end of a cock being shoved up his ass. The phantom sensation was there, but his mind was simply playing cruel tricks on him. Instead what he felt was a warm embrace. Jack had drawn Elian into a tight hug. He felt warmth leech from his body as Elian's shivering began to subside.

    Elian sighed in relief from the heat. It was only a little, but it could tide him over for a short while. He felt the chills subside into the normal all-pervasive cold that he felt whenever he was starved of heat. He no longer felt quite so... hungry.

    Jack was concerned. He was feeling really cold, but he held on as long as he could. It seemed to be working. The shivering had stopped and the blond's breathing had evened out. Jack knew that if anything, calming the other man down was paramout so that his body could focus its strength into fighting off the fever. What was worrying was that the blond seemed to be getting even hotter despite the chills subsiding. The blond's weak body was probably succumbing slowly to the firebrand berry, and Jack couldn't bear the thought of allowing that to happen.

    Elian looked up at Jack and, delirious from the fever, asked in his mother tongue "Why are you helping me?" The confused look on Jack's face confused him too. "Why are you helping me?" he said again, this time louder and more firmly. He winced. Talking hurt his throat.

    Jack did not really know what to do. He hushed Elian, trying to be as soothing as possible. "Don't worry." He lifted his hand to stroke Elian's hair. He hesitated and placed it back around Elian's midrift. "Everything will be alright." He said as Elian's breathing became deeper and more rhythmic.

    When the blond closed his eyes and drifted off into sleep, Jack whispered "I'll take care of you..."
     
    • Love Love x 1
  3. Jack's mind was a whirl of chaos and conflicting thoughts. He was embracing another man. Granted, it was not the intimate embrace after coitus that he yearned for, but he still had another man, in the flesh, in his arms. What more, he had the most beautiful man he had ever set his eyes on leaning against him, sleeping. He could hardly believe it. Where his mind could not rest on one emotion long enough to form coherent thoughts, his heart was absolutely elated, his heart soared. He could almost feal it trying to claw its way out if his chest to fly in the blue sky and be free.

    A flush stained his face red like a tomato, blood rushing through his cheeks and his ears. Though he knew that normally, warmth should be there, Jack felt heat being leached from his body. Despite the formidable heat that the blond's fever had reached, Jack felt heat leaving his body. He had no explanation, no reason seemed to stand for it. He shook his head. It was probably just because he was wet and the air was cold. He didn't know how else to explain the heat loss. That being said, he didn't know how exactly to explain the appearance of this mysterious blond man either.

    Jack brushed away an errant lock of hair that lay across the blond's face. There were scars in the stranger's pale face. They were thin and long and faded. He carefully lifted the torn tunic and saw that Elian's belly was lined with the same thin scars. They were pale enough that from afar they were not very visible, but here, up close, from over the blond's shoulder, they practically screamed for attention.

    Jack shuddered involuntarily. He wondered what those scars meant. He had a few of them from childhood when he would run through the woods when he felt like his parents had wronged him. Young, ignorant, stupid Jack had never once considered that there were low-hanging branches and twigs. Often, he would just run into them and end up with quite painful lacerations across his arms and legs. He looked at his forearm. On his left one of those old scars wrapped around his bicep. It was different from the ones that graced Elian's pallid skin with their grim presence. Where the blond's were straight and thin, his was ragged, thicker, and bent every which way. One thing was for sure: Elian's scars were no work of branches.

    Jack could not explain Elian's scars, not their shape, not their character, not their number. He'd never seen the like before. The ones on the blond's face were sporadic, etched following the curve of his flesh. The ones on Elian's body were not, varying slightly in thickness and apparent depth even as they cris-crossed over one another up along his torso. He would have to ask the mysterious man if-- No. He could not afford to think like that.

    Long had his parents waited for some providence of the gods. Long had he waited for some blessing, some grace, even the barest of smiles from the Gods. If this mysterious, seemingly-powerful, but seemingly-broken man was their way of giving him some chance at a happier, less lonely existence, he would not waste it, his own health be damned. No one would be dying in his arms that day. Not if he could help it.

    He carefully unwound his arms from Elian's waist, grimacing at the rough texture of the multitude scars that decorated the blond's flesh. As he slid his arms away from Elian's midriff, he took great care not to jostle him any more than was necessary. The last thing he wanted was for the evidently ailing young man to be woken from the slumber that seemed to afford him some calm at the very least. Nor, if the previous time that Elian had woken to Jack's presence was any indication, did he want the blond to succumb to fear and in doing so do more damage to himself.

    When he had freed his arms he slowly extracted himself from between Elian and the trunk of the tree, making sure that the blond could rest comfortably against the rough bark. As soon as he did, and as soon as his skin was no longer touching the blond, Jack felt warmth rush back into his body. He blinked at the sensation, and for the first time he felt the blush that had crept onto his cheeks properly. His ears felt like they were alight. They might as well were, as his entire being was lit by the flame of deepest infatuation with the blond he'd not shared more than a few words with, but only watched from afar. He averted his gaze from Elian, embarrassed that he'd done what he had. His heart had no qualms about it.

    Jack heard the rustle of damp cloth against barck and whipped his head back to look at the source of the sound, Elian. The blond had taken to shivering yet again and in the process had sank down lower on the tree. Jack breathed a string of profanities under his breath as he knelt before the blond and held his hand to the other man's brow. The fever was not abating, not in the least. He found his wet tunic and laid it over Elian's prone form. Though his clothes were wet and the air was cold, it was another layer to protect him from the elements. It would help for a short while, but in the end if he allowed it to stay on Elian he knew that it would only make matters worse.

    The brunet looked around. In the time he'd spent with the blond, a lot of the frost that had entombed the clearing was either melting or long since passed in the heat of the sun. Few glittering shards of ice remained on the placid surface of the pond, and the ground was damp with the meltwater of the thin veneer of frost that had covered it not too long ago. The frozen Blue Maids that were spread sporadically through the clearing closed up, hostile to the light of day. A disturbing sense of tranquility had begun to settle over the clearing despite the dark cloud that hung over Elian, threatening to take his life.

    The brunet ran around the water's edge as fast as he could, keeping his balance though the water-slicked grass was very slippery. The soaked leather around his feet felt really uncomfortable and were beginning to chafe, but if he was going to be running as fast as he was, the shoes had to remain. He skidded to a halt a little into the treeline and retrieved both the lantern and the flint and steel. The oil would help start a fire even in the cold and damp. He ran back across the pond to Elian's side. Jack grimaced as he drew closer to the sleeping man. It had almost felt like running into a wall, except that the wall was made of colder air. Elian had slid further down the tree, wracked by even more intense shivers.

    "This is bad..." Jack hissed as he put his hand to the blond's forehead. He drew it back immediately. Hot. Incredibly so. The fever was getting more intense. Jack had never felt a fever quite as scorching or as searing as Elian's. Even when Nyko had succumbed to the Summer Plague, his fever had not seemed quite so sweltering. Jack was at a loss, but he would do what he could to ease Elian's plight. He would do what Kyle did to leech at least some of the fever from Nyko. In that, at least, he had some knowledge. The first thing he had to do was build a fire, a task easier said than done out in the wilderness, especially where frost had just thawed and there was nary a patch of dry ground to be found.

    ---

    "Elian?" Elian frowned. His brother was awake again. The little bastard wasn't about to let him go to sleep, was he? "Elian wake up!" He felt a pair of small hands on his side that quickly went to work trying to shake him awake. "Eliaaan." Whining. Gods be good, his brother was whining. The brat was truly insufferable sometimes.

    "Go to sleep, Andrew." Elian drew the covers over his head, annoyed at the disturbance. He only wanted to sleep. The day had been fraught with enough frustrations that the last thing he needed was to stay up, dealing with his obnoxious younger brother. He'd failed to properly make a bow again. It had been the fourth time in a week. All four times, the bow had snapped when the string was drawn taught. He just wanted to drift off into the land of dreams where there were no worries or problems or frustrations. The land of the living could wait.

    "But I want to play with you." Elian frowned.

    "You've already played with me. Besides. You know mother and father say that it's wrong to do that." The blond shuddered at the thought of being caught by their parents. His father was a ruthless man, and one much steeped in the old ways. His mother was the only thing keeping the king tempered on normal days, but his anger could not be quelled. Not easily, at the very least and not without someone losing something important.

    "I don't want any more of your white stuff!" Good, Elian thought. He didn't think his cock could take any more abuse. At fifteen, his brother was insatiable. He remembered himself at that age, he had not quite been so libidinous. In any case, he didn't want to risk getting caught either. Andrew's insistence that he did not want to commit any incest was quite far from the normal, and jarring enough to catch Elian's attention

    "Then what do you mean by playing with me?" Elian said. He threw the covers off his head and raised an eyebrow at his brother who was kneeling by the headboard of the bed and shaking his shoulders. The younger grinned at him. It was that wide, toothy grin that everyone else found endearing. To Elian, though, it spelled trouble. "Go to sleep Andrew!" Whenever he saw that smile, he ended up going to bed with either a sore ass or a stinging back. He was not about to let his younger brother drag him into more trouble than he was worth.

    "But the sky's awake so I'm awake!" Elian perked up. He threw Andrew's hands off of him and sat up to look outside the window. And there they were. The fires of heaven danced to the music of the celestial sphere high above, shedding their divine light on the earth below. The gods were awake. A genuine smile split his face, and he felt aglow with happiness. Then he remembered there was more training to do the next day. He sighed and lay back down with his back to Andrew. The younger of the two gasped in excitement and said "... Do you want to build a snowman?"

    "No." Elian was not feeling very chatty, all of a sudden. The response was curt and left very little room for discussion. He drew the blanket over his head again, as though to shut out the dancing lights in the sky and the relentless pestering of his younger brother. Much as he would have loved to stay up to play under the light of the dancing sky, he had other duties now as heir apparent to the throne. The time for childish games had long since passed.

    "Oh come on, Elian!" Elian froze as he felt Andrew clamber on to his bed. It wasn't long before he felt the weight of the brunet on his back. "Come oooooon." His brother did not seem to have matured one bit since they were but children. Being the 'favoured one' of the gods may have had something to do with that. Where Elian was constantly being groomed and trained to be the next monarch of Vamara, Andrew was being doted upon. Where Elian was constantly reprimanded and beaten for his failures, Andrew was let go with a slap on the wrist. Sometimes he couldn't help but resent his brother for it.

    "No."

    "A snow knight, then!" Elian's eyes widened in the darkness under his blanket.

    "..."

    "Elian?"

    Elian growled and threw the covers off of himself. Snowmen may have gotten him excited when they were children, but they were older now, and more mature. Or so, at least, he fancied the thought that he was more mature. To that end, Elian had more mature needs now too. There
    had been a knight in his father's court that he'd been fancying for quite a while now... He turned to Andrew and said "... You better not tell mother and father about this" before jumping out of bed much to the excitement of the younger.

    ---

    The sight that met the brunet as he returned to the clearing sent shards of fear into his heart. The air was significantly colder and frost spiralled up the trunk of the tree that Elian rested upon. Delicate fractals of ice spiderwebbed across the roots of the tree and onto the ground and up the blades of grass. Jack set down the bundle of twigs and branches that he'd gone out to collect and made his way to Elian's side. The fever was burning even hotter than it was when he'd left to gather wood for a fire.

    Jack quickly went to work. He had to act fast. He ran around the pond to the streambed and picked up a handful of smooth stones for a makeshift firepit. He stacked the wood inside the ring of stones and dribbled some of the lamp oil onto it before striking the flint. The oil caught fire instantly and the stack of wood crackled merrily. The brunet breathed a sigh of relief as the shivering that continued to ravage Elian's body seemed to momentarily subside. Much to Jack's consternation, without so much as a gust of wind, the fire guttered and died as it reached its peak.

    Jack fumbled for the flint and steel and struck it again. Relief spread through his veins when the little tongues of fire began to dance upon the wood again. Reds and oranges and yellows crackled and popped and embers rose from the flames. The wood itself seemed to come alive, glowing in some places from the heat. The gouts of fire leaped higher and higher, but when they reached their peak, they sputtered and were no more. Jack held his hand out and touched the wood, even the twigs that had been burning mere moments ago were cold and damp as the rest of the damnable clearing.

    The brunet pushed himself to his feet. Perhaps the fire was simply too small. Perhaps the strange blond was himself sucking the heat from the flames. It would certainly explain why Jack had felt himself getting inexorably colder when their skin was in contact. Jack walked over to Elian and took his still-damp shirt from the blond's torso. It was almost freezing cold. He picked up an oil-soaked branch from the pile and walked a ways away towards the water's edge. There he wrapped the bottom of the branch with his shirt to give him purchase and struck the flint onto it.

    It blazed into life just fine. Even the cold wind that blew then, caressing his face with its bony fingers could not quench the fire that was burning on the wood. There was only one way for Jack to find out if Elian was indeed sapping the heat from the fire. He took a step closer. Nothing. Another. Nothing. Onward he went until finally he stood abreast his makeshift firepit. Only then did the flame die, leaving Jack with but a cold, fireless branch in his hands.

    If a small fire could not sustain itself in Elian's presence, then perhaps a bigger one could. Jack needed more firewood, but to journey back to the farmhouse would take far too much time. He pondered the dilemma for a few minutes, never once taking his eyes off of the prone, shivering form of Elian as he slid further down the tree. It was as Jack was moving Elian back up into a more comfortable position that the epiphany hit him like a load of bricks. He had taken a fairly well-crafted blade from one of the men he'd scared off yesterday. He could probably use it to obtain more branches for the fire. It was only a matter of finding his pack and the blade again.

    Jack prayed to the gods that Elian be safe for but a little while longer. They'd seen it fit to allow the blond to enter his life, he reasoned, so they should see it fit to allow Elian to live but a few hours more so Jack could save him.

    ---

    "No..." Elian took a single step towards Andrew. The brunet was lying unconscious on a nearby snowbank. "No. No. No. No!" There was blood everywhere. Ice was beginning to creep up the walls and the marble pillars around them. This frost wasn't the beautiful latticework that normally characterized his ice. This ice was deadly. It was sharp. It was chaotic. Spindles of darker ice intertwined with the white and sharp stalagmites rose from the floor around him.

    The door to the ballroom swung open with a resounding boom. Elian froze. So did all the creeping ice. The snowflakes that were falling from the ceiling themselves stopped in midair. His eyes met his father's, and the king's eyes burned with a fury he had never before seen. Elian took a step backwards. The king's hand was on his sword. He took another one backwards. "How
    dare you?" the king's voice was low and menacing.

    Elian's mother looked at him. He locked eyes with her. A fleeting apparition of sympathy was reflected in her eyes. The mother and her son, her dear, cursed son shared their eyes, but no more in either countenance or courage. As soon as it had come, the sympathy was gone, replaced with cold distance. She knew better than to get in the way of her husband. Elian was in deep trouble, if not life-threatening peril.

    He turned tail and ran. The ice on the floor where he stepped became thicker and more jagged. Gone were the hexagonal designs, things of beauty by their own right, made more beautiful still by the way that Elian's ice sparkled even in the absence of light. They were replaced with jagged edges, sharp ridges and reasonless, rhymeless patterns spiderwebbed with cracks and blacker ice.

    The snowflakes that had been suspended in the air grew heavy and began to fall as cold hard balls of ice. The wind whipped about in a frenzy and the entire ballroom was enveloped in a raging blizzard of snow and hail that followed Elian all the way out through the halls and through the palace gates. The palace-guard tried to follow and stop him on the king's demand but they could not see the heir apparent as he ran across the fjord, enveloped by the raging winter storm.


    ---

    After a good ten minutes looking for the accursed thing, Jack finally found the pack and retrieved it with the curved blade that the men from the previous day had left behind. He couldn't help but imagine what the men would have done with the blond that he was trying to care for had they been able to find him. He was convinced without a doubt that they were after the strange man, though their reason for doing so, he found quite hard to believe. There was nothing about the blond that indicated he was capable of murder. Nothing in that cowering countenance, and in that look of absolute, enveloping fear, that spoke of even slightest villainy.

    Jack supposed that they were similar in that regard. He'd given the matter a lot of thought. His parents, confident and inspiring men as they were for the young Jack Frost, lived haunted lives. They also lived like they were being hunted. All his life, Jack had only known the fear of his parents. All his life, he'd been convinced that it was the one thing ensuring their survival. Trust no one but family, no one but people like us, Nyko would often tell him. It was true. Kyle had had a younger cousin whose life was brutally taken when he made a wrong move on one of the men of the village. Brutally raped, then beaten to an inch of his life before being raped again and finally being lynched and given no proper burial.

    Jack made his way back to the stream and the pond. He hefted the rucksack onto his shoulder and swung the curved blade through the trees whenever he found a decent branch that he thought would do well for a fire. As he walked, he mused. There was little to worry about in the forests surrounding the farm. Wolves stayed far away. Bears would have nothing to do with him or his parents. Jack never found it strange. For him it was simply a fact of life that the beasts of the forest were afraid of them.

    Perpetual fear was all that Jack had ever known. Fear for his life. Fear for his parents' lives. Fear that should anyone ever know what he truly was, they would find him and kill him. He thought about how Elian had reacted to him. Even the kindness he'd shown seemed to terrify the young blond. What brutality, what cold-bloodedness had the mysterious young man seen in his life that caused him to suspect even sincere kindness of ulterior motive? It was simply not right, Jack thought, that such a beautiful and seemingly innocent creature seemed to be so broken.

    When he arrived at the pond, he had an armful of branches that would certainly make for a bigger fire. Jack set the wood down by the old firepit and made his way back to the stream to pick up more stones. He took apart the other firepit and set the pile of wood aside carefully. He created a larger ring of stones a little further away from Elian than the old pit had been and began to pile the wood there, hacking the longer branches in halves or thirds to fit in the circle of stones. As he was doing this Jack heard a strangled yelp from nearby. Elian was awake.

    Jack slowly put down the blade and raised his hands in a gesture of good faith. He was thankful that he had had the presence of mind to put down the quite formidable weapon. The blond was scared enough as it was. He did not need a half-naked man with a quite fearsome curved-blade approaching him. Jack imagined that if he was in the same situation, the very visage of himself would probably have made him lash out in fear.

    Elian just cowered by the tree trunk. He tried to stand, but his legs were weak and useless. His feet were burning temples of agony. His entire body felt sapped of energy, and he felt a chill in his bones he'd never known before in his life. The poison-induced fever was quickly ravaging Elian's body and he had little time left before he succumbed to a long sleep after three days of which would send him falling into a deeper, more eternal slumber. Jack approached the blond. "Don't worry..." He hesitated. "I'll take care of you."

    "Why?" Elian croaked. "Why do you do this?" The blond's voice was hoarse and his throat felt dry and parched. The fever did not help.

    Jack did not entirely understand the question. Elian's accent was thick and the dialect not entirely familiar. "Fire." He said, gesturing to the pile of wood behind him. Simplicity would be best, he guessed, in communicating with the strange man. He reached up at Elian's face and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen over the blond's eyes again. It was an almost-affectionate gesture, one that took both young men by surprise.

    Elian worked his throat as best he could, trying to imitate Jack's words to the greatest extent. What he said came out slow and foreign-sounding. "Feer?" Jack smiled and nodded. It was close enough. Elian leaned his head back. Was this strange brunet going to build a fire? It had been so long since he'd felt the life-giving warmth of a burning coal, let alone a proper fire. When he had not been running, he was too busy hiding to make a fire. It was too risky. The smoke would get him seen, and if not, the ashes the next day would lead his pursuers right to him.

    When the pure terror left the blond's eyes only to be replaced by a guarded wariness, Jack went back to the firepit. He cut the final branches down to size and tossed them onto the pile of wood before pouring more oil from the lamp onto them. It was the last of his oil in that lamp and it would have to do. He took the flint and steel from his side and noticed Elian's eyes follow it with a strange look of ravenous hunger. Jack shivered. The expression on Elian's face was inhuman, almost desperate.

    Jack struck the flint against the steel and red-hot sparks jumped from the rock. Elian's eyes followed them as they arced through the chill of the air and landed on the oil. Jack had put significantly more oil on this new pile of wood and it leaped up in flames almost instantly. Elian made a sound that Jack could only describe as a moan of relief and pleasure as soon as the wave of heat hit him. The sound struck something primal inside of Jack that sent shivers of pleasure down his back and into his manhood. The blond stared at the rolling tongues of fire as they lapped at the wood in an enchanting dance. Reds and yellows and oranges eating away the essence of the wood and turning it into glorious, glorious warmth. Elian revelled in it.

    Jack cleared his throat. The sound caught Elian's attention. Sapphire eyes met agate and a spark of understanding jumped between them. The tension in Elian's shoulders subsided for but a moment, allowing the brunet some measure of trust for an instant. Jack raised his hand and the motion drew Elian's gaze. He gestured at himself, placing his palm over his chest and said "Jack."

    Elian tried his best to repeat the word. There was a niggling feeling of familiarity with the dialect at the back of his consciousness, but with the haze of the fever drawn over his mind, he could not give it form. He mouthed "Zhayck?" Jack shook his head. "Zhack?" With each word the feeling of familiarity grew, but so did the consternation Elian felt at not being able to pinpoint its cause. The blond frowned.

    Jack moved his head from side to side and repeated himself, more slowly this time. "Jack."

    "Jeck?"

    "Jack." Jack couldn't help the hint of exasperation that crept into his voice as he repeated himself for the third time. Do not be so hasty, he reprimanded himself. Do not allow your impatience to ruin what hasn't had a chance to grow yet.

    "Jack."

    Elian nodded, pleased with himself. He was certain he'd learned Jack's name as best as he could. He raised a trembling hand to his chest with much difficulty. His body felt lethargic, unresponsive and heavy. It was almost as though the very air around him had turned to jelly. "Elian." There was no mispronouncing his own name, this time. Elian said his name in his mother tongue, as it should be said. Jack, knowledgeable as he was in his mother tongue found the syllables alien but distantly familiar. A small smile danced on Elian's lips as the brunet tried to speak his name properly. It was the first genuine smile that he'd had in a long time.

    Finally, Jack settled on something that sounded more akin to "Helian," but the blond decided it was close enough. Jack gestured with his hands, raising them in front of him and pulling them in. "Helian, come," he said. The blond nodded and tried to get up. He roared in pain as he set his feet down. They weren't any better. Jack ran over and saw that the wounds had opened again and were bleeding. He grabbed the strips of cloth from Elian's feet and ran to the water to wash them. They would have to do for the time being.

    Jack sprinted back to Elian's side, almost tripping over his own feet. "Here. This help." He wrapped the strips tightly around the blond's feet, making sure that they formed a tight seal. If anything, the cloth should help stem the bleeding and prevent the wounds from opening again. Jack placed his palm against Elian's forehead. He muttered quick thanks to the gods. The fever, while still burning quite savagely, seemed to have been tempered for the while at least.

    Elian couldn't help but wince as Jack went to work on his feet. He knew it was for the better, but he wished it was not quite so painful. In the back of Elian's mind, his survival instinct continued to prod at him, and the fear of Jack would never quite leave his heart despite the brunet having done nothing to cause him distress. In fact, he thought as Jack placed his palm on the blond's forehead, the brunet had done nothing but show him kindness the whole time. What did he have to fear? Everything, his mind told him. Nothing, his heart replied.

    Jack could feel the fear radiating from Elian in the way that the other young man would shrink away from him whenever he got too close. He could almost feel the gaze of the blond wander every so often as though to look for possible escape routes. He couldn't blame Elian, though. He knew that even he would be afraid after being chased for so long, so relentlessly by a group of men so eager to find him dead. He would probably not trust anyone. Though it still made little sense to Jack why anyone would be suspicious of what seemed to be genuine kindness.

    Elian made a muffled sound of protest when Jack slipped an arm under his knees and threw one of the his arms over the brunet's shoulder. With a grunt he lifted the thin blond into his arms and brought him over by the fire. The flames sputtered worryingly for a short while, but they held strong. Jack breathed a sigh of relief and knelt to set Elian down gently, taking great care not to accidentally place the blond's feet on the ground. He had never experienced such injury, but from the sounds and faces Elian made whenever he put his feet down, he could only imagine that they were pure agony.

    Jack walked over to the rucksack that contained the cloak he'd made for the sole purpose of scaring away trespassers on his land and drew it out. Never, he mused, did he imagine that it would be used to care for one such trespasser, beautiful though and innocent as Elian was. In the back of Jack's mind, old instincts still told him to scare the blond away. Fortunately for the other young man, Jack ignored the small voice in his head. He took the coat and laid it on top of Elian's prone form as he lay watching the fire dance. "Warm?" he asked. Elian nodded.

    "Helian..." Jack began. He needed to return to the farmhouse to grab all manner of implements he needed to take care of Elian with. Even so, he knew he would have to take Elian home if he wanted to do the best he could and make sure the blond returned to good health. "Wait here. I return later." The blond's eyes swam with a twinge of fear at being left alone again. Elian couldn't quite reason with the turmoil raging inside him. His mind was relieved that the threat was leaving, but his heart quivered in fear at being left alone. Jack didn't need Elian to say a thing. He could see it in Elian's eyes. "I promise."

    Elian nodded and closed his eyes. A single tear fell from the corner of the blond's eyes as Jack grabbed his rucksack and made for the stream, oblivious to the bead of salty water that left a glistening trail down Elian's cheek. He would be back before Elian knew it, and hopefully, with everything he needed to ensure that the blond would at least survive the trip to the farmhouse.

    ---

    Elian's eyes were wide with wonder as they followed the tower up into the clouds. It was made of pure ice, but the architecture was flowing and beautiful. Could his own ice create such beauty? He shuddered, remembering the damage he'd done. His ice was capable of no such grandeur. No such wonder. It could only, as he'd witnessed, destroy not only his life, but the lives of people he cared about.

    A woman appeared in the crystalline archway that was the entrance to the tower. She was tall and her hair was the same platinum blonde as Elian's, though silvery-gray streaks ran down the length of it. She seemed old, ancient, almost, but it was purely because of her bearing and the depth of wisdom that was palpable in her stark gray eyes. Her face held no trace of the years. Her cheekbones were high and prominent and her jawline was strong as any man's he'd ever seen. She was neither beautiful nor ugly. She just... was.

    She beckoned to him with a finger and he could not help but follow her in. A cape of ice crystals hung about her shoulders and an icy white gown covered her thin form. The cloth that itself seemed fashioned from ice like the rest of the grand tower, swished with her every move. "Another lost one finds his way to us... Perhaps you'll be so kind as to stay with my children and myself unlike the others?" Elian had no answer.

    *

    "I had so hoped you would stay with us, my dear, but I understand." Elian sat by the warmth of a blazing fireplace, the only thing made of stone in the entire structure. The woman sat in a chair that rocked back and forth, her cape folded neatly in her lap. "I understand that there are wrongs you must see righted back home. I had hoped you would stay. My eldest seems to have taken quite a liking to you."

    Elian had the decency to blush as the eldest son in question stepped into the room. "I have taken quite a liking to him myself, my lady Elesyne, but I've apologies and penances to make." He could see the other young man's face drop. "And a prison sentence if not execution to face," he thought to himself. He shot an apologetic glance to the eldest of Elesyne's thirteen sons. He got a pleading one back. The look sent shivers down Elian's spine. "I'm sorry, Vard."

    "Mother can I not escort him back to Vamara?" Elian's eyes widened. The last thing he wanted was for the other young man to accompany him to into the clutches of his father. He was sure that any of those that were deemed to have sheltered or in any way assisted him would share in his woes and the punishment that his father would no doubt force upon him.

    Elian felt the lady Elesyne's eyes on him, weighing the odds in her mind. Surely she'd heard of the cruelty of the Vampiri king. Surely she'd heard tell of the harsh, just but gruesome way he kept the peace. Surely she'd heard tell of how even the very birds of carrion that swarmed high above any and all bloodshed in the world of men would flee in fear of Akthar the Bloody whenever he strode onto the field. If Vard came with him to Vamara, the young man may never again see the grand tower of ice by the light of the world of the living.

    "Lady Elesyne, I've no need for an escort." The lady raised her eyebrow at Elian. "My father would not take kindly to any who would return with me, I am sure of it."

    "I need none of your protection, Elian. I can take care of myself." Elian averted his eyes. "I want only to see you home by your side. No more. Then I shall return here, to mine."

    "You fail to understand, my father is a ruthless man. There is no reasoning with him."

    "Then stay here with us if he'll offer you neither mercy nor reprieve."

    "I know what I face, but I must know how my brother does. I must know if he still lives. For that I must return home."

    "Then you two have my blessing. Go with the speed of the north winds my dears." Lady Elesyne straightened from her chair and beckoned the two to come to her. They did. "But remember, children, don't let your ice show. Don't ever let anyone but those dearest to you know. Now, Elian..." She cupped the side of his face. "Vard will take you to the hot springs. Bathe and make yourself well for tonight we feast and come the first of morning light, your journey for Vamara begins."

    *

    He'd returned to see not the summer kingdom he'd come to know and love, not the waves crashing upon the sandy shores of the fjord, not the seagulls circling above and crying in the heat of day. Elian had come back to a land covered in snow and ice with swirling storms of frost and cold biting winds. Vamara was a changed place.

    There was a knock on his door. Elian looked up meaningfully at his captor. The man jerked his head towards the door. "Elian?" It was Andrew. "Elian do you want to build a snowman?" He bit his lip. There was a reason the two brothers had been kept apart since his return. "Oooh. How about a snow knight? Come on, I know you like them..." His captor squeezed his arm roughly. He looked down and saw red weals where the calloused fingers had gripped him.

    "Go away, Andrew."

    "Okay bye." The soft voice of his brother drifted in through the door. Had he forgotten what Elian had done to him? What Elian's curse had caused him to lose? Or did he simply love his brother so, and in a way far more than was right for brothers, that forgiveness visited his heart so quickly, so easily? Day after day he'd come to Elian's room, begging to spend time together. Day after day, Elian had refused him with all manner of profanity, anger, indifference. Yet day after day, Andrew returned, ever hopeful.

    The whip cracked and Elian bit his lip to not cry out in pain. He'd bitten down so hard that his lip was bleeding. The blood trickled down the side of his chin, adding another layer to the caked blood that already clung there.

    A single tear ran down his face. Vard was dead.


    ---

    When Elian returned to the land of the living from the land of dreams, Jack had yet to return. Rolling waves of luscious heat rolled over the prone blond. He revelled in them. Relished them, even. When his powers had manifested, a hunger had awakened in him that he had been fighting ever since. Only the warmth of another body beside his, or that of the noonday sun, or the heat of a roaring fire could sate the hunger he felt in the pit of his stomach that no food, grand as it might be, could.

    Elian watched the fire crackle merrily beside him. It was noticeably smaller than it had been when he'd succumbed to the dream. Still, fire never ceased to enchant him. It danced in such an elegant and mysterious way that it seemed almost joyful. He had no illusions that fire was by any means a creature of joy and light. Just like ice, it wrought destruction too, should it be unshackled by the will of man. The ice inside of him would have destroyed everything he'd come across if he himself had not existed as its guide, as its shaper, and ultimately, as its jailor.

    The blond averted his gaze from the dancing tongues of flame, comforted by the reds and yellows and oranges that flitted in the corner of his vision and the glowing embers that rose and swam about in the air above the crackling fire. He stared at the sky. It had been a long time since he had last just seen that vast expanse of blue. There was nary a cloud in that boundless canvas, only the brass disc of the sun hung there, shining brightly onto the earth.

    Elian thought about Jack. The young brunet had come completely out of nowhere and helped the blond, despite not having known or met or even seen him before. With the state of his feet and prior experience that crawling did very little to help escape anyone, Elian was decidedly stuck with Jack. He thought about the strange brunet and why he was showing such kindness. It was probably because he wanted something from Elian. He was used enough to having to work for brothels that anything sexual would be a simple enough matter, but if it was anything more than that, he did not know what else to do.

    The blond pondered the situation. If he was to make sure that he got out of it alive, he had to be able to communicate with Jack better. He considered hand signals, but given that they were evidently from different places, some signals would probably mean different things. Maybe he could learn the dialect that Jack spoke. Stupid thought, he told himself, learning dialects took a lot of time. Time was the one commodity he did not himself have.

    As Elian was thinking about the words that the brunet had used not too long ago, that sense of long-forgotten familiarity struck him again. It had been many years since, but he was almost certain about it, now. He did know to some limited extent the dialect that Jack spoke in. It was not Vampiri, certainly. His mother tongue had very little in the way of guttural syllables and Vampiri was very rarely spoken outside the nation of Vamara.

    In olden times, though, as he remembered the tales most oft recounted in the tomes of their expansive libraries in the palace, the nation of Vamara was a vast sprawling empire that extended beyond the sea to lands no longer known to living memory, but instead existed only in the depths of myth and legend. If that was the truth, then the common tongue here, in the land beyond the waters that fed the fjords of Vamara, would have been exposed to Vampiri. He remembered his first years across the sea. He'd lived in a small fishing village until he was no longer able to hide his ice. They spoke a mongrel tongue, a grotesque corruption of Vampiri, but it was at times familiar enough that Elian could understand significant fragments and eventually learn the tongue itself. Though whether he'd truly been successful was a debatable idea as he'd been the butt of all the small community's jokes.

    Jack seemed to speak a further corruption of that mongrel tongue, one influenced by the common tongue of settlements further inland. His accent also seemed to carry with it traces of High Vampiri, though Elian dismissed it as simple coincidence. No wonder Jack's words had seemed so alien to Elian at first when truly it was but a twisted form of what he already knew. Though it had been years since he last spoke a word of that mongrel tongue, he hoped that the knowledge would come back to him.

    Elian's stomach growled, distracting him from his thoughts. It was a deep, guttural, animalistic growl that only meant one thing: his body hungered. In his state, he doubted he could move much to find anything more in the woods to eat. Nor did he think he would be able to find anything safe for eating in the woods either. He had good reason to suspect that his current state of health could be blamed on flora that he'd thought was safe to eat but was not. Not to mention, the state of his feet did very little for his motivation to get up and about.

    Had Jack not been around to help him and to build a fire that provided much needed heat to keep his life-sustaining faculties working, he would have probably died. Even so, he could feel infection rearing its ugly head inside of him. His feet had gone uncleaned for too long. If they weren't cleaned and soon, the infection might quickly and voraciously eat his body and his life. He was about to drift off again when he felt it: little things crawling about in the cloak that was covering him.

    Weakly, Elian lifted a hand and raised the cloak a bit to find his chest covered in wriggling maggots. Why there were maggots in Jack's cloak, he didn't know. The lad had seemed kempt enough. Jack had not seemed dirty at all. The maggots were a mystery. Perhaps even a life-saving mystery. He picked one of them up and considered it for a short while. His stomach rebelled at the thought, but he had very little choice. He'd eaten worse.

    The tiny white worm wriggled in Elian's pallid fingers. To the old Elian who'd lived in the lap of luxury in the palace of one of the last remaining remnants of the old Vampiri empire, the maggot would have been absolutely revolting. To this Elian, changed by years of ostracism and hardship and getting chased from one place to the next, the maggot was heavenly. He placed it in his mouth and bit down. The thing burst into a conflagration of grainy bitterness. Despite the less-than-palatable taste, Elian picked up another. And another. And another. There were many, and he supposed he could fill his stomach up with enough to tide him through the next few hours.

    ---

    Elian very nearly jumped from his own skin when he heard the muffled galloping of horses and the barking of a dog. Here it was. The end was nigh. His trackers had finally found him. Terror, and, strangely enough, some sort of satisfaction bubbled up in his consciousness. Was he satisfied that he had finally learned that the world was not all as terrible as he'd seen it to be? That there had been at least one soul whom, despite the evident display of his command over winter's domain, had not fled screaming or come after him yelling ugly death, but rather helped him in his hour of greatest need?

    It wasn't until a few moments later that Elian realized that the men that had pursued him from the last village were stupid enough to not bring any horses with them. They had not brought a dog either. Had they done so, they would probably have run down Elian the moment his shoes gave out. That being said, the men were dull as rocks for not bringing anything but the clothes on their backs and themselves. Jack burst from the foliage, leading two horses behind him and an ecstatic bundle of white fur came leaping out not far behind. "Hold on, Glaise. We don't want to cause him unnecessary distress." Jack's hushed voice still carried clearly across the pond which by now held very little ice, the rest of it having melted back into the water.

    Jack led the horses up towards Elian. The dog, whom he supposed was Glaise, bounded towards the blond, yipping enthusiastically as he did. "Glaise." Jack said sternly. The dog stopped in his tracks and whined. "Be calm, boy." The accent was still a tad difficult for Elian to decipher, but now that he knew where it was from and what the dialect was similar to, he was able to understand it better. Jack tied the horses' reins to a nearby tree and slung the pack off of his shoulders before sitting down next to Elian's head.

    The brunet reached down and wiped away the white remains of maggots from the corners of Elian's mouth. He brought his hand to his face and sniffed it. Disgust contorted Jack's kindly face, eliciting a chuckle from Elian. Jack was stunned. The blond's laugh, while far from musical as he had come to expect from such a beautiful creature, was innocent and sincere. Judging from the fear that he'd seen from Elian at their first meeting, he'd not thought that the blond would laugh so freely around him. Nevertheless, he was not about to complain.

    Elian himself was quite surprised that the laugh escaped his lips so freely. He'd not himself known that his lips still recalled the sensation of laughter. He knew his mind did not. His had been a grim existence for the last few years, yet somehow, for some unfathomable reason, Jack brought unexpected and much-needed levity to his life. Perhaps it was the horses. Perhaps it was the fever. Perhaps it was the admittedly-adorable dog that Jack had brought with him. Perhaps it was the indubitable kindness and sincerity that the brunet possessed that allowed Elian to be more open than he had ever been in a long, long time.

    Elian spoke in short stunted bursts. The words left his mouth as though entirely alien to him. They might as well were since he'd not spoken the dialect in years. "Maggots." He said. "I was hungry." A look of disgust crossed Jack's face. "A week makes even the disgusting look delicious." Jack's face lit up. Though Elian spoke slowly and sounded quite strange and cryptic, the brunet was able to understand him more this time. The disgust was still visible in his tawny eyes, but the elation was far more evident.

    "I brought food" Jack said as he took a hold of Elian's shoulders and pushed him up into a sitting position with his legs outstretched in front of him. He reached into his pack and pulled out dried meat, bread and cheese as well as a skin. "Water." Jack said when Elian raised an eyebrow. He couldn't afford wine. Even his fathers only bought and drank on very special days. Since Nyko's death, Kyle had not bought any.

    Elian stared at the food, wide-eyed. For the first time in months, his mouth truly watered.
     
  4. Four men stumbled into the one establishment hospitable to outsiders in the entire village: the tavern. It was a place of either drunken debauchery or a place of drowning sorrows in a tankard of ale or three. The owner was a portly man who made a lot of his money off of the misery of the repressed townspeople. They were always commanded and constantly reminded of their inferiority by the elite clerical caste that shrouded themselves in mystery in the one stone-built structure in the entire damned place.

    The Sun Priests were not, by any stretch of the imagination, virtuous and pious people. The abuse of their power was well-known in the village. Despite this knowledge, they had all been beaten into submission by the religious propaganda that they were fed from birth. They were of the belief that any actions against the priests would bring the wrath of the sun gods upon them. The gods' ire would dry their fields, bring pestilence to their livestock and bring fire to their skin and their very homes.

    Money or food given up freely were considered gifts by the gods, and giving enough every year would ascertain their good graces, or so the priests had the townspeople believing. Any of the studied in their cities and academies and courts would know better than to fall for the scam, but the commonfolk were ignorant of the priests' deception. Theirs was a hard and difficult life, after all, and so they clung on to every single assurance that things could be much better for them, despite the blatant untruth of the meaningless comforts offered by the priests.

    Long lost was the worship of the old gods who, while they offered little in the way of solace, at the very least offered reward for those who lived their lives as they saw as fit and virtuous. The sun gods were not as kind. The sun gods prescribed certain ways of life and denounced any and all others as abominable and detestable. There was simply no other way to live by than theirs. This was the corruption that had gripped the heart of the new world since the fall of the old one, and this was the source of all the woes that Elian and Jack and others of their kind faced.

    The four men eventually found their way to the counter of the bar. The rest of the room was filled to the brim. It seemed that they had come at quite a busy time of day, at a time of year that was beginning to see travelers and merchants from the northern mountains descend from their wintry abodes to trade with the folk of the lower lands. As a result the place was packed and lodging was difficult to find. The inn down the road from the tavern was filled to its rafters with weary travelers.

    The rest of them stayed in the tavern, drinking away their woes until the time came for them to get back on the road to more important places. An advantage of their passing through the town before major cities, though, was the fact that the traders had very little in the way of coin. A lot of them paid in kegs of wine from the vineyards of the northern mountains. Oh it was glorious, the finest vintage known to the men of the village, for they'd not tasted the wines of the kings' courts.

    The four men sat by the bar. They were miserable fellows, all four of them. They were even more so now that their clothes seemed to be torn haphazardly and their hair was tangled with twigs and leaves and they were banged up and beaten from running into trees and branches in their frantic escape from the forest that they had been tracking their quarry in. A bard was playing his lute at the other end of the counter, barely audible over the cacophony of the crowded tavern. "'Ow can I 'elp you gentlemen?" said the master of the Tavern, waddling in his characteristic way to the four men who looked like they'd seen death.

    "A drink or two for me and these idiots" said the man who led the small ragtag troupe. "We met trouble on our way here. We did not know plague hurlers treaded the earth in these forests." One of the men made a groaning sound and slumped over onto the counter, slamming his forehead into the solid wood.

    "'e alright?" The landlord jerked his head and his thumb at the unconscious fellow.

    "Aye. Just weak of heart" said one of the other men. "Mention plague hurlers to him and he passes right the fuck out like a puss." He chuckled, the rich baritone of his voice carrying clearly across the counter.

    "What are these Plague 'urlers you speak of?" said the landlord as he beckoned over one of the servergirls and asked for four tankards of ale. "Never 'eard of them."

    "Terrible creatures. Terrible, terrible creatures. Tristan here didn't even believe they existed when we first left our village." One of the men pointed at their leader. "But we saw one in the forest, yes. It threw its godsforsaken innards at us. Thankfully none of us have come down with the Plague, but I think it's just because the gods were looking after us. Gram used to say that if they ever caught up to you they would eat your innards while you were alive and your soul with them and leave you a hollowed out husk for the rest of your life. She said that if it can't catch up to you, it would give you the plague instead. Either way seeing one was almost certain death."

    The landlord slammed the tankards in front of each of the men, rousing the unconscious one in the process. He eyed each and every one of them, a stern look in his eyes. The message was clear. He didn't want any trouble brought to his establishment. It was trouble enough having to deal with all the tired travelers who could not find lodgings in the inn. He did not need anyone getting sick and dying in his tavern. The ale swished inside the wrought iron things, almost threatening to spill out. "Why'd you come 'ere then? Why din't you just 'ead on 'ome if you saw something so 'orrifying?"

    The most ragged of the men, their leader, slammed his fist onto the counter, drawing the attention of a portly woman nearby who came to stand by the men with her fist on her hip. "Because we came after something even worse and I'll be damned if we returned home without its head" said Tristan, his teeth gritted together in seething rage. The landlord raised his eyebrow.

    "What could be worse than a 'eathen creature that eats your innards and leaves you a soulless 'usk?" The landlord inquired, pulling up a stool and now rapt with interest with the men's story. The bard, unable to help hearing the conversation had sidled up closer to the group.

    "Winter" said Tristan. The bard's eyes lit up. "A faggot whose hands control the powers of Winter itself. He's pale like a ghost and thin and bolts of ice shoot out of his hands and freeze everything they touch to death. He killed my wife, and my neighbour said that the beast tried to make off with his son too." The woman gasped. Faggots, as the commonfolk knew them, to begin with were freaks of nature, abominations, according to the priests. One with dominion over Winter itself was almost too much, if not for the fact that they had heard the story before.

    "Well, wouldya believe it, Jun, dear, 'arold was telling the truth!" The landlord said to the woman standing behind the men. The bard smiled at the two of them.

    "I tried telling them of this creature you speak of" said the bard to the men. "But they would not believe me. Many thanks for coming and telling us this fascinating tale. I may know things about this creature that you may find helpful or at the very least, interesting."

    "What is he, then?" asked Tristan gruffly as he glugged down ale.

    "People from the villages I've been to call him the winterchild"

    ---

    Much as the old Elian may have considered it undignified, he tore into the food like a famished bear. There was little if any dignity in the fight for survival, so he had long since thrown away his preconceptions of propriety and nobility. The scene of the crime was surprisingly less messy than one would anticipate. Elian, for one, grabbed at every single crumb that fell off from the loaves, leaving himself particularly clean, despite the gusto with which he ravaged the food that Jack had brought. The meal was a humble one, and there wasn't much of it, but Jack found himself having to remind Elian more than a few times to take it easy lest he chuck all of it up again.

    Elian inadvertently set down one of his feet on the ground when he took the skin from jack and drank a good long draught of the cool water within it. He sputtered and coughed, having winced and as a result, inhaled some of the water due to the pain. Jack smacked the blond on the back repeatedly with the heel of his palm until the coughing stopped. Elian's eyes were watery at the end of the ordeal.

    Taking the utmost of care, Jack knelt by Elian's feet and slowly unwound the strips of cloth that worked as makeshift bandages there. He hissed. The cloth was soaked in a stomach-turning mixture of blood and pus. The sight was so disgusting that the sound of Elian gagging was clearly audible. Jack tossed away the makeshift bandages and gently handled Elian's feet to take a better look. The blond hissed in pain. Even the lightest touch was painful for him. The lesions and blisters on Elian's feet were open and bleeding freely. Jack reached into his pack and brought out a roll of linen and laid Elian's ankles on it so that they wouldn't be at risk of falling to the ground. "I'll be back. I need to gather herbs."

    Jack rose and brought out a couple of smooth, dark stones from his pack and carefully placed them in the fire. "I'll need hot water" he explained, smiling sincerely and sympathetically at Elian. "I can't promise it won't hurt when I come back with the healing plants..." He'd been subject to them before. Not a pleasant experience. The relief from the pain that came afterwards was well worth the suffering during the treatment, though.

    Elian understood. Tinctures, especially freshly made ones tended to sting and feel as though the skin was alight with searing fire. Town healers would often say the pain was a reminder from the gods to not be as clumsy the next time. Elian had always supposed that if that were true, then it would be quite an insult to soldiers who got wounded not because they were clumsy but because they fought to protect what they loved.

    Elian nodded, wincing as he adjusted his position to be more comfortable. "Thank you." Elian whispered. Jack heard the words and turned to smile at the blond. The thanks brought kindling to the fires of infatuation burning in his heart and he couldn't help but blush when his back was turned to Elian. The blond was probably not going to stay with Jack when he was finally well, but Jack would relish all the time they go to spend together. He looked back one last time before he entered the forest to look for the plants he needed to take care of Elian's injuries. The sight that greeted him was a mystifying one.

    The blond held out his hand to the fire. His eyes were glazed over in what seemed to be rapt ecstasy and his entire body seemed to vibrate in eagerness. Jack suppressed a gasp as the tongues of flame leaped away from the burning wood and flowed towards Elian's palm. There, fire met ice in a beautiful dance of leaping flame and curling frost as the skin around Elian's hand and up his arm turned pinkish, though admittedly still pale. It was a significant departure from the alabaster pallor that he'd first possessed when Jack first saw him. Jack had been correct; this beautiful creature of winter also fed off of heat, warmth, though the reason for it was beyond his comprehension. Jack smiled and hefted the curved blade before plunging into the woods.

    Elian froze at the sound of rustling behind him. If he could have, he would have grown paler. His pallid skin, pale because of the ice within him, left very little place for that. His eyes grew wide and he jerked his hand away from the fire before turning to see Jack's back retreating into the forest. Had the brunet seen what he did? Had Jack seen Elian feed off of the fire? If he had, he definitely did not show it. Then again, Jack certainly had seen his ice. If the brunet had not reacted adversely to that, then there was little chance that he would take adversely to seeing Elian feed off the fire.

    Elian had to be careful. Whilst heat fed the ice inside of him, it also returned the humanity he'd lost at the womb whenever the ice had had its fill. The very ice within him that had time and again proven destructive, had torn from him everything he had once known and loved, was the one thing keeping him alive now. It slowed the creeping corruption of the poison in his veins, and kept the looming infection that threatened to overrun his life at bay. Without the ice, he would succumb much faster. Like a summer fire in a dry woods, the fever would burn through him with such speed that he would succumb in mere hours.

    Elian felt rough, wet flesh against the hand he was supporting himself on. He was visibly surprised and a small bolt of ice, not enough to do damage, shot from his hand to the dog's wet nose. He'd entirely forgotten about Jack's dog. The bundle of fur pawed at his snout before sneezing, knocking himself onto his haunches. He chuckled despite feeling the brunt of the fever returning, and ruffled the mop of white fur that was the dog's head. Glaise yipped enthusiastically at Elian and started to sniff his hand as though it was a flavoursome piece of meat. The licking also intensified. It was almost as though the dog couldn't quite get enough of the decidedly-icy flavour of Elian's skin.

    Glaise jumped on the blond's lap and started licking him all over the face. The blond couldn't help but laugh, though the dog's weight was a little bit more than he could handle. He lowered himself back to the ground and let Glaise sit on his chest. Elian closed his eyes, the feeling the fever burning up behind them. The food had helped stay it, but even the warmth of the fire and the substantial meal -- for him, at least -- could not get rid of the fever entirely. Elian knew it had gotten to the point where the fever was far too intense for his ice to fight even with the energy of the fire. It had happened before in Vamara when he'd cut himself on a fishing line and got infected a few days later.

    Glaise, who at that moment had made himself comfortable on Elian's chest whined at the blond and licked his jaw and neck slowly. He also pawed at the blond's face, though in a manner less playful than it was sympathetic, almost. The extra warmth from the dog was welcome, but Elian tried his best not to consciously draw heat from the adorable bundle of fur lying on his chest. Glaise was quite comfortable staying where he was, but he was, at least to the extent that any dog could be, concerned for Elian's well-being. Glaise licked Elian's neck and nuzzled into the crook of it, placing his snout and broad head right next to it. His front paws fell to either side of the blond's face. Elian felt strangely peaceful in the presence of the dog, it was almost as though he'd finally found his place in the world, but he knew better than to believe that.

    The dog was surely Jack's faithful companion by the looks of it and by how Glaise seemed to follow his every command despite being opposed to it. He offered the same solace to Elian that he offered to Jack, an energetic, fresh breath of air that was contrary to the dark grim world around them. The dog was, to an extent, also a friend to drive some of the loneliness that was undoubtedly felt by both of them away. Elian was himself surprised at how quickly he'd warmed up to the energetic bundle of fur, but then again, it was far easier to trust a baser animal than another person.

    As Glaise laid his head into the crook of Elian's neck, he yowled and howled and barked almost mournfully into the silence of the forest. Elian knew that the poison was quickly working its way through his system and would soon overcome even the ice that stayed its progress.

    It was but a few minutes later that Jack returned to the clearing, out of breath and carrying an armful of assorted plants, leaves, roots, berries and flowers. He'd heard Glaise's barking and had made much haste back towards the clearing. He was a little worse for wear, having paid too much attention to how Glaise was howling and too little to the path ahead of him. He'd not seen the branch that whipped right at him until the last moment when he ducked. He might have lost an eye had he not had the agility of a cat at that very moment.

    Hot blood was running down from the gash on Jack's forehead but he ignored it. He ran down to the water's edge and washed the wound out but let it be. It would heal. Elian was the object of all the hard work he'd done and it would not do well to have him die as Jack tended to his own wounds. "Glaise. Didn't I tell you not to bother Elian?"

    The dog whined and snuggled in even closer to Elian's neck. "It's okay." Elian said, slowly. He was still getting used to Jack's dialect. He wanted to be as clear as daylight for the young brunet, though he was having a considerably harder time than he had anticipated. "He kept me warm." Elian smiled, eyes still closed and head still tilted back. Glaise yipped softly and licked Elian's jaw. The blond placed a kiss on the dog's furry head against his better judgment. He was getting attached again, and only gods knew that this arrangement they had, Jack and himself, would not last very long. Trouble and, almost invariably, death seemed to follow him wherever he tread.

    "Still. He's quite a heavy dog" Jack said as he walked over and slowly lifted Glaise off of Elian. He set the dog who whined at him in protestation beside Elian. Jack placed his hand on Elian's forehead and hissed. The fever was back and stronger than it had been before. He had very little time. Jack sprinted to the horses and took the pail he'd brought to the water's edge and filled it before setting it down beside the fire. Jack sprinted again to the saddlebags, almost tripping on his own feet, to get the rest of what he needed.

    Jack took out a pair of cast-iron tongs, a mortar and pestle and a wooden bowl. As he was running back, arms laden with the things, the pestle slipped from the mortar and fell on his foot. Jack picked it up and limped back to Elian's side cursing under his breath all the while. The blond cracked an eye open and looked at Jack. "Are you... alright?" he asked.

    Jack nodded and grinned sheepishly. "I... dropped this on my foot." He waggled the pestle at the weary Elian as he put down his armful of implements. A smile tugged at the corners of Elian's lips. Jack was openly grinning... well, as much as he could considering he was also half-grimacing from the throbbing pain in his toe. As Jack was looking over what he'd brought he realized he'd forgotten his ladle in the saddlebags. He sprinted back and grabbed it and sat down beside Elian again. The blond had closed his eyes and was breathing hoarsely through his mouth. Glaise had not stopped whining since he'd been placed beside Elian. He licked the blond's face slowly, sadly. Jack had to work faster.

    The brunet took the ladle and spooned some water into the wooden bowl, being careful not to spill any of it on Elian. The last thing the blond needed was more water on his body. It was bad enough that he was covered in maggoty fur with soaked clothes underneath. The thought reminded Jack that he'd brought with him a spare change of clothes in case Elian wanted them. Jack's clothes were not the best, nor were they the most comfortable, but they did pretty well and would certainly help the blond recover.

    Jack looked at Elian again. The blond was pale. His alabaster skin looked almost as white as the very frost that shot from his hands, the very ice that he could beckon to his side at will. There was a flush that had crept to the other man's cheeks though, one that spread to his ears. Jack held his hand to Elian's forehead. Even hotter. He'd never seen the firebrand wreak so much havoc on any other creature as Elian. Even the deer who at times mistakenly ate them never ended up this incapacitated. Jack shook his head and grabbed the tongs.

    The brunet fished one the black stones he'd placed in the fire when he left from the glowing embers. He noted that he would have to add firewood to it soon. The stone that had been quite shiny and black was now a cherry-red colour. They had been a fortune to procure, according to his parents, but they had to do in a pinch. He submerged the stone in the water in the wooden bowl which almost instantaneously came to a boil. He left the stone in there, Nyko had claimed it possessed healing qualities all on its own. Neither Jack or Kyle had been convinced of the claim, but Jack wasn't about to let any help, regardless of whether or not it existed, pass.

    The brunet reached over the blond and fished a particular plant from the pile that he'd set down. The fisherman's delight had always puzzled him for not only was it never found growing anywhere near freshwater, its flowers brought ugly death. Eating the pale yellow flowers of the plant would paralyse the throat, letting no air in and no air out and the poor idiot who ate it would die slowly from lack of air. The leaves, though, had amazing medicinal properties. A tea boiled from the leaves of the fisherman's delight and wormroot not only chased the demons of the firebrand from the body with astonishing speed, but also helped wounds heal faster.

    Jack stripped the leaves from the pale green stems and grabbed the wormroot. He tossed the handful into the mortar and pestle and ground the two herbs together until their juices stained the pestle greenish-brown like the meadows of early spring. He poured the entire thing into the boiling water in the bowl and waited for the incredibly pungent aroma of the brew to waft up to him before he decided it was good enough to drink. The dredges of leaf and root floated to the surface after a short while. He skimmed them off with the ladle and tossed them into the fire. It was not the best way to dispose of the things, and arguably quite wasteful, since the dregs could be dried and used to make more of the medicinal tea later on. Had he not done so, though, the bitterness would have made the 'tea' nigh on unpalatable.

    Jack slipped his hand underneath Elian's shoulders. The blond was fast asleep, though whether it was restful slumber was definitely doubtful. If he'd not been so weak, Jack was willing to bet that the blond would have been tossing and turning and thrashing as he slumbered. As he brought Elian closer to him, he heard the blond's breathing. Elian's breaths were hoarse and laboured. He scooped a ladleful of the tea from the bowl and held it to Elian's mouth. Steam from the surface of the liquid wafted up to the sleeping blond's nose. The smell rudely woke Elian. He sputtered for breath, trying to avoid the pungent aroma. "Here. This will help." Jack said, trying to be as soothing as possible.

    Elian raised a trembling hand and pinched his nose shut. The concoction smelled absolutely vile, and he'd smelled his own puke earlier in the day. Whatever it was that Jack was asking him to drink made the vomit smell almost sweet as a rose. He tilted his head back as Jack lifted the ladle to his lips. The tea was not much better tasting than it smelled. It was bitter enough to contort Elian's face in an expression of distaste and after it all passed down his gullet, it seemed to leave behind an aftertaste he could only describe as raw eggs mixed with raw fish and meat.

    Had Jack not been there to hold that tiny white flower to his nose to make things instantly smell better, he would probably have vomited out the vile concoction. However, as the potion worked its way through Elian, he could feel its heat spreading through his body, feeding the Ice that lay dormant in every vein that pulsed through him, chasing away the poison that threatened to overtake him. His feet were another matter entirely as they still seemed to be a constant source of pain. Despite the inwardly soothing qualities of the foul potion, it had done little to help his feet. The blond could almost feel infection knocking at the gates to his body. The medicinal 'tea' lifted the haze that impaired his reason and was beginning to work the poison from his veins, but it offered no help to the bleeding wreck that was his feet.

    Jack laid Elian back down and took the stone out of the bowl and placed it back in fire. The blond's breathing was returning to normal much faster than he had anticipated, much faster than he supposed was possible for mortal men. Then again, Jack realized, surely Elian was more than just mortal man. Surely the blond was, by some virtue of the gods that had long since abandoned Jack, granted some ability to chase away ailment faster than mere men. Even so, Elian did not look quite as healthy as Jack wanted him to be. A paleness still hung about him, a palpable aura of sickness that could not be dispersed, and Jack was certain that the wounds in his feet were at the very least moderately infected.

    Jack picked up the other stones from the fire. They too were glowing cherry red. He dropped them into the pail as he walked back to the saddlebags and brought out fresh bandages. When he returned, the water in the pail was boiling. Perfect. He briefly soaked the bandages in the boiling water if only just to clean them. Before long, he took them out to soak them in the tea that he'd made. He reached over Elian and grabbed the rest of the plants he'd collected save for the broad leaves he'd found.

    The brunet threw the stems and roots and leaves into the mortar and pestle along with some of the boiling water from the pail and went to work grinding them into a paste. Jack knotted his eyebrows, trying to remember what his fathers had taught him about making these poultices. A sigh of relief escaped his lips as the thought alighted on his brow. If he was to ply the mixture on an area large as the soles of Elian's feet, he had to ensure that the paste would flow as one. After a few more minutes of grinding, Jack was satisfied with the consistency of the paste. He dipped a finger in the concoction and dabbed it on the gash on his forehead.

    Jack bit back a curse as his skin, though it did no such thing, felt as though it was crackling and hissing. "Elian" Jack said, still struggling slightly with speaking the name. He was still unwittingly saying the blond's name more akin to "Helian" than anything.

    The brunet placed his hand on the blond's shoulder and shook it gently. He reached over to the last few remaining plants he'd gathered. "This will hurt. Chew this. It will help." With deft, practiced fingers, Jack rolled up a few leaves of numbleaf. The way Jack handled the plant was almost methodical, adept. He'd had to give his father Kyle a lot of numbleaf the last few days before he died in order to soothe the pain in his joints.

    Elian watched, intrigued at the notable proficiency that the brown-haired lad displayed. Jack smiled and brought the bundle to Elian's lips. "Chew this well. Allow it to bleed its juice out." he said. Elian opened his mouth and with tentative fingers, the brunet slipped the tight roll of leaves into the his mouth. "Whatever you do, don't scream." The blond needed very little reminder. After all, it was not beyond reason that his pursuers were nearby. He was, after all, not privy to the fact that Jack had, the previous day, chased them away. There was no need to risk Jack's life as well as his own.

    Jack reached over Elian for the broad leaves. He wasn't quite sure what they were called, only that they did not seem like any of the plants that his fathers had warned him about. As far as he could tell, the leaves did absolutely nothing for man, neither healing nor harming. He lay them by his side. He reached over to the pail of still-boiling water and brought it nearby as well.

    Jack took one of the bandages and ripped a square of cloth from it and soaked it in the hot water. The brunet grabbed Elian's leg and gently held it in place on his lap as he dabbed on the wounds with the cloth. It came away with blood and pus, but the foot certainly looked more or less cleaner. He washed the cloth in the boiling water and dabbed it over Elian's foot again. He did this three more times before he was satisfied, and very little blood came away with the cloth. All the while, the blond was squirming in pain, chewing frantically on the bundle of leaves in his mouth, unable to release his foot from Jack's gentle but firm grip.

    "Shh... Shh..." cooed the brunet, trying his best to comfort Elian. The worst part of the treatment had yet to come. The blond's distress and palpable discomfort was going to pale compared to how he would react to the paste being applied to his feet, of that, the brunet was sure. He had little choice in the matter, though, as it was probably the only way to ensure a full recovery for Elian.

    The blond bit down hard on the leaves in his mouth and was surprised at the amount of juice that came gushing forth. The bundle of leaves had not seemed to be so tightly packed when Jack had put it in his mouth. Nevertheless, he felt a slight numbing sensation spread through his body as the juice traveled down his throat and into his stomach. If Jack's sympathetic wince of pain as he smeared the broad leaves with the paste was any indication, Elian knew he was in for something even worse.

    The brunet picked up the mortar and set it closer Elian's feet. He scooped up a generous amount of the paste. It was cool against his skin. His hand trembled. He wasn't exactly sure how the blond would react to the paste. He hoped nothing more would go wrong. Tentatively he spread the paste on the less-injured parts of Elian's feet. The blond stiffened almost instantly. The toes of his foot curled and he furrowed his brows in discomfort. Jack spread the paste down from the top of Elian's feet over the many cuts and open blisters there. A high-pitched keening came from the blond, echoed almost exactly by the whine that came from Glaise.

    With gentle circular motions of his thumb, Jack rubbed Elian's injured foot with the paste. He made sure to allow the concoction into every open lesion on the blond's sole in order to make sure that everything was being covered. He massaged the paste into every open bleeding crevice. Strangled sounds of pain issued from Elian's gritted teeth as the paste seemed to sear his flesh whenever it touched an open wound. Jack removed one of the bandages from the bowl and held the leaf smeared with the paste onto Elian's foot before wrapping it up tightly with the cloth.

    Elian's foot throbbed and he did not, by any means, look forward to Jack treating the next. When Jack stopped, and despite the throbbing pain in his bound foot, Elian breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. The brunet grabbed his other foot and his breath hitched in his throat. Jack repeated the entire process, much to Elian's displeasure, and a few minutes later, both his feet were similarly bound and covered in the supposedly-healing paste.

    Whether or not it would work, only time would tell. When Jack finally put down everything to tend to his own wound, the concoction had already had time to work its healing on the first foot that he'd treated. The paste was very soothing, and after the burning sensation had subsided, it felt cool and refreshing. Elian sighed in relief. It was the first true reprieve from pain he'd had in a long while. He threw his head back and closed his eyes, for once enjoying some measure of peace.

    Jack hissed and swore. The paste was getting into his eyes, and it was far too difficult to apply on his forehead. The sounds of exasperation drew Elian's attention and the blond cracked open his eyes to see Jack hunched over by the side of the pond, scrubbing his eyes out. "Jack." The brunet froze. A wet sloppy tongue ran up the side of Elian's face and he couldn't help but giggle. He brought his hands to his mouth, a soft gasp escaping his lips. The blond's blue eyes were wide. He'd not heard that in quite a long while.

    Elian propped himself up on his arms, still careful not to move his feet. He at least had the good sense to know that though they were feeling better, that it was probably a bad idea to move them haphazardly. Such was the illusion of the miraculous tincture that the strange brunet, whose fortuitous appearance had saved him from ugly death, had created somehow. He knew that the concoction was healing his wounds, but the way it masked the pain, herded it away as though a sheepdog would sheep, was truly marvelous. He could feel the pain as a faint persistent stabbing sensation underneath the skin of his feet, but it was something easily ignored. "Jack." Elian held his arms out and drew them back to his chest. "Come here."

    Jack glanced at the water, hesitating for a second. He wanted to get rid of the stuff in his eyes, but maybe Elian needed him for something. He picked up the cloth that he'd been using to try and scrub the paste from his eyes and to dress his wound properly and walked over to Elian, squinting with his left eye. He knelt by the blond. "What do you need?" Elian smiled. Again it was that small, almost fearful smile that just danced on the corners of his lips. The expression set Jack's heart aflutter. The blond shook his head and grabbed one of Jack's arms.

    For a moment, fear blazed in his chest. What was going to happen? Was this his reckoning for helping someone he barely knew? Was he about to die? The fear subsided quickly when he realized that Elian was simply supporting himself on Jack. Though it was gone, the fear had done its job quite well. His heart was hammering in his chest and he tried his utmost to return his breathing to its normal pace. He was sure Elian had noticed the sudden fear that had gripped him. Sure enough, the blond was looking at him with wide eyes -- scared ones, even. Had the situation not been so intimate and grave, Jack might have burst into laughter at how scared they were of each other though they had not shown any reason for such.

    Elian's grip on Jack's arm tightened and he dragged himself to a more comfortable position. The blond raised his right hand to Jack's face, tentatively caressing his cheek. Where Elian's fingers touched, tiny spirals of frost spun themselves into a beautiful latticework on Jack's skin, sparkling ever so slightly in the daylight. The brunet gasped in surprise not only at the cold, but also at the touch. Deep inside he knew it was innocent, but he'd never been touched in such an... intimate way before. Elian's hesitant fingertips danced on his skin and left fiery trails behind them wherever they touched. Though the frost was undoubtedly cold, Jack felt nothing but warmth rushing to his cheeks.

    The blond rose up, using Jack's arm to leverage himself and blew into the brunet's struggling eye. The cool wind stirred by Elian's breath carried away the remnants of the stinging paste in Jack's eye, crystallizing them into fine frost that sparkled as it rained down behind him. Jack was in awe. He brought his own hand to his eye in disbelief, marveling at what Elian had done in but one breath. Truly, the blond man before him was a creature not of the mortal realm with powers beyond his much-limited understanding. "How did you do that?" Jack whispered as Elian withdrew his hand from Jack's cheek.

    "My..." Elian paused, trying to find the words for what he was about to say. "My brother used to get all sorts of things in his eyes when we were young..." The memory hurt to recall. Elian's eyes grew distant and his grip on Jack's arm loosened. "I guess I just learned..." Elian's voice was soft as the hair on his head, vulnerable as the wounds on his feet. Jack felt a twinge of sympathy in his heart at the blond's words. The strange creature of winter seemed to have an almost-human past. Seemed to not be so enigmatic after all.

    "You had a brother?" Jack asked, slowly, shattering the silence that had settled between them in the last few moments. The blond nodded and averted his gaze. Jack did not miss the small ice crystals that fell to the ground just then. "Where is he now?" The brunet placed a hand on Elian's shoulder and rubbed it sympathetically. Glaise sidled up to the blond's leg and began to growl to comfort Elian. The dog's growl was a low rumble that Elian could feel vibrating up his thigh. He still couldn't bear to look Jack in the eye.

    Silence. It stretched for no more than a minute between the two of them. Elian did not seem to want to speak of his brother any longer. Jack broke the silence. "I'm... sorry." Elian raised his head and lowered it slowly in a gesture of assent. The blond remained deathly still and Jack worried for a moment that he was dead, but he noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of the blond's chest and back. He was still breathing. The brunet ran his fingers through his tawny hair, catching a small piece of twig and tossing it away. He sighed and sat by Elian and stared into the pond as was his custom whenever he visited the clearing.

    It wasn't long until he felt an insistent tugging on his arm. It wasn't Glaise. He turned to face Elian whose eyes were now clear and carried little if any hint of the emotional distress that he'd possessed mere moments ago. "Why are you doing this?" mouthed the blond. He was beginning to get accustomed to speaking in the dialect that Jack was more familiar with, but the perfectionist inside of him that had never gone away despite years of an inability to pursue perfection, refused to let him speak without first pondering each and every word that slipped from his mind to his tongue and through his lips. "Why do you help me?"

    Jack looked Elian in the eyes. There was a conviction there, an iron-clad determination that had not been there when they'd first met. However, Jack could not mistake what else was in those sapphires. There was a pleading to them that struck right to the core of the brunet's being. "I'm doing this because you're my one chance at falling in love" he said in his mind. Those were words he was far too afraid to give voice. What if Elian struck out the moment he heard them instead of lunge upon him and give embrace him and plant lips against his own? Jack would not risk it. "Because I saw you needed help."

    Elian considered the brunet for a moment, as though uncertain that he'd heard as he had. Many a time past, this had been the occasion when his so-called 'saviours' had stated their demands in exchange for the help he'd received. Jack made no such demands, made no such request for thanks, made no move to force himself upon the blond. Elian could scarce believe it. So much so was his surprise that his mouth hung open, unmoving for a moment, and that he had to convince himself that he was truly awake and not in some filthy haze of delirium left over from the poison of the berry that had not too long ago threatened his very existence. "You're doing this for more than that, I know it. You help me for more than just my sake."

    Jack shook his head. His heart sank in his chest and his mind rebelled, furious. He was disappointed -- offended, even -- that Elian thought that Jack was using the help he'd given to take something from the blond. "I'm not..." The brunet trailed off and watched the ground between his feet. "I live alone, nearby... It's not often that I see others, let alone talk to them." Then again, Jack could not blame Elian. He knew little of what the blond had been through, but if the wounds on his feet were any indication, the strange creature had been through much, and not all of it good. Perhaps he too would be so mistrusting if he had been pursued for so long that his feet had been likely irreparably damaged.

    A pang of guilt hit Elian at the brokenness in Jack's voice. If what the brunet said was true, then they were more alike than he'd imagined. Few people would be foolish enough to live alone in the world they were in. Few people who did had no choice in their condition. Men like Elian, outcasts who had found egress from those who would rather see them dead. Surely Jack was similar. None, he repeated to himself, none, would live alone where all manner of beast could tear them to shreds. None would live alone where the difference between living for one day and dying the next could be as small as a light drizzle the night before. "I'm... Sorry." The blond whispered softly.

    Elian took Jack's face in his hands again and turned it towards him. The brunet froze, locking eyes with Elian for a moment. Frost curled from his fingers and wrapped around the brunet's skin. The blond wiped the stray balm from Jack's brow with the heel of his palm and wiped it on the shirt that was draped over his shoulders. He tugged at the cloth that was in Jack's hand and the brunet let it slip from his grasp. Elian dabbed the cloth on the gash on Jack's forehead.

    Elian reached for the nearby mortar and scooped up some more of the paste and rubbed it on the cloth. The blond returned the cloth to the wound, spreading the cool balm on the broken skin. Jack hissed in discomfort but remained still. Elian placed the cloth back in Jack's hands and closed the brunet's fingers on themselves. "I'm sorry..." Elian trained his eyes on the damp earth he and the brunet both sitting upon.

    The blond felt a strong, firm hand on his chin and he let Jack tilt his head back up. Jack moved his head closer to Elian's for a heartbeat, then drew it back, a shadow of horror quickly flitting across his tawny eyes.

    Elian allowed a small smile to grace his lips. Jack smiled back. His upper lip trembled with hesitance, but he smiled. A spark of mutual understanding danced between their locked eyes.

    Maybe things were not so bad in the world they lived in after all.
     
    • Love Love x 1
  5. Oookay. *Rolls up his sleeves* Here goes.

    I really like the description here (especially the brass and canvas metaphor), but I feel like these sentences are a little choppy. You want your very beginning to be really tight. I'd maybe rephrase these a little into two or three very strong leading sentences, or cut something out.

    Scratch that. This should be your leading sentence. That sentence catches my attention all by itself.

    Remember, a paragraph has one central supporting idea that should be included in one sentence. The other sentences expand upon that idea and/or offer evidence toward it. For an opener that hooks your reader, leading with your supporting idea is usually a good bet.

    I won't give you too hard of a time about using the notoriously cliche weather description as an opening, though. In this case, weather is actually thematically important to the story. :]



    Semicolons aren't meant to be used like this. A semicolon separates two complete-but-related ideas. You'd properly use a comma here because you're listing parts of a single complete idea.

    Pretty turn of phrase, though. Good use of repetition for emphasis.

    This, however:


    That's not so great an example of repetition. It reads like you forgot that you just used those words with only an indentation and a sentence in between.

    You get back to the good kind of repetition in the next paragraph. However, you might want to watch your comma use lest it turn into comma abuse. Take a look at the last two sentences of that paragraph in particular:


    You're using the exact same sentence structure twice in a row there. You're also using a lot of qualifiers. Don't be afraid to make definite statements; definite statements have more impact.

    That seems to be a running theme throughout your writing here: Your repetition wavers between poetic and, well, repetitive, and you give a lot of unnecessary qualifiers such as "seemed" or "appeared to" or "he felt" or "he'd been told". Now and then those are okay and give a better idea of the character's mindset, but overuse weakens your writing and can make your character seem wishywashy.



    Dashes are used to indicate that you're segueing into a different thought ("and on another note") or to conclude a long-winded explanation with an abrupt summary. Instead of the dash, you should probably use a colon or an ellipses.


    I like the scene with Jack digging his father's grave. Very good use of emotion.



    I'm pretty sure that this should be "Jack was dead himself". "Jack was himself dead" implies that he was himself when dead. You always want to use the adjective that "was" is qualifying first.


    I've counted at least two sentence fragments at this point, but I'm fairly certain that's just your artistic license at work. If you would like me to point them out, I can.



    Whoooops, you forgot a space. XD

    Also, this is where using a dash would be appropriate, rather than commas. You could also use ellipses.



    This strikes me as an odd statement for two reasons.

    1. We have not yet seen any evidence of him being broken prior to the death of his fathers, so this comes out of nowhere. I'm sure we'll find out why he thinks of himself as broken eventually, but you may need to build this up better first or just leave out this remark.

    2. Since he's the child, he's the one who would resemble his parents. You should liken him to them, not the other way around.



    This sentence gave me whiplash. You start off with a negative trait (derelict), then follow with a positive one without first contrasting it (the oak trees being healthy), then you do contrast (via using "but") with a negative statement (telling us about the house being broken down). It reads as if "derelict" is supposed to be a good thing. I would suggest rephrasing.


    This part just confuses me. I'm not sure about whom you're referring to at any given time. When you say "Him", you're obviously talking about the "pile of bones", but is "Him" supposed to be Jack or someone else? It sounds to be another person, but the emphasis on "Him" denotes familiarity with the person being referenced, and yet Jack seems unclear on how the "pile of bones" got there. (I'm also not sure if "pile of bones" is literal or metaphorical.) And is the last sentence implying that the traveler might be the man meant to love Jack, or that the pile of bones might be? This entire bit may need to be clarified.

    You need to be careful with the rambling style you've got going on. In places it works really well, but in others it comes out muddled.

    That comma after "only" is unnecessary, by the way.



    While you don't always have to separate adjectives with commas, this is one instance where it might be a good idea due to the dual compounded words.


    The bit with the dog is cute, if a little abrupt.


    Overall, you have a really good opening scene. It's a beautiful day, and our hero is burying his father. We get to see reflections of what his childhood was like, and we learn that Jack is alone because he's gay, as were his fathers. It's a good setup. You paint vivid images with the description and you definitely get across the right tone.


    With that, I'm going to call it quits for now, because I have work in the morning and my evening was tied up (and because I've already given you a ton to absorb). I'll give more feedback later if I haven't yet horribly offended you. :P
     
    • Like Like x 1
  6. I implemented a few changes as per your advice, Ozzie. *nodnods*

    I do have to tell you though, the scene after the next one, I reread recently and am not satisfied with, so I'll need more input there. It's the part where Jack chases away the four men in the forest scene. I really have to rewrite that one.

    Also, I was wondering. I know "faggot" is probably anachronistic for the time period, but is it okay to use if only to better highlight the discrimination rampant in their society?

    First two paragraphs:
    Show Spoiler

    The day was beautiful as any, yet its shoulders carried melancholy heavier than mountains. The sun, a brass disc set on a canvas of gentlest blue, shed its brazen light upon fields of rippling grass dancing to the music of the wind as it blew through the trees. Spring had come, and with it new life painted the earth, laid bare by winter, green and droplets of dew that clung to the swaying blades of grass shimmered in the morning light.

    One young man felt the bright sun on his back. He felt its warmth and but little of the comfort it brought to many people. He felt the cool caress of the wind and the pleasant rustling of the leaves as the breeze meandered through the nearby foliage, yet all this, the earth's grandeur, was lost on him. His world was in the sweat on his brow, in the ache in his arms, in the shovels of dirt that he tossed into the ditch in front of him.


    Oak trees being together: (I added a few things)
    Show Spoiler
    The young man glanced to his side. An oak sapling rose from the ground there. For his fathers had been inseparable in life, Jack felt that they deserved to be inseparable in death as well. The trees would grow. Their roots would reach down and drink of his fathers' essences while their branches would reach for the skies and entwine with each other. These oak trees would be together even when Jack himself was dead, locked in a tender embrace that would last centuries, dancing every so often to the will of the wind.


    I removed the comparison. You're right, I'll let the story exposition establish that Jack and his parents are broken people.

    Finally, the pile of bones scene.
    Show Spoiler

    In his mind's eye, Jack saw the farmstead derelict. The oak trees outside strong and tall, with branches that reached high into the heavens, lending shade to the earth below. The house itself was broken down, owing its deplorable condition to years of neglect. Nature was beginning to take back what rightfully belonged to it. The shutters were gone. Grass shot through the floorboards. All manner of flora and fauna had wound itself into the place.

    Within, sprawled by the remains of what was once the table in the kitchen, was a pile of bones. It was Jack. There he'd fallen, victim of the onslaught of the years, unable to get up. The brunet imagined a weary traveler stumbling upon the home, searching for some shelter after weeks in the wilderness. What if that traveler was the man meant to love Jack, only sent by the gods far too late?
     
    #6 Malkuthe Highwind, Apr 23, 2014
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2014
    • Like Like x 2
  7. The changes that you've made really improve the flow and tighten things up. :] That last bit in particular is much, much clearer.

    I feel like those first two paragraphs could be condensed into one, though, since you're still on the same subject (the beautiful weather and Jack's melancholy despite it). If you're concerned about that paragraph becoming too long, you could pull out what I like to call an "impact sentence" as a one-liner. E.g., make your hook sentence a stand-alone sentence and follow it with the paragraph that it's supported by. This is a neat trick for making things easier on the reader without sacrificing structure too much.

    As to your question, that would depend somewhat on the setting you're depicting. If this is supposed to be a historical setting (in our universe, that is)... Well, that'd be anachronistic and you probably want to use something better for the times. If it's not our universe, however (especially if it's a fantasy setting), you can think of everything you're writing as an approximate translation into English, in which case you have wiggle room on slang terms and so-on and so-forth.

    I'll get to more beta-ing soon. I'll be sure to be especially thorough with the scene you're looking at so you don't have to rewrite it too many times!
     
  8. Hmm... I like that idea of the "impact sentence"

    And it's not in our universe. So I guess I can have that little wiggle-room. *nods*

    Thanks! :D
     
  9. "Surely you jest?" The portly landlord grabbed the silver mark as it flipped in an arc through the air, ringing softly in the way that coins of the calibre often would as they sailed. He slammed a tankard of ale down before the other man. Tristan flinched at the force that the wooden drink vessel was brought down on the counter. He grimaced at sweet amber liquid and foam that spilled down the side, staining the already-stained counter-top.

    "You don't mean to 'unt 'im down, do you?" The other man, gruff and roughed up from all the time he'd spent in pursuit of the young blond shrugged. His other companions shuffled their feet uneasily and glanced at each other with uncertainty. They were more than a little afraid after what the bard Harold had told them. The fiery-haired one that had fainted at the mere mention of plague hurlers seemed almost sick with unease.

    "Oi Iven!" The owner of the tavern turned to the voice that hailed him. None other than his wife Jun. "We're out of potatoes!" The woman was probably, in her normal roundabout, entirely indirect manner of speaking, asking to go and buy some from the farmers living on the outskirts of the village. Iven waved his hand in both assent and indifferent dismissal and the woman ran up the stairs with a huff to get her basket.

    The bard had said that the winterchild was a fey creature, blest by vengeful gods with the power to bring down the cold wrath of winter upon the land. The winterchild was in himself a force of nature of an entirely different measure of being than mundane men like Iven and Tristan. What mortal man would stand against such godly beast? What mortal man could defy him? The portly tavern owner worried for the young, albeit gruff, man that sat before him. Years yet spanned ahead of Tristan, but should he dare take up arms against the winterchild, all those years would be but smoke in the wind.

    The thought reminded Iven of the bard. He allowed his gaze to wander up, drawn inexorably to the room that he'd given to the bard. He'd let the bard stay for free, much to his own consternation, since he'd been in a good mood the day the strange man had come into town. Almost as inexplicably as he'd come, the bard had gone. It was almost as if he'd never been there.

    The previous night, right after the four weary travelers that had pursued the winterchild arrived, the bard had disappeared into what seemed to be thin air. There was no sign of him, and not one person, it seemed, in the entire village that was currently overflowing with people, had seen the bard leave with his reindeer. All that he'd left was a pile of gold marks in his room, of mint that Iven had never seen before, with a note saying "I thank you for the food and drink and songs and sleep. Best of fortune to you all." The note had been signed "Not really Harold" and the landlord was almost certain it meant that the bard had lied about his name.

    When he saw the money, Iven had shrugged. He did not know whom the bard had swindled for all the gold, but he was not about to complain. Seeing as none of the patrons of the tavern had yet clamored for his money back or set the sun priests upon him, he was almost certain the gold was clean. Besides. He'd already put some of it to good use. One of the many golden coins had been spent for a cask of the northmen's best tobacco. It was money well spent, he mused as he contendedly puffed away on his pipe, having the best smoke he'd ever had his entire life.

    "And you believed everything the fucker said?" Tristan muttered as he took a swig of the potent ale. It was definitely of different vintage than the stuff that the landlord had given him the previous day. This drink seemed to be barely watered down. "He was a fucking bard! That's what they do. They embellish their tales! No one wants to hear of a simpering fool though he may have some domain over Winter!"

    Tristan made a very good point, one that Iven could not in good conscience dispute. T'was true, after all, that bards were but artisans of the spoken or sung word. It was also known that though art took after life, the stories that bards told were far from exactly true. "Very well. You 'ave a good point. But what 'ave you to gain from all this, if the bard was lying?"

    "I did not say the bard was lying, only telling half-truths."

    ---

    It had been a few minutes since Jack had left to gather more wood for the fire, and Elian was beginning to feel the familiar painful twinge of fear creeping in on his heart. He looked around, searching for any sign of the brunet in the thick woods around the clearing. Nothing.

    The blond sighed and turned his attention to the dog that was now lounging on his lap. Glaise was lying between Elian's legs with his stomach up in the air and his tail wagging enthusiastically. The furry appendage hit each of Elian's calves in turn. The short, stiffer fur of Glaise's tail tickled him slightly.

    The blond wasn't quite sure if he'd ever seen such a creature so adorable as Jack's dog. He splayed his fingers on the dog's belly and gave it a few rubs, much to the delight of Glaise who yipped at him and lolled his tongue in enjoyment. At the very least he wasn't quite alone. With the fire dying, Glaise proved to be a decent secondary source of heat to fuel his recovery.

    A hush fell over the clearing when Jack emerged out of the underbrush with his arms full of branches and twigs. Elian's eyes locked onto the brunet's figure, he was hunched over and seemed to be bent on keeping as quiet as he could. There was sweat beaded on Jack's brow and the wound on his forehead had opened again, sending a trickle of blood down the side of his face. The brunet seemed to be out of breath, and there was an almost frantic air about him. He tiptoed over to Elian and sat beside the blond, facing the fire.

    The brunet's back was to Elian, but he did not miss the subtleties in Jack's manner. The blond could see the tremble of the farmlad's hands and the uneven breaths that shook his body ever so slightly. Something was off. "I came across someone in the forest. He was not coming towards here, but I don't want to risk it." The fear in Jack's voice was palpable.

    Glaise's ears perked up and he leaped out from in between the blond's legs. He trotted over to Jack and nudged the brunet's side with his snout. A grim smile tentatively touched the brunet's lips as he reached underneath Glaise's chin and scratched it. "I don't think we can stay here for much longer..."

    Elian knew it to be true. If his pursuers were indeed still out there, then the smoke from the fire that Jack had built would be a glaring beacon for them. Now that Elian was pondering the situation with some clarity of mind, he was quite surprised that they had not been found yet. "But where would we go?" Elian still wasn't certain about Jack, and he didn't know why, but 'you and I' had quickly become 'we' for the two of them. A measure of trust had been extended, but Elian himself still feared that the brunet was just putting on a convincing visage of kindness and sincerity.

    Jack turned, having finished putting more wood into the fire and faced Elian. The blond picked up a piece of cloth that had been strewn nearby and used it to wipe off some of the blood from Jack's face. "I live nearby." The words made Elian's blood run cold. Why? He didn't know. Perhaps it was the feeling that if he tread into Jack's home, that he would be truly under the brunet's power. With his current state, Elian knew he could not fight the farmlad by any stretch of the imagination. The blond forced the bile that threatened to climb his throat back from whence it came.

    "The farm should be safe... No one knows really knows where I live. We can go there..." Jack looked up, his eyes locking with Elian's. He could see the fear shining in those purest, most beautiful, most azure eyes. Jack, truthfully, was himself feeling quite apprehensive about inviting the blond to his home. To begin with he did not know how Elian would react, or what the blond would think the brunet was proposing. Second, he wasn't sure that he wanted to share the place with anyone, particularly a creature such as Elian whom he'd just met and knew practically nothing about.

    Though the farmhouse had been his prison for so long, for all the years of his life he could remember, it had also been his home, where he could feel safe surrounded by familiar things. He wasn't entirely sure he wanted Elian there, but he felt as though they were now in the boat together and that he was obliged to see Elian to full recovery. "I... I mean, only if that's alright with you." he mumbled.

    Elian's fear stayed his tongue. He was not sure that his tongue would have had words to speak even if it had not. He was not entirely sure how to respond to Jack. There was nothing but sincerity in Jack's voice, no hint of the lechery or malice that usually blighted those same words in his experience. Elian's mind was conflicted. On the one hand he knew that if the farm was as safe as Jack promised, that his injuries could heal in relative security. On the other, all such words as those Jack had spoken had been but masks for more sinister intents in Elian's memory.

    Despite his hesitations, a small part of Elian desperately wanted to give Jack a chance to prove himself not the villain that his mind seemed to be bent on showing the brunet to be. Part of him was desperate to see even a shred of genuine goodness in the world, one that he did not snuff out because of his fear. He would be damned if he didn't think that Jack would be that one shred of goodness in the world.

    Slowly, Elian nodded his head in assent, still conflicted but willing to extend Jack another measure of trust. He was sure that the brunet was doing the same in inviting him, a total stranger with powers beyond mortal understanding, to his home.

    Despite himself, Jack could not help the smile of relief that broke out on his face. He could not deny that his heart fell when Elian became silent and distant for a short while. He had already outlined a list of reasons why Elian had to remain with him for his best interests. Some deeper, darker part of him had already begun to prepare for the inevitable yelling and accusation of being an abomination, even. Much to his relief, the sad departure he'd expected did not come to pass.

    The smile on Jack's face slipped almost as soon as it had appeared. They were, after all, not entirely out of danger just yet. All that Jack had was that one blade, and Elian was particularly indisposed to fighting in his current state. He glanced up at the sky, worry furrowing his eyebrow. The day was yet in its prime. If they started making for it soon, they would reach the farmhouse by nightfall even at the slow pace that he speculated they would have to take for Elian's sake. "We should leave soon." Jack straightened from the side of the fire and bent to pick up the mortar and pestle.

    "I will clean up. Make yourself comfortable. Rest, if you can. It might not be a long ride, but it will be a bumpy one" Jack said, a small smile gracing his lips as he locked eyes with Elian again. "Would you like to... ride on your own? O-or with me?" Jack's ears coloured and he felt blood rush to his cheeks. Far was it from him to complain of such trivialities at the time, but he felt like a fool, blushing at the prospect of riding with Elian.

    Much to the brunet's surprise, a blush coloured Elian's pale cheeks as well. In truth, it was a surprise to both of them. "It's been many years since I last rode a horse..." He'd not been on such an animals back ever since he'd run from the Vampiri capital, since he'd run from being the Vampiri Crown Prince. "I don't think I can..." It was embarrassment that brought colour to Elian's cheeks. The priests his homeland had oft said that a man who could not ride a horse was a deviant, weak of constitution and resolve.

    Jack craned his neck back to look at Elian, who was looking abashedly to the side, as he scrubbed the mortar and pestle clean in the pond-water. "I understand" he quipped with a genuine smile. "Glaise. Bring me the bowl" he said as he turned back to his work. The dog that was laying on its side by Elian's thigh got up and licked the blond's face before going to follow its master's bidding with a playful yip. The bundle of white fur was simply far too adorable for its own good. Elian felt an urge to squeeze the creature. He was appalled at the thought.

    The blond bit his tongue, uncertain about what Jack meant by what he said. After all, it had been ambiguous. Whether the brunet meant that he understood why Elian could not ride on his own, or that he understood that Elian was of weak heart, resolve and sexual discipline was unclear. He was staring at the ground by his feet, pondering the question when he couldn't bear the embarrassment of the admission any longer.

    Truth be told he'd thought he was above feeling any embarrassment for his situation anymore since it was, after all, born of necessity. It wasn't pleasant to know that at least some part of his noble-born sensibilities was still in him. "Don't you think I-I-I'm..." He began to blurt out but was unable to pursue the end of the question out of embarrassment.

    "You're what?" said Jack, wiping his brow with his forearm as he straightened from the waterside with the cleaned bowl and mortar and pestle. He walked over to the saddlebags and placed the still-dripping objects carefully inside. Glaise was right behind him, carrying the wooden bowl in his mouth.

    Elian's mouth worked wordlessly for a moment, uncertain if he should pursue an answer. Finally, he managed to get past the lump in his throat. He croaked out "Weak, lustful, depraved..." He averted his gaze when Jack stumbled in surprise at the question. He knew it. The brunet did think lowly of him now that he had revealed that he was probably unable to ride a horse. "I-I'm sorry..." he sputtered out, unable to look Jack in the eyes.

    "Hey." Elian was surprised by the firm hand on his arm and the sight of Jack getting down on his haunches by his side. "Why on earth would I think that?" The blond's gaze flitted towards Jack. Elian locked eyes with the brunet for a heartbeat. Concern, puzzlement, and, as always, sincerity was reflected in those eyes.

    Elian turned away again and said softly "Because I can't ride a horse on my own..."

    Jack made a disgruntled sound that was somewhere between a grunt and a question; Elian wasn't entirely sure. He faced Jack and was surprised to see the brunet running his fingers down through his hair with a look of utter befuddlement on his face. "I'm sorry, but what?" Elian shrugged. "How does that even make any sense?"

    "The priests always said anyone who can't ride a horse is weak, and lustful..." Elian muttered. Jack's face was scrunched up as he was trying to process what Elian had just said. Never had he heard a notion as ridiculous as what the blond had just said, and Jack, for one, had heard numerous ridiculous things from the wife of the master of the nearest farm who was arguably mentally inept.

    "That is a load of horse shit" said Jack, grinning cheekily at Elian after a few more moments of thinking on what had been said. The concept was simply ludicrous and despite the apparent gravity of their situation, Jack couldn't help the humour that worked its way through the darkness. "I've lived all my life on the farm. Never did I once see much less talk to a priest. My parents had stories of them..." Jack stopped, the grin on his face entirely erased. The pain of losing his second father became fresh on his mind again. "...They say a great many stupid things..." Jack trailed off, trying to keep tears at bay.

    The tremble in Jack's voice did not escape Elian's attention. It was audible, and the pain, palpable. It seemed as though the brunet's parents were as much a tender issue as his brother was, if not more. Elian knew better than to press the matter. There was no need to antagonize the brunet that had been nothing but kind to him since they met. "If only the rest of the world out there thought so too..." Elian whispered as Jack turned away trying to hide the tears brimming in his eyes.

    Though the blond spoke in such a low voice that the words were but whispers on a gentle wind, Jack heard them. It seemed that Elian had experienced cruelty inspired by the so-called messengers of the gods too. Though Jack himself had never been on the receiving end of that cruelty and hatred, he'd seen its result. He'd heard of what it did. He'd felt what it did, in the red welts that always, without fail, appeared on his arms whenever his father Nyko found him wandering off. He knew that cruelty by the fear that had hounded him and his parents all his life.

    ---

    "Very well, 'alf-truths, then." One of the traveling merchants left his spot at the bar to saunter over to a table with a hostile look on his face. One of the men with Tristan, the redhead, shot a hasty glance at the man before taking the seat and drinking some of the ale that was left there. Iven glared at him disapprovingly but decided that it was against his best interests to antagonize the Tristan's group. He cocked his head towards the merchant and two burly men whom he'd hired as bouncers earlier in the day were more than glad to get up from their chairs. They abandoned the tankards of ale they had been nursing to crack their knuckles and loom threateningly over the merchant.

    The poor man was a few feet away from the table that was evidently mocking some other schmuck on the other side of the tavern when all of a sudden, the shadow of the two bouncers loomed over him like a dark cloud. Though drunk and swaying from side to side, the merchant could not help but be startled by the sudden absence of light. He turned around and visibly paled, scurrying off and out of the tavern right after throwing the two a silver mark for his drink. Iven shook his head. "What do you think you'll gain from this... farce?"

    "Everything." Tristan mumbled into the ale, shooting the man beside him a glance. The look was shared. A spark of something, Tristan was not entirely sure what, jumped between them. Perhaps it was understanding, he could not properly tell. Iven shook his head. That was not an answer the tavern keeper was satisfied with. "Fine. Revenge."

    "Why are you so bent on this... revenge of yours?" Iven took a deep long draft from his pipe before puffing it all out from his mouth and nose. He grabbed Tristan's and his companion's tankards and filled them back up with ale. With all he'd bought from the merchants using the coin the bard had left, he could probably afford giving away a drink or two a day for a week for free without damaging his profits. He wouldn't do that. Tristan and his men though deserved at least a few drinks on him for the interesting conversation and their intriguing story. "After all, if 'e can control Winter itself, you 'ave got everything to lose!"

    "He killed my wife." Tristan slammed his fist on the table in anger. The man was stronger than he looked. His hand had left a sizable dent on the wooden counter. No matter. Iven had enough gold to pay for ten counters. Though he was mired deep in conversation with the strange men from outside the village, he still could not quite wrap his head around how fortunate he'd been to come across such a large sum of money, and from a seemingly-lowly bard too.

    "I'm not convinced." Iven said, flatly, taking his pipe in one hand and lowering his gaze to stare Tristan right in the eyes. Though he was visibly stronger, younger, and by far more fit than the portly master of the tavern, Tristan wilted in the intense look and averted his eyes.

    "What do you mean?" He muttered angrily, feigning offence.

    "You're not as angry as you should be if you truly cared for 'er" remarked Iven, straightening from the position he'd taken and puffing on his pipe once again.

    "I did care for her." Iven raised an eyebrow at the gruff man. He really did not believe the entire vengeance for a murdered wife story. The redhead sitting beside Tristan looked from the landlord to Iven and back many times in the span of the pause that hung between them. Tristan broke first. "Fine. She was a bitch." Tristan looked away and sighed.

    "But my daughter loved her so." Tristan closed his eyes and breathed out a long shuddering breath. His voice trembled. "She is the sweetest little girl." He looked into the ale and for but a moment, he saw her face in the dim reflection of the amber liquid within the tankard. "She had the brightest smile of any little girl I'd ever seen. But sometimes, she's far too good and loving for her own sake." He slammed his elbows on the counter and buried his face in his hands. "I just know that if she finds out about what happened to her mother, she'll never forgive herself."

    Tristan's daughter was still innocent to the hardships of life, to the hardships of the world they lived in. He wanted to keep her that way for as long as he possibly could. He wanted to protect her from the men who would invariably try to take advantage of her, that would sully her clean mind. He'd done all he could, but the gods saw it fit to be cruel, and sent the winterchild his way.

    "I have to kill the winterchild, because if my daughter loses that bright smile of hers, I will be damned if I let live the fucker who took it away." Tristan gritted his teeth and blinked away the tears that were in his eyes. The other men glanced at each other and shuffled uncomfortably where they stood. "I'm doing this... for her." The way Tristan said the last two words made them almost inaudible. The 'leader' of the ragtag group of men raised the tankard to his lips and took a great big swig.

    Iven shook his head. These young men and the folly of their zeal. He'd once been asked if he would do anything to be young again. He'd answered perhaps, if only to have a body that would not tire every twenty or so paces. Truth was, he would not want to be young again, if it only meant that he would be subject to the fickle flame of youth, to that eye that would be so affixed on one thing to the exclusion and detriment of everything else.

    "Why'd you leave 'er then? All alone? What would she think? Where did 'er father go?" Tristan sputtered and coughed, some ale trickling from his nose. "'ow would she feel, that both 'er mother and father left 'er?" He'd been so absorbed with protecting his daughter's innocence and taking revenge on the winterchild for disrupting his family that was just beginning to become happy again, that he'd completely forgotten about her. "What do you 'ave to lose with this 'arebrained scheme of yours?"

    Tristan fell silent. He had everything to lose, he'd come to realize. He should never have left home, just told his daughter some precious lie, and let her heal from losing her mother. But he was here now, more than a week's travel from home, with little idea where it even was. He feared never seeing his little girl again. "I--"

    The man sitting beside Tristan averted his gaze and trained his eyes on the ale sloshing around in the wooden vessel in front of him. In a soft voice, painfully clear in the two seconds of miraculous hush that fell over the tavern, the redhead said "All of... Not one of us has anything more to lose." The two other men that had been with Tristan nodded in solemn assent.

    Iven regarded the redhead grimly. "I think as long as your 'eart is beating, and your lungs are breathing, there's always something to lose."

    ---

    The moment of silence between the two of them stretched for the longest time. Glaise was miraculously silent as well, making no noise but for the swishing of his tail and his occasional rumbles. The dog was but faithfully and attentively watching the two young men as they pondered what each other had said for a while. It took Jack realizing that the day was waning for him to leap back into action, gathering up everything he'd brought and placing them back into the saddlebags and the pack he had where they belonged. "We have to go now." Elian nodded and was about to try and push himself up when he suddenly found Jack towering over him with a firm hand on his chest keeping him on the ground. "You'll hurt your feet!"

    Elian returned to reclining and watching Jack bustle about the clearing, propping up his upper body by his elbows. There was no use protesting against the brunet. He was evidently far more fit and stronger than the blond, and he seemed to know what he was doing. After all, he'd been able to create that poultice that had allowed Elian some much needed relief. He trained his eyes on the farmlad as he walked about the clearing, getting everything in order for their departure.

    When everything else was put away, Jack took the pail and upended it on the fire, throwing up smoke and steam in the process. Elian took one last look around the clearing. It was beautiful as it had been when he'd first gotten there, and though it was no more changed in the light of morn, it was not nearly as enchanting as it had been under the light of the goddess that was the moon. Elian would return to the place before he moved on, he vowed to himself. "Jack" Elian called out softly as the brunet began to carefully wrap his feet up in the furs that he'd been covered with not too long ago.

    "Yes?" Jack asked, tawny eyes meeting Elian's blue ones as he slipped his arm underneath the blond's knees and upper back. With a grunt and a bit of jostling about, Jack was able to lift Elian from the ground. Elian had never quite been as manhandled as Jack had just done, and he would have been lying if the feeling had not caused him the a little arousal. The blond wrapped his arms around Jack's shoulders and neck and hung on for dear life. Jack seemed strong, but Elian was not about to get dropped.

    "When I'm better, can you take me back here?" Elian surprised himself with the question. He'd never known such innocence, such idealism still existed in his heart. He'd long thought it was all snuffed out by a terrifying, uncaring, unflinching world that was out to kill him. He was wrong. Pleasantly so, maybe. Perhaps Jack's refreshing kindness had allowed those long-lost vestiges of Elian's humanity to flower once more. "I want to see this place before I go..."

    Jack almost dropped Elian and had to stop just shy of the horses. His heart sank in his chest. What was Elian saying? "Where are you going?" Against his better judgment, he didn't want the blond to leave. Sure, he was apprehensive about letting Elian live at his home, but that was only because it was such an intimate, sacred place for him. He didn't want to be left alone again, scared and never having anyone to share and perhaps fight that fear with.

    "I can't stay with you, Jack..." The words felt like a dagger thrust into his chest and twisted time and time again until he knew nothing more than the dagger and the pain it caused. The brunet sat Elian on the horse, both his legs hanging off one side. Jack soon followed, leaping onto the saddle. He couldn't bear to look at Elian, couldn't bear to show the tears that threatened to spill from his eyes. "They will find me again, and when they do, I do not want them to hurt you."

    Jack didn't know why, or why he felt that way about Elian in particular, but the thought of being separated from the blond was now almost unbearable. Perhaps it was the simple fear of being left alone again that worked against Jack, but he could somehow tell that it was more than that. In what little time they'd had together, he knew that part of his heart had latched on to the idea of him spending the rest of his life with Elian. He wasn't ignorant of the fact that there was more than one man hunting down the blond, that there was great risk for injury or death, but he found that he did not fear any of that. What he feared was losing Elian only to never find anyone ever again.

    "They can't hurt me" he said, trying to find some strength, any strength, to bolster his conviction. "I did not help you, take care of you, just so they can hurt you all over again..." Jack whispered to Elian as he bent down to untie the horses from the tree. He gave Elian the lead for the pack horse and took the reins in his hands. Their bodies were touching. Their closeness, almost intimate. Jack felt raw, vulnerable, exposed. He didn't like it, but he didn't like the idea of losing Elian more.

    Elian's words caught in his throat. For some reason, the idea of leaving this one man who'd shown him a kindness that he'd never received before, not from the castle servants, not from his parents, not from his brother, not from lady Elesyne, not from the men and women that had given him board and food for nights that he needed them, and not from the 'friends' he'd made on his travels, felt like a burning, itching, painful weight on his shoulders. The blond struggled against his warring heart, trying to justify leaving Jack to himself. He found his voice. "What sort of thanks would it be, for all you've done for me, that I let you be hurt by the things I've done?"

    The two passed through the clearing and emerged by the bank of the stream. There was a short silence, broken only by the soft gurgling of the water as it flowed by at its placid pace. Jack took the reins with one hand, and rubbed his eyes with the other, wiping away the salty wetness that had gathered there. "What sort of thanks would it be, for all I've done for you, that I heal you only to let you go and kill yourself?" There was a hint of anger in Jack's voice, but it trembled with equal parts desperation and pleading. "What wrongs have you done that these men would not stop until they find you and do you harm?"

    Elian fell silent and his gaze drifted off into the distance. He'd done a great many wrongs. "I killed."

    Jack was startled. He'd not thought that part of the story that the men had told was real. Maybe Elian did indeed prefer the company of men to women as he did, after all. Despite the possible good news, he felt his heart thump in his chest. He was with a murderer. Though Elian had seemed innocent and terrified, he'd committed murder. The blond had admitted to as much! Nothing further was spoken and silence stretched. The two words that Elian had said hung in the air between the two until Jack broke the unsettling quiet with one. "Why?"

    Elian considered for a moment how to answer the question. Utter terror burned through his veins. Adrenalin pumped through his body, his heart hammered in his chest. He wondered what Jack would do now that Elian had confessed to him that he was a murderer. He wondered if the kindly brunet would suddenly turn cold and distant and leave him behind to the mercy of the world. He wondered what would happen now that Jack knew that Elian's hands were stained with blood. Human blood. "Fear" was Elian's only grim reply.

    For a moment, there was nothing but the rush of the stream's waters and the titter of birds in the woods. Slowly, Elian felt Jack's arms tighten around him. Here it was, he told himself. He was going to get thrown off and probably left to die. Much to his surprise, no such thing happened. There was a lot on Jack's mind, but the way Elian spoke that one word struck him like a hammer would an anvil. The brunet felt sick to his stomach. Elian felt the splash of warm droplets of water on his shoulder. Was Jack crying? What evil had he wrought this time? Elian chided himself.

    "Why?" Jack repeated the question, numb. His mind would not let him say anything else. His heart was, for the moment, silenced. He was holding, in his arms, a man who had admitted to taking another's life in the sight of gods and men, yet he could not bring himself to do any harm to Elian, could not bring himself to believe that he'd done it in cold blood.

    "She was going to kill me..." Elian responded, gaze distant, watching as the trees bobbed past, weaving in and out behind each other. Memories of the murder appeared in his mind's eye. He shuddered as he relived, vividly, each and every moment of it and other days like it before.

    "What did you do?" Jack asked, his voice no louder than a whisper meant for only Elian's ears. There was very much a scared little boy in Jack's voice. Deep inside, the brunet was a scared little boy who had to grow up quickly lest the world around him devour him and spit him out a mangled, broken mess. In truth, Jack was ever as scared as he had been the day his adoptive parents found him. As he had been since he could remember.

    Elian pondered the question. "I did nothing to provoke her. She came after me with a sickle. In fear I lashed out and my frost killed her." Elian shuddered, remembering. Arcs of frozen lightning had leapt from his hands against his will but not against the all-consuming fear that he'd felt at the moment. They had crackled as they went, turning the very air into coldest wind. His ice had reached out, fanned out, jumped from her and onto the beasts with her.

    Worst of all, Elian knew that there was some part of him that had reveled in the act. As the ice began to envelop their bodies, it formed a bond with Elian. The very warmth that gave them life, that sent their blood surging through their veins, that pulsed their hearts, that took their breath and pushed it out when it was spent, had been siphoned into him. It had been glorious. It had made him feel powerful. It had disgusted him.

    "Monster" Jack whispered, voice barely audible above the gurgling of the stream.

    "I know." Elian responded, averting his gaze in shame. What was to become of him now? He feared what Jack would do to him now that he knew what sort of monster the blond was. For some strange reason, the worst part of it all was how terribly it hurt to hear the accusation coming from the one person that had shown him even a modicum of kindness with nothing expected in exchange, at least nothing to his knowledge. He felt as though a spear had been thrust through his breast. He felt as though there was truly no hope for him. Despite all he'd been through, nothing had quite prepared him for what Jack had said.

    "Not you."

    *

    Neither of them had spoken since Jack's final two words. In truth, the reality of what he'd just said hung in between them and over them like dark, brooding clouds. Elian had been taken aback by what Jack said. Of all the things he'd thought people would say, he'd never expected those two words.

    All of Elian's life since he'd run from Vamara, he'd thought of himself as a monster, one whose path only brought a wake of death and destruction with it. Yet here was one man, perhaps the only one in the entire world that would think it, who, despite his admission of guilt to murder, the most heinous of crimes, believed that it was not Elian who was the monster but rather the people who were out to hurt him.

    Jack was, himself, stunned to silence by what had slipped his lips. To begin with, what would Elian think of him, that he did not consider a murderer as much a monster as the victim of his crime? Certainly, Elian would not think highly of him after that. Second, he'd surprised himself by how freely he'd given voice to those two words. That he cared enough for Elian to be of the opinion that it was the horrid woman who'd driven Elian to kill who was a monster was an admission he'd not been ready to make to himself, much less the blond in question.

    It was as they broke through the woods and into the rolling hills behind Jack's parents' -- and now his alone -- property that Elian finally broke the silence. "Murder doesn't make me a monster?" The words came slowly, haltingly, but not because Elian was tired and had a sore ass from riding the horse, but because he could barely find the words to speak. No answer was forthcoming from Jack. The brunet was deep in thought. Why didn't he think that Elian was a monster?

    Fear. Necessity. That was the reason. Perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps it was because Jack himself knew that fear of being found out, of being chased away, being threatened and maybe even harmed. Perhaps it was because Jack saw more of himself in Elian, terrified of society and alone in the world than he did in the spiteful woman who'd chased Elian off for simply being different. "Is a stag that gores a wolf in his own defense a monster?" Jack had seen the bloody results of such battle before. More often than not, it was the wolf that reigned superior, living another day to lick its wounds. But on occasion, it was the stag that won, leaving behind the carcass of a predator, to feed the very grass that the stag would later come to eat.

    Elian considered the question and looked up at Jack. The brunet's eyes were focused elsewhere, on farmhouse ahead. "No more than a wolf that eats a stag for his survival, I suppose..." He realized Jack's point, and it was a strong one. His murder had been brought about by necessity, by self-defense. In truth, all the lives he'd taken were out of fear and want to survive. "But how does that make her a monster?"

    "Because she didWn't need to hate you for being different" Jack lowered his gaze and met Elian's own. There was something meaningful in the brunet's tawny eyes, but Elian, unversed in the ways of the kind heart, could not discern its nature. He nodded in understanding. The brunet seemed wiser than he looked, but Elian was still convinced that he was a monster.

    "But I didn't say she hated me for being different..." Elian protested, closing his eyes and leaning his head against Jack's arm. He tried to stifle a yawn. He was tired, and with the light of day waning, it was a surprising change of pace. He'd been a creature of the night since he'd run away from his old home, preferring the shadows of night when he could slip away unseen to the glaring brightness of day when he stood out like a peacock in a coop of hens.

    "Why else would she attack you if you did nothing?" Elian had no response for the question. Jack nodded grimly. He was most probably right. Even Elian, having only just begun to think about his actions that fateful day, shared Jack's thought. Why else but because of being different? It almost seemed as though being different was itself an execution sentence in the world they lived in. He shuddered, remembering what trouble and pain being 'different' brought.

    By the time the two reached the farmhouse, the sun was just barely embracing the tops of the trees. The last of its brazen light was beginning to dwindle into the dark of night. They'd made it just in time, slow as they had been on the way. Jack dismounted and tied the horses to a nearby pole before taking Elian in his arms nd carrying him past the threshold into his home like his fathers said a man would his bride.

    The brunet stopped before the door for a moment, and lifted his eyes to gaze upon the countenance of the home he'd been raised in. The place was almost hallowed ground to him, and his fathers had been nothing but good to him. What would they think of Jack bringing home a murderer, guilt-ridden though as he seemed with his crimes? No matter, they were dead and gone, and though Jack wanted to do their memories honour, there was no honour in refusing help to those who needed it.

    Jack worried about the portrait that they would soon come upon. Alas, there was no time to think. The thoughts in his mind raged as though the sea in a tempest. As the brunet pushed the door open, he felt apprehension and nausea bubble in the pit of his stomach. Though he'd made it clear that he was not going to hate Elian for what he'd done, he was not sure how the blond would react to seeing the painting.

    Much of the living room was shrouded in shadow, but a single bar of golden light streamed from the one opened shutter onto the portrait above the hearth.

    The light, bright though as it was, fell softly upon the brows of his fathers' likenesses. The two men were locked in an intimate embrace, the taller, Nyko stood almost half a head over his partner, Kyle. Their lips were locked in tender passion, their eyes closed, needing nothing but the feeling of their lips upon each other to feel their love, to know that they were not alone. Kyle's arms were wrapped around Nyko's shoulders and neck, a sincere embrace. Nyko's left hand gripped one of Kyle's arms, a firm assurance that they were truly as one. His right was wrapped around Kyle's nape, turning the other man's light brown hair into a messy disarray.

    The two men were sweaty, bare from the waist up, and streaked with dirt and grime, but they held on to each other as though little else mattered, as though they would die without the other's presence. Kyle was clean in only one place, sharp and crisp in the painting. A single thin trail of clean skin went from the corner of his eye to his chin, and there, frozen in midair, was a tear as it fell between them.

    A gasp issued from Elian's lips. The painting was beautiful, and the men, one with hair of fire, and the other with hair much like Jack's, were stunning despite the mess that covered them. Elian could not take his eyes off of the portrait. Jack could not take his eyes off of Elian. His breath was bated in expectation for the inevitable string of curses and possibly instant death that would come from the blond. Much as he waited, death never came. There was silence punctuated only by soft scuffling as Glaise made his way into the farmhouse.

    "You have two fathers..." whispered Elian.

    "I had two fathers..." answered Jack, not once taking his eyes off of the blond in his arms. The brunet was himself trembling in apprehension of what else Elian would say. The fear in his heart was so great that he did not notice the absolute lack of hostility in Elian's voice.

    "I'm sorry..." Elian turned to face Jack, his eyes locking with the brunet's. To Jack they seemed almost devoid of meaning. He could feel his heart thumping against his chest with such strength that had his bones not been in the way, it would have burst from his body. Though Jack was blind to it, the blond's sapphire blue eyes were filled with pure sympathy.

    "He died just yesterday..." Jack cocked his head to the right, to the brunet much like himself. Elian's eyes widened and his breath became shallow. He looked away, casting the light of his gaze upon the portrait once again. Tears threatened to spill. He wasn't sure where the sadness came from, or why the tears threatened to come forth, but he could only imagine how much strength it had taken for Jack to come to the aid of a stranger, one who had seemed to be far more strange than any mortal man could be, merely hours after the death of his last parent.

    Elian was silent, but Jack could feel the trembling of the blonde. "Gods..."

    "Do you hate me?" Jack's arms were beginning to burn, but he could not will his feet to move from where they were rooted. He stared at the portrait just as Elian was doing. Would this be where everything fell apart?

    "Jack?" The blond felt a tad slighted by the question. He was not confused by it, not by far. He lived in the same world that Jack did, after all, and people like them were always, almost without exception, outcasts deemed inferior and utterly despised.

    "Do you hate me?" Jack repeated the question, louder. He felt a weakness in his knees but he forced himself to remain standing. He could not afford to drop Elian, not without hurting the blond even more. Why he raised his voice, he did not know. Perhaps some part of him was hoping that maybe the authoritative tone would force Elian to tell the truth.

    "Why would I?" Elian asked, voice alighting but softly and gently on Jack's ears. He felt Jack stiffen where he stood. Had he said something wrong? Was it not answer enough that he did not instantly say yes?

    Jack paused, uncertain if he should continue what he was about to say. Sure, Elian had not said a thing about his fathers being abominations yet, but they were dead. Perhaps the blond would think differently about someone such as him, alive, breathing, and ever so close. "Because I have two fathers?"

    "No..." Elian looked deeply into Jack's eyes. He could see the fear their. He could only imagine the depth of terror that had been present in his own when he'd admitted to the murder of one of his pursuers' wives.

    "Because I, like them, prefer the company of men?" The words left Jack's lips slowly and each one sounded as though a strike of a hammer nailing down the lid of a coffin. Jack looked away, unable to meet Elian's gaze in shame. There. He'd said it. He'd admitted his one deepest, darkest secret. Now, Elian was free to hate him.

    "No..." Jack's eyes widened in surprise and a small broken sound escaped his lips. The blond wrapped his one arm around Jack's shoulders, supporting himself as best as he could on his one arm. He used his other hand to gently turn Jack's face back towards him. Sapphire eyes met watery tawny eyes. "No." Elian said again, firmly. He rubbed his thumb in circles around Jack's cheek, bringing into existence and rubbing out fragile curls of frost.

    "Why?" Jack said, his voice breaking in the middle of the question. He felt small. He felt vulnerable. He felt exposed. It was a sensation he did not feel used to. It was a sensation he did not like. "Why?" He asked, pleading, voice heavy with desperation. Don't let this be a dream. Please. Jack could give no voice to those words. His throat would not let any other word through than 'why.' Why did Elian not hate him for what he was? His fathers had always told him that if he ever told anyone, they would hate him back.

    It was Elian's turn to pause. Here was Jack, probably baring before him his deepest, darkest, most guarded secret. It was Elian's as well. His ice was not his biggest concern, it never had been. His ice was difficult to hide, if not nigh on impossible. The secret that dwelled in the depths of his heart, in the darkest crannies of his soul, was that he, like Jack, preferred the company of men to their more buxom counterparts.

    "I do too."
     
  10. "I do too"

    The response was the last thing that Jack had expected. Sure, the men had been right about the murder, but he'd not expected them to be right about Elian's preference in bed-mates. He was so shocked that his mouth worked wordlessly for a few moments. Even so, afterwards, he could not think well enough to form any coherent words. "Jack?" Elian's voice was small, and scared. He didn't quite know what was going through Jack's mind, concern rearing its ugly head in his heart... The brunet almost seemed to be in a trance.

    "Jack?" The brunet took one step forward, eyes fixed at a point in the distance. The very visage of his face, stony and devoid of emotion, terrified Elian. Another step. The blond removed his hand from Jack's face and hung on for dear life. Taking one step after another, Jack made his way to the stairs and eventually, up them. Each footstep was mechanical and measured. Elian could tell that they were aimless, that the only reason Jack was heading where he was, was because he'd done it so many times before.

    "Jack are you alright?" Elian asked, worried. He buried his face in Jack's chest, terrified that he might get dropped. No such thing happened. Jack's arms held strong. Elian was not much of a heavy load, not after Jack had carried his own father down to give him a proper burial. Even if Elian was in the prime of his health, he probably would not have been a problem, much less now that he was frightfully thin. When they reached the second floor landing of the farmhouse, Elian allowed himself to leave the comfort of Jack's chest and look around.

    The farmhouse looked surprisingly well-built if not a little rough. From the way that none of the floorboards creaked under Jack's feet, to the way that the timber that made up the walls was laid in such a way that there were no gaps in between, it seemed to almost be the work of a master builder. The blond decided that he would ask Jack about it if he ever had the chance to talk to the brunet again. For the meantime, though, it seemed that no words were forthcoming.

    They made their way to the second of the two rooms in the house. The blond cast his eyes about, and he could see little things here and there, mementos of the people that had lived there once. There was a pipe on a nearby desk, an uncovered but empty chamber pot on the foot of the bed, and an assortment of smooth, glittery stones all in a straight line on top of the chest of drawers. From the size of the bed, Elian supposed that it was not Jack's room. The large, evidently lopsided mattress had room enough for two, and perhaps a third if one was willing to squeeze in a little closer.

    As they drew nearer to the bed, Elian raised his eyebrows in surprise. He'd not noticed it from afar but there was a featherbed. It was admittedly not properly fluffed up and smoothed, but the only reason Elian knew the 'proper' way was having lived in a noble court. Jack knelt on the bed and began to gently lower the blond to the bed. Elian doubted it would feel like his bed back in the palace of Vamara, but it was the best Jack had. Elian didn't know why, but the mere thought of Jack giving him the best bed in the house set his poor heart aflutter, much to the displeasure of his mind that took the time to remind him that he could. not. stay.

    The bed was surprisingly more comfortable than Elian had expected. Perhaps it was that he was mistaken, or the fact that sleeping on the ground, piles of rags, bales of hay, and straw mattresses for the last three or four years had lowered his standards of comfort quite a bit. He felt his entire body sink into the bed, revelling in the softness and the warmth that it lent him momentarily. His heart though, still reached out to Jack and he couldn't help but continue staring at the brunet, eyes filled with confusion and concern. "Jack?"

    It was almost as though his words were falling on deaf ears. Jack turned away from Elian and walked out the door, mechanical and stiff as he had been since Elian had made mention that he shared the same proclivities as Jack. Had he done something wrong? His mind had warned him about getting attached, but his heart had not listened, and Jack's silence, for some odd reason, hurt. He'd just told the brunet his deepest, darkest secret, hoping that Jack would reciprocate the same measure of trust and kindness that he had when Jack had revealed the same to him. He'd not received it. He felt betrayed, but at the same time, he could not levy the blame on Jack.

    The brunet stumbled down the stairs, leaving Elian to his thoughts and getting himself some time on his own. He braced himself on the banister. Had the gods seen it fit to torment him with this happy dream only to take it away come morn? Was he but a wanderer in the land where dreams roamed and nightmares stalked? He silently demanded the truth from the gods, but received no answer. As he descended the steps, the light of the weakening eye of day seemed to follow him, night nipping at his heels.

    Jack ran to the kitchen and with a burning splint, lit the lamps and candles in the entire first floor of the house. The mindless activity helped to calm his racing heart and his turning mind, but it lent little, if any answer at all, to the question that plagued him. Was he dreaming? He heard the horses nickering nervously outside as darkness descended upon the land. The poor creatures were not used to being outside of their stable come twilight. He shook his head and grabbed a lamp before running out of the farmhouse to return the faithful steeds to their resting place.

    Up in the room, Elian listened to the racket that Jack was making downstairs with growing dread. Had he said something so infuriating to Jack? Why? There was no reason that the brunet would be angry about Elian's confession... Unless Jack's own confession was a test of whether or not Elian was of the same proclivity as his fathers. Perhaps Jack killed his fathers out of hatred bred into him by the priests. No. His heart told him to be calm. Jack had said that he'd never even seen a priest. Besides, the Jack he'd come to know did not seem like the hateful kind of person, and in fact, seemed to be the indirect victim of such people.

    Then again, his mind said, neither did the other people who'd taken him. After all, they had only been so keen on helping him until they drove him out for the mere accusation of being "different" or the fear of being called a lover of "abominations." Maybe Jack was preparing to rape him, then. It would make sense. The farmboy probably had no company for sexual release at the farm, and was probably going to use Elian as a repayment for the help. The blond was surprised that he didn't mind the idea of doing sexual favours for Jack. After all, the brunet had done so much for him, it was entirely understandable would he want to ask for a price from Elian.

    The blond was distracted from his thoughts by the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs and a growing pool of reddish-yellow light outside the slightly-ajar door to the room. In strode Jack with an oil lamp in his hand, coming to a halt just beyond the door frame. The visage of the farmboy was intimidating, if not terrifying. The light of the lamp flickered and danced as flames so loved to do, casting perpetually changing shadows on Jack's face. Without the day's light to illuminate the darkened side of his face, what stood before Elian was a creature with a mask of light on one half of his face, and one of shadow on the other. There was nothing lecherous about Jack's expression, no lust in his eyes. There was only a measure of rigidity in his composure, a grim determination on his face.

    Elian was afraid of this Jack and he flinched when the brunet took a step towards his side of the bed. He'd half-expected the rough grabbing and manhandling to begin but it didn't come. The brunet strode over to the nightstand and lit the tallow candle there, shedding more light into the room. He went over to the desk and lit a candle. Over to the chest of drawers, and a candle. Finally, he walked over to the other side of the bed, where an oil lamp sat on the nightstand. He lit that one too and set the one in his hand beside it. The twin flames dancing away from each other as though afraid of being consumed by the other.

    Jack sat on the bed, his back to Elian, his face buried in his hands. "Jack?" Elian said, rolling onto his side whilst making sure his feet made no sudden movements. He winced when he managed to bend his right foot forward. He'd been so occupied with all that had happened recently, that he'd forgotten the pain in his feet. It was beginning to return, though very slowly. He reached over with a pale hand and managed to just barely touch Jack's shoulder, causing a conflagration of frost crystals to erupt and to spider-web over the linen of Jack's tunic.

    "What?" Jack remained still where he sat, looking away from Elian. There was no aggression in the brunet's voice, only incredulity. "You do, too?" he whispered, a hint of disbelief in his voice. He wasn't dreaming. That much was certain when he managed to stub his other toe on one of the beams in the stables. Pain had raced up his entire leg and he had to stop to hop on one foot for a moment, cursing under his breath the whole time.

    One of the foolish things his parents told him the priests liked to say was that swearing could send a person to hell. Needless to say, after that talk, Nyko had taken to teaching Jack every single profanity conceivable under the sun. They were going to hell, anyway, said Nyko, why not have fun while they were at it?

    The truth of the matter had not entirely set on Jack until he had found himself standing in the room, eyes locked with Elian. Here was another person that could love him like Kyle had Nyko. Here was another person who would not drive him out, hurt him, kill him for being himself. Here was another kindred soul. And he was leaving as soon as he was better. It had been almost too much to bear, and Jack was thankful for having to light the candles so that Elian would not see his face when the thought crushed his heart.

    The pleading in Jack's voice gave Elian pause. He stopped, fingers hovering tentatively over Jack's shoulder. He could only imagine the thoughts running through Jack's mind at the moment. The blond had to admit that his own mind was no more calm. A whirling tempest of emotions and questions threatened to overwhelm him, but he could not afford that moment of weakness. Not even around someone who'd given him no reason to fear. "I do" Elian said, slowly. The words sent a tremble down Jack's frame and the blond saw it clear as day.

    "And you're leaving when you're better?" Jack still couldn't bear to look at Elian. Elian had answered the question before, but Jack needed to hear the answer again. The brunet desperately, foolishly hoped that Elian would change his mind. Now that he knew that the stranger, the creature of winter that he'd been so fortunate to come upon was much like him in his proclivities, Jack was almost tempted to stop allowing Elian the kindness he had been so far, to stop himself from getting too near or seeing too much of the blond.

    He was tempted to come to Elian's side only whenever the blond needed something he could not get himself. The brunet knew that it was the only way, the single course of action that would ensure that he would not get too attached, that his heart would not be torn asunder when Elian left. He laughed bitterly when he realized it was now too late for that. A deep, but nonetheless important part of him had fallen for the blond the moment he'd set eyes on the strange eldritch creature. There was no hope for him. His heart would get broken no matter what.

    "Jack..." Softly. His name dropped from Elian's lips with such softness that Jack felt his heart flutter in his chest. It was not the answer that he'd been looking for. It seemed as though the blond was simply avoiding the question. The unspoken answer was the one that Jack hoped against hope the would not hear. Perhaps it was rage at the world that the one person he'd hoped would understand and not leave him alone would be the one that would not stay, or perhaps it was loathing that he couldn't simply be himself and stop living in isolation for fear of his own safety, but for some reason anger and resentment rose like bitter bile in the brunet's stomach.

    "Are you leaving when you're better?!" Jack repeated, desperation laced with resentment evident in his voice. As he spoke, he whirled around, snatching Elian's wrist out of the air with an iron grip. He'd not meant to be so harsh, but the thought of Elian leaving him alone had filled him with such dread that it clouded his judgment. The blond jumped in surprise at the sudden, uncalled-for aggression. His eyes dilated in fear, his heart thumped in his chest, and adrenalin surged in his veins. From Jack's hand down to his elbow, a discordant layer of frost lacking the beauty and gentleness of Elian's normal ice raced. The cold was far harsher than the tender and almost gentle ice that had graced the brunet's face not too long ago when Elian touched it.

    Elian tried to pull his arm away, but Jack would not, could not let go. The brunet's tawny eyes were filled with a such overwhelming fear and hurt that Elian shivered and averted his gaze. "Jack. Jack... it hurts!" He begged. The grip loosened. The brunet's hand slipped. Elian snatched back his arm and massaged his wrist, holding it near his chest. He couldn't bear to look at Jack.

    A broken sound escaped Jack's lips, one that cracked the ice that Elian had allowed to surround his heart. Gods the sound was so piteous and pathetic. The brunet was just staring at the bed, himself unable to look at the blond. "Yes..." whispered Elian, so softly it sounded like the gentlest breeze. Elian's answer was as though a hammer brought down upon a sheet of glass. Jack's world shattered, and something inside him broke. He didn't want to be alone again.

    "Gods..." Jack sobbed. A shudder wracked his entire body. Elian felt the bed quiver in turn. A strangled yelp tore itself out of Elian's throat when Jack lunged at him, wrapping strong arms around his slender, fragile frame. The blond feared that a rib would break, or that Jack would inadvertently cause more damage to his feet, but neither of those things happened.

    The larger, more physically sound young man, despite his evident better health, seemed to melt like putty into the embrace. Jack shook, and he shuddered, and he drew gasping breaths as he fought in vain against the ravaging torrent of fear that tore through him. "Gods. Please. Don't leave me..."

    Elian had to take a few deep breaths to calm himself from the unexpected, and frankly, unwelcome physical contact. Jack was entirely on top of him. The brunet's arms were wrapped firmly around and under the blond's torso with his legs to either side of Elian's own. Jack's chin was on his shoulder, and he could feel a dampness growing on his clothing there, brought on by Jack's tears. Each shaky breath of air that the brunet sucked into his lungs sent tremors through Elian beneath him. As the blond began to regain his composure, the ice that was beginning to crawl over Jack's body slowed and eventually ground to a halt.

    "Jack." As Jack's distress subsided, so too did his tears and his trembling. Elian drew some energy from the heat of Jack's body, and using all his borrowed strength, pushed the brunet off of him. He tried to be as gentle as possible, but there was nothing he could do to take away the innate roughness of the gesture. "What...?" Jack looked at him with wide, pleading, hurt eyes and a trembling lower lip, almost like a child.

    The expression horrified Elian. It was worse than anything he'd ever seen, worse still than dead, frozen faces staring at him with accusing eyes. Jack's heart was breaking, like Elian's. Neither of them liked the situation they were in, the tragic truth of their relationship. Victims of his murderous hands were one thing for Elian, but knowing that he was about to leave this young man who'd been nothing but kind to the blond and break his heart so much that he would suffer for the rest of his life, was another magnitude of terrifying greater. Had he had any more space, he would have edged away from the brunet. He shook his head and stared at his feet, trembling. "I can't."

    Jack sat up, drawing his feet to his chest and wrapping his arms around his knees where he buried his face. "Why?" he asked, voice small and broken.

    "I just... can't" said Elian, eyes now trained on one of the flickering candles, watching as the flame danced at the mercy of the fickle wind. Maybe he'd been wrong to think that Jack was doing all of this out of the goodness of his heart. Maybe the farmlad was simply doing all he could to not stay alone. Gods knew that Elian knew the feeling of spending day upon day upon day without companionship. However, he could not settle with his conscience risking Jack's life simply so that he would not have to live with his fear of being alone.

    The two sat there for a moment, Elian on one edge of the bed, Jack curled up by the other. Nothing broke the silence between them but the sounds of the forest and the whisper of the breeze. The bed rustled as Jack straightened and rose from it, wiping the tears in his eyes away with his forearm. Elian's eyes followed him, wary but sympathetic, as he went around the room blowing out the candles one by one, leaving only the lamp in his hand as the only light. He cast one final look at Elian, eyes still watery with tears and filled with pleading, before turning to leave. "Jack." The brunet stopped before crossing the threshold of the door. "Goodnight."

    The brunet made a choked sound and nodded slowly without looking at Elian before vanishing into the night.

    ---

    The last of the jovial music died down as the village feast to see the merchants off reached its end. The bare-footed girls who danced to the music of tambourines where nowhere to be seen, probably having returned to their homes as it was not right for women to be out and about in the cover of night, as the priests claimed. The Spring Feast, as the townspeople called it, was one of the few times that they got to celebrate in the village. All other festivals had been decried by the priests as pagan, and forbidden by the sun gods. The spring feast, though, fed even the priests with some of the most succulent foods that the village knew. It was probably for that one reason that the festival had yet to be banned from their annual celebrations.

    Tristan and his men stumbled back to the tavern. The inn was still full, providing board for the merchants that were not to leave until the next morning, but the bard's absence and the lack of northmen willing to drink before embarking on their long journey had freed some room in the tavern. The gruff men had almost forgotten what it was like to sleep in beds -- even the most uncomfortable ones.

    All four of them were drunk and full of the delectable dishes served at the feast. There was suckling pig and goat and sheep and duck all drenched in the most glorious gravy and paired with sweet and sour berries freshly picked from the woods nearby. Tristan had tried his best to not gorge himself. They did, after all, have a mission to pursue. Truthfully, though, what he did not eat, he drank its weight in ale. It was all for the futile effort of trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Iven had been right. He had been stupid. He had been a terrible father. He had left his daughter, all alone right after her mother had died.

    When they entered the tavern, it was dark save for the counter, where Iven sat puffing away on his pipe. No one else was there, everyone else was probably going to socialize until long after the feast, into the wee hours of morn. Tristan was slung over the shoulders of two of the men, deliriously drunk. He motioned at the portly master of the tavern and said "Two more" flapping his hand, which was hanging limply by one of the men's shoulders, up and down with two fingers raised.

    Iven raised an eyebrow at the men. They all just shrugged. With a sigh, probably out of exasperation at the sheer amount of drink that they had so far consumed in their short stay, Iven filled two tankards and handed them to the one man who was currently unoccupied with Tristan. They dragged the brunet upstairs, his feet thudding dully as they collided with the face of each step. He groaned in pain, though far too intoxicated to actually care.

    For the coin they were willing to spend, the four weary and drunk travelers had managed to rent two rooms for the night. The men looked at each other. No one really seemed to want to be in the same room as Tristan given that he was entirely debilitatingly drunk. Sure, they'd spent a week on the chase together and seen each other naked more than they would've liked, but, if anything, none of them had thrown up on someone else in the group. Such an event was surely only a matter of time, and something that Tristan was likely to do through the course of the night. The man, of fiery hair and pale complexion, carrying the tankards shrugged and said "Fine. I'll stay with him."

    It was the redhead that had fainted, when they first arrived, at the mere mention of plague hurlers. No one in their home village considered him much of a man, but he'd demanded to come along in order to prove himself. He'd confronted Tristan before the group was able to leave, and through some strange twist of fate was able to convince the brunet to allow him to come along. The two other men looked at each other and were more than happy to let the other take the burden that was their inebriated 'leader'. They dragged Tristan in, who seemed to have dozed off, and set him on a chair. They knew better than to put him in bed lest he vomit and choke on the regurgitated contents of his own stomach.

    The two other men hurriedly left the room, wanting no part in the mess that was invariably going to happen. The redhead left in the room with Tristan closed the door and bolted it shut. He walked over to the nightstand where he'd placed the tankards of ale and sprinkled Tristan's face with a few droplets to wake him up. The gruff man started and opened his eyes blearily. Seeing the tankard of ale being dangled in front of him, he reached out with both hands, grabbed it, tilted his head back, and downed all of it. Rivulets of the amber liquid ran down the sides of his mouth.

    "Thanks. Re--" Tristan's eyes widened as he felt a gurgle run up from his stomach to his throat. The other man averted his gaze as Tristan upchucked everything he'd just drank back into the tankard. The redhead held a fist to his mouth, trying not to gag himself. When he returned his gaze to Tristan, the other man noticed the leader of their small group sniffing the tankard and preparing to drink the vomit in it.

    "No! Don't do that!" He shuddered in disgust and gingerly snatched the tankard from Tristan's hands, trying his best to avoid the trickles of ejecta that spilled over the sides. He walked over to one of the windows, threw open the shutters and dumped the tankard out.

    "Rein..." groaned Tristan. The other man, hearing his name turned and raised an eyebrow at Tristan. "Reeeein... what the fuck happened to our lives?" Rein shook his head and grabbed the flint and firestone before walking to the fireplace in the room and striking up a flame in the hearth. "What the fuck... happened to you? You used to be one of the bravest guys I knew. N-n-now you're a... wimp. Whaaaat the... fuck?"

    "Our lives went in different directions, Tristan." Rein pulled up a chair to sit in front of the brunet. Truly, their lives had taken entirely different roads. They had been the best of friends, an inseparable duo, back when they were children. It was funny how a single accident could change so much of how people saw you.

    A deeply-rooted fear of the supernatural world had been set in Rein since that fateful day they'd almost died in the forest, and none of the villagers, praised as he and Tristan had been before, let him live that fear down. His self-confidence had been absolutely destroyed and he went to live at the extremes of the village as a tanner, mired day in and day out in the noxious odours of the tannery, much like his life was mired in the shit that was the cynicism of others.

    "You married that bitch." Tristan's wife had been the redhead's biggest detractor. She had evidently managed to convince the brunet that the creature of myth that they had met and had suffered at the hands of, was merely an illusion cooked up by their childish brains. Rein wasn't so easily convinced. He still had the scar that ran the length of his back. The fiery-haired man stood and walked in front of Tristan. The other man looked up at him. "How the fuck did you make the sweetest little girl with that horrid, hateful woman?"

    "When you're drunk, a hole's a hole to fill with your cum, Rein." Rein spat in disgust. To think that such innoncence and beauty and kindness could have come from the union of his best friend and his worst enemy was daunting. It was almost unfathomable, if not for the fact that he knew that Tristan's daughter was the striking image, both in countenance and personality, of her father. Praised be the gods for making the seed of man run strong.

    "Your daughter always visited me in the tannery, even when I told her not to because it could soil her clothes. It often did, too. She would often come by worried that maybe I needed a friend, or some lunch, or whatever she had in mind that day to worry about," Tristan chuckled and tried to straighten himself on the chair. He failed miserably and decided to just sling his arm over the backrest.

    "She was the sweetest little girl I've ever known. You'd be surprised how many of them come to the tannery just to see the vile life I led for themselves. A lot of them would jeer and laugh, but your daughter never did that, to her own detriment too." The other girls had often ended up mocking Tristan's daughter as much as Rein. "I bet your wife would always tell you how vile I am for charming your little girl, huh?" Tristan nodded. "I bet she told you that I was only after her because I was a depraved creature with deviant desires that wanted to fuck children." Tristan again nodded. "Did you believe her?"

    "Yeah." Rein bit back the tears at the corner of his eyes. Here was his childhood friend -- best friend, even -- admitting that he believed the bitch that had made sure to make Rein's life miserable. Here was Tristan admitting that he saw Rein as a monster who deserved to live outside the village. "I did... I don't... know why..." Tristan's rolled his head onto his shoulder and looked up at Rein. "Maybe... I was hoping... we could maybe... get along someday... Her and I..." He shrugged, bouncing his head up and down. "For Liana... you know?"

    "How did that work for out you?" spat Rein, towering over his childhood friend, looking him in the eye for the first time in so many years. It almost disgusted him, this shell of the man that he'd once known. The young Tristan was brave, strong, kind, and took no shit from anyone. This Tristan was none of that, he was a drunk, wasting away his life because he did not think it was worth much. The man probably would have long offed himself if not for his daughter.

    "Hah..." Tristan snorted derisively. "Bitch was... never... satisfied..." Rein had figured as much. "Told me... I was an idiot... with his brain between his legs... in his too-small cock..." Gods above, Rein had not thought she would go that low. To insult a man's pride was one thing, but to insult his manhood was altogether, almost blasphemous. Then again, he asked himself, why was he surprised at all? "She got around the village... believe me... It's a fucking wonder... Bitch didn't... get knocked up..." Tristan tried to stand only to fall back down onto the chair.

    "If we both hate her so much... Why the fuck are we here anyway? In the middle of nowhere, hunting down the very embodiment of Winter, for revenge?" Tristan laughed. It was pained, not hearty. Bitter, not sweet. His eyes seemed focused on a faraway point, lost in the sights of his mind's eye, those fantasies contrived only by the drunken mind, wrought from the heart's deepest desires. "We don't even know where home is. What about your daughter? Do you honestly think we can go back now? We've pretty much lost everything!"

    "I-" Tristan coughed, his voice faltering. "I don't... know, Rein..." His eyes drifted shut. "I... don't... know..." Tristan dozed off and Rein just watched over him with a grim, pained expression etched into the lines of his face. What the fuck had they done with their lives? They had been so young and full of hope, once. Now here they were, himself a fragile tanner, with hide that would last longer than most men in the soil, and Tristan, a broken man with a beloved daughter whom he had probably forever lost in a moment of rashness.

    The silence stretched until Rein could take it no more. He tapped the far more inebriated man on the face, rudely awakening him from his doze. Tristan snorted and cracked open his eyes, staring blearily up at Rein. "Why her?" asked the redhead, apathy evident in his voice.

    "I was young..." Rein shook his head. "And she was... right... about one thing... I thought with my cock..." The fiery-haired man averted his gaze in revulsion. He walked over to the nightstand and began to gulp down the other tankard of ale that was left there as Tristan continued speaking. "She was a... bitch, sure... but I wanted to... fuck. She had a... pretty enough face, and gods her tits were supple..." Rein's cheeks felt like they were on fire. Tristan absentmindedly scratched at his crotch and his growing stiffness there, brought upon by idle thought of his wife when they'd been younger. "And you wouldn't... believe it... Rein..."

    The other man turned to face Tristan. The drunk was leaning back in his chair, openly stroking his cock through the fabric of his breeches, mouth slightly agape in pleasure as he remembered his first few trysts of passion with his wife. She had been much more interested in him back then. "Her cunt... tasted... sweet..." Tristan groaned. "And when she got... wet... She was so slippery... and warm... and tight..." Rein's eyes were fixated on Tristan's crotch, but the image of the other man having coitus with his wife was repulsive to him.

    Rein walked over to Tristan and stood over him, watching as he groaned in pleasure and rubbed his cock. The drunken man was fully aroused, and a wetness was growing on the front of his breeches from the tip of his cock. "Fuck... I haven't had... a good fuck... in a while..." lamented Tristan. Rein thought about the day, and what Iven had said. Apart from Tristan, the only thing Rein had left to lose was his life. He had no illusions that Tristan was still his 'friend,' he'd long given up hope that they would go back to the bond they'd shared in childhood. Fate had taken them in two drastically different directions, and there was no going back, not against the vicious tides of destiny.

    Rein leaned in and caught Tristan's slightly-agape lips in his own. There was very little resistance at the beginning, as the brunet was caught off guard. The redhead slipped his tongue into Tristan's mouth, and quickly withdrew it, shoving Tristan away when the brunet bit down on him. The redhead wiped his mouth on his arm and spat out a glob of blood. "The... fuck are you... doing... Rein...?" said Tristan when Rein stepped back from him. The drunk man tried to push the other away, but was too weak and compromised by the alcohol to do anything substantial.

    "A hole's a hole when you're drunk, Tristan..." Rein dove back in and slammed his lips against Tristan's. He slapped away the other man's arm and rubbed Tristan's manhood through the torn-up linen of his breeches, giving the other no chance to bite him again. Tristan moaned into Rein's mouth. Eyes clouded by inebriation and a haze of lust, despite his discomfort with the entire situation, Tristan leaned his head back as Rein knelt before him and began to frantically untie his breeches.

    Tristan's jet-black hair hung down, slick with sweat from the heat of the burning hearth, over the back of the chair for his head was tossed back in pleasure and anticipation of more to come. His conscious self, hidden in the back of his mind, was dreading the act, but had no power over his body. His cock, having been denied any sort of release other than through his hand for the longest time, ached for another's touch, any touch. Every tender graze to the tumescent organ sent bolts of pleasure through his very being, further weakening his already-compromised resolve.

    Rein pulled the linen down, freeing Tristan's turgid manhood from the constricting confines of his breeches. It sprung to life, standing tall and proud in front of the redhead's face. Part of Tristan was still fighting the sensations, trying his most damnable best to not give in to the violation of his body, but to no avail. As he tried to rise from the seat, it only took one firm shove by Rein to push him back down. Tristan put his hands to either side of Rein's face, fingers messing up his fiery curls. He tried to push Rein's head away, but the redhead was able to just brush off the drunken man's attempts.

    He breathed onto Tristan's cock and he saw a shiver of ecstasy race up and down the prostrate man's body. When the fiery-haired man moved ever closer, licking his lips hungrily, he inhaled the pungent musk of Tristan's groin. They had not had proper baths in days. The last spring that they had come across had been two days ago. The smell of Tristan's cock and stones was entirely to be expected. Nevertheless, Rein was not about to be deterred. The icy fire of the ale in his veins drove him to do what he had never had the courage to do in their own village.

    "Gods... Rein... What are you... doing...?" groaned Tristan as the redhead released another breath over his aching cock, making him harder than he'd ever recalled being.

    "Never had your cock sucked before?" asked Rein in bemused surprise. Tristan shook his head. The redhead smiled and ran his tongue up and down the shaft of Tristan's manhood. The black-haired man arched off the chair in pleasure as the sheer sensations on his cock shattered whatever resistance he had left. In his mind's eye, his conscious thoughts instead imagined the redhead to be his wife, in order to cope with the violation of his manhood by another man.

    Rein slipped the head of Tristan's cock into the warm, wet confines of his mouth and began to suck, slurping up the pre-come that had been dripping from the other man's member. His own cock was straining in his breeches, and a spot of wetness was rapidly growing where the tip of his manhood touched the fabric. In one motion, Rein swallowed Tristan's entire sizable manhood -- despite what the bitch had said, Tristan had a decently sized cock -- all the while running his tongue along its underside.

    Tristan arched off the chair, his toes curling in rapturous pleasure. He ran his hands through Rein's reddish locks, fixing in his mind's eye that the other man was his bitch of a wife in the years before she had turned out to be a horrible, horrible woman. He pushed Rein's head down on his member, ignoring the slight gagging that the redhead experienced at the sudden intrusion of hands forcing him down on the cock.

    Rein felt Tristan's member swell and with little effort pulled himself off of the black-haired man's cock. He stroked the member once, twice, thrice, and grabbed both cock and balls in a vice-like grip as Tristan grunted, trying to get sweet relief. Rein pulled, and Tristan stood, following the man who held his manhood without question. Rein slammed his lips against Tristan's, forcing his tongue into the cavity of the other man's mouth, running it across Tristan's tongue and teeth. Tristan squirmed, but with his precious jewels in Rein's fist, he dared not do anything lest they be crushed.

    When they broke apart, Tristan managed to gain lucidity for but a moment and asked "Are you... going to... fuck me?" Rein considered Tristan for a moment before giving his parts a squeeze.

    "No. You're fucking me." Much to the dismay of his better judgment, Tristan's cock twitched in excitement. "Now get naked."

    Being careful not to move too much against the grip that Rein had on his tackle, Tristan slipped his tunic off of his body and stepped out of his breeches which were pooled at his feet. "Good" cooed Rein before letting go of Tristan's cock. "Don't touch yourself" he said sternly, to which Tristan nodded meekly. Rein shed his garb in mere moments, slipping out of the restraining clothes with unexpected dexterity. He grabbed Tristan by the loins once more and pushed him onto the bed. The jet-haired man groaned, as Rein let go of his member which promptly sprang back up, pointed skywards.

    "Y-you're a... fucking faggot..." Tristan said, matter-of-factly, with a hint of wonder in his voice. His ability to speek, hampered with alcohol, was progressively deteriorating because of Rein's ministrations. The redhead was licking his manhood up and down again, making pure pleasure surge through his veins, up to his clouded conscious and down to his curled toes.

    "Ha. Well... You're liking this. You're as much a faggot as I am." Rein said as he rose and positioned himself over Tristan's cock. "I'll show you what you've been missing." There was resentment in the redhead's voice, after all, his childhood friend and his secret beloved had abandoned him all for the woman that made every living moment of his living agony.

    Above that, though, was pent-up desire. Rein had lusted for so long after Tristan, repressed because of the stigma against his kind, that it now practically dripped from the very words that left his lips. He lined up Tristan's spit-slicked cock with his hole, twitching in anticipation, and lowered himself onto the brunet's manhood.

    Both men groaned in sweet unison as the pressure built and Tristan's cockhead popped into Rein's tight ring. The raven-haired man gasped in pleasure at the warm tightness of Rein's asshole, and his long pent-up seed was sent churning in his nuts. Tristan thrust weakly up into Rein as the redhead slowly, inexorably slipped himself lower and lower onto the drunken man's pole. Tristan was nigh on delirious with pleasure. Not even his wife's cunt, that had seemed to fit him like a glove the few times they'd fucked, could even come close to comparing with the pleasure that the warm, moist grip that Rein's ass provided.

    It wasn't long before Rein had slipped Tristan's entire cock inside his ass. Tristan was groaning weakly in pleasure from the all-enveloping, soft, pulsating tightness of Rein's hole. He began to thrust. Up. Down. It was Rein's turn to curl his toes in pleasure when Tristan found that button inside him that sent bursts of electrical pleasure through his body and dots swimming across his eyes. Slowly, Rein raised and lowered his ass onto Tristan's member, relishing in the sensations it sent coursing through his body as it pushed that tender lump inside of him again and again.

    "Don't deny..." Rein panted "...that you're loving this." There was a smile on the redhead's face, not only one of pleasure, but one of satisfaction. The bitch that was Tristan's wife had believed herself better than Rein in all matters. The way Tristan writhed in absolute rapturous ecstasy underneath Rein proved otherwise. At least, in one sense, he had the final laugh, as he was able to prove to her husband that the one thing he had married her for was nothing short of unremarkable.

    Finding some strength, probably from the consuming lust that was ravaging his mind and body, Tristan managed to push Rein off of himself. "Get... on your hands... and knees... faggot..." panted Tristan, his cock dripping with clear, sticky pre-come as the dazed Rein processed the command. The redhead was more than happy to oblige and, with his head down and rump in the air, presented Tristan with the warm hole his cock desired. Without so much as a warning, Tristan slammed his member into Rein, making the other man cry out in both pain and pleasure.

    The raven-haired man drew his cock out entirely, slipping out with a plop, before slamming it back in. His nuts swung and slapped the skin of Rein's ass as the redhead squirmed in ecstasy. Tristan began to pump in and out of the warm channel faster and faster, with more and more animalistic grunts as Rein began to buck against his motions. T

    he redhead was painfully hard and his own dripping cock was making a puddle on the linen sheets. He was about to reach down to stroke himself when his hands were pulled to the head of the bed and pinned down there by Tristan. The drunken man began to pump into Rein faster, his thrusts falling out of their rhythm as Rein felt Tristan's cock swell inside of him.

    The redhead felt his own nuts churning with seed he had not spilled in over a week. He arched his back in final, absolute ecstasy as Tristan rammed into that sensitive spot inside him again. With a loud moan ripped from his throat, Rein's cock began to spurt its white sticky seed onto the bed. Tristan groaned as the muscles of Rein's ass constricted around his cock and pulsed with each spurt, as though milking him. It was enough to send him over the edge and he exploded, sending his seed spilling forth into Rein with such force that some of it came right back out.

    It was right after that sweet bliss of release that Tristan passed out, collapsing onto Rein, his still-hard cock remaining lodged firmly inside the redhead. As Rein descended from the orgasmic high, a tear rolled down his face. Finally. After all these years. Even if the raven-haired man had been drunk, Rein had finally managed to show Tristan just how much he'd loved him. The redhead tried to move, and with each motion, Tristan's seed deep inside him seemed to slosh about. He was unable to get very far, Tristan was far too heavy.

    Rein wasn't complaining. At least for one night, he was able to feel what he'd always wanted to feel: Tristan inside him. It was a shame that the bitch had wasted the other man's life away without letting him know what the true love between partners was. If anything he was grateful to the little girl for at least showing Tristan how to love at all.

    How the brunet would react to their compromising position in the morning, Rein did not know. Nor did he care, not right now. He allowed himself to drift off into the warm embrace of sleep, satisfied, but not entirely sure whether he'd done right.

    Deep inside, and in the eyes of the gods of his people, he knew that he had not.

    ---

    Jack had cried himself to sleep. He simply could not understand why Elian would not want to stay. After all, he knew that the blond had been running away from something horrible for so long. He thought that Elian was going to be relieved to finally have a safe haven for him. He was wrong. The blond still wanted to go. Still wanted to leave Jack despite the fact that both of them knew that there would probably be no one else like the other. Jack didn't understand why Elian would want to leave him to his loneliness despite all the kindness he'd shown the blond.

    The brunet's eyes shot open in the middle of the dark before dawn, feeling a cold howling gale in the room, and hearing the nearby frantic barking of Glaise. He cast his gaze around the room, heart seized by a sudden, chilling terror. Ice was beginning to spiderweb along the walls, frost beginning to spread thick over the floor. The door to his room was itself slightly ajar, but stuck in place by the ice that had grown underneath and over it. Jack sat bolt upright and drew the sheets about him. "Elian." he whispered in alarm.

    Jack hissed in discomfort when he swung his legs over the side of the bed. The floor by his bed was freezing cold and covered by a thin veneer of delicate frost. He gritted his teeth and persevered, tearing the door open. As soon as the door was out of the way, Jack was buffeted by winds reminiscent of the few blizzards he'd experienced in his life. With arms held in front of his face, he battled his way to the room where Elian was. The soles of his feet felt numb from the bitter cold of the floor, and he was surprised that he had yet to slip.

    The door of his parents' old room stood fully ajar. Inside was a scene of utter chaos. Frost and snowflakes large and thick whirled about in the strong winds that issued from Elian. Glaise was huddled in a corner, barking like there was no tomorrow, inexplicably spared from the wrath of the storm. The bed itself shimmered in the dim moonlight with a thin latticework of frost covering it.

    Jack ran up to the bed, trying his best to keep his balance and jumped on to spare his feet from the biting cold of the icy floor. Elian was tossing and turning, mumbling unintelligible words as tears streamed down his eyes. "Elian!" Jack yelled, trying to get himself heard over the gale-force winds that threatened to send him tumbling from the bed. He leaned over Elian and grabbed a hold of the blond, grimacing as vicious frost began to spread over the skin of his arms. "Elian!" He shook the blond.

    "Elian! It's me, Jack!" The blond stiffened, went limp, then drew a deep shuddering gasp of breath as his eyes shot open and locked with Jack's. A long strangled scream was all the warning that Jack received before pure frost struck out from the blond, covering and freezing him where he leaned over Elian, turning his tawny brown eyes into dead frosted blue. The blond's gaze darted about the room in frantic confusion for a few moments before the delirium of the nightmare lifted from them.

    Much to his horror, it was Jack's frozen eyes that first met his lucid gaze and it tore another scream from his throat. "Jack?" Panic was rising in his voice. The wind died down and the snowflakes hung still in the air. "Jack?!"

    No. This couldn't be happening again. He truly was a monster. Fuck. "Jack! No. No. Nonononono..." Elian sobbed, cupping Jack's face with its covering of frost. The blond lamented the despair that his curse had to bring to even the innocent.

    "Jack!"
     
  11. "Jack!" Glaise, feeling the buffeting gale come to a grinding halt, bounded from the corner he'd been confined to, onto the bed. He jumped onto Elian's lap and started licking the blond's face with worried whining before repeatedly nudging the side Jack's frozen face. Elian's heart felt as though it had been torn in two. Had he killed the one person in the entire godsforsaken world that had shown him what at least seemed to be true compassion, sincere kindness?

    The blond threw his arms around Jack's neck and buried his face in the crook of the frozen brunet's shoulder. "Jack. Don't do this..." he begged. Glaise nuzzled Elian's belly and pulled his paws over his eyes, making mournful noises that Elian, had he the faculties to do so, would have mirrored. "Please..." A single tear fell from Elian's eyes, for once not freezing into a crystalline droplet as it descended, and splashed onto Jack's arm. Almost instantly, the ice began to thaw, and Jack's skin that had turned to the colour of Elian's ice regained its healthy glow.

    In the rest of the house, the ice began to lift from wherever it could be found. Great elegant cracks fanned inwards from the edges of the vast sheets that Elian's nightmare-induced expulsion of power had produced. Every piece of ice lifted from the surface that it covered before fracturing into countless tiny crystals that shimmered as they evaporated into the air.

    Faster and faster, the thaw travelled, sending the ice back whence it came. Glaise was the first to notice the miraculous event and began to bark enthusiastically, sending tremors through Elian's body. The blond opened his eyes to watch the last of the ice in the bedroom rise into the air and vanish in a puff of beautiful twinkling crystals.

    He looked with eyes shining hopefully at Jack. Sapphire blue eyes widened as cold, dead, ice-blue eyes returned to their soft tawny colour. Elian could barely contain the relieved and disbelieving laugh that jumped out of his throat when he saw the ice that had moments ago held Jack prisoner disappear.

    "Elian..." Jack smiled at Elian, his voice bleary as though he'd just woken up from a good long nap. The blond pulled him in for a tight embrace, forgetting for but a precious moment what had happened between them before they had both parted ways to the whimsical land of slumber.

    "Gods..." Elian breathed into Jack's chest. Another incredulous laugh escaped his lips. "Gods you're alright!" Glaise managed to wedge his way in between the tangle of arms that was Jack and Elian, licking both their faces and wagging his tail enthusiastically.

    "Glaise!" protested Elian, trying to wrest his face away from the frenetic dog. He held on to Jack for a few moments more before allowing the brunet to finally pull back and survey what had happened in the room. A yawn split the brunet's face and he stretched out one of his arms, using the other to stifle the breath that escaped him.

    Jack fell over backwards, having lost his balance due to Glaise pouncing on his chest. With a chuckle, the brunet sat back up and set Glaise to the side. He regarded Elian for a moment, a somber expression slipping in the place of the happy one that had been there mere heartbeats ago. "What happened?" Jack took a deep breath and took Elian's hand in his own.

    The blond flinched at the unexpected touch. Jack felt ice shoot up his fingers for an instant, but it melted away almost as soon as it had come. Why he was being so forward, the brunet did not entirely know. "Your... your... power... it's terrifying."

    The smile on the blond's face slipped off almost as fast as the brunet's had. Elian looked past Jack and at one of the shutters that was allowing a dim light from the moon into the room. "I told you, I'm a monster..." He pulled his hand from Jack's grasp, folding his hands on his lap whilst trying his best to allay the fear that was building up inside of him. Had he finally crossed the line? Had he provided the straw that would break the camel's back? Was Jack finally done with him, now that he'd inadvertently threatened the brunet's life?

    "And I told you that you're not." Jack said firmly, folding his legs underneath him and fixing Elian with a stern but worried and sincere gaze. The brunet really wanted Elian to stay, and he would do his damned best to convince the blond of it.

    "I almost killed you!" Elian shot back. Jack recoiled, both from the unexpected aggression from the blond, and from the revelation that he had almost died. He'd not remembered anything after he tried shaking Elian awake. "I almost killed you..." repeated the blond in a quieter voice, dropping his gaze to his feet. He felt shame and guilt rise in his stomach. He was despicable, putting Jack, the one person that had ever cared for him in his darkest hour, on the precipice of death.

    Jack tapped his knee nervously, not knowing what to do or what to say. Glaise nudged Elian's hip and whined before rolling onto his back and lifting a paw onto Elian's leg. "But I'm not dead, am I?" Jack asked, suddenly uncertain. Maybe the blond had some power over death as well. After all, Winter was the harbinger of the death of the land before Spring returned with new life. It stood to reason that perhaps Elian himself had control over the dead. The blond shook his head, no, they were both well and alive.

    "That doesn't change anything..." Elian rubbed his arm and made sure that he didn't meet Jack's eyes. "I still hurt you." Elian groaned and buried his face in his hands. The fear he had of Jack turning him away, kicking him out, hating him, had evaporated. His guilt and shame for almost killing the brunet, had not, and probably would not ever leave him. The faces of all those whom he'd ended with the wrath of his ice were burnt into his mind's eye, and despite Jack being seemingly alive and well before him, so was his.

    The spindles of frost that covered Jack's face, and the pale blue, dead eyes that were set in the sockets of his skull terrified Elian and no matter what he did, the vision would not leave his mind. "That's why I can't stay, Jack" Elian lamented. He did want to stay, by any means. Jack was the first person that had shown him any decency and provided him a safe place to live. His heart demanded it, wanting to nurture the little seed of infatuation for Jack that had taken root there yet his conscience would not allow it. He would not allow Jack to come by any more harm at his hands than he already had. "You're not safe with me."

    Jack stared at Elian, refusing to concede to the logic of the blond's words. "I'm not safe regardless." Jack reached over to Elian's side to scratch Glaise's belly, but seeing the hand approach him, the blond flinched. "Neither of us is safe." Jack paused before continuing grimly, "No one like us is safe."

    ---

    Rein awoke to sunlight streaming in through the window. It wasn't the pure brazen light of the day, but it was the pale gray light of the dawn. Tristan was still on top of him, still firmly lodged in his ass. The brunet's head was just beside his and Tristan could smell the stale ale in his breath. As the redhead moved, trying to wriggle his way out from underneath Tristan, he felt the other man's cock stir in his ass. This in turn sent blood rushing to the redhead's own long-neglected manhood.

    Before long, Tristan was fully erect within him, and Rein's length was throbbing with need. The raven-haired man had not yet stirred, fortunately for the redhead. Slowly and ever so gently, he fucked himself back and forth on Tristan's cock, each slow thrust sending Rein's own manhood bobbing up and down and leaking onto the sheets. Before long he felt the cock in his ass swell and pump its seed into him. He spewed his own onto the bed not too long afterwards.

    Still, Tristan slumbered. His snores were interrupted intermittently by grunts of pleasure as he moved himself around on top of Rein, but otherwise, he remained firmly rooted in sleep. Rein sighed. There was probably hell to pay coming, but he would enjoy the intimacy for as long as he could.

    ---

    An uncomfortable silence had fallen between the two men, the blond and the brunet, punctuated only by the panting of Glaise and the wagging of his tail. Jack was absentmindedly scratching the dog's stomach, and Elian was deep in thought. Perhaps it was fitting that they had some quiet in the darkness to themselves. After all, so much had happened in the span of less than a whole day. The world was bound to at least temporarily run out of things to throw at them to tilt their lives out of balance.

    Jack looked at Elian. The blond, feeling eyes on him, looked up at Jack. In the dim light of the room, their eyes met. Sapphire on agate. Elian's mouth opened, as though he was about to say something, but he stopped himself. He heard Jack hitch his breath in preparation, and then release it in a long exhalation after Elian refused to speak.

    It was the brunet that broke the silence first. "Why do you have these fearsome powers, anyway?" Jack was curious, perhaps morbidly so. He'd never seen such abilities manifest in anyone he'd ever known, never seen such authority over the domains of nature.

    Elian pondered the answer for a moment. He'd thought he'd known everything his entire life, but being plunged headfirst into the merciless world had cast a lot of doubt on what he thought was true and what he thought was false. "I've had these powers for as long as I can remember."

    Simply talking about his ice almost seemed to awaken it, and frozen fractals spiralled across the sheets where Elian touched them. "My mother and father told me that I've had them since birth, truthfully, and that where other newborn babes would wish for a mother's teat to suckle on, I preferred ice. Gods know how they figured that out." Elian held his hands out to Jack. "These hands have been cursed since the day of my birth, Jack." Elian paused. "Cursed" he emphasized, wringing his hands as though to rid them of the blood he knew stained them.

    "Cursed?" Jack whispered. Elian nodded. The brunet wasn't quite convinced. Sure, the blond's ice could sometimes be vicious, could sometimes be dangerous, could sometimes be painful, could sometimes even be fatal, but there was an inherent beauty to it that never quite left unless Elian was distressed. All Jack needed to do to know for sure the beauty of Elian's frost was to look down at the sheets where the latticework of ice crystals shimmered even in the dim, milky light of the moon that filtered into the room. "Don't you ever think that maybe the gods gave you this power for a reason?"

    Elian scoffed. "Perhaps it was to burden my mother, or perhaps it was to punish Vamara for the sins of my father, or perhaps the gods had simply decided it was time to fuck with us mere mortals..." The blond shook his head.

    "I don't know, Jack. No one knows that the gods think. I think they've abandoned us, and that this--" Elian said with a burst of frost crystals from his hand that showered down glittering onto the sheets to emphasize his point. "--was probably their last 'fuck you' to the world. A grand scheme to render chaos upon the land, and test their peoples' faiths."

    There was venom in Elian's words that Jack had not come to expect of him. Not with one glance at the blond would anyone think him capable of such contempt, but he was, and Jack could hear the proof of it. Jack licked his lips. They were a fair bit chapped because of the blizzard-esque winds that he'd had to deal with a short while ago, not to mention almost being frozen to death. To Jack it seemed as though Elian needlessly resented his powers when they were truly formidable and were probably keeping him alive. "I don't see why your powers are a curse, Elian."

    The blond laughed in disbelief, it was a bitter, pained laugh. "My ice almost killed you, and you don't see why it's a curse?" He'd taken Jack to be a bit ignorant of the outside world. Why would he not be, having lived on this farm his entire life, devoid of any contact with the world at large?

    He'd not thought that Jack was quite that innocent. Elian stared at his hands, the primary instruments of the curse that coursed through his veins. "Death and pain follow my ice." The blond was unable to tear his gaze away from his trembling hands. "I am winter. I am death. Only death."

    "No." Jack said, matter-of-factly. Elian's eyes shot up and locked with Jack's, as though asking what exactly he meant, incredulous, and to some extent, offended. "There is beauty in your ice, too." Jack thought back to when they had been in the clearing. "You were able to remedy the problem I was having with my eye using your ice..." Jack took a deep breath. He couldn't quite believe he was about to admit what he was about to admit. "And the other night... I watched you bathe... I saw no death, only beauty."

    "T-that was you?!" Elian, despite himself, turned crimson. He thought his ears were on fire. Fortunately for him, the moonlight was just dim enough to make the colouring of his face indistinguishable. Elian drew the sheets around his body and looked away, suddenly self-conscious around Jack. That being said, despite seeing him naked, the brunet had shown no sign of wanting anything sexual to do with him. There was a tiny part of Elian that was quite disappointed, truth be told. "W-why were you spying on me?!"

    It was Jack's turn to blush. He stammered for a moment before finding his words. "I-I wasn't spying on you!" He looked away from Elian, trying to hide his quickly reddening cheeks. "I was trying to scare away these men that I saw in the forest..." Jack twiddled his thumbs more than a little embarrassed at having revealed that he'd seen Elian naked.

    The statement gave Elian pause. He whirled to face Jack and with a grave voice asked "How many were there?" His voice trembled, and there was evident fear in it, as well as a hint of concern for Jack's wellbeing. Had he been hurt trying to scare them away?

    "There were four of them." Jack said. "Two were armed, and I overheard them talking." Glaise yipped. "I don't want odd travelers just wandering in this area, so I scare them off. But these men were different. They were talking about a faggot who killed one of the men's wives..."

    "Those were the men after me..." Elian gasped. "So you've known all this time that I killed someone?" He asked, eyes wide in surprise at the revelation. The fact of it made Jack's actions even more profound. That he helped Elian despite knowing that he'd killed another human being was telling of Jack's character. Well-meaning but painfully naive.

    "No. I didn't really believe them. Not until you told me, at least." Jack looked at Elian. "I managed to scare them away, and I was about to just leave and be done with them, but Glaise smelled your blood, and I spent the whole day looking for you." The brunet twiddled his thumbs. "I don't know why, but I felt like I just had to help. My father had just died earlier that day and I didn't want anyone else dying on my account."

    Elian glanced at the dog that had managed to bury itself in the space between Elian's thigh and the bed. So Glaise was the reason they'd been brought together... Elian rubbed the dog's belly affectionately. No matter how needlessly convoluted the situation was between Jack and Elian, the blond was at the very least grateful for the chance to find that not everything in the world they lived in was horrifyingly twisted. "You saved me..." Elian whispered.

    "I only did what my parents taught me to do with wounds and with the plants in the area..." Jack said with a measure of modesty. Sure, he'd saved Elian's life, but he'd not done anything special or heroic or worthy of such praise as being called a saviour. He'd only done what he'd always known to do, something he'd done throughout his entire life.

    Elian shook his head. "Not that. You saved me from the men who were chasing me..." He raised his eyes, glittering with sincerest gratitude to Jack's own tawny ones and the slightest genuine smile graced Elian's face.

    "I didn't mean to..." Jack shrugged. "I just wanted them off our--" he paused. He remembered. The farmland was now solely his being the lone inheritor of his parents' property. "--my land." A somber tone crept into his voice, one that did not escape Elian's notice. Jack was still struggling with his parents' deaths, he could tell. But that the brunet was able to set aside his grief to help Elian's recovery was far more profound now that the blond understood the situation than it had been before.

    "That doesn't change anything. You still saved me..." whispered Elian in the dark. There was something that Jack couldn't quite name in the blond's voice. A hint of admiration, perhaps? Awe? Gratitude was certainly there, but there were other subtle inflections that told of other emotions running through Elian. "Why did you watch me bathe?" The blond sputtered and looked away as he asked the question.

    "I don't know... I had spent the day looking for you and wanted to make sure you were okay..." Jack said. "I found you and you were bathing and you were so beautiful" Jack stopped, sputtering when he realized what he'd just said. "I-I-I-I mean, t-the sight was so m-mesmerizing a-and I was c-curious!" Jack blushed and looked at his twiddling thumbs. "At first I was afraid... but then I saw what you were doing and... and..."

    Jack's words had stunned Elian to silence, but even the quiet couldn't stop the warmth that began to creep into his already-hot cheeks. He'd only ever been called beautiful in such a sincere and innocent manner once before, and even then, that person had died because of Elian. There was a flutter in the blond's heart that he'd never thought he would feel again, a surging of warmth and affection in his blood that he'd thought had long since grown immune to such emotions.

    "For once in my life I wasn't scared even if I had no idea who or what you were or what you were doing in this place. I was just amazed." Jack slowly raised his eyes to meet Elian's. "I was enchanted..." A tense silence hung between them, and it wasn't for hostility, rather, it was for neither man knowing how exactly to react to what had just been said.

    "You... Your ice is beautiful, Elian. I don't think it's a curse." Jack whispered in the night, feeling his heart thunder and race in his chest.

    ---

    Rein was unceremoniously woken by the feeling of Tristan's cock popping out of his hole and the angry exclamation of the brunet "What the fuck?!" The bed, and the redhead sprawled on it, shook as the brunet scrambled to get out of the compromising situation he'd found himself in. Tristan got one good long look at Rein and saw his cum leaking out of the redhead's well-used hole. He was definitely going to burn in hell now. He raised his hands to his temples, staring down at his cock in disbelief. The traitorous organ was still painfully hard, and was demanding him to fuck the redhead another time.

    Rein turned over and lay on his back, stretching his body and hearing the joints pop as he finally got some measure of freedom from the pose he'd been forced into by Tristan's weight. "Tristan..." he said slowly, pleadingly. His eyes rose and saw disgust, anger, loathing, and hurt in Tristan's eyes. Perhaps the most painful expression that those tawny eyes held was that of betrayal. It felt like a dagger in Rein's chest.

    The brunet walked over to the bed and grabbed his jaw. "Why the fuck did you do this?!" Tristan looked into Rein's eyes and saw no regret there, only an explanation for what he'd always seen in them but never truly understood. There was dogged affection in those eyes, repressed, yes, but nonetheless present. He shuddered in revulsion and, in one small part of himself, guilt. He shoved the redhead away from himself. The other man rolled off the bed and hit the floor with a loud thump.

    Rein propped himself up on his elbows and regarded Tristan with a smoldering glare. "I have been in love with you since we were young, Tristan." He said, voice spiteful but trembling with genuine pleading. The brunet averted his gaze, not wanting to gaze on what he believed was the shell of a man that had once been his friend. "It could have been us" Rein said, eyes brimming with tears. "But you married that bitch."

    "It never could've been us!" snapped Tristan. He never thought of other men in that way. Never thought of Rein in that way. The thought and desire plainly never crossed his consciousness. Despite his stubborn self-affirmation of his heterosexuality, his cock twitched in desire when memories of the previous night drifted up from the haze that the alcohol had left behind. "What would my daughter think? Liana looked up to you!" said Tristan through gritted teeth. "She admired you! You... you faggot!" screamed Tristan, fists balled at his sides.

    "She knew, Tristan. I always told her about the adventures we had as impressionable teenagers." Tristan's ragged breathing and flaring nostrils calmed for a moment at Rein's words. "She asked if I was in love with you, and wouldn't believe it when I said I wasn't. So I told her. And I begged her to not tell you, or anyone, because I didn't want to die."

    Rein choked up as he remembered the terror he'd felt when Liana had torn the secret from him, and the utter relief that he had felt when he heard her response. "She told me that it didn't matter to her. That she didn't see why love should only be between a man and a woman. I still don't understand how that bitch could have had her, the sweetest little girl in the world." A moment of silence fell between the two. "Why can't you love me, Tristan?"

    "Because. I. Am. NOT. A fag!" Tristan's voice boomed, making the room shake with its magnitude. Rein cowered from Tristan who loomed over him. "Get dressed. We're leaving." The brunet turned his back to the redhead and picked up his breeches where they'd been cast aside. "This won't ever happen again, understood? That was disgusting."

    Anger surged through Rein's body. "Are you so blind?" he yelled. "Did that bitch really close your mind so much?!" He glared at Tristan's back. The brunet did not acknowledge him "Fine. So be it. But don't you fucking tell me it was disgusting. This--" The redhead stuck his finger obscenely into his asshole, and it came away with a strand of Tristan's cum.

    "--tells me that you enjoyed it! And don't you fucking deny it to my face! I gave you more pleasure than she ever did! I gave you my heart when she dangled hers in front of you, letting you so, so close, but never letting it be yours." Rein shook, tears falling freely from his eyes. Why couldn't he and Tristan have been as they were before the incident? Best friends? Maybe even lovers? Why not? Why not? It was unfair.

    The last thing Rein saw was Tristan walking past him to pick up his shirt that was lying behind the redhead. Rein opened his mouth to speak again before he felt a sharp pain in the back of his neck and his entire world went black.

    *

    When Rein came to, he was still naked, but he was no longer on the floor. His mouth felt dry, and stuffed. He lifted his head and tried to move, but to no avail. His arms and his feet were bound. His wrists in particular were bound together by a length of rope and tied to one of the bedposts. His feet were in a similar predicament, spread almost obscenely to show the cum that he could feel was still slowly dripping out of his hole. Tristan was pulling on his tunic nearby.

    "Tristan!" Rein tried to yell, but the stuffing he'd felt in his mouth turned out to be his tunic, wrapped around his head and tied into a gag. Drool dripped out of the sides of the redhead's mouth. "Tristan!" His protestations were muffled. He squirmed and writhed on the bed, trying to free himself from his restraints. It was to no avail. Tristan had trussed him up tightly. "Tristan!!" he begged, tears streaming freely from the corners of his eyes.

    The brunet just turned to face him and leveled an irate glare at him. Even the anger faded quickly, replaced by a stony, emotionless mask. Tristan was holding in his hands the bundle of Rein's remaining clothes. He raised them, making sure that the redhead's eyes were on them, and threw the bundle into the crackling flames in the hearth. There were no words said. Tristan unbolted the door and left Rein to struggle against his bonds. The last thing the redhead would ever see of the man he'd loved for so many years would be the sight of his retreating back.

    *

    Tristan had sent his two other companions ahead with some coin to buy horses. When they were alone at the counter, Iven turned to the brunet. "Where's the other one?" Maybe Tristan's two companions had heard nothing the previous night, but Iven and his wife lived right next door to Tristan's room. He'd heard everything that had happened. It had kept them up, disturbed and disgusted by what had gone on.

    "Tied up." Tristan said flatly. "I didn't know he was a fucking fag." Iven shuddered at the thought. He could only think about what torture awaited the poor boy in hell. The redhead had been a decent lad, far as he could tell. He almost felt bad about what was going to happen to him. "We'll be back. We'll take care of him."

    Fat chance Iven was going to allow that. The sun priests, after all, offered a good reward, not only in this life but also in the next, for any and all that would turn in one of the abominations. Iven had little chance to overpower the gruff Tristan, but he could take advantage of the redhead.

    As much as the raven-haired man kept convincing himself that he was free of sin, he'd enjoyed the previous night every bit as much as the redhead had, judging by the noises they were making. Tristan was stained. "Of course" said Iven, dismissing Tristan with a wave.

    A tiny part of Tristan screamed in terror. What was he doing, leaving his childhood friend alone and without clothes in a strange village with priests? That voice told him to go back and free Rein and deal with the redhead on his own terms. The less-understanding part of Tristan screamed with rage at being taken advantage of. "Let the fag be uncomfortable. We'll deal with him later" said the much louder voice in his head. Unfortunately, at least for Rein, Tristan heeded the louder voice.

    Tristan left the tavern, pushing any thoughts about the redhead aside, and joined the two other men. They had horses waiting for him. "Alright. Let's get this over with." They rode out of the village into the forest. Tristan could still feel Rein's pleading, accusing eyes boring into his back. He took a deep breath. The redhead could wait.

    As they trotted along, Tristan spotted something hanging from a nearby branch. It was a pale yellow flower. He recognized it. Tristan glanced once back at the retreating village, remorse plaguing his conscience. Quickly, he tore the flower off the stem and pocketed it, making great care not to show his men what he'd done.

    Maybe it could come in use later on.

    ---

    Elian didn't know what to say. The only people that had ever told him that his powers were beautiful as well were the children of lady Elesyne and the lady herself. They possessed the same powers, and all of this was before all the death and destruction that Elian had wrought. His mouth worked wordlessly for good long while, trying to form something, anything, to tell Jack. Nothing was forthcoming.

    The light of the moon was waning, being replaced by the gray of the dawn. "But I almost killed you..." whispered Elian, still not quite believing what Jack had said so far.

    "But you also helped me" Jack whispered back. He reached over to Elian. The blond shrank away from the touch. The brunet persevered and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen over the blond's face. He'd become quite fond of the gesture. "Just because something brings death, doesn't mean it's evil, or monstrous, or a curse." He pulled his hand back and Elian raised his eyes to meet Jack's. "You are winter. But winter doesn't only bring death. It wipes the slate clean. Allows spring to sow new life..."

    Jack breathed in deeply. "My father Kyle also thought he was a monster." Elian's eyes widened and he stared earnestly into Jack's, his ears open and listening. "They never thought I could hear them when they talked at night... but the walls of the farmhouse aren't very thick." Jack's eyes were shining with tears. He sighed. "I don't know the reason why he did, they never said, but my other father Nyko would always assure him that he was beautiful."

    "Do you remember when I asked you the question about the wolf and the deer?" Elian nodded his head. "Nyko asked the same question of Kyle. He also always said something else. 'Fire can destroy anything and everything it touches...' he would tell Kyle as they probably lay together at night. 'so why do we keep it in our homes? To light them and to warm them? Fire is death, but fire is also life. How else would we survive the winter?' he would continue. 'Even the most beautiful roses have thorns, but that doesn't make them monsters.'"

    Elian could not deny the truth of Jack's words, yet he still could not bring himself to say anything. His heart understood, and his heart acknowledged the truth, but his conscience would not allow any of it. He'd killed. He was a monster. That was the end of that. "And if you are a monster, you're the most beautiful monster I've ever seen." Jack said, almost too softly for Elian to hear.

    The blond was not sure how much more red his cheeks could get considering that it seemed like all the blood in his body had already flowed to them, but he blushed even more all the same. "Thanks" he whispered to Jack, sincere appreciation in his voice.

    The brunet's eyes widened and he clapped his hands over his mouth. "I-I-I-I-I d-didn't m-mean to t-think out l-loud!" he stammered in protest. Elian smiled and giggled, making Jack's face turn even redder.

    When the humour of the situation died, so did its voice. Silence descended upon the two yet again. Elian was the first to break the silence this time, sincere curiosity winning over the apprehension he felt talking to Jack. "Why do you live out here, all alone?"

    "I've always lived out here. My parents were living here when they found me." As though for emphasis, Jack allowed his gaze to wander about the room. His fathers had built a home. Sure, it was far away from most civilization. Sure, it was incredibly risky, and there were some years where they just barely scraped by. It was a home all the same, built by love and hard work.

    "They found you?" Jack nodded. He knew absolutely nothing of his birth parents, why they'd left him, who they were, or even what they were. He knew nothing of where he came from, what circumstances had led to his abandonment.

    "Yeah, they found me, by the woods, during one of the first snows. Why?" The brunet stared into the distance. Perhaps when Elian's feet were in better condition, he could take the blond to where he'd been found, or at least where his parents believed he'd been found. It was one late summer's afternoon, after they'd harvested the crop, that they decided to look for the place that they'd found the baby Jack on that fateful day.

    It had taken his fathers an entire day, and a lot of back-and-forth bickering between the two, before they were finally able to come to an agreement about where they'd found the little boy. They carved a circle with three horns into the tree, the symbol of the old gods. Ever since that day, at the end of every summer harvest, Jack would return to that tree and deepen the carving, making sure that the tree would never grow over it, and erase it from memory.

    "I thought maybe one of them was your real father..." The theory was a long shot, Elian admitted. However, it wasn't entirely out of the question that perhaps one of Jack's fathers had a wife, and when he discovered his true proclivities, was abandoned by his spouse and ran away with his child.

    Jack shook his head. Oh if only such was the case. At the very least, he would have known his birth-parents, and why he did not have a mother. Alas, the past had not entirely worked out to be that way for him. "I never knew my real parents. I was too young to remember when my fathers found me."

    Elian couldn't imagine not knowing his birth parents. Sure, his father had been brutal, ruthless, showing little affection or love for him, but his mother had been loving -- for the early years of his life at least. "Did your fathers know?" Elian could not fathom the loneliness and inadequacy that Jack must have felt as a child, having no idea why he was abandoned, and by whom.

    "They had no idea. They thought I was a gift from the gods." Jack said sadly. He still had an innermost desire to come to know his birth-parents, but even that flame was slowly dying. He was, by his fathers' reckoning at least, probably about twenty years of age. If his birth-parents had abandoned him because they were poor, they probably had not survived the years. "My fathers lived out here because they were chased out of the village that they lived in before..."

    Elian nodded in understanding. He probably knew the feeling more than most. After all, he'd been through the same thing numerous times in the past years. Jack ran his fingers through his hair. "I think you should get some more sleep. It would... help you heal faster..." he said blurted out in the awkward silence that followed his explanation of why his fathers lived in isolation. "I-I'll... go."

    Jack made to move off of the bed, uncrossing his legs and swinging them over the side. He felt a cool hand grip his arm. "Jack." He turned to face Elian. The blond was trying to avoid his eyes. "...Don't leave me?"

    The spiteful part of Jack wanted to tell the blond, in the most mocking voice possible "I can't," but the part of Jack that desperately wanted Elian to stay forced him back down on the bed. "Alright..." he said and lay down beside Elian. As the light of dawn gave way to the first rays of sunshine, Jack and Elian fell asleep. Both were tired, and scared, and vulnerable. However, for the moment at least, they deserved the rest.

    ---

    Tristan dismounted from his horse and hailed the farmer that strode out of his farmhouse. It was still early in the morning, but he and his men needed to get on the move quickly. The other man walked up to him and tipped his wide-brimmed hat to Tristan. "You come from the village?" Tristan nodded. "What're you folks doing out here? There's really nothing more this way between here and the sea."

    "We're after someone" Tristan said grimly.

    The farmer raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah?"

    "A murderer." The farmer narrowed his eyes. "Have you seen a kid with blond hair and blue eyes about this--" Tristan raised his hand to about his shoulder-height "tall?" The farmer shook his head, no. "Would you know anyone who might?"

    "Next farm's about half a day's walk east. You should ask the folks there." Tristan nodded and shook hands with the farmer, tossing him a bronze nut in payment. The horses had cost the three, and Rein, almost all their money and there was no hope in hell that they could pay for food and lodgings at the farms they were bound to visit as they hunted for the winterchild. The farmer looked at the bronze nut in his hands and chuckled. "Hard times, these, eh?"

    "Aren't they always?" Tristan swung back up onto his horse and tapped the spurs of the riding boots that had come with the horses against his beast's flank. He waved to the farmer who was walking back to his farmhouse as they trotted away. The farmer waved back. At least most of the people they'd encountered so far were pleasant. Some of them had actually even wished the small group well as soon as they heard about their goal to hunt down a murderer.

    If the fact that the next farm was half a day's walk away was any indication, they had managed to find themselves on the edge of the wilderness. People would now be few and far in between. Tristan found himself hoping that they find the winterchild soon so that he could go back and straighten out Rein himself. He'd almost immediately been seized by apprehension when they arrived at the first farm. He felt as though he'd made the worst possible choice for the man that had once been his childhood friend.

    Remorseful as he might have been, it was far too late to turn back.

    ---

    Rein had been struggling with the ropes for well over half an hour when he heard footsteps outside the door. Some part of him hoped that it would be Tristan, coming back with a changed heart and mind, but the sinking feeling in his heart told him otherwise. His wrists and his ankles were red, chafed, and painful. The rough rope had already bitten well into his skin. Rein felt naked, exposed. He was both of those things, but he felt his vulnerability in more than just his flesh.

    He cursed, as much as he could with the gag in his mouth, at least. Some cum was still dripping from his hole. Just how much seed had Tristan built up in his nuts, Rein was not sure, but there was definitely a lot buried in his ass. The door swung open slowly, ominously, and revealed a man dressed in a white silken tunic with matching breeches and a coat of gold embroidered with fiery colours. The coat was open, with not a button in sight. The two sides were held together by a golden chain fastened to the gilded likeness of three suns in a triangle. A sun priest. Behind him were two hulking slabs of man and Iven.

    Rein's eyes darted to the fireplace where the remains of his clothes were smoldering. "Why, Tristan, why?" he lamented in his mind as he struggled with renewed vigour. There was nothing good about to come to him. He was certainly going to either not leave what he'd managed to find himself in at all, or leave it horribly disfigured. He pulled against his bonds and tried to clench his cheeks together to hide any evidence of Tristan's seed running down his crack.

    It was to no avail. The priest walked up to him and pulled his ass cheeks apart, exposing his clenched rosebud. The priest grinned lecherously at Rein and began to massage the sensitive area. The redhead groaned into the gag and was unable to stop his hole from un-clenching and allowing a trickle of cum out. "This one's been bred." The priest turned to Iven. The portly landlord of the tavern nodded. "Take it away." The two men grabbed him by the hands and the feet before cutting away the ropes.

    Rein struggled and screamed in protest, but the iron vice-like grip of the hulking men was far too strong and before long, he was yelling in pain.

    ---

    Jack stretched. Morning light was filtering in through the shutters. He stifled a yawn as he sat up, arms outstretched to either side. He spread his legs and folded his hands in the space between them. He shook his head. Glaise had somehow managed to wedge himself in between the two young men. With the lack of Jack's body, Glaise snuggled deeper into Elian's side. The brunet couldn't help the smile that graced his face.

    The two, dog and blond, radiated an inexplicable aura of innocence. Jack knew that Elian was anything but innocent and he was certain that the blond had only told him the tiniest fraction of his story. Perhaps it was the fact that he believed himself to be a monster that made him seem innocent. Perhaps it was the fact that Elian felt such crippling guilt about everything he did. Perhaps it was the almost-angelic expression on his face, his mouth slightly agape, his arm over his head, and his blond hair splayed around his face on the pillow. Whatever it was, there was definitely a significant lack of the monstrous qualities that Elian believed he possessed.

    Jack reached over to Elian and hesitated for a moment. Was it wrong of him to show such affection? He was beginning to feel as though Elian would never consent to stay with him, not with the how he thought of himself, of the danger he thought he posed to Jack. Perhaps the brunet should stay away, not let himself get attached any further, but he knew that it would almost be impossible to do such a thing. He allowed his hand to brush away the lock of hair that had fallen over Elian's face. The blond smiled, and Glaise placed one of his forepaws over the Elian's chest.

    Jack swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood. He was going to make breakfast, or at least find some. The brunet made his way down the stairs as quietly as he could. He didn't want to wake Elian and Glaise. There was no more bread in the entire household, so a breakfast of bread and salted meat was not possible. Jack decided he would go and find some eggs. Leaving the farmhouse, he walked to the chicken coop to retrieve some from the hens.

    ---

    Rein struggled all the way down the stairs with his captors, but it was all for naught. The burly men had grips of iron and no matter how Rein squirmed, he could not free himself from their grasp. The sun priest glanced at him lecherously, sinisterly from time to time. The redhead, at least for the first few seconds of being unceremoniously grabbed from the bed, glared at him and bared his teeth through the gag. Now, at the bottom of the tavern's staircase, the redhead simply averted his gaze, cheeks colouring in shame.

    The sun priest had, to make an example of the redhead, ordered the men carrying him to do so in such a manner that his legs would be spread wide apart and his well-used hole would be visible for the world to see -- puffed up, still leaking every now and again, and caked in dried cum. Iven only shook his head sadly at the redhead when Rein looked at him with pleading eyes. With Tristan and his companions gone, there was no chance for help coming to the redhead.

    The small group reached the threshold of the tavern. They stopped. The sun priest turned to Iven. In a voice younger than Rein had expected, the richly-garbed man said to the master of the tavern "Many thanks for your efforts to ensure the virtue of this village." The priest produced an emblem of the sun from within his cloak. "Should your time on this earth come to pass, merely ask that this token be placed on your tongue and you shall make haste to paradise."

    Iven smiled at the priest. As long as he kept the damnable thing, he would be ensured a spot at the table of the gods. Though, Iven supposed he would have to be more careful from that day forth. The townspeople would know he had the emblem. He could not let them take it from him, otherwise his seat would be taken by another. "And for your services in this mortal world, take this." The priest dropped a couple dozen golden marks onto Iven's hand. The tavern master had gone from average townsperson to richer than his rags in but two days. He could not help but smile and close his hands greedily over the money. "Again, many thanks. We shall see that this... abomination is dealt with."

    Rein had never felt more ashamed his entire life. He was shackled, effectively, by the ropes around his ankles and his wrists. He was slung in between two men like a large game animal. He had been sold for eternal happiness and a few gold marks. He felt as though he was less than a man, a mere deviant animal that the sun priest was duty-bound to punish. The fact that the well-dressed man had never once referred to him by 'he' or 'his' sent his heart spiralling further into the darkness of despair.

    Rein was paraded along the dirt-packed streets of the village, legs open like the whore he felt he was. He did not regret doing what he had to Tristan, he had waited years for the chance, but he feared what was to come. He despised that the sun-priest could make him feel so much like an object, no more than a spectacle to behold and punish as he pleased. Men, women and children stopped and stared at him as he passed by. The priest took his precious time to get to the church, too. The men shook their heads, the women tsked in dismay, and the children chanted profanities at Rein and his ass. "Faggot! Cockgobbler! Assfucker!" they cried after him.

    Rein felt fire on his cheeks. He felt every single shred of his dignity, of his manhood being stripped away with every step that the two burly men carrying him took.

    The redhead wept openly, far too terrified of the fate that was awaiting him.
     
  12. Elian stretched his arms and his legs, forgetting for a moment that his feet were not yet entirely healed. He bit back a curse when a bolt of pain shot up his calves. His sudden movement woke up the dog that had been sleeping beside him, and Glaise cracked open an eye before blearily licking Elian's jaw and cheeks, to which the blond responded by giving the bundle of fur a scratch behind the ear.

    Elian propped himself up on his elbows and looked around. Jack was nowhere to be seen, but there was a delightful aroma drifting up the stairs. Perhaps the brunet was preparing something to eat. The rest of the room was chaos, the unruly aftermath of the tempest that Elian's nightmare had called into existence. The smooth, shiny stones that had been in a perfectly straight line on top of the dresser were now crooked. Candles were toppled over. There was parchment stuck to random crevices in the wall. Elian shook his head; he would hate having to make Jack clean up the mess.

    The blond lowered his gaze to his lap. He was convinced that Glaise had found his lap to be such a comfortable place to stretch that he'd claimed it as his territory. The dog was at present on his back, lying on Elian's thighs, wagging his tail and yipping intermittently at the blond. Absentmindedly, the blond reached down and scratched the dog's belly. It wasn't long before Elian heard footsteps coming up the stairs. Moments later Jack appeared at the door, bearing a tray of food and a sizable square of meat for Glaise.

    In the blink of an eye, the dog was on all fours barking happily at Jack. The brunet grinned, flashing a smile that Elian was sure he would never quite forget. Rows of perfectly-tended teeth almost glimmered in the bright morning light filtering in through the windows. There was a genuine happiness in Jack's expression that Elian found precious. It was something that deep inside, Elian inexplicably wanted to protect with his life...

    Elian considered it odd that Jack had somehow managed to keep all his teeth in such good shape. Work at a farm was difficult, after all, and most farmlads tended not to pay too much attention to their hygiene. At the very least they did not, in Elian's experience. Jack was different. The boy, though admittedly still a lot more grimy than the people that lived at the palace Elian had grown up in, was far cleaner than most.

    Elian was pretty sure that prior to his bath, Jack was probably in much better condition than he was. "Glaise." said the brunet. The dog arched its back and raised its hindquarters in preparation to pounce. "Off the bed with you." The brunet tossed the meat off to the side. With surprising agility, the dog bounded off the bed and caught it in his jaws before settling down and tearing into the meal.

    "How are you feeling?" Jack asked, a smile on his face as he set down the tray on the nightstand beside Elian. The day was nice and the brunet was in an inexplicably happy mood. Jack rose and threw open another window, allowing more sunlight to come flooding into the room. The bright light definitely cast the disarray in a clearer light, and Elian was made aware of just how much damage had been done. Jack's eyes went wide as he surveyed the room, and a shadow of sadness descended upon them before vanishing mere moments later.

    "Much better..." said Elian, squinting in the light. "Thank you" he said sincerely. His feet were beginning to throb again, though not nearly as bad as they had been before Jack had found him. There was no trace of the fever in his body, and he was at the very least, far more rested than he had been in months. Jack had come into his life and given him a much needed momentary reprieve and a far more vital assurance that not everything in the world was as twisted as it seemed.

    "It was nothing..." said Jack, colour rising in his cheeks. "I did what I could to save you." The brunet reached over to the tray and handed Elian a plate with four strips of dried, salted meat and two boiled eggs. "Here. I found breakfast" said Jack, grinning sheepishly. "It's not the best, but the vegetables haven't been in the ground for very long."

    Elian stared at the eggs, perplexed, as he ripped off a piece of the meat and popped it into his mouth. It was fairly salty, though that was to be expected, and tough and chewy. Elian quite liked it. The blond tapped the eggs. The shells were still on, and he was unsure what to do about the eggs. Normally he ate eggs raw, but these ones sounded solid. "What's wrong?" asked Jack through a mouthfull of egg and meat.

    "I-what did you do to your eggs?" asked Elian, seeing bits and pieces of eggshell in a little pile on Jack's plate. His eyes were wide with surprise and wonder and more than a little confusion.

    Jack raised a suspicious eyebrow at Elian. The blond couldn't possibly be saying what he was saying. "I peeled them?"

    Elian blushed, looking down at his food with a burning face before looking back at Jack and asking, "How?"

    "Have you never eaten boiled eggs?" asked Jack, almost as confused as Elian was. He'd never heard of someone having not eaten boiled eggs before, or at least, never eaten them with the shells intact.

    The blond shook his head. "Only raw or fried or already peeled... Hens were quite rare where I've been... and people not as generous" The pink on his cheeks deepened and he looked away abashedly.

    Jack laughed. Again, he wondered how such an innocent-seeming creature could ever be considered a monster save by himself. "Alright. This is what you do." Jack took one of Elian's eggs and tapped it firmly on the edge of his plate until it cracked. Once that was done, Jack just pulled off pieces of the shell, much to Elian's amazement. "Here--" Jack sprinkled a tiny pinch of salt onto the egg. Salt, on the farm at least, was difficult to come by and was better used to preserve meat. However, as Jack had discovered, a tiny amount made eggs taste heavenly. "--try that."

    Elian hesitantly bit into the egg with the salt. "Aaand, open your mouth." Elian raised an eyebrow but did as Jack asked. The brunet raised a piece of salted meat. Elian twitched two times as Jack's hand approached his face, but he kept his composure. He bit down on the meat and chewed. The blond's eyes widened in surprise at the flavours and melding of textures that assaulted his tongue. It was the best thing he'd put in his tongue in a while. Granted, any real food would've been just as good. After all, he had just the previous day been picking out and eating maggots from Jack's odd fur cloak.

    "This is good..." said Elian through a mouthful of the simple meal. "Thank you" he said, gratitude sincere and palpable in his voice. Jack beamed at him and they finished the meal in silence. With the brazen light of the morn, neither Jack or Elian seemed to be willing to breach the darker things that they'd talked about before. Those things could wait. For now, it was a time to just... slow down. Elian knew that he would have to leave as soon as he was better, but his feet weren't fully healed yet, and until the time that he could properly walk again, there would be very little that either he or Jack could do about anything.

    There was no indication that the men that had been pursuing him had found him yet. If anything, they were probably as lost as he was. Village-folk very rarely left their small coves of civilization. The world was a harsh place, and not just inside towns. Bandits wandered the high-roads and beasts prowled the forests. Despite the fact that people like Elian -- and in fact, even people who are accused to be like the blond and Jack -- were often chased away, the small communities that had popped up here and there provided small enclaves of safety against the merciless wilderness. For the time being, at least, Elian was safe, and he didn't think he wanted to spend this little island of stability in his life with anyone else than Jack.

    After the two washed down their meals with cool water, Glaise bounded out of the room and down the stairs, probably to get a drink of his own. Jack had been unable to bring up the dog's bowl, what with the tray he'd been carrying. Jack glanced at Elian and gestured at his feet. "May I?" Elian nodded hesitantly. He wasn't sure he wanted Jack anywhere near his feet. Sure, the brunet had helped make sure they were clean and on the way to healing, but they were throbbing with slight pain. Elian didn't think he wanted to know what state his feet were in too.

    Jack gently untied the bandage on his Elian's left foot and unwound the cloth slowly. There was very little blood on the cloth and no pus. It was a good indication. The brunet peeled off the leaf that obstructed his vision of the sole of Elian's foot. Much of the paste was still caked onto the skin, but Jack could clearly see in areas where the wounds were still puffy and red. Only the smallest ones had closed up. Most of the blisters had shrunk, but as far as he could tell, there was no other progress. Jack repeated the same for Elian's other foot and saw the same thing. "How do they look, Jack?"

    "Cut up," he said, grinning despite himself at the joke. Elian himself smiled at the jest, it was high time for some levity. The day was beautiful after all. "It definitely looks better, though." Jack said, glad that the paste had done its job as expected. Jack knew that the paste should not stay on for a long time, though, as it turned grainy and sharp when it dried. The salve looked to be good for a few more hours, but Jack was not going to risk it. "I'll be back."

    Jack ran down the stairs, almost tripping over Glaise who was running back up. He shook his head at the dog. "What did I tell you about the stairs, Glaise?" he yelled back once he reached the bottom of the stairs. He heard a whine and a bark in reply, and, if he was not mistaken, a giggle from Elian. Jack took the pail he'd been heating over the fire, hissing at the heat of the handle. He grabbed a scrap piece of wool nearby and carried the pail up the stairs to the room. Jack shot a glance at Elian who was gingerly holding his feet over the bed while simultaneously being attacked by Glaise. "Glaise. Behave." The dog whined and stopped, laying its head on Elian's stomach.

    Jack ran back down the stairs and grabbed the wooden washing tub that that they used for their clothes. He took it outside to the well and removed the well's rough-hewn wooden cover. Jack washed the tub out. If there was any soap left in it, Elian was bound to be in for a world of hurt. Once the brunet was satisfied enough that there were no longer any dredges of soap remaining in the tub, he replaced the wellcover and walked back to the house and up the stairs to the room. He was lugging the large and moderately heavy tub along all the while.

    When Jack entered the room, Glaise was lying on his back on Elian's stomach, tail wagging madly as Elian rubbed the dog's belly. Jack smiled. The sight was quite adorable. "Alright, Glaise. Get off of Elian." The dog yipped and did as he was bid, albeit, evidently grudgingly. Jack lowered the wooden tub onto the floor by the side of the bed and walked over to where he'd left the pail. The water inside was still warm, but not too hot. Jack poured all of it into the tub, careful not to splash too much around.

    Jack crouched and motioned at Elian to swing his legs over the side of the bed. The blond complied. Gently, the brunet lowered Elian's feet into the warm water. The blond hissed when the water touched his feet. It stung for a moment, but the pain passed relatively quickly. Elian watched, intrigued, as the paste on his feet slowly dissolved into a pale green cloud in the water. "Oh. That feels... odd." remarked Elian as he felt the partly-dried wedges of the paste dislodge from the crevices of his wounds.

    Jack smiled at Elian. "It shouldn't take much more than a few more hours until you can walk again, not very far, of course, and not without shoes." The blond blushed. Not having shoes, or at least not having good ones, was the primary cause of all his current troubles to begin with anyway. He didn't have any, so he supposed that Jack meant that he would be staying in bed for a few more days. "You can have one of my fathers' pairs of shoes if they fit you."

    "But Ja--" The brunet raised a finger to stifle Elian's protestation. Of course the blond wanted to take Jack up on the offer, but from the way Jack talked of them, with a loving lilt to his voice, Elian could tell that Jack's parents were important to him. He wasn't sure he felt entirely comfortable with taking one of the few mementos Jack would have of the men that had found him, taken him in, and raised him as their own.

    "It's alright." Jack reassured Elian. In truth he wasn't comfortable with giving away his fathers' shoes, but he knew that they didn't fit him, and that he would probably never have any use for them. He guessed it would be much better for his fathers' memories that their shoes be used by someone who actually needed them. It was a far nobler cause than just gathering mold and dust around the farmhouse. The brunet straightened and grabbed the pail. "I'll be back in about half an hour. Keep your feet in the water. I'll make some more of the salve."

    "Okay." Elian was a bit apprehensive about being left all alone in the farmhouse with nary a thing to protect himself with. Granted, Glaise was with him, but he had no illusions that the dog could protect him against four armed men if by some stroke of luck they managed to track him down to Jack's farmstead. Jack gave him a small smile as he left the room. Elian couldn't help but smile back despite himself and the worry that was trying to overcome his mental barriers.

    ---

    Rein pissed himself in fear when they approached the looming stone face of the sun priests' secretive cloister. The pungent stream of yellow liquid had rushed forth from his soft, numb cock onto his belly before dripping to the ground as soon as he saw the heavyset wooden doors of the building. A sinister smile had crossed the priest's face at that moment and he gestured to the two burly men. Without a single word spoken, they tilted him so that his ass was higher in the air than his head, and his piss trickled up his chest and neck, some of it making its way to his face. "Such perversion." said the priest when Rein had emptied his bladder.

    The doors swung open with a dull boom. Rein had not known what to expect of the convent. After all, their little village did not have one. The sun priests all lived in their tiny church and were not nearly as powerful there as they seemed to be in this much larger village. His mind's eye had constructed an image of a dungeon filled with all sorts of torturous implements designed to tear apart and break people like himself, barring that, he imagined the place to be dull and lacking of furniture.

    Neither of those sights greeted him as he was carried through the threshold of the stone building, limp, having long since resigned himself to his fate. The inside of the foreboding stone walls was well-lit, and richly furnished with carpet and tapestries. He'd not expected such luxury in a village. However, judging from the significant sum of money that had been given to Iven as a reward, and the rich clothing that the sun priests were apt to wear, he should not have been surprised.

    He was carried within, and not a single soul was in sight until the doors slammed shut behind him. As soon as the place was again shrouded in secrecy, other creatures appeared in the halls. There were men, dressed much like the sun priest that accompanied him, who seemed to have shed the stern disapproving countenance that he had in exchange for a more pleasant and disturbingly sympathetic one. Rein looked at him in confusion. The sun priest smiled. Genially. Genially! He had the gall to parade the redhead through the town, showing his most private, secret parts and his shame to every single townsperson, and now he was smiling like a friend at him? Rein was incensed and completely baffled.

    "Here, within these halls, we are but men." said the priest, as though that was supposed to explain everything. "Out there, under the grace of the gods, in the eye of day, we are their avatars, sworn to uphold their commandments lest we be thrown into eternal torment." Rein was still confused. "Here, within these walls, where the light of the sun holds no power, we are free to be."

    Rein shook his head slowly, refusing to believe what the priest was saying. The motion sent droplets of drool spilling every which way. "Suit yourself to whatever you believe, so long as it is not the way of the old gods." The priest beckoned the two men carrying Rein to follow, and they crossed the halls. There was nary a window in sight, but the light that flooded the place was almost like daylight, not the flickering oranges and reds of braziers and torches. The redhead cast his gaze about. Orbs of arcane light danced on the ceiling above him, showering him with glittering motes of pure light. It seemed almost whimsical, if not for the knot of dread that had settled in the redhead's stomach.

    The two burly men and the priest descended a long spiral staircase. Rein could not comprehend the depth to which the unassuming -- on the outside, at least -- convent, sprawled under the earth above. After what seemed to be an eternity of just bare stone walls surrounding them, the staircase gave way to a hallway, from the end of which drifted what seemed to be a cool spring breeze. What manner of sorcery did this house of supposedly godly men contain?

    The small group emerged onto a ledge in an immense cavern. Far below them, the floor was carpeted with grass and a waterfall churned the surface of a nearby lake. A stream gurgled through the middle of the place glittering and bubbling happily as it flowed along. Large lights, almost sun-like in appearance, hugged the ceiling, dancing in a graceful yet seemingly entirely random pattern with each other and around the large stalactites that hung from the cave's roof. Flowers bloomed and trees swayed in the inexplicable breeze. Rein's eyes widened with wonder. The place was beautiful. Or at least, it seemed to be.

    It wasn't until they descended another flight of stone stairs to the floor of the cavern that Rein saw the twisted truth of the place. There were sun priests in their priestly garb walking or simply sitting, either deep in contemplation, conversing, or reading a book. It took a moment for Rein to see some of the men, thin, lean, or rotund, with neither tunics nor breeches, only undergarments, or, in the absence of such, a golden-tasseled belt of white silk. Their members dangled wherever they were, walking, sprinting, or lounging. All of them were branded across the chest with the symbol of the faith, the image of three suns in a triangular trifecta.

    Apart from these naked men, some of whom with physiques that made Rein green with envy, hard with desire, and drooling with lust and some that revolted him, there were others still. These others wore nothing, not the barest scrap of cloth nor protection from the elements and the ground beneath their bare feet save for one thing that stabbed terror through the heart of the redhead. They wore leather belts, but it was not the belts that disturbed Rein so profoundly; it was whatever the hell was attached to them that sent distress coursing through his veins.

    There were metal cages attached to the belts, that covered the crotch and hugged the curve of the body so as to seem as though the men had no manhoods. Were they eunuchs? Rein could not tell though some of them walked nearby. They all glanced at him with hooded eyes and fixed him with a strange look of sympathy and, oddly, gladness. The metal objects seemed to hide their manhoods, if they had any, so well that it almost looked like they were smooth in front. From each and every one of the cages dangled two locks, one in the front and one in the back, that clinked against the metal with every step, perhaps to remind the men -- Rein was not sure what to call them -- of their shame.

    The metal cages seemed to wrap around the back and up between the cheeks of the ass. It wasn't long before Rein was treated to a view of what it held there. The metal wrapped up, flared into what seemed to be a circle where the hole should have been, and up to rejoin the belt. As their small group was crossing the grass, Rein caught sight of one of the naked men without the metal part of his belt. His cock and balls were dangling freely, though his cock seemed shriveled, and his nuts swollen from disuse.

    A priest walked up to the man, holding the metal contraption. The man meekly got on all fours, with nary a sound of protestation. The priest took hold of his parts and squeezed them into the metal contraption. Where the metal flared into a circular base that he just knew would go over the asshole, a smooth curved 'hook' of a material that Rein could not determine from the distance protruded from the metal. The protrusion curved downwards, to the ground, the way the priest was holding it.

    Rein had a sneaking suspicion it was meant to touch that button inside a man that would reduce him to a gibbering mess under the ministrations of an experienced cock. The priest inserted it into the man's pucker and clasped the metal contraption to the belt. Rein could not take his eyes away as the man was locked away, the sound of the locks clicking shut and the low, rapturous groan of the man reaching his ears.

    The priest patted the man on the ass and, locked as he was, he rose, eyes rolling back into his head for a moment in pleasure. He rubbed at his crotch as though hoping for release, but the metal would not allow it. Rein was not sure, but he thought that he could see clear liquid dripping out of the bottom of the metal contraption.

    The man who'd been locked up walked away slowly, measuring his steps as though to avoid jostling around the object in his ass too much. Rein was terrified. Was that to be his fate? Effectively gelded, but constantly stimulated with no hope for release? He knew the feeling of being unable to satisfy his sexual hunger. He'd been in the situation with Tristan for so long. He did not want to experience it again, no matter the cost.

    ---

    "There we go. Good as new," quipped Jack, much to the chagrin of Elian who was wiping his watery eyes dry. The brunet had reapplied the paste to his feet and bound them in fresh clean strips of cloth. It wasn't as bad as the previous time that Jack had done so, but the experience was still far from comfortable. The fact that Jack treated the deed so lightly was not lost on Elian, and had he not been so changed by the hard years he'd lived through, he might have had the grace to pout in protestation.

    "Will you be okay here?" Jack asked sincerely. As much as he did not want to leave Elian all alone in the room -- and he had to, because Glaise was an important part of daily work on the farm -- Jack had to get back to the day-to-day routine of maintaining the farm, the field, and all the animals under his care. He'd given the animals pretty much the bare minimum of food the previous day when he rushed back to get supplies for Elian. He had to make sure they ate their fill today.

    Elian nodded, though he was understandably curious about what Jack did around the farm. Any further inquiry into the matter would have to wait 'til another day, though, as Jack still refused to allow Elian to walk even with shoes until most of the swelling and inflammation on his feet went down. Again, if Elian could bring himself to do it, he would have pouted. There was a part of Elian that just wanted to gain some sence of normalcy, even if it was just for a short period of time. That same part of Elian demanded that he do something productive, so that he would not be a burden on Jack.

    The brunet went out the door and whistled for Glaise to follow him. The dog whined and licked Elian's face, but Jack was adamant. He needed Glaise to herd some of the animals. The bundle of white fur walked slowly to Jack's side and whined at the brunet's playful rebuke before bounding down the stairs, tail wagging as fast as was possible. Jack shook his head and smiled at Elian as he vanished from sight.

    Elian reclined in the bed and twiddled his thumbs. This was bound to be a long day, what with nothing to do, no running to hurt his feet, no hiding to keep himself safe, no needless quiet to keep himself from being heard... Elian was so used to life on the run, he didn't quite know what to make of the sudden stability that had been thrust upon him. In quite an ironic sense, the stability that Jack had managed to lend him seemed to have caused some instability in his life.

    The blond shook his head, he should not be thinking such thoughts. After all, Jack had opened not only his home to the blond, but, it seemed, also his heart. In a way, Elian had done the same, confessing his crime, and showing his vulnerability to the brunet. He still thought he was a monster, but what Jack had told him made him more at ease with what he believed to be fact.

    He'd caused death and destruction, Elian mused, but he wasn't entirely to blame for it. Regardless, all of it was at his hands, and so he thought himself to be a monster. Less guilty, yes, but a monster nonetheless.

    As Elian stared at the ceiling, old memories and thoughts crept back into his mind unbidden. It was better now than when he was back on the road again, he guessed. That didn't make the reminiscing any easier. He wondered what had become of Vamara. When he'd last returned to it, the kingdom had been wrapped in winter. Whether it was his doing or some catastrophic disturbance of the balance of nature, Elian did not know. He had been uncertain then, and he remained uncertain to the present day.

    The blond thought back to his time at the tower with lady Elesyne, of her thirteen children, and the eldest who was, if he was being honest, his first... love? He wasn't quite sure if love was the proper word to use. If anything, he was fairly certain that the tiny seed of emotion that thrummed happily in Jack's presence was more love than the infatuation he'd had over Vard.

    He thought about when Vard had escorted him back to Vama--no. Elian pushed the memories away. Vard had been the very first person whose blood stained his hands, albeit indirectly. He did not want to remember that dark, dark time. Elian sighed, somewhat wishing that his life had gone differently, but at the same time knowing that had anything happened contrary to how things had played out in his life, he probably would never have met Jack, probably never grown up.

    Elian closed his eyes, weariness washing over his limbs. With not much else to do, what better way to spend the day than asleep?

    *

    Elian awoke to the smell of food wafting into the room from the doorway. Jack was standing there with a strange smile on his face, watching as the blond rose from his slumber. "How long have you been there?" Elian asked blearily, blinking in surprise when all of a sudden a wet tongue went across the side of his face. The dog was back by his side again, seemingly not content to just sit there, instead having to show his affection through licking and dog slobber.

    "Long enough to know that you snore when you're not having a nightmare" quipped the brunet as he set down the tray of food on the nightstand as he had earlier that morning for their breakfast. The meal was not much different: eggs and meat, except this time there was cheese involved. Elian eyed the cheese, but as soon as Jack had said what he said, Elian blushed.

    "I-I do not!" stammered the blond, much to the delight of Jack. The brunet picked up a wooden plate and handed it to Elian. He loaded the blond's plate with an extra helping of everything. A recovering body was, after all, a hungry one.

    "Yes you do" said Jack as he placed food on his own plate, grinning toothily at Elian. "Right Glaise?" The dog barked in agreement, licking Elian's jaw and wagging his tail before settling back down.

    "Oh not you too" protested Elian, cheeks still red from the ribbing. "I thought we had an understanding here!" he told Glaise as he scratched the underside of the dog's jaw. The white bundle of fur just tilted his head at the blond and barked happily. Elian rolled his eyes in mock exasperation. The two young men spent the rest of the meal in relative silence, Elian relishing every bite, and Jack watching in awe at how the blond seemed to treat every morsel as though it was food from the gods.

    When they finished eating and Jack had stowed away everything downstairs, the brunet went back up the stairs. Elian was fidgeting in the bed and he glanced at Jack for a good two seconds before turning away, his cheeks turning a rosy pink once again. "What is it this time?" asked Jack, putting as much false irritation in his voice as he could. Much to his surprise, Elian reddened even further.

    "I..." Elian flushed even more. Glaise nudged Elian's stomach in support, a gesture that the blond did not entirely appreciate. Elian squirmed in discomfort and gently pushed the dog aside to the sound of whining and the feeling of a tongue licking his hand as he did so. "I need to..." Jack raised an eyebrow. "I need to do my business" muttered the blond, lowering his gaze to the sheets out of embarrassment.

    Jack just stared at Elian for a second before bursting out in laughter. The implication of the statement had yet to hit the brunet, but the fire in Elian's cheeks raged even hotter than the blond thought was possible. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Of course." Then. The unspoken request hit him. "Oh. Oh! You... need my help?" Elian nodded wilting in embarrassment, and squirming on the bed because his bowels were growling at him.

    "I-I will be right back!" said Jack, sprinting out of the room. The brunet stopped just short of the doorway. "I'm really sorry, Elian" he said, apologizing profusely. The blond barely had time to nod at Jack before the brunet was running down the stairs to fetch a pail of water, a dipper and a washcloth. It took two excruciating minutes before Jack returned with all he needed.

    He picked up Elian and brought him over to the chamber pot in the room. The blond was still blushing, unable to ignore the awkwardness and the embarrassment of the situation. "Hey" said Jack as Elian slowly pulled down his breeches, tryin to avoid any and all eye-contact with the brunet. "Don't be embarrassed. We're all in this situation at some point... And it's not like this is all new to me..." said Jack. "After all, I had to take care of my aging father. There was a point when he could not stand to use the latrine anymore."

    The brunet said all of it in good humour, but it did nothing to spare Elian from the shame of being helped to vacate his bowels. "Alright. Alright. Relax, Elian." said Jack as he lowered the blond over the chamberpot, making sure that the blond's hole was squarely over the opening. "There. You may do your business." A flush had also creeped onto the brunet's cheeks and he himself tried his best not to stare at the blond's manhood. Sure, he was accustomed to caring for the infirm, but he had not done it in such an intimate manner as he did with Elian.

    It took a few minutes for the two to finish their little awkward moment, and when it was done, Elian could barely talk out of shame. He'd gotten more than a little bit aroused when Jack cleaned him down there. The blond had never thought there would be any other living person that would touch him in that intimate area without the intention of using it to satisfy their own lust, without any regard for his. The brunet, while somewhat delighted that Elian had reacted to his touch with such... excitement, found himself trying his best not to do anything to make the situation any worse.

    When they were done, Jack set Elian back on the bed and they regarded each other with fretful glances, neither one noticing the pink cheeks on the other. "I-I'll go and finish the rest of the farm work..." Jack mumbled. He was staring at a spot to his left, trying to avoid Elian's gaze.

    Elian did the same thing, but instead he was staring at Glaise and petting the dog who had a blissful expression on his face. "Alright..." Jack took a tentative step towards the bed, then took another back. Elian raised an eyebrow at the brunet who then promptly turned around and clucked for Glaise to follow him. The dog was too busy enjoy the petting to pay attention to Jack. The brunet left the room and descended the stairs without his faithful companion.

    Elian flinched when, upon reaching the foot of the stairs and realizing that Glaise was nowhere nearby, Jack yelled up the stairs "GLAISE!!" The dog barked almost sheepishly and pursued his owner.

    ---

    The small parade stopped in the middle of a marble square, Rein still suspended between the two burly men. For all the friendliness that the priest had shown him, Rein wasn't convinced that there was any sincerity to it. After all, he was still being borne by the two men that had so unceremoniously grabbed him from the bed where Tristan had left him earlier that morning. Another priest approached with shackles, a collar, and one of the belts he'd seen on one of the other men in the cavern.

    Rein's eyes bugged out of his head at the sight of the things, and he struggled against his captors as a blond priest approached him after regarding the brunet that had brought him to the damnable place. "We will do you no harm" cooed the other sun priest in mock comfort. Rein refused to believe that any man who came at him with shackles meant no harm.

    Before the redhead knew it, the manacles were clasped around his wrists and his ankles. Satisfactorily restrained, the priests gestured for the men to drop him. Rein fell to the marble floor with a thud, his body limply colliding with the cool stone. He groaned through his gag with discomfort and rolled over onto his back. At that moment, his eyes were drawn to the cavern right above him. There seemed to be a door of some sort hewn into the rock above. What it meant, he did not know, nor did he particularly care at the moment.

    Rein tried to get up but to no avail. The priest that had fastened the manacles on him stepped on the short length of chain that bound his wrists together, preventing him from being able to gain any leverage whatsoever. "Welcome to the Sanctuary, outsider" said the priest. Rein did not in the least feel welcome.

    "This is where the priests of our order come to escape the world above. The only place where we're allowed to shed our pious skin for our old ones." The priest gestured about him. "Look around you, Rein." The redhead's eyes widened when the priest said his name. "Oh we know about you. We've known about you for a long time. We were simply biding our time for the opportune moment to get you, finally." Rein suddenly felt dirty. What did the priest mean that they'd known about him for a long time?

    "No matter. Each and every one of these men who is not bound as yourself is a free member of the brotherhood, or at the very least, well on his way." The priest beckoned over to someone beyond Rein's sight. Almost instantly, the redhead heard the sound of footsteps muffled by grass coming their way. "Kneel." said the priest and what entered Rein's vision was one of the naked men with the odd belts, the same one he'd seen the belt being put on mere moments ago.

    "He's well on his way to becoming a member of the brotherhood, are you not?" The kneeling man simply nodded, eyes glazed over in what seemed to be a fog of utter pleasure. The man keened when the priest traced his hand down the man's back, forcing him to move, probably jostling the object that was held within him by the belt's contraption. "You have two choices, Rein."

    The redhead dreaded the words that would come next. "You may choose to refuse us and accept your sentence..." the priest trailed off, making sure that Rein knew what he was alluding to. The redhead knew what was unsaid very well. Death was the sentence for being like what he was. Or so he thought. "...to be carried out come the next full moon, of course. Or, you may choose to become one of us. Wear the Cage for every day for the next three years and a day, learning the way of the brotherhood, learning to serve and obey your brothers and the gods in everything."

    "You will become a full fledged priest of our order. Of course, if this happens, then you are to throw away your old life whenever the sun shines down upon you, and only return to your true self in sanctuaries like these, where the eye of day can cast no light." The priest smiled at him, a visage of almost-genuine warmth. Rein did not know what to think. The proposition seemed definitely attractive. After all, it was death or a life in seclusion. In most situations, life of any sort save a tortured one would always be the better choice.

    The redhead did not trust the priests, nor did he like the way that the man said that he needed to cast aside his old self. It almost felt as though if he agreed to spending his life as a member of the brotherhood, that it would no longer entirely be his life at all. Then there was the fact that for three years and a day, he would have to wear the obscene contraption that the priest had called the Cage.

    The sun priest noticed Rein eyeing the cage warily, with mixed contempt, disgust, and fear. "It is part of the garb of the order. You must wear it whenever you are to be dressed in the cloth of our ministry, whenever you are in the sunlight." The priest pulled down his breeches to show Rein that he had the same damnable thing on. The redhead found it suspicious that though the priest wore the contraption around his manhood, he did not have the same glazed look in his eyes, or the same euphoria that the other man seemed to be trapped in. Why? Rein could not tell.

    "You have until I return to make your decision" said the priest as he rose. "I will leave this here, for you to think about." The priest placed the belt on Rein's chest. It almost felt like a mountain, a heavy weight bearing down on his body. Terror gripped his heart, but for some reason, he felt a stirring in his cock. The priest smiled knowingly at him. "Either way, whether you choose the stake or the order, you will wear this for the next little while."

    The other priest that had accompanied Rein knelt down beside him and gently untied the gag from his mouth. "What the fuck is wrong with you people?!" the redhead spat at the priest as soon as he was free of the gag. "Are you all fucking... faggots?" he asked, anger burning behind his eyes.

    "Around here we call ourselves reversals, Rein" said the priest in a surprisingly gentle voice. The redhead struggled into a sitting position, sending the belt tumbling from his chest. The other priest caught it almost reverently and set it down on the ground with utmost care.

    Rein glared at the priest. "Reversal, faggot, fairy, cocksucker, what difference does it make? You're all traitors! All of you! To people like us! You make me sick." The redhead spat. There were tears flowing from his eyes, but they remained angry and hurt and betrayed. "It's because of you priests and your ways that my kind is hunted down and killed, yet here you fuckers stay, in your underground paradise, buggering each other! Hypocrites!"

    Rein gasped when the hand smacked against his cheek, leaving a red mark and more watery eyes on the redhead. "Are you so bent on dying that you do not realize the truth of it all? Do you think us reversals ever had a choice when the church of the Sun Gods came to these lands?" Rein did not speak, instead glaring daggers at the priest before him. If looks could kill, he was certain the brunet priest would be rotting in the ground already.

    "It was much worse back in the days of our forefathers! Before the heir of Lycc across the seas was able to subvert the hierarchy of the church. He's the reason that this entire paradise beneath the earth is possible." Rein's glare softened. This was a story he'd never heard before. A place he'd never even faintly heard of in his life. Lycc across the seas... The redhead wondered where it was and what kind of people lived there. Had he not been quite so incensed, he may have spent more time thinking on the matter.

    "Were it not for the fact that one of the sons of the Crown Prince of Lycc was a reversal like us, he never would have forced the church to accept his son into their fold. His name was Orryc, or so the story is told." The priest helped keep Rein sitting when he swayed precariously to the side. "Orryc contrived the death of the old Council and replaced it with others he knew as reversals in the Church. He would have changed the teachings, but he knew it would only have caused chaos. Instead he added on to them, and said that all of us brothers would be able to retain our old lives wherever the sun did not shine and the eye of the commonfolk could not see."

    "You're all still fucking traitors. And cowards. Why do you need to hide?" Rein bellowed, spittle flying in the sun priest's face. Veins in his neck were bulging and his eyes were narrowed in anger.

    Rein's face stung with another slap. "There are two choices that you are given when the sun priests find you. Submit to the Order, or die. Those two. Only ever those two." The redhead bared his teeth in spite. "You'd be surprised how many men would rather die than spend three years and a day as pretty much a eunuch."

    "As for having to hide... The Church's teachings outside of these underground enclaves, these Sanctuaries, have not changed. Our kind is still outlawed. Will that change? Time will tell. But until then, none of us priests dare reveal ourselves."

    "Why?" asked Rein, words dripping with venom.

    The priest grabbed Rein's jaw and looked the redhead in the eye with burning ire. Rein returned the glare and spat in the priest's face. "Are you that stupid? Or are you simply that blind? Reversals die whenever they are found by the common people because of the teachings of the Order. Would you rather die than preach against your own kind in the hopes that if you ever find one of them among your congregation, that you can capture them and offer them the same choice you were given before the commonfolk could tear them limb from limb?" The priest shoved him roughly to the ground. "Do not be a fool, Rennðoch, child of fire."

    Rein flinched at the mention of the name that his parents had given him. He'd refused to acknowledge it since the day he'd figured out he could not even properly voice it. "Why can you not just preach change from your pulpits?" he asked, the anger in his voice significantly dampened. The priest had made good points.

    "We are bound by ancient magicks to speak only the teachings in the Helionomicon when we preach in the light of the sun, no more, and no less."

    Rein tore his gaze from the priest and allowed it to settle on the 'initiate' that was still kneeling nearby. "What's wrong with him?" asked Rein, still uncertain about what the choice he was to make. There was merit to what the priest had said, but Rein did not know if he was ready to take on three years of not being given the single pleasure that had allowed him peace when the world around him would not: spilling his seed. In truth, there was a part of Rein that found the idea oddly arousing. Deep inside, the redhead knew that he did not want to burn to death at the stake come the next full moon.

    "You've been taken by a man, you would know" said the priest almost patronizingly. The man gestured to Rein's well-used hole.

    "Once. I wouldn't say I know" replied the redhead, face colouring in shame. He'd committed rape. On his best friend. On the man he'd loved. Whether it was for better or for worse, he had violated the one person that meant everything to him.

    "Then last night was your first time?" Rein nodded, eyes still fixed on the kneeling man. "Then did you feel the utter pleasure when he touched that place inside you with his cock?" Rein's manhood twitched in remembrance of it. The priest looked at his growing erection and smiled knowingly. "It is pleasure unlike any other." The priest pointed to the part of the belt that was meant to go within him. "That will rub that part of you with any small movement, ensuring that you are always pleasured."

    "But you cannot cum." said Rein, unable to tear his eyes away from the man in front of him. He wondered what pleasure and torment he must be feeling. From the look on his face, the redhead supposed that his entire body at least was awash in pleasure, save his cock. Ironic considering that a man's cock was often the centre of all his pleasure.

    "But you cannot cum, not in the manner you are used to, perhaps. Your seed will spill, but it will only dribble, not spurt. Pleasure eventually turns into pain as your cock begs for release but it will not come. Not for three years and a day." Rein looked at the priest. Was he prepared for that torture? The redhead did not know. Was he prepared for death? Rein knew he was not. The choice was quickly coming upon him.

    "Why are you not like him then? Are you not wearing the same thing?"

    "When we have duties at the surface, we remove this--" said the brunet, removing the smooth curved phalange from the belt. "--we've no need for this pleasurable distraction on the earth above." The priest straightened and saw the other returning. "Decide fast, Rennðoch. Do not be a fool, or you will soon learn that fire devours even her own children."
     
  13. The embarrassing encounter had managed to drive a wedge between the two young men for the rest of the day. Jack didn't want to talk to Elian because he couldn't quite manage to think of the blond without thinking of the other man's cock just yet, and Elian didn't want to talk to Jack because he was still quite ashamed of having to be aided in taking a shit. It wasn't until dinner that their two paths crossed again. If anything, though, it was much earlier than that when Glaise managed to find his way back into Elian's bed, giving the blond some much-needed company in his misery.

    When the farm chores were done, Glaise had looked at Jack with such a piteous expression that the brunet had scratched his head and let the dog run up the stairs as he wanted. The brunet was beginning to wonder whether the dog would take Elian's departure harder than he would. He shook his head, trying to clear it for the time being of that depressing thought. As he'd worked through the day, he'd come to terms with the fact that Elian was probably leaving him regardless.

    Jack had actually considered leaving the farm to travel with the blond, but he knew that he couldn't, not unless fate forced his hands. The farmstead was all he'd ever known, and he wasn't sure he would very much like the world outside of it. Apart from that, the farm had been lovingly built by his fathers from the ground up... it was their labour of love, their life's work. Jack could not, in good conscience, abandon the place that had given him a new lease on life to the ravages of the seasons and the passage of time.

    Halfway through milking one of the cows and checking on the calf growing inside her, Jack resolved to approach Elian about his departure in an entirely different manner to how he'd done so the previous night. He knew he owed the blond an apology. In the meantime, he was going to the kitchen and cutting up vegetables for the pottage that he was about to make. When he was done he threw them into the cauldron that hung above the hearth and stirred in some salt and pepper and a few chunks of meat. Peasant food, Nyko had called it, but Jack loved the taste of the stew nonetheless.

    Jack knew it to be an unfair judgment as he'd not had even the slightest morsel of noblemen's food. He wasn't sure how great he would find such refined cuisine. After all, he preferred the wild and simple flavours that nature provided: the berries and roots that he sometimes found out foraging, the milk from his cows, the eggs from his hens, the vegetables and herbs from his garden, and the barley and rye from his fields. All of those could be crafted into some simple and rustic, but, to Jack's untrained and unrefined palate, delicious foods.

    Once the stew was done cooking, Jack prepared two bowls for himself and Elian before walking up the stairs and back to the room. He breathed deeply before pushing open the door. The sound caught Elian's attention and the two locked eyes for a second. Both blushed in the same instant and turned their eyes away from the other, cheeks burning in mutual embarrassment. "I'm sorry about a while ago. I didn't mean to make fun of you..." said Jack as he set down the tray on the nightstand by Elian.

    The blond's blush deepened as he forced himself to meet Jack's eyes. "It's alright..." he said, trailing off. The brunet raised an eyebrow as he noticed a shiver run up Elian's body. "Glaise!" protested the blond. The rambunctious dog had managed to worm his way behind Elian in the moment of awkwardness that he and Jack had shared and was now licking the small of Elian's back. Reaching behind him, the blond was able to find Glaise and push him gently away. The dog had the gall to yip happily at him.

    Elian shook his head and stared at the food hungrily. Jack saw the look that Elian cast at the food and laughed. "Famished, are we?" Elian nodded and smiled sheepishly at Jack. Truth be told, he'd been famished for well over two hours now. He didn't want to tread too much on Jack's hospitality though, so he bided his time until the brunet came up with the food. Grinning, the brunet handed Elian a bowl of pottage. "I know it's not the best, but it's a stew of pretty much everything I grow out here on the farm... except maybe milk, but milk isn't great for stews as far as I can tell."

    "Oh. It's alright, Jack" said Elian, taking bite of the stew. His eyes lit up. It was definitely not food fit for the table of a lord much less a prince, but the flavours were hearty and bold. He liked it. Whatever refinement his palate had had when he was crown prince of Vamara was now gone, replaced by a tongue that savoured any and all food when it came. "It doesn't get much better than this when you're always on the run..." mused Elian. Jack could hear the hint of sadness and regret on Elian's voice. The blond took another bite and said "But I have to keep moving, all on my lonesome. No one likes different, I guess."

    "I'm okay with different" said Jack, gulping down a bite of the stew. He frowned. He'd forgotten the bread that usually went with the stew. It didn't matter. Not now at least. He didn't want Elian to think he was beginning to feel uncomfortable talking with the blond. "You don't have to run away from me." Jack stirred the stew in his bowl with his spoon. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Elian stiffen at what he said. "But I understand if you want to..."

    Elian took a bite. "It's not that I want to run away from you, Jack" he said. The brunet looked up at him, sadness evident in those tawny eyes. "If things were different, I would have loved to stay. Believe me." Jack smiled. It was true. Elian did want to stay. The farm, Glaise, Jack, they all lent him a sense of normalcy that had eluded his grasp ever since he was a child, cursed with his ice. "But I'm being chased now. I don't want you to get hurt."

    "I understand that..." said Jack, absentmindedly playing with his food. "But you don't have to protect me from them, Elian." Jack flinched when he remembered Nyko getting mad at him for not eating his food. Meals were sometimes hard to come by on the farm, especially if the crop was not doing well. Anything and everything they found was essential for their survival. When he'd angered his father for not eating food he found repulsive, the lesson had been beaten into him. He took a bite of the stew. "Why don't you just scare them off with your ice, anyway?"

    Elian shook his head sadly, chewing on a piece of meat as he did. "Maybe. I guess I really don't have to protect you from them. I'm sure you're capable of defending yourself." Jack nodded. He was not the most capable swordsman, not by far, but he knew how to use the quarterstaff. His father Kyle had taught him. "I didn't mean to insult your pride" said Elian a bit cheekily despite the serious nature of their conversation. Jack blushed. "But I need to protect you from myself. I almost killed you."

    "Okay. Do what you feel you need to do" said Jack, shoulders slumping in defeat. He knew that there was no convincing Elian, especially not after what had happened with his nightmare. "I'm sorry for the way I acted last night..." Jack sniffled. "It's just, without my parents, all I have is Glaise. I just... don't want to feel this lonely."

    "I understand, Jack. Trust me, if I could, I would stay. I really want to. But I can't. Not unless I can get rid of this ice within me."

    "Can I ask you one thing, then?" asked the brunet, haltingly, uncertainly. His voice was soft and -- Elian knew he could not be wrong about it -- scared. Scared of what, wondered the blond. Perhaps him. Perhaps what he would say. Uncertainty gripped Elian's heart.

    Elian raised an eyebrow at the brunet. "Sure?"

    "Would you mind staying for at least as long as it takes for the first calf of the year to be born? One of my cows is pregnant..." Jack trailed off, looking expectantly at Elian. He wanted the blond to agree. Any further amount of time together would allow him to be more at peace with the blond leaving. He could almost hear the machinery of Elian's mind turning, ticking, thinking about the request. "It's just that work on the farm is difficult. I'd appreciate the company and help for at least a little while longer..."

    The two ate in silence as Elian pondered the request. Finally, when they were both done, and the bowls were back on the tray, scraped clean, Elian reached out and gripped Jack's forearm. "Alright Jack. Alright. I'll stay until the first calf is born" said Elian, relenting. It was the least he could do for Jack, who saved him from the very brink of death. If there was any repayment he could do, it was this one. Truth be told, he was somewhat relieved that Jack had not asked for a sexual favour instead. Though deep inside, there was a part of Elian that was disappointed. Elian smiled genuinely at the brunet.

    The grin that Jack shot back at him was almost blindingly bright. It was as if he was a kid who'd just received the present he'd wanted for the last couple years. Elian couldn't help but chuckle at the thought. The smile vanished almost immediately, causing the blond to regard Jack with a concerned look. The brunet had a nervous air about him. "Do you mind if I ask you to promise me something?"

    Elian regarded Jack warily. He wasn't sure whether or not he was willing to do anything of the sort. "It depends on the promise, Jack" he said as kindly as he could. There was very little chance that the brunet would ask him to promise something he would be very uncomfortable with, but just in case, Elian tried to be as non-committal as possible.

    "If you ever find the chance, will you come back for me?" Jack asked, voice small and somewhat desperate. Elian almost felt bad for wanting to say no because there was absolutely no guarantee he would ever find the chance to return to the quaint farmstead. He did not want to give the brunet any false hope. At the same time, he did not want to break Jack's heart. "Just... if you can, don't let me die alone."

    The way Jack said it broke a part of Elian's heart. The brunet sounded so lonely, so lost, so sad, that the blond couldn't help but feel terrible for having to leave. "Alright, Jack. I promise. I swear it on They of the earth, and They of the sky." Elian looked Jack in the eye. "I swear it." he whispered, wiping away the wetness in Jack's eyes.

    ---

    "Open the Eye that I may pronounce judgment over this creature!" The priest, straightened, tall and regal. His face was stern, and impassive, the visage of judgment, of merciless sentence. He grabbed the rope that was dangling nearby and pulled on it three times. A great clanging filled the entire cavern. Clang. Clang. Clang. Thrice rang the bells, once each a summons for the three suns that presided over all the earth. The stone gate high above in the cavern's ceiling grated open ever so slowly, allowing a growing shaft of morning light, brazen, and in this moment, almost-divine, within the sacred Sanctuary.

    "In the sight of my brothers, and those who will soon serve for the Order..." Rein shivered, feeling even more vulnerable than he had been before, despite the shackles on his wrists, the chains about his ankles. Bathed under the glaring, scrutinizing, penetrating light of the sun that streamed from above, he felt naked as the day he was born. "Under the light of the sun, the eye of Demer, the herald of new beginnings, I pronounce judgment upon this man who cowers before me and the might of the gods."

    "Let it be known henceforth." The priest's voice boomed across the vast cavern, echoing against the stone, and ringing in Rein's ears. It was the voice of authority, of gods-given right to judge, to rule, to execute. The redhead shivered where he knelt, head bowed to the ground, unable to face the mighty gaze of the gods in the light that streamed from the Eye. "That come the next full moon, he shall die!" A dull roar of cheering erupted from the men. A small broken sound, all the more pathetic for its difference among so many other jubilant voices, escaped from Rein's lips. "May the Scorn of the Moon be merciful upon you."

    The stone gate slid shut, and the searing light of the sun abandoned the despairing redhead in the middle of the marble square. The priest that had pronounced his judgment hefted the chastity belt and raised it so that all eyes, glazed with pleasure or otherwise could see it. Another wave of cheering rolled over Rein, the deep bass rumble and the high tenor peals of celebration shook the very bones within his flesh. The men who were wearing the full belts themselves groaned impotently in seeming-jubilation that another was about to experience what they had endured for varying amounts of time. It was a wonder they were aware at all of what was going on.

    The sun priest threw open his cloak and allowed it to fall to the ground as he stepped out of his breeches and his tunic. Rein's eyes widened, having expected more of a fat, deplorable body hidden under the folds of those clothes that left everything to the imagination. The priest's body was chiseled, and bronzed by the light of the sun. Had he not been condemning himself, Rein would have had the grace to drool over the sheer masculinity that the priest commanded, standing naked over his own prone, bound form. "Enjoy this while it lasts. This will be the last release you will get for a while..." teased the priest as he stroked his cock into full erection. "Don't fight. You'll only make things worse."

    Rein glared daggers at the man, trying his best to wriggle away. It was his final act of rebellion, the final assertion of his individuality, the final surge of his courage before he resigned himself to the fate he had chosen... not that it was much of a choice. His wriggling was to no avail. The shackles around his wrists and his ankles prevented him from moving too much. The priest threw Rein's bound legs over his shoulder and slid his cock home into the redhead's hole, eliciting a long moan from Rein. The other priests cheered at the salacious sound.

    Damn. Rein gritted his teeth in disdain despite the evident pleasure that was coursing through his veins, that were setting fire to every nerve, ecstasy overwhelming. The priest knew how to fuck properly, and well. Every movement, small as it may be, was touching that button deep inside the redhead. His own cock sprang to full mast, and the priest's hand wrapped around it and began to pump. The redhead arched off of the floor in pleasure as his orgasm began to build in his loins. "Please. Please. I'm cumming!!" screamed Rein as his cock began to spurt sticky strand after sticky strand of his come across his own chest.

    As the redhead's ass muscles contracted around his cock, the priest's orgasm also approached. He came into the redhead's thrice-used channel, flooding it with warm, milky white cum that immediately began to gush out when he withdrew his member. Only a little had managed to escape Rein when the redhead felt the part of the belt meant for his ass at his entrance. The priest pushed it in with a loud, obscene squelch. The priest smiled, knowing that he had bred the redhead quite well. Instantly, Rein felt the insistent pressure on his button and his eyes very nearly rolled up into his head from the sheer pleasure of it.

    The redhead's still-hard cock was shoved unceremoniously into the tube of the metal guard of the belt. It was slick, and, despite its looks, oddly comfortable. His stones followed suit not too long afterwards. Post-orgasmic bliss and the pleasure that accompanied every small jostle of the apparatus in his ass made very little work of Rein's ability to protest. When Rein's tackle was safely encased in the metal shell that would be its home for the next while, the priest locked it onto the belt and tapped it, making Rein groan in response. The keys were given to the priest that had brought the redhead to the Sanctuary. "So it has been said and writ in the seed of man, so let it be written in the Book of Judgments!" proclaimed the priest that had just fucked Rein as he pulled his garments back on.

    "You would do well to heed my warning, Rennðoch. Do not make this any more difficult than it already is" said the brunet sun priest that had brought him to the Sanctuary. The words meant little to Rein's overloaded mind. He was swimming in persistent bliss, his eyes glazed over with pleasure from the insistent, incessant pressure that the smooth object in his ass provied. The only response the priest got was a strand of clear sticky fluid, pre-come, dripping out of the belt's piss-hole.

    ---

    The sun was down, the waxing moon was out, and his two idiot companions, who, for being dairy farmers were surprisingly immensely stupid at handling animals, were asleep two bales of hay away from Tristan. The brunet himself was reclining rather uncomfortably on another nearby, staring outside the barn window at the moon. They'd managed to find lodgings for the night, but at the cost of some labour around the farmstead. Tristan knew they were close. They had to be. He could feel it in his bones. Despite that, a tight vice of apprehension was wound around his heart and he knew it was not because of the winterchild.

    His thoughts unwillingly drifted back to Rein, the redhead whom he'd left tied up on the bed in a fit of spite. Had he done the right thing? It seemed like all he'd been doing recently was fuck things up with hasty, ill-thought-out decisions. He was being rash and not thinking things through. Now, he was stuck worrying about his childhood friend, and what could happen to the man.

    Tristan remembered the days when they were young and he'd so looked up to Rein as he knew the redhead looked up to him. They were the inseparable duo, the unconquerable partners, the friends against all odds... All that had gone to shit that one day that they went into the forest to find one of the creatures known to them as a blademane. For all the two boys had known then, such beasts were mere mythological fancy, constructs of idle minds looking for ways to explain away certain mysteries of the world around them.

    Oh how wrong they had been. Oh woe were they that very fateful day, when the accursed beast attacked. Such terror and gore did it bring that if not for Rein's rape of him, he would not have remembered it. His young mind had locked the memories of the day away so that they would not damage his admittedly-fragile psyche. Guilt welled in his stomach. His wife had turned him against his childhood best friend, all the while, Rein was still trying to recover from the blademane's attack...

    Tristan raised a hand to his mouth, stifling a sob that threatened to spill from him. Rein had saved him that day. Had taken a strike to the back so that Tristan could get away unscathed. From the foggy haze of memory that he had of the previous night, there was a large scar on the redhead's back that stretched from shoulder to hip. There it was. Proof. Proof that it had not all been childish fantasy, but a tangible event, one that had left a lasting mark on his once-best friend.

    He wanted to turn back then and there, ride his horse to the ground to get back to the village and retrieve Rein from the tavern. He'd made a terrible choice. He'd betrayed the one person in the world that had cared for him when no one else but his daughter would, that had cared for him despite all he'd done to estrange the redhead. Tristan silently cursed himself. He was part of the group that had, behind Rein's back, decided that it was for the best of the village if he lived to be a tanner, despite his other ambitions.

    Better to keep him nearby just to have an eye on him, but far enough away that he doesn't bother anyone, they'd said back then. Gods, how could he have been so stupid? So insensitive? Rein had been his friend, pretty much the other half of his life back when they were young... The redhead had fucking saved his life, and what did he repay the fiery-haired man with? Exile. True, it was not to a faraway land, merely to the outskirts of their small village, but it was exile all the same.

    Tristan tossed his head back and folded his arms behind his neck. Perhaps he deserved what he'd gotten from Rein. Perhaps he deserved the rape, the shame of having his cock sucked by a man, of spilling his seed inside a man... Abominable, his mind railed at him, . Admittedly, part of him found the concept appealing, if only because it was Rein, but the rest of him found it emasculating, and shameful, and repugnant.

    Nevertheless, none of it warranted leaving the redhead at the mercy of whomever and whatever, which was probably what he'd done. He'd left the person he once considered his best friend for dead. That much he knew. If he was unable to return to the village soon, he may very well return to Rein, torn limb from limb. The redhead might have been a... a man who loved other men, but he was still Tristan's friend. Why the brunet ever let his emotions get the better of him, he did not know. It seemed that he was ruining everyone's lives just by existing.

    In any case, it was too late to turn back. If he did not take revenge on the winterchild for all the misfortune that his visit had brought, Tristan would have wasted so many lives in his harebrained pursuit of vengeance. He rolled over and closed his eyes despite knowing that sleep would not come. At the very least he could rest his weary eyes.

    ---

    The rest of the evening had come and gone without a hitch. No more embarrassing encounters or serious conversations had to take place. The two young men simply spent hours in each other's company, learning what they could about the other, and what strange circumstances had led them where they were today. Though both said all they were comfortable with, they'd only really touched the very tips of their personal icebergs. Neither, though they knew the other could be trusted to some extent, wanted to divulge their deepest secrets, the fears that kept them up at night. That trust would have to be built up over time, time that they did not have.

    The dawn had broken and dim gray light graced the sky outside. Jack had left the window open during the night, as the heat in the room had been nearly-stifling. Elian was awake, but both the boy and the dog to either side of him were sound asleep. The blond smiled at the memory of the previous night. Jack had tried to get Glaise off the bed to sleep in his corner downstairs, but the dog had stubbornly refused, almost biting the brunet on one occasion. After that, Jack had given up on the futile effort, and Glaise had promptly gone to sleep.

    For a moment, Elian lay there with his mind swimming with a million thoughts. He was so fortunate to have found Jack and his farmstead, an island of stability, sincerity, and relative peace in a world that was a tempest of sour emotion, hatred, and misfortune. What had he done right that the gods saw it fit to bless him with the experience? A sudden, sinking dread filled Elian when he realized that it might all be a ploy by the cruel gods of his father.

    That it was not reward that he'd found Jack, but punishment of the cruellest kind. That all the innocence and goodness that was in the farmlad would be ripped apart, torn to shreds, indelibly destroyed in front of his very eyes. Elian gulped. A lump had formed in his throat. He did not want Jack to get hurt. His feet were feeling better. If he could borrow shoes he could probably slip away without anyone noticing. Then again, he had made a promise to the farmlad... He didn't want to break Jack's heart.

    Elian groaned in frustration just as he felt Jack shift in the bed beside him. He turned to the brunet, pushing aside his fears for but a moment, replacing them with an honest smile and saying "Goodmo--" Jack was not awake. In fact, the brunet's eyes were squeezed close. He'd curled into a tight ball and was shivering. Elian watched the brunet with horror-stricken eyes. He reached out, but did not touch Jack. His heart sank when he felt it. That telltale sign. That writhing coldness within Jack. The Curse had spread to the brunet.

    "Jack!" Elian cried, shaking the brunet awake. Ice spiralled up his arms, tender and... calm. Elian stopped. It was so different from what had happened when Jack had tried to wake him. So much kinder. He watched in awe as the spiraling frost gave him a fragile glove with intricate fractals and beautiful curls. "Jack, wake up!" said the blond, balling his hands into fists and crushing the thin veneer of ice over them.

    The brunet cracked his eyes open and whispered to Elian "So cold... So cold..." The blond did not know what else to do. He grabbed Jack and pulled him into a tight embrace.

    "I'm so sorry, Jack. I'm sorry. I should leave now... I didn't mean to pass the curse on to you..." Elian did not know what he had done to deserve this curse. What his mother and father had done to warrant the wrathful vengeance of the gods that they decided to curse their first -- and should have been only -- born son with ice. It was unfair. Unfair that he should carry the sins of his father and his father's father before him. It was unfair that others should have to bear the crippling burden of others.//

    The brunet weakly swatted away the hand that Elian held up to his face. "Don't be dumb, Elian. I've known since yesterday when I accidentally froze Glaise's nose." Jack chuckled as he shivered. "I still don't think it's a curse. I just wish it wasn't so... damn... cold..." he said with a chuckle. A band of hair around Jack's temple turned white. "I think that's why he refused to listen to me last night. Little bastard's probably still mad."

    "Jack. It is a burden. I'm sorry" said Elian, planting a kiss on the brunet's forehead. He didn't know what else to do, but to comfort the brunet as he shivered.

    "Don't be. I don't think it is." Jack smiled at the feeling of Elian's lips on his forehead. Now if only he didn't feel so weak, he would have gotten up and made them breakfast. The cold that sent uncontrollable shivers through his body made that impossible, as much as he wanted to.

    "What you think it might be doesn't change what it is, Jack" admonished the blond gently. There was beauty to his ice, yes, Jack had helped him see that, but no great amount of beauty could cover the destruction that the power wrought. The death it heralded, and the lives it left unstable. No amount of lilies could make a pile of shit look or smell any better, his tutor had always said.

    "I could say the same for you, Elian." Jack was, admittedly, right. Just because Elian believed that his ice was a burden did not mean it truly was. In the same way that just because Jack thought it was a blessing did not make it so. It simply was and not one or the other. Elian sighed and pulled Jack closer as the first sliver of golden sunlight appeared over the horizon.

    As it graced their brows, in much the same way as the setting sun had Jack's parents in the portrait, an indescribable feeling spread through both young men's bodies. A spark of warmth. A smattering of pleasure. A joyous, joyous tingling. The smell of fresh dewy earth. The taste of sweet berries. They felt like bells, their bodies ringing in harmony with the sunlight. Elian raised a pale hand to the brazen light of the dawn, and watched, mouth agape as his pallor retreated from the light, leaving him with the healthy, pink skin that he'd always envied of his brother. "What was that?" breathed Jack in awe.

    "I don't know, Jack..." said Elian with as much surprise as the brunet had in his voice. "I don't know." Jack didn't feel so cold anymore, not as long as he was in contact with the blond. The moment they pulled apart, the cold returned, but not as powerful as it had been before. Both of them felt it, but it was at the back of their minds, a second thought, an annoying buzz that was easy enough to ignore. Tawny eyes met Azure ones, both wide with astonishment at what had just transpired.

    Then they lingered. Astonishment turned to gratefulness... Then, gratefulness turned to tenderness, and tenderness turned to something akin to infatuation, though neither boy would have admitted to it at the moment. Infatuation turned to embarrassment, and then fear. They turned away from each other, cheeks burning with a blush. Had they realized how much they were acting like young men falling in love for the first time, they would have laughed. Alas, Elian was too steeped in the cruelties of the world to know that, and Jack was too ignorant of the world beyond his farm to understand.

    Had the gods finally seen it fit to give both of them respite? Perhaps. Perhaps it was simply a test, or a sign that they had both forged their own path. No mere mortal could know the will of the heavens, and though neither Jack nor Elian were now mere mortal men, they still could not know that forbidden fruit of knowledge that all gods did. "That was... amazing, Elian" said Jack, voice breathy and awed.

    No response came from the blond. The brunet only heard a soft tinkling, as though a child's laugh come from the other side of the bed. He turned around to face Elian and saw perhaps the most beautiful thing, second to Elian's face, of course, that he'd ever seen. Hovering above the blond's delicate fingers was a snowflake larger than any snowflake had any right to be, but nevertheless, it was there.

    Fractals graced its six sides, and it spun slowly, shedding tiny clouds of frost as it did. Where Elian's ice had been beautiful but a little rough before, this was absolutely stunning. Gone were the little spindly cracks that characterized his ice, the bubbles of air that sometimes distorted it. No, this ice was pure, and beautiful, a grand reminder of the innocence that the blond had long since lost to the cruel world.

    Elian was speechless, having not known that his ice could create such beauty. The blond jumped when Jack found his way closer to him and told him "Elian... that is amazing..." He turned to face the brunet, bringing the abnormally large snowflake in between them. It glittered in the sunlight, casting flecks of golden light all about the room, and the bed.

    "I didn't know I was capable of such... beauty..." said the blond, tears brimming in his eyes. "All my life, my ice has been a thing of destruction, of disruption, an annoyance, a curse. Never beauty. Never. Even back home, invariably, I would make someone slip, or make someone sick with the cold that I brought..."

    The blond trailed off, still riveted to the snowflake in his hands. "...even my own brother was hurt by my ice... Was this what you saw when you first set your eyes on me, Jack?" asked the blond, voice small and sincere.

    "It was... I remember thinking you were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen" said the brunet, tentatively reaching out and wiping a tear from the corner of the blond's eye. His voice was soft and comforting.

    "I wish I could have been you... I wish I could see myself in a new light..." The blond's voice shook with sheer emotion. The creation that rotated placidly between himself and the brunet clashed with what he had always believed he was: a monster. "I wish..." the blond drew in a long shaky breath. "I wish... I could see myself as beautifully as I see this snowflake..." Elian balled his hands into fists.

    The snowflake cracked in half, and then crumbled, showering the sheets between himself and Jack with powdery ice. "I wish I could, but these hands are forever stained with blood..." Ice tinged with red spread from the blond's fingertips down his arm. "The blood of kin, of kindness, of strangers, and of enemies... Why must a monster be capable of such beauty, Jack?"

    The brunet stroked Elian's cheek. "Because the monster can't see himself as anything other than the wrongs he's done."

    *

    Elian had drifted off after that, and Jack, not wanting to disturb the blond, had snuck off to make breakfast and gather the herbs he needed for the poultice that Elian's feet required. The brunet did not leave without making breakfast for Elian, though, and eating some himself. He brought the food up to the blond and set it on the nightstand before leaving the house.

    The day was nice, and Jack wanted to do a routine sweep of the grounds before he went out foraging. He'd bid Glaise stay with Elian just in case the blond woke up without company and panicked. Jack grabbed his shepherd's crook from the barn and went on his way around the farm, idly dragging the hook through the ground. He was unaware of the frost that intermittently curled on the blades of grass and glittered in the sunlight.

    Everything was going fairly well until Jack got to the vegetable patch, and the carnage there. Well, the mess, at least, was limited to where he'd planted the carrots. The brunet arrived just in time to spot a... man riding a... reindeer, running away from the farm. "Hey!" yelled Jack, breaking into a run, his shepherd's crook trailing behind him. "Hey! Come back with those!" There was a burlap sack swinging from the man's shoulder as the reindeer galloped away.

    "HEY!" he yelled, pointing his crook at the silhouette of the retreating man just as the reindeer dashed through the trees. He shook the staff angrily, and a bolt of ice crackled and zigzagged through the air, tossing him on his ass with the recoil. Like lightning, the ice crackled angrily as it surged through the air and hit the rider's back, exploding in an angry fractal pattern that curled over the man's side and shoulders.

    Jack managed to catch a glimpse of the man sagging in his saddle before the trees swallowed the two: rider and beast, obscuring them from the brunet's vision. The brunet ran after them, only to find that the rider had not made it very far into the treeline. He was collapsed by a tree, and the reindeer was licking his face. The reindeer's ministrations managed to knock the man's hat off, revealing a generous mop of golden-blond hair.

    Nearby, the sack of carrots was open, the orange things strewn about in the dirt. Jack hadn't realized they were ready for harvest, but apparently they were. The carrots were still his, by any account, and he made his way stealthily over, as the reindeer was preoccupied. Using the head of the crook, Jack hooked the sack and began dragging it towards where he was hiding.

    Instantly, the reindeer's head snapped to him, fixing him with a beady glare that made the brunet's blood run cold. "Now now, I just want my carrots." The reindeer nickered angrily at him and leveled its antlers, preparing to charge at Jack, who was slowly trying to back away from the affronted creature. "Okay..." he said, having never encountered such an aggressive reindeer.

    The brunet was about to make a run for it, when the blond man "Sven. Don't." The reindeer's eyes bugged out and it pranced -- pranced! -- back to the still-recovering man, licking his face like a trained dog. Jack wasn't quite used to such a strange sight, so he just hastily retrieved the bag of carrots before trying to leave. He was in no mood to try and fight the un-reindeer-like reindeer and its rider.

    Before the brunet could take a single step with the burlap sack, he found himself stopped in his tracks by an immovable force. In this case, said immovable force was the reindeer. More specifically, it was the reindeer's teeth, fastened tightly around one corner of the sack. Jack tightened his grip on the wooden staff when the reindeer neighed at him.

    Jack ducked when a broken lute sailed over his head, the strings barely missing him. "Aww come on! You made me break my lute!" The brunet let go of the sack in surprise when the blond man straightened to his full height. He turned to run, convincing himself that he could live without carrots until the next carrot harvest. He did not have to die needlessly trying to retrieve the damnable orange things.

    The entire running away part never happened, because before Jack knew it, he was getting picked up by the scruff of his neck. The blond was large, though not as looming and intimidating as the brunet had initially thought. Jack tried to kick the man but being held at the height and distance he was, he didn't really make much of an impact on the burly blond. "Jack Frost" chuckled the blond.

    "H-How did you know my name?" sputtered the brunet, not knowing what to make of the other person. He was let down gently, but the brunet was very suspicious. "Get off my land. You're not welcome here" he then demanded, hefting the shepherd's crook in both hands and leveling the head at Kristoff. "I've got this and I'm not afraid to use it." Jack jumped because as though on cue, ice crackled in the middle of the bend of the crook.

    "I'm aware..." said the blond, setting Jack down, -- much to the farmlad's bewilderment -- cracking his back, and letting out a breath of relief. "Gods that's better. Kristoff... though most people would know me as Harold." Jack lowered the staff for a moment, in utter confusion. It was quite a leap to go from Kristoff to Harold. "I don't like revealing my identity to most people" said the blond, taking a step towards Jack.

    The brunet winced, accidentally shooting a bolt of ice that grazed the entire left side of Kristoff's head, freezing his hair to his face. "Don't come closer." The blond raised both hands and took a step back from Jack, respecting the brunet's boundaries. Normally, the farmlad would've been far more wary of the situation, but the severe lack of sense was throwing him off his game. "How do you know my name?!" demanded the brunet, yelling now.

    Jack took a cautious step backwards when the reindeer -- Sven? -- nickered angrily at him again. "Gods. Calm down. I won't hurt you" said the blond, sitting on the ground between a nearby tree's roots. "I have my ways" said the bard simply, brushing his hands together in a dismissive fashion. Jack opened his mouth to speak. "I know you don't trust me, but if I wanted to hurt you, you would already be dead." The blond picked up one of the carrots that had been strewn on the ground nearby and bit into it. "And I would be that much closer to the grave myself" mused the bard.

    Sure, Jack didn't trust the stranger, and perhaps he should've just ran away right then and there, but the fact that this man he'd never seen before knew his name, kept him curious enough to root him to the spot. It wasn't enough to make Jack turn away and mutter a soft "oof!" in sympathy when the reindeer kicked the blond square across the jaw right after he took a bite of the carrot.

    "Fine! Fine! You can have half of it" protested the blond, biting off half the carrot and giving the rest to the reindeer who then happily trotted off to a corner and sat down to eat the carrot. "I also happen to know exactly what you are. You like men." A chill ran up Jack's spine and another bolt of ice shot out of the staff, striking the other side of Kristoff's face this time.

    "Hey! Get your fucking ice under control. I know you just got it and have very little control over it, but gods, relax!" Jack glared at the blond. For one, the blond was eating his carrot. He'd worked hard for that crop, and here was a thief with the gall to eat part of it in front of him. Who does that? For another, the blond knew his deepest darkest secret! Jack felt violated, soiled, dirtied.

    Kristoff adjusted himself. A bolt of ice struck out, barely missing the top of the blond's head. The burly man frowned at Jack. "Look, don't worry. I do too. I'm actually looking for my ideal man, but it's a bit more difficult in this world we live in, eh?" Jack's mouth moved wordlessly for a moment, unsure what to answer. A little resentment wormed its way into his heart at the light and dismissive way that the bard said he liked men as well. There were many people who did not have the fortune or privilege to be able to do so, and Jack was among their number.

    First of all, the blond was a thief. Second, the blond's reindeer was a fucking freak of nature. Third, he'd almost been hit by a flying, albeit broken, lute. Fourth, the man knew his name. Fifth, the man knew his secret. Sixth, the man was apparently just like himself an Elian. Finally, and as it truly deserved mentioning, he'd never even met the man before!

    Jack threw up his hands, giving up on trying to comprehend everything and sat on the forest floor, staring at the blond across from him with an utterly befuddled look. And he'd thought Elian was a strange, eldritch creature. No. This blond, reindeer-riding thief was, if anything, beyond fathoming. Were all blonds such walking mysteries?

    "How do you talk so freely of these things? Aren't you afraid someone's going to find out and hurt you?" blurted out the brunet. He'd not intended to think out loud, but it was almost like he was not in control of his own tongue, not at the moment, at least. "Gods. My fathers said that many people they've known have died for simply liking people with the same parts as they." Jack clapped a hand over his mouth. Again. Not in control of his words.

    "Eh." The blond shrugged and picked up another carrot before taking a bite and getting another kick to the head. "Would you stop it?!" he yelled at the reindeer, throwing the carrot at it and leaning over, straining with his arm to reach another. Jack nudged the carrot into the blond's hand with his staff. Kristoff looked at it, then at Jack, and mumbled a less-than-grateful thanks. The carrot was encased in solid ice.

    "People don't matter as much as you think they do. Sure, they'll come at you with torches and pitchforks, but what can they do? They're just people. Maybe back then, when you were only Jack, you should've been afraid, but you have your ice now. You don't need to be afraid anymore" said the blond grimly. He had a point. Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Kristoff interrupted him before he could. "And I know the only reason you were bold enough to come after me is because you knew you had a weapon now. You're right. The ice is a blessing."

    Kristoff raised a single finger, cutting off Jack yet again. "But Elian is also right. It is also a curse. With gods like ours, who needs demons?" The blond let out a hearty laugh. "You don't have to be afraid anymore. You don't have to keep your distance anymore. You two, Elian and you both could saunter into the nearby village and wield your ice, and strike fear into their hearts. Sure, the sun priests might be problematic for a little while, but they have nothing to bear against your ice."

    "They would be no more than a candle-flame against the tempestous fury of winter. Imagine that, Jack Frost, you and young Elian Calland, going into a town, wielding the full wrath of winter, making those people that made your life a living hell cower in fear." Jack felt the air around him grow colder and colder as Kristoff spoke. A fire was in the blond's eyes, a genuine malice in his voice and in the toothy grin that graced his face. The brunet had to admit, the prospect was enticing.

    "You, Elian Calland and Jack Frost, Kings of Winter... Lords of Frost... Thanes of Ice... Conquerors of Spring... Vanquisher of Summer... Heralded by Fall... You could rule! When that day comes, you will have no more to fear."

    "You would have no more to fear, only, then, it will be you that is feared."
     
  14. Jack reclined in a fairly comfortable chair, though throne would have been a better word to describe it. His ass was caressed by the softest velvet that would have to be replaced sooner rather than later. Such textiles were not meant for being on ice for a very long time. Though it was still soft and tender and comfortable, it was beginning to degrade. He looked over to the side and sitting on a similar throne of ice as himself was Elian.

    The thrones were high-backed, and jagged, with seven sharp rays of ice protruding from their peaks. They seemed to almost flow out of the floor which was itself made of ice. Elian was leaning on one arm, regarding Jack with a level gaze. "What court matters do we have to attend to, today?" asked the blond. Jack shook his head and shrugged. He knew, but he wanted the blond to see what he'd done for his partner.

    Jack signalled with two fingers to the frozen knights that stood by the door to the throne room. Bring him in, he beckoned. Elian looked at the brunet in surprise and straightened into proper posture. The doors swung open with a dull boom, fitting for the immense slabs of ice that they were.

    Tristan was brought in, though neither the brunet nor the blond knew his name. They simply knew him by face, and his was one that they both despised. Jack for the man's attempt on Elian's life, and Elian, for the fact that this man and his group managed to almost kill him if not for Jack's timely appearance.

    The ragged-looking man looked up at the two kings, eyes drooping with weariness, but burning with intense anger and loathing. "To what do I owe the pleasure, your majesties?" the man spat out, sarcasm practically dripping from the words that spilled forth from his mouth. A cruel smirk appeared on Elian's face.

    "Beg for my forgiveness" said the blond, tilting his head forward so that his eyes might be shaded from the light, giving him a fearsome expression. It was an expression that many had now learned to fear, one twisted by ire and hatred for any and all that had dared cause or even wish the two rulers harm.

    The man spat. "I would rather die than simper before a tyrant." The smile that graced Elian's face was terrifying. For a moment, the man's eyes widened in terror, but nothing outwardly visible happened. Jack looked at Elian in confusion. This was not like Elian's normal executions, there were no pillars of ice, no spears that would impale the culprit. Nothing.

    Then, the man whispered "monster!" before falling over, blood trickling from his mouth and nose. The blood instantly froze, and Jack watched with amusement as large red spikes began to poke out of Tristan's body, splitting the skin along the lines of the veins and arteries. It was gruesome.

    Elian laughed. No, cackled. The sheer wickedness of the laugh made Jack's blood run colder than it normally did.


    Jack shuddered and shook his head, clearing it of the terrifying vision. Kristoff was still sitting where he'd been when Jack's mind's eye was stolen away by the fantastical waking nightmare that he'd just had. The blond was also playing his lute. The brunet did a double-take when he realized what Kristoff was doing with the intsrument that had mere moments ago been snapped in half and thrown at his head. "H-how? What?"

    "Oh. I just thought I'd go see if there was any chance the lute had magically repaired itself, and lo and behold, it had!" said Kristoff with a smile. His eyes spoke volumes more than the innocent cheer in his voice, however, and it struck Jack right into the core of his person. "So I take it you saw that too, didn't you?"

    "Yes, I did, but how...?" Kristoff raised a finger to stop Jack again. Why did he stop whenever Kristoff told him to? The brunet berated himself, telling his mouth in no uncertain terms that he was going to keep speaking the next time it happened.

    "If I knew you were malicious, or evil, even, I would never have let you come near me and Sven. You have the power of ice now, the grace of the moon... You have the strength to bring entire kingdoms to their knees, to make even the bravest men cower before your wrath." Jack looked at his hands and at the staff that was sitting across his thighs. Frost was embedded in the coarse wood of the crook, and it didn't seem to want to melt at all. He and Elian both did have immense powers, it seemed. However, where Elian had taken to his powers like a whale to molten rock, Jack had taken to his like a swan to a pond.

    "But that's not what you want is it? Neither you nor young Elian want to be feared. What you want is to be accepted." Kristoff smiled at Jack. "That's what we all want, but for that to happen, the world has to change... and change is what it will do" said Kristoff with such conviction, Jack was almost convinced that the odd blond had had a premonition, a vision of the future that was yet to come. The certainty in Kristoff's voice sent chills down the farmboy's spine, he definitely hoped the blond was right.

    Kristoff looked down and strummed his lute, frowning and adjusting one of the knobs before looking back up at Jack and leveling a meaningful gaze at him. "And Jack? You and Elian both have now stirred up the winds of change. They howl through the land, tearing down the precepts of an older age, and letting new ones, better ones, be built." As if on cue, a strong breeze tore through the trees, sending Kristoff's long hair ruffling in the wind. The blond tossed his head back to get his unruly hair in check.

    "There is always a price for anything, and I urge you and the object of your infatuation--" Jack blushed. "--to leave now. A storm comes this way, the likes of which, this land has never seen before." The bard rose with a final strum to his lute. He walked over to Jack and stretched out his hand to the brunet. The farmlad grabbed it and pulled himself up.

    "Who are you? What are you? What was that vision? How do you know all these things?" Jack asked the questions rapidly, one after the other. Kristoff laughed and raised his lute to Jack's face.

    "I am a bard, to those with eyes. To those who see, to those who know--" Kristoff pointed to a symbol on the lute. A circle with three horns, the symbol of the old gods, and a six-pointed star in the middle. "--I am one who is versed in magecraft. As for that vision, well, I am a bard, and I have tales to tell. What better way to use my magecraft than to allow those who listen to see?"

    "I... I don't understand. Are you a warlock? How did you know all these things about Elian and I?" Jack asked, leaning on his staff. He was curious, and though he knew he had to find the herbs for Elian, they were not as necessary now as they were a few days ago, he could afford a little delay.

    "My dear young Vampir, wizards, warlocks, and sorcerors are different from us mages. We do not use magic in the sense that we manipulate energy, or that we form pacts with spirits as sorcerors do... We mages manipulate chance." Kristoff held his hand out in front of Jack. The brunet made to place his own in Kristoff's hand, but the blond waved it away. "There is a miniscule chance that the air above my hand could spontaneously burst into flames, yes?" Jack nodded. It was impossible, truthfully, thought the farmlad.

    "As a mage, I can make that chance incredibly high, and voila!" said the blond with a flourish as a tongue of fire sputtered into existence, hovering about an inch from his palm. Jack looked at Kristoff's face and saw the lines there deepen. He looked... older, even if it was just a little. "You're right. I do look older. There is always a price for everything, Jack. For us mages, it's that the chance we die after we cast spells also increases with the power of the spell. Sometimes, it's just a little bit more age on our shoulders, but I've heard that some who've gotten severely unlucky have turned to dust from simply doing what I've just done."

    "As for how I know everything about you, I don't. I'm good at guessing, and I use my magecraft to come up with the most likely guess. It's simple enough that the spell can feed off of the energy I get from food, but other complicated spells like this one are another matter entirely." Jack looked at Kristoff, slack-jawed. Elian's powers were one thing, but the bard's were difficult to comprehend. At the very least, Elian's powers did not make him inexorably march to death every time he used them.

    Kristoff took Jack's hands in his own and grinned at the brunet. "Now, forgive me for what I'm about to do because I'm about to strike about five more years off of my life... Don't feel guilty, I want to help." The blond closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "There. Elian's feet should be better now... There's always a chance the spell didn't work--" said Kristoff, grinning and nudging Jack with his elbow. "--but hey, what can you do? It's always a gamble with these powers of mine."

    "Heed my warning, Jack Frost, the storm is coming and you do not want to be caught in it." said the bard, letting go of Jack's hand with a final smile and jumping onto Sven. "You and I will meet again someday, I know it. Until then, may fortune smile upon you. I know it does on me."

    As the two, reindeer and rider, gently trotted away from the brunet, he bent down to pick up the burlap sack that was by his feet. Was. It was gone... and Kristoff was eating a carrot from it. "HEY! My carrots!" yelled Jack, accidentally shooting another bolt of ice from his balled-up fist. The bolt of frost lightning hit an unfortunate magpie flying in the vicinity, dropping it dead to the ground. Both Kristoff's and Sven's heads snapped back to stare at the brunet with identical deer-in-headlights looks before they galloped off. Jack couldn't help but shake his head. Those two were strange.

    Jack turned around to walk back to the farmhouse, carrot-less and herbs-less. Before he was more than twenty paces back out of the treeline, two men appeared to either side of him. "Who are you?" he demanded, pointing his crook threateningly at both of them. "Why are you here? This is my land. Get off it!" In the shade of the trees, and with his mind still swimming from what Kristoff had shown and told him, Jack was unable to at first recognize the men.

    The two men raised their hands and backed off. "We just want to know if you've seen a blond fag, about yea tall..." said the man, raising his hand to about his eye-level. "With the powers of winter." Once Jack got a better look at the men's faces, he recognized them as Elian's pursuers. Gods be good, they had been found. He turned tail to run, only to collide with Tristan who then delivered a sharp blow to the back of the brunet's neck.

    Jack whispered "Elian" before his world went black.

    "Alright men, I think we've found our winterchild." said Tristan bitterly before he gestured to the farmhouse on the other side of the treeline.

    ---

    Elian heard a scuffle downstairs... Jack was back. He'd felt a strange sensation on his feet just a few minutes past. It was almost as though the skin was knitting together and everything was healing faster than normal. He'd gingerly peeled off the bandages and the leaf and brushed off the poultice with his hands only to discover that the soles of his feet were better than they had ever been. They almost felt like the soles of a babe.

    The blond had been examining the stones on the dresser, picking them up one by one and wondering what they meant, when he heard the ruckus downstairs. "Oi winterchild" came the mocking sing-song voice that made Elian's blood ran cold. "Don't you dare try and escape, or your friend gets it." They found him. How did they find him? And now they had Jack... This was why he wanted to leave. He didn't want Jack to get involved in the conflict.

    "Where are you, winterchild?" called out one of the men with Tristan, the one holding a blade to the unconscious Jack's throat. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" taunted the man. "Ugh. That is disgusting." said the man, pointing to the painting of Jack's fathers. Tristan saw it and a lump formed in his throat. Whatever it was that they were doing, it didn't feel right. It didn't feel right to come after the winterchild when everything that had happened was Tristan's fault, not the innocent blond's. Nor did it feel right that they were involving this otherwise innocent farmlad in their quest for vengeance.

    The two men in the painting were locked in a passionate kiss, a passionate embrace. Tristan could feel the love radiating from them. He averted his gaze. He felt ashamed. That was the kind of love that he'd spurned from Rein... He almost envied it of the redhead. His heart skipped a few beats when he heard the loud ripping of canvas. The man had taken the blade to the painting, mouthing obscenities at it the whole while.

    Tristan watched the painting, in tatters, swing on its peg, its frame still intact. "Let's get this over with" said Tristan with a low voice. There was no turning back. If he told the men to turn back, they would call him fag-lover and probably end him as well. What a mess he'd made for himself, lamented the brunet as they climbed the stairs to the second floor after combing the first.

    They came upon Elian hiding in the first room they searched on the second storey of the house. An angry dog leaped out at them, snarling and nearly managing to bite one of the men. With all his might the man kicked and sent Glaise flying into the opposite wall. The dog whined and fell limp to the floor. "Glaise!" screamed Elian, making as though to run for the dog.

    The blond stopped in his tracks when the man carrying Jack hefted the blade threateningly and said to the blond "Don't move, and don't even use your ice, or else he dies." Elian's eyes darted wildly between Glaise, Jack, and the man supporting the brunet. He went back and forth for a moment or two before letting his arms fall to his side in resignation. "Good fag. It's pretty, innit, Gav?" said the man, looking at his other companion and cocking his head towards Elian.

    Gav walked towards the blond and cupped his chin in his hands. "Aye. The way you talked about him, Tristan, made me and Reg here think he was a hideous witch. No, the cocksucker's pretty. Shame he has tackle like ours..." Gav grabbed his crotch and waggled it lasciviously at Elian. "It'd have made a good bitch, borne me pretty children." Elian trembled and tried to shrink away from the touch. The other man, Reg, placed the blade on the skin of Jack's neck, and the blond forced himself to remain still for the sake of the brunet.

    Tristan merely watched in horror at what was taking place. If he didn't know better, the two were planning on... No. He was not going to allow it. "What are you two, fags?" he spat. "Whatever it is you're planning, don't even think about it. We kill him and then we leave. That's all we came here for." Tristan took a step forward, but Reg took out a dagger and held it to Jack's neck while he took the blade and pointed it threateningly at Tristan.

    "That's all you came here for" said Reg, with a sinister, lecherous smile on his face. It sent shivers up Tristan's back and made his own blood run cold. "You're a fag, aren't you, boy?" asked the man holding Jack captive, threateningly raising the dagger to the farmboy's exposed neck to force Elian to answer. The blond nodded slowly, tears welling in his eyes despite the hand on his chin forcing him to look up at the man named Gav.

    "See, Tristan? I bet he loves to take it up the arse." Elian's eyes bugged out. He didn't want to get fucked by these men. They were filthy, and they were going to kill him. "I bet you he let this kid fuck him up the arse whenever he could get it up." Gav took Elian's hand and put it on his crotch, forcing the blond to caress his stiffening member. Elian made to tighten his grip, but all it took for him to do as he was being forced to was a tut-tut from Reg.

    "Look at that, he likes it." Elian felt absolutely disgusted and filthy. If he survived, he might have to burn his hand off. The brothels were one thing, he'd done that to survive. Now, he was going to be raped, plain and simple. "Like that, fag? Like the feeling of a real man's cock in your hands? Bet it's nothing like yours. Feel that?" Gav took Elian's hand and ran it all along his hard length. "I've got a big one. I bet yours is a useless little stub, eh, fag?" Blinking back tears, Elian nodded slowly. He didn't like what he was being forced to do, but he didn't want Jack to get hurt.

    "On the bed. Bend over" commanded the man, smacking the blond on the ass. Elian meekly did as he was commanded. He wanted to rebel, to fight against them, but it would probably kill Jack if he did so. Tears leaked from the corners of Elian's eyes, but no matter how he did not like the situation, there was no getting out of it, and it was Jack that was truly important here. The men could kill the blond, they could rape him, make him feel like the filthiest whore in all the land, but they could not hurt Jack. Jack was innocent, and kind and did not deserve to be involved in the divine retribution for Elian's mistakes.

    "Don't you dare" snarled Tristan, taking a step towards Elian. Why did he feel so strongly about this? It wasn't right. It wasn't right. They were here for revenge, not for fucking, and not for torture. A life for a life, that was their objective, nothing more. Reg threw his arm out, nicking Tristan with the blade. As the jet-haired man stared at the trickle of blood that was running down his arm, he felt the cold steel of the blade against the fabric of his tunic.

    "Fuck off, Tristan. You fucked a prime piece of ass the other night. You can shut your mouth" said Reg. "If fucking it makes us fags, then it only makes us as much fags as you are." The man shoved Jack at Tristan, forcing the brunet to the floor. Reg stood over them, threateningly, with both curved blade and dagger. Tristan could do nothing. He did not want to die. He watched, seething, as Gav had his way with the blond.

    Elian whimpered as he felt the cool metal of a dagger blade sliced through his clothes. Those clothes were the ones he'd worn for well over three months now. They were precious to him, because they were all that protected him from being naked and vulnerable in his travels. As precious as the clothing was to Elian, the old, worn linen was no match for the blade, and the tatters of his clothes fell around him as his bare skin was exposed to the air.

    Rough calloused hands grabbed the globes of Elian's buttocks, kneading them with the sort of motion that one would expect from a pervert. The blond shuddered, but the man slapped him on the ass. He stopped. "Oi look, Gav. Fucker's clean." The voice was unexpected. Elian looked to the side and noticed that Gav had taken Reg's place guarding Tristan and Jack.

    Reg had expected Elian to be well bred, and still-leaking, but as it turned out that was not the case. "All the better. I wanna hear you scream when I fuck you, and then I'll hear you scream when I kill you." Elian trembled, still crying. He wanted to be rebellious, wanted to not do what they said, but doing so would endanger Jack, and he did not want that to happen.

    As much as he did not want anything of what was going on, his body was rebellious, knowing only animalistic pleasure. He steeled himself against the shiver of pleasure that ran down his spine when Reg's finger brushed against his rosebud. He felt his hole instinctively pulse, pushing out then pulling back in, as though trying to suck the finger into it. Vard had taught him the pleasure of intimacy, and here, his body was being traitorous, knowing only the pleasure, but nothing of the context.

    Reg jumped on the bed, thrusting once or twice into Elian's rear despite the clothing that still prevented any sort of penetration. Elian shuddered, and more tears fell from his face. Elian felt the bed shake as the man hastily unlaced his breeches and drew his hard and leaking cock from its confines. Gav walked over to where Tristan was sitting on the floor under Jack, dazed, and made sure that Jack was bound and gagged just in case he woke up while they were busy raping Elian.

    Elian promised himself he would not scream, but that promise quickly dissolved when almost angrily, Reg shoved his cock raw into Elian's hole. The blond screamed, leaving his throat raw and scratchy from the sheer volume of his outcry. A great cacophony of caws and fluttering wings erupted as the woods around the house discharged all its birds. Elian felt as though he was being torn apart by the large cock that had been so thoughtlessly jammed into his ass without loosening or grease. Before Elian could adjust, Reg pulled his entire cock out and then shoved it back in.

    Elian screamed again, tears falling freely from his eyes. He sobbed, his entire body shaking from the burning pain that was radiating from his abused ass. He bit the bed as it happened again. And again. And again. He could feel something inside of him tearing, blood flowing freely as his ass was mercilessly pounded. His body shook with sobs and trembles and ragged breaths that he barely managed to draw as the pain was so all-encompassing that he almost forgot how to breathe. His arms gave way, and he lay on the bed with his chest to the sheets. His hands clutched the bed covers, balling into fists even as he bit harder into the bed, trying to make the pain more bearable. His traitor cock, though, was beginning to get hard.

    "Look, Reg, fucker's getting hard. He likes this." said Gav. The man laughed. Reg chuckled and then spat on Elian's back as he continued roughly pistoning in and out of the blond, trying to cause as much discomfort and pain as he could to Elian. The blond continued sobbing, the searing pain in his ass giving way to very little pleasure despite his cock rising in response to the sex. The blond cried out when Reg reached under him and pulled at his sack, squeezing them painfully, and causing the rest of Elian's body to go slack from the pain.

    "For Jack" he whispered under his breath to himself. "For Jack." He screamed when Reg shoved his entire cock down to the hilt into Elian. "For Jack." He whimpered when he felt the hand slap against his ass, making him feel like a dirty whore. He knew what dirty whores were, he'd worked in brothels. "For Jack." The litany continued, with every cry, with every sob, with every ragged breath, with every searing pain that accompanied Reg's thrusts... For Jack. For Jack. For Jack.

    "Oi Reg. My turn" said Gav, trying to push Reg off of Elian, but the other man pushed back. Elian sighed in relief, as mercifully, the man had let go of his sack. It was short-lived, as with a salacious grin, Reg grabbed not only his nuts but also his hard cock, almost crushing them in the man's iron grip. Reg hadn't cum yet, and he wasn't about to give up the pleasure of the blond's ass. It was tight, and warm, and now slick with blood and pre-come. At least faggots were good for one thing, after a week of not being able to spill his seed.

    "Use the other one." Gav frowned at Reg but walked over to Tristan, not wanting to antagonize the one that carried the blade. The man easily picked up Jack and when Tristan tried to stop him, backhanded their once-leader. Dazed from the force of the blow, Tristan fell to the floor, unable to get up for a good long while. Elian was too busy trying to endure the pain, repeating the 'for Jack' mantra for him to realize what was going on.

    Elian willed his ice to his abused hole to stifle the flames of pain that were searing his entire body that radiated from it. He whimpered again when Reg bottomed out in him. He felt the man on top of him start to pump into him more erratically, with more speed, more urgency. Elian squirmed and writhed, and tried to worm his way out from under Reg, but the man was too heavy, and he was too weak from the pain, that it was to no avail. He didn't want it inside him. Not this filth. No. No. No. He whimpered and tried to wriggle free, but the man held him firmly in place by his hips.

    It wasn't long before Reg pulled out fully again and impaled Elian fully onto his cock. Reg sighed in relief as he allowed his cock to pulse and spurt his seed into the blond. He wasn't done yet. No. He had been unable to spill his seed for a week. He was not about to be satisfied with just one load spewed. Elian went slack underneath Reg when the other man came inside him. He felt soiled. Dirty. Used. He felt like he was a whore.

    It wasn't until he felt another weight on the bed that Elian saw Jack, trussed up and slowly regaining consciousness, being forced down to the sheets in front of him. Elian's eyes went wide with shock and protestation. They had promised that no harm would come to Jack if he cooperated. No harm. Now Jack was facing the same fate that Elian was having to endure. Unacceptable. Elian felt such anger and hatred grow in him as he had never before deigned to imagine. Jack's now-blue eyes looked back at him with confusion, and then anger as the brunet realized what was being done to Elian.

    The blade was passed over the two young men, and Gav took it, slicing off Jack's clothes underneath the ropes and pulling down the farmboy's breeches, exposing his supple buttocks and virginal pink rosebud. Jack had seen his parents naked, and unlike them, he was completely hairless from the chin down. Gav whistled. "This one's just as good, Reg. Hell, it looks better than a fucking pussy." laughed the man derisively as he kneaded Jack's buttocks.

    Tristan only watched from nearby with eyes wide in shock and repulsion as Elian was being raped, and Jack was being prepared for the same. He did nothing but watch, knowing that if he even dared to try and stop the two, that the boys would face a quick and gruesome demise, and that he would soon follow them. From the sheer hunger in the lustful gazes and sounds that the men made, Tristan was sure that even if the boys were dead, they would still fuck them. Reg and Gav had no morals, only an appetite for pain and brutality, it seemed.

    Jack's eyes went wide in fear and met Elian's own teary ones when he felt the blunt end of the cock at his hole. He whimpered when he felt the dagger blade cut into his skin, as the warm blood flowed from the open wound. Elian's eyes went blank at the smell of Jack's blood. The blond's trembling vanished. The entire world fell silent save for Jack's whimpers as Gav carved his name into Jack's skin, and the squishing of Reg's cum-slicked cock as it continued to slide in and out of Elian's abused hole with impunity.

    "You said you wouldn't hurt him" said Elian, voice sounding both young and afraid and ancient and furious at the same time. His voice was deeper and louder than anything Jack had heard before, more menacing, more intimidating. It almost seemed as though there were two people talking, no, a hundred. Jack whimpered when he felt the blade against his skin grow cold beyond fathoming, sealing the wound that had just been carved shut. He felt the blade vibrate against his skin, warping before finally shattering into a fine dust that blew away in the biting gale that began to emanate from Elian.

    "Do not touch him." Terrified, Reg pulled out of Elian and flipped the blond over to strangle him. Red marks appeared on Elian's neck where Reg tried in vain to strangle the air out of the blond's motionless, seemingly-lifeless body. The blond looked up at Reg with his empty eyes, devoid of any emotion, driven blank by the intense fury and protectiveness that had washed through him. The absolute power of the Coldsnap had been awakened, and it was a terrifying sight to behold. In his corner, Tristan cowered from the voice that emanated from Elian. It was almost as though the gods were speaking through him. "Do not touch him." The voice emanated from Elian despite his lips not moving, save for to twist into a sinister grin.

    Gav screamed. It was a bloodcurdling scream that made Jack bring his hands to his ears and whimper in terror. Reg's eyes whipped up towards the man, and watched in horror as the Gav's cock began to freeze over, ice with no rhyme or reason save for savage patterns and cracks began to cover its shaft and his stones. Gav, in a panic, grabbed his cock, only to make it shatter into pieces in his hands, blood spurting freely from the hole in his groin that it left. There was no pain, as the area had been numbed by the utter cold. The sheer horror of losing his manhood made Gav nearly pass out, but he couldn't. He couldn't lose consciousness. No matter how hard his body tried to shut down, to spare him from the shock, it would not obey.

    Jack cowered from Elian's power, trying to bury himself further into the bed. The cold zephyr, the harsh gale, the wrath of a blizzard itself did not touch him. Instead, a cool, calming breeze wafted over his bare skin, soothing his body where the ropes that bound him had bitten into his skin. At some point the ropes themselves froze and shattered. Jack remained motionless despite having been freed from bondage, afraid for his life.

    Reg's cock began to freeze as well, discordant ice spiderwebbing across its length and penetrating into the flesh. The man screamed in pain and terror, he was not spared from the prior as his friend had been. He dropped Elian in the process as he scrambled away to try and save his manhood even as ice wrapped around his nuts and made them feel numb and heavy.

    Reg felt intense pain as the cold burrowed deeper into him. White spikes exploded from the man's precious jewels, the cum that had built up there freezing and expanding and shattering Reg's manhood. Elian laughed a bone-chilling, heart-stopping laugh that froze the men in place, staring at him with utter terror. Tristan shook himself from the daze he was in and ran out of the room and down the stairs. There was no sense to throw away his life now. No sense whatsoever. He would not die that way, by losing his manhood, his pride. He would die that day, yes, but not before he tried to make amends to Rein.

    There was no sense to try and take vengeance when all the winterchild had truly done was free him from his bitch of a wife, and give him a chance to have a good life with his daughter and perhaps restore the bond he'd fostered so long ago with the redheaded man that he'd only recently found out loved him... He'd thrown that chance away in his hotheadedness, rashness and pride. The winterchild had given him the chance to have a lover that would love him in the way he wished his wife would. He'd thrown that chance away. Now, the winterchild had saved him from his two mad companions, given him a chance to make amends, and he was not about to throw it away.

    Elian rose from the bed slowly, turning about some unseen fulcrum in the air, supported by the howling winds as they whipped about the room. Shards of ice materialized in the air, tearing the men's remaining clothes to shreds, and cutting open their skins in shallow, painful lacerations. Both men, so confident in their swaggering and so menacing in their manner, were now simpering in front of winter's wrath, their eyes streaming with tears from the pure agony that they were experiencing. Their eyes were streaming with water for a very short time. The shards of ice also shredded the sensitive tissue there, and the men tried to scream in agony, but their throats would not allow them.

    Ice began to climb from the soles of their feet up their bodies, every cell freezing and dying with the inexorable advance of the creeping death. Every inch of their bodies screamed in exquisite, agonizing pain. All the ice avoided were the important organs, for Elian intended to inflict as much pain on the two villainous bastards as he could while keeping them alive. He would make them pay for hurting him, for hurting Jack. He would make them pay. Slowly the ice climbed their bodies, up their necks, their faces...

    Only then, their faces contorted in their dying pains, did Elian allow the ice to finally kill the men, surging through every vein and passage of their bodies. Balling his hands into fists, cracks, vicious, wide, and chaotic raced through the frozen statues. Elian pulled his fingers tighter. The cracks spread even more, spiderwebbing over the skin and below. Elian released his hands and instantly the men shattered into countless shards of ice that flew out of the window, carried by the wind, before falling on the rolling hills near the farmstead.

    "Elian?" whispered Jack, naked and shivering from the cold. He reached out to the blond, but was repelled by a strong wind that then died, dropping Elian unceremoniously in a crumpled heap on the bed, cum and blood leaking out of his abused ass. "Elian!" The blond was unconscious, and only barely breathing. Jack crawled over to the blond, and cradled him in his arms.

    "Elian..." Jack brought Elian's head to his chest, embracing him tightly, and putting his own head right next to the blond's. "Elian... you saved me..." He wept into the blond's hair.

    "You saved me..." Jack whispered, rocking back and forth with Elian's limp body.

    ---

    Tristan rode his horse into the ground. There was no sense trying to save the animal. He had to get back to the town, maybe save Rein if he could. Maybe they could start a new life in the village, or embark on a journey to find their old home again. Their town had roads, but Tristan was not aware where they led, or where they came from. Merchants had been few and far in between, and he had been far too preoccupied with his daughter and his own farmstead to care what they brought. It was his bitch wife's duty to take Liana to buy the things she wanted from them.

    Tristan rode fast as the wind that streamed by alongside him. He guided his horse in the direction he believed the town to be, the image of his companions and their slow agonizing deaths remained in Tristan's head. Gods, he was going to have nightmares about that for the rest of his life. The vision had been horrible, blood spurting from the gaping wounds that had once been their manhoods. Tristan leaned over the horse and vomited, narrowly avoiding a rapidly approaching tree-trunk as he wiped the puke that clung to his chin.

    He rode hard and fast through the night, arriving at the village as the moon was low over the horizon, in the darkest hours of the dawn, only to find everyone gathered in the village square. He jumped off of his horse and walked over slowly to where everyone was gathered. What was going on? He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, an ominous ringing in his ears. Gods... What had he done?

    Tristan heard a dull boom as the doors to the convent opened to the dark of night. The heavy wood that made them slamming against the solid stone walls. A deep haunting chant in a tongue unknown to the brunet drifted through the night air, echoed by the townspeople. The hymn was unfamiliar, alien, and almost sinister, to Tristan's ears. He dreaded what was going on. His blood ran cold when he saw what was in the middle of the congregation. A stake.

    A stake. It was piled high with sticks and dry grass, and wood. Kindling and fuel. The fire would be a big one if it was lit. Someone was getting burned at the stake. A stake. Tristan raised his hand to his mouth, blinking back tears as he realized who might be lined up to die that night. Though it had never been done in the town he lived in, he remembered from the one service of the sun priests that he had attended that the punishment for a man loving other men was burning at the stake.

    The haunting strains of the chant continued to drift through the silence of the hours before dawn, striking fear into Tristan's heart with every damnable word. He elbowed his way through the crowd, making his way to just short of the clearing of people around the stake. From the convent, a procession of men wearing black robes adorned with silver circlets was preceded by two large men with a naked figure being supported between them. The figure had a pointed hood over his face, emblazoned with the symbol of the sun priests.

    The man was brought to the stake and tied up as more wood was taken from a nearby mound and piled on top of him. A priest stood beside the man by the dais, and another man in black robes was nearby, carrying a torch. The man carrying the torch seemed to almost be unstable on his feet, swaying slightly back and forth. The priest regarded the crowd, and held out his hands. "Brothers and sisters."

    "Today we gather to witness the purgation of sins..." The priest began to walk around the platform, raising a large vessel that was handed to him by one of the burly men. He tipped the vessel on its side and clear oil spilled out, onto the naked man and the wood for the fire. "In this darkness before the suns rise, the moon's strength is greatest."

    "May the Scorn of the Moon be merciful upon us" whispered the townspeople in unison, before a hushed silence fell. The only sound was that of the dripping oil and the priest walking on the platform. "May the Scorn of the Moon be merciful upon us" repeated the townspeople, louder, this time. The moon seemed to shine brighter. "May the Scorn of the Moon be merciful upon us." The moon's light, normally gentle and milky, glimmered and turned almost cruel.

    "This man, Rennðoch, son of fire, has been found guilty of abominable deviance, of intimacy with men." Jeers and boos rose from the crowd. Tristan was frozen in place. It was just as he'd feared. He slipped his hand into his pocket. "With fire, we cleanse his body and set free his soul from the prison of the flesh. May the Scorn of the Moon cast judgment on him as he deserves" intoned the priest as he removed the hood, revealing Rein's unmistakeable mop of red hair, and descended from the platform as the torch was struck alight.

    Time seemed to slow down for Tristan as the spark flew and ignited the torch, shedding flickering light around the stake. "No..." Tristan whispered. His fingers fumbled around in his pocket and found it. That little flower he'd picked up a while ago. He'd meant to force-feed it to the winterchild and leave, but Reg and Gav had turned everything on its head. He slipped the flower between his lips and swallowed it as he pushed over the rest of the townspeople in front of him and ran up the platform and embraced Rein, tied to the stake as he was.

    The redhead seemed dazed, and his unfocused eyes refused to meet Tristan's. As his throat began to constrict uncomfortably, he heard the loud whoosh of the platform being set on fire. He felt the heat of the flames as they leaped high into the air, urged on by the oil that the priest had generously dribbled onto the pyre. That was what it was to Tristan. A pyre. He would die here, with Rein, the one person save for his daughter that had loved him despite his mistakes. He raised Rein's eyes to his own and planted a final kiss on the redhead's lips just as he found himself unable to breathe any longer. Tristan gagged and gasped and fell to his knees as the fire rose even higher, lapping at his clothes, his flesh, and at the naked form of Rein looming above him, tied securely to the stake.

    The brunet would've screamed if he could, but there was no air that would leave him. He was forced to writhe in pain as the fire consumed his flesh and seared his very soul. He reached out towards Rein who was struggling and screaming on the stake as life leached out of the redhead's limbs.

    Tristan's head hit the platform and bounced off of the flame-wreathed planks, just as his eyes went blank, and life abandoned him. The last thing he heard as he entered the cold embrace of death was the heart-wrenching scream of pain that emanated from Rein as the fire consumed his torso.

    It wasn't long before Rein himself went limp, his final thoughts going to the farewell kiss that Tristan had graced him with. It almost felt resigned. His last thoughts before the pain prevented any more, were apologies to Tristan. Apologies for not trying harder. For not fighting better. For raping him.

    The fires continued to burn well into the morning, the heat growing more intense by the hour. The fire was so intense that the townspeople had to leave, stifled by the heat and the noxious thick black smoke that poured forth from the raging inferno.

    It was midday by the time the final smouldering embers of the stake died. There was no trace of either Rein or Tristan, both men reduced to but ashes strewn amongst detritus and unburnt wood. Theirs was but a brief passion, like the fire that had consumed both of them. Theirs was a love that had died before it had the chance to grow.

    Now, both men, one the child of fire, the other, father of a sweet little girl, were but ashes in the wind, drifting to the whim of the gale.

    ---

    Jack cradled Elian gently in his arms as he rocked back and forth. They'd been locked in that position for well over two hours, Elian not once moving or showing any indication of will, or consciousness for that matter. Gently, the brunet brushed the blond's hair with his hands, whispering tender assurances that all would be alright. The blond had stopped bleeding through his ass, and the cum had stopped leaking out, but Jack did not have the heart to look at the mess that had been made.

    Whatever it was that had been carved into the flesh near the top of Jack's ass, almost felt like a distant thing, as though it wasn't really on him. The pain, and the blood had stopped flowing, almost as though it had been cauterized. Jack knew the wound was still open, though, he could feel it. There was no time to worry about himself, in any case, as Elian needed help. Any help.

    Jack couldn't bring himself to leave the bed, and the blond alone. The last time that had happened, they'd ended up in this situation, Jack nearly raped, and Elian, abused. There was something new between Jack and the blond, and the brunet could not tell what it was. It was this something that allowed Jack to feel deep inside, almost like a second thought in the back of his mind, that something in Elian had broken when Jack was hurt.

    In truth, it was Elian's humanity that had splintered when Jack was wounded. The scent of the blood had driven him mad with fury, and an overwhelming imperative that chased his consciousness from his body, forced away his inhibitions, and let loose the power of the Coldsnap that resided inside him. It was fearsome, but Jack did not know this. All he knew was that Elian was broken, and that no medicinal herbs, no poultice, no ointment, no paste could heal that wound within the blond.

    Tender fingers ran across Elian's scalp as Jack cooed to the incapacitated blond. "It's alright. It's alright" he repeated, whispering in the blond's ear. Whether it was to comfort the blond or to comfort himself, Jack did not know, nor did he, at the moment, care. Elian had saved him, and Elian had been violated. His tears ran down his eyes freely, wetting the blond's forehead. For once, the tears didn't turn to ice.

    Jack nearly dropped the blond when he heard Glaise's whimper nearby. He set Elian on the sheets gently, making sure that the blond did not end up lying uncomfortably on his ass. "Glaise?" Gods, he'd forgotten about his dog, his loyal, loyal dog. It seemed that the snowy bundle of fur had tried his best to defend Elian from the sinister, lustful, perverse men. "Glaise?" Jack rose from the bed, tears still streaming freely from his eyes.

    He bit back a sob as he saw his faithful companion, lying on his side, his back to the wall. There was blood pooled around Glaise's muzzle. Despite his condition, the dog yipped weakly, but happily at Jack. Almost as though to say, "I tried, master, I tried, but I'm glad you're safe." Jack gently picked Glaise up, unable to stop the sobbing now. He nuzzled the dog, but a high pitched whine escaped its maw as he did. He stopped what he was doing and shivered when Glaise licked him weakly as though in thanks.

    "Elian's alright, Glaise. Don't die on me. Don't die on me" begged Jack, trembling. All he got in response was a weak yip, and a lick on his cheek before Glaise went limp in his arms. "No... Please... No..." said the brunet in horror. He brought the dog's mangled body closer to his chest. Though Glaise was severely injured, Jack felt the faintest heartbeat in the faithful, ever-loyal animal.

    "I won't let you die, Glaise. I won't let you die..." A cool breeze began drifting in through the window, swirling and dancing around Jack to the music of the brunet's beating heart and that of the dying dog. "I won't let you die..." he whispered. Glaise was too important. If Elian left, Jack was not going to have anyone else but Glaise, and if Glaise died, life would become almost unbearable.

    As the wind picked up around him, Jack felt a comfortable and... inexplicably warm chill within him. Familiar. Almost tender. Loving. Beautiful, like the potential for majesty that Elian's ice had possessed. Only, Jack's ice pulsed with something else entirely, it pulsed with life. The brunet mustered all his strength, focusing it into what he hoped would be healing energy. Between his hands appeared a beautiful snowflake that glowed with its own inner light, that pulsed to the slow, weak beating of Glaise's heart.

    The snowflake danced with the wind, casting its ever-shifting bluish light around the room. Jack guided it down, bringing it to Glaise's twitching and barely-living form. The snowflake melted into the dog's body, bringing with it the winds that spiralled into the spot where the snowflake landed. With them, the winds brought a flurry of fine ice crystals that glittered as they moved and embedded themselves in Glaise's body.

    Jack breathed deeply, he could feel, with his ice, that Glaise's heart had stopped, but that the dog was still very much alive. There was a lot of damage inside Glaise, his heart was weak, and a shard of rib had punctured his lung. The dog's stomach was damaged, and there were multiple broken bones in his body. Jack sighed, but wiped away his tears, blood burning with new determination.

    He guided the ice, and willed it to heal Glaise, and watched in awe as the ice did the work for him. He allowed his love for Glaise and his will to guide the ice, instead, as he watched and learned how to do it consciously should he need to do so as well. The ice pulled the shard of rib from Glaise's lung, with crystals forming a lattice over the puncture hole through which the flesh knitted together and repaired itself.

    Jack gasped when with he returned to seeing with his eyes, and saw that Glaise was breathing normally now. His mind's eye took over again, and the ice wrapped the dog's heart, in some way making its rhythm return to normal. Torn flesh and punctures were bridged and healed by the ice. The bones returned to their places, and the ice allowed them to remake themselves as well...

    When Jack was done with the dog, Glaise was an image of health, and now seemed to be sleeping peacefully, his tail tucked between his legs. The brunet smiled. Glaise would live another day. He let his ice go, and the glow emanating from the dog died down. The brunet placed a tender kiss on Glaise's head. He had come so close to losing his most loyal friend...

    Jack clambered back into the bed and called upon his ice again, allowing it to flow into Elian and search the blond's body for anything wrong. There were lesions in his ass, wounds in his hole. Jack called upon the ice to heal the blond, feeling his own energy leech out of him and into Elian. It was remedial, at best, and not nearly as flawless as with Glaise. Regardless, it helped, stopping the bleeding that had apparently continued within Elian despite no blood leaking out.

    When Jack opened his eyes, Elian had a different expression on his face, a more peaceful one, compared to the knitted eyebrows, pale skin, flitting eyes, and cold sweat on his brow. Jack caressed Elian's face before letting go of his own consciousness, spent, and utterly exhausted. He wrapped an arm around the blond as he slipped into fitful sleep. What the once-brunet did not realize was that his hair had turned completely white.
     
  15. Elian woke up much later. It was the next day, even, feeling weak and tired. The fatigue was no more than skin deep, there was no fever burning behind his eyes, no infection sapping his strength, only tiredness and hunger. Elian realized he was still naked and that Jack had his arms around him, asleep as well. The farmlad was naked too. Jack was naked too. Elian yelped and tried to scramble away from the farmlad, remembering what happened not too long ago. Jack's arm around him felt like the hairy arms of the man, the calloused hands that had violated him. He scrambled away.

    Elian touched his hole, expecting to feel it puffed up and bleeding, but it was almost as though nothing had happened. The only evidence was the thick cum that came away with his finger. Disgusted, Elian wiped his finger on the bed. He drew his knees into his chest, and rocked back and forth, whimpering as he remembered the events. As he remembered the searing pain of his violation. Tears rolled down his eyes and cheeks, remembering what had happened to Jack, what he had done after they had hurt the brunet. He was a murderer, a monster, but perhaps he had needed to be that to protect Jack. Nevertheless, it did not allay his protesting conscience.

    Elian felt a cold wet muscle lick his tears up. The blond looked up, surprised, and relieved, that Glaise was alright. Well, for a fraction of a second. Elian screamed and despite the fact that he wanted to stay away from the naked farmlad because he felt accountable for what Jack had very nearly experienced at the hands of the men, and because Jack's nakedness reminded him of his rape, the blond almost fell over the farmboy's naked and vulnerable frame.

    Jack started awake, brought back to consciousness by the scream and the feeling of Elian falling on top of him. "Elian, what's wro--AAAH!" Jack also screamed when he saw what Elian was frantically trying to get away from, knocking both young men off the bed. A large wolf-like creature jumped onto the bed. Its muscles were strong, and they rippled with every motion. The grace of a predator was evident in the creature's physique. Its fur pelt was snowy, and there was a hint of ice crystals that glimmered underneath the individual strands of hair. Where its breath escaped its maw, glittering frost spiralled into the air.

    Jack and Elian scrambled to their feet. With a snarl and a determined expression Jack placed himself between the blond and the beast. "Run away!" he yelled at Elian when the beast pounced. Jack entirely expected to die, throat ripped out by the beast, except he ended up getting attacked by a tongue... all over his face, leaving cold slobber dripping from his hair and cheeks.

    "Glaise?" whispered the farmlad, staring into the hound's eyes and finding a familiar light there. "Good gods what's become of you?" Elian made a sound of relieved confusion and knelt beside Jack, taking the wolf's head in his hands and staring into its eyes as well. The blond got a face-full of tongue as a result. Elian grimaced and wiped the slobber off of his face only to get licked again. He sighed, and just held Glaise close instead. There was absolutely no winning against the blessed creature.

    "What happened while I was asleep, Jack?" asked Elian slowly, keeping a wary eye on the large wolf that had been a little friendly dog when he was last awake, before... before he was--he could not bring himself to finish the thought. Filthy. That was what he felt like. He could remember the member roughly pistoning in and out of him, the searing pain, the burning humiliation. His traitor cock, standing in appreciation as he was so carelessly fucked.. A strangled yelp was ripped from Elian when Glaise knocked him to the floor with his sheer weight and started licking his face. "H-how did this happen?"

    "I don't know, Elian... I... healed him, with my ice..." said the farmlad, sitting on his haunches now that Glaise's weight was off of him. He pushed the wolf off of Elian and stretched out a hand to the blond. The blond looked at Jack's hand but did not take it, shrinking away from it instead, and helping himself to his feet. Glaise whined, as though sensing the plight of the blond. The wolf-dog-thing nudged Elian's calf with its furry head, hoping to provide even the least bit of comfort to him.

    "Please don't come near me, Jack..." pleaded the blond. The farmlad fixed him with such a hurt look that Elian took a step back, clasping his hands together, bringing them to his chest, and hunching over, withdrawing into himself. "Don't come near me. I don't want to hurt you" It hurt. Jack couldn't tell why it hurt now that Elian did not want him anywhere close. He did not understand why the blond would not want him near. "I don't want you to hurt me either" thought Elian, breathing coming in quick ragged gasps.

    Jack wasn't going to be deterred. "Stop it, Elian. You're not a monster." Elian shook his head. Jack was wrong, and Jack was thinking of the wrong reason. The farmlad took a step forward. The blond took one back, refusing to meet Jack's eyes, refusing to even look at him. "You're a killer, but that doesn't make you a monster" whispered the farmlad, taking another forward. Elian tried to move away from Jack more but found his back against the wall, trapped.

    "Elian..." Jack said, stepping right up to the blond. "You saved me." He was done trying to understand why Elian did not want to allow himself to be with Jack. The farmlad was done with trying to understand why Elian couldn't let himself be happy. He was done keeping a respectful distance when so recently, fate had very nearly succeeded in tearing them apart. Jack grabbed the sides of Elian's face and brought their lips crashing together to the sound of Glaise's happy, but deeper than usual yipping. Jack was done pretending that there was not a special place in his heart of hearts for the as-yet enigmatic blond, and he would let his lips against Elian's speak as proof of that.

    Elian shoved Jack away, gathering all the strength in his arms to force distance between them. The blond broke the kiss with tears in his eyes, resuming his hunched over pose when Jack fell on his ass on the floor. He shuddered despite the earnest innocence and love in Jack's kiss, he could not help but think how horrible it would have been if his rapist had done the same to him. He could almost imagine it. Salacious, thoughtless kissing... foul breath, malice... Elian shuddered. "But I wouldn't have had to if they didn't come after me" said the blond angrily, keeping Jack at arm's length when the farmlad stood and made as though to approach him again. "I should go... You're just going to get hurt if I stay here. I don't want that to happen."

    The farmlad looked at the hand on his bare chest, holding him at bay. He frowned at it, but his heart twisted in hurt at the instinctive gesture. Elian shrank away from the hand that Jack extended out to him, trying to extend a measure of trust. "How many men were after you?" asked the farmlad firmly. He didn't want Elian doing this to himself. There was no reason for the blond to despise himself, to blame himself for what almost happened to Jack. It wasn't entirely his fault. The blond shook his head. "How many men?" Jack pressed on.

    Elian looked down. "Only this group..." said the blond, rubbing his arm with his hand as he examined his feet. "Only this group that I know of..." he said, trembling where he stood, closing himself off almost entirely from Jack. "I don't see h--" he said, raising his eyes to look at the farmboy. There was a sympathetic look in the platinum's pale blue eyes.

    "There were three men. You killed two, and scared the other one off..." Jack took a step towards Elian and the blond shuffled away from him. "They won't come back, and if they do, we can fight them. Elian. I have your ice now too. I don't think you can hurt me even if you wanted to." Jack took another step forward. "Try it, Elian. Try it." He pressed even as Elian tried to get away from him, visibly scared not only of Jack, but of what might happen if he allowed his fear to get the better of him again.

    Jack took another step forward, grabbing Elian's wrist gently but firmly. Reluctantly, unwillingly, the blond shot his ice at the farmlad. Vast crackling bolts of ice, tinged slightest red with fear and self-loathing, crackled through the air, creating sheets of ice all around the room. The lightning harmlessly swirled around Jack in a cloud of glittering crystals that eventually evaporated into the air. "You don't need to protect me anymore, Elian..." Jack whispered, letting go of the blond's wrist.

    For a good long while there was only silence save for the rustling of the leaves in the wind and the panting of Glaise as he looked up at Elian with a curious and concerned expression. Elian made a pitiful broken sound, hunching over and falling to his knees. He buried his face in his palms, crying and sobbing uncontrollably, sobs wracking his body with tremors that knew no end. Carefully, slowly, Jack knelt beside Elian and gently wrapped his arms around the sobbing blond. After a moment's hesitation, Elian haltingly did the same, burying his face in the crook of Jack's neck, where the farmboy felt the warm trickle of salty tears.

    Could it be that he'd finally found a place to be? A safe haven for him, where he would not be driven out, but welcomed? A place where he could make a life, protect it, and be protected? A place where he could, maybe, love and be loved in return? With his arms wound around Jack, Elian could feel the cold chill inside of the farmlad, the telltale sign of the curse that had become a part of Jack. The curse that the simple farmlad, so unassuming at first, had seemed to take to as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

    Minutes later, when the tempest of emotions in his heart calmed, Elian caressed the skin underneath Jack's right shoulderblade. That was where the core of the platinum's ice resided. Why it was there, Elian did not know. Under Elian's touch, it pulsed and Jack felt the emanations of power from it. It was almost as though the ice in his body was responding to the Coldsnap in Elian's. He shivered. Elian's touch there felt better than he had expected it to, and he could feel blood rushing to where he least wanted it to rush at that very moment.

    The blond's eyes widened, because Jack's ice was so different from his own. Both his own powers and Jack's were brimming with energy and hunger, as though living creatures all on their own save for their lack of physical bodies, but the farmlad's was far more placid and thrummed with a different life entirely. Jack's was gentle and almost sweet, whereas Elian knew that his was raw and savage. Fear gripped the blond as he felt Jack's stiffening member graze his side.

    Elian began to struggle against Jack, trying to get away from the erection that was beginning to trigger the phantom hands of his rapist. Jack shushed him, adjusting his hips so that his member would not touch Elian. Eventually, he returned to a flaccid state."I won't hurt you. You won't hurt me. You're safe here..." whispered the farmboy into the blond's ear as Elian let his fear surge through his veins and out through his tears. Jack kept his firm embrace with Elian as the blond shook and shuddered and sobbed, both in apprehension and... in a strange way, a sense of relief.

    "You don't have to leave anymore..." whispered Jack. "But I won't stop you if you still want to..." Elian felt the splatter of tears on his own shoulder. "But I want you to know you'll be safe here, no matter what. You'll be safe here with me..." Jack began to tremble too. He didn't want to let Elian go, but if the blond still wanted to, he had no right to stop Elian. He held the blond tighter, rubbing Elian's back and brushing the other boy's hair with his hands.

    "I want to believe that, Jack..." said the blond, taking a good long breath of the farmlad's unique scent that was now laced with what seemed to be the smell of clean ice. He pulled away and looked Jack in the eyes. He kept his hands on the other man's waist. "I want to believe that..." whispered the blond with a small sad smile, that said what Elian could not give voice to. "But I can't."

    Jack nodded slowly at Elian, understanding what the blond was trying to say. He kissed the blond's forehead, then pulled away, colouring in embarrassment. Elian laughed and did the same to Jack. They looked into each other's eyes, an unspoken pact being formed between them. Jack would try to prove to Elian that he was safe at the farm, and Elian vowed that he would return if he ever had the chance, after he left.

    The blond yelped when he felt a cold wet tongue on one of his asscheeks and his hand snapped down with such speed that the smack when it hit Glaise's head resounded in the room, and the thump of Glaise's body on the floor, sent there by the force of the smack and the shock, was just as loud. In Elian's mind's eye, the tongue was Reg's hand, and he felt disgusted, pushing Jack away from him, and scratching his arms as though to clean them. Glaise whined and nudged Elian's calf, worried about the blond. "I-I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." whispered Elian, burying his face in his knees and rocking back and forth.

    He could feel the phantom sensation of hands roaming all over his skin, hungrily, salaciously. He groaned when he felt a burning itching sensation in his rosebud, a stinging sensation from the slap on his buttock, the slimy spit of the man dripping on his back. He felt the spurts of cum inside him, the blood leaking from his hole. Elian keened, his mind's eye flaring with a vivid image of the rape. Jack pulled Elian's hands away, only adding to the voracity of the image in the blond's mind, but the farmboy knew he had no other choice. There were long shallow gashes in the blond's arms where he had scratched them to such an extent that he had begun to draw blood.

    Making sure that Elian's hands were still securely in his grip, Jack draped his arms around Elian as the blond began to tremble, and ice began to creep over the wall and the floor around him. "Elian... Elian it's just me and Glaise... You're safe..." whispered the farmboy, embracing the blond. He could feel the ice crawling over his arms, but it did not hurt him. Nevertheless, the thickening ice made it difficult to keep balanced on his haunches as he tried to calm Elian down. "Elian..." he cooed. Glaise wriggled his way between Elian's legs and licked the blond's nuts.

    "Glaise!" berated Jack, smacking the dog's rump. The licking worked, much to the blond's eventual embarrassment, and snapped Elian out of his episode. The blond gasped, shuddering as the images in his mind's eye dissolved into thin air. Happy that it had worked, Glaise licked Elian's jewels again. The blond looked at Jack, puzzled, and then at Glaise in horror. Elian jumped into Jack's arms, very nearly knocking both of them to the floor, face reddening in shame.

    "Glaise!!" yelled the blond, kicking at the wolf-dog, trying to make the hound stay away. "Don't do that!" Elian's face was as red as a tomato, something that Jack was never sure could happen given the blond's natural paleness. The farmlad had to laugh, though he had to admit, a part of him was a bit envious that Glaise had managed to get so intimately close to Elian.


    *

    Jack tried to avert his gaze as Elian pulled on the breeches that he'd pulled from his chest of clothes, but could not resist taking a peek at the blond's pale ass as it slid into the linen pants. The farmboy bit his lip as the rough fabric slowly covered up the supple flesh of the blond's buttocks. Jack himself was pulling breeches on, but was more than a little distracted by the blond's figure that was nude but mere moments ago. He laced up the breeches, adjusting his half-hardness within, and pulled on his tunic before walking over to Elian who was having some trouble fitting one over his head.

    The blond had forgotten to untie the strings holding the tunic's collar closed, and was having trouble fitting it over his head. Since Elian had somehow managed to shove it halfway on, getting it stuck on his ears, the blond was having trouble removing it as well. Jack chuckled and undid the ties, allowing the tunic to slide the rest of the way down. His heart fluttered as the cloth settled itself, revealing Elian's beautiful face. The way the slightly larger tunic fell around Elian's body added an aura of innocence to the blond that The farmlad found quite entrancing. Smiling, Jack brushed away some of the blond hair that had fallen over Elian's eyes. It did not escape him that the action had caused the blond to flinch almost imperceptibly.

    "How does it all fit?" asked Jack, looking Elian up and down once, more than appreciatively. "I must say, you look better when you're not dressed in rags." The blond blushed and smacked Jack's shoulder with his hand, hesitating ever so slightly before he did so. "I'm just kidding. You look great, though" said Jack, blushing himself before running his fingers through his now-platinum hair.

    "It all fits well, Jack. A bit loose around the shoulders and the waist, but I think a little food can help with that" said the blond, smiling genuinely at his benefactor. He couldn't deny, Jack had been fairly cute in a farmboy way when he was a brunet with tawny eyes, but with his platinum hair and soft blue eyes, he almost looked angelic. Noble. Magical, even. Almost an elf, as the old stories described them. All that was left was the boy's pointed ears, which, thankfully, Jack didn't have. For some reason, Elian was quite sure that if Jack ever managed to get pointed ears, he would never stop trying to pull on them. Perhaps it was the child in him, but the adult in him that had just recently been raped found the idea of prolonged and frequent physical contact appalling.

    A chill ran up Elian's spine when Glaise licked his foot. Gods. The dog's tongue was cold. In the few hours since he'd woken up, the hound had seemed to grow even larger. The glimmer of frost in its pelt became more prominent... and its tongue got colder. Elian shuddered, remembering his manhood getting licked by the dog. It had been a strange and embarrassing situation and Jack had not helped a bit, falling over laughing for a good two minutes after, with Elian in his arms and Glaise desperately trying to do it again.

    "I don't think you can call Glaise a dog anymore..." mused Elian, sitting down beside Jack on the bed and looking at the wolf-like creature that had been an adorable dog earlier. Glaise was still adorable, that much had not changed, but he looked far more intimidating and just downright beautiful. His snow-white pelt had taken on a slight bluish hint, like the purest frost that accompanied the first breaths of winter, and his eyes were near mirrors of Jack's soft gentle blue.

    Jack sighed and settled his chin on his hand. "What am I going to do with you, Glaise? You're going to scare the shit out of the sheep." Hearing his name called twice, the... dog bounded towards the two men on the bed and licked Jack's face, making the platinum sputter. "I've been thinking..." He was interrupted by another round of licking. "Stop it! Sit." The dog whined and sat on its haunches, tail wagging madly. "I think we should call him the Frosthound."

    "Jack..." Elian started. He wasn't entirely sure where the platinum was going with this. He didn't really understand how full of brevity the farmlad seemed, considering what they had just gone through. Needless to say, there were troubled thoughts going through Jack's mind as well, but having fun was all he knew to do in the face of such trouble. Elian on the other hand, was starting to scratch at his arms again, the faintest feeling of hands grabbing at him beginning to pull itself into his conscious mind once more.

    "What? I mean, is it not intimidating? Awe-inspiring?" Jack asked. Elian, had he been entirely paying attention, would've conceded that Jack was making a good point. Indeed, 'Frosthound' sounded like a name right out of the tomes of legends and myth. A moniker worthy of a powerful beast... Instead, Elian was shifting uncomfortably in his spot, trying to shake the feeling of being violated. "Glaise the Frosthound. That's pretty damn intimidating, if you ask me." As if to weigh in, the dog barked happily. Glaise liked the idea. "Besides, I'm Jack Frost. Frosthound implies that he's mine."

    Elian shook his head and buried his face in his palms, both to curl up, and to show exasperation at the inane drabble that Jack was going on about. "That last thing you said..." mumbled the blond between his hands. "Makes perfect sense, but is the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Jack grinned sheepishly, but Elian straightened as though struck by a bolt of lightning, eyes wide and hands clasped over his mouth as though he couldn't believe what he had just said. It seemed as though having to deal with the psychological aftermath of being violated so unceremoniously had loosened Elian's tongue quite a bit.

    "I-I-I-I mean he's yours so call him whatever you want. He is yours after all..." The blond was blushing madly, his face and his ears a not-so-subtle shade of crimson. For the moment, the horror of having said such a thing to Jack drove away the phantom hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say..." Elian took a look at Jack and made a face at the expression that the farmlad had. The blond's face was twisted in a mixture of mirth and long-buried pain. Jack's expression reminded him so much of his brother.

    "Frosthound it is!" Jack said cheerfully before he noticed the look of sadness that crossed Elian's eyes. "Elian? Is everything alright?" asked the platinum, leaning forward on his elbows and looking up at the blond even as Elian tried to look away. Elian skirted ever so slightly away from Jack.

    "Yeah, yeah. It's just..." Elian took a deep breath. Was it right that he tell Jack his story? Maybe. Maybe just a little bit. After all, the farmlad had offered his hearth and home to the blond. Jack had also divulged his deepest secret to Elian. Elian thought that Jack deserved a measure of trust after all they'd been through. Elian straightened and looked Jack in the eye. "It's just, right there, you reminded me so much of my little brother..." So many things were running through Elian's head, among them, the still-resonating horror of being violated.

    Ah, mused Jack. Elian's little brother again. The platinum wondered if he could, maybe, this time, press his luck and get some answers from the blond. Maybe this time he could actually get to know the person that was beneath that innocent but twisted, scared but strong, icy but warm exterior. The true Elian, and not just the part that the blond had so far chosen to show, or inadvertently shown to him. "How so?" asked Jack, softly, genuinely intrigued, but not wanting to seem altogether too pushy.

    "He was a brat. He was annoying. But he was funny in the way you're funny, Jack." The platinum blushed and beamed at the same time at the compliment. That Elian thought he was funny in what he supposed was a good way, was more siginificant to him than he'd thought it would be. "Anyway, what you said sounded exactly like something he would say. Something that made so much sense, but was so stupid it was funny." Elian blushed again, realizing he'd called Jack's idea stupid a second time. "Sorry..." mumbled the blond.

    "That's alright, Elian. A little stupid is a good thing." said Jack with a genuine smile. With bravado from all the 'praise,' Jack reached over to hold Elian's wrist, but the blond snatched it out of his grasp before he could wrap his fingers around it. "Where's your brother now?" The platinum's hand faltered, and he looked at Elian with confusion before withdrawing it and folding it on his lap.

    "Probably back home." Elian wrapped his arms around his waist and leaned forward, vivid images of the day he'd hurt his brother flashing in his mind's eye. There was a pain in his gut, one that seemed almost ethereal, but no less powerful than if it had been real. He remembered the icy knight given life by his powers. He'd not even known he could do such a thing. He remembered the claymore made of ice, the sharp-hewn blade, the sickening sound of spurting blood and Andrew's shouts of agony when the knight struck him, the loud cracking as the knight dissolved in Elian's horror...

    "Do you know what happened to him?" asked Jack, inching closer to Elian, concerned at what was happening to the blond. The temperature in the room had dropped a noticeable amount. The farmboy's movement towards Elian was almost instantly countered by the blond moving away again. There was definitely something else that was wrong, but Jack didn't think it was a good time to press the matter.

    "I know exactly what happened to him..." answered Elian grimly, pulling in closer to himself, folding over almost in half, arms crossed over his stomach. "I know..." The images of that fateful, terrifying day mingled with what had happened just mere hours ago, and Elian could feel the agonizing pain and horror both in his heart and in his most private of places. He remembered the twisting pain in his chest as he ran out of the palace that night, the burning agony in his ass as he was rammed deep.

    "If... I might ask, Elian... what happened to your little brother?" asked Jack, sliding right beside the blond and putting a hand on Elian's shoulder. The blond shrank away from the touch. Jack had moved too fast for Elian to be able to move away. He did not want the touch. It was the last thing he needed. He felt intense fear flare up within him. The temperature in the room dropped even further.

    "He's the reason I'm here right now, Jack. I hurt him." Elian had doubled over on the bed, and Jack was leaning over him, one hand on the small of the blond's back. It was almost as though the blond was experiencing some sort of physical manifestation of the wound in his soul. "I hurt him" said Elian softly. "I hurt him" he repeated, louder.

    "I'm a monster, Jack..." Elian shrugged Jack off as he whimpered, feeling the rough, calloused hands of Reg fumbling over his body, as he felt the icy coldness of the metal as it sliced through his clothes. Ice was beginning too pool around the blond again, and in his hand a shard of ice appeared. "Monsters deserve to be killed... Monsters don't deserve to live to hurt others again..." It was sharp. Where Elian held it, wounds were pressed into his skin, dark red lines that bled onto the ice, dripping down to the single point of the shard.

    Elian brought the weapon close to his wrist, but Jack knocked it away just in time. "Elian. Elian snap out of it. It's me, Jack." Another shard appeared in the blond's hand.

    "Let it end, Jack... Let it end..." whispered the blond, eyes focused on a faraway point, consumed by the sadness in his soul, his self-hatred, his fear, his refusal to acknowledge than anyone would ever love him for what he was despite the living proof before him to the contrary. Jack shook Elian in earnest, grabbing at the shard of ice and knocking it away only for another to appear.

    "Elian!" yelled the platinum, knocking the shard away again. Jack was at a loss. He did not know what to do. He couldn't afford to lose Elian. It was one thing, letting the blond leave to pursue what he wanted to pursue, and another to let him end himself. The latter gave Jack no chance to ever see the blond ever again. "Elian snap out of it, or gods help me, I will have Glaise lick your nuts again!"

    *

    When Elian had sufficiently calmed down, enough to descend from the brink of attempted suicide, Jack finally let go of his wrists. Glaise was helping him hold down the blond, but Elian was putting on an unprecedented show of strength, making restraining him a significant effort. A full twenty minutes later, the blond had stopped struggling and was instead resigned to staring emptily at a point in the distance. Jack brushed back the locks of hair that had fallen over Elian's eyes and kissed him on the forehead.

    "Elian..." Jack said, tapping the blond's cheek. "Elian come back to me..." he begged. Elian blinked. Once. Twice. Thrice. Slowly, the blond raised a trembling hand to his face, the cuts on his fingers bleeding freely. Crimson trickles streamed down into his palms and down his wrist, staining the ice on his arms red. Elian's eyes widened in shock and horror at the blood.

    "Jack... What... happened?" whispered the blond, turning his head to face the platinum. "What happened?" he repeated, voice small and scared. It was the first time that Elian felt himself drift away in a bout of all-encompassing misery and terror. He was scared, scared more than he had ever been before. He looked at his hand and the lifeblood still freely gushing from it, he was scared of how close he'd drifted to oblivion. Of how close he had been to succumbing to the sweet siren song of the void.

    Jack caressed Elian's cheek. "We were talking about your brother..." he whispered in the blond's ear. "But something happened and you... you wanted to slit your wrist..." There was genuine fear in Jack's now-light-blue eyes and that, more than his foray into the dark depravity that was letting go of his mortal life, terrified him. He did not want Jack to be afraid any more than Jack wanted him to be so. He wanted to protect Jack, and it dawned on him that if he wanted to do so, he had to protect himself too.

    The platinum helped the blond back into a sitting posture. Elian instantly slumped forward, propping himself up by his elbows on his legs. He held his hands out in front of him, one fortunately untouched, the other, bleeding from many deep cuts. Jack instinctively flexed his hand, pangs of sympathy pain rocketing through his body. Elian felt nothing, which made the bleeding all the more terrifying. His ice had numbed the area, but did little to suppress the rest of his body. He was trembling.

    Jack stood and walked to stand right in front of Elian. He called upon his ice again, conjuring that glowing snowflake that he'd used with Glaise. The light caught the blond's eye and he looked up at Jack, wonder as well as apprehension in his eyes. What manner of sorcery was the farmlad weaving this time? How had the platinum learned to control his powers so easily? Jack lowered the glowing snowflake onto Elian's injured hand and as it melted into the skin, glowing as it did, the gashes knitted back together, and the bleeding was stemmed.

    There were scars left, but they were thin and tiny, evading the light of the eyes from afar. The blond raised his hand in amazement, taking his other to trace the faint lines of scars that extended lengthwise down his palm. The wounds might not have been there at all, had there been no ice tinged red by blood around his arms. He whispered to Jack with an awestruck voice "How did you do that?"

    The platinum shook his head, not entirely sure how to explain the entire thing. "Glaise was... dying. And I couldn't let him." An involuntary sob escaped Jack's lips as he remembered seeing the dog broken and battered. "I used my ice on him, and I found out I could heal..." said Jack, slowly, casting a sideways glance at the hound beside him. Elian's eyes widened and a pained sound escaped his throat. "I saved him..." Jack said, taking a seat beside Elian. "Well... in a manner of speaking. I certainly didn't expect to get a wolf out of it..." said the platinum with a chuckle.

    Elian was speechless. He pulled Glaise up into his arms and buried his face in the now-thick fur of the hound's neck. He didn't even care that the dog was now licking his nape, plastering his hair to the back of his neck with ice-cold spit. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." he whispered to the hound, rubbing Glaise's back up and down with his hand.

    "Hey... don't blame yourself." said Jack, himself rubbing the small of the blond's back. Elian jumped at the touch, causing Jack's hand to waver. The farmboy pressed on and rubbed Elian's back in soothing circular motions. For all the fear that was raging through Elian, the gentle touch reminded him nothing of Reg, only of tender, tender Jack. "It wasn't your fault those men were evil..." Jack said through gritted teeth. He'd seen what they did to Elian. "Besides... I think Glaise got out of it better" said the platinum, smiling.

    Elian pulled away from Glaise with a final rub around the hound's neck and smiled bitterly at Jack. "I know... but if I hadn't killed that woma--"

    Jack placed his index finger on Elian's lips, stopping the blond from uttering another word. The blond flinched at the touch. "If you hadn't killed that woman, you would be dead..." said Jack. "We've talked about this... It was her fault. Not yours. You were scared. I understand that... You don't have to keep tearing yourself down."

    "Jack..." said Elian slowly.

    "I know. You want to believe it, but you can't..." the farmlad sighed and continued his stroking of Elian's back. "Maybe someday you'll see yourself as something other than what you're not..."

    *

    The fire crackled and popped, and embers rose to the sky in a mesmerizing dance carried by the warm air that rose from the flames. A corner of the frame collapsed, sending another burst of embers high into the twilight sky streaked with brilliant colours. Jack sighed, tears streaming from his eyes, arms wrapped around his body, trembling ever so slightly. Reflected in his deep blue eyes was the ever-shifting waltz of reds, yellows, and oranges as tongues of flame devoured the painting that had been so unceremoniously desecrated.

    Elian was standing a few paces away behind Jack, a respectable distance, but not so far that the platinum was unaware of his presence. Elian wanted to give Jack time to his thoughts, even if it was for a moment. The farmlad swayed unsteadily on his feet. Elian crossed the gap, tossing an arm around Jack and embracing him close. He conquered whatever fear the experience with Reg had thrust upon him. He conquered it, because he wanted to be, he had to be strong for JAck. "Jack..." The farmlad sighed and leaned into Elian.

    "That painting was very important to me... especially after Kyle died..." Jack nuzzled Elian's neck. The blond fought every instinct to retreat from the affection. Despite his will fighting with all its might against it, he felt Reg's rough calloused hands all over him. He had to be strong. Jack needed the comfort. He pushed the terrible thoughts into the back of his mind. They could be dealt with later, but not now.

    "Why?" asked Elian. He didn't know if Jack would entirely be alright with divulging the reason, but he thought he should ask if only to prove that he was listening. Truth be told, however, Elian was fairly curious as well, beyond the fear that continued to hammer at the edges of his consciousness.

    "It's the only image of my fathers where they were genuinely happy, in love, satisfied..." whispered Jack into Elian's neck. "Nyko was always scared, or angry... Whenever I did things that were outside of his strict rules, he beat me. He wasn't very merciful..." Jack shivered, remembering the pain of those occasions. He looked at his arm and the red welts from Nyko's strong grip showed there in his mind's eye. "When Nyko died, Kyle was always sad..."

    "I just want to remember them when they were happy..." Jack mumbled. Elian stroked Jack's arm and hummed an old lullaby he thought he'd forgotten. He used it long ago to calm his younger brother when Andrew was panicking about things he'd done that he was probably going to get forgiven for. It seemed to work with Jack, but Elian could feel the tears running down Jack's face. "All I see in my mind is Nyko angry... and Kyle distraught... I want to remember them like they were in that painting. Happy. Before I came along..."

    Elian grabbed Jack by the shoulders and straightened his posture. He wiped the tears from Jack's cheeks and gently rubbed the platinum's right cheek with his thumb. "Don't you dare, Jack." The farmlad blinked in confusion at Elian. "Don't blame yourself... Jack, you're a sweet boy." Elian blushed. "And I don't think anyone would blame you for their misery."

    Jack hung his head, tears still dripping from his face. Elian pulled him in and embraced him. The blond flinched when Jack wrapped his arms around Elian. Bitter bile and panic rose in the blond's throat, but he forced it down, and focused on being as comforting for Jack as he could be. After all, Jack had done the same for him and deserved it.

    The two stood there, watching the fire crackle and pop until the very last embers stopped glowing red, with a final, dying breath of heat and light. Elian rubbed Jack's back and whispered "We should get back inside..." The farmlad wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand and shook his head, straightening after leaning over Elian for such a long time.

    "There's one more thing I have to do..." Jack said, grabbing his left arm with his right hand, crossing over his chest. He walked away from Elian stiffly, slowly, hunched over with a dull pain aching in his heart. He walked over to his fathers' graves, where Nyko's sapling had been trampled by the men that had so indiscriminately destroyed whatever visage of peace Elian and Jack had been able to construct.

    Jack fell to his knees, looking at the sapling broken in half. It hurt almost as much as seeing his fathers die a second time. In truth, at this point, Nyko had died thrice, once from the mortal realm, once in the painting that they had just burned, and now, another time in the broken sapling. Jack caressed the small broken thing, gently stroking the fledgling leaves as Kyle would caress Nyko's cheek days before his death.

    Jack had planted the oak early on in spring, with Kyle's help, when his father was still strong enough to leave the farmhouse. Kyle had not left the day after that, or the one after, or the one after that... His health had deteriorated and not too long after, had followed in Nyko's footsteps to the Western Lands. Tears fell from Jack's face, sparkling as they did, and turning to ice as they left his face.

    "Jack... I can see the ship." said Kyle, moments before his death. "It's beautiful. Made of light... and gold... and Nyko's on it, waving at me..." Jack had been weeping openly at that point, head laying against his father's chest. "Gods, he's smiling. I haven't seen that in so long, Jack... He's beckoning to me..." gasped the older man, arm rising weakly as though reaching out to someone unseen to Jack's eyes.

    "I'm leaving with him, Jack... I'm leaving now... Be strong for me, alright?" His father had reached up to stroke his cheek with the same tender affection that Jack had always yearned for from Kyle. Jack's breath caught in his throat, he nodded his head. "That's my boy..." said the dying brunet, lowering his hand. Jack sobbed. Kyle had said it with such pride, and such love, that for one precious moment, he felt as though he truly belonged. That he was actually Kyle's child.

    One blessed moment that seemed to last eternity, yet still be far too short... Then a smile split Kyle's face. His eyes drifted shut. And a final breath left his lips in a satisfied sigh. Such an aura of peace settled on Kyle at that moment, that Jack knew his father wasn't falling into the cold skeletal arms of death, but into the warm waiting embrace of his deceased lover.

    As Kyle went still, Jack wept, unable to help the torrent of grief and fear of loneliness that tore through him at that exact moment. Glaise whimpered beside him, licking his face in an attempt to comfort him.


    Glaise was now doing the same thing. His cold, wet tongue was lapping at Jack's cheek, leaving a trail of cold slobber that dripped off of Jack's jaw with his tears. The hound nudged his master with his muzzle, and Jack threw his arms around his faithful companion. "Oh Glaise... I miss them..." he whispered to the dog.

    Elian stood nearby at a respectful distance, watching as both man and dog mourned the passing of Jack's parents. Glaise howled in the night. The moon was rising in the distance, shedding its milky white light on the earth, making Glaise's fur shine brilliantly. The hound almost seemed to be surrounded my a pale halo.

    Glaise licked Jack's face again and pulled away, padding over to where the sapling lay broken just as Jack tried to align the snapped stem. Glaise breathed onto the sapling, frost crystals streaming from his maw. They swirled around the wood, and latched on, and glowed in the light of the moon. Slowly, the sapling knitted itself back together, though now, glittering frost lined the stem.

    Glaise walked over to the other grave mound and breathed upon it too. Jack watched as the magic in the hound's breath swirled down through the earth, making the outline of the acorn beneath glow faintly. What had Glaise done? Jack didn't know, but he was sure that the hound was simply trying to help. Glaise had, after all, managed to fix the sapling somewhat. Only time would tell if it was actually still alive.

    Jack rose, again wiping the tears from his eyes. He missed his parents, but there was no use weeping over them any longer. It was not like his tears would bring them back. Not now. Not ever. He walked back to Elian, looking a bit lost. The blond had the exact same expression. Neither of them quite knew what to do for each other, but nevertheless, they drew inexorably closer together and enveloped each other in a warm embrace.

    Jack melted into it, Elian resisted it, but as the fates dictated, they remained entwined, each trying to comfort the other, each trying to help the other come to terms with what had recently transpired. Elian rubbed Jack's back. Jack stroked Elian's hair. They were almost lovers, in lovers' repose, were it not for the fact that they feared falling for each other because both were convinced they would eventually get torn apart. Jack less so, having given up pretending it was not going to happen eventually, but nevertheless, apprehensive as well.

    *

    Jack had put Elian in charge of watering and feeding the horses and the milk cows as well as milking the latter. He was just returning from tilling the fallow fields when he heard the nervous nickering of horses, and Glaise's frantic barking. He ran, only to witness ice climbing the side of the barn and stable walls.

    Jack burst in through the door, and found Elian shivering in fetal position in the middle of the barn. A bucket of frozen milk was halfway overturned beside him, kept in place by a block of ice that had grown to catch it. Glaise was sitting beside the distraught blond, barking madly, only stopping once he noticed Jack coming in through the barn doors.

    Now that he'd gotten Jack's attention, Glaise returned to licking Elian's face in an attempt to calm the blond. It had happened again earlier in the week, Elian had succumbed to a panic attack. Jack had very nearly died the last time, slipping and almost falling on a spike of ice that had grown near where Elian had fallen, a fact that did not escape the blond despite the platinum's assurances that he was alright. The blond had been quite despondent after that, refusing to do any work near Jack.

    Now Elian was on his own, and having a panic attack after milking the cows. Jack cursed the dead men who'd raped Elian for this unnecessary burden they'd thrust upon the blond's already-burdened shoulders. He cautiously approached Elian, making no sudden movements to startle the blond.

    "Elian..." he said, loud enough so that the blond could hear. "Elian... It's me, Jack..." He knelt beside Elian and placed a hand on the blond's shoulder. Ice shot up his arm, shattering and then falling off when Jack's own ice resisted its advance.

    The blond was mumbling. "Nonononono..." he kept repeating. "Please don't hurt him... Please..." Elian's eyes were wide with fear, frantic, and scared. They were fixed elsewhere, not seeing what was before him, only what was in his mind's eye. With Jack's every touch, the blond screamed and tried to get away. Elian could feel the phantom hands of his rapist on his body.

    Jack kept Elian close and bodily handled him, lifting him into a sitting position. Elian instantly curled up, burying his face between his knees, wrapping his arms around his legs and rocking back and forth. Glaise whined at Jack, and Jack frowned at his hound. What did the Frosthound expect him to do? Make Elian magically better?

    He frowned at Glaise again. He was only able to do that with physical injuries, not ones of the sort that Elian was having to deal with. He eased Elian's arms from around his knees, and straightened the blond's legs gently. He wrapped an arm around Elian's back and let Elian lay on it. He kissed the blond's forehead, whispering his name to Elian amongst assurances that the blond was safe, and that there would be no harm coming to him.

    It took a few more minutes for Elian to calm down sufficiently to return to the present. Even so, he was startled by Jack and tried to push the platinum away. Jack held him firmly close. Elian squirmed in his arms, but Jack was still stronger. "Elian...?" Jack asked, softly.

    Slowly, the frenzy in the Elian's eyes faded away and he went limp in Jack's arms. "I'm sorry..." he mumbled. "I'm sorry..." he repeated. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." Jack shook Elian slightly, lifting him from the darkness that he was falling back into.

    "Don't you dare blame yourself for it, Elian..." said Jack firmly, blinking back the water in his eyes that threatened to spill. If Elian had been a broken man when Jack had found him, Elian was even more so now. The farmlad brought Elian into his arms, into a warm embrace that he hoped offered safety, but the blond only stiffened in fear, only wrapping his arms around Jack after a few seconds of trying to even his breathing.

    Jack brought his forehead closer to Elian's. In the week they'd spent together, they had ended up becoming a lot more physical with each other. Neither one wanted to acknowledge that they were very slowly falling for the other, but it was the inexorable truth.

    Elian still had a lot of trouble with physicality, his recent brutal rape bringing up disgusting memories of working in brothels and that time he'd been beset upon by the filth of the village he'd gone to. Most days, Elian wouldn't even let Jack near him, but some days, it was easier, and they could be closer. Today was one of those days. Elian needed the company.

    He sobbed into Jack's shoulder, unable to form words to respond to the farmlad. Glaise was there too, licking up the tears that streamed from his eyes. Jack whispered comforts in his ear, and rubbed his back and stroked his hair. It made him feel at home, but he knew he would have to leave soon, if only to protect Jack from further harm that he knew he would bring.
     
  16. The sun shone brilliantly, and, perhaps, to some, harshly. At its zenith, its lofty home at the peak of the dome of the sky, it shed its burning light upon the earth, upon the verdant grass, the lush foliage and the sun-baked earth of the village paths. The air itself was still, though not in apprehension of some ominous event, but nevertheless silent as the dead of night, with nary but a hushed whispering through the leaves of the trees in the outside world. The bells of the convent were tolling the hour, their brass throats ringing out to the townspeople that it was midday and perhaps time to fetch a quick meal to sate their hunger. Those men, women, and children, going about their business, none the wiser to the day's solemnity.

    Deep within the courtyard of the convent, hidden from all the outside world by stone walls higher than even the trees, impermeable by even the most prying of eyes and smooth enough to prevent the most determined of men from scaling them, stood a funeral pyre. Around the carefully arranged pile of tinder, sticks and firewood, stood men, priests of the Order of the Sun, dressed in the black of mourning with heads bowed in silent respect towards the pale, rigid body of the deceased on the pyre. There were three other lines of men, all on the western side of the circle, the middle line longer than the two to either side of it. They faced the pyre as well, their backs turned to the West. The West was no direction for the living to face, for to do so would be to seek the land of the dead.

    Softer. Softer. Softer. The tolling of the bells faded into the daylight. Where all the priests of the Order wore the stifling black cloth, decorated with golden embroidery, of grief, the one man among them who was genuinely distraught far beyond all else, was dressed in the white of purity. Around his legs, breeches of silk, on his torso, a white silken tunic, about his shoulders, a pure white cloak embroidered with suns in golden thread, and finally, shading his face from the radiance of the sun, a white cowl bearing the same symbols as his cloak. For an entire day, when the acolyte had first come into the order, he'd known only pleasure beyond any and all he'd ever felt before, beyond what even his first and last lover had been able to show him, and unsteady feet as his knees wobbled in unfulfilled, pent-up lust and desire.

    Then, the moon set that day, her bright scornful light fading into the dark of the hour before dawn. For but a fleet moment in the passing of the hours, there was only deepest darkness, and deepest despair in the acolyte's heart. He'd known nothing but grief since that day, since that tragic misfortune that had befallen him in his darkest hours. Since that day, there had been no joy in his heart, no happiness in his face. The Cage had even stopped working, and the pleasure it brought its prisoners was lost on him. There was nothing that could compare to the lamentation of his soul.

    As the acolyte stood before the pyre, he did not shake. He did not wring his hands in pleading supplication to deaf gods that would no more hear his plea than a cat would show mercy to a rat. There were no shuddering gasps that racked his lithe frame, no tears falling freely from his eyes, glittering as they went, before splashing upon the ground to water the earth. No worms would feed on his sorrow that day, he'd given them enough to drink of for many days past. Instead, there was only an almost-unbearable ache in his chest, a heart throbbing in the pain of irrevocable loss. He took the corpse's hand in his own and brought the cold flesh, once so bright with life, now coloured with the pallor of death, to his cheek. He savoured the touch. Enjoyed it. Loved it, even, though the man was far beyond the world of the living now.

    He stepped back as one of the oldest priests in the convent, a man who looked as much his age as a dog looked like a tree, began to make circuits around the pyre. In the priest's hands was a censer, plated with gold, and hanging from a net of golden chain wrapped around his hand and fastened to a golden bangle around the priest's wrist. The priest spoke blessings and supplications in a low, meaningful chant, in the words of a tongue so old that the very sound of it being spoken seemed to thrum with power. The acolyte, with his white robes, white cloak, and white cowl retreated from the pyre to the inner edge of the circle of men around it.

    The acolyte's eyes were transfixed on the censer. Even as the golden vessel swung freely back and forth, he could see the stark embers within, burning the incense that escaped in spiralling wisps of smoke that escaped from the censer's holes. They spiralled and danced and soared around the pyre, as though influenced by the words that the priest was chanting. Unbidden, his own lips began to move. They were set in motion by instinct, by his grief, and though he did not know it yet, a great latent power at the very core of his being.

    Softly, like whispers in the wind, like ash in a tempest, like the smoke now swirling around the courtyard, the acolyte spoke the selfsame words that his superior spoke. They dropped from his lips like petals in the breeze, but with each word, power suffused the air itself. Sparks began to appear sporadically in the spiralling smoke, illuminating tendrils with brief flashes of red-orange light.

    On his fifth circuit around the pyre, the old priest eyed the acolyte, their eyes meeting for but a moment. A fleeting gaze was all that the priest needed to speak a message that needed no words. A subtle crinkle in the corners of youthful eyes not worthy of the years they'd seen, a small smile tugging at lips still moving in prayer. There was pride. There was happiness. There was sympathy.

    The sparks became more frequent. High and low, east and west, north and south, they popped into and out of existence like passing dreams. Their warm light, however, remained, filled with love and profound longing. Swirls of smoke were illuminated by the orage glow, while the thicker parts of the gathering clouds of smoke shone with fire from within.

    Slowly, the sparks gave way to little tongues of flame that danced on the tips of the wisps of smoke. All the priests were entranced by the sight, flickering reds and oranges and yellows casting light on the ever-shifting cloud of shadows. The embers from the censer did not die, instead they remained alit and alight, carried along by the smoke in an enchanting dance around and around the pyre.

    The acolyte's voice gained strength as more and more tongues of flame appeared on the elegantly rolling mass of smoke. Louder. Louder still. Both he and the priest chanting as he walked around the pyre spoke in unison, their voices singing in a language long forgotten by the throats of mortal men, in a tongue never meant for them to speak. Then all sound stopped as both apprentice and priest froze where they stood, and the smoke, with all its tongues of flame rushed into the heart of the pyre.

    Eyes ablaze with power, the acolyte raised his head to the sky and spoke, at the exact same moment as the priest.

    "ðocchyn"

    "Fire."

    The pyre leapt up in flames with a great whoosh. The raging inferno soared far above the tall walls of the convent, reaching vainly for the sun. As though possessed, the acolyte slowly stepped towards the shooting flames. There were sounds of distress from the gathered priesthood, but they were all as equally spellbound as the lone acolyte. Much unlike him, however, they were rooted to where they stood.

    As he neared the pyre, the acolyte could feel the searing heat wash over him. He could see the threads of his clothing begin to smolder, blacken, burn. He reached out a hand and touched the wall of flame that was still attempting to leap even higher. The fire parted as though bowing in reverence to his touch. He reached down, caressing the side of the corpse's face even as the fire consumed the body's hair.

    The man threw back his cowl, revealing fiery-red cropped hair and a single tear rolling down his cheek. Rein brought his lips to Tristan's one last time, a final goodbye to the only man he had ever, and he was certain, would ever truly love. As their lips were sealed together in a promise that they could not know would last eternity, the fire wreathed them both.

    The raging flames seared Tristan's flesh, turned his skin black, and reduced his bones to ashes. Roaring fire devoured every thread of cloth on Rein's body, and burned away the belt fastened around his waist. But the metal contraption remained firmly in place. The metal began to grow red hot around the redhead's manhood, searing itself, welding itself onto his flesh. It was agony, but Rein could not scream, nothing quite compared to the pain of watching Tristan burn away into nothing.

    Rein stumbled backwards as the wood holding the pyre together burned away as well, joining Tristan's ashes as they spiralled away in the warm breeze that had just begun to blow. "Goodbye..." whispered Rein, his voice carrying in the wind to accompany the ashes wherever they found their way to. The priest, freed from whatever sorcery had rooted him in place, lowered the censer and knelt beside Rein.

    He saw the nasty burns and where the metal had pretty much welded itself onto the redhead's skin. "Child, you need seeing to." He lowered his hand to just under Rein's navel, feeling the still-warm metal, prodding it, trying to see if perhaps the Cage only seemed to be welded on. It was well and truly melted onto the redhead's skin, and perhaps the only way to rid Rein of it would be to melt the metal the rest of the way off. Rein shook his head and waved away the offer of medical help.

    "Not until the rites are finished... Please... Send him on to rest... To the gods..." whispered Rein, gripping the priest's arm tightly. His teeth were gritted in pain, both from the grief that had clamped a vicelike grip on him, and from the sheer agony of the cage melted onto his skin and his manhood. He would never be potent again, not in this lifetime. He laughed bitterly. Nor would he ever need to be.

    "Very well..." said the priest, not once taking his eyes off of Rein's prone, naked form. The subtle tremors that ran down the redhead's body were not lost on him. He could tell that the pain was beginning to catch up to the acolyte. The priest rose and motioned silence to the rest of the priesthood that had gathered. They had all lapsed into momentary hushed discussions of what had just occurred. They had never before seen such sorcery being worked.

    "It is time to give the final blessing..." The priest retrieved his censer, and swung it up towards the sky once. Twice. Thrice. There was no need for him to speak the next words in the Old Tongue, no need for him to speak in the language that predated Vampiri by countless millennia. The final words were words that transcended language, that transcended lifetimes, that transcended worlds.

    "May the Moon guide your sails to the West, Tristan, son of Man."

    Rein's eyes shot wide open at the words. Those... those words were forbidden ones. "Those are the words of the Old Gods!"

    The priest shook his head. "No, son of Fire, these words are the words of the Gods, both old and new, both forgotten and yet to be begotten..."
     
  17. Jack climbed the stairs having just finished with the farm chores. The door to his room was open. He ducked his head inside to see if Glaise had made it in, but the hound was not there. The bed itself seemed very slightly moved out of position, no longer exactly the way he'd left it earlier in the morning. If anything, though, the room seemed cleaner, more tidied up. Had Elian been in there? He raised an eyebrow, suspicious.

    Jack heard soft grunts and panting from the other room, among numerous sounds of discomfort. What was Elian doing? He walked over to the door of the room which was slightly ajar, but could not see much inside. What he could see seemed to be a blur of wood being swung through the air. He pushed the door open and stood in the doorframe, heart fluttering at the sight that greeted him. Elian was shirtless and a layer of sweat -- Jack had become painfully aware that despite the ice within them, they could still sweat under duress -- covered him.

    In Elian's hand was a wooden sword, and it was spinning about the blond as though it had a life of its own. Elian was softly grunting and panting as he went through the forms of the sword. He'd trained in the art of swordplay for so long, that the forms and stances of the discipline continued to come to him despite years of being out of practice. It was one thing that they came to him, but to put them into motion proved to be far more difficult than he had anticipated. At this point in time, Elian felt as though his arms were lead.

    When he'd found the wooden sword, Elian was more than a little surprised. He had a feeling he shouldn't have found it or touched it, but he could not resist it's allure. The blond nearly dropped the thing when he noticed Jack in the doorway, watching him slackjawed. "I-I-I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snoop..." Elian hid the sword behind him as though it would change the fact that he'd just been using it. "I... I was just cleaning your room and I saw it and I couldn't help it..."

    Jack shook his head and smiled genuinely at Elian. The blond breathed a sigh of relief. "No, by all means, continue..." said Jack, a hint of awe evident in his voice. He'd never seen such beautiful and fluid motions. Elian lacked grace, probably from lack of practice, but the forms themselves lent much beauty to the swordsman's movements.

    "I... I think I'm done for now..." said the blond, sheepishly handing the wooden sword back to Jack. "I'm sorry... I won't rummage through your stuff again..." said the blond, blushing at being caught red-handed. That being said, what he thought he was doing trying out sword forms again, he didn't entirely know. It was not like he was ever going to get his hands on good steel again. Unlikely that he would ever have a use for the skill that had been forced onto him by his father.

    Jack blocked the sword with his hand and insisted that Elian keep it. "It seems like you can use it more than I do... I was just fantasizing when I was a kid about maybe being able to use a sword someday..." Elian smiled at Jack and sat on the bed. The farmlad sat beside him, but at an arm's length away. The blond smiled at Jack again, this time, appreciatively. He didn't feel comfortable with the proximity. "How did you learn how to use the sword so well?"

    Elian set the sword on his lap, the handle pointing towards Jack. He looked at the platinum and breathed deeply. Perhaps it was time that someone knew his story. "It is tradition, where I come from, that the eldest son be taught how to wield the sword, and for him to teach the art to his young brothers in turn." Elian's mind's eye turned to the past, and the many years he'd spent with tutors simply learning to handle the sword and then to swinging it, and then to using it to kill.

    "Where do you hail from, Elian?" asked Jack, genuinely curious as he'd never heard of such a custom save perhaps from Nyko who spoke of how his father had taught him the art of the quarterstaff. Nyko had passed on the art to Jack and the farmlad, unassuming as he might seem, was decently well-versed in the nonlethal weapon.

    "I'm from Vamara..." Jack raised an eyebrow at the blond. He'd never heard of the place. Not even once. Elian saw the confusion on the platinum's face and smiled. "Not many know of it, but it was once a beautiful kingdom by the sea."

    "Once?" The word sent chills racing down Jack's spine. There was something familiar about the name Vamara, but he couldn't quite place it. As though a memory long forgotten, reawakened by a single sentence. It was but a fleeting feeling, gone almost as suddenly as it had come.

    "Once..." Elian said sadly. The last he'd seen of Vamara's beautiful shores and the majestic placid sea was but a fleeting moment in between his tutors, the next he'd seen, the soft waves crashing against the shore were frozen still in eternal slumber. "I set off an eternal winter... and last I saw of it, gone were its beautiful sands, it's gorgeous beaches." Elian could see it in his mind's eye, those long stretches of sand that he'd played along as a child... replaced by icy beaches and waves frozen in the middle of crashing.

    "Couldn't you lift the eternal winter?" asked Jack, inching closer to Elian. The blond inched away. The platinum hung his head, resigning to Elian's wish to keep distant. He raised his eyes and met Elian's inquiring gaze. "I mean, you did manage to unfreeze me..."

    "I didn't even know I could do that, Jack... And even if I did, I don't know how." Elian shook his head and buried his face in his hands. "I..." He was not sure he should tell Jack, but there was something inside him that demanded that he tell his story, that Jack deserved to know why Elian was who he was. "I was the crown prince."

    Jack's eyes widened. "T-the crown prince?" He was but a farmlad, but he knew about nobility, the people that his fathers told him had most authority over peasants like himself. "I-I-I shouldn't address you by Elian, then, my lord" muttered Jack. For some reason the words tumbled out of his mouth heavy on his tongue. They were unnatural. Unwanted.

    Elian blushed and reached over and smacked Jack on the shoulder. What possessed him to do that, he didn't know. "I'm no lord, Jack. Not anymore." Elian gestured to himself. "Prince Elian Calland of Vamara is no more. Dead. Buried." Jack nodded somberly. Elian did not act like someone of noble birth, and if he did, he acted like a lord that had lived amongst peasants all his life. He was one of them now.

    "I can't say I miss him, Jack. Maybe I did the first few months when I ran away from home..." There was a wistful look on Elian's face, an almost nostalgic one. "But I think I just missed having a soft bed and a warm hearth to sleep by. Vamara was almost never beset by winter, and even the worst one in the books was a mild one by the standards of this land... They had to build a hearth for me, the cursed prince."

    Jack opened his mouth to speak, but Elian stopped him before he could. "I know, I know, you don't think it's a curse... but I do. In any case, I don't miss him, Jack. I don't miss him because he was expected to kill his own father."

    ---

    A slender hand ran down Andrew's now-chiseled chest. Ever since Elian had run away, he'd put in hours upon hours upon hours of training and honing his physique. He was frustrated. He was angry. He wanted nothing more than his brother back, and his father could do nothing but provide him with half-explanations and un-truths, ever the politician.

    It had been a year since that fateful day, and Andrew had built himself into a marvelous specimen of a man, with glistening musculature, well-defined and firm. Where there had once been childish fat, there was now only lean meat. His arms bulged like Elian's never would. His thighs strong, but not nearly as wide as the weaponsmaster's that were much like tree-trunks in their own right.

    "You know..." whispered the slender, beautiful redhead beside him. "Your father has failed in his tasks as a king..." Tempter, mused Andrew as the slender man crawled his fingers over Andrew's well-defined chest. "You are the heir apparent now..." The man drawled in a pleasant, arousing voice that sank straight into Andrew's cock. "...You can become king."

    "Hans" grumbled the young prince. "Hans... I can't defeat him yet." His redhead paramour swung up on top of him, pinning his arms down to the bed. Andrew struggled to push Hans off of him, but to no avail. His wrists were frozen to the bed. A lecherous smile graced Hans' face and he leaned down to kiss the young prince. A flutter of excitement grew in Andrew's chest. They were, after all, a forbidden pair in the eyes of the gods. Not that the priests could do anything to the crown prince, not now that he was the only remaining heir.

    "Oh yes, Andrew... Yes you can..." Hans reached down and quickly undid the laces that tied the prince's silken breeches together and quickly slipped them off. He himself was dressed in quite compromising clothes, each and every article accentuating the curves and dips of his body that he knew Andrew lusted so much after.

    "My father..." Andrew groaned as Hans breathed upon his rigid cock. The breath was frigid cold, but he liked it. Ever since his ice powers had developed, he'd liked it. His white hair, now much more akin to Elian's than his brown had once been, was splayed out behind his head. Hans stopped his toying with Andrew's cock to kiss him again and run his hands through the prince's hair.

    "Is the most powerful man this side of the known world..." Andrew staggered through the words as Hans pulled away only to come back and continue the kiss while languidly stroking the prince's cock. Damn. The redhead knew just how to push the right buttons. "The most skilled swordsman... the most feared king..." Andrew gasped as Hans nibbled at his jaw. "The most ruthless general..."

    Hans chuckled and traced a circle around Andrew's nipple with a single finger. "And old" he said, going down on Andrew and engulfing the prince's entire cock in the warmth of his mouth in one swift action.


    ---

    "What?" asked Jack after a moment of uncomfortable silence. "Kill your own father?" The platinum shuddered. He barely was able to take burying his own father, he could not imagine the abomination that was killing his own parent. Sure, neither Nyko nor Kyle were his birth-father, but they were as much fathers to him as though he was their own flesh and blood. He could not imagine having to kill either one of them. Nyko had temper issues, yes, but he was mostly pleasant. Kyle was morose, but loving, and Jack couldn't bear the thought of sliding a dagger through his ribs.

    The farmlad just stared at Elian, mouth slightly agape. "It's a monstrous culture, I know..." said Elian, a bitter laugh slipping through his lips. The blond shook his head. "I couldn't bear the thought. My father was a ruthless man... A savage man as some would say... I got not a single peep of affection, not a single droplet of love from him, but he was my father all the same." Elian trembled. "He could not bear to face me for my curse, and the fact that he would someday die by my hands... He called upon the greatest swordsmasters in the kingdom, and it was they that taught me, not my father as custom dictated."

    "The greatest King of Vamara, they called him, for he conquered far and wide, expanding our borders far beyond where they had been in living memory." Elian had a sad smile on his face. "He fancied perhaps living forever. My very existence challenged that fancy, and he did not like it, not a single shred..." Tears streamed down Elian's face, freezing as they left his skin. "...This curse that plagues me... He feared it." The blond balled his fists, ice slowly creeping up his arms. "Imagine that, Jack... your own father, terrified by the sight of you..."

    "I don't have to..." confessed Jack. His own fathers had demons that haunted them until their last days... Kyle had been terrified of dying right up until he saw Nyko on the ship, waiting to take him to the Westerlands. There had been a day when Kyle thought Jack was death in the guise of his adopted son. The look of terror on his father's face would never leave Jack's mind. Never. It had hurt, a lot, to see his own father so afraid of him. "My father Kyle..."

    Elian nodded solemnly, stopping Jack from saying anything more. He understood what the platinum was saying. "I was ever the obedient child, trying my damned best to get my father's attention, to maybe get even the slightest dredge of affection... I never got it, but I learned the way of the sword as he wanted me to. My tutors all told me that I rivaled my father in raw skill, and if not for his immense experience, I could probably have taken the crown..."

    "What did you do?" Jack asked, feeling suddenly cold. There was an inexplicable chill in the air as Elian talked of the twisted customs of his homeland.

    "I told them to not be stupid. They insisted that I try. I told them I would do no such thing..." Elian sighed. It was a deep, heavy sigh that told of much suffering and an enormous burden. "My father heard of it and had me beaten for being a coward... by the Palace Inquisitor. The greatest and only legal torturer in the city of Vamara."

    ---

    "Father, where is Elian?" Andrew demanded, striding powerfully through the doors of the throne room. His father was hunched over in his throne, bolts of ince uncontrollably shooting from the hands that he held closed to his chest. Andrew ducked, narrowly avoiding one bolt that went right at his head. The King glared at him and straightened, the ice coming under rein as the ruler rose to his full regal stature.

    "Your brother is gone. Dead. Dead to the kingdom" snarled the king, ire and irritation evident in his voice. Andrew had put forth the question every day since the search party had returned empty-handed. His headstrong youngest son was a nuisance, a pest that he wanted so dearly to get rid of if not for the fact that Andrew was well beloved by the people, and the gods.

    "Dead to you" said Andrew grimly. A hush ran through the gathered nobility. They had been watching with fear and bated breath as the king struggled with his ice. It seemed as though the curse was at its most insidious and most volatile within their beloved and feared monarch. "You've always hated my brother. Always despised him. Always
    feared him."

    The king slammed his fist on the arm of the throne, cracking the layer of ice that had built up over it. "How dare you?! Insolent son of a whore!" The court gasped. Never had they seen their king so angry, so out of balance, so off-kilter, so... unstable. Akthar was cruel, ruthless, unkind and merciless, but above all he was cold and calculating. Even the queen, normally emotionless as the ice that swirled within all of them, flinched at the king's outburst.

    He did nothing without much thought, without weighing the odds and the gains and likely losses. No, they had never seen their king so taken by emotion as now. Hushed conversation began to rise about the court. The king slammed his fist on the throne again, sending out a pulse of ice through the floor, rooting everyone but himself where they stood.

    "You
    feared him... Imagine my surprise when I realized that. Akthar the Bloody, Greatest King of Vamara, Restorer of Birthrights, Rebuilder of Empires, afraid of his own fledgling son." Andrew snarled at his father. He had had enough. He loved his brother, perhaps more so than was appropriate for brothers, but it was truth nonetheless. If Akthar was not going to take the search for the young prince Calland seriously, then Andrew was going to in his stead.

    The king glared at his son, motioned at his guards, and opened his mouth to speak. He was about to sentence Andrew to seven hundred lashes at the feet of the Inquisitor, but Andrew knew better. He interrupted his father before words could flow from his mouth. "I, Andrew Calland, Heir Apparent of the kingdom of Vamara, do hereby challenge my father, Akthar Calland the Bloody, The Great King of Vamara, The Restorer of Birthrights, The Return of Old Vamara, The Might of the Storm and Kinslayer for the Crown."

    The king's eyes bulged from their sockets in outrage, surprise, and ultimately, fear. Again silence fell on the panicked crowd. The king beckoned forth his most trusted adviser, and growled in a low voice audible only to the two of them. "Is this legal by our customs and laws of succession?"

    "I am afraid so, your majesty. You did, just moments ago, declare the First Prince dead." The king narrowed his eyes at his advisor and the poor man found himself impaled on the far wall by an enormous spike of ice. As his blood dripped to the floor, the king drew his longsword and sickle as he strode down from the dais that held his throne.

    "Let it be known that today, Andrew Calland, my son, ceased to exist, and that Andrew Calland, Heir Apparent to the Throne of Vamara will die with him." The king snarled and swung the greatsword at Andrew who deftly dodged it, having seem the move coming from a mile away. His father was getting old, and despite his years of experience, was becoming more and more stuck to one style of battle, unable to adapt to a quickly changing battlefield.

    All that Andrew had with him were his hands and the ice that existed within him. His father swung again, but Andrew was one step ahead. He sidestepped and brought his hand down on his father's neck. The king stumbled from the blow, crashing into a nearby pillar. The king rose, and spat blood from his mouth before charging his son once more.

    This time Andrew did not dodge. He stretched his hands out to block the blades and as they approached his flesh, the air itself almost turned solid from the sheer bitter cold that the white-haired prince summoned. The metal became so brittle that instead of hewing through Andrew's arms, the blades shattered. The trick was one that Hans had taught him, and one, he realized, that his paramour had given him just for such an occasion.

    The king fell to his knees, stunned, but Andrew was not yet done. He picked up his father by the throat and slammed him against the nearest pillar. "If you will not search for my brother because you fear him so, then I will in your stead. Let it be known that today, I am no longer Andrew Calland, Heir to the Throne of Vamara, but that I am now Andrew Calland, King of Vamara, and Kinslayer."

    When the king was on the verge of suffocating, when his hands had stopped uselessly scrabbling at Andrew's fingers, when his face had nearly turned purple from the lack of air, Andrew let his father fall. The king fell in a crumpled heap on the floor, and the queen ran to his side, tears and complete terror in her eyes. They would have one last day to get their affairs in order. The next, they would be ritual sacrifices to the gods.

    *

    The wind was biting cold, but it did not bother Andrew, nor did it bother Hans, who was leaning against him, watching the proceedings. Andrew waved the redhead away as his future wife approached. He shuddered at the thought of ever having to couple with her. Fortunately, he had a plan. The people of Vamara had gathered by the frozen sea. A small portion of it had been sawn through to reveal the yet-flowing waters underneath the ice. Above it was a dock with a trapdoor set in the middle.

    Akthar had been less than willing to resign to his fate, to follow customs that had been followed for millennia. As a result both he and his wife were now naked, bound and gagged and tied to a massive rock on trapdoor. An elder intoned "Today we celebrate the crowning of a new king for this, the oldest shard of a mighty old empire. It is from the might and memory of Old Vamara that we draw our strength, our authority, our divine right to rule these lands. May you, Andrew Calland, bring back the might of Old Vamara that our kingdom may grow again into the Empire it once was, and that our people may yet again enjoy golden years of prosperity."

    "With the coming of a new ruler is the departure of the old ones. We of Vamara were born of the sea, and to the sea we shall return. We ask that the gods of old take the bodies of this once-great king and his queen and return them to their halls beneath the waves where they belong. We ask that the new gods, they three that rule the skies, they three, the rulers of the suns, embrace these people and give them seats at their table." The elder nodded to Andrew and he pulled the rope.

    For a moment, nothing happened, and silence was absolute save for the whistling of the wind. Then, the hinges swung open, and the trapdoor spilled the old king and queen into the frigid waters below. Muffled screams from the two were heard as they fell, but as soon as they were beneath the waves, the waters froze above them, giving them no hope of ever escaping their eventual demise beneath the icy waters. They no longer belonged to the land of the living. Now, the servants of the old sea-god would take them to his hall in the West.

    The elder beckoned to the man standing nearby with the golden diadem of the king and the silver circlet of the consort. He raised the golden crown to the skies, and the clouds broke for but one glorious moment, sending a brazen bar of sunlight through to illuminate the crown and the young King that knelt to receive it. When the crown had settled on Andrew's temples, the sunlight faded away, as though a distant memory gone too soon to enjoy. It had been well over a year since the sun had last been seen over Vamara, and their kingdom was suffering for it.

    Andrew raised his hand, stopping the ceremony. The woman who'd been promised to him as wife, kneeling beside him to receive her circlet, frowned in consternation. What woman would not? In truth, what mortal man would not? To be interrupted mere moments away from receiving such authority and power was a truly frustrating thing. To be denied it entirely was such even more. "With this crown upon my brow, I now wield the power of the state, the sovereignty of Vamara... My first decree is that from this day forth, any man is free to marry whomsoever he wants, no matter the parts or the gender."

    A hush fell over the crowd, and some of the elders shook their heads in disapproval. "To this end, I declare that my consort shall not be this hideous witch, but my true beloved, Hans Westergard." The redhead came forth, dressed in his revealing, sensous leather and wrapped his arm around Andrew's.

    The elder that was presiding over the coronation frowned and stepped in. He berated Andrew. "This is not something that is for you to change, though you may be king of Vamara now. We have laws. Ancient customs. You may not change them simply to marry such... abominations." The woman nodded in agreement. Andrew growled in anger.

    "I am the king!" he yelled, his voice booming across the sea and the people gathered. It silenced any and all voices, both supportive and dissident. "It will be as I say!" The protests began and grew louder. It was mostly from the elderly portion of the populace. "I am the king!" Andrew bellowed at the top of his lungs. Hans smiled beside him, tracing the king's chest through his tunic languidly, as though there was not a riot sparking around them.

    The elder opened his mouth to challenge Andrew again, but was unable to speak through the spike of ice that had all of a sudden erupted into existence, impaling him from asshole through to the top of his head. As his blood dripped on the clear ice, the protests grew even louder.

    The woman he'd been promised to joined in with the protests. She was the next to succumb to Andrew's ire, a spike impaling her as well. Then the next elder. Then the next. After the third impaling, the people had begun to notice, and they remained silent. Hans, however, was not done. He had seen and knew each and every one that had cried nay to their king. He pointed at them in turn, and one by one the elders that had spoken, died, impaled.

    Andrew summoned his voice once more. "I am this kingdom's ruler now, and
    my word is law."

    ---

    "Our customs dictate that if the heir wishes to accede to the throne, he must challenge the existing king to a duel and defeat him." Elian said with a sigh. "When that is done, the king is expected to 'return to the sea' with his queen, in a ritual drowning..." The look of horror that crossed Jack's face was enough to tell Elian that he was not the only one that thought that Vamara's customs were horrible and archaic. They were remnants of an old fallen empire that spanned beyond the reach of eagles' eyes... If the stories were to be believed, Old Vamara was truly a sight to behold.

    The soaring spires and elegant domes of his birth city were but shadows of the old glory of the empire. The city of Vamara itself, the dying core of that vast old star, burning but dimly in the darkness of the age that followed the fall of Old Vamara, no longer as blindingly radiant as it had been back in the prime of its years. "Is that why you ran away?" asked Jack, softly. The farmlad knew he would have done the same, but Elian shook his head sadly.

    "No... The true reason I ran away was far more tragic..." Elian shuddered. "I hurt my brother... killed my first lover... cursed my people... and destroyed my kingdom..." Tears fell from the blond's eyes. Jack slid closer and wiped them from Elian's face. When the blond did not retreat from the touch, the farmlad threw his arm around Elian in an attempt to give him solace, to give him some semblance of comfort despite the deep emotional pain Jack was sure the blond was experiencing.

    "Elian..." Jack began, pausing almost immediately after because he did not know what else exactly to say. "Elian..." No other words were forthcoming, but he mustered as much sympathy without abject pity in his words. "Elian, I'm sure you didn't mean any of it..." Jack could scarcely even fix in his mind's eye the image of Elian deliberately hurting his younger brother, cursing his people, and bringing an entire kingdom to its knees.

    Simply put, it was something that Jack simply did not think Elian had the capacity to do, what with all the blame he was levying on himself needlessly. No, the farmlad was sure that Elian had far too much of a consciousness to have done all of those things willfully, in a malicious, deliberate attempt to wipe his old home from the face of the earth.

    Much to Jack's surprise, the blond threw his arms the farmlad's neck, sobbing. Every ragged inhalation, every shuddering exhalation sent tremors down Jack's body. "No... No I didn't..." Elian cried into Jack's shoulders, mumbling all the while. "I never meant it... never meant any of it..." he lamented. He wanted foriveness, but he was sure that the gods, spiteful as they were, would never give it to him. Would never allow him the slightest chance for redemption.

    ---

    Jack started awake in his bed. The windows were open, and milky bars of the waning moon's light streamed into the room, bathing his pale skin and platinum hair with its soft glow. The night was cool, not icy, for once. Ever since the incident, when the men that had pursued him for a week had finally caught up with Elian and raped him, the blond had been having nightmares, making the temperatures in the farmstead plummet.

    That night, Elian was sound asleep, enjoying a brief respite from the nightmares that haunted him even in his waking hours. There was no concerned whining from Elian's new nightly companion, Glaise, nor was there any urgent howling, calling for Jack to come help wake the blond up. Jack's faithful friend, his dog-turned-frosthound, had taken quite a liking to the young prince, and with his nightly vigils at Elian's side, seemed bent on making entirely sure no harm would come to the blond. For that reason alone, Jack admired Glaise's loyalty and pressing concern for the man that had captivated, albeit inadvertently, his heart.

    While Jack appreciated that Glaise stayed by Elian's side through the long night, protecting him from whatever manner of horrid dreams would visit him, he sometimes wished that Glaise would come and sleep at his side. With both his fathers dead, and his hound preoccupied elsewhere, there was no one to protect Jack from the terrors that prowled his dreams. The farmboy shivered despite the night's relative warmth, remembering the haunting images that had plagued him not too long ago. The darkness of the room, coupled with the pale light of the moon, provided the perfect canvas upon which the very visages of Jack's fears were brought to life by his mind's eye.

    ---

    Bais was suckling her calf in her special pen. After all, the cow would be spending the next long while with her infant. There had originally been two, but the horrid, piteous keening that the cow had made when the baby bull was born meant only one thing -- it was a stillborn. Jack had seen tears brimming in Elian's eyes, and he felt a profound sadness in himself as well. Though the cow may be an animal, there was no denying that there was some sort of intelligence behind her seemingly-dead eyes.

    Of all the cows in the herd, it was Bais that was most comfortable with Glaise. She showed no alarm when Glaise jumped into the pen as she was suckling her last remaining calf, a young cow like herself. Jack had seen it before, the calf would grow up to be a freemartin, sterile and unable to bear calves of her own. Had he been his father Nyko, he would've culled her from the herd then and there. There was no reason to keep her around other than for meat.

    Yet Jack was not his father, and his heart held a lot of love for the animals on his quaint farm. He could barely watch as Glaise snapped up the stillborn bull before leaping out of the pen, a predator in all his grace. Glaise padded over to Jack, licking the blood from his maw, and stretched out on the ground beside his master.

    The farmlad needed not to look, only listen, to know that Elian had not taken the frosthound's actions as well as Jack had, even if the platinum had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. From behind him he could hear the retching. Jack was fairly certain the blond's breakfast had made a second appearance. He did not blame Elian, he'd not thought Glaise could do such a thing.

    Jack turned to the blond, and their eyes met as Elian was wiping the vomit from the corners of his mouth. It was then that it hit him, like a bolt of lightning out from the clear blue. The first calf had been born. Elian was leaving. The sadness in Elian's eyes froze him in place, and he found himself unable to speak.

    *

    A part of him wanted Jack to scream out "No!" or "Don't go!" or even "Take me with you!" as he watched Elian heft the pack that he had painstakingly put together for the blond. Inside was clothing, rations, and basic tools necessary for survival in a life on the run. From what, Jack no longer knew, for as far as they were concerned, the immediate threats to Elian's safety were no longer on the mortal plane. "Don't go..." begged Jack's mind silently, the lump in his throat barring any and all words from utterance. "Don't go... It's not safe out there..." pleaded his heart as Elian adjusted the leather strap on his shoulder.

    The blond looked up and met Jack's eyes, and for a moment, the entire world seemed to freeze around them. There was a profound sadness in both their eyes, and an unmistakeable happiness with it. Elian was sad to leave, he did not want to, but knew that he had to. Nevertheless, both he and Jack, though they dreaded their separation, were happy that they had met someone like the other...

    "Jack..." said Elian slowly, the sadness palpable in his voice. The blond was standing in the doorway, light streaming in behind him. "Thank you... for everything" he said. Jack's throat was still locked up and all he could afford Elian was a nod as he tried to blink away tears. Elian had tears in his eyes as well, he really did not want to go. "It's alright..." said the blond, a sad but sincere smile on his face. "Remember, I promised that I will come back for you if I can."

    Jack nodded again. Before he could stop himself, his arms were wrapped firmly around Elian, a gesture of comfort, goodwill, and a final attempt to fix in his mind the feeling of the blond's icy warmth. Elian drew back, and kissed Jack on the cheek before he turned around to return to the world outside the farmboy's. Just before he entered the treeline, the blond looked back, and smiled, waving goodbye to Jack and Glaise.

    Then a shadow rippled behind Elian, from between the trees. From the distance, Jack could barely make out its face, but he needed not to see more than a shred of it to feel his veins run cold. It was a creature of the grave. Its skin was mottled gray and black and white and blue where the frost was still firmly embedded. Here and there were jagged missing chunks of flesh, exposing the gleaming white bones underneath. A skeletal grin was permanently affixed on its face which was half-covered in ice, and partly-sloughed off.

    That face was one that Jack would recognize anywhere. It was one of the men that had attacked Elian. The very same one that had raped him. "Elian!" shouted Jack, trying to warn the blond, but it was too late. The shambling creature had made its way to Elian and a single touch tore off all the blond's clothes and dissolved the pack that Jack had lovingly constructed.

    "No!" he yelled, even as he ran through the threshold of the house, towards Elian. Too late. One gesture was all it took from the shade. One gesture to make a horizontal slit on Elian's throat that instantly began to spurt blood. The blond's eyes grew wide with surprise, and then terror, and then... absolute agony.

    Jack saw the spectre press his hips into Elian's bare backside, and in his rage he cursed the man for his perversions even from beyond the grave. The spectre did not move. Glaise was bounding at full speed towards Elian, but the blond seemed to retreat further away with each leap. Jack saw Elian's abdomen grow larger, a large round protrusion taking the place of his flat belly.

    Elian's face and lips were contorted in a voiceless scream of agony, and his eyes were alight with the rage of the Coldsnap, but no ice was coming. The distention grew larger. And larger. And larger. Larger still it grew until a sickening ripping sound filled the air, loud and clear to Jack as though he was right beside it. The flesh of Elian's belly tore clean off, his entrails spilling out from the sheer size of the undead cock that had split him apart.

    "NO!" screamed Jack as the light in Elian's eyes died, and both he and the creature melted into darkness like ashes into the wind. "NO!" he lamented as he fell to his knees, powerless to stop what had just happened. "NO!" he cried as he lost his voice and he pounded his fury into the earth. And then, blissful wakefulness.


    ---

    Jack turned on his side, heart still hammering from the vivid recollection of the nightmare that had plagued his sleeping moments. In that ghastly visage of the world of the living, Elian had died a gruesome death at the hands of the un-dead corpse of his rapist, torn apart by the very same cock that had broken him. Jack shuddered at the thought. It was just a nightmare, he told himself, trying to find some comfort. It was just a nightmare.

    "The creatures of myth and folklore could not be true, right?" The platinum asked himself, breaking the silence of the night. He was no longer so sure. He had been so staunch in his belief that the tall tales told by his fathers had been nothing but exactly that, tall tales. No longer. When the beautiful pale golden-haired creature of Winter had crossed paths with Jack, his sincerely held belief of the normalcy of the world around him was shattered.

    He himself carried the selfsame ice that was at the heart of Elian's problems, that was at the heart of his crippling self-doubt and self-loathing. Jack shivered again, the night air suddenly feeling colder than it truly was. At the very least, he was sure that neither Elian's rapist or the man that had attempted to take the farmboy against his will, were going to come back from the special place that the East held for them. They were strewn on the hillside by the farmstead, sinew, muscle, flesh, blood, and shards of bone, slowly thawing in the heat of the summer sun.

    Jack shivered again, a chill that cut right to the bone traveled up his back. He had to protect Elian. He had to fix whatever it was that was broken inside the blond. Whatever it was that his ice could neither reach nore cure. Perhaps the dream was but a passing nightmare, one that had come many a time before, but there was one thing it made clear for Jack: he had to fix Elian, or if he let the blond leave the farm before he did, the blond would probably get himself into deeper trouble than he had been before he'd met Jack.

    The farmboy rolled over to face the other side of the bed, curling into up into himself. The very idea of Elian being hurt was like a spearhead being stabbed into his chest. Nevertheless, he could do no more about that until the morning came. For the time being, he had to live with his own waking nightmares. He breathed deeply, the breath coming in raggedly through his clenched teeth. He could feel the ice within him writhing, coiling, squirming as the fear in his heart grew. The air turned even colder.

    The wound in his back, just above the muscle of his buttocks burned with new pain. It was healed, there was nothing there but a jagged scar, but it still hurt whenever Jack remembered what had happened just a few days past. He remembered being bound, and gagged, bent over the bed. He remembered the cold steel against his skin as his clothes were sliced off, his virgin hole exposed to their attackers. Jack buried his face in his hands, shivering as he remembered the feeling of the blunt member pressing insistently at his most private orifice.

    Jack felt blood rush to his cheeks, remembering the feeling of the rough rope on his arms, and his powerless struggle against his bondage. He remembered the feeling of his mouth being stuffed with the gag. He remembered the fear at being held prisoner, at being maimed without even so much as being able to do anything against it. He remembered... liking it.

    A strangled sob escaped his lips. He whimpered. He had liked the feeling of being powerless, being at the mercy of someone else. Had liked almost being raped. He felt blood rush to his cock, felt the engorgment of his member from arousal. A small broken sound escaped his lips as he reached down, unable to stop his body from doing what it always did out of habit. He stroked his shaft up and down with urgency, bucking his hips into his hand, wanting release.

    He stiffened slightly, toes curling slightly inward as he felt his orgasm bubble up within him. He squirmed, stroking faster and faster, the image in his mind's eye, that of being bound and fucked without agency over what was happening to him. He straightened, legs locking as he let out a loud moan. His cock pulsed and spurted his milky white seed all over his tunic, soiling the rough linen.

    Whimpering, Jack rolled on his side. His cheeks were burning, but no longer from arousal, and much more from shame. Shame that he'd liked being tied up. That he'd liked being powerless. That he'd liked almost being raped. What kind of a man was he?

    He felt disgusted with himself, but not only for liking what was never supposed to be liked, but also, because in his mind's eye, it wasn't Reg or Gav binding him, it was Elian.

    As Jack drifted off into sleep once more, neither his heart nor his mind realized that he never had to struggle, never had to fight against his bonds when Gav had tried to take him against his will. Elian had killed both men before Jack could be taken advantage of. His arousal was entirely his, a fantasy triggered by his experience at the hands of Tristan's men.

    ---

    The sun was high in the sky. The fields had been sown, and watered and Jack was reclining in the shade of a nearby tree. It had been nearly another week since their small talk in the bedroom about Elian's past, and indeed, the two young men had grown closer. Elian still feared allowing Jack close to him some days but the farmlad's patience, his words of comfort, and just the raw affection that he now so openly displayed helped Elian in his recovery a lot. Then, there was also the strenuous farm work that helped him take his mind off of things for a few precious hours at a time.

    Jack watched in awe, sweat streaming from his forehead, as Elian hacked away at the ground in the vegetable garden. The blond was more than a little immersed in the work, and his eyebrows were knotted in concentration. It was almost as though Elian wanted to make perfectly straight rows for the plants. He was making an admirable effort at it, as well. Jack chuckled, stroking Glaise's back as the hound panted beside him.

    One of the new issues that seemed to have cropped up for his now wolf-like dog was that Glaise seemed to tire so much more in the heat of the sun than he used to. The hound was far more effective at coralling the sheep and keeping grazing animals in check, but all the same, he could not quite do as much as he once did. The fact puzzled Jack as both he and Elian thrived in the heat. Both young men revelled in the warmth of the sun. It scared away the insidious cold within their cores, made them feel human again.

    Part of the reason Elian so loved working the farm with Jack was the fact that he could remain in the sun for long periods of time. Also, with the constant hearty food that they managed with, hen one day, rabbit the next, some dried meat after that, Elian was beginning to fill out his form again. Where he had once been frightfully thin, he was now lean, well-defined, similar to Jack but not quite as slender around the shoulders.

    There were times when Elian could just barely catch Jack ogling him, and he was sure the platinum-haired farmlad also caught him staring as well. They were both very fairly attractive young men, and neither had had any legitimate sexual intimacy for a long time... Not that Elian was keen on having sex with anyone at the moment, or in the foreseeable future. Whenever the thought crossed his mind, of him taking Jack or Jack taking him, it always warped into the image of the man that had so defiled him.

    Elian shuddered at the unpleasant memory and only very nearly missed his foot on the downswing of his mattock. The blond stared at the tool mere inches from his feet, he could not imagine what would have happened if he had indeed hit his foot. Granted, the mattock was not the sharpest farming implement Jack had, but there was a considerable amount of force in it regardless. He was not very fond of the idea of losing a toe or two, not after all the pain his feet had put him through not too long ago.

    Elian wiped the sweat from his brow and squinted his eyes at the steadily rising sun above. For some reason, Jack had insisted that day of working the earth earlier. Perhaps the farmlad had something in mind. Elian wasn't too keen on finding out, given that he was so enjoying the mental and emotional vacation that working the garden had been giving him. He looked at the farmlad sitting in the shade of the tree. Jack deserved the break. After all, he'd been up a few hours earlier than Elian, taking care of the animals and sowing the fields.

    The platinum had taken to the ice much easier than Elian had anticipated... Perhaps it was because Jack had felt powerless his entire life, and now, now he had the instrument with which to defend himself, with which to put an end to the perpetual fear that his parents' heritage had thrust upon him. No longer would Jack have to fear the villagers coming. He had his ice. No longer would Jack have to worry of being hurt. He had his ice.

    There were days where the blond envied the farmlad of his enthusiasm when it came to his powers. Jack had been exploring every facet of his ice every chance he could... His reaction to his ice was nowhere in the realm of how Elian had reacted the day he discovered his own powers and was told he'd been cursed from birth by the gods with them. Elian had thrown a fit, screamed and despaired as a child. So much so that despite his mother's protestations he was beaten for being so unprincely in front of his brother.

    Elian shook his head, dispelling the bitter memory. He could not begrudge Jack the ice. As the farmlad had often argued, he believed Elian's ice to be a blessing more than a curse... A thing of beauty, that, like a rose, was not without its thorns. Elian still believed otherwise, if only for the sole reason that years of convincing himself that he was monstrous and deserved no love had made it almost insurmountably difficult to change his mind on the matter.

    The blond turned his eyes back to the field. Jack watched pensively as Elian returned to putting his back into the work. There was something that was sorely lacking from Elian's life, and he was sure that if the blond only allowed himself some mirth, some enjoyment, that things would be incredibly easier for him. He'd seen the looks that Elian shot him whenever he played with his ice, testing his limits, plying his art...

    Only recently, Elian had managed to cut himself on a sickle that Jack had accidentally knocked down and had, in a fit of inspiration, forgotten to replace. As it so happened, Jack had spent much of the day out in the sun, and had the bare minimum of his powers ready at his fingertips. Fortunately for Elian, Jack had taken to finally growing some of the herbs he needed for that panacaea that his fathers had taught him to make in his own garden. Now, the fruits of his labour were to be put to the test.

    Jack took the paste, applied it to the cut, and chilled the whole area with what remained of his ice. Elian had shivered. The paste, which normally, as he so distastefully remembered, burned like hell, was almost entirely soothing now, if not a little too cold. There was an instant improvement and both young men could tell. The bleeding had stopped and the flesh did not seem as sensitive as it had before the paste. It was as though the paste with Jack's frost had numbed the area enough to make the experience halfway pleasant.

    Jack remembered the look that Elian had fixed him with after that. It was a mixture of gratitude and wonder on the surface, as the blond was still more than a little bit in awe of Jack's proficiency at using his ice to mend things, as well as a hideous shade of envy and heavily-veiled disgust underneath. The platinum could only speculate that the sight of the ice, which Elian thought was the source of all his, and apparently the rest of the world's, woes being used to heal instead of destroy was abominable to the young blond's mind.

    The farmlad had, that day, resolved that he would do all in his power to at least allow Elian to see that his ice was not as evil as he thought it was, if at all. Seeing a chance to do so now, Jack picked up the shepherd's crook that was lying by his side in the shade. He'd taken quite nicely to it. It was no quarterstaff, granted, but with the right grip it seemed to be balanced like one. As he hefted the crook in his hands, it glittered in the sunlight. The frost crystals embedded in the spiral patterns of the wood made the staff quite a beauty to behold.

    Jack found the staff both aesthetically pleasing and practical, for not only beating and herding at the same time, but also for channeling his ice. Again, one of the unfortunate animals on the farm paid the price for Jack's discovery. He had been in the middle of using the crook to pull in a sheep when he suddenly remembered how he had incapacitated Kristoff earlier. Long story short, the sheep survived, barely hurt, but with a horrible case of the shivers.

    The farmlad had shown it to Elian almost ecstatically at the end of that day and pressured the blond into trying it out with his wooden practice sword. The results were fantastic and far more remarkable than Jack had anticipated. After a few tries, Elian had finally managed to get the sword to discharge the frost lightning, as Jack had taken to calling it. Feeling suddenly bold, the blond swung the sword vertically through the air, creating a crescent of frost that fanned out, growing larger and larger, before dispersing in an explosion of frost lightning that then became glittering crystals that drifted slowly to the ground.

    After that, Elian had dropped the sword in awe, then turned around and run away. He did not talk to Jack the entire next day, and instead spent it brooding in the room. This day, Jack told himself, Elian would do no such thing. He would be damned if he let the blond off without having some fun. The platinum conjured up a snowball in his hand, and with a mischievous smirk, leaned back and threw it at the blond as Elian was resting on the mattock's handle, having finished one row on the garden.

    Jack let out a loud whoop and a laugh when the snowball hit its mark. Elian blinked once. Twice. Thrice. Jack laughed at the stunned expression on the blond's face. Mirth turned to horror as the blond pitched dangerously forward and fell in a puff of dust. "Shit..." mouthed the farmlad as Glaise nudged him quite aggressively on the calf before bounding off towards the garden. A worried frown on his face, Jack chased after the hound, concerned about what he'd done to Elian.

    "Elian...?" asked Jack wearily as he approached the blond, sprawled in the dirt. Elian was still breathing, and far more normally than the farmlad expected. He got his first hint that something was amiss when the blond twitched. "Elian...?" Jack knelt down and was about to feel for the blond's pulse when all of a sudden, Elian flipped over, with a grin, and the platinum's face was met with a blast of frost that knocked him over onto his ass.

    "You messed my rows up!" yelled the blond with a measure of indignity and mirth in his voice before laughing. The way Elian laughed was so open but lacking the musical quality that Jack always thought it would have despite having heard it before. The platinum couldn't help but smile. "And you got dirt on my clothes!" Elian tried to conjure up a snowball as well. He managed and threw it at Jack.

    "My clothes, mind you, Elian" said Jack, cheekily. Halfway through the air the snowball grew spikes, and Jack's eyes grew equally wide, barely managing to roll out of the way of the snowball before it hit the ground. "What the fuck was that?" Elian grinned sheepishly and apologetically while conjuring up another snowball. He threw it again at Jack. This time it turned into solid ice as it sailed through the air. Again, Jack had barely enough time to evade it. "Elian!"

    "Sorry!" said the blond apologetically, ducking to avoid the snowball that Jack lobbed at him in turn. "I'll get it right this time!" said Elian, twisting out of the way of another and jumping over the one that came after it. "This is ridiculous! It's summer, we're adults, and we're having a snowball fight in the middle of the day!" protested Elian, running over and almost tripping on the mattock as Jack threw three snowballs at him in quick succession, managing to land the third on Elian's shoulder.

    "Doesn't mean we can't have fun, huh?" said Jack, throwing another snowball at the retreating Elian. Elian summoned his will, trying to suppress the destructive and violent tendencies of his ice, in order to conjure up a snowball. He managed. This time he held it in his hand to make sure no unwanted protrusions, shells, or deadly blades appeared. None seemed to be forthcoming so he lobbed it at Jack who was giving chase, with Glaise not far behind.

    As the snowball sailed through the air, Elian watched it and for the first time noticed the sky growing dark with clouds heavy with water. They were far from ominuous, but nonetheless startling for a hot summer day. As the snowball made its way towards Elian's pursuer, it doubled in size, then doubled again, and again, and again, until it was twice the size of Jack's head. "Holy shit!" yelled the farmboy, digging in his heels in an attempt to stop and duck.

    Too late! The massive snowball hit him right in the face to the sound of a gasp from Elian followed by a fit of mad giggling as the blond realized that the massive snowball was just that, massive and harmless as fresh snow. Jack had fallen over on Glaise who was now whining under the weight of his master. "What the fuck, Elian?!" growled the farmlad playfully as he brushed the snow from his face, hair, and, truth be told, every part of his upper body.

    The blond couldn't stop giggling enough to give Jack a straightforward answer, even if he had one. It was almost as though Jack had awakened the child inside Elian, the child that had been locked away, imprisoned, tortured and not allowed out for his entire life, the child capable of mirth and joy and wonder, the child that believed he was a monster in the same way that he believed he was a knight, in a playful childish manner that spoke only of innocence with no guilt or remorse.

    As Elian leaned over his knees, laughing and desperately trying to catch his breath to respond to Jack, a snowball hit him. And then another. And another. And another after that. Each one did little to calm the long-suppressed guffawing that was now escaping from his gut. When the laughing finally stopped, mercifully, Elian straightened right into a snowball to his face. In revenge, Elian hurled another one at Jack. Another of the ones that doubled in size as it sailed through the air.

    "Elian! That's not fair!" protested the farmlad, just barely twisting out of the way of the snowball that crashed into the garden fence, knocking a good portion of it down. Elian winced. He'd have to fix that later. In the meantime, there was a war going on. The blond looked up and snow was falling from the sky. It was a gentle snowfall, and beautiful by every right. Elian fell over when a snowball hit his exposed neck. "Stop it with whatever the fuck those were!"

    "I don't know what I'm doing!" yelled Elian, scrambling to his feet and lobbing another snowball at Jack. This one still grew as it flew, but this time it hit an unsuspecting Glaise who was sticking his tongue out to catch a snowflake. The dog yelped and whined under the considerable weight of the snow before managing to break free and shake it off. Undaunted, Elian threw another at Jack. This one grew to such an extent that the poor farmboy was not going to be able to evade it.

    "Elian...!" bellowed Jack with more than a little fear as the snowball -- now half his size -- got inexorably nearer. Just then the wind picked up and Jack found himself soaring haphazardly, tumbling every which way, into the sky. The snowball, predictably missed, and again crashed into poor, innocent Glaise who was just about to bound playfully after Elian.

    Jack screamed in sheer terror as he spun through the air, carried and buffeted by a strong northern wind. "Eliaaan!" he shouted from up above, causing a fair amount of distress and alarm to the blond below. "AAH! Help me!"

    "What do you want me to do?" Elian yelled up at Jack as he threw another snowball upwards in the hopes of maybe knocking the farmlad out of the air. Jack watched the snowball approach and with a sigh mused that Elian seriously needed to cease the exponentially expanding snowballs as this one heading towards him was about as far wide as he was tall. Instinctively, Jack wished the wind to take him left. It did.

    When Jack had finished tumbling and turning in mid-air, he realized that he had more control over the wind than he had first thought. It was almost as though the wind followed his commands... most of them, at least. With a sly grin that Elian did not miss, Jack willed the wind to bring him closer to Elian.

    The farmlad hefted his crook in his hands and pointed it at Elian. Seeing the mischievous gleam in Jack's eyes, Elian turned tail and ran just in time to avoid the crackling bolts of frosted lightning that shot out from the staff as Jack swooped down on where Elian had been mere moments earlier. "How are you doing that?!" protested the blond, jaw slack at the sharp protrusions of ice on the ground where Jack had aimed his powers.

    "I don't know what I'm doing!" yelled Jack in a sing-song, mocking voice at Elian despite genuinely knowing nothing about why or how he was flying. Feeling cheated by Jack's unfair advantage -- as though his expanding snowballs weren't much the same -- Elian tried to summon a wind of his own. He was met with some success and was just beginning to lift off the ground over the vegetable garden when he felt a sudden weight on his back.

    It was Glaise who had managed to free himself from the pile of snow that Elian had buried him under. The hound was barking playfully at the blond and licking his face as the assault of snowballs continued raining down from Jack who was exuberant in his flight. The farmlad's peals of laughter and delight were clear and crisp in the cool air as he swooped and soared and glided through it on the back of the northern wind.

    With a hand he managed to free from Glaise's weight on top of him, Elian shot a bolt of frost lightning at Jack. The bolt found its mark and hit Jack square in the face, sending him out of balance and careening through the air. Elian gasped as he watched Jack tumble screaming in terror through the air before smacking with an audible and frankly horrifying thud on the barn wall. Both the blond and Glaise froze and watched as the farmlad tumbled to the ground from where he had impacted the barn.
     
  18. Eyes wide in shock and fear and disgust at himself for what he thought he'd done, Elian scrambled to his feet and dashed for the barn. The clouds above cleared up, and the sun shone brightly down on the earth. As the golden rays filtered through the dispersing clouds, they cleared away the ice which evaporated into frost crystals wherever the light touched it.

    Elian jumped over the far side of the garden fence and ran towards the barn. Jack was there, lying sprawled on his side. The farmboy's eyes were squeezed shut and he was trembling ever so slightly. Elian ran over, repeating apologies as he went. He knelt by Jack. "Jack? Are you alright? I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." said the blond, eyes brimming with tears.

    "Am I on the ground yet?" asked the farmboy weakly, trying to force a chuckle through his lips. The words came out far less humourously than Jack had intended, and the chuckle sounded more like a strangled cough. Jack rolled over onto his back, a stupid grin plastered on his face despite the nauseating, terror-inducing careen into the side of the barn wall.

    "Yes" answered Elian, a worried look crossing his face. Jack cracked open an eye, and one glance at Elian's face wiped the grin clean off of his face. A somber look crossed his face, then an uncomfortable one, then, an almost guilty one. The tracks of tears on Elian's cheeks were unmistakeable. Jack beat himself mentally for giving Elian such a scare. Sure, tumbling out of the sky had been terrifying, but fortunately the wind had made sure he didn't land too roughly. The last thing Elian needed was more guilt plagueing his conscience.

    Jack pursed his lips, not sure what to say. He knew an apology would only make Elian feel worse. A long silence followed afterwards, punctuated only by Glaise's panting as the dog approached and lay on his belly beside Elian, and the ragged rhythmic breathing of Jack. Suddenly, with a cheeky smile on his face, one lost entirely on Elian, Jack asked "Am I dead?"

    "No!" Elian yelled in horror, for once forgetting his apprehension about physical contact when he grabbed Jack's shoulders and shook the farmlad. The blond laid his head on the farmboy's chest, making colour rush to Jack's cheeks. Elian was warm, despite the cold of his ice, and having Elian where he was felt so absolutely right the platinum could not help the smile on his face from widening.

    "I would never forgive myself if I killed you, Jack..." whispered the blond, meaning every word that he said. It was the plain and absolute truth. Jack was the one person that had shown him kindness throughout, despite his powers, despite his past, despite his preference of partners, but most of all, despite the danger that he brought with him. Jack had been there through all of that and if he brought any deliberate harm as detestable as death to the farmlad, Elian was not going to forgive himself, no matter how many eternities passed.

    "Don't worry, Elian... Don't worry..." he cooed, weakly stroking the back of the blond's head. He marvelled at the soft strands of pale golden hair, at how soft they were despite the squalor Elian had lived in for so long. The blond's locks were a pleasure to play with, Jack mused. The farmboy stopped when he felt Elian stiffen up under his ministrations. He let a soft sigh escape his lips. Elian was still having nightmares, even in the waking world.

    Jack shook his head when Elian opened his mouth to speak. "Don't worry, Elian" he repeated, firmly. He splayed his arms and legs to the side, letting the exhilaration flood back. A wide grin split the farmboy's face. The last thing Elian needed was even more sadness. They had been having so much fun! For once, Jack was able to see more of the true Elian, and he wasn't about to let that opportunity pass.

    "That. Was. Insane!" said the farmboy, cracking his other eye open and seeing the now-clear and bright sky framing Elian's beautiful face and bright blue eyes. He took one good long look at that face that would forever be burnt into his memory. His heart fluttered at the sight. "That was fun! Let's do that again!" said Jack, giddy at the prospect. Sure, it stung quite a bit, but he'd managed to brace himself before impact, and the fact of the matter was, tumbling chaotically through the air was exhilarating.

    Glaise yipped happily and padded over to Jack, licking the platinum's face. "You are insane, Jack Frost" said Elian, shaking his head at the farmboy's boundless enthusiasm. In truth, the prospect terrified him. The last time he'd had any 'fun' someone had been hurt, almost fatally. The child within him went back under lock and key now that the snowball fight was over. "You almost died!" said the blond in a stern, almost princely, motherly tone.

    "That's where the fun is!" said Jack, missing the twinge of fear that had made itself manifest in Elian's words. The farmboy called up the wind again, managing to get himself back on his feet without much work. When the gale subsided, however, he staggered dangerously. He felt tired, like his arms and legs were lead. His bones ached, and the part of him that had hit the barn wall felt almost swollen. Elian jumped up and supported Jack. It was almost like the farmlad was drunk. Jack supposed he should not have been surprised. Using his ice often drained him somewhat and with all he'd unleashed, he found it only reasonable that he was so fatigued.

    Jack met Elian's eyes but saw no humour there, only concern and fear. Jack's smile softened and he raised a hand to the blond's face. "I've lived through harsh winters and dry summers, you didn't really think crashing into the barn wall could kill me, did you?" Jack asked.

    "I... yes, I did!" protested Elian, shifting to support Jack's weight in a more comfortable manner. The farmlad was, despite not being entirely heavy, still a burden to bear, especially after all the play they had just done. Elian was himself a little tired. "I really wouldn't have forgiven myself if you died on my account..."

    Jack's eyes softened as it dawned on him that Elian was being entirely too serious and that the emotional plight that his little crash had put the blond through was very much real. No admonishment from the farmboy would change the fact that Elian still blamed himself for every misfortune that happened. He should've known. After all, Elian was still harbouring a lot of guilt for having hurt his younger brother all those years ago. "I didn't realize... I'm so sorry, Elian..." said Jack, rubbing the blond's cheek in slow gentle circles with his thumb.

    "It's alright..." Elian said, clutching Jack's hand and closing his eyes. The blond sighed sadly, the breath escaping his lips in a soft whisper. "Just... I... It scared me..." he told Jack earnestly. "I... I won't let it happen again, Jack." The blond tightend his grip on Jack's hand before opening his eyes again.

    Jack looked up at Elian and whispered to him "You know, Elian, you should try forgiving yourself sometimes..."

    A small bitter smile twisted Elian's lips. "Maybe... Alright. Come on. Let's get you something to eat." Jack straightened himself so that Elian wouldn't have to support his weight as much, and together the two young men walked into the farmhouse.

    ---

    "I feel like we're getting closer now..." said the young woman, spreading gauntleted fingers over the map of the realm, tracing the crescent that they'd followed in their search for the young prince. "Really close..." she continued, a small bittersweet smile gracing her face as she let one of her fingers drift towards what would have been the centre of the circle had the crescent been one. Little did anyone in their entire damnable party know that where she was pointing at was exactly where Jack's farmstead was.

    "It's been years, Gwen..." said the other captain of their small contingent. "Years..." he ran his hands through his now-white hair. There were days when he missed his old strawberry blond... He thought he had looked far more dashing and probably had more of a chance with Gwen back then. That being said, the pale-haired woman did not seem much interested in the least even back before her hare-brained obsession developed.

    "Which is why I think we're close, Bran..." said the woman, staring out of the flap of cloth-like ice that served as a window into the commanders' tent at the winter storm raging outside. "He's near. I can feel it in my bones..." Well, there was that, and the fact that they could feel the call of the shard of the Coldsnap that they had brought with them growing ever stronger with each passing day as they continued.

    Was it truly possible that they would soon find the prince that they had spent the last long while searching for? It seemed very likely. If anything, Bran hoped that they would. He hoped against hope. They'd suffered much and seen more hardship than he'd ever cared to imagine. It was about time for their little troupe of soldiers to return home to Vamara. What little remained of them, at least.

    "How do you know he'll love you back?" asked Branden, watching the candle sitting on a nearby table flicker. The heat was enticing. Gods knew neither of them nor their men had spent any time with a good hearth in years. Their new physiology demanded warmth, but with their sheer numbers and densely-packed living situation, they leeched it from the environment so quickly it was simply not about to happen.

    There was a hopeful gleam in Gwen's eyes as she regarded her partner in command. "I just do, Bran. I just do." Yet, perhaps, more disturbingly, despite the glowing hope and positivity in the woman's eyes, there was a desperation just barely palpable in them as well. Gwen was a changed woman, so was Bran, but the journey to these unknown lands had changed her most of all.

    Where Bran held on to the idea of finally finding the young prince and returning home to Vamara, Gwen, in her emotional instability brought on by the loss of some of their closest friends along the way, had latched on to the idea of finding Elian and making him hers. It was a dangerous idea. A dangerous game to play. Bran could only hope that the woman he loved would not do anything rash if and when she found herself rejected.

    ---

    Jack was feeling a lot better after that meal... and half an hour in front of the blazing hearth despite the heat of the day. He felt a lot more... human, so to speak. He had gratefully thanked Elian for the care and made sure the blond ate his fill as well. Elian, after fully recovering from all his injuries, had taken to eating like a bird, pecking at the food despite the evident hunger that Jack could see in his actions. The farmlad could not exactly say why Elian seemed so tentative about receiving more help from Jack, but he supposed it was because he thought he was being a burden. He knew enough about Elian to know that it was a likely thought that had crossed the blond's mind.

    The entire thing had manifested the week after Elian had been... Jack couldn't even bring himself to speak or think the word, it only filled him with disgust, anger, and protectiveness for the blond. Elian was sitting across the table, eating in his slow, almost-delicate manner. Jack balled his fists underneath the table, away from Elian's view. How those men could even deign to wish such evil on Elian was beyond him. The blond was a broken man: afraid, and uncertain of nearly everything.

    Elian was attacked, and had reacted summarily, but those men had wanted nothing but to kill him. Yet, even after, he still blamed himself for letting Jack get hurt, kept the nightmares he had about being taken against his will to himself, and considered himself a monster for killing the men that had attempted to take his and Jack's life. The farmboy would never really quite understand why the blond was so bent on painting himself as a villain. In truth, though, part of it was because it was all Elian had ever found himself being called.

    Monster, faggot, creature, all those were names he'd been called at one point or another. He was the villain. Almost always. That was the way his life had been for so long that he'd accepted it as the truth about himself, and rejected any evidence to the contrary. He was afraid of being called a monster, but believed himself to be one. Even so, he was yet more afraid of being told he was anything but. He was afraid of not knowing who or what he was.

    Jack leveled a meaningful gaze at Elian, but the blond was staring at his plate and picking at the food. Gods knew what Elian was thinking as he intermittently shoved morsels of food in his mouth. The platinum had a sneaking suspicion that Elian was probably brooding over what he still believed was Jack's accidental near-fatal crash into the barn wall. There were limits to what Jack knew he could do for the blond, and there were nights when he lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, despairing over how he could help him.

    The farmlad had discovered the healing, mending powers of his ice, his ability to fix things, but the wounds that Elian bore ran deep, and were things that Jack could not fix. He blinked away tears in his eyes, and a smile replaced the morose sadness that had set itself in his face as he watched Elian pick at his food. He'd just realized that the entire incident with the snowball fight not too long ago had brought out something in Elian that Jack knew deep within was the key to healing those cracks in the blond's heart.

    Jack remembered the euphoria, the absolute joy that Elian had on his face when he threw those snowballs at the farmlad. It was almost as though all his demons, those phantoms that haunted him, had been dispelled. Jack tapped his fingers on his thighs, feet also doing the same on the floor. He was getting excited. He'd finally had a breakthrough. There was something he could do for Elian, at least before the other boy left.

    The platinum jumped to his feet, nearly knocking his chair over, a grin splitting his face. Elian looked up, a mixture of morose brooding and confusion at Jack's sudden happiness. "Jack?" asked the blond slowly, raising his eyes to Jack with a quizzical expression. The only response he managed to get was a face-splitting grin, leaving him even more confused than he had been when Jack had suddenly jumped out of his chair. "What...?" Before he could finish his sentence Jack had dashed off and Elian heard the footsteps as the farmlad went up the stairs.

    Elian was still confused about what Jack was going on about when he was unceremoniously dragged from the kitchen out into the living room. He had just finished his meal. The farmlad dashed back into the kitchen. The blond flinched at the ruckus that could only have been the platinum rummaging in the pantry. Jack was being more than a little enigmatic, which Elian honestly found to be a fair bit disturbing. He had not seen the farmlad quite this exuberant, but the positive energy was absolutely infusing the air. There was a small intrigued smile tugging at Elian's lips.

    Jack reemerged with a wicker basket slung around his arm. Elian could not see what was in it, but he presumed it was food. The blond did not know how long he could hold it in before he had to tell Jack. Elian didn't want to be eating so much. He was concerned that he might deplete Jack's supplies for the winter. "Jack..." he began, but the farmlad waved his comment away dismissively before he could continue. There was a sense of urgency, of excitement that was palpable in the air around Jack.

    "But..." Jack grabbed his hand and began insistently tugging him towards the door. "Jack! Listen to me!" The farmlad finally turned and fixed him with an almost impatient look, releasing his arm and letting it drop to his side. The blond scuffled in his spot, bringing his hands to his chest. "I... I think you should stop feeding me so much..." Jack's smile slipped and a look of hurt took its place. It stung Elian. "I-I was just thinking that maybe you needed to save the food for the winter..."

    Jack shook his head and smiled at the blond. There was the answer to his question. "Look, Elian... I know you mean well, but... you have to trust me. A little more. That's all I ask." Jack said, extending his hand towards Elian, a physical manifestation of his verbal plea. "I lived with my father in this home for years. We never ran out, and he ate a lot. I can... handle myself, Elian. You don't have to protect me, not anymore."

    Elian tentatively extended a hand, hesitating at the last moment before taking Jack's in his own. He still felt bad for being such a drain on the farmlad's resources, but Jack was right. Elian had to trust him. After all, Jack seemed to trust the blond an immense amount, and more than he believed he deserved. He looked up at Jack. The farmlad smiled at him, genuinely, and pulled him through the doorway. "Alright. Alright. Where are we going?"

    "To the place where it all began..." said Jack, a pensive look shading his face for a moment. "For me, at least. Come on. I also have a promise to keep, and we don't have all day." Elian opened his mouth to ask what on earth Jack was talking about, but the farmlad placed a finger on his lips, putting an end to any and all further inquiry. Elian shook his head and instead smiled at Jack. The platinum smiled back and picked up the pack near the door and shouldered it before leading Elian out and closing the house.

    Glaise was already outside, panting in his characteristic manner, his head tilted curiously to the side. Jack shook his head at his faithful companion. The hound was always where he needed to be, it seemed. "Come on" said Jack, pulling on Elian. Together the two went around to the barn where Jack picked up his staff -- the farmboy and the shepherd's crook had become nearly inseparable -- and around towards the back of the farmhouse.

    Then, spotting what he was looking for, Jack pulled Elian towards the treeline. Both very nearly tripped over the frosthound, who apparently thought that it was that exact moment that would be the perfect time to run around their legs. If not for a gust of wind from Jack that just barely set them back on their feet, the two would've been sprawled on the ground, thanks, in full, to Glaise. The platinum frowned at the hound before steadying himself and Elian on their feet.

    The two exchanged brief smiles and shook their heads at Glaise's boundless enthusiasm. Elian was about to pull his hand from Jack's, attacked by a sudden surge of panic, when the grip became less firm and more tender, more caring. The blond looked up into the farmlad's eyes, surprised. There was genuine care and concern written in those once-tawny icy blue eyes. Elian found himself relaxing, even melting into the gentle grasp, and allowing Jack to lead him further on by his hand.

    The two stopped before a tree. One that, at first, Elian found strangely mundane. One that, given just the brief moment he was to examine it, was nothing of note. It wasn't until Jack had spread the blanket on the ground and sat on it, beckoning for Elian to do the same, that the blond noticed what made the tree so special. There, carved about halfway up the trunk, deep into the bark of the tree, was an old symbol. An ancient crest.

    The last he'd seen that insignia, Vard had still been alive, and both he and Lady Elesyne's eldest were looking back at the mysterious woman's home. The symbol had hung there, above the archway of the icy door. A circle with three horns, the emblem of the old gods, of the old faith, of a time when Elian and Jack's kind were not so viciously hunted and harmed. The blond stopped in reverie, the ice in his veins almost singing out in adjulation to the carving on the tree.

    Elian was a creature of the old world, and now Jack was one too. For the first time in his life, the farmboy felt the symbol he painstakingly deepened each year take on a deeper, more profound meaning. As his ice sang and danced in front of this symbol of the power of the old gods, that self-same insignia became less a mundane mark left so that Jack would remember where he was found, and more a representation of what he had become. Jack looked to his side, and saw that Elian was slightly leaning forward, drawn to the innate power of the crest. He spoke, and all at once, the thrumming of commune with the gods of the earth, ceased. "This is where it all began..."

    Jack waved his hand and frost and snow washed over the treeline. The sky immediately above them turned gray and heavy with snowfall. Large fat flakes drifted down on the gentle breeze that then began to blow. Jack shivered. He'd not expected the amount of control he'd just demonstrated over his powers, or the weather, for that matter. The exertion drained the heat from his limbs. He'd only wanted to conjure up some snow. He turned pale, almost as pale as Elian had been when they'd first met.

    "I'd always come out to see this tree during the first frost..." said Jack, eyes glued to the tree, the snow clinging to its branches and leaves, the white climbing the cracks in its bark, the frost nestled in its boughs. "I wanted to know what exactly was so... special... about it. That I was left here of all places..." Elian turned and looked at Jack, upon whose face a single tear was trickling down. Swallowing apprehension, Elian squeezed the farmboy's hand in a gesture of comfort and support.

    Jack smiled genuinely, at Elian before wiping the tear from his face with the back of his hand. "Anyway, enough with the... sentimentality," he said with a chuckle, turning his body to face Elian. "I thought you might want to see the place" continued the platinum with a sheepish grin and a chuckle.

    "I did want to see this... Thank you, Jack..." Elian said, tilting his head at the tree, curious, and feeling a twinge of sadness in his heart for the boy on his other side. His own parents had been terrible to him as a child, but at least, he had known them. "How..." he began, but stopped himself, blushing. Perhaps the question was too personal. Jack nodded at him, squeezing his hand, telling him to go ahead with his question. Elian breathed deeply, avoiding Jack's eyes. "How does it feel... Not knowing your true parents?"

    "But I do, Elian" said Jack, softly. "I do know my true parents. My fathers. They raised me..." The blond blushed and drew his face to his feet and releasing Jack's hand to embrace his knees. The platinum shook his head gently, a small smile playing on his lips. "My birth parents though... Honestly, Elian? I don't remember them, not at all..." His face buried between his knees, Elian's eyes widened in surprise. "Not even a shred. Not even the slightest moment of warmth, not the softest laugh, the smallest kiss..."

    "There was a time when I wanted to know why I was left behind... I felt like I was so disgusting to my birth parents that they had to throw me away..." Jack shook his head. "I realized later that it just made no sense to worry too much about that. I would never find out, and I didn't need that cloying sadness on me... so I let it go..."

    "I blamed myself for it, and there are some nights when I still blame myself for why my birth parents didn't keep me..." Jack looked meaningfully at Elian, who had raised his head to look at Jack. "But I forgave myself for it. I had to. Otherwise... life would've been a much heavier burden to bear."

    Elian nodded in understanding, blinking away tears that had welled up in his eyes. Again, Jack was making a very sage point. He did perhaps have to forgive himself for a few things, ones that he had no control over, that he had no chance of ever getting redemption for... He smiled at Jack, eyes clear of the sudden emotion that had welled up in him. "But that's not why I took you here..." said Jack slowly. Elian raised an eyebrow. And then he was hit in the face with a snowball.

    "Jack!" spluttered the blond, wiping the dredges of snow on his face away. The platinum was on his back, rolling around in laughter. "Well, I'll show you..." Elian summoned a snowball of his own, but Jack hurriedly sat up and swatted the blond's hand away.

    "I was just making sure you were paying attention..." he said cheekily. The blond frowned at him. "...Aaand that was for smacking me against the barn wall." Elian blushed and averted his gaze. "I was wondering if you might... maybe... want to go back to the pond today..." The widening of Elian's eyes and the slight gape of the blond's mouth in both surprise and genuine happiness was all the answer Jack needed.

    All the same, he quite appreciated having Elian press up against him, when the blond lunged at him and wrapped him in a tight embrace. Almost teary-eyed with joy, Elian whispered "Yes, yes I would..." in Jack's ear as he trembled in excitement. The farmlad wasted very little time, throwing his own arms around Elian and bringing the lithe blond closer.

    His entire body thrummed with heat from the close proximity, despite the fact that neither of the two had any more innate heat left to them. It seemed that simply being together stoked a fire that fed their ice, regardless of what was going on around them. It was a few minutes later that the watery-eyed Elian withdrew from the hug, pushing Jack away gently, and trying to hide the redness on his cheeks. "I..." The blond folded his hands at his thighs. "Sorry..."

    "Don't be dumb, Elian" said Jack, before throwing another snowball at Elian's face and bolting to his feet with the wicker basket to avoid retribution.

    ---

    There was a small village ahead, and as was normal, scouts returned, reporting that everyone in the village was holed up in their homes, fervently praying to whatever gods they believed in for the winter storm to pass. Every gods-fearing villager was absolutely terrified as both snow and sleet rained down on their village when summer was just around the corner. A winter storm just as the crops were beginning to grow? Blasphemy, said many, when they saw the thick, dark approaching clouds, but there was no denying their truth. From the howling gale to the thick fat snowflakes that drifted down from the heavens, the storm was as indubitable as the rising of the sun.

    Gwen watched sternly from the back of her horse as the squires hammered the massive tent-pegs into the ground. They were little more than massive icicles, and the mallets themselves were just iron barely held together by ice. It had been a long time since they had been at a major city, and even then, they had been unable to take all the supplies they needed. Truth of the matter was, that a winter storm tended to terrify people beyond reason, and they were just as likely to be chased out of cities as welcomed, because of the storm that they brought with them.

    Gwen watched as one of the mallets shattered under the force of the impact, sending the unfortunate squire, and a couple hundred fragments of ice and iron, sailing through the air. Their company was at the end of its lease on sanity. Food was scarce, heat was even more so, and their essential tools were running low. It was a wonder they had survived for so long. If anything, the ice was good for replacing weapons, albeit temporarily.

    Fastened around Gwen's waist was an ice claymore, rough and admittedly needed more refining, but it had an edge and it was the best that the blacksmith-turned-icesmith with the small company could manage. Her own precious family heirloom claymore was in her packs somewhere, tenderly wrapped, but hideously dull. A good two weeks into their journey, her, and everyone else's, whetstones had shattered into many pieces. The porous stone did not do well in the constant freeze that accompanied the soldiers.

    If they did not find the young prince Calland soon, Gwen was sure that they faced dissolution, if not mutiny. The men, and few women, were tired, hungry, and homesick. If not for the fact that she was so entirely convinced that Elian would fall for her and that she would get to become Queen of Vamara, Gwen was sure she would have also given up many years past. Nevertheless, there was no time for that now, not after years of hardship.

    They will find the Crown Prince. They will restore him to his rightful place on the throne Vamara. Gwen will be the queen of that fragment of the old empire. This was the mantra that she had repeated to herself each day for the last few years. Perhaps the hard road had twisted her mind, convinced her so utterly that Elian would fall for her, instead of dealing with the cold bitter fact that they were surviving on the bitter flesh of the few horses they had remaining.

    Nevertheless, there was a new town up ahead. If anything, they would find new tools, and new farm animals to eat. Barring that, they had already stooped to cannibalism on days when the settlements had been far in between, and the woods far too lean for their company of little less than a hundred strong. The villagers themselves would bolster their food supplies for some time.

    Gwen shook her head as the poor squire was dragged off with a bleeding temple. One of the physicians would take care of him. She dismounted from her horse and walked over to where the squire had fallen. The peg was barely even half-driven into the ground. The commander sighed and reached into a nearby chest for one of their other mallets before taking a swing of her own at the peg. The other squires were just finishing.

    They all looked at her, scuffling with unease on their feet, as she swung the mallet down on the peg. She paid them no heed. It wasn't until Bran came and told them to sod off that the boys ran off in different directions. Gwen's partner in command walked up to her, though stopping at a safe distance. No one wanted to be near one of those mallets when they were swung. He looked into the distance, where the trail of the squire being dragged off was being filled in by the falling snow. "Another one?"

    Silence extended between the two, punctuated only by the dull thudding of the mallet on the ice. It was only when the peg was fully embedded in the ground that Gwen faced Bran, leaning on the hammer. She was flushed, and her skin had taken on a more human sheen. As soon as she stopped the strenuous task, though, her pallor began to creep back in. "Can't really blame the poor fuckers."

    Bran shook his head. They couldn't. "We're down to our last two spares, Bran. This one, and another in the chest. If we don't get any iron here, we're fucked." Gwen was never one for figures. Bran was, but their situation was so deplorable that it did not need a master of numbers to figure out that they were well and truly screwed. "What bad news do you have for me, now?"

    "Couldn't we make mallets from ice? We make swords from it, why not fucking mallets?" asked the captain, removing his helmet and its almost-bare plumes from his head. The constant gale that accompanied their small contingent had long since stripped the fine, dyed horsehair that once made up the tuft that ran the length of the helm. Gwen had one of those once, but she lost it in their first river crossing. It wasn't so much that it was carried downstream, but the fact that it fell off of her head and was then promptly frozen in over four feet of ice.

    "It's more complicated than you think" retorted the woman, catching her breath as she leaned on the mallet. "I talked with Yres, and he said that it's not about the hardness of the things, it's about the weight. Iron is great for mallets because it's heavy. He showed me that if I wanted an ice mallet as good as the iron ones, it would have to be as large as my head." Gwen shook her head and straightened. "News?"

    Bran sighed. Just their luck that the one thing they had to their advantage would not work. "Well, two more of the men died last night. Apparently they had not been eating, giving their rations to the younger men. The reversals vanished into the darkness last night. Aidan, Ian, Deaglan, and the lovers Deilon and Eiros. Those boys were quite sweet..." said Bran, more than a little fondly. Reversals as they were, and as ingrained the hatred for their kind was before Andrew took the throne, he had learned that the men in their company were pleasant, and not at all as abominable as the priests had them believing.

    Truth be told, on many a drunken night before they were called upon to search for Elian, inebriated out of frustration of making no headway in his pursuit of Gwen, Bran had gone to the lovers who were more than happy to welcome him into their bed. He'd never been pressured into taking it up the ass, but he'd buried his own cock into both Deilon and Eiros. The two certainly knew how to please a man.

    "Seven more men gone, Gwen" said Bran, a hint of sadness and resignation on his voice. Their company had dwindled a lot, through the years. "I do hope you're right that we're close." Bran donned his helmet again and swung his body over the saddle. "I'll put together a small search party. We'll try and find the reversals." With that Gwen's partner-in-command turned 'round and spurred the horse on.

    "Fuck" muttered Gwen under her breath. They were almost at their breaking point. This did not bode well. "Fuck" she said again as she led her horse to where the others were tied. Just what they needed. Two men dead, and five men gone. As if morale wasn't already low enough. The litany of curses that dropped from her mouth did not ebb even as she made her way into the commanders' tent and snarled at the squire inside that was putting everything in place. She stalked over to the table and the map spread over it. She banged her fist against the wood that had surprisingly enough survived the cold much better than anything else they had. "I will find you, Elian Calland, and you will love me and make me queen."

    ---

    Elian wiped the crumbs from the corners of his teeth and brushed them from the breeches he'd borrowed from Jack. "You did what?!" he exclaimed in surprise at what the farmboy had just said. They had spent the last hour or so just eating and talking, and it was surprisingly normal. There was a point a few minutes into their conversation that Elian's mind had been so confounded by the normalcy of the situation that it had begun to make him paranoid. He was expecting either divine retribution for daring to be as happy and relaxed as he seemed to be, or malicious men, and probably bandits, to burst through the trees to do harm to them. None of those came to pass, and, eventually, Elian learned to accept that for the moment, at least, there would be peace in his tumultuous life.

    "Yeah..." said Jack, blushing despite the guffaws that were escaping his lips. "I was young, and stupid, and very spiteful." He laughed, taking a drink from the water skin before passing it to Elian. The blond shook his head and took a swig. Elian didn't think it was something Jack would even dare to think about doing, much less actually do it! Nevertheless, from the sound of it, Jack seemed to be saying the absolute truth. Judging from the redness on his face, it seemed like something that the brunet was definitely embarrassed about.

    "Who does that, Jack?" asked Elian, sincerely, but not without good humour in his voice. For the moment, at least, the phantom hands of his rapists -- numerous as they had been over the years -- were nonexistent. "I mean, that was a horrible thing to do!" Glaise barked, as though understanding what they were talking about. Elian suspected that if the hound did indeed understand, that he was barking not out of protestation, but out of pride for his master and companion.

    "Do what? Piss in a keg of ale? I don't know, Elian. Me, apparently" laughed the farmboy, running his hands through his now-platinum hair. It was a welcome change of pace, just being able to chat with Elian like this. For once, neither of them were haunted by the many demons of their pasts, though, if they were, only by the most comical of them.

    "I was angry, alright. I had just gone out to gather my favourite berries but Nyko would have none of it. I knew that they had just started brewing their first batch of ale, having finally decided to give it a try, so I went and had a go at it" said Jack with a sheepish grin. "Gods..." said the farmboy, watching a tear from the laughter from the corner of his eye.

    "When my fathers found out the next day, Nyko gave me the beating of a lifetime..." Jack laughed, and then paused, a morose expression briefly shadowing his face, chasing away the mirth that had been there but moments ago. The cheer returned almost instantly, but not before Elian had had the chance to see it depart. "I swear" he said, gesturing with his hand at Elian. "I could not sit down for a week, and I had to sleep on my stomach. How about you, Elian?"

    "Me? What?" The laughter slipped almost instantly from Elian's face at the question. He suspected Jack was asking if he'd done anything along the same vein as his mischief, but in truth, Elian could not think of anything he did of his own volition. If anything, he'd been pressured into almost reckless roguery by his younger brother. He'd never truly done anything even remotely close to what Jack did. He had been far too afraid of the Inquisitor as a child, and for good reason.

    "What's the most mischievous thing you did when you were younger?" asked Jack, genuinely curious. He wanted to know more about Elian, who he was, and where he came from. There were just so many things the farmboy wanted to learn about the beautiful creature of winter that had managed to find his way into Jack's life.

    The blond could recall on many occasions the headaches Andrew had caused the castle staff. One of his younger brother's pranks involved a barrowload of horse dung dumped in the middle of the throne room just before the palace doors opened to supplication. As for Elian himself, he really couldn't recall anything but that one time. "I don't know... I really... Well..." Elian's blush deepened. He wanted to be able to relate to Jack, but it seemed that beyond their mutual fear they shared very little in their pasts. "Well... there was this one night when I snuck into the palace kitchens and stole a piece of cake..."

    Jack leaned in, intrigued. The act itself was pretty mundane. He'd snuck into the pantry more than once and pilfered a snack or two in the middle of the night. It wasn't really a big deal. His parents seemed to have known, but never really asked him about it. "I got caught. And my father had me whipped. My back was bleeding for the next few days after that..."

    Jack's jaw, was slack. Sure, stealing cake was a mischievous act, but it was nowhere near as bad as what he'd done with the keg of ale. The punishment was way out of line. It took Elian a few moments to realize that Jack had fallen silent and was simply staring at him with a look of utter surprise and shock. Elian blushed and cast his gaze to the ground. "I-I'm sorry I said anything..."

    "No, no... I'm sorry I asked..." said Jack, slowly, placing a comforting hand on Elian's shoulder. "I didn't realize..." He said, gently rubbing Elian's back."Good gods--" Elian scoffed at the expression. "--I know you said he was a ruthless man, but I didn't think... What kind of a father could do that to his child?" Jack shuddered at the very thought. Sure, Nyko beat him, and his ass was very often bruised and asking desperately for relief whenever his father did that, but he'd never been beaten to the point of bloodletting.

    "Akthar was a king before he was a father, and even then, he was a cruel man before he took the crown..." Elian whispered, almost seeming to push into Jack's touch. This one, he knew, was a touch of comfort, of concern, not like the rough, callous, lecherous hands that roamed his flesh every time he was raped before. "I think he just hated me, because I challenged his reign..."

    Jack shook his head. No parent had the right to be that cruel to their child... Physical discipline was understandable, but what Akthar had done to Elian was more than that, it was a show of power, authority, and it was unnecessary. Perhaps Jack wasn't abandoned, perhaps he was stolen away from brutal birth parents and left to his fathers so that he could live a better life... Much good that did him, but at least he was not whipped to the point of bleeding like Elian.

    Moments passed in silence, only the sounds of the forest and the water in the pond giving them company in their solitude. Both young men mulled over what had just been said, Elian over the truth of his father's ruthlessness, and Jack over the horrors of Elian's childhood. Both slowly came to the realization that neither wanted to continue the conversation in the same vein, but it was the farmboy that decided to break the silence first.

    "So..." Jack said, tentatively. This was a topic he was not entirely too comfortable breaching with Elian. After all, it had become clear over the past few weeks that Elian was not entirely comfortable with having to leave either. He had set his mind on leaving out of what he perceived to be the act's necessity, and not because it was what he wanted. No. What he wanted, something that both his heart and mind had seemed to agree upon, was staying at the farm with Jack. Nevertheless, there was a part of him that just wanted to protect Jack from the peril that seemed to follow him whereever he went.

    "The cow's giving birth soon..." The expression on Elian's face dropped all too suddenly. It was almost as though he had forgotten about the agreement. He did not want to leave, but now that the agreed upon time was coming upon them, he could not deny that he had made a pact with himself that he would leave then. "...and, as much as I don't want you to go..." Elian averted his gaze, colour coming to his cheeks.

    "I didn't want you to go without preparation. Come with me. Let's take a walk." Jack said, straightening from where he sat beside Elian, and stretching his limbs. He pulled Elian to his feet and smiled. "I'll teach you about the plants you can probably find wherever you're going... Just in case you end up injuring yourself again, maybe you can learn to make the paste I used on you..." he continued.

    A look of gratitude and happiness replaced the sadness that had shadowed Elian's face. At least Jack didn't seem to be taking his departure too badly. Elian had been too busy avoiding Jack's gaze to notice the brief, but truly profound sorrow and longing in those ice-blue eyes. "I... I... Thank you, Jack..." said Elian with a smile. The farmboy smiled back and grabbed Elian's wrist before pulling him through the woods.

    ---

    It was later in the night, after a bitter stew of horsemeat and radishes, the latter of which were so pitifully shriveled that they barely were recognizable for Gwen, that Bran returned to the camp. He was flustered, more than anything, and he had come back with no more men than he had left with. They had had no luck trying to find the men that had vanished in the night. "I just don't understand, Gwen. Those five were the last people I'd have expected to desert."

    "They were reversals, Bran. Morally reprehensible. They probably were just pretending" spat Gwen. The prejudice was still deeply ingrained in her. After all, her uncle had been a sun priest. The man frowned at her. He'd never heard such vicious vitriol from the woman. Despite the infatuation he held deeply for her, there were lines he was not willing to let her cross. She'd just crossed one.

    "You know as well as I that you're being bigoted, Gwen" snapped Bran at his partner-in-command. Despicable, really, how after years of traveling in their companionship, the woman could dare say such things about those men. They were among the best in their small contingent, and Bran was beginning to suspect foul play. "Five men do not simply vanish into the night without trace, and you know it. I think they were taken."

    "By whom? Who the fuck would care enough to take five men from this ragtag group of soldiers?" said Gwen, not taking her eyes from the scraps of stew and meat that remained in her bowl. She took her spoon and scraped the dredges into her mouth. None of it was particularly pleasant, but she was hungry, and a hungry stomach did not discriminate between foods. "You have no proof. I will not waste any more of our time trying to get to the bottom of this. We have to find Elian."

    "You are so convinced that he will love you, that you've managed to fool yourself into believing that it is your place to call our prince by his name" scoffed Bran. He entirely understood why Gwen did not want to spend any more time than had already been to look for the five men. They had spent years looking, and were perhaps on the cusp of completing their quest. There was no sense in trying to do other things than what was their directive. "His highness must decide for his own. You had better be mindfu--"

    The tent flap was flung open, allowing a gust of cold wind accompanied by large snowflakes into the tent. It ruffled the map on the table, almost threatening to blow it away. Thankfully that did not happen. One of their soldiers strode into the tent, panting. "Sir, Dame, the watch found someone." For a moment, Bran was ecstatic. Had they managed to find one of the men that had vanished in the night? "It's a little girl."

    It was Gwen's turn to be happy, surprised, even. She had a soft spot for children. "Bring her in" said the woman, motioning for the soldier to do just that. The soldier nodded and saluted her before jogging out of the tent. Moments after he'd left, a squire entered the tent with a bowl of stew for Bran.

    The stew was fairly cold. That was often the case with their food. On the first night of their excursion, they had learned that there were things that the battle-worn soldiers could not do as they were used to. One of those was having the cooking pits in the heart of the camp. No fire seemed to be able to withstand the bitter cold, and the sheer amount of individuals that were there to drain them of their heat. Now the pits were a ways away from the camp proper, and any food cooked only ever came back cold.

    It had been a good long while since Bran, or anyone in their small group for that matter, had had a good hot meal. None of them had had a good hot anything since leaving Vamara. Despite the almost-clammy stew, Bran savoured it. Food was difficult to come by, and they were hungry.

    Minutes later, the soldier was back, little girl in tow. Her hair was pale white, much like the hair of the Vampiri in the camp. She was shivering. She seemed small, and hungry. Her eyes, however, burned with determination and loathing. Gwen walked over to the little girl, hand on her weapon, towering over the child with imposing stature. For all she was smaller than Gwen, the little girl did not seem at all intimidated. She craned her neck up at Gwen, glaring at the commanding officer. Gwen met the little girl's challenge with a level gaze of her own.

    For a good few minutes, both commander and little girl faced off against each other, silent, neither wanting to give in to the other. Both were motionless, neither so much as twitching. The soldier standing at attention nearby, waiting for dismissal shuffled uncomfortably in his spot. Bran watched the showdown with a raised eyebrow. A hundred men, all of them unable to look Gwen in the eye when she was putting on her ferocious mask, and all it took to match the captain was one little girl who came in from a winter storm.

    Gwen laughed. A high-pitched, musical laugh that neither Bran nor any of the men in their little company had heard since they started out on this damnable journey of theirs. She lowered herself to the little girl's level, a small smile playing on her lips. The poor soldier standing by the tent flap looked so baffled by the whole display that he edged closer to the exit. He was about to leave when Gwen snapped at him. "Did I say you could leave, soldier? On the ground. Give me fifty. Then, you can leave."

    The soldier froze at the harsh clip in Gwen's voice, much in contrast to the high-pitched laughter mere moments prior. With a sigh, he lowered himself to the ground. The fifty push-ups would be painful, especially since he had just come in from finishing his watch. He was tired. The little girl glared at the soldier, too, drawing another laugh from Gwen.

    "Alright, little one. What's your name?" asked the commander, stripping off her gauntlet and extending a hand for the child.

    "Liana" said the little girl, a stern clip not unlike Gwen's in her voice. The smile on the commander's face broadened. She had a soft spot for children, especially those who most resembled her back in her childhood. "You're not him. Where is he?" said the girl, grabbing Gwen's face with her little hands as though to drive home the point.

    "Where is who?" asked Gwen, gently removing Liana's hands from the sides of her face. She clasped the girl's soft palms in her own, and peered into her eyes. There was hurt, and anger, and fear in those eyes. The very same emotions reminded Gwen of herself in her younger years. This little girl would definitely find a place in the commander's heart, if Liana allowed herself to.

    "The Cold One" said Liana, mustering a gravity in her childish voice that had no right to be there. Her eyes narrowed in anger, and she tugged her hands away from Gwen's. Tears welled up in the little girl's eyes, and she looked down at her feet. "He had ice... l-like you..." said Liana in a halting voice. She was trembling, trying her best to keep the sobs from coming.

    "He cursed me with ice. Now it's so... cold..." A sob escaped Liana's throat for a moment. She clapped a hand over her mouth. She balled her hands into small fists at the sides of her hand. She almost growled. "He killed my mother..." said the little girl, glancing over her shoulder for a brief moment. "He took my father and his best friend Rein." She stomped a foot on the floor. "He ruined my life! I will kill him!"
     
  19. "For fuck's sake, Gwen, she's a little girl!" protested Bran. His disdain was far from unfounded, as Gwen had gone in an instant from caring commander to paranoid fretter. Liana had been taken away by the squire as soon as the words left her mouth, and for good reason. Gwen had tensed up like a mountain lion before pouncing to take a kill. There was an anger in her posture that Bran only knew because he'd been with her and the core of their little company for so many years. Not that many of them were still left, Bran mused.

    "She's going to kill him!" Gwen yelled at Bran, bringing her fist down on the table and the maps of the surrounding area. The maps had been quite difficult to obtain. They had been considerably pricey, too. Bran frowned. Gwen had added another tear to one of the corners. Great. Just what they needed. More damage to their vital irreplaceable supplies. The fact of the matter was, though, that in the remote lands they were in, the maps were almost useless, providing only rough estimates of where small towns were located.

    "Gwen! Listen to yourself!" said Bran, walking over to her and shaking her by the shoulders. "You are being unreasonable!" he said, tilting her head up and looking straight into her frantic eyes as they darted about the room. He'd known that the entire campaign had changed a number of the troop's members, but he'd not entirely understood how profoundly it had changed Gwen until a few weeks past. Now she was obsessed with the object of their quest.

    "Unreasonable? UNREASONABLE?!" she yelled. Her fortunately un-gauntleted fist connected with Bran's jaw with enough force to send him sprawling onto his back. "Don't fucking touch me." She snarled at him as he rubbed his jaw. "She threatened to kill my prince. My dear sweet prince..." for a moment, the anger subsided, only to be replaced with a throughly discomfiting reverence. "Is it so fucking unreasonable to want to kill her before she can get the chance?"

    "By the gods, Gwen... What happened to you?" pressed Bran, ignoring her points. His partner in command merely glared at him. "Fine. Fine. Yes! It is! What in hell are you so afraid of from this little girl?!" demanded the man. "She's in a camp surrounded by little less than a hundred soldiers. We're battle-honed warriors. We've seen bloodshed and carrion and more things than we'd care to imagine! Do you really think she could try and kill the prince we've been trying to find and get back to Vamara for the past few years?"

    Gwen fixed Bran with a smoldering glare for a few more moments before sighing. "Fine. Fine." Her heart was still thumping in her chest, having been kicked into a gallop by the words that Liana spoke. She had no doubt in her mind that it was Elian that the little girl was talking about. There was no doubt whatsoever. After all, who else would be this far south, wielding the powers of the Coldsnap? "Mark my words, Bran, if anything happens to him when we find him, she dies."

    With a huff, Gwen rose from the table, put on her gauntlet, and walked out into the bitter winter storm as it raged through the night. Bran was not sure what he should make of the situation. In one day, Gwen had managed to cross two lines, two lines that he was sure she could never cross back over. He prayed to the gods, both old and new, that their journey would soon come to its end. This hare-brained quest of theirs was beginning to take its toll on the sanity of all those involved.

    Bran sat in the near-darkness of the tent for a few minutes, unsure what to do. He sighed. He really wished he was in front of a warm hearth, if only so that he could feel human, again. He knew that it was that reason, and that reason alone that continued to keep their company together. Theirs was a mutual desire, a mutual need, to feel normal again. Sure, the ice was useful in many regards, but it was a miserable existence.

    The perpetual cold and clamminess, and the perpetual winter storm that followed them wherever they ventured were high prices to pay for the power they held at their fingertips. Most of his men, himself included, would rather return to their tempered steel and shields and plate than wield this ice, if only it meant that they could feel warm and alive once again. They were soldiers, not warlocks, warriors, not magicians. Above all, they were men, not creatures of winter.

    Nevertheless, were it not for all the hardships that they had to endure in bearing their wintry curse, there was a certain beauty about the ice that none of them could deny. One of the things that Bran had learned in order to occupy himself on long sleepless nights was to make his ice glow. He'd shown it to the reversals, when they had still been with the company, and had tried to teach it to them, but they never seemed to be able to achieve the same meditative trance that allowed him to do what he did.

    His experimentation was the one thing that kept him sane through the years of their near-futile search. He conjured up a snowflake above his open palm. It glittered in the dim light that seemed to permeate their camp regardless of whether or not the moon was obscured by the clouds that so often gathered around them. Bran furrowed his eyebrows, concentrating on the ice that hovered in the air before him.

    Before long, the snowflake began to shed its soft bluish light inside the tent. Bran watched it, entranced, as the rays of light that radiated out from the snowflake danced on the rough canvas of the tent. He sighed. If only the ice came solely with its beauty and none of its danger. If only the ice was a rose without its thorns, he would have loved to have it. The reality was, however, that the ice brought with it a hefty price.

    The light of the snowflake faltered, but Bran managed to regain his calm before long, and the light shone as strongly as it had before those thoughts entered his mind. He heard a rustle behind him. It was probably one of the squires, going into the tent to clean up after the two commanders, but he heard no salute, nothing. Slowly, Bran turned around, the snowflake following his hand as he did.

    Behind him, just barely inside the tent, was the little girl from earlier. "What... are you doing here?" he asked, slowly, the light from the snowflake sputtering and almost dying as he did. He knelt in front of the little girl. "Was your tent guarded?" Liana nodded. "How did you get out?" The little girl shrugged. She pointed at the glowing snowflake in Bran's hand and smiled.

    This Liana was so much different from the little girl he'd seen mere moments ago, almost like the paragon of innocence that she was truly supposed to be. He brought the snowflake closer to the little girl, illuminating her face, and her weary eyes that had no right to be on a child. Those were the eyes of a man who had seen much pain in the world, and for one so young to bear them, Bran could only imagine what terrors she'd lived through.

    Nevertheless, the smile that touched her face when the snowflake was brought nearer lit up her eyes as well. For a moment, she stood there, a child innocent and pure as she had been before Elian had trampled all over her life. She cupped her hands around the snowflake before Bran could complain, but as she took them away, his eyes grew wide in surprise as the light was nearly twice as radiant as before.

    The little girl giggled, and, in a surprising twist of fate, threw her arms around Bran. When she pulled away, she sat on the cold floor of the tent, tilting her head to the side and up at Bran. Not knowing what else to do, Bran followed her example and sat in front of her, legs folded before him.

    "Why are you here?" The little girl shrugged and looked at her feet instead. "Oh. Couldn't sleep?" Liana raised her eyes to Brans, their gazes meeting in the light of the snowflake for a short moment. A small, shy smile danced on her lips, drawing a similar one from Bran. "I haven't been able to sleep in a long time either..."

    There was an inexplicable, unfathomable gratitude that shone in Liana's eyes at that moment. Perhaps it was in finding someone else that shared plights similar to her own that offered her some solace. At the end of the day, after all, she was still a little girl. Granted, an angry, bitter, little girl, but a little girl all the same.

    She was lost, she was tired, she was hungry, and she had just about lost everyone important in her life. Liana crawled over to Bran's side and sat there instead. The commander leaned over and looked at her. "Want to talk about it?" Liana shook her head. "Alright. Well, would it help if I talked about it?" The little girl nodded, the small smile on her face never leaving for a single moment.

    "I'm afraid" said Bran, his words barely even a whisper in the tent. Liana leaned her head against Bran's arm. She was, as well. "I'm afraid I won't ever be able to go home again. Feel human, again. I'm afraid the woman I love won't ever see the world the same way again." Bran trembled, and the light hovering above his hand faltered and died. The snowflake fractured and showered tiny cold crystals on his outstretched palm.

    "I've seen many things, over these years..." he whispered as he felt the little girl's breathing beside him slow down. "Many of them horrible..." Bran shook his head. "I always have nightmares about the friends I've lost on this gods-damned quest..." Bran twiddled his thumbs. "I see their faces, and they never, ever, let me have the peace of slumber."

    "They always look at me with this pleading look, as though begging me to help them..." Liana was breathing evenly and slowly, at this point. The little girl had fallen asleep, tired, and hungry, after wandering from the nearby town. "I want to. But I can't. I can't. I may be their commander, but I'm just a man with a frozen sword. Fuck if I know how to help them..."

    "All this is just beyond me" lamented Bran, taking his hand and stroking the nape of Liana's neck as though to comfort the dozing little girl. Despite the sadness and helplessness wrapped around him, Bran could not stop the smile that touched his lips as the little girl threw her arms around him.

    Without opening her eyes, she uttered the first word she had since sneaking into the captains' tent. "Tristan..."

    ---

    The day had been fairly eventful, with Elian having one of his panic attacks in the middle of their walk through the forest. Jack had made sure to keep his distance as the blond struggled to get his emotions under control once more. By the time all was said and done, a good swathe of the forest floor and the foliage above was frozen solid. Elian had trembled from the force of the sheer terror that had engulfed him in those few moments that seemed to stretch into eternity.

    While normally he would have abhorred the touch, Jack's arms around him as he sank to his knees were a welcome embrace. Warmth flowed from the farmboy to the deposed prince, and the trembling ever so slowly began to subside into barely noticeable shivers. Jack had then helped Elian to his feet, and they continued their walk through the dense woods with the blond in the platinum's arms.

    Now, after a light dinner, the two young men lay side by side on the blanket that Jack had brought, looking up at the night sky with nothing but the flickering of the small campfire beside them to shed brightness in the clearing. Jack looked at Elian, only to find that the blond was looking with an almost wistful expression back at him. The farmboy smiled and grasped Elian's wrist with a tender affection that was not lost on the blond. Elian smiled back, the serenity of the clearing and gurgling stream that stemmed from it keeping his fear at bay.

    In unison, the two young men turned their eyes skyward, casting the light of their gazes to the heavens above them. The night sky was a canvas of deepest inky blue speckled with glittering gems of starlight. To the two young men lying beneath their twinkling light, the stars seemed like unmoving fixtures amongst the ever-shifting clouds, rising and falling like the sun and moon, immutable reminders of the passage of time.

    The moon had not yet risen above the trees. For that reason, its bright light did not wash out the myriad stars in the sky. Jack cast his eyes to the west, towards where, just above the tops of the trees, a vast milky band of light spanned from horizon to horizon. It was that band that his fathers had called the Way to Awe, the path which all the ships that traveled from the mortal world to the Westerlands traversed. It was a calm river of light, beautiful to behold even from where all mortal men were bound for as long as they lived.

    A soft sigh escaped Jack's lips as he watched the Way shed its pale light into the sky. He wondered if Kyle was still there. Neither Kyle nor Nyko seemed to know how long the journey West took, nor did they seem to care. All that mattered to them was that the journey West was a journey to paradise, to a world free of fear, pain, sorrow... A single tear rolled down Jack's cheek.

    The farmboy remembered how often Kyle would talk of seeing the Westerlands before his death. He told of the rolling fields of his childhood, the bright sunlight, the cool autumn breeze that just seemed to caress a man at all the right times... Kyle told of a place that did not care whom you loved, that did not care what sins you had committed... It was a place to be happy, to spend the rest of eternity in joyous limbo.

    There were times in those days that Jack found himself yearning for the chance to go on that same journey, but time and again, he became deathly afraid. It was the great unknown, for him, that journey West. He did not know if it was as unequivocally true as his fathers believed it to be. What if, when he died, there would be no one to come and fetch his soul from the land of the living as Nyko had Kyle?

    Jack turned to Elian, a bittersweet smile playing on his lips. The blond was staring at the stars, their twinkling light lending a spark of beauty to icy blue eyes as they gazed with almost-reverence upon the heavens. Jack closed his eyes, burning that image into his mind's eye. He no longer had much reason to seek the Way. This, right here, to him, was paradise.

    Simply being with Elian for even a brief moment in eternity, with no worry, fear, or regret... All of it was heavenly, in Jack's mind. He gently rubbed his thumb in slow circles on the back of the blond's hand. It was a tender moment, and one that he would treasure until the day he breathed his last breath. He was thankful that nothing had yet disturbed their peace.

    "Jack." The farmboy's eyes fluttered open. Elian's voice was as soft as the breeze that then blew past them. "Do you ever wonder..." Elian clasped his hand around Jack's fingers. "Do you ever wonder what stars are...?" The blond's voice never rose to more than what it truly was: a whisper. "Why they're up there... Why they twinkle...? Are they telling us something?"

    Jack looked at Elian. The blond's eyes were firmly fixated on the heavens. A small smile twisted the corners of Jack's lips as he felt Elian's fingers close around his own. It had been a long time since they had been this close. His heart set slightly aflutter, Jack raised his eyes to the heavens, searching for the same questions that Elian had just asked him. "I... I've never wondered that..." For a moment, silence fell. "My fathers told me that each and every one of those stars is the soul of one of our ancestors, living in the Westerlands and watching over us..."

    "That's what I used to believe too..." Jack turned his eyes again to Elian. The blond was still looking straight up at the glittering gems of starlight in the night sky. "I... I don't want that to be true..." Jack watched as tears welled up in Elian's eyes, firelight, along with starlight, dancing on their watery sheen. "Whenever I think of the stars as my forefathers, I can never bear to look up at them and see their beauty." Elian shook his head, but never once took his eyes off of the point in the sky they were fixed upon. "I only see their eyes looking down on me, disappointed, disgusted..."

    Tears ran down the sides of Elian's face. Jack leaned over and wiped them away with his free thumb while at the same time squeezing the blond's hand in support. "What's there to be disappointed by, disgusted by, Elian?" Jack released Elian's hand and propped himself up by his elbow. "You've survived all these years on your own... You've managed to make it this far knowing nothing when you started... How is that anything to be ashamed of?" When Elian remained silent, Jack added "If anything, that's something your ancestors should be proud of."

    "If my ancestors are anything like my father, anything like Vamara's history books make them out to be..." Elian trailed off, clasping his hands together and laying them on his stomach. "If they are what the people tell them to be... They would not be proud." For the first time, Elian tore away his gaze from the twinkling pinpricks of light in the heavens above them and turned to look Jack in the eye. "It's just... you don't understand, Jack."

    The words felt like a stab in the chest, and the happiness in Jack's face slipped off in an instant. "No" he admitted, breaking eye-contact with Elian and rolling over to lie on his back. "No, I don't understand..." In a softer voice, one laced with hurt and determination, Jack continued "Maybe I never will... but that doesn't mean I will stop trying."

    ---

    Kristoff motioned for one of the tavern maids to bring him a tankard of ale. It had taken much less time than he'd expected to find his way back to the town where he'd met the men who had been following Elian. He'd not planned to go back until he'd visited the three other small villages in the area, but something that had yet to leave his mind had occurred not too long ago. As a result, he was back in the village. He'd had to leave Sven outside the town, or he would have risked attracting attention and recognition to himself. The last thing he wanted was to be recognized by the portly tavernmaster as the bard that had left a whole load of gold to pay for a hasty departure.

    When the tankard was brought to him, Kristoff took a deep swig. The ale was hearty and had a good body to it. It was definitely a quality drink, one that he presumed was bought with the coin he'd left. Nevertheless, he was not there out of luxury. He was back in the village out of necessity. It had been almost a week since that most disturbing event that threatened to throw all the carefully constructed plans of the Tower to pieces. He was sure there were others of the old Order that were in the village right at that moment. He couldn't possibly have been the only one near enough to bear witness to what had happened.

    Just as he finished taking a second swig from the tankard of ale, the door to the tavern swung open and a man who looked vaguely familiar strode into the tavern. He was decked in the regalia of the sun priests, and he seemed to be looking for someone. Iven was summarily dismissed as soon as he even tried to take one step towards the priest.

    Kristoff's heart very nearly stopped when he recognized the man. An old lover, and an old member of the Order. Kristoff hid his face in his tankard, hoping against hope that the sun priest would not recognize him. It was an attempt at hiding that was to no avail. The priest was heading directly for Kristoff's table, ignoring all the fawning townspeople around him.

    "Old friend..." said the priest with an almost-genuine smile as he sat down across from Kristoff. Truth be told, unlike most members of their respective Orders, Kristoff did not feel as much animosity towards the sun priest before him nor the other towards him. "It's been a long time, eh?" There were decades of bitterness between the two, but it was more because of the relationship they once had that had been so unceremoniously torn apart by their difference in opinion.

    "It has been" replied Kristoff, keeping a wary eye on the man before him. "How long has it been, Daemon?" The priest opened his mouth to speak, but Kristoff cut him off before he could. "Nevermind. Don't answer that. I know exactly how long it has been. Thirty-seven years and two months. Last I saw you properly, you were just about to be Caged." Kristoff shot a pointed and accusatory glare at the man before him. They had been so happy, but Daemon just had to go and fuck everything up.

    "And I still am" said the priest, throwing open his small tunic as though to entice Kristoff. Truth be told, the blond was feeling some old stirrings in him that he'd thought were long gone. That being said, it was just probably the weeks of having no sexual satisfaction whatsoever that was getting to him. "Don't think I don't know you weren't involved in that raid on the monastery in the Northern Mountains, Kristoff" said the priest, shooting a similar glare Kristoff's way.

    The blond laughed bitterly. He should have known Daemon was involved. Who else could have anticipated his strategies so well? The campaign against that monastery had been far too difficult for it to have been anyone but Daemon. Nevertheless, he knew that the priest had also been involved in other skirmishes between their orders. "And I know you were there at the Battle of Farrycc Bay twelve years ago. After all, who else would use Vyrrcðocchyn in a naval battle?"

    The priest laughed as well. "You must admit, that was quite the tactical... flair." Kristoff shook his head, unable to help the small genuine smile of mirth that graced his lips at that moment. Perhaps they were on different sides of an ages-old conflict these days, but Daemon had not changed much from the sprightly young man that Kristoff had fallen in love with all those years ago. That love had been dulled by the passage of time, and both knew that it barely even qualified as that these days, but seeing the other, despite the animosity their Orders demanded, offered some sense of normalcy, a modicum of comfort.

    "Nevertheless, I know why you're here" said the priest, shattering the humored atmosphere between the two of them. Out of the corner of his eye, Kristoff watched the air around the two shimmer with magic. "Warding against eavesdroppers" said the priest, tucking away the carved pendant he'd taken out of his coatpocket. "I'm sure you're dying to know just what that surge of Primal magic was about."

    ---

    Bran was jolted awake by the nervous nickering of a nearby horse. He'd not realized he had fallen asleep. Liana was still leaning against him, her arms wrapped as much as they could be around his midriff. From his vantage point, the vengeful little girl of a mere few hours ago was but a tired child whose life had been uprooted by no fault of her own. Gently, he unwound her arms from around himself and picked her up in his own.

    Bran knew which tent the soldiers had given the little girl. After all, it was the very same tent that the two lovers had shared before they mysteriously disappeared the previous night. Motioning at the clearly panicked guard to keep quiet as he approached, Bran entered the tent and set Liana down on the meagre blankets that protected the tent floor from the frozen ground. Satisfied that the little girl would be comfortable, Bran ducked through the tent flap and confronted the soldier who had been posted outside.

    "Sir..." the soldier trembled in apprehension at Bran's reappearance from within. He had, after all, just allowed a potential killer loose into the camp.

    "Shh" said Bran with a genuine smile. The men were tired, and the last thing he needed to do was to be as stringent as Gwen was. "It's alright. What I'm interested in knowing is how she managed to get past a trained soldier." Bran's voice was barely a whisper in the night, but it was loud enough for the soldier to hear.

    "I fell asleep at my post, sir." Bran cocked an eyebrow at the young man in front of him. "I'm sorry, sir, but I've been on the last three shifts of the watch." Bran's raised eyebrow went even higher. "The other soldiers refused to wake up, so I had to stay up in their stead." The commander's eyebrows knotted together. It was one of the first signs of distress for any commander of a company. Dissent was beginning to be sown amongst the ranks.

    "Go get some sleep, soldier. I'll see what I can do about your predicament." Bran balled his hands into fists. Three soldiers were about to get the talking-to of their lives. He had the authority to execute the men for dissent, but Bran knew doing so would only gain him and Gwen the ire of others in the company.

    Trembling, the soldier shook his head. "If you don't mind, sir... I'd like to stay." Bran was more than a little surprised at the soldier's words. "I--I don't want to sleep in my tent." There was genuine fear in the soldier's eyes. Despite the fact that his eyelids were sliding shut even as they spoke, despite the fact that he teetered on his feet, threatening to spill forward and fall flat on his face, there was a terror in his eyes that stirred greater anger inside Bran.

    "Why?" asked the commander, voice firm and stern. He grabbed the soldier's shoulders to steady him, but the other man's head just rolled forward limply. The man had fallen asleep. "Why? Answer me." demanded Bran a second time, shaking the soldier awake from his temporary slumber.

    "Please, sir, don't--" The soldier was trembling, unable to look Bran in the eye. His cheeks were flushed red, and, if Bran was not mistaken, there were tears falling from his eyes.

    "That is an order, soldier! Why do you not want to sleep in your tent?" The soldier looked up at Bran with such a pleading look that for a moment, the commander considered letting the matter go. He did not. He wanted to get to the bottom of why one of his men was showing such fear of going to sleep in his own tent.

    "M-m-my tent-mate, s-sir." The soldier's lower lip trembled and his gaze darted furtively about, as though ensuring that there was no one else nearby that could hear him. "H-he..." The soldier drew a deep shuddering breath. "He's made me his bitch, sir." The words made Bran's blood ran cold. Under normal circumstances, he would have told the soldier to man the fuck up and face his tormentor, but the blubbering mess of a creature in front of him told him that that course of action was beyond the bounds of reason for this particular soldier.

    "What did he do to you, soldier?" Bran demanded, allowing a modicum of tenderness and concern into his otherwise stern voice. "And stop your crying. It's unsightly." The soldier sniffled and tried to steady himself on his feet, but couldn't. The shame of admitting to being roughly used by his tent-mate was crippling, if anything. The soldier wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hands.

    "A-at first he let me f-fuck him... a-and in e-exchange I let him f-fuck me... Sir" mumbled the soldier, pale skin alight with burning shame. "b-but t-then as time w-went on h-he started c-calling me n-names and w-wouldn't l-let me fuck him..." The soldier stared at his feet. "H-he wouldn't even l-let me j-jerk off. H-he told me h-he would k-kill me if I t-told anyone..."

    "Tall words" remarked the officer, keeping his firm grasp on the soldier's arms constant. "A threat on one of your comrades lives isn't a joking matter, soldier. You should have told us." The soldier laughed bitterly, as though the apparent solution that Bran had offered was the most alien thought to him. He laughed as though the very idea was ludicrous and could not, in any way, be true.

    "Y-you don't understand, sir... M-my tent-mate is Gython..." The largest man in their company, and arguably the strongest. Looking at the countenance of the soldier before him, Bran realized the truth of the soldier's words. Gython would have snapped him like a twig. "I-I t-thought if I told you, you would just laugh a-at m-me and t-tell me to be a man..." The soldier shook in Bran's firm grip. "I c-can't be... Not a-after what h-he's done to me... I-I d-don't want to go back to m-my tent because h-he never l-lets me go to sleep w-without fucking me..."

    Bran loosened his grip on the soldier's shoulders and made as though to take a step back. The soldier's head whipped up and his terror-stricken eyes met Bran's. The soldier fell to his knees and begged the commander. "P-please... D-don't tell anyone... D-don't tell him..." The commander reached down and pulled the soldier back up to his feet. "I'm a-afraid of him, sir... I'm a-afraid of what my wife will t-think..."

    Bran patted the soldier's shoulder reassuringly even as seething rage beat at the walls of his consciousness. "I won't. I swear it by the gods." The soldier looked up at Bran with such a look of gratitude and relief that the commander almost regretted saying the words. How such a thing had been going on in his company without his knowledge was a terrifying lapse in his judgment of his men. He realized that while he had been struggling with his own nightmares and how Gwen had changed over the years that his men had changed too, and he had been far too occupied with his own problems to take notice of his men's.

    "Where are the others on your watch?" The soldier's eyes went wide with terror at Bran's demand. "I will not tell them anything but you must be a man for a little while. You need sleep." A wary gratefulness washed over the fear in the soldier's eyes, burying it, yes, but not completely. The soldier jerked his head to a nearby tent. "Stay here and gather your wits about yourself. You'll need them."

    ---

    Elian smiled at Jack's words. He did not know why, but they brought him a profound sense of comfort he did not think mere words could. Perhaps it was the idea that someone would actually devote their time and effort to try and comprehend his pain that offered him some security. Perhaps he was not entirely worthless, after all. The silence stretched between the two, the only noise that broke it was Glaise's panting as he watched the two young men from beside the fire.

    When he felt the silence had gone on for long enough, Elian raised a finger to the night sky and pointed at the brightest star that they could see from the clearing. "When I was young and still in Vamara, my tutors told me that that star was the very first ruler of Old Vamara. They told me that anyone destined for greatness would find their way by following his light." Elian sighed softly. "When I was young, I would always try and find some meaning in his light, but when I realized there was nothing in it, I started to think that I was not meant for great things..."

    Jack shook his head in clear disagreement. Elian chuckled. Jack always seemed to think the best of him, even if Elian knew deep within that the farmboy was mistaken. The blond simply could not find it in himself to correct Jack anymore... Not that the farmboy would be so easily swayed in any case even if he did. If there was one thing he'd learned about Jack, it was that the farmboy could be insufferably stubborn at times.

    "It's alright" said Elian, a marked levity in his voice that had not been there before. It was a strange but pleasant turn of tone from mere minutes ago. "There are days when I can convince myself that I don't believe those things anymore." Elian moved his finger to point to one of the dimmer stars towards the southern end of the clearing. The small pinprick of light was quite unremarkable in the night sky save for its distinctly reddish glint. "That one, they said, is the Pearly King, as they called him. He was the most despised King of Vamara. Under his reign, the kingdom flourished, but there were no wars."

    "Vamara was a place of happiness, not swords, and none of the writers of history liked him. Not the elders, not the generals, not the councilmen. They said that the worst people will find their way in his light." Elian laughed bitterly. "Him... Him I followed South. If I could, I would go back and laugh in the elders' faces. I would tell them that it's not the worst people that the Pearly King can lead you to. I would tell them that He could lead you to perhaps the best person." A blush crept into Elian's cheeks, but Jack could do nothing but stare at him in puzzlement for a moment as he tried to process what the blond had just said.

    When the farmboy came to realize the off-handed compliment that Elian had just made, the blood rushed to his face so fast that he had no time to think of a response. Instead he sputtered, trying to make sense of an incoherent jumble of words that had suddenly overtaken his mind. All were words that he'd at some point wanted to tell Elian to profess some sort of affection, but decided not to. Now, they had somehow found their way back in the most unorganized way possible.

    Elian smiled and folded his arms behind his head. "I like to believe that the stars are other worlds..." said the blond, almost wistfully as he pointed at another star. This one was twinkling so quickly it seemed as though it had lost its mind. "Other worlds where there isn't hate, or fear, or hunger, or madness..." Elian leaned over to look at Jack, who was still struggling to find words at this point in time, and asked "Don't you think it would be nice if all those stars out there were other worlds with people just like you and me?"

    "I guess it would be..." whispered Jack, feeling relieved at having the burden of replying to Elian's previous statement lifted from his shoulders. "But why would it matter if there are other worlds out there?" asked Jack. "It's not like we will ever be able to reach the stars... Not while we live, at least" he continued.

    Elian shook his head, casting his eyes about the heavens. There. One star glimmered blue. There. Barely distinguishable from each other, two dim stars twinkled beside each other, as though twins. "Maybe if we can fly high enough we could, Jack..." Elian's voice took on an earnestness that came from somewhere Jack could not fathom. "Just imagine... if there are worlds out there where we can live without misery..." Jack closed his eyes and did as Elian said. He envisioned a world without all the pain and fear that this one caused him.

    It was heaven. If Elian was there with him, Jack mused, the Westerlands, no matter how paradisiacal they might be, would be like a candle flame to the radiance of the sun. "That... that would be quite nice, Elian..." said Jack, a smile playing upon his face as he saw Elian approach him with arms outstretched in his mind's eye.

    "If there are other worlds out there, Jack... with people like us..." The tone of Elian's voice suggested that he was not talking about the race of man, but rather, people like himself and Jack who happened to love others of the same sex. "What would they tell us if they could speak to us...?" Jack cracked open an eye and looked over at Elian.

    "I don't know, Elian..." Jack crawled over to where Elian was lying flat on his back. "Maybe if you're right, we'll get to know one day." Elian smiled. Now that was a comforting thought, being right about something for once in his life. The clearing, as bitter as the memories that had brought him to it had been, granted Elian a serenity that he had long since thought the gods had forever forbidden him from attaining.

    It was that calm that chased away his fears, the terrors that would often surge through his veins. The moon was just about cresting the tops of the trees, and its milky light finally began to filter into the clearing. Both young men watched with mouths slightly agape as the moonlight caught upon the closed buds of the many Blue Maids that ringed the pond. The flowers began to glow a soft, faint blue as they began to open, glittering puffs of loose pollen drifting skywards in the silvery bars of light.

    At the same instant, the clearing came alive with the chirping of insects, the singing of nightbirds and the chittering of forest critters. Glaise barked happily and padded off to chase one of the moonflies that fluttered in from the treeline to dance around the pond. Jack stripped off his tunic and folded it neatly to the side before getting up and beginning to untie his breeches.

    Elian leaned forwards, propping himself up with his elbows and looked at Jack inquisitively. The farmboy's back was turned to Elian as he struggled to undo the knots that held his breeches in place. "Jack... What are you doing?" The platinum shook his head as though he'd been caught in a trance. His entire body very nearly turned pink as the blush crept down from his cheeks to his torso. "Jack?"

    The farmboy turned around to face Elian, an embarrassed sheepish grin on his face. "Sorry... Force of habit, I suppose..." Glaise barked at Jack and bounded off towards the water, making quite the ruckus as he submerged himself in what was probably a freezing cold pond. "Whenever Glaise and I came here before, we would go for a swim in the pond..." Jack stretched out a hand to Elian. Against the blond's better judgment he took the platinum's hand.

    The farmboy pulled him to his feet. "I would love it if you joined us..." mumbled Jack, making Elian strain to hear the words. At first he'd thought he misheard the farmboy, but the expectant gaze told him he'd not heard the proposition wrong. "Come on, Elian... It will be fun" insisted Jack, swallowing the shyness that threatened to overcome him, and instead asking Elian once more with his usual toothy grin and aplomb.

    Elian fidgeted. He was not entirely comfortable with the idea, but many of his inhibitions had since then abandoned him. Whether it was something in the food or drink they'd had, or simply the lack of fear that threatened to overwhelm him, the blond was finding the idea of going for a dip in the pond with Jack quite appealing. When Elian took a few seconds to respond, the platinum shrugged and tossed his breeches over Elian's head.

    The blond sputtered in protest, but quickly shut up and turned red when he realized what the cloth draped over his face meant. Jack had gotten naked without him noticing, and now the evidence of the farmboy's lack of clothing was obstructing the blond's vision. A peal of laughter followed by a splash echoed in the clearing as Jack jumped into the water.

    Elian could not deny the rapidly growing hardness in his loins at the thought of Jack being naked. His body, despite the protests of his heart and mind, had long since given up all pretense of innocence when it came to Jack, instead demanding that he give in to the primal urge that governed all men when it came to the objects of their attraction. Elian tried to look away but could not tear his eyes from the sight as Jack breached the surface of the water.

    The moonlight made the farmboy's platinum hair glow with a radiant halo around his head. The droplets of water that dripped from his hair glittered like liquid starlight. Elian's breath caught in his chest as he watched Jack shake his head from side to side, flinging water every which way. Glaise paddled his way over to Jack's side, licking his master's face with a cold tongue that Elian had come to know far too intimately for comfort.

    "Come on Elian, don't be afraid!" Jack said, throwing his arms out when he waded to shallower waters. "It's just a pond..." said the farmboy with a sheepish grin. "Besides..." he remarked cheekily, and possibly in retribution for Elian's off-handed compliment. "I've seen you naked before..." Jack, at least, had the decency to blush. "And I didn't see anything to be ashamed of."

    Elian's face reddened even more than he'd thought was possible. Nevertheless, despite the niggling fear at the back of his mind that nothing good had ever come of him taking a dip, despite his better judgment, Elian stripped off his tunic and lay it folded neatly right beside Jack's. The blond took the farmboy's breeches and folded them on top of Jack's tunic before turning his back to the platinum and undoing the ties on his pants.

    Jack tried his best to not watch, but could not tear his eyes from the sight as Elian undressed. He could feel his own cock rock hard underneath the surface of the pond despite the cold. When the blond shucked his breeches off, exposing his ass with a shy slowness that could easily be misconstrued as teasing, Jack very nearly moaned in delight.

    After folding his breeches and adding it to the neat pile by the corner of the blanket that Jack had brought, Elian walked over to the shore of the pond, hands clasped over his groin. The pink twinge of colour on the blond's cheeks had not left them, and Elian refused to meet Jack's eyes. The farmboy thought it was merely out of embarrassment of being naked, but the truth was, Elian was trying his best to hide an erection that simply refused to back down.

    Elian fidgeted right at the water's edge, apprehension shattering whatever semblance of serenity he'd had previously. At the same time, all pretense of modesty was dropped as Elian raised his clasped hands to his chest, allowing his manhood to swing into full view of Jack. The farmboy swallowed, feeling more blood rush to his cheeks and to his own tumescence. Forcing down the lump in his throat, Jack called out to Elian, who then looked at him with a look of fear that had not been there mere moments ago. "Come on, Elian. There's nothing to be afraid of."

    Taking a deep breath, the blond took one step into the water. For once, the water did not freeze as he touched it. Feeling emboldened, Elian waded deeper into the pond, stopping about halfway from Jack, shivering as he felt something slimy and cold slide up his naked back. "Glaise!" said Jack, sternly, and the dog paddled away from Elian. The blond looked at Jack, terrified, before breaking out into a relieved smile.

    The blond waded deeper into the water, his cock still rock hard under the surface, despite all his efforts to will it down. His body had long since stopped listening to his mind, and all it wanted at the moment was Jack. When he stood in front of Jack, the other man wrapped his arms around the blond and pulled him into an embrace.

    Elian could feel Jack's hardness jutting against his thigh, but he was sure Jack could feel his own. The blond looked down but could not see that deep into the water. He blushed even more and whispered to Jack "I'm sorry..."

    "About what?" asked Jack, trying to quash the pleasant tinglings that shot through his body from where his cock was rubbing up against Elian.

    The blond raised his eyes to Jack's. For a few moments, his mouth worked wordlessly, but he managed to get a few words out. "A-about... my..." Jack raised an eyebrow. "My... Down there..." said the blond, looking pointedly down at the water.

    Jack laughed at Elian's consternation about their mutual lack of clothing. "It's normal, Elian... when you see something you like." The farmboy grinned cheekily at Elian. Feeling bold, he rubbed his member up and down the blond's thigh as though to make a point. The blond shivered at the sensation. When the blond opened his mouth to protest, Jack cut him off. "Don't be dumb, Elian."

    For a good long while, the two young men just stared at each other, manhoods forgotten in the heat of the moment. The both broke at the same time, casting aside inhibitions, and allowing themselves to truly feel. Their lips met in a tender kiss devoid of lustful passion, but filled with solidarity, comfort, and, some would dare say love. Glaise barked happily as the two refused to pull apart under the watchful eye of the moon and the glittering starlight.