by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
There were, Kale reflected, a few things the recruiting officers failed to mention when they were making their pitches to the young men of the towns and villages. They spoke a great deal of honour and glory, heroics and bravery, triumph and victory. Kale had been far from the only young man in his village to march to the capital with stars in his eyes and dreams in his heart.
Unlike many of the raw recruits, Kale had been practical enough to expect things like needing to dig trenches and latrines, the endless hours slogging through every conceivable kind of weather, and the condescension of everyone in the army with a stripe on his shoulder or a few campaigns under his belt.
No, the part Kale was bitterly cursing the recruiting officers for failing to mention was that sometimes, it was the guys on the other side who got to enjoy the heroic victory. And when your battalion was caught off guard and unprepared by a much larger enemy force, ‘retreat’ might as well be synonymous with ‘flee for your lives’.
It was every man for himself as all semblance of order and strategy vanished in what had become nothing more than a rout. Kale was forcibly reminded of the old adage, ‘If you want to avoid being eaten by a dragon, travel with someone who runs slower than you do.’ Only it wasn’t a mindless dragon behind them, it was a well-armed and overwhelming force of the enemy, and no one who fell behind would be left alive.
He ran for all he was worth, tree branches lashing at him and thorns tearing at his uniform and sometimes the flesh beneath as well. His heart was pounding and he was breathing so hard that it almost drowned out the sound of crashing in the forest all around him, and the cries of those in the rear who had been reached by the enemy. The latter sounds weren’t nearly far enough away for Kale’s peace of mind.
The sun was only just rising over the mountains, and the shadows made it difficult to see where he was going. An unexpected tree root tripped him up, nearly sending him crashing face-first to the ground. Sweat broke out on his body as he staggered and fought to keep his feet, terrified that falling would mean losing the crucial seconds that would get him out of this alive. By some miracle of the gods, he managed to stay upright.
Before he could start running again, his attention was drawn by a soft glow ahead and to his left. The pale glimmer might have put him in mind of a firefly, if he could conceive of one of the bugs grown to human size. There was only one thing it could be; magic, either a minor spell being cast or just the aura of a mage.
If it was one of the enemy then he was as good as dead, but he didn’t see how it could be. He couldn’t imagine how they would have gotten ahead to flank them, since this valley ran straight between the mountains for some distance with no passes on either side. It had to be one of his own people, which meant something was very wrong indeed. The mages and Elite had been the first ones ordered to retreat, with the regular troops taking up the rear. Soldiers were a dime a dozen; those with the ability to control magic were precious resources that couldn’t be wasted on a hopeless battle.
Almost anyone else would probably have kept running, more concerned with his own skin than a stranger’s. Hells, everyone who had passed this way before Kale had apparently run on, and he couldn’t really blame them. If he was smart, he’d mind his own business and do the same, and maybe come out of this disaster in one piece.
Instead his feet carried him towards the glow, wading through the dense underbrush in the way. Kale cursed himself for a fool with every step, knowing he was probably signing his own execution order.
He burst into a small clearing, nearly tripping again at the sudden lack of resistance, and found himself face-to-face with one of the Elite. He’d never been this close to one before; the warrior-mages had little to do with the regular troops, and tended to regard grunts as being too far beneath them to be worth bothering with. Startled, the Elite lashed out, obviously mistaking Kale for an enemy.
Only reflexes honed by months on the front lines saved Kale’s life as he dove forward beneath the sweep of the man’s broadsword. The runes etched onto the magical blade sang through the air above them, a sweet sound that was at odds with their deadly purpose. Slapping the ground with his hands to break his fall, Kale rolled as he landed, trying to get out of reach before the man swung again. He knew it was probably a futile effort; the battle magics the Elite specialized in made them much faster than an ordinary swordsman.
“I’m on your side!” he yelled as he tumbled, hoping the words would come out coherently. They must have, or else the man had recognized Kale’s uniform, because the second strike never came. Kale came out of the roll crouched low on his feet, facing the Elite warily.
To his shock he realized the warrior-mage was badly injured, a slash to his left thigh that had left him unable to run. Small wonder he was all the way back here when his squadmates must be miles away by now.
“Go,” the man commanded him, sweeping his hand toward the forest in front of them. “Run for your life. I’ll cover you.” From the determination in his eyes, Kale had no doubts the man was perfectly willing to sacrifice himself so those like Kale might escape. The smart thing for him to do would have been to kill himself, by sword or spell; the enemy was merciless in killing soldiers they defeated, but the tortures they reserved for captured Elite didn’t bear thinking about.
Hesitating, desperately wanting to obey the order, Kale looked back and forth between the man and the distant sounds of shouting to the rear. Could he leave the man to die an incredibly painful and drawn-out death, just so Kale might have a slightly better chance to escape? He would probably die if he stayed and tried to help, but would he be able to live with himself if he didn’t?
Finally he shook his head. “No,” he said, his voice hoarse with fear as he stood. “Give me your arm, you can lean on me.”
An incredulous look spread over the man’s face. He looked as if he was certain Kale was addled from a blow to the head. “Are you insane? We’ll both die. Get out of here!” Seeing that Kale still wasn’t leaving, he scowled and barked, “That’s an order, private! Move!”
“No,” Kale insisted, shaking his head again and extending his hand. “I’m not leaving you here. Take my arm, damn it.” When the Elite opened his mouth to argue again, he added impatiently, “The longer you stand here trying to order me away, the more likely it is they’re going to overtake us. Let’s go!”
Disbelieving, the warrior-mage stared into his eyes as if assessing his determination. “You really would just stand here arguing with me until they came on us, wouldn’t you?” he asked, sounding torn between amusement and ridicule. “Crazy bastard. All right, let’s go.”
Despite his harsh words, Kale was sure he wasn’t imagining the relief in the man’s eyes as he draped his left arm over Kale’s shoulders. He was taller than Kale, but not so much that he wasn’t able to use the younger man as a makeshift crutch. It was awkward for him to half hop along at Kale’s side, and it obviously caused him a great deal of pain despite the help, but the only sound he made was an occasional grunt of effort.
They limped along at what felt like a snail’s pace. Kale fought the urge to keep looking over his shoulder, knowing there wouldn’t be much they could do about it even if the enemy was right on top of them. The aura of magic around the Elite was dim, and if he’d had much power left he would have been able to heal his own wound and keep running. One terrified private and a half crippled Elite warrior weren’t going to be able to do much against even one or two enemies.
Far too quickly the screams of the dying were getting closer behind them. The enemy was catching up. Kale swallowed hard, trying not to hyperventilate. It was all very good and noble of him to insist on saving the injured man, but now that push was coming to shove he was starting to have second thoughts. He could still dump the man and run for it. The Elite probably wouldn’t even blame him for doing it.
Fear doesn’t make you a coward, he reminded himself fiercely. Giving in to the fear is what makes a coward. And, so his sergeant had assured them all many times, there was a special level of the hells reserved for deserters and cowards in battle. Chances were good he was going to die even if he ran, so he might as well do what he could to ensure he had a happy afterlife.
“Laran’s blood, we’re never going to make it,” the injured Elite swore, as if that were new information. He looked like he was thinking hard, probably searching for a way out of this hopeless situation.
Then, to Kale’s amazement, his face cleared. “Go that way,” he ordered, pointing off to their right, towards the closer of the mountains that lined the valley. “There should be an old scout shelter that we used when we were running reconnaissance here before we took this ground back from the enemy. If we can get to it and hide in time, they might go right by us.”
It was a slender hope to cling to, but it was worlds better than no hope at all. Kale obediently changed direction, trying not to think about the fact that moving at an angle like this meant the enemy would catch up all the faster. The warrior-mage was hopping and stumbling along at his side, clearly pushing himself to his limits and beyond to move as quickly as possible. Kale did his best to help and prayed to every deity he’d ever even heard mentioned that they would make it to the shelter in time.
Maybe somebody was listening to his prayers after all, because far sooner than Kale had expected the Elite exclaimed in triumph. “There it is!” he said, forcing the words out between his ragged gasps for breath.
As far as Kale could see, he was pointing at absolutely nothing. There was a tumble of rocks left behind by a long ago landslide, but they wouldn’t provide much in the way of cover. Certainly there was no way the warrior-mage could climb them with an injury like that.
Dropping his arm from around Kale’s shoulders, the Elite used his blade like a cane and hobbled over to a mid-sized boulder on the fringes. Pausing in front of it he started tracing arcane runes in the air, leaving a glimmering trail of light in the wake of his finger.
Peering closer, Kale finally made out the faint shine of magic that lined the boulder. Even so he was surprised when the whole thing simply vanished, leaving access to a small but secure-looking bolt hole.
“Hurry, they’re almost here,” the Elite urged, glancing back over his shoulder. Kale didn’t need a second reminder. He scrambled into the enclosed space, pressing himself against the far wall so the Elite could get in as well. Once they were both inside the Elite turned back and sketched the runes of reversal, and suddenly there was seemingly solid rock there once more.
The space was cramped to say the least, obviously not intended for more than one person or an extended stay. Kale was glad he wasn’t in the least bit claustrophobic, nor afraid of the dark. There was no light at all, not even a stray sunbeam filtering through a crack in the rocks.
“And now we wait,” the Elite pronounced, relieved. Kale took his quiet words as a sign that it wouldn’t endanger them to talk.
“Won’t they see the magic on the boulder?” he asked, nervous. He wasn’t sure if the boulder was an illusion or if it had just been moved, but he couldn’t hear anything from outside any more. If the enemy did find them, they would have no warning until the spell was broken and they found themselves at sword point.
“Not unless they’re looking for it,” the Elite told him, and the confidence in his voice was reassuring. “Wouldn’t be much of a good spy hideout if they could find it easily, would it?”
It was true that the shine of magic on the boulder was so faint as to be almost invisible, even when you were right on top of it. Whoever had made the spell had crafted a masterful piece of magic. It might be somewhat more visible at night, but they had many hours to go before that would be a danger. The enemy had struck in the early dawn hours, when most of the camp was still asleep.
Soft light flared into being, and Kale blinked rapidly to try to clear his eyes. The Elite was just lowering his arm from having traced the rune for ‘light’ onto the rock of the ceiling, providing just enough illumination for them to see each other.
“There, now we’re all nice and cozy,” the Elite said, winking at him. “I think we’ve got enough room to sit, if we don’t mind being a bit friendly.” He suited actions to words, sliding down the slanted rock wall with a grunt. His injured leg stretched out in front of him, though he kept it up against the wall in an effort to give Kale some room. He tucked his other knee up to his shoulder, wrapping one arm around it to keep it in place. “I’m Jaren, by the way. Lieutenant Jaren Delwash to you, I suppose, but all things considered I think you’ve earned the right to just call me by name.” His smile was wry, but friendly.
“Kale Coulter,” Kale replied, a bit shyly. Now that he wasn’t in immediate danger of dying he was able to get a much better look at the man he’d rescued. Jaren was the epitome of everything an Elite should be: handsome, strong, brave, and even kind. Especially the handsome part, despite the dirt and blood of battle that marred his pale skin. His hair was that shade of light blond that is usually found only on children, and his eyes were such an intense shade of blue Kale wondered if it could be real.
Kale was grateful the light wasn’t bright enough for Jaren to be able to see the flush that probably rose to his cheeks. It wasn’t just that the man was handsome enough to leave him breathless. Next to Jaren, Kale felt inadequate in every way possible. His own dark colouring was as common as dirt, and his features were nothing to write home about. And what lowly private wouldn’t feel intimidated to have an officer of the Elite next to them?
“You need to bind that wound, if you don’t have the magic to heal it,” he said in an effort to take his mind off how attractive Jaren was. Relations between the men weren’t officially frowned upon, but under the circumstances Kale had no desire to discover if Jaren was one of the many who felt strongly against it.
Actually, Kale couldn’t think of any circumstances under which he would like to find that out. Even injured, an Elite warrior-mage could probably take on five men of Kale’s level without breaking a sweat.
“I sealed the worst of it so I wouldn’t bleed out, but that’s all I had the strength for,” Jaren admitted with a grimace. “I used up most of my magic laying traps along our back trail for the enemy to stumble into. I was hoping it would slow them down enough for a few more of the troops to get away.”
Kale’s already fairly high estimation of the man rose sharply with those words. He’d never worked with any Elite, but he’d heard the stories from troops who had, and they were always full of the way the Elite seemed to regard anyone not part of them to be little more than animals – and just as readily expendable.
“How did you get injured?” he asked curiously, reaching out to try to tug the blood-encrusted trousers away from the wound. Jaren grunted in pain but made no move to stop him, so he took that as implicit permission to continue. “Did they manage to flank us after all?”
“Nah.” Despite the pain in his voice, Jaren still sounded rueful. “One of their mages caught me at it and turned my own trap back on me. I deflected the worst of it, but I didn’t have the strength to shield completely. I’m lucky it hit where it did. A few more inches to the right and I wouldn’t have ever needed to worry about siring potential bastards again!”
Of course, once he’d heard the words, Kale couldn’t keep his eyes from sliding over to Jaren’s groin. The loose-fitting uniform pants didn’t show anything, but just the thought that he was staring at another man’s crotch was enough to embarrass him. He wrenched his gaze back to the injured leg where it belonged, and sternly told his long-denied hormones that they were just going to have to keep waiting. Even if his words hadn’t indicated an interest in women, someone like Jaren was not for the likes of Kale.
The wound had indeed been sealed, or maybe cauterized would have been a better word. Fluids were leaking at the edges of the angry burn, and it was just begging for an infection to set in. Kale grimaced and pulled his dagger, cutting strips off the bottom of his tunic. His shirt was marginally cleaner than Jaren’s, so it would have to do for bandaging.
“How long do you think we’ll have to stay in here?” he asked as he wound the bandages over the injury, trying to distract Jaren from the pain of the contact.
“Once night comes, we’ll slip out and find a way to meet up with the army again,” Jaren replied, his words coming through gritted teeth. He’d closed his eyes, and his hands were fisted in the material of his pants. “I scouted this area when it was still enemy territory, I know some back ways in and out. They’re just goat tracks, not big enough for any sizeable force to get through, but they’ll serve us well enough.”
Kale had his doubts about that, considering the state Jaren’s leg was in, but then what did he know about magic and the Elite? Maybe by nightfall Jaren would have recovered enough strength to heal himself.
He tied off the last knot in the bandage, and Jaren relaxed marginally. “You’ve got a good touch for that sort of thing,” the Elite complimented him, opening his eyes and smiling at Kale. “Your hands are very gentle.”
“Th-thanks,” Kale stammered, not sure what to say to that. He settled into the small space, copying Jaren’s pose but with both legs tucked up against his body. Even so his feet brushed against Jaren’s, and he could feel the older man’s outstretched leg against his hip. It was more intimate contact than he’d had with anyone before, and the close quarters were not helping him keep his thoughts under control.
“Here.” Jaren tossed him something small and rectangular; after catching it, Kale recognized it as a ration bar. They were made of nuts and berries pressed in honey, and they were a decent substitute for a meal in an emergency. Unwrapping another for himself, Jaren bit into it hungrily. “Damn bastards couldn’t even give us time for breakfast,” he complained when he’d swallowed.
Kale tugged the bar free of its waxed paper wrap. He was hungry as well, despite the situation. One of the things he’d learned early on was that no matter how battle-shocked you were, your body would still demand mundane things like food and sleep.
“Go easy on the water,” Jaren added, pushing his canteen into the bit of free space left on the ground. “I’ve got enough, but there isn’t anywhere to relieve yourself unless you want to sit in it.”
“That’s disgusting,” Kale complained, grimacing. He crammed the last of the bar into his mouth and swallowed almost without chewing, then sipped gingerly from the canteen to wash the sticky honey flavour out of his mouth. Recapping the flask, he passed it back to Jaren and sighed. “Of course, now that you’ve said that, it’s the only thing I’m going to be able to think about.”
Chuckling, Jaren took a small sip as well before putting it away. “Sleep,” he advised with another grin. “It’ll pass the time, and you won’t be obsessing over it. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. By the time we wake, it should be late enough for us to risk venturing out.” Reaching up he wrote another rune over the first one, not extinguishing the light but dimming it to the point where it wouldn’t keep them awake.
Shifting to settle himself a little more comfortably, Kale nodded in agreement. They’d all been up late the night before fortifying their new camp in the valley, fortifications that had evidently been completely useless. The enemy had attacked early, and between that and the fading adrenalin from their harried escape, Kale felt like he could sleep for a week.
It wasn’t exactly the most luxurious of beds, and he knew he’d have a horrible crick in his back from sleeping upright, but another thing he’d learned early in the field was the ability to sleep anywhere. You never knew when you’d get another opportunity, and chances were good the next ‘bed’ wouldn’t be any more comfortable.
Just as Kale was dozing off, Jaren spoke up again. “You look like you’ll never get to sleep that way,” the Elite said, his voice low and intimate in the dim light. A shiver worked its way down Kale’s back at the sound of it, and he hoped his breath hadn’t hitched too obviously.
“Well, unless you’ve got a nice comfortable bedroll tucked away in your pouch along with the rations, I don’t really have a lot of options,” Kale pointed out, shifting.
“Hey, if you can play crutch and save my life, I think I can play pillow and let you get some decent sleep,” Jaren replied with humour in his voice. “Otherwise you’re going to be so cramped you won’t be able to move by the time we get out of here, and that’s not going to do either of us any good.”
Play pillow? Kale froze, trying to think of a way Jaren could have meant that which didn’t involve Kale essentially snuggling up to some part of his body. “Um?” was his intelligent response. Jaren chuckled, making Kale shiver again.
“Turn around and lean against me,” the warrior-mage suggested. “You can rest your head on my shoulder, and I’ll be able to lean against you, too. Just don’t put any pressure on my bad leg, and we’ll be fine.” When Kale continued to hesitate, he added, “Contrary to popular opinion, Kale, the Elite don’t eat regular troopers for breakfast. Honest.”
Lips twitching reluctantly, Kale made a soft sound of assent and shuffled himself around in the small space, careful not to bump the man’s injured leg. Jaren wrapped an arm over his shoulders and tugged him in close, until Kale was halfway into his lap and his head rested on the warrior-mage’s strong shoulder. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?” Jaren asked lightly.
“Yeah,” Kale agreed, his voice a little more hoarse than he’d have liked it to be. If you defined ‘better’ as ‘oh gods the most attractive man I’ve ever met is touching me‘, anyway. He wasn’t sure which god he should be praying to for help getting through this, but if he managed to get out of here without making a fool of himself he’d burn incense to someone.
Resting his cheek against the crown of Kale’s head, Jaren tightened his arm a bit more and pulled him closer. Kale had actually been more comfortable sitting against the wall of the cave, if only because he hadn’t been holding himself rigid with the fear of too obviously enjoying himself, but Jaren seemed happy enough.
“You’re too tense,” Jaren informed him, stroking his hand lightly along Kale’s arm. “We’re alive, we’re safe, and we’re going to make it out of this in one peace. That’s something to rejoice about, not stress over. Relax.”
It would be a hell of a lot easier to relax if he hadn’t been close enough to be able to feel the Elite’s body heat. Kale tried to take deep steady breaths, closing his eyes and telling himself firmly that he needed to sleep, not sit there and panic.
When Jaren’s hand stopped stroking his arm and moved to his side, Kale managed not to tense up again. When the warrior-mage ducked his head and ran his mouth along Kale’s neck, however, he couldn’t help the startled noise that escaped him as he jerked in the older man’s hold. “Jaren?” Thank all the gods that he was at least half a decade too old for his voice to break, because that had been the next thing to a squeak as it was.
“You know, they say that after you’ve nearly died, a lot of people react by wanting to reaffirm life in the most basic way possible,” the Elite murmured against his throat, his tone heated. Kale kept his eyes closed, as if not looking would make the situation less real, but that just meant he could feel every brush of the man’s lips like a fire on his skin.
“I… we can’t,” Kale gasped out, trying to remember why it would be a bad idea. Obviously Jaren wasn’t going to react badly to realizing that Kale was attracted to him. There wasn’t really an issue with superior/subordinate relations, because although Jaren definitely outranked him, he was in no way Kale’s commanding officer. They couldn’t get much safer from prying eyes than this, and it would certainly pass the time until they could leave.
“I saw the way you looked at me, Kale,” Jaren fairly purred, his hand sliding down over Kale’s hip to his groin. “You want me as much as I want you. Let me make us both feel good.” He slipped his hand under Kale’s waistband, into his trousers to wrap around his cock, which was shamefully hard.
Kale bit down on a groan of pleasure, his hands clenching into fists as he fought to keep from jerking his hips up into that tight hold. Oh gods, this was about ten hundred times better than anything he’d ever done by himself. He’d never really understood the obsession some of the men in his unit had with whoring in their off hours, but if it felt half this good he suddenly had a new sympathy for them.
“Kale?” Despite the way he was nuzzling at the sensitive skin of the younger man’s neck, Jaren sounded almost concerned. “Hey, are you all right?”
“I…” Kale shuddered with pleasure, unable to believe this was actually happening to him. “Oh gods…”
“Kale!” Jaren grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him, jarring him out of the haze of arousal that had gripped him. Kale’s eyes flew open and for a horrible, disoriented moment he couldn’t figure out what was going on. Jaren was hovering over him with a worried look in his deep blue eyes. The hand down Kale’s pants was gone, leaving him gasping with the loss and painfully hard.
“Wha… what?” he floundered, confused.
“You were dreaming,” Jaren told him, lifting one hand to smooth sweaty bangs away from Kale’s forehead. “Sounded like a hell of a nightmare. Not that I blame you, after that. Was that your first real loss in battle?”
“Dreaming?” Kale stared at him, stunned. He’d been dreaming? When had he fallen asleep? How much of that had been real?
None of it, apparently, because he was still propped up against the cave wall and Jaren was leaning awkwardly forward over his bad leg to get at him. Hells! He’d known it was too damned good to be true, but he hadn’t actually thought he was dreaming!
How mortally embarrassing. At least he could be grateful that Jaren apparently hadn’t realized what was really going on in Kale’s dreams, or he might as well have just folded up and died of misery right here in the cave.
“You okay?” Jaren asked, clearly still concerned.
“Yeah,” Kale said hoarsely, praying the flush he could feel on his cheeks would be attributed to the embarrassment of being seen having a nightmare like a little kid. “Yeah, I’m fine. Uh, thanks for waking me up.” He was grateful, however much his body might be protesting, because if it had gone on much longer he was sure the Elite would have figured out what was really happening. Worse, he might have done something unthinkable like say the man’s name out loud.
“We’ve still got a few hours before we can go out,” Jaren told him. “Do you think you’ll be able to get back to sleep? I’d offer to stay up and keep you distracted, but I’m still exhausted and if I want to recover enough magic to heal myself, I need more rest.”
Back to sleep? With his body in this state? Hells, no! Kale’s flush deepened. He’d just end up dreaming again. “N-no, that’s fine, I’ll just, uh, stare at the walls,” Kale babbled, shaking his head. Jaren gave him a sympathetic smile, which only made him feel worse.
“Want me to cast a sleep spell on you?” the warrior-mage asked. “It’s a simple spell, and it’ll knock you out with no dreams. Doesn’t take much magic on a willing target, so it won’t affect me much.”
Well, that certainly sounded better than spending several hours staring at Jaren sleeping. Or dozing off and dreaming again. Ducking his head, Kale nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good,” he agreed, shamefaced.
“All right,” Jaren said, and sketched the rune for ‘sleep’ on Kale’s brow. The soft glow of magic in the man’s aura intensified, and as Kale watched it flowed over Jaren’s hand and into him. “Just close your eyes,” the Elite instructed softly, “and next thing you know, it’ll be time to go.”
Kale blinked, and was once again confused by a sudden transition. He was no longer sitting up; he’d slumped over to one side, and his head was pillowed on something soft. Despite the fact that as far as he could tell no time had passed, the groggy feeling in his brain told him he’d been asleep several hours.
In the dim light still coming from the rune he could see that Jaren had apparently regained enough strength to attempt a healing spell. He’d unwound the bandages, and his hand hovered just over the worst of the injury. Several runes of healing hung in the air between his palm and his leg.
Kale watched in fascination as the glow was absorbed into Jaren’s leg, the flesh slowly knitting together and regaining a healthy look. He’d seen healers at work before, but usually the circumstances prevented him from getting a close look at the magic in progress.
Belatedly it occurred to him that his current perspective was quite a bit closer than it should have been, and at the wrong angle as well. Something shifted beneath his cheek, and he realized that somehow in his sleep he’d managed to end up lying curled on the ground with his head pillowed on Jaren’s good leg.
Mortified, his first instinct was to pull away and put as much distance between them as possible, but he knew better than to break a magic trance. He doubted Jaren would have the energy for a second attempt, and if they were both going to survive they needed the warrior-mage in more or less one piece.
Finally the glow of the magic faded, leaving behind only the dim light of the rune on the ceiling. Scrambling up onto his knees and ignoring the spasms of pain in his back, Kale ducked his head. “Jaren, I’m so sorry, I have no idea how I ended up like that! Why didn’t you shove me away?”
“What for?” Jaren asked with a grin. He stretched and Kale heard the vertebrae in his back snap into place; the Elite was at least as stiff as Kale. “You looked comfortable, and I didn’t mind. If you’d picked my bad leg to use as a pillow it might have been a different story, though.”
Relieved that the older man wasn’t going to make a fuss or read anything into it, Kale gave a jerky nod. It was a damn good thing that Jaren’s spell had guaranteed him no dreams, because otherwise he could really have made a fool of himself from that position. “Um. Do you think it’s safe to go out?” he asked tentatively as his body made him uncomfortably aware of its needs.
“It better be, because I’m about to burst,” Jaren replied with a grimace. He shoved himself awkwardly to his feet, having to rest one hand on Kale’s shoulder for balance, but once up he didn’t seem to be in nearly as much pain as he had been earlier. “Good! I’m not up to running any message relays, but I think I can make it over the mountain. I’ve put a pain block on it as well, that doesn’t take too much magic. Let’s go.”
Kale gripped the hilt of his short sword nervously as Jaren sketched the runes that would open the doorway, his embarrassment over the dream and the way he’d woken up superseded by his fear of what might be outside. They still had no way of knowing whether or not they were about to walk straight into the enemy. Would Jaren be able to get the door back up quickly enough to protect them? Would it matter, once the enemy mages knew they were there?
Much to his relief, the boulder vanished to reveal nothing but empty forest. They ventured out cautiously, Jaren in the lead with his rune blade held ready, and Kale backing out to allow him to quickly see if there was anyone lying in wait on the rocks above their shelter.
There was no sign of the enemy, and to his further reassurance, he could hear the ordinary sounds of the forest settling in for the night. It was only sunset, not true dark yet, but the twilight was still almost painfully bright after the dim light in the shelter. Kale blinked rapidly, his eyes watering, as he sheathed his sword again.
“Looks like my Lady Amera is still watching over us,” Jaren declared with a grin, sheathing his sword as well and making a holy sign with his other hand. Kale snorted in reluctant amusement.
“Somehow, despite not having known you long, it does not surprise me that you would take the Goddess of Luck as your patron deity,” Kale told him. Jaren’s grin only widened in response. “Let’s do our business and get out of here, before your Lady decides you haven’t made enough offerings lately.”
It was easier than he’d expected it would be to shove his embarrassment and the memory of the dream aside. Maybe if it hadn’t been a life or death situation Kale would have had more trouble, but it was hard to brood about the tricks his hormones played on him when they were running for their lives.
The trail Jaren had promised to find them started not that far from the shelter and wound up through the debris of the rockslide. By the time they were halfway up the mountain Kale was absolutely certain that not even a goat could make it on this track. Then again, he was a farm boy from a part of the country that was nothing but wide-open fields, so he didn’t exactly have a lot of climbing experience. Jaren certainly didn’t seem to be having much trouble. He kept getting too far ahead and was forced to stop and wait on the narrow ledges for Kale to catch up.
Remembering the way Jaren had run on his bad leg without complaint, Kale gritted his teeth and forced himself to keep going. He might not be Elite, but be damned if he’d make himself look bad now! Jaren’s opinion of him mattered a great deal to him, and not just because of his inappropriate attraction to the man. The Elite now ranked high on the list of people Kale respected.
The last few meters were a mad scramble almost straight up, and even Jaren had some trouble with it. He reached the top first, of course, leaving Kale panting and clinging to the mountain a few feet below. Stretching out at the edge on his stomach, the warrior-mage offered a hand back down to Kale. “C’mon, I’ll pull you up,” he invited.
Glaring, ready to angrily declare that he didn’t need any pity, Kale found himself caught by the open sincerity of Jaren’s blue eyes. There was no hint of derision or condescension, just an honest desire to help him up. Grunting, Kale lunged upwards and caught at the offered hand, allowing the Elite to half pull him up the rest of the cliff.
Jaren’s hand was warm and rough in his, the palm and fingers calloused from countless drills with his sword. They ended up almost chest to chest, and a fanciful part of Kale imagined he could feel the older man’s body heat before he tugged his hand free and pulled away. “Thanks,” he said gruffly, straightening his tunic just to have something to do with his suddenly sweating hands. This wasn’t helping him ignore the way his mind kept returning to that dream now that they weren’t in immediate danger. Why his body have to pick now to remember that he was barely out of his teens and couldn’t think of the last time he’d been this close to a man half as handsome as Jaren?
“All things considered, I think I owe you a lot more than just a simple hand up,” Jaren countered, laughing. “But look, the ridge is relatively flat. It’ll be easy travel from here to the trail down the other side, and from there we shouldn’t be far from the army’s fallback location. Assuming they weren’t pushed even further back, but that fort has never yet been taken by the Semaskans, and there will be reinforcements there.”
Looking around, Kale saw Jaren was right about the ridge. It was almost like a rocky, uneven road, stretching for miles to the east and west in a more or less straight line. The rock beneath their feet was granite, weathered by time but still solid. As a bonus the moon was almost full, and the sky was clear enough that they could see their way easily. It would make for much faster progress, and he began to hope they had some chance after all. Now, if only the enemy hadn’t placed guards up here to catch lingering stragglers like the two of them.
“We won’t know until we find out, I guess,” he said, in reply to both Jaren’s statement and his own thoughts. “Let’s go. The ridge might be easier to walk on, but I don’t want to have to end up sleeping out here.”
“Very true,” Jaren nodded with a grimace. “And once it’s light out again we’ll be really obvious targets for any mage who happens to glance up. This way.” He turned and jogged off along the ridge, favouring his injured leg but not to the point where it hampered him.
Kale followed, reminding himself to watch where he was going and not just stare at Jaren’s back. It was a hard temptation to resist, though. The Elite didn’t wear much in the way of armour, preferring to use spells as protection and leave themselves unencumbered. Being able to move quickly and freely was just one of the reasons they were so deadly in battle, causing more havoc than most true mages would ever manage. Jaren’s tunic fit close enough to show off the muscles in his back and shoulders as he ran, and time after time Kale found his eyes drawn like a needle to a magnet.
Damn it, life in the army was difficult enough without him developing some kind of lustful infatuation with someone completely out of his reach! Under normal circumstances he would never even have met Jaren, except perhaps if the older man had been assigned to command Kale’s unit on a manoeuvre. Chances were good that if they both survived, he would never see Jaren again and wouldn’t have any hope of a friendship, let alone something more.
Then again, didn’t that mean it was safe to let himself desire the man? If they never saw each other again then there wouldn’t be any consequences, unlike what would happen if he ever developed feelings for someone in his company. Having to constantly work with someone you wanted badly and couldn’t ever have would be nothing short of the lowest level of the Hells, or so Kale imagined. Doubly so when there was every chance that if the object of your fantasies heard about it, you would find yourself beaten to a bloody pulp. Thankfully it had never happened yet to Kale, and he hoped it would stay that way.
So maybe it was better to let himself lust after Jaren, who was so unreachable Kale knew he didn’t have a chance – except in his dreams. Better to give himself someone to focus on than risk something developing later with someone that would cause trouble.
That was after they got back to the army, though. At the moment, Kale had no desire to let Jaren know that the pathetic private trailing after him like a puppy was thinking about him in that way. Grimacing at the reminder of the probable outcome if that should happen, Kale forced his eyes back to the trail once again.
His heart nearly stopped as he realized that Jaren was about to lead them straight into a minefield. “Jaren!” he shouted, throwing himself forward and forcibly tackling the warrior-mage to the ground. Jaren gave a shocked grunt but made no move to retaliate, for which Kale was grateful.
The Elite had half turned at the sound of his name, so they wound up with Jaren flat on his back and Kale straddling him from above. That Jaren had allowed himself to be tackled Kale had no doubt; the chances of Kale being able to take down a fully trained Elite were slim to none. Even now the look he was giving the younger boy was a curious one, not reprimanding or angry.
Opening his mouth to explain, Kale lost the ability for coherent speech as Jaren shifted and he became aware of exactly how they had landed. It was like something out of a bad tale, where the hero falls on the heroine by accident and – depending on how bawdy the song was – things proceeded from there. It was ridiculous to even consider it, but suddenly the only thing Kale could think about was the feel of Jaren’s strong body beneath his.
“Uh, Kale?” Jaren prompted quizzically after a long moment of silence. “Much as I’m enjoying this, is there a reason you were suddenly overcome by the urge to pounce me?”
Stunned even further into incoherence by the implications of Jaren’s words, Kale sputtered helplessly. “I… you… mine! Mines! Minefield!” he finally managed to get out. “You were about to walk into a minefield!”
All hints of teasing fled Jaren’s eyes, and he sat up to survey the area ahead as Kale scrambled off of him. “Mines?”
Nodding, Kale clambered to his feet and wiped the sweat from his face. That had been far too close – both in terms of Jaren nearly getting blown away and in terms of the position they’d just been in. “Mana mines. They’re everywhere,” he said, looking at the nearest ones. Mana mines were a recent development of the mages; usually hidden just beneath the ground, stepping on one triggered an explosive release of magic. More often than not the unfortunate soul who hit one was nothing more than ash by the time the magic subsided.
“I guess they decided it was easier to lay mines up here than try to guard it,” he added. “They didn’t make much effort to hide them though, did they?”
Jaren looked out over the ridge, then back at Kale. Wondering why he seemed so puzzled, Kale blinked back at him. Hauling himself to his feet, the Elite looked at the minefield again and this time lifted one hand to draw the symbol for sight on his brow between his eyes.
“Whoa!” Immediately Jaren took a step back, turning pale. “Holy Amera, I swear I will burn a hundred sticks of incense at the next temple of yours I come to. I would have walked right into them.” Glancing at Kale again, he raised an eyebrow and asked, “You can see them?”
With a sinking feeling Kale realized his mistake. Studying the mines a little more closely confirmed it; they had been hidden, very well. What he was seeing was the magical emanations from the powerful spells trapped inside.
His ability to see magic wasn’t precisely a secret, but he much preferred it when people didn’t know. It invariably led to him being harassed about why he wasn’t a mage, or studying magic. It also caused people to treat him oddly, as something different from themselves that they didn’t understand. People had a tendency to fear that which they considered strange, and Kale hadn’t wanted that sort of stigma attached to him in the army.
There wasn’t much for it now, though. Even if he’d realized immediately that the mines were only visible by magic, he couldn’t have let Jaren walk obliviously into them. “I can see magic,” he admitted reluctantly. “It’s a sort of glow or an aura, different colours for different kinds.”
“What?” Jaren looked surprised, then disconcerted. Sure enough, the next words out of his mouth were the ones Kale most hated hearing. “Why aren’t you an Elite? Or at least in mage training?”
Biting his lip, Kale shook his head. “Because seeing it is the only thing I can do,” he replied, his tone making it clear he wouldn’t welcome any further questions on the subject.
Either Jaren was oblivious, or he just didn’t care. “You’re probably blocked, that’s all,” the warrior-mage told him earnestly. “They can fix that. Hells, when they accepted me for Elite training I could barely light a candle and couldn’t see magic if my life depended on it. You…”
“They can’t fix it,” Kale told him shortly. “I’m not blocked, there’s just nothing there. I can’t do spells, I can’t write runes, I can’t even use magical artefacts. All I can do is see it.”
“But…!” Jaren protested, clearly unable to accept the idea that someone might be able to see magic without being able to manipulate it.
“Do you think I didn’t try?” Kale demanded, losing his temper. This was exactly why he hated it when people found out about his ability. They would hound him and hound him, and always there was the subtle underlying implication of ‘why would you want to be just another foot soldier if you could be a mage?’ It wasn’t a choice, it wasn’t anything he wanted. “Do you think I didn’t hope and pray that the village mage was wrong, and there was something there after all? I tried for the Elite, Jaren. They rejected me. I’m just unusually observant arrow fodder, nothing more.”
Either the bitterness in Kale’s tone finally reached him, or Jaren was just stunned into silence by the very idea. For a long moment he said nothing, looking back at Kale. If there had been the slightest hint of pity in his eyes Kale would have punched him, Elite or not, but what he saw instead was genuine sympathy. “I’m sorry,” the warrior-mage said at last. “You must get really sick of people badgering you, huh? I won’t bring it up again.”
Astonished, Kale gaped at him. Jaren was the first person who had ever realized the effect all the questioning might have on Kale. In that moment Kale thought he might have fallen just a little bit in love with the man.
Thankfully Jaren was looking out over the minefield again, giving Kale a chance to get his expression under control before it gave him away. “Do you think you can lead us safely through it?” the Elite asked him. “If not, we’ll have to backtrack and go down to the valley to try to find another way across.”
“Me?” Kale was baffled. “But you can see them too, can’t you?”
“Only as long as I leave the spell of sight active, and I can’t really afford the energy drain right now,” Jaren grimaced, wiping his finger across the rune to cancel the spell. “Seeing has always remained my weakest ability, I can’t do it without spell enhancement.” This time the look in his eyes when he glanced at Kale was something akin to awe. “You weren’t even looking for it, were you? You just see it all the time, without trying?”
When Kale nodded, the warrior-mage whistled. “That’s impressive in and of itself, you know. Even the most powerful of the mages I know have to at least actively want to see it. Remind me to have a serious chat with your commanding officers when we get back. You’re wasted on the front lines, and your officers should have realized it. I can think of half a dozen important tactical uses for an ability like that, just off the top of my head.”
Startled by the unexpected praise, Kale flushed hotly. Everyone had always regarded him as useless, no more than an oddity, because he couldn’t actually use the magic he could see. The idea that just being able to see it might be a merit on its own had never occurred to him. Between that, and what Jaren had said earlier about enjoying having Kale on top of him, Kale was more flustered than he could ever remember being in his life.
Concentrate on the important stuff! he reminded himself, surreptitiously pinching the inside of his elbow to jolt himself out of it. “I think I can get us through it,” he said, grateful his voice didn’t do something embarrassing like crack.
“Lead the way, then,” Jaren invited him with a flourishing bow. From anyone else it would have seemed mocking, but Kale found he wasn’t in the least offended.
Taking a deep breath and watching his feet closely, he walked up to the edge of the minefield and started picking his way through it. He chose to err on the side of caution, leaving a minimum of a foot of space between his foot and the nearest mine unless he was absolutely forced to come closer. He was also mindful of the fact that Jaren wouldn’t be able to take steps that might leave him off balance on his left leg, because of his injury. Kale glanced back once and saw that the Elite was following exactly in his footsteps, his larger boots perfectly obscuring Kale’s tracks.
“Too bad we can’t trigger them after we’re through,” Jaren said ruefully. “I hate to think of some other poor scout getting caught by them, but I just don’t have the power to do it from a safe enough distance. Or rather, I do, but I’m more worried about saving it for a real emergency.”
“If you set them off all at once, or in quick succession, I bet the enemy mages would notice the sudden release of power even if they weren’t looking for it,” Kale pointed out practically. “We’ll just make sure it gets noted on the scout maps, so they know to avoid this area.”
“True enough,” Jaren admitted, and he sounded amused. “What does that make, three times you’ve saved my life? Since I wouldn’t have had the strength to shield against a mage attack if they spotted us. At this rate I’m pretty much going to have to volunteer myself as your eternal slave to pay you back, or something. How did I manage to survive before this morning?” He laughed, and the sound of it rang bright and clear over the mountain ridge.
“From the sounds of it, by burning a lot of incense to Amera,” Kale replied, his cheeks flaming once again. His overactive imagination was happy to supply him with all sorts of suggestion for what he could do with Jaren as a slave, and he concentrated fiercely on the mines to try to ignore it.
“Clearly, you are my reward for being a faithful worshipper, then,” Jaren laughed again. “My own personal good luck charm.”
“Well, don’t get too used to having it!” Kale said. “You’ll probably never see me again after we get back.”
“Hmm?” Jaren made a noncommittal noise, and Kale could hear the grin in his voice. “We’ll see. I need to have that chat with your officers, remember. And I like having you around, you’re so cheerful and optimistic.” Before Kale could snap at him for teasing, he added, “And you’re the first regular soldier I’ve met who treats me like a normal human being. It’s kind of a refreshing change.”
Since the thing Kale hated most about his ability was the fact that it made people treat him like an oddity, he bit his tongue on the angry response he’d been planning to make. It had never occurred to him that the Elite might care how the troopers they deemed so far beneath their notice might treat them. But then, he already knew that Jaren didn’t view the regular troops with the same contempt as the others seemed to.
Once they made it through the minefield Jaren took the lead again. The delay had cost them, and this time the Elite set a more ruthless pace that left Kale gasping to keep up. He didn’t ask for a break, though; the effort was worth it if they made it to the trail down the mountain before the sun rose and the enemy could see them. The approving little smiles Jaren flicked his way every so often didn’t hurt his determination at all.
This time he didn’t have the energy to spare admiring Jaren’s body, which was a small mercy at least. Kale still wasn’t sure if Jaren had been serious earlier, or even if he’d really meant to imply what Kale had read into his words, but either way it was a distraction he couldn’t afford at the moment.
Even so the sun was a distant glow on the eastern horizon by the time Jaren finally led them away from the centre of the ridge. “Here,” he said, pointing at a trail that was narrow, but not half as treacherous as the one they’d used to get up here. “We should make good time going down on this, and we’ll be out of sight of the enemy unless they’ve set a siege on the keep.” He squinted down into the valley, and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“If they were smart, they’d have camped just on their side of the pass so they could block us from retaliating, not chase us into the next open valley where we might be able to make a stand,” Kale pointed out. His chest hurt, but it wasn’t until he lifted a hand to rub at it that he realized the ache was internal. In an hour, two at most, they’d be back with the army and he’d probably never see Jaren again.
Which was a good thing, he reminded himself. As friendly as the Elite had been in this situation, he was worlds above Kale in both rank and level. There was a reason the Elite didn’t work with the troops directly. Besides, even one more night in the man’s company and he probably would betray the growing infatuation he had on the warrior-mage. Jaren’s teasing comments aside, he still didn’t know how the Elite would react, and didn’t really want to find out.
Jaren was already at the first switchback on the trail, pausing to look at him curiously. “Come on, Kale! The sun’s rising, you’re going to make a damn fine target standing up there. We’re almost safe!”
“I’m coming,” Kale replied, and scrambled down after him. Jaren smiled at him, and Kale couldn’t keep himself from matching it with a hesitant smile of his own. It was hard not to return Jaren’s smiles; he made it feel like you were the best thing in his world at that moment. Despite all the potential complications, Kale was glad he’d stopped to rescue the injured Elite. For the first time in his life someone thought he was really worth something, and it made all the difference in the world to Kale. Even if he never saw the warrior-mage again, he knew he would never forget him.